This month, W.W. Norton comes out with Steve Kemper’s new book, A Labyrinth of Kingdoms: 10,000 Miles Through Islamic Africa. It chronicles the scientific expedition of Heinrich Barth in 1849-1855. Barth explored Africa at a time when the continent’s relationship with the West was in transition. This was still the era of missionary explorers such as David Livingstone (exploring far to the south) yet in just two decades, a new generation of explorers such as Henry Morton Stanley would survey the continent as the opening act of the “Scramble for Africa,” a European land grab which would put Africa under colonial control for almost a century.
Below is an excerpt of the book in which Barth and his fellow scientist Adolf Overweg are traveling with a tribe of Arab raiders, the Welad Sliman, into Kanem, northeast of Lake Chad. Kemper also blogs about his experiences following in Barth’s footsteps here.
From Chapter 16: “The Horde of the Welad Sliman.” Reprinted from A Labyrinth of Kingdoms: 10,000 Miles through Islamic Africa by Steve Kemper. Copyright © 2012 by Steve Kemper. With the permission of the publisher, W.W. Norton & Company, Inc.
“The next day the group rested at a camp on the edge of a river. “We had a good specimen to-day,” wrote Barth, “of the set of robbers and freebooters we had associated with in order to carry out the objects of the mission.” When a small caravan of Tebu people crossed the river near Barth’s group, the Welad Sliman seized their entire cargo of dates.
Barth’s troupe crossed the river the following day. The ferry consisted of six calabashes yoked together, on which the passenger sat, pushed by two swimmers. From this shaky perch Barth managed to take several measurements of the river’s depth and contours. On the other side, the Welad Sliman filched three sheep for supper. They also kindly cleared a spot for Barth’s tent. Then during the night they stole one of his valuable waterskins.
(“A new skin recently greased with goat or sheep fat is abominable,” wrote explorer Francis Rennel Rodd, “as the water becomes strongly impregnated with the reek of goat. But water from a good old skin can be almost tasteless, though such skins are hard to come by. Some of the water one has drunk from goatskins beggars description; it is nearly always grey or black, and smelly beyond belief.”)
The rulers of Bornu did nothing to protect the region’s beleaguered villagers from freebooters, yet squeezed the people for tribute. The villagers also paid off marauding Tuaregs. The Welad Sliman simply took what they wanted. Four days after stealing the dates, they plundered some cattle-herders, taking not only their milk but the containers. The herders appealed to Barth and Overweg, who recovered the vessels, empty, and apologized with some small presents. During the next day’s travel, while Barth bought milk from some cattle-herders, the Arabs stole one of the herders’ horses. Later that day the robbers snatched another cargo of dates, plus the ox carrying them. “And yet the people who were thus treated were subjects of the King of Bornu,” wrote Barth bitterly, “and the Welad Sliman were his professed friends and hirelings.”
Despite the violence and lawlessness, Barth tried to focus on his scientific mission and his faith in knowledge. “There was a feeble spark of hope in me,” he wrote, “that it would not always be so, and I flattered myself that my labors in these new regions might contribute to sow here the first germs of a new life, a new activity.”
There were compensations for his observant eye, starting with the peculiar landscape. To the north, sand hills rolled into the Sahara. To the south, marshy flats and lagoons led to the blue waters of the lake. On the grassy plain in between lived farmers and herders. The Arabs shot a beautifully patterned snake that Barth measured at eighteen feet, seven inches, with a five-inch diameter. The natives cut it open for the fat. After noting lots of elephant tracks and dung near the shoreline, Barth finally saw “one of the most interesting scenes which these regions can possibly afford”—a herd of ninety-six elephants, “arranged in a natural array like an army of rational beings, slowly proceeding to the water.” He sketched them.
Two days later, trying to find their way out of a “labyrinth of lagoons,” Barth’s horse panicked while trying to cross a deep bog and fell on its side, with Barth underneath. As both creatures thrashed to extricate themselves, the horse kicked Barth several times in the head and shoulders, without severe damage. “I had on this occasion a good specimen of the assistance we were likely to receive from our companions in cases of difficulty,” wrote Barth, “for they were looking silently on without offering me any aid.” Like vultures watching an animal stuck in a mudhole.
On October 1 they reached the outskirts of the Welad Sliman’s main camp. About 250 horsemen formed a welcoming line and greeted them with musket fire and wild war cries. At the Arabs’ urging, Barth and Overweg responded with the traditional gesture, galloping straight up to the line of horsemen and saluting them with pistol shots. (“This is a perilous sort of salutation,” wrote the explorer Dixon Denham, who knew first-hand. As he and his Arab companions galloped to greet the sultan of Mandara, they trampled and killed a mounted onlooker and broke his horse’s leg.)
Barth and Overweg were shown a spot to pitch their tents. “We had now joined our fate,” wrote Barth, “with that of this band of robbers.”
For Barth, the trip’s main purpose was to solve another geographical puzzle. The Bahr el Ghazal was a sandy valley lined with vegetation that sometimes contained water. Barth’s question: was it a source for Lake Chad, or an outlet? He asked the Welad Sliman’s young leader to arrange an excursion there, about 200 miles east. No, said the man, impossibly dangerous. Then maybe they could explore the eastern side of Lake Chad? Perhaps, said the man, since they were about to go raiding in that direction. In several ways this was not what Barth had signed up for, though he shouldn’t have been surprised.
The raiders didn’t move for several days. Barth, still weak from fever, welcomed the time to recuperate. He began learning Tebu. He also developed a taste for camel’s milk, which he began to prefer. “Milk, during the whole of my journey, formed my greatest luxury,” he wrote. But the milk in Kukawa disgusted him because the Kanuris added cow’s urine to it, to keep it from going sour.
One night there was some excitement when a prize female slave, captured as booty and destined for the vizier’s harem, ran off. The next morning they found her necklace, bloody clothes, and gnawed bones.
The Arabs broke camp on October 11 and rounded the northern edge of Lake Chad, heading southeast. Their camels carried empty sacks to hold plunder. They traveled in an atmosphere of threat and aggression, constantly on alert for attacks, their own or an enemy’s, since everyone in the region hated them. Scouts raced off to check every rumor about possible victims or assailants. Despite the oppressive heat, the horde camped in shade-less places to foil ambush by foes and wild beasts. It was physically and psychologically exhausting.
Barth and Overweg didn’t know the Welad Sliman’s objective or destination. On the route towards pillage, Barth dutifully recorded vegetation, geography, animal sightings, names of villages, and currency (white Bornu shirts). His information often came from the native peoples they passed, since they knew the region “so much better than that band of lawless robbers who took no real interest in it except as regarded the booty which it afforded them.”
On October 17, after an early start, they reached the edge of their goal—the territory of the Woghda, a Tebu tribe. The Welad Sliman prepared themselves for violence in time-honored ways, with fiery speeches and fierce cries. Galloping warriors waved white banners. To hide their approach, they camped without fires. “But as soon as it became dark,” wrote Barth, “very large fires were seen to the southeast, forming one magnificent line of flame”—beacons summoning the resistance. The Woghda would be ready for them.”
Steve Kemper has been a freelance journalist for more than 30 years. His first book, Code Name Ginger: the Story Behind Segway and Dean Kamen’s Quest to Invent a New World (Harvard Business School Press, 2003), was selected by Barnes & Noble for its Discover Great New Writers award. He has written for Smithsonian, National Geographic, National Geographic Adventure, National Geographic Traveler, Outside, Wall Street Journal, Yankee, National Wildlife, The Ecologist, Plenty, BBC Wildlife, and many other magazines and newspapers. He grew up in Louisville, Kentucky. After graduating from the University of Detroit, he taught literature and writing at the University of Connecticut while earning a Ph.D. He lives in West Hartford, Connecticut.