Saturday, 28 February 2015

Ranavalona III, last queen of Madagascar

28 February 1897, the almost 500 years old Merina Kingdom in Madagascar ended, when the French general Joseph Gallieni forced the last queen Ranavalona III to abdicate.

“Whether France will demand satisfaction, and show the insolent rulers of Madagascar the might of a European people, or whether she will let the opportunity pass by as she has done on former occasions, I can not take upon myself to conjecture. Time will show.“ (Ida Pfeiffer, “Trip to Madagascar”, 1862)

A contemporary allegory of the French annexation of the Merina Kingdom in  1896/97 by Louis Bombled (1862 – 1927), part of a  series of illustrations that covered the  “Guerre à Madagascar“.
A contemporary allegory of the French annexation of the Merina Kingdom in
1896/97 by Louis Bombled (1862 – 1927), part of a
series of illustrations that covered the
“Guerre à Madagascar“.

The sea is now the border of my rice paddy, ny ranomasina no valapariako, King Andrianampoinimerina proudly proclaimed after he had expanded his kingdom in the highlands of Madagascar across of most of the world’s fourth largest island, about half the size of the Midwestern US. Back then in 1794, Antananarivo became the island’s capital and the Merina people, of Austronesian descend and one of the at least 18 local ethnic groups, finally had carved out the top position in the struggle of factions that lasted for centuries. Interestingly enough, neither the Arabs nor, later, the Portuguese played any significant role in the local history of the rather conspicuous landmark on the trade routes of the Indian Ocean. Later colonial powers, the Dutch, French and British somehow ignored the place as well outside of a few insignificant trade posts. In the meanwhile, Andrianampoinimerina’s son and successor King Radama managed to play the French against the British during the Napoleonic Wars and it was not until the 1820s that the British put out the feelers from Mauritius, their new base in the Indian Ocean, in earnest towards the Malagasy East Coast, established a few sugar cane factories, suppressed slavery and slave trade, had the Bible translated into the local language and began to spread the Gospel. Queen Ranavalona, Radama’s wife who succeeded him in 1828, put an end to that, though.

"The Queen's Ordinary Style of Appearing in Public" from William Ellis' "History of Madagascar" (1838)

the more than 30 years of her reign, Ranavalona pursued an ambiguous policy of embracing European technology, military tactics and court customs, taking up the lead from her late husband to modernise her kingdom while keeping it out of European colonial designs, on the other hand she pursued a rigorous policy of purging Madagascar of any foreign influence that ended in a veritable terror regime and the death of 20% of the island’s population, a Queen of Hearts in a grim, weird Wonderland. Her son Prince Radama, later King Radama II, had already tried to conspire with the French towards an invasion, the base of the later French claims, but Ranavalona’s successor managed to keep all of the European powers out of Madagascar with a quite sophisticated alliance policy until the Berlin Conference of 1884/85 rang in the New Imperialism period and the division of the world in earnest. President Grévy negotiated that Madagascar became part of the French sphere of interest while the first invasion began already in 1883. 

The French Foreign Legion in Madagascar, around 1895
The French Foreign Legion in Madagascar, around 1895

In the same year, the 22-years old Ranavalona III ascended the throne of the Merina Kingdom of Madagascar. She was the niece of Radama II’s queen, had received a European education and tried, as all of her predecessors did, to play British against French interest. The Empire, however, was positively unwilling to intercede on behalf of Madagascar and anger the French into something of at least a global Cold War, let alone open conflict. Trying to turn to Bismarck, who had not the least interest in foreign adventures, and the US, who were far from ready to embark on one in the late 1880s, France openly annexed Madagascar in 1896 after another invasion that had begun a year earlier. General Joseph Gallieni forced Queen Ranavalona III to abdicate after the French Foreign Legion had quelled the last pocket of resistance on the large island and the legionnaires had died by the thousands of malaria. Ranavalona was, in modest luxury, interned in Algiers where she died in 1917 of a severe embolism at the age of 55. Madagascar remained a French colony until 1960.

Ranavalona III with her niece and successor Marie-Louise in 1905
Ranavalona III with her niece and successor Marie-Louise in 1905  

And more about Queen Ranavalona III and the last days of the Malagassy Merina Kingdom on:

Thursday, 26 February 2015

“The Tiger has broken out of his den!“ - Napoleon slipping his cable and fleeing from Elba

26 February 1815, Napoleon slipped his cable and fled from Elba, his exile after the signing of the Treaty of Fontainebleau one year earlier.

“The Tiger has broken out of his den!“ (Parisian newspaper headline from March 1815)

French history painter Joseph Beaume’s interpretation of “Napoléon Ier quittant l'île d'Elbe. 26 février 1815“ (1836)

The small convoy sailed close to the broadside of the 38-gun frigate “Melpomene” that flew the white flag of the Bourbon restoration when Elba’s watchdog, the 18-gun sloop HMS “Partridge” appeared to the north-east. The emperor knew, of course, that the royalist’s frigate’s captain Joseph Collet was sympathetic to his cause, just as the commanders of the two other Bourbon men-of-war in the Ligurian Sea were. The emperor knew when “Partridge” would leave her station and sail for Leghorn to pick up General Sir Neil Campbell, his former escort to Elba. And if it weren’t for a calm, they wouldn’t have caught sight of the sloop at all. Nonetheless, Captain Adye of HM sloop “Partridge” saw nothing suspicious in the French brig, the “Inconstant” and the two schooners in her wake and didn’t close in on her. He might just have. Besides the emperor, the brig carried 400 grenadiers, not that easily hidden on vessel just 100’ long. Later, the other French commanders shrugged off the question if they hadn’t seen the ”Inconstant” leave Elba. The logs of the three ships had disappeared as well, quite mysteriously. The emperor himself was back on French soil three days later. The Hundred Days of Napoleon had begun.

Ambroise Louis Garneray (1783 - 1857), ex-corsair and naval painter, and his imagination of "Inconstant" sailing past a French cruiser flying Bourbon colours (1852)

There was the rumour, of course, that the allies and the Bourbons planned to assassinate Napoleon or at least take him out of Europe. Payment of his appanage, granted him as one of the conditions under the Treaty of Fontainebleau during his surrender a year before, was stopped by the Bourbons already and he knew about the disjointedness of the victorious powers at the Congress of Vienna as well as the general unhappiness of the French with the old new regime of Louis XVIII. Actually, there was not much he did not know down there in Elba. And he simply had to pick it up and give it a go. “Give the order for the Brig to enter the dock and turn it around on its keel, shine it, seal the water ways, resurface the careening and everything else necessary for taking it to the sea“, he wrote to the Sage of the Grand Armée, General Drouot who had accompanied him into exile, with remarkably detailed knowledge of naval affairs, he whose neglect of the navy was the spoke in the wheel that probably had brought him to Elba in the first place. “Have it painted as an English Brig. Everything shall be done in anticipation as if I were to arrive tomorrow. You will supply the Brig with biscuits, rise, legumes, cheese, half of the provisions in aquavit and the other half in wine, and enough water for 120 men for three weeks. As much salted meat to last for 15 days. You will ensure enough wood and that there is absolutely nothing lacking. I wish that from the 24th to the 25th of this month that everything will be as I have asked and ready at the anchorage.”

Charles de Steuben (1788 - 1856): "Napoleon's Return from Elba" (1818)

Drouot received the emperors letter on February 16th and even if the departure of the “Inconstant” was delayed for one more day by a calm, unusual for Ligurian waters, even in February, as if the sea would want to topple him one last time, Napoleon’s meticulous planning was worth the while. The broadsheets in Paris marked his progress with snappy headlines: the Ogre was three days at sea, the Wretch has landed at Frejus, the Brigand has arrived at Antibes, the Invader has reached Grenoble, while all garrisons along the trail that later became known as “Route Napoleon” defected to him until he met with a Bourbon line regiment for the first time, the 5e régiment d’infanterie under Colonel Charles de la Bédoyère, sent to intercept him. Allegedly, Napoleon dismounted, stepped in front of them and cried out: “If any of you will shoot your Emperor, shoot him now." Famously, nobody did. Ney, le Brave des Braves, who had left King Louis with the words he’d bring Napoleon back to Paris in an iron cage, joined him with 6,000 more men at Auxerre on March 18th and when Napoleon arrived in the capital a few days later, the Bourbon had fled and the headlines ran: “His Imperial Majesty will address his loyal subjects tomorrow!“

And more about the “Hundred Days” on:

Monday, 23 February 2015

"Studded with stars unutterably bright" - The Sky Disc of Nebra

23 February 2002, the bronze artefact dating back to 1600 BCE later known as the Nebra sky disc, originally looted in 1999 by treasure hunters, was seized during a sting operation by the Swiss police in Basel.

“Heaven's ebon vault,
Studded with stars unutterably bright,
Through which the moon's unclouded grandeur rolls,
Seems like a canopy which love has spread
To curtain her sleeping world.” (Percy Bysshe Shelley “Queen Mab”)

The Sky Disc of Nebra

Admittedly, David Macaulay has a rather whimsical sense of humour. His description of the excavation of a Pompeii-like buried motel from the ancient Usa by future archaeologists in the year 4022 CE is a rather important caveat though. The fictional Howard Carson and his team deduce from the “Do Not Disturb” sign they find in the ruins of the antediluvial dosshouse that they have discovered an important funerary temple and jump at rather hilarious conclusions about the sacral purpose of the unearthed artefacts, from a loo lid to the Thunderbird parked outside. In short, without an accompanying user manual and a reference frame, we might actually put our foot in it like Macaulay’s Carson. Thus, concluding that the ancient Europeans had used their special astronomical knowledge when they built circular enclosures with their concentric circles and doorways aligned to the rising sun on the solstices, enabling them to calculate solar calendars around 5000 BCE, might just be falling for a Neolithic advertising stunt connected to the hip size of fertility goddesses made by a local potter. Or it might not. If the wooden Circular Enclosures like the Goseck circle from 4900 BCE in present-day Saxony-Anhalt was indeed a calendar building and a temple, it proves profound astronomical skills native to the region where the Nebra sky disc was discovered in 1999 by treasure hunters.

"Harriet insisted that she be allowed to wear some of the priceless treasures. 
Carson gave in. For the remainder of the day, Harriet proudly strode around the site 
wearing the Sacred Collar and matching Headband. She also wore 
the magnificent plasticus ear ornaments and the exquisite silver chain and pendant" 
Looking a bit like Mrs Schliemann in the Bronze Age finery excavated by her hubby -
 a depiction of the relics found in the Motel of  Mysteries 

The “smithied heavens”, the Nebra sky disc, is considerably younger than the Neolithic Goseck circle 20 miles away, though. According to the accompanying artefacts found near Nebra in a stone-set treasury or grave, two bronze swords, bronze axe heads and a few bracelets crafted probably by the Central European Unetice culture, the bronze disc is about 3,600 years old. But it might still be older, since the artefact was reworked three times, the first phase showing the Pleiades, a full and a waxing moon, the second brings it in relation to the rising and setting sun and the third adds the sun boat, a cultural image found all across the old word from Egypt and Crete to Denmark. The imagery mirrors the social and cultural exchange of the age, since the copper used for the body of the disc was mined in Austria, the tin in Cornwall and the gold either there as well or maybe in remote Romania. However, even if the disc was made as late as 1600 BCE, it still is the oldest known depiction of the visible universe made by humans we have so far, older by 200 years even than comparable images from Egypt. Whatever the thing was actually good for is still debated by archaeologists, but the theory of the sky disc being an artistic amalgam of various religious beliefs found across Europe, condensed in a single artefact, is certainly one of the most interesting approaches.

A somewhat artistic reconstruction of "Woodhenge" in Goseck

Besides the Trundholm sun chariot, discovered in 1902 in a peat bog in Denmark, the Nebra sky disc is one of the most important and one the most glamorous artefacts we have from the European Bronze Age and it is quite a piece of good fortune that we do have it at all. Actually, the hoard including the disc was about to be lost due to one of the banes of archaeology – treasure hunters using a metal detector. Two of them found the hoard in 1999, damaged the disc while trying to dig it up and sold it for 30,000 Marks to a dealer from Cologne. The story of the discovery of an important ancient find leaked out, though, and after the treasure changed hands several times, the disc along with the accompanying artefacts were seized by the Swiss police during a sting operation involving a bait of 700,000 Marks or € 350,000 in 2002 and was committed to the treasure’s current lawful owner, the federal state of Saxony-Anhalt. It is now exhibited at Halle at the State Museum of Prehistory.

Depicted above is, of course, the now famous Nebra Sky disk, photographed during the exhibition "Beyond the Horizon - Space and Knowledge in the Old World cultures" at the Berlin Pergamon Museum by Anagoria in 2012 and uploaded to

And more about the Sky disc:

The Goseck Circle on:

The Image of "Woodhenge", the Goseck Circle depicted above was found on:

and David Macaulay on:

Sunday, 22 February 2015

"Those whom the gods love die young" - the Russian lyrical landscape painter Fyodor Alexandrovich Vasilyev

22 February 1850, the Russian lyrical landscape painter Fyodor Alexandrovich Vasilyev was born in Gatchina near St Petersburg.

“(He) was destined to introduce into the Russian landscape what it had always lacked—poetry as well as naturalness of execution“ (Ivan Kramskoi)

Fyodor Vasilyev’s “Thaw” from 1871, now at the Tretyakov Gallery in Moscow 

It was a stroke of luck for young Fedya that he had a beautiful sister. The teenaged post office clerk from Gatchina, 20 miles south of St Petersburg, with artistic talent by the sack was the sole supporter of his family after the death of his parents and what might have become a sad artist novel right from the start suddenly changed when Ivan Shishkin came along, a well-connected and already quite popular painter and designated professor for painting at the Imperial Academy. He promptly fell in love with Jenja Vasilyeva, honourable intent and all. The newly minted brother-in-law took Fedya by the hand as well, taught him a few things and the most unfair thing said about Fyodor Vasilyev’s early landscape paintings was that it looked a bit inferior in regards to the masterpieces of the French School of Barbizon, what? But that was soon about to change. A few months later, Fedya became the “boy wonder” of a group of artists calling themselves the Peredvizhniki, the Wanderers, Repin, Shishkin and Surikov among them, who set the hare running away from imperial academic distinction between high and low art and official support and painted Russia in her picturesque beauty, naming and shaming conditions, often with the same brushstroke. But none captured the lyrical aspect as well as young Fyodor Vasilyev who was then not yet 20.

Fyodor Vasilyev's "Illumination in St Petersburg" (1869)
Fyodor Vasilyev's "Illumination in St Petersburg" (1869)

His short live became an artist’s novel anyway. Travelling with Repin and Makarov along the Volga in 1870 and painting picturesque scenes en plein air like true Peredvizhniki should, the trio returned to St Petersburg and their pieces became a smashing success, especially Vasilyev’s. In 1871, “Thaw” finally made his fame, a moody piece of nature about to cast off winter without the promise of spring uttered yet. The Tsar’s family ordered a print and a British correspondent from the “Morning Post” wrote that Vasilyev was just the chap who should paint the thawing snow in the streets, eh, but before an invitation to go west could reach him, the artist was diagnosed with tuberculosis and sent to the Crimea for therapy. And while the litterateurs of the first half of the 19th century, Pushkin and Lermontov among them, found Yalta and her surroundings quite inspiring, Vasilyev was just alienated, the treatment did not take the desired effect and the painter wandered the Crimean landscape away from the maddening crowd of the “Magic Mountain” atmosphere of the spa town, painted, suffered and died there, at the age of just 23, leaving the promise of becoming one of the greatest artists of landscape painting only half fulfilled.

More about Fyodor Alexandrovich Vasilyev on:


and a monographic show of his oeuvre can be found here:

Saturday, 21 February 2015

On the feast day of the beatified Pepin of Landen

21 February is the feast day of the beatified Pepin of Landen, or Pepin the Old, first of the mighty Mayors of the Palace of Frankish Austrasia and ancestor of Charlemagne.

“… the real power and authority in the kingdom lay in the hands of the chief officer of the court, the so-called Mayor of the Palace, and he was at the head of affairs.“ (Einhard “The Life of Charlemagne”)

Évariste Vital Luminais (1821 - 1896): "Merovingians hunt down a wild dog" (around 1880)

It was a bloody, fratricidal civil war that tore apart the Frankish domains for 50 years. Maybe owed to the peculiar Germanic custom of dividing a king’s domains among his sons after his death, since the major opponents in the conflict were the two Frankish kingdoms of Neustria, more or less present-day France, and Austrasia, i.e. everything east of the River Rhine that called the local Merovingian scion a king, or it might have been the profound traditional belligerence of Clovis’ heirs that kindled the conflict over two generations and several Neustrian and Austrasian kings, but two queens certainly became the figureheads of the endless wars, Fredegund and Brunichild. Brunichild was the daughter of the Visigothic King Athanagild and married King Sigebert of Austrasia in 566 while her sister Galswintha became the wife of King Chilperic of Neustria. Chilperic, though, was conjugated in a relationship called “Friedelehe”, a form of lawful concubinage, with the low-born Fredegund. When Galswintha demanded that the “Kebse” quit the place, Fredegund had her murdered. Brunichild then incited her husband to go on the warpath to take revenge and when the Austrasian warriors closed in on the Neustrian capital Soissons, Fredegund had Sigebert assassinated, the second in line of a long list of political murders that followed. Brunichild, in the meanwhile, exercised the regency for her sons, continued to fight Neustria, married Chilperic’s son from his first marriage, probably just to spite Fredegund who wanted to see her own offspring crowned and the war dragged on, even after Fredegund’s surprisingly natural death.

Évariste Vital Luminais: "A Merovingian Princess" (around 1880)

The Merovingian Franks were quite used to smashing each others’ skulls and it wasn’t Brunichild’s endless war-mongering that made her anathema, but her attempt to curb the influence of the Austrasian and Burgundian nobles and centralise power, while the Neustrians hated her anyway. She fell into the hands of Fredegund’s son Clothar II who, after becoming King of all Franks in 613, had her executed by mutual consent, according to the Frankish Annals: “Then the army of the Franks and Burgundians joined into one, all shouted together that death would be most fitting for the very wicked Brunhilda. Then King Clotaire ordered that she be lifted on to a camel and led through the entire army. Then she was tied to the feet of wild horses and torn apart limb from limb. Finally she died. Her final grave was the fire. Her bones were burnt.“ Clothar’s all-Frankish regency ended already during his lifetime, when he gave Austrasia to his son Dagobert, influenced by a mighty nobleman, who had his influence established during the years of opposition to Brunichild along with making an office indispensable that would be the end of the Merovingian dynasty a hundred years later, that of the Mayor of the Palace, and the man was Pepin of Landen, patriarch of the Pippinids who would become the Carolingians after Charlemagne.

A woodcut by the French academic painter Alphonse de Neuville (1835 – 1885)
from a series of illustrations for Guizot’s “History of France”
showing the execution of Queen Brunichild,
remarkably well preserved at the age of 63 when she died.

The Grand Viziers of Austrasia certainly owed their later position of power to Pepin of Landen’s skill and the determination he proved to have during the reign of various Merovingian kings in the course of the chequered history of the early 7th century. Probably there wouldn’t have been a Charles Martel, a Pepin the Short or Charlemagne without him or Brunichild’s grab for power. His beatification and that of almost his whole family, his wife, St Itta of Metz, painted by Burne-Jones in Pre-Raphaelite splendour in the 1860s, and three of his four children who were also canonised, seems a bit exaggerated, though. It was probably done in the wake of the canonisation of Charlemagne during the 12th century to give the rule of the Holy Roman Emperors a sacerdotal foundation. However, since Pepin the Old, the mayoral office in Austrasia became hereditary, while the Merovingian kings were reduced to figureheads with no real power, the infamous rois fainéants, the do-nothing kings – until Pepin’s great-great grandson Pepin the Short allied himself with the Papacy in Rome, had the last Merovingian, Childeric III, removed and was crowned as the first Carolingian King of the Franks in 754.

And more about Pepin the Old on:

and Queen Brunichild on:

Wednesday, 18 February 2015

"... the children thinking that it was the man who was being burned.” Erbsbären or Straw Bears in Central Europe

18 February – Straw bears and Erbsbären haunt villages across Central Europe as part of local Shrovetide customs.

"In the district of Aachen on Ash Wednesday, a man used to be encased in peas-straw and taken to an appointed place. Here he slipped quietly out of his straw casing, which was then burned, the children thinking that it was the man who was being burned.” (Sir James Frazer, “The Golden Bough“)
A Straw Bear in Bohemia (mid 18th century)

It might be a memory that is truly ages old, dating back to the days, when different groups of hominids lived side by side, like homo sapiens and homo neanderthalensis, that gave birth to the myth of the wild man, the other human being living in the woods. The mythological figure can be found in many cultures across Eurasia and the far more probable explanation for their existence is the cultural gap existing during the transition period from the Mesolithic to the Neolithic and the Chalcolithic when hunter and gatherer cultures were superseded by the first crop and stock farmers forming an “other”. Wild Men appear already in the earliest testimonia of human literature, like the Epic of Gilgamesh, dating back to 2,100 BCE and the story of Jacob and Esau from the Old Testament reads like an echo of the triumph of civilisation over the primitive savage. They were never seen as non- or half-corporeal forest of mountain spirits or demons, but regarded as something of the flesh, like humans themselves. However, by the time of the Middle Ages, they had become something outside of the plan of salvation up to being a manifestation of the devil and medieval literature used them as counterdrafts to the acts of chivalrous heroes, who overcame the savageness of the Wild Men, of course, either by feats of arms or their virtues as parts of their hero quests. And like the Fool, Wild Men became an integral part of mystery plays and on the continent a feature of carnival celebration.

“Straw Bears”, probably from Thuringia and caught on camera 
by the French photographer Charles Fréger (1975 -) 
for his excellent and quite picturesque series “Wilder Mann” (wild man) 
showing various wonderful costumes from all across Europe*

Often, the wild ones were presented in carnival pageants as straw men and 19th and early 20th revival and invention of folk customs saw them as figures symbolising an old Germanic tradition of “driving out the winter”, like other fantastic incarnations appearing especially in the Swabian-Alemannic Fastnacht, the southwestern carnival, as well as in Austria, Central Eastern Europe, in Poland or Bohemia. The costumes were relatively easy and inexpensively made from straw, but in some regions, bear-like masks were added and the wild men became straw bears, or Erbsbären, pea bears, if peastraw was used and they went from home to home in their native village either on Shrove Tuesday or Ash Wednesday, begging for food and especially spirituous beverages and got pissed together afterwards while the sweat-soaked straw was customarily burnt. Modern harvesting methods and chemicals used after the war made straw of suitable length for a costume almost unavailable and straw and pea bears had almost died out, but were revived during the last twenty years by folklore enthusiasts from the Rhineland to Poland and the droll figures became a not uncommon sight during Shrovetide again.

Strawbears in Southern Germany

Even though their half-forgotten Wild Man pedigree was only remotely connected with fertility and driving out the winter, straw bears might have been an embodiment of what Frazer called the “Corn Spirit” in his “Golden Bough” as well, at least in some areas. They appeared on the British Isles during “Plough Monday” in January at the traditional start of the agricultural year, while some of the customs especially in Eastern Europe that end up in a ritual hunting down and slaughter of the straw bears and besprinkling the village and the villagers with their fake blood are reminiscent of various other ritual sacrifices to ensure a good harvest indeed. Most of the straw bears roaming the villages in Hesse and Thuringia on Ash Wednesday today are, by and large, left in peace, even though cases of getting them drunk are not unheard of.

* The picture of the Thuringian Straw Bears were found on

and the whole highly recommended series, taken between 2010 – 2011 can be watched in awe on:

and more about straw bears on:  

Monday, 16 February 2015

"I have the satisfaction to feel that I have opened to the view of the scientific public of Europe a most extensive tract of the secluded African world" - Heinrich Barth

16 February 1821, the German explorer, scholar and Africanist Heinrich Barth was born in Hamburg. 

“No doubt, even in the track which I myself pursued I have left a good deal for my successors in this career to improve upon; but I have the satisfaction to feel that I have opened to the view of the scientific public of Europe a most extensive tract of the secluded African world, but rendered the opening of a regular intercourse between Europeans and those regions possible.” (Heinrich Barth, “Travels in Africa”)

Martin Bernatz’s illustration of Barth’s arrival in Timbuktu from Barth’s “Travels and Discoveries in North and Central Africa: being a Journal of an Expedition undertaken under the Auspices of H.B.M.’s Government, in the Years 1849–1855“

It might have been disappointed love, certainly the most picturesque of reasons, sheer curiosity or the “once in a lifetime” opportunity of an up-and-coming academic without proper connections, having a tough time with structural rigidities, that made young Heinrich join a British expedition into Northern and Western Africa. In the end, it was probably his lecture theatres that remained empty during the Revolution of 1848 when only a selected few were at leisure to show any interest in the ancient history of trade in the Mediterranean region or similar subjects. Few academics were better qualified to join up with James Richardson in service of the Foreign Office though. Barth was fluent in seven languages, Arabic and Turkish among them, and had already travelled through Tunisia and Libya two years before. Now, the mission was more serious: going right into the French sphere of interest, getting the lay of the land and winning over influential local tribes like the Tuareg to abolish Trans-Saharan slave trade. Six years later, Heinrich Barth had gone over 10,000 miles from Tripoli through the Great Desert to Sudan, Lake Chad, northern Nigeria and back to Tripoli in 1855, was expedition leader, one of the most renowned Africanists of his age and spoke several languages more, Tamasheq, the language of the Tuareg, Hausa, Fula and what not among them.

Heinrich Barth in 1862

Barth’s 3,500 pages report of the expedition, published between 1857 and 1859, is a mammoth among 19th travel literature and not easily accessible since it primarily addresses a scientific audience. And since David Livingstone’s fame was one the rise in the 1850s, a foreign explorer, in British service or not, was somehow rather unsuitable for hero worship. An episode of having been forced to accompany a local Saharan warlord’s campaign that ended up in a full scale slave hunt did it for his reputation anyway. Barth’s detailed report that actually could have become one of the most horrifying files of anti-slavery documentations was narrowed down to the author having participated in it by malicious gossip afterwards and that was, conveniently, that. He died at the age of 44, already half-forgotten, in Berlin. Despised by his fellow Germans for having travelled in British service while Britain’s role of remaining splendidly isolated during the Revolution of 1848 was still rather frowned upon, to put it mildly, Barth was ignored as potential Prussian ambassador in Constantinople, did not get a professorship and his mammoth of a book didn’t sell anyway.

Timbuktu, as seen from the window of Barth's accommodation, drawn by Martin Bernatz after a sketch from Barth (1858) 

lasting claim to fame is, in a broader sense, being the first modern European to have reached the fabled desert metropolis Timbuktu and return to tell tale. That he was able to discuss theology and the Koran in Arabic and local languages with resident scholars in the centre of African learning and did, contrary to most 19th century explorers and academics, accept Africans and Africa culturally and historically as valid as any European nation, was rather not received very well back in the day. But then, Barth’s interest was more or less purely academic and had no further desigsn on promoting any colonial power to new and better trade routes or exploiting the riches of the continent. And even if his writings became something of the fundament of modern African studies in Europe and the US, not even his academic activities were fully appraised until the 1960s when basic colonial policy did no longer play a dominant role.

Below is an account of Heinrich Barth and his arrival in Timbuktu in 1853, read by yours truly.

And more about Heinrich Barth on: 

including a link to a digitized version of his “Travels and Discoveries in North and Central Africa: being a Journal of an Expedition undertaken under the Auspices of H.B.M.’s Government, in the Years 1849–1855”