Heinrich Barth

Heinrich Barth, born February 16 of 1821 and died November 25th of 1865, was a German explorer of Africa and a scholar.

He is one of the greatest of the European explorers of Africa, and his scholarly preparation, ability to speak and write in Arabic, learning African languages, and character meant that he delicately documented the details of the cultures that he visited. He was among the first to comprehend the uses of oral history of the peoples, and he collected many. He established friendships with the African rulers and scholars during his five years of traveling. After the deaths of two European companions, he finished his travels with the aid of Africans. Afterwards, he wrote and published a five-volume account of his travels both in German and in English. It has been invaluable for scholars of his time and since.

He was born in Hamburg and educated at the Gelehrtenschule des Johanneums and the University of Berlin, where he graduated in 1844. He studied under the guidance of scholars such as Leopold von Ranke, Alexander von Humboldt, Friedrich von Chelling and Jakob Grimm, who all laid the foundations of human geography and historical research in the modern sense.

He had already visited Italy and Sicily; he created a plan to journey through the Mediterranean countries. After studying Arabic in London, he set out on his travels in the year 1845. He acted for the British Foreign Office in the year 1850.

From Tangier, Barth made his way overland across to North Africa. He also traveled through Egypt, ascending the Nile to Wadi Halfa and crossing the desert to the port of Berenice on the Red Sea. While he was in Egypt, he was attacked and injured by robbers. Crossing the Sinai Peninsula, he traversed Syria, Palestine, Asia Minor, Greece and Turkey, studying the remains of antiquity; and returned to Berlin in 1847. For some time he was engaged there as Privatdozent. He described his travels within his book, Wanderungen lurch die Kustenlander des Mittelmeeres, which was published in 1849.

Christian Bunsen, the Prussian ambassador of Westminster, encouraged the appointment of scientists, including Alexander von Humboldt, Barth, and Adolf Overweg, a Prussian astronomer, to the expedition of James Richardson, an explorer of the Sahara. He had been chosen by the British government to open up commercial relations with the states of the central and western Sudan. The party departed Marseilles in late 1849, and departed from Tripoli in early 1850. They crossed the Sahara Desert with much difficulty.

The deaths of Richardson in 1851 and Overweg in 1852 as a result of the climate, left Barth to carry on the scientific mission alone. He was the first European to visit Adamawa in the year 1851. When he returned to Tripoli in September of 1855, his journey had extended over 24 degrees of latitude and 20 degrees of longitude, from Tripoli in the north to Adamawa and Cameroon in the south, and from Lake Chad and Bagirmi in the east to Timbuktu in the west-upward of 12,000 miles. He studied the topography, civilians, history, languages, and the resources of the countries that he visited. His success as an explorer and historian of Africa was based on the fact that he had patient character and scholarly education.

He was different from the explorers of the colonial age due to the fact that he was interested in the history and culture of the African peoples, as opposed to the possibilities of commercial exploitation. Because of his level of documentation, his journal has become an invaluable source for the study of the 19th century Sudanic Africa. Although he was not the first European visitor who paid attention to the local oral traditions, he was the first one to seriously consider its methodology and use for historical research. He was the first true scholar to travel and study in West Africa. Earlier explorers included Rene Caillie, Dixon Denham, and Hugh Clapperton, but they had no academic knowledge.

He was able to read Arabic and investigate the history of some areas, especially the Songhay Empire. He also seems to have learned some of the African languages. He established close relations with numerous African scholars and rulers, from Muhammad al-Amin al-Kanemi in Bornu, through the Katsina and Sokoto areas to Timbuktu. There his friendship with Ahmad al-Bakkai al-Kunti led to his stay in his house; he also received protection and security from al-Kunti against an attempt to seize him.

He returned from Great Britain to Germany, where he prepared a collection of Central African vocabularies. In the year 1858 he undertook another journey to Asia Minor, and in 1862 he visited the Turkish provinces in Europe.

In the following year he was granted a professorship of geography at Berlin University and appointed President of the Geographical Society. His admission to the Prussian Academy of Sciences wasn’t accepted, as it was claimed that he had achieved nothing for historiography and linguistics. They didn’t fully understand his achievements, which have been ratified by scholars over time.

He died in Berlin at the age of 44. His grave is preserved in the Protestant Friedhof II der Jerusalems- und Neuen Kirchengemeinde in Berlin-Kreuzberg, south of Hallesches Tor.

The British honored him the title of “CB” from the Order of the Bath to recognize his research in Africa.

Image Caption: Heinrich Barth. Credit: Wikipedia