Heinrich Barth, 1821-1865

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. 5 vols. London: Longman, Brown, Green, Longmans, & Roberts, 1857-1858.

Thus closed my long and exhausting career as an African explorer, of which these volumes endeavour to incorporate the results. . . . I had embarked on this undertaking as a volunteer, under the most unfavourable circumstances for myself. . . .I resolved upon undertaking, with a very limited supply of means, a journey to the far west, in order to endeavour to reach Timbúktu, and to explore that part of the Niger which, through the untimely fate of Mungo Park, had remained unknown to the scientific world. In this enterprise I succeeded to my utmost expectation, and not only made known the whole of that vast region, which even to the Arab merchants in general had remained more unknown than any other part of Africa, but I succeeded also in establishing friendly relations with all the most powerful chiefs along the river up to that mysterious city itself. The whole of this was achieved . . . with the sum of about 1600l. 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, and not only made it tolerably known, but rendered the opening of a regular intercourse between Europeans and those regions possible.

—Barth (Vol. 5, pp. 452-454)

Barth is one of the European superstars of African travel and exploration. Disguised as a Muslim scholar, he spent five years ranging widely and freely over northern, central, and western Africa [see the red route on the maps], and returned with much useful information about the region’s culture and economy.

Fluent in Arabic and already a veteran of several years’ Middle East and northern Africa travel experience, Barth was teaching in Berlin in 1849 when he was offered the chance to join a British government-sponsored expedition aimed at establishing commercial contacts and suppressing the slave trade in the area around Lake Chad (today’s Niger, Chad, and Nigeria). British antislavery activist James Richardson and German geologist Adolf Overweg were his two European companions. However, both men succumbed to African conditions and died: Richardson from heat exhaustion and fever in March 1851 and Overweg from malaria in September 1852. Alone, Barth continued the mission with several Arabs he had hired along the way, including two slaves freed by Overweg. Among Barth’s noteworthy achievements in West Africa was his stay for more than nine months in Timbuktu. When he returned to London on 6 September 1855, he was warmly received but not formally recognized by the British government for his services. After additional travel in Greece and Turkey, Barth resumed his academic life in Berlin.

Barth’s five-volume work, published simultaneously in German and English [see his letter], remains the most scientific publication of its time on the African cultures he encountered. Beyond their compelling narratives, the volumes present more than a dozen detailed maps and several dozen illuminating illustrations. Their appendices contain tables of meteorological data for his five years of travel, chronologies of history for certain areas, vocabularies, descriptions of routes, and lists of towns.