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A LABYRINTH OF KINGDOMS by Steve Kemper

A LABYRINTH OF KINGDOMS

10,000 Miles Through Islamic Africa

By Steve Kemper

Pub Date: June 25th, 2012
ISBN: 978-0-393-07966-1
Publisher: Norton

A spirited reconstruction of the arduous five-year trek into Central Africa by Heinrich Barth (1821–1865), a German scientist exploring for England.

Kemper (Reinventing the Wheel: A Story of Genius, Innovation, and Grand Ambition, 2005, etc.) ably renders the intensive research involved in delineating Barth’s life and travels into an engaging narrative. The arrogant, introspective Barth had recently completed his dissertation, learned Arabic and written his travelogue, Wanderings Along the Shores of the Mediterranean, when he was referred to James Richardson, avid English abolitionist and missionary, for his expedition into Central Africa in 1850. Sponsored by Lord Palmerston, then head of the British Foreign Office, the trip was ostensibly commercial, to “make treaties with African potentates,” as well as to spread English civilization and Christianity—the explorers before them had perished by disease and violence. Enduring appalling conditions, such as fever, the deaths of Richardson and other comrades, theft by his Arab guides and especially the lack of funds from England (due to the great lapse in travel time), Barth and his cumbersome camel-laden entourage trekked from Tripoli south through the Sahara. He had to placate the suspicious, murderous Arab chiefs along the way, bribing them with whatever he had, and often being held captive for months. He took assiduous notes about the tribes, mingling with the natives and always asking questions. He discovered a tributary of the Niger, was stranded in Timbuktu and finally rode back to Tripoli in 1855. Back in England, his academic account, when finally published in 1857, was criticized for its tolerant account of the Arabs. With Europe “on the cusp of the imperial age,” his news from Africa was unwelcome.

A nicely rounded literary study of an intrepid explorer undone by the cultural biases of the time.