A LABYRINTH OF KINGDOMS: 10,000 miles Through Islamic Africa. By Steve Kemper. Norton. 396 pages. $27.95.
Even with the known perils of modern travel in large swaths of Islamic Africa, it simply defies credulity to read of the difficulties encountered in Heinrich Barth’s 1849 expedition.
Tribal warfare was raging everywhere, and a “kill-the-Infidel” mind-set was reflexive to the point of being a mantra.
Even by the middle of the 19th century, much of the interior of Africa remained unexplored. But those few who led pioneering expeditions and lived to return home and lecture and write about their experiences were received as movie stars are today.
By contrast, Barth enjoyed only fleeting renown, denied the recognition he deserved. He died in relative obscurity.
In his penetrating study, “A Labyrinth of Kingdoms,” Steve Kemper ably resurrects the unsung and unappreciated accomplishments of this intrepid explorer and clearly shows that his high level of scientific scholarship and attention to detail are relevant and useful today.
Barth actually participated in two African expeditions, the first being a short one of a year’s duration beginning in 1844 from Rabat, Morocco, to Alexandria, Egypt, an experience that served to set his appetite for the longer, five-year expedition from Tripoli across the Sahara to Timbuktu and back, which he completed in 1855.
The narrative reveals that Barth, a Prussian national, joined the second British-sponsored expedition as a research assistant, but wound up becoming its leader following the death by disease of its original leader.
In his 10,000-mile journey, he was alternately harassed and befriended by the nomadic tribes of the Tuaregs of the central Sahara. Barth also fell victim to the common insect-borne diseases of Africa that claimed so many of his fellow explorers.
There were frequent intervals where he was held in states of arrest by a variety of sheiks, viziers, village chiefs and sultans until he produced acceptable baksheesh or satisfied their curiosity that he was not up to some mischief.
The author documents how Barth made a genuine effort to study the languages, religious beliefs, cultures and history of all the tribal entities he encountered on his journey and shows how he was pleased to find evidence, contrary to commonly held belief, of what Europeans would recognize as organized, albeit warlike, civilizations of long standing.
Kemper states that Barth’s curiosity and accumulation of knowledge about their cultures encouraged many Islamic scholars to spend time and share thoughts with him. Always, however, calls eventually would come for him to be turned over to zealots and eliminated as an infidel.
Barth resisted several efforts to persuade him to convert to Islam to overcome the threats, overtures that he steadfastly refused.
Kemper delineates how, despite all the mortal dangers Barth encountered in the wildness of North Africa, he was to face even more lethal encounters in the form of character assassination when he returned home. He chronicles Barth’s sad fate, showing his difficulties were even further compounded by overshadowing headline reports of even more recent explorations and new discoveries.
The extensive endnotes and impressive bibliography attest to the author’s depth of research. Kemper has written a commendable story of real contributions to science amid tales of true adventure and brings Barth’s forgotten contributions to light in an enjoyable, readable narrative.
Reviewer Ben Moise, an author and freelance writer who lives in Charleston