Heinrich Barth

views updated May 21 2018

Heinrich Barth


German Explorer

Heinrich Barth spent most of his adult life exploring Saharan and sub-Saharan Africa in the company of James Richardson (1806-1851) and on his own. Originally sent to help gather information on the slave trade, Barth made some of the most reliable maps of North Africa and devoted a great deal of attention to studying the customs of the tribes he encountered in his travels.

Barth was initially assigned to assist James Richardson, an English explorer sent by a British religious society to learn about the North African slave trade. Wanting to make the expedition an international one, Richardson accepted the recommendation of Prussia's ambassador and asked Barth to join him. The expedition, which left in 1850, included Richardson, Barth, and the German geologist Adolf Overweg (1822-1852). Records suggest it may well have been the best-equipped and best-organized expedition to the Sahara launched up to that time.

Unfortunately, Barth and Richardson did not get along well and there was a considerable amount of tension between the two of them. The tension escalated to the point that they set up separate camps for each man and his servants at the end of each day. Nevertheless, they continued exploring together for several months before deciding to split up in late 1850.

After going their separate ways, Richardson decided to head directly for Lake Chad while Barth and Overweg took a longer, more westerly route. Barth and Overweg, in turn, split up with Barth exploring the regions south and east of Lake Chad, agreeing to meet Overweg and Richardson both at the lake in April 1851. Richardson, however, never made the rendezvous, dying of a tropical fever just three weeks before Barth's arrival. Overweg did reach the lake, only to die of malaria 15 months later at the age of 29. Before his death, he and Barth conducted extensive studies of the Lake Chad area, using a boat they had brought with them across the desert.

Like the others, Barth fell ill, but he recovered and pressed on with his explorations. By this time he had been in Africa for nearly three years and realized that reaching Timbuktu, his next destination, would likely take another two years. He decided to continue anyway and reached the city in September 1853.

In early 1854 Barth, hearing that a party of Europeans was at Lake Chad searching for him, left Timbuktu to return to the lake. Meeting up with them, he discovered that he had been presumed dead. Barth eventually made his way back across the Sahara to Tripoli, traveling during the hottest part of the year. From there, he returned to London, arriving in 1856 after an absence of over five years. In a report totaling five volumes, Barth contributed the first reliable maps of North Africa, detailed scientific observations, and extensive notes on the customs of the tribes he had observed during his travels. According to an account published in the National Geographic in 1907, Barth "...gave the first definitive account of the Saharan region after a journey of great extent and importance... Barth's journeys were of great value, for he not only made known to the world the existence and accessibility of hundreds of thousands of square miles of fertile territory, but he also gave in five volumes an enormous amount of geographical information, in which he treated quite thoroughly the ethnology of the various tribes of the Central Sudan."

After returning from Africa, Barth was appointed a professor of geography at Berlin University, where he remained until his premature death at the age of 44.


Heinrich Barth

views updated May 23 2018

Heinrich Barth

The German explorer Heinrich Barth (1821-1865) greatly expanded European knowledge of the western and central Sudan in Africa.

Heinrich Barth was born on Feb. 16, 1821, in Hamburg. He showed remarkable linguistic skill and learned English, French, Spanish, Italian, Arabic, and several African languages. In 1839 he entered the University of Berlin.

From 1845 to 1847 Barth visited most of the Mediterranean countries and then decided to pursue an academic career. Starting as an unsalaried university lecturer, he proved to be unpopular with his associates and a poor teacher and was forced to cancel his classes.

Meanwhile, James Richardson was assembling the English Mixed Scientific and Commercial Expedition to establish trans-Saharan communications with the banks of the Niger for commercial reasons, to help stop the slave trade, and to collect historical, geographical, and scientific information. Needing scientists, he accepted Barth, and they were joined by Dr. Adolf Overweg, also from Hamburg. They set out for the Sudan, crossing the Sahara Desert from Tripoli. Near Lake Chad, Barth and Overweg parted from Richardson because of disagreements. Richardson died in March 1851 and Overweg in September 1852, leaving Barth to complete the expedition.

Barth traveled in the central and western Sudan, and when his contacts with Britain were severed, he was presumed to be dead or lost. But Barth had become fascinated with African life and was carrying on a systematic study of the Sudan.

In the field of geography, Barth's maps and writings gave more complete information on the Sahara and Sudan than had previously been available. In history he discovered fragments of the Tarikh es Sudan (History of the Sudan) and the Diwan (History of the Kingdom of Bornu) and wrote about the decline of the Fulani empire. In unknown areas he carefully recorded local languages, histories, and trading patterns and described the social and administrative structure of African kingdoms.

Barth's trip to Timbuktu confirmed the reports of the French explorer René Caillié, and Barth's exploration on the upper Benue confirmed that the Benue empties into the Niger and that the Shari empties into Lake Chad. He did extensive work in linguistics, including the compiling of vocabularies for 40 African languages in the Lake Chad area. In 1855 he crossed the Sahara to Tripoli and returned to England in September.

Barth published a five-volume account (1857-1858) of his years in the Sudan, which was of immense value and interest to serious students of Africa but considered dull by most of the reading public. He died in Berlin on Nov. 25, 1865.

Further Reading

The basic reference on Barth is the journal he kept of his 5-year stay in the Sudan. The first American edition was published as Travels and Discoveries in North and Central Africa (3 vols., 1857-1859). A shorter version was edited by the British scholar A. H. M. Kirk-Greene as Travels in Nigeria (1962). William H. G. Kingston and Charles Rathbone Low, Great African Travellers (1904), is a detailed study of Barth's travels. For a good discussion of the motives and methods of explorers, including Barth, see Paul Herrmann, The Great Age of Discovery (1958). □

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