Heinrich Barth in Central Africa 1850-1855

Part II – History of German Colonization in Africa Heinrich Barth Central Africa

Heinrich Barth Central Africa
Heinrich Barth, 1864 Heinrich-Barth Institute, Cologne

Without a doubt, Heinrich Barth is one of the best-known German explorers of Africa. He was born in Hamburg on February 16, 1821, had a humanistic school education, and spoke French, Spanish, English, Italian, and Arabic. While studying classical studies and philology, he became familiar with the importance of geography for understanding the world through his acquaintance with the geographer Karl Ritter. From 1845 to 1847, at his own expense, he undertook his first research trip through Spain, the North African coastal countries of Egypt, Palestine, Syria, and Asia Minor. After working briefly as a private lecturer in Berlin, Karl Ritter arranged for him to take part in the expedition to Central Africa planned by the British government, which was to establish trade relations with the Islamic states of Sudan. During the grueling journey, Barth managed to gain a deep insight into the culture and history of the local inhabitants. How difficult and dangerous the expedition was is shown by the fact that the participants fell ill with fever, had to face the distrust of the desert inhabitants, went different ways due to disputes, and finally, Barth had to take over the leadership of the expedition after the death of Richardson. Heinrich Barth Central Africa

After a seven-month stay in Timbuktu, where he was able to collect invaluable material for linguistics and history and make ethnographic studies, Barth left the city again in the spring of 1854. He traveled on the Niger as far as Bornu. At the end of August 1855, he reached Tripoli again, which he had left six years earlier. He learned there that he had been believed lost in the desert. After his return to Europe, he was celebrated as an important discoverer of Africa. After all, he had traveled more than 20,000 km on the African continent many times as the first European and charted the route.

He had shown that the Sahara is not, as was widely assumed, a wide, flat sea of sand but consists of plains and mountains, waterless sandy areas, and dreamlike oases. He reported on a population adapted to the geographic and climatic conditions, nomadic, and living in Islamic feudal state structures, and possessing a culture that aroused amazement in Europe. He described the autochthonous cultures and people with respect. He had collected vocabularies of more than forty languages. In the end, he was the first to draw a reliable picture of West Africa. However, the scientific success remained – as one said because of his idiosyncratic character – at first missing. However, his success could not be ignored. Appointed professor in 1863, Heinrich Barth taught at the Berlin University. Heinrich Barth Central Africa

He had previously recorded the results of his travels in the five-volume comprehensive work “Travels and Discoveries in North and Central Africa in the Years 1849 to 1855”. If these did not find the spread as one could have expected based on human and scientific achievement, he nevertheless left one of the most important documents of the European history of discovery. It is a unique compendium containing important aspects of geography and geology, from botany and zoology to history, ethnology, and linguistics. After Barth added to his main work a collection and processing of “Central African Vocabularies” (1862-1866), he resumed his research on the Mediterranean countries. He visited Asia Minor and the Balkans once again. On November 25, 1865, his early death put an end to the thirst for knowledge of one of the most important German explorers of Africa. Heinrich Barth Central Africa

Heinrich Barth and the Sahara crossing Heinrich Barth Central Africa

The fame of the discoverer for finding the legendary Timbuktu, the mysterious city on the Niger River, falls to the Frenchman René Caillié. Since his discovery in 1828, dozens of European travelers have made their way through the Sahara desert, which was hardly known in Europe. In 1846, the Englishman James Richardson was probably the first European to cross the Libyan Desert with a slave caravan. His reports, especially his descriptions of the atrocities against slaves, prompted Great Britain to the expedition. The objectives of the expedition were, in addition to a humanistic justification, scientific and economic. The former missionary Richardson wanted to cross the Sahara up to Lake Chad from the north and then advance eastward to the coast in the direction of Zanzibar. Through the intervention of the Prussian embassy in London, two German scientists were allowed to join the expedition: the geologist Adolf Overweg and the historian and geographer Heinrich Barth. With James Richardson, Heinrich Barth, and Adolf Overweg, who were to carry out the astronomical observations necessary for producing a geographical map, three scientifically educated personalities were available to explore the Sahar in West Africa in the middle of the 19th century available. His Britannic Majesty commissioned them to undertake an expedition into terrain hitherto almost completely unknown to Europeans.

Heinrich Barth arrived in Tunis in 1849 to start the expedition from here. He could see that neither costs nor efforts had been spared to prepare the expedition for the great adventure. They had bought 20 camels had been purchased to carry the supplies and equipment. The latter included food, tents, merchandise and gifts, and a folding boat.
And gifts, as well as a folding boat with which the Europeans wanted to explore the shores of Lake Chad. From Tripoli, the caravan finally set out to explore the Sahara on March 25, 1850, to the southern oasis of Marzuq (also Murzuk). No European had ever come this far before. The relationship between Richardson and Barth became strained over time and visibly deteriorated. The caravan was therefore divided into two groups. Richardson and the English sailor who had to take care of the boat belonged to Barth and Overweg to the other. In the evenings, they set up separate camps. After a month, all reached their first major destination beyond the stone desert, Marzuq. The explorers did not use the usual caravan route via Bilma but took the path via Ghat and Tin-Tellust in the direction of the Al-Hajar mountains. To cross the no man’s land more safely and having learned from the life-threatening experiences of Heinrich Barth (he had lost his way and almost died of thirst), the two groups reunited. Once there, they found paintings and engravings on the rocks, which Barth conscientiously traced. Heinrich Barth Central Africa

Heinrich Barth Central Africa
Barth’s Route through Africa

After a detour to Agades, the trade and caravan center of that region, in the Tuareg territory called Ait, still completely unknown to Europeans. Here, Barth gained a deep insight into the history of the region and the culture of its inhabitants. Then the expedition, after having crossed endless scree plains, followed the path of a salt caravan to the south from Tin-Tellust, where they had been received with great hospitality by the local sultan. At Damerghu, on the northern border of the Central Sudanese Empire of Bornu, now a province in northeastern Nigeria, the expedition members split up to travel along various routes to reach Kukawa (also Kuka, Kukana), the residence of Omar, ruler of Bornu, who was known to be hospitable. Richardson took the direct route but died of a tropical fever before reaching his destination, so Barth, who had come to the Fulbe kingdom of Sokoto via Katsena and Kano, had to take charge of the expedition. He had already reached Lake Chad on April 2, 1851, and began exploring it. On May 7, 1851, he met again in Kukawa with Overweg, who had proceeded via Sinder. For fifteen months, both explored the area around Lake Chad thoroughly. Systematically they recorded the changing shoreline of the lake and continued the records of land and people. Overweg died of swamp fever here in September 1852 at the age of 29.

Heinrich Barth then traveled alone further south to the realm of Adamaua. Here he discovered the Benue River near Yota, which he recognized as one of the most important traffic arteries in Inner Africa. Despite fever attacks, he visited Yola, the capital of Adamaua, before returning to Kukawa. Here he decided to take the direct route to Timbuktu, a sacred trading city for the Arabs and the center of the sacred to the Arabs and the center of Islamic scholarship on the Niger, the “Queen of the Desert.” After ten months of grueling rides on a camel, Barth and his native companions reached the Niger on June 12, 1853. He followed the Niger Arc on the southern side, passing through the Gurma, Libtaka, and Dalla regions, and entered the mysterious city of Timbuktu on September 7.

As on all his journeys, Barth kept a detailed diary and documented the route he took in great detail using the technical means available at the time. He found access to the population by dressing and eating like one of them. He also took the Arabic-Islamic name Abd el-Kerim (“Servant of the Highest”). Most High”). This was not least a step to surviving because Timbuktu was very dangerous for Europeans; only Caillié had been able to leave the mysterious city again. But he soon realized that his disguise would not protect him for long, so he decided to join a local aristocratic ruler, Sheikh EI Bakay, and ask for his protection. He received this protection but had to accept severe restrictions on his personal freedom. Life in Timbuktu was not easy. Although he was a “guest,” he lived almost like a prisoner. He was met with mistrust and fear, as well as aggression and resentment. Heinrich Barth Central Africa

Unfortunately, no related passport to display here. The next and last article on the topic  (part III) will display some interesting passports. Stay tuned.


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