Monthly Archives: August 2019

Explorer Barth and Reader Cooley

From A Labyrinth of Kingdoms: 10,000 Miles through Islamic Africa, by Steve Kemper (W. W. Norton, 2012), Kindle pp. 211-213:

[Heinrich Barth] … began replies to his recent correspondents. One of them was William Desborough Cooley, the British historian and geographer. His book of 1841, The Negroland of the Arabs Examined and Explained; or, An Inquiry into the Early History and Geography of Central Africa, attempted to re-create the history and geography of the western Sudan through rigorous engagement with old travelers’ accounts and Arabic sources such as Al-Idrisi and Al-Bakri. Cooley sifted these sources for verifiable facts and cross-checked them against modern European travel accounts. Comparing all these sources, he believed, would yield a strong facsimile of truth about Central Africa’s past as well as the location of historical places and landmarks.

He was able to demonstrate that the half-legendary empires of Mali, Ghana, and Songhai had been real, and he roughly positioned them geographically for the first time. From old and new sources he extracted a detailed, complex history of black Africa that contradicted hazy European assumptions about the continent’s savagery. Cooley also avoided most of the era’s racial and cultural biases. He reminded readers that bloody executions by African leaders weren’t so different from English laws that burned women at the stake for counterfeiting money or that hanged hundreds of people for minor crimes such as pilfering.

Cooley’s book was immediately influential among Europe’s Africanists, but met its greatest resistance in Britain. Barth admired it so much that he carried it to Africa and often consulted it. On April 1851, a few days after he first arrived in Kukawa, he wrote Cooley an introductory letter that began, “Sir, It is from a warm love of science that I quite a stranger to you take the liberty of addressing you the following lines.” He expressed his esteem for The Negroland of the Arabs, “sincere as it is without the least prejudice and going on with a firm step from point to point”—a perspective and method like Barth’s own. Rereading the book in Africa, he told Cooley, increased his appreciation. He thought Cooley would like to know that on-the-ground observations were confirming the accuracy of the old Arab historians and many of Cooley’s speculations. “I am able to put truth in the place of conjectures,” wrote Barth, “and to give life to vague accounts of former times.”

Cooley’s response, written in January 1852, reached Bagirmi with the packet of letters in July. His tiny handwriting in pale ink contrasted strongly with Barth’s bold dark penmanship. The letter was a peculiar mixture of praise, advice, querulousness, bruised egotism, and condescension. Cooley regretted not meeting Barth in London and welcomed Barth’s compliments about his book, “as it has been received here with discouraging coldness,” despite “the revolution effected by me in the comparative Geography of Africa.”

He swatted away several of Barth’s suggested corrections to his speculations. Barth was right, but Cooley’s reaction was typical of him. He ridiculed any new information by explorers that contradicted his armchair conjectures. For instance, he mocked all the eyewitness reports of snow on Mounts Kenya and Kilimanjaro because they clashed with his theory about possible temperatures at the equator. This habit eventually undermined his influence and earned him the nickname “the stormy petrel.”

Cooley praised Barth for sending back “a larger amount of valuable information, then [sic] has been as yet appended to the narrative of any African traveller, Burckhardt alone perhaps excepted; and doubtless you now possess much the loss of which would be deplorable.”

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Bornu Slave Raid on Mandara, 1851

From A Labyrinth of Kingdoms: 10,000 Miles through Islamic Africa, by Steve Kemper (W. W. Norton, 2012), Kindle pp. 175-177:

THE OFFICIAL REASON FOR THE MILITARY EXPEDITION WAS TO PUNISH the vassal state of Mandara for disobedience. The real reason was that the “coffers and slave-rooms of the great men” of Bornu were empty. The lawless Welad Sliman and the legitimate government of Bornu were both motivated by greed, but the mercenary Arabs didn’t bother to disguise or rationalize their conduct.

A Bornu military campaign moved with ponderous, gaudy pomp. The boom of a great drum signaled the break of camp. Twenty thousand men set off to the drum’s deep cadence, along with 10,000 horses and 10,000 beasts of burden. Barth described the scene:

. . . the heavy cavalry, clad in thick wadded clothing, others in their coats of mail, with their tin helmets glittering in the sun, and mounted on heavy chargers . . . the light Shuwa horsemen, clad only in a loose shirt and mounted upon their weak, unseemly nags; the self-conceited slaves, decked out gaudily in red bernuses or silken dresses of various colors; the Kanembu spearmen, almost naked, with their large wooden shields, their half-torn aprons round their loins, their barbarous head-dresses, and their bundles of spears; then, in the distance behind, the continuous train of camels and pack-oxen. . . .

The pack animals were burdened with “tents, furniture, and provisions and mounted by the wives and concubines of the different chiefs, well dressed and veiled.” The vizier and the sheikh each brought “a moderate number” of concubines—eight for Haj Beshir, twelve for Umar, all dressed in white burnooses. Four fan-bearers in multicolored attire followed the sheikh, as did shrill musicians. Everyone, wrote Barth, was “full of spirits, and in the expectation of rich booty, pressing onward to the unknown regions toward the southeast.”

The army moved over the countryside like locusts. The courtiers brought their own provisions, but the soldiers were expected to supply themselves and their horses from the fields and livestock they passed. “To the ruin of the country,” noted Barth. Cornfields were stripped, livestock seized.

He and Overweg had neither provisions nor money to buy any, but the sheikh and the vizier kept them well fed, at first: rice boiled with milk, bread and honey, sheep and sorghum. The Germans spent most evenings in intellectual tête-à-tête with the vizier, whose curiosity matched theirs. Haj Beshir’s travels to Egypt and Mecca had enlarged his perspective and excited his interest in foreign matters. “Our conversation at some of these African soirées with the vizier,” wrote Barth, “became sometimes so learned that even Ptolemy with his ‘Mandros oros’ was quoted.” On another evening, “a disputation arose of so scientific a character that it might have silenced all those who scoff at the uncivilized state of the population of these regions.”

They often discussed slavery. Barth urged Haj Beshir to abolish it in favor of agriculture, industry, and trade. The vizier agreed that slave-hunting was a sordid business, but no other commodity paid as well, and Bornu needed the money for European firearms to protect itself against enemies—firearms that were also used, noted Barth, to hunt down and enslave or massacre yet more people. The high profits from slavery also led to a taste for luxuries that could only be sustained by capturing and selling more slaves. “Such is the history of civilization!” wrote Barth acerbically. He concluded that European nations were hypocritical for condemning the slave trade while profiting from the gun trade that fueled it. The vizier offered to end slave-trading in Bornu—though not domestic slavery—if the British government would send Bornu 1,000 muskets and four cannons.

Haj Beshir was one of the two great friends Barth made on his journey (the other was Sidi Ahmed al-Bakkay, the sheikh of Timbuktu). “I repeat that, altogether, he was a most excellent, kind, liberal, and just man,” wrote Barth of Haj Beshir, “and might have done much good to the country if he had been less selfish and more active.”

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Agadez, Port City on the Sahel

From A Labyrinth of Kingdoms: 10,000 Miles through Islamic Africa, by Steve Kemper (W. W. Norton, 2012), Kindle pp. 92-94:

In the fourteenth century the restless Moroccan traveler Ibn Battuta called Agadez “the largest, handsomest, and strongest of all the cities in Negroland.” In Battuta’s day 30,000 people lived there. It flourished as a caravan crossroads, where the Sahara met the Sahel, a band of semiarid land 300 to 600 miles wide that stretches for 2,600 miles along the Sahara’s southern edge and buffers the desert from green Africa. “Sahel” came from an Arabic word for shore or coastline. The sea was the Sahara. When travelers from the north reached the Sahel after crossing the desert, they felt the relief of stepping ashore after a long sea passage. Travelers heading north from the Sahel felt that they were casting off. Agadez, like Timbuktu, was a desert port town.

By the time Barth got there [1850], the population had shrunk to about 7,000, but Agadez still fascinated him. The new sultan, who was about to be officially installed, received him hospitably. They conversed in Hausa, which Barth had learned during the traverse of Aïr. The sultan had never heard of the English nation, but was pleased to learn how the famous “English” gunpowder had gotten its name. That evening, he sent Barth a dish called finkaso, a thick pancake made of wheat flour, covered with butter. After the deprivations of Aïr, it tasted like “the greatest luxury in the world.” Thanks to the sultan, who sent Barth two meals every day, the explorer ate very well during his three-week stay—lamb, dates, melons, cucumbers, grains. The sultan sidestepped Barth’s invitation to sign a commercial treaty with Britain, but did write letters of passage for him to the governors of Kano and Katsina, “in rather incorrect Arabic,” sniffed the German pedant.

Barth saw slave caravans, and a salt caravan headed east to Bilma that was said to have 10,000 camels. The men of Agadez carried bows and arrows instead of spears, and rode horses instead of camels—signs of the Sahel. The busy market offered further signs: meat, millet, wheat, dates, wine, melons, and other vegetables. Women sold beads, necklaces, and finely-worked leather boxes for tobacco and perfume. Like most port towns, Agadez had a mongrel population that reflected all the peoples who passed through it, beginning with the Berber tribes that had founded it. There were Tuaregs, Hausas, Fulanis, Tebus, Kanuris, and Arabs. And also, Barth was puzzled to find, Songhais, a black ethnic group based 600 harsh miles to the west. All this diversity made Agadez a polyglot town where interpreters did good business.

But Agadez also had its own unique language, Emgedesi, spoken nowhere else in the region. To a linguist such as Barth, this was a mystery to pursue. He detected the influences of Hausa, Tamasheq, and Songhai in Emgedesi, but remained puzzled about the dialect’s origins and exclusivity to Agadez. Then came the clue that connected the dots: several Tuaregs who had been to Timbuktu told him that Emgedesi was also spoken there, 800 miles west. Barth was surprised, then thrilled as he realized the implications.

Songhai had been the most extensive empire in Central Africa’s history, greater than Mali or Ghana. It had covered portions of present-day Mali, Burkina Faso, Guinea, Senegal, and Niger. Songhai had conquered Timbuktu, another Sahelian port city of Tuaregs and Arabs. The language of the conquerors mixed with Timbuktu’s other tongues, creating a distinctive language unique to the town.

Then early in the sixteenth century, Askia, Songhai’s king, decided to extend his realm to the east, into central Sudan and Hausaland, and to curb the pesky Tuaregs to the north. He conquered Agadez in 1515 and left an occupying force there before proceeding on a haj through Egypt to Mecca, scattering legendary amounts of gold in his wake.

By the end of the sixteenth century the empire of Songhai had disintegrated. But in Agadez the descendants of the occupying army had melded with the local population. So had their language, and the resulting hybrid dialect evolved along similar linguistic lines as the hybrid language of Timbuktu, like related bird species on separate islands. This link, wrote Barth, “throws a new light over the history and ethnography of this part of the world,” and is “of the highest importance for the whole ethnography of North Africa.” It also gave him his first whiff of the fabled city of Timbuktu, a place he never expected to see.

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Trans-Saharan Slave Trade, 1850

From A Labyrinth of Kingdoms: 10,000 Miles through Islamic Africa, by Steve Kemper (W. W. Norton, 2012), Kindle pp. 22-24:

THE MEDITERRANEAN SPLASHES ONE SIDE OF TRIPOLI, THE SAHARA rubs the other. The Phoenicians, with their keen eye for commercial real estate, founded the town in the seventh century B.C. It quickly became a trade hub. By 1850 it had absorbed twenty-five centuries of war, commerce, political intrigue, and forced occupation. Greeks were followed by Romans, Carthaginians, various Muslim regimes, Spaniards, the Christian Knights of St. John, and, most recently, the Ottoman Turks, who took control in the sixteenth century.

When Barth and Overweg arrived, the city’s population of about 15,000 was a stew of Berbers, Moors, Arabs, Jews, Turks, Maltese, Italians, and black Africans from various kingdoms and tribes in the south. Tripoli was a swinging door that connected the Mediterranean countries with the interior of Africa. Merchandise from Europe entered through the city’s busy port. Goods from Africa’s interior—ivory, gold, indigo, cotton cloth, animal skins, ostrich feathers, leather goods, kola nuts—left the city for Europe and the Ottoman countries. But the main export moving through Tripoli was slaves.

The amount of human flesh that passed through the slave markets of Barbary was a trickle compared to the torrent from Africa’s west coast. That torrent, directed at the New World, was industrial in scope and purpose, and favored strong young males. In the trans-Saharan trade, the majority of slaves were females—the younger and prettier, the higher the value. Most of them were bound for domestic duties in the houses and seraglios of Barbary, Egypt, Anatolia, and the Levant. Slave raiders in the Sudan often killed males because they were less docile on the slog to market and less profitable once there.

Some of the captured slaves were retained by the nobles of Islamic kingdoms in the south, but most were sold to Arab traders who took them north to the big markets on the Mediterranean. Many European travelers commented that slaves in Islamic lands were treated relatively well compared to slaves in the West. They had certain rights and privileges. For instance, though the Qur’an permitted masters to enjoy their female slaves sexually, children from such unions were born free and their mothers could not be sold. Once a female slave married, her master lost sexual privileges. The Qur’an encouraged masters to marry their slaves and free them, and forbade the separation of slave mothers from their children before age seven. Some slaves became wealthy landowners and high government officials with slaves of their own. In a few cases the children of royal slaves became kings.

Slaves bound for the markets of Barbary first had to survive the horror of being torn from their villages and marched in coffles across the desert to the sea. Crossing the Sahara on foot, even in the best circumstances, was brutal—choking sandstorms, extreme temperatures, awful thirst. But these conditions were infinitely more taxing for youths recently wrenched from their homes, fettered together, and terrified about their unknown fate. They were often whipped and deprived of sufficient food and water. Those who couldn’t keep up were abandoned. The caravan route between Bornu and Fezzan, in what is now southwestern Libya, was littered with their skeletons. Mortality rates are inexact but historians estimate at least 20 percent and often much higher. In 1849 the British vice-consul in Murzuk, an oasis town on the route between Bornu and Tripoli, reported to the Foreign Office that 1,600 slaves traveling from Bornu had died of thirst after attempting to survive by killing camels to drink their blood and the putrid water in their stomachs. Five months later the vice-consul sent a similar report: en route from Bornu, 795 of 1,770 slaves had perished of thirst.

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Cowrie shell values in Central Africa, 1850

From A Labyrinth of Kingdoms: 10,000 Miles through Islamic Africa, by Steve Kemper (W. W. Norton, 2012), Kindle p. 110:

The unit of currency had changed to the cowrie shell. Cowries had reached Africa through Persia and the Maldives. Though heavy and inconvenient to lug around, the shells had been used as money for centuries throughout Central Africa, as far west as Timbuktu. They were also worn as ornamentation, like expensive jewelry. Small purchases—a needle, an onion, the small kebab that Barth enjoyed—cost a cowrie or two. Barth noted that a poor man could eat for five days on twenty-five or thirty shells, and a family could live for a year on 50,000 to 60,000, the equivalent of about £5. Larger items, such as a sword, cost 1,000 shells. A bull could run 7,000, a healthy young slave more than 30,000. In Tessaoua, Barth witnessed a major transaction in which half a dozen people did “the really heroic work of counting 500,000 shells.” He estimated that the current year’s rather scanty salt caravan from Aïr, consisting of 4,000 camel loads, would bring about 100 million cowries, or £8,000.

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Wordcatcher Tales from Kyoto

Last month I visited the Kyoto Railway Museum, full of many things that made me nostalgic for my many youthful train trips (and several more recent ones) in Japan. I also discovered two Japanese language usages new to me.

マメ知識 mame-chishiki ‘bean-knowledge’ – The very kid-friendly museum contained many small placards in front of larger exhibits with tasty tidbits of information labelled ‘bean (of) knowledge’. Almost all the kanji had furigana to show how they are pronounced, so that kids who had not yet mastered all their elementary or middle school kanji (as I haven’t) could still read them. ‘Bean’ mame (written 豆 in kanji, マメ in katakana) also means ‘small’ in compounds like 豆本 mamehon ‘miniature book’, 豆鉄砲 mameteppou ‘pea shooter’, or even 豆台風 mametaifuu ‘baby typhoon’. The mamechishiki in the photo below tells how the Kamome (Seagull) limited express from Hakata (Fukuoka) would change directions by veering off the main track at Umekoji Station (where the museum is now located) to go north to the top of a delta-shaped track, then back down the far side of the triangle into Kyoto Station so that the locomotive would be facing Hakata for the return trip.

Bean of knowledge

A bean of knowledge about the Kamome limited express train

上り下り nobori-kudari ‘ascending-descending’ in early Meiji – The railway museum also displayed blackboard tables (in kanji) of fares and departure times from the early Meiji era (from the 1880s), when the train system was just beginning, and the national capital was moving from Kyoto to Tokyo. Nowadays, all trains moving toward Tokyo are ‘ascending’ (上り nobori) while those moving away from Tokyo are ‘descending’ (下り kudari). Before the Meiji era, travelers and goods ‘ascended’ to Kyoto and ‘descended’ to Edo. But the timetable below from Kyoto Station shows different usage, perhaps reflecting the route of the earliest heavy freight traffic in the Kansai area, which ran by rail from Osaka to Otsu on Lake Biwa, then by boat north across the lake to Nagahama, then by rail to Tsuruga on the Japan Sea coast. Trains departing south from Kyoto are listed as ascending, and those to the north of Kyoto are listed as descending, perhaps because people and goods bound for Tokyo would first aim to reach a port on the Tokaido side of Honshu.

Meiji-era train

Meiji-era train timetable for Kyoto Station

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