Vulpes Libris

A collective of bibliophiles talking about books. Book Fox (vulpes libris): small bibliovorous mammal of overactive imagination and uncommonly large bookshop expenses. Habitat: anywhere the rustle of pages can be heard.

Labyrinthine journeys in Africa

Steve Kemper’s history of the epic explorations of Heinrich Barth in central Africa in the 1850s will please many people. I’d guess that armchair Africanists will enjoy it for its comprehensive narrative of Barth’s journeys, filling the gap between Mungo Park and David Livingstone, among the many other European explorers who attempted to find a way through this unknown territory. The inhabitants, historians and politicians of Mali, Niger, and Burkino Faso will find this modern rendering of Barth’s journeys intriguing for his voluminous records of the civilisations and sophisticated culture in their lands before the arrival of what Kemper calls ‘the onslaught of colonialism’. Readers interested in the history of Islam in north and central Africa, particularly of the desert cultures, will find this a useful and very detailed modern version of a ground-breaking account.

I think the readers most likely to be excited by A Labyrinth of Kingdoms will be students of 19th-century European colonialism, looking for dissenting voices among the overwhelming rush of white Europeans to exploit and devour African resources at the cost of African lives. For me, this was the most impressive aspect of Barth’s character, and of his conduct during his five-year journey. He was a scientist so devoted to facts that he ignored conventional white prejudices against people of colour, and learned so many local languages that I lost count of them: all to be better able to question the locals about their farming methods, their history and customs, the uses of local plants, and the routes leading away from their villages, onward to the river Niger. He was already fluent in Arabic, and a fair scholar of the Qur’an before he set out, but the ease with which he absorbed local vocabularies and was able to not only chat and barter, but also question and debate with local leaders and scholars, and make translations of ancient manuscripts, just staggered me. The man was driven: a polymath, a born traveller, and a rigorous scientist: recording, measuring, deducing, sampling, botanising. No area of human endeavour did not interest him, and he saw it as his duty to Lord Palmerston (the British Foreign Secretary who authorised the expedition), and to international science, to send back as many data as he could for the advancement of knowledge of these fascinating territories south of the Sahara, and around Lake Chad.

Kemper’s strategy was to do more than just paraphrase Barth, in editing Barth for a modern readership. He wanted to put the reader on a 19th-century expedition through Islamic Africa, and to surprise the reader with Barth’s extraordinary character and achievements, in an adventure story that also delivers intellectual satisfaction. The intellectual angle is certainly satisfied with the emphasis on Barth’s highly unusual scientific interest, and his interest in all humanity, but Kemper finds empathising with Barth a struggle when faced with what we might call Barth’s almost autistic responses. When confronted with human suffering and slaughter which he could do nothing to stop, Barth responded in his published account with an obsessive recording of scientific data, which appears to modern eyes as an apparently callous disinterest in expressing grief, showing a shocking lack of empathy. Kemper repeatedly draws attention to this disjunction in Barth’s accounts, trying to fathom the personality of the man, but he fails, I think, to pay enough attention to Victorian and Prussian modes of self-expression: emoting was not the only option. This tendency to assume that early 19th-century culture will follow 21st – century norms also appears when Kemper criticises Barth’s English. Coming from an author who cannot read German, his subject’s native language, I find this a touch arrogant. I also don’t agree with his criticisms: Barth’s English reads pretty much like Charles Dickens’ English to me. Yes, the examples of Barth’s writing held up for our amusement are florid, circumlocutory, extravagant in metaphor and sense, but that’s what Victorian writing was like.

A Labyrinth of Kingdoms is a fine professional achievement. But I do have some grumbles, mainly relating to Kemper’s own use of language. His constant lurching from a neutral register into American slang and syntax is thoroughly irritating, but only non-Americans will notice this, and it is an American book. I have a particular grumble about the women in Barth’s story. Kemper notes (far too late in the narrative for me) that Barth made a point of not giving names to any of the women he mentions in his published account, for unknown reasons. But Kemper himself could have worked a little harder to not make all references to women sound like references to property, slaves, or persons of no account. An example (p.148): ‘When the vizier expressed shock that Europeans drank alcohol, Barth dryly responded that Europeans also liked women‘. Now, even if we assume that Kemper is paraphrasing Barth directly, how much effort would it have taken to rephrase the sentence in such a way as to make it clear that Kemper, possibly also Barth, does not assume that all Europeans are men? A Labyrinth of Kingdoms reads to me as a white man’s story, retold by another white man, when actually it’s a story of thousands of black, brown and reddish men and women being observed by a handful of white men. It needn’t have been so one-sided. Here’s another example of peculiar word choice resulting in an insensitive tone: ‘Slaves that served wealthy men often owned land and had their own slaves’ (p.147). The jarring pronoun ‘that’ instead of ‘who’ may well be an diktat by the publisher’s house style, but it sits painfully in a narrative about Barth’s far more humane attitude to slaves.

Don’t get me wrong: this is a very readable book, and is absolutely not a boring scholarly tome. It sags a little when Kemper loses his focus in the political negotiations to get Barth out of Timbuktu, but overall the pace is snappy, the enthusiasm is very attractive, and the information is just wonderful. Kemper’s website has really excellent photographs that bring the text alive ( The one serious lack in the book is a decent map! Two 19th-century facsimiles are given, but they’re no help at all when trying to work out where in modern geography Barth actually travelled. Enough griping: Barth and his achievements are brought alive for us decisively in A Labyrinth of Kingdoms, and that is a good thing to have done.

Steve Kemper, A Labyrinth of Kingdoms (New York, W W Norton, 2012), ISBN 978-0-393-07966-1 (US edn)

Kate podcasts weekly about the books she really, really likes on

About Kate

Blogger, lecturer, podcaster, writer, critic, reviewer, researcher, and publisher (, in and on British literary history. Preferred occupation while listening to podcasts: cooking or knitting. Preferred soundtrack while reading: the sound of silence.

4 comments on “Labyrinthine journeys in Africa

  1. Anne Brooke
    August 28, 2012

    This sounds really fascinating – thanks for the review, Kate! 🙂

  2. CFisher
    August 29, 2012

    Quite agree with the above comment. He also died very young, at 44. Which makes me feel old and wonder what I’ve done with my life! Do you think this type of self-taught polymath exists today?

  3. Anne Brooke
    August 29, 2012

    Good question, CFisher – it does worry me rather that society might no longer leave much room for the quirky, the eccentric or the genius …

  4. Kate
    September 1, 2012

    I felt very old reading about Barth, he was indomitable, but also not the most empathic travelling companion one might have had. One to admire, i think, rather than want to be.

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