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A Labyrinth of Kingdoms: 10,000 Miles…
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A Labyrinth of Kingdoms: 10,000 Miles through Islamic Africa (2012)

by Steve Kemper

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A Labyrinth of Kingdoms by Steve Kemper

A Labyrinth of Kingdoms tells the story of Heinrich Barth, one of the great European explorers of Africa who deserves to be ranked with Livingstone and Burton for the personal risks he undertook in gathering information in what was then terra incognito. For a variety of reasons, Barth has been largely left out of the narrative of the exploration of Africa. Kemper's book makes a compelling argument for his redemption.

Barth was a German who signed up with the English government to assist in exploration of northwestern Africa. The other European members of Barth's group quickly succumb to disease and hardship on their exploration but Barth persists, spending five years and traveling around 12,000 miles throughout western and central Africa. In the process, Barth takes the time and effort to learn a number of African languages and then uses his knowledge to carefully document the land, its people, their cultures and histories - all of which are unknown to Europe at the time.

Barth becomes the third European to reach Timbuktu and stays for nine months recording life in what had heretofore been a virtually mythical city. This is especially notable because the first European to reach Timbuktu is murdered almost immediately after leaving the city and the second takes virtually no notes about the trip to the point that he was disbelieved about returning to Europe.

Barth not only makes the dangerous trips but laboriously notes and maps the places he explores providing reams of information to scholars. Unfortunately for Barth's legacy, Barth's interest are scholarly and he fails to write the adventure filled narrative that more famous explorers like Livingstone write. Instead, he produces a 3,500 page, five volume account of his travels. Furthermore, Barth's interest and care in the Africans as people runs contrary to the colonial narrative that is beginning to take hold of a dark continent populated by savages and thus justifiably subjugated by Europeans. Finally, the fact that Barth is German but working for the British government makes him less popular.

Sadly, many of the cultures and people recorded by Barth were largely wiped out by European colonization. Barth's careful depictions of sophisticated Islamic cultures with extensive histories vanished before a fuller understanding was ever obtained.

Kemper's account of Barth is well written and enjoyable. By all accounts, Barth's own writings are not. As such, Kemper has done readers a service in making the story of Barth's extraordinary travels better know to the broader public. ( )
1 vote Oberon | Mar 21, 2016 |
Tale of Heinrich Barth, German national who undertook a exploration expedition through Saharan Africa. Barth's language skills and ability to manage and understand the Arab and Islamic worlds led to his successes (and some failures!) that eluded others with less cultural sensitivity. It is a significant story in itself, but when added to its relatively unknown quality, it becomes truly remarkable. ( )
  cyclops1771 | Nov 11, 2014 |
Heinrich Barth is one of the great 19th C African explorers. He was "great" because he was scientific, humane, intelligent and honorable. Unlike most African explorers of the period who were racists, imperialists, self-aggrandizes and exploiters. Barth stands out as unusual, a century or more ahead of his time. Amazingly Kemper's book is the first modern account of Barth's 5 year journey into the Islamic Sahara region and what a great story. It's probably the only reasonable path to learn about Barth since his original narrative is an inaccessible 3000 pages of dry detail. Kemper has done us all a favor by reading Barth's books and other memoirs and interpreted the events into a readable story. Even if you don't care about Barth it's a great adventure. The dangers and hardships were so great I am happy to be an armchair traveler. ( )
  Stbalbach | Jun 3, 2014 |
Here is what I appreciate about this book by Steve Kemper--I am constantly referencing it in other readings, fiction, non-fiction, the news. This is what makes a book a great addition to a personal library. In addition, this is a well researched and well written biography not only of Heinrich Barth, but the land as well. Kemper shares significant facts about the issue of slavery and how it evolved from the cultures he encounters. A great story, and a great truth that you will find yourself referencing and recollecting. ( )
  hfineisen | Feb 4, 2013 |
To my slight chagrin, I must admit that I picked this book up because of the cover. (Look at it, isn't it pretty?)

However, once I opened it up, I was completely hooked. I quite enjoy histories and biographies of the age of exploration, and this book gave a richly detailed and engagingly written account of an explorer with whom I was completely unfamiliar, Dr. Heinrich Barth. The book gives a short history of Dr. Barth's youth and accomplishments in Germany, but is mainly concerned with his five-year trek through Northern and Central Africa in the 1850's. Barth's equanimity in the face of uncertainty and outright chaos, and his endless curiousity about everything he saw made him an ideal scientific explorer, although his detail-oriented personality apparently make his books incredibly dry reading.

Kemper has done a wonderful job of taking the dry facts from Barth's books and journals and presenting them in a highly readable way. He does not varnish over Barth's failings and foibles, but weaves them into the book to present a balanced look at an exceptional person.

Highly recommended for people interested in exploration, ethnography, and history of Africa. ( )
  Literate.Ninja | Oct 9, 2012 |
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Amazon.com Product Description (ISBN 039307966X, Hardcover)

A true story that rivals the travels of Burton or Stanley for excitement, and surpasses them in scientific achievements.

In 1849 Heinrich Barth joined a small British expedition into unexplored regions of Islamic North and Central Africa. One by one his companions died, but he carried on alone, eventually reaching the fabled city of gold, Timbuktu. His five-and-a-half-year, 10,000-mile adventure ranks among the greatest journeys in the annals of exploration, and his discoveries are considered indispensable by modern scholars of Africa.

Yet because of shifting politics, European preconceptions about Africa, and his own thorny personality, Barth has been almost forgotten. The general public has never heard of him, his epic journey, or his still-pertinent observations about Africa and Islam; and his monumental five-volume Travels and Discoveries in North and Central Africa is rare even in libraries. Though he made his journey for the British government, he has never had a biography in English. Barth and his achievements have fallen through a crack in history.

8 pages of illustrations

(retrieved from Amazon Thu, 12 Mar 2015 18:14:10 -0400)

Describes the 1849 journey by Heinrich Barth into the unexplored Islamic regions of North and Central Africa, detailing the discoveries he made as he traveled 10,000 miles over five years, lost most of his companions, and finally arrived at Timbuktu.

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