Heinrich Barth

Heinrich Barth

Heinrich Barth (February 16 1821 – November 25, 1865) was a German explorer and scholar of Africa.


Barth was born in Hamburg and educated at Berlin University, where he graduated in 1844. He had already visited Italy and Sicily and had formed a plan to journey through the Mediterranean countries. After studying Arabic in London he set out on his travels in 1845. He acted for the British Foreign Office in 1850, Barth is one of the greatest of the European explorers of Africa - not necessarily because of the length of his travels (1850-1855) or the time he spent alone without European company in Africa, but because of his singular character.

From Tangier Barth made his way overland throughout the length of North Africa. He also travelled through Egypt, ascending the Nile to Wadi Halfa and crossing the desert to Berenice. While in Egypt he was attacked and wounded by robbers. Crossing the Sinai peninsula he traversed Palestine, Syria, Asia Minor, Turkey and Greece, everywhere examining the remains of antiquity; and returned to Berlin in 1847. For a time he was engaged there as "Privatdozent," and in preparing for publication the narrative of his "Wanderungen durch die Küstenländer des Mittelmeeres", which appeared in 1849.

At the instance of Bunsen, the Prussian ambassador to Westminster, and other scientists like Alexander von Humboldt, Barth, and Adolf Overweg, a Prussian astronomer, were appointed colleagues of James Richardson, an explorer of the Sahara who had been selected by the British government to open up commercial relations with the states of the central and western Sudan. The party left Tripoli early in 1850, but the deaths of Richardson (March 1851) and Overweg (September 1852) left Barth to carry on the mission alone. Dr. Barth was the first European to visit Adamawa in 1851. He returned to Europe in September 1855.

In addition to journeys across the Sahara, Barth traversed the country from Lake Chad and Bagirmi on the east to Timbuktu on the west and Cameroon on the south. He studied minutely the topography, history, civilizations, languages and resources of the countries he visited.

Barth entered Timbuktu in September 1853. His success as an explorer and historian of Africa was based both on his patient character and his scholarly education. He studied in the early 1840s at the University of Berlin under the guidance of scholars such as Alexander von Humboldt, Leopold von Ranke, Friedrich von Schelling and Jakob Grimm, who all laid the foundations of the human geography and historical research in the modern sense.

Barth was different from the explorers of the colonial age, because he was interested in the history and culture of the Africans peoples, rather than the possibilities to exploit them. He meticulously documented his observations and his own journal has becomes as much as an invaluable source for the circumstances of the 19th century Sudanic Africa. Although Barth was not the first European visitor who paid attention to the local oral traditions, he was the first who seriously considered its methodology and usability for historical research. Barth was the first truly scholarly traveler in West Africa. Earlier ones such as Caillié, Denham and Clapperton had no academic knowledge. Barth could read Arabic, and was able to investigate history of some regions, particularly the Songhay empire. He also seems to have learned some African languages. He established close relations with a number of African scholars and rulers, from Muhammad al-Amin al-Kanemi in Bornu, through the Katsina and Sokoto regions to Timbuktu, where his friendship with Ahmad al-Bakkay al-Kunti led to his staying in his house and being protection from an attempt to seize him.The story of Barth's travels was written and published simultaneously in English and German, under the title "Travels and Discoveries in North and Central Africa" (1857-1858, 5 vols., aprr. 3,500 pages), which was considered one of the finest works of its kind at the time, appearing in Bibliographies by Darwin and still cited by African historians, as it remains the most scientific work on African cultures of the age and a source for historians of West Africa.

Except a title "CB" (Companion) from the Order of the Bath, Barth himself received no formal recognition of his services from the British government. He returned to Germany, where he prepared a collection of Central African vocabularies (Gotha, 1862-1866). In 1858 he undertook another journey in Asia Minor, and in 1862 visited the Turkish provinces in Europe. In the following year he was granted a professorship of geography (without chair or regular pay) at Berlin University and president of the Geographical Society. His admission to the Prussian Academy of Sciences was denied, as it was claimed that he had achieved nothing for historiography and linguistics. Barth died in Berlin.



* Heinrich Barth, "Corinthiorum commercii et mercaturae historiae particula / Beiträge zur Geschichte von Handel und Handelsverkehr der Korinther", Phil. Diss. 1844 (New edition with English translation: Africa Explorata. Monographien zur frühen Erforschung Afrikas 2. Heinrich-Barth-Institut, Cologne 2002, ISBN 3927688215 (with a complete bibliography of writings by and about Heinrich Barth to 2000)
* Albert Adu Boahen, "Britain, the Sahara and the Western Sudan, 1788-1861." Oxford: Clarendon, 1964 (with a scholarly account and evaluation of Barth's expedition and his relations with the British Foreign Office)
* Anthony Kirk-Greene (ed.), "Barth's Travels in Nigeria." London: OUP, 1962 (with an excellent short biography of the explorer by one of Britain's foremost experts on West Africa)

External links

* [http://www.manntaylor.com/barth1.html Plates (1) from "Travels and Discoveries in North and Central Africa"]
* [http://www.manntaylor.com/barth2.html Plates (2) from "Travels and Discoveries in North and Central Africa"]
* [http://www.ziaf.de/barth.htm] International conference on Heinrich Barth in Timbuktu, organized by Point Sud, Center for Research on Local Knowledge, Bamako, with the assistance of The Embassy of The Federal Republic of Germany, The German Technical Cooperation (GTZ), Programme Mali-Nord, Bamako

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