Category Archives: Britain

Explorer and Sheikh Finally Part

From A Labyrinth of Kingdoms: 10,000 Miles through Islamic Africa, by Steve Kemper (W. W. Norton, 2012), Kindle pp. 302-303:

The packet [Heinrich Barth] gave al-Bakkay to send from Timbuktu included letters for the Foreign Office, the Royal Geographical Society, and many friends. It didn’t reach Europe until 1857, having spent more than two years in Ghadames.

The lull before parting was bittersweet. Barth and his friends from Timbuktu had grown fond of each other. In the mornings, as he took the air outside his tent, they gathered around him for conversation. One morning they asked him to read aloud from his European books, for the sound of the languages. He read the Bible in Greek and some passages in English, and recited a poem in German—the latter a big hit because “the full heavy words of that language” reminded them of their own. Another day they asked him to put on his European clothing, so he dug out his black suit. They admired the fine cloth and the trousers but found the frock coat comical. In Central Africa, wrote Barth, they were right.

As their time left together grew short, he and the sheikh continued their genial wide-ranging talks. They had been almost constant companions for nine-and-a-half months. Finally the day arrived when Barth was to cross the river and continue his journey home. His entry for July 9:

This was the day when I had to separate from the person whom, among all the people with whom I had come in contact in the course of my long journey, I esteemed the most highly, and whom, in all but his dilatory habits and phlegmatic indifference, I had found a most excellent and trustworthy man. I had lived with him for so long a time in daily intercourse, and in the most turbulent circumstances, sharing all his perplexities and anxieties, that I could not but feel the parting very severely.

Barth esteemed al-Bakkay, but couldn’t resist pointing out his flaws. The explorer sometimes judged the sheikh a timid procrastinator, but that seems unfair, considering the violent forces he had to balance. He risked his life by defying Ahmadu Ahmadu. He outmaneuvered not only the emir, but enemies in Timbuktu, including scheming members of his own family, while also dealing with constant threats from bellicose Tuaregs. He was also kind, generous, loyal, open-minded, and invigorating company. Because of him, Barth survived Timbuktu.

When he reached the opposite bank of the Niger, Barth fired two shots in farewell, as al-Bakkay had requested. Then he turned and began jotting notes about the sandy downs of this new shore, and the paths that led away from the river toward the east.

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Quinine’s Role in Exploring Africa

From A Labyrinth of Kingdoms: 10,000 Miles through Islamic Africa, by Steve Kemper (W. W. Norton, 2012), Kindle pp. 310-311:

On October 29 [Heinrich Barth] heard that a British expedition had steamed up the Benue River. He had urged this mission on the government two years earlier but hadn’t heard a word about it since. He traced the rumor to a man in Kano who had seen the steamer on the Benue. Barth questioned him closely and was convinced that the rumor was true.

Barth wouldn’t know the details for many months. The mission had left Britain in early June 1854. When its commander died soon after the boat reached the island of Fernando Po in the Gulf of Guinea, Dr. William Balfour Baikie assumed command. Baikie, who later became Barth’s friend and supporter, took the 100-foot steamer Pleiad up the Niger for 700 miles. In early August the Pleiad entered the Benue and ascended it for 250 miles. At the end of September Baikie turned around, reaching the Niger on October 20, while Barth was in Kano. By February 1855 the Pleiad was home.

Every previous excursion on the Niger had proven deadly to Europeans, mostly because of fever. But the Pleiad’s entire crew—twelve Europeans and fifty-four Africans—survived because of an experimental therapy—prophylactic doses of quinine. This success altered the course of African exploration. The voyage also proved Barth’s conviction that the heart of Africa could be opened to commerce through navigation of the Niger’s watershed.

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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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Livingstone Saved by Slave Traders

From Into Africa: The Epic Adventure of Stanley and Livingstone, by Martin Dugard (Broadway Books, 2003), Kindle loc. ~1100:

Then, just when things looked their worst, Livingstone’s life was saved by the people he despised most. On February 1, 1867, he encountered a band of Arab slave traders. They took pity on the destitute, failing traveler, and gave Livingstone food to restore his strength. He accepted it without a second thought about the compromise he was making. Before the Arabs could leave, Livingstone wrote to the British Consulate in Zanzibar, begging that a second packet of relief supplies be sent to Ujiji, where he would meet them. Livingstone’s supply list read like a starving man’s fantasy: coffee, French meats, cheeses, a bottle of port. With his original supplies so depleted, this additional shipment would be vital. The Arabs accepted his letters and promised to deliver them.

Livingstone’s compromise seemed relatively minor—accepting food for himself and his starving men, entrusting his mail to their care—but showed how greatly the search consumed him. Few men of his era spoke out as passionately against slavery as Livingstone. To eat food that was paid for with money earned from slavery was against everything for which he stood.

In his journal there was no attempt at rationalization, just a matter-of-fact admittance that he’d come across a caravan led by a slaver named Magaru Mafupi. The slaver was a “black Arab,” born of an Arab father and African mother.

The lineage might have confused the outside world, but Livingstone knew well the symbiotic relationship between Africans and Arabs. Although Europeans perceived the African continent to be an uncharted land populated by indigenous cultures, the truth was that Arabs had lived alongside Africans for over a thousand years. It was the seventh century A.D. when Arabian ships began trading beads for ivory with Bantu tribes along the East African coast. A mingling of their cultures began: The Arabs brought Islam; Swahili, meaning “coastal,” was formed by merging Arabic and Bantu; the financiers of India and Persia set up shop in Zanzibar to outfit caravans; African men found work hauling ivory, giving birth to the occupation of pagazi—porter. Little boys of the Nyamwezi tribe even carried small tusks around their village, training for the great day when they would join the mighty caravans.

That relationship between Arab and African had been corrupted, though, as slavery became lucrative in the sixteenth century. Losers in war were routinely enslaved, and children were often kidnapped as their parents worked the fields. As early as the seventh century, men, women, and children from subequatorial Africa were being captured by other African tribes and spirited north across the Sahara’s hot sands. Two-thirds of those surviving the epic walk were women and children about to become concubines or servants in North Africa or Turkey. The males comprising the remaining third were often pressed into military service.

That slave trade route—known as the Trans-Saharan—was augmented by the opening of the East African slave trade a century later. Instead of Africans, it was the Arabs driving this new market, focused mainly along the easily accessible coastal villages. They found that slaves were a more lucrative business than gold and ivory, and began capturing clusters of men and women for work as servants and concubines in India, Persia, and Arabia. Even with the second slave route open, slavery was still not a defining aspect of African life, but a gruesome daily footnote. When the Portuguese came to East Africa in 1498, however, and as other European colonial powers settled the Americas during the following century, that changed. Slavery became the continent’s pivotal force. By the end of the sixteenth century, England, Denmark, Holland, Sweden, and France had followed Portugal’s initial example, and pursued slavery as a source of cheap labor and greater national wealth. A third slave trade route—the transatlantic—opened on Africa’s west coast. Slaves bound for America, the Caribbean, South America, Mexico, and Europe were marched to the west coast ports of Luanda, Lagos, Goree, Bonny, and Saint Louis, then loaded on ships for the journey.

Great Britain’s economy became so dependent upon slavery that some maps of western Africa were divided by commodities: Ivory Coast, Gold Coast, Slave Coast. But as Britain began to see itself as a nation built on God and morality, and as it became savvy for politicians to align themselves with the growing Christian evangelical movement, slavery was abolished in all British colonies and protectorates in 1834. During his first trip to Africa in 1841, Livingstone was terribly unaccustomed to the sight of men, women, and children being bought and sold. As he insinuated himself into the fabric of African life over the years that followed—speaking with the natives in their native tongue wherever he went, sleeping in the villages during his travels, making friends as he shared meals and nights around the campfire—the barbarism of the practice incensed him even more. He grew determined to stop it.

Livingstone’s focus was on the east coast, where Portugal had supplanted the Arabs as the coastal region’s reigning power. Even as other nations slowly abandoned the practice on humanitarian grounds, slavery became the cornerstone of Portugal’s economy. The tiny nation exported African men and women by the hundreds of thousands from ports on both the east and west coasts of Africa. African tribes were raiding other tribes, then selling captives to the Arabs in exchange for firearms. The Arabs, in turn, marched the captives back to the east coast, where they were either sold to the Portuguese or auctioned in Zanzibar. The slaves were then shipped to Arabia, Persia, India, and even China.

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Chief Operating Officer to Explorers

From Into Africa: The Epic Adventure of Stanley and Livingstone, by Martin Dugard (Broadway Books, 2003), Kindle locs. ~400, ~2000:

Among their caravan was a hard-working young African named Sidi Mubarak Bombay, whom Burton referred to as “the gem of the group.” Bombay was a member of the Yao tribe who had been captured by Arab slave traders at the age of twelve, then sold in the Zanzibar slave market to an Arab merchant. When that Arab moved to the city of Bombay shortly after, his young slave came along. After his owner’s death, the slave was given his freedom and the adopted name of his new hometown. Upon returning to Africa sometime in his early thirties, Sidi Mubarak Bombay joined the Sultan of Zanzibar’s army as a soldier, and was posted to a garrison in Chokwe. That outpost seven miles from the Indian Ocean coastline was where Burton and Speke met up with the industrious, grinning former slave. By arrangement with the garrison commander, Bombay and five other soldiers were hired to accompany the British caravan. Bombay’s work ethic and linguistic skills soon made him invaluable to Burton and Speke. Unbeknownst to Bombay, his soldiering career was at an end, replaced by a new line of work.

Bombay spoke fluent Hindustani, as did Speke, so Bombay served as Speke’s gun bearer and translator. “He works on principal and works like a horse,” Burton wrote of the short ugly man with filed-down teeth and an aversion to bathing, “candidly declaring that not love of us but duty to his belly makes him work. With a sprained ankle and a load quite disproportionate to his puny body, he insists on carrying two guns. He attends us everywhere, manages our purchases, carries all our messages, and when not employed by us is at every man’s beck and call.” Bombay would go on to become the talisman of African exploration, an essential roster member on any serious expedition for decades to come.

The legendary Sidi Mubarak Bombay—“the honestest of black men who served with Burton, and subsequently with Speke”—came on board as leader of Stanley‘s protective militia. In time, Bombay would serve as unofficial caravan leader, and liaison between Stanley and the pagazis [porters].

Thirteen years had passed since a young Bombay had dazzled Burton and Speke with his easy humor and insatiable work ethic. But he was still able to walk thirty miles at a brisk pace, had worked with the most expeditions of any man, and knew the interior by rote. Bombay, however, had also passed into middle age. He was bald and the young pagazis didn’t respect him. As the rare man in history to follow the Nile from Lake Victoria to the Mediterranean, Bombay thought himself a celebrity. He had an ego, as Stanley knew from reading the works of Burton and Speke, and could be outspoken, prone to drinking and chasing women, and a procrastinator. So there were liabilities incumbent with Bombay’s hiring. All in all, however, the exploration veteran was vital.

Stanley trusted Bombay so much he let the former slave hire his own soldiers. Bombay handpicked twenty men.

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Three Famous Explorers of Africa

From Into Africa: The Epic Adventure of Stanley and Livingstone, by Martin Dugard (Broadway Books, 2003), Kindle loc. ~300:

Speke was a thin loner whose family home, Jordans, was just forty miles from Bath. He was childlike, entitled, wealthy, bland, deaf in one ear. At thirty-seven, he doted on his mother but had never courted any other woman. Critics acknowledged his prowess as a sportsman, but puzzled over his penchant for slaughter and fondness for eating the unborn fetus of a kill. They wondered about the character of a man who once gave a rifle as a gift to an African chief fond of shooting subjects for fun, and who allowed a live human child to be steamed like a lobster during a tribal ritual in his honor. Speke felt that the ends justified the means—in this case, finding the source was worth the loss of inconsequential African lives. The source, Speke claimed, was a massive rectangular body of water the size of Scotland. He named it Victoria Nyanza—Lake Victoria—for the Queen.

The dark-haired Burton claimed Lake Tanganyika as the source. That body of water lay 150 miles southwest of Victoria Nyanza, separated by mountainous, unexplored jungle. Burton did not dispute that the Nile flowed from Victoria, but he believed that another, yet undiscovered, river flowed from Tanganyika through the mountains, into Victoria.

Lake Tanganyika’s shape was slender and vertical on the map, like a womb parting to give birth to the great Nile. Its choice as Burton’s geographical talisman was apt, for his character tics veered toward the sensual. The accomplished linguist had a fondness for Arab prostitutes and would someday write the first English translation of the Kama Sutra. In 1845, as a young army officer stationed in India, he’d been ordered to investigate Karachi’s homosexual brothels. Burton’s detailed reportage implicated fellow officers and evinced suspicion about his own sexuality—both of which combined to ruin his career. So he’d become an explorer. His knowledge of languages and Islam allowed him to infiltrate cities like Mecca and Harar, which were forbidden to non-Muslims. The resulting books about those escapades were best-sellers in the mid-1850s, earning Burton a reputation for daring while introducing Oriental thoughts and words to his readers. It was Burton who made the term safari—Swahili for “journey”—familiar to the English-speaking world.

The mob packing the auditorium, so eager for spectacle and rage, knew the Burton and Speke story well. The time had come for resolution. When the eleven o’clock starting time came and passed, the crowd “gave vent to its impatience by sounds more often heard from the audience of a theater than a scientific meeting,” sniffed the Bath Chronicle. The audience gossiped loudly about Speke’s whereabouts and stared at the stage, scrutinizing Burton with that unflinching gaze reserved for the very famous. In an era when no occupation was more glamorous than African explorer, Burton’s features were already well known through photographs and sketches from his books. But for many in the audience, seeing his face up close, in person, was why they’d come. They felt the same about Speke.

There was a third explorer many hoped to glimpse, a man whose legend was arguably greater than any living explorer. “The room,” the Chronicle noted of the auditorium, “was crowded with ladies and gentlemen who were radiant with the hope of seeing Dr. Livingstone.” The British public hadn’t caught a glimpse of their beloved Livingstone since the halcyon days of 1857 when he seemed to be everywhere at once. His exploits had been a balm for the wounds of the Crimean War, the ill-fated Charge of the Light Brigade, and the bloody slaughter of British women and children during the Indian Mutiny. Livingstone reminded Victorian Britain of her potential for greatness. The fifty-one-year-old Scot was their hero archetype, an explorer brave, pious, and humble; so quick with a gun that Waterloo hero the Duke of Wellington nicknamed Livingstone “the fighting parson.” Livingstone was equally at home wandering the wilds of Africa and making small talk over tea with the Queen. The public made his books best-sellers, his speeches standing room, his name household. Livingstone was beloved in Britain, and so famous worldwide that one poll showed that only Victoria herself was better known.

Livingstone, though, wasn’t scheduled to appear at the Nile Duel [debate about the origins of the Nile]. His first public appearance since returning from an exploration of Africa’s Zambezi River six months earlier was officially supposed to take place the following Monday. He would lecture the British Association on the details of that journey. Ticket demand was so enormous that Livingstone, standing before a massive map of Africa, would give the speech live in one theater as Clements Markham of the Royal Geographical Society read it concurrently to the overflow crowd in a second auditorium. The Chronicle‘s special edition would publish the text in its entirety. Rumors, however, said Livingstone would make an appearance at the Nile Duel as moderator. His appearance would confirm the Duel’s heft and counterbalance smirks of innuendo. For celebrity gazers and scientists alike, Livingstone, Burton, and Speke on the same stage would elevate the proceedings from grudge match to intellectual field day. Those three greats hurling geographical barbs would make the long hours in the rain more than worthwhile.

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