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Heinrich Barth

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

Barth is thought to be one of the greatest of the European explorers of Africa, as his scholarly preparation, ability to speak and write Arabic, learning African languages, and character meant that he carefully documented the details of the cultures he visited. He was among the first to comprehend the uses of oral history of peoples, and collected many. He established friendships with African rulers and scholars during his five years of travel (1850–1855). After the deaths of two European companions, he completed his travels with the aid of Africans. Afterwards, he wrote and published a five-volume account of his travels in both English and German. It has been invaluable for scholars of his time and since.


Barth was born in Hamburg. He was 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 Alexander von Humboldt, Leopold von Ranke, Friedrich von Schelling and Jakob Grimm, who all laid the foundations of human geography and historical research in the modern sense, as an expression of the Enlightenment.

Barth had already visited Italy and Sicily; he 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.

In North Africa and the Near East[edit]

From Tangier, Barth made his way overland across 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 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. He described his travels in his book, Wanderungen durch die Küstenländer des Mittelmeeres, which was published in 1849.

In Sudan, the Sahara and Western Africa[edit]

Route of Barth's journey through Africa between 1850 and 1855
Heinrich Barth approaching Timbuktu on September 7th 1853 as depicted by Martin Bernatz.

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

The deaths of Richardson (March 1851) and Overweg (September 1852), who died of unknown diseases, left Barth to carry on the scientific mission alone. Barth was the first European to visit Adamawa in 1851. When he returned to Tripoli in September 1855, his journey had extended over 24° of latitude and 20° 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 (September 1853) in the west — upward of 12,000 miles (19,000 km). He studied minutely the topography, history, civilizations, languages, and resources of the countries he visited. His success as an explorer and historian of Africa was based both on his patient character and his scholarly education.

Barth was different from the explorers of the colonial age, because he was interested in the history and culture of the African peoples, rather than the possibilities of commercial exploitation. Due to his level of documentation, his journal has become an invaluable source for the study of 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 use for historical research. Barth was the first true scholar to travel and study in West Africa. Earlier explorers such as René Caillié, Dixon Denham and Hugh Clapperton had no academic knowledge.

Barth was fluent in Arabic and seven African languages and was able to investigate the history of some regions, particularly the Songhay Empire. He established close relations with a number of African scholars and rulers, from Umar I ibn Muhammad al-Amin in Bornu, through the Katsina and Sokoto regions to Timbuktu. There his friendship with Ahmad al-Bakkai al-Kunti led to his staying in his house; he also received protection from al-Kunti against an attempt to seize him.

Heinrich Barth's house in Timbuktu (in 1908 before its collapse)

Barth returned from Great Britain 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 appointed 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. They did not fully understand his achievements, which have been ratified by scholars over time.

Barth died in Berlin aged 44. His grave is preserved in the Protestant Friedhof III der Jerusalems- und Neuen Kirchengemeinde (Cemetery No. III of the congregations of Jerusalem's Church and New Church) in Berlin-Kreuzberg, south of Hallesches Tor.


Barth wrote and published accounts of his travels simultaneously in English and German, under the title Reisen und Entdeckungen in Nord- und Zentralafrika (Travels and Discoveries in North and Central Africa; 1857–1858, 5 volumes., approx. 3,500 pages). It was considered one of the finest works of its kind at the time,being cited by Darwin. It is still used by historians of Africa, and remains an important scientific work on African cultures of the age.

Legacy and honors[edit]

  • The British awarded him the title of "CB" (Companion) from the Order of the Bath to recognize his research in Africa.


US-edition with less pictures. 3 volumes. New York: Harper & Brothers, 1857. Google books: Volume 1 (1857), Volume 2 (1857),Volume 3 (1859).



Further reading[edit]

  • Adu Boahen, Albert (1964), Britain, the Sahara and the Western Sudan, 1788-1861, Oxford: Claredon Press, ISBN 978-0-19-821625-4 .
  • Barth, Heinrich; Kirk-Greene, A.H.M. (ed.) (1962), Barth's Travels in Nigeria : extracts from the journal of Heinrich Barth's travels in Nigeria, 1850-1855, London: Oxford University Press, OCLC 6083393 .
  • de Moraes Farias, Paulo Fernando; Diawara, Mamadou; Spittler, Gerd, eds. (2006), Heinrich Barth et l'Afrique (in French and English), Köppe, ISBN 978-3-89645-220-7 .
  • Kemper, Steve (2012), A Labyrinth of Kingdoms: 10,000 Miles through Islamic Africa, W. W. Norton & Company, ISBN 978-0393079661 .
  • Masonen, Pekka (2000), The Negroland Revisited: Discovery and Invention of the Sudanese Middle Ages, Helsinki: Finnish Academy of Science and Letters, pp. 397–418, ISBN 951-41-0886-8 .
  • Schiffers, Heinrich (1967), "Heinrich Barth Lebensweg", in Schiffers, H., Heinrich Barth. Ein Forscher in Afrika. Leben - Werk - Leistung. Eine Sammlung von Beiträgen zum 100. Todestag am 25 November 1965 (in German), Wiesbaden: Steiner, pp. 1–57, OCLC 5182712 .

Original courtesy of Wikipedia: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Heinrich_Barth — Please support Wikipedia.
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