Thursday, July 26, 2012

A Labyrinth of Kingdoms traces incredible expedition

A Labyrinth of Kingdoms: 10,000 Miles Through Islamic Africa, written by Steve Kemper will be featured at the Blue Back Square Barnes & Noble store with an appearance by the book’s West Hartford author from 6-7 p.m. on Aug. 24.

The author says: The book recreates an incredible expedition by a 19th-century scientist/explorer of Africa named Heinrich Barth. He should be as well-known as Livingstone, Burton, and Stanley, but because of British politics and his prickly personality, he fell through a crack in history. Barth still has much to tell us about north Africa and Islam. To research the book the author spent time in northern Nigeria, Timbuktu, and London. 
You’ve heard of Burton, Stanley, and Livingstone and their Victorian-era adventures in Africa. But you probably don’t recognize the name of Heinrich Barth. His five-year, 10,000-mile journey through North and Central Africa in 1849 ranks among the greatest in the annals of exploration.

Told for the first time in A LABYRINTH OF KINGDOMS: 10,000 Miles through Islamic Africa [W. W. Norton & Company; June 25, 2012; $28.95 hardcover], the story of Barth’s survival and triumph rivals Burton or Stanley for excitement and surpasses them in scientific achievements.
For decades, Britain’s attempts to explore Africa were haunted by disaster, disease, and death. Gaps on the map were filled in by armchair geographers. To remedy this ignorance and to scout potential markets for British commerce, the Foreign Office commissioned an expedition to the central Sudan, a vast area south of the Sahara that today includes Niger, Chad, Mali, Burkina Faso, and northern Nigeria and Cameroon.
Barth was just the man for the job. The idiosyncratic German scientist meticulously, obsessively noted everything he encountered, from the number of trees in a palm grove to the types of roasted locusts served in the market. Unlike previous explorers, he did not assume that Africans were barbaric. Though Christian, his ultimate faith was in the power of scientific observation. Barth spoke Arabic and learned seven other African languages, which allowed him to talk to everyone from camel drivers to sultans, imams to slaves. He could discuss Ptolemy with a learned Muslim vizier and then join a band of marauders or a salt caravan for the next leg of the journey.
Barth mastered the complex economy of gifts, protection, and information necessary to pass through the kingdoms of Bornu and Sokoto and through the strongholds of the nomadic Tuareg, the mysterious “blue men” of the Sahara. He made the first accurate maps of the region as well as important geographical discoveries about Lake Chad and the Niger’s main tributary, the Benue. In the storied crossroads cities of Kano, Kukawa, and Timbuktu, he drew new cultural connections between disparate peoples that altered our understanding of Africa. He poured all this knowledge into his monumental, five-volume Travels and Discoveries in North and Central Africa.
But politics ran ahead of science. The age of European imperialism in Africa was about to begin, and Barth’s findings—and his thorny personality—were unwelcome in Britain. He has been almost forgotten. His discoveries are considered indispensable by scholars, but his great book is rare, even in libraries. Though he made his journey for the British government, there are no books about him in English. Suspenseful and sensitively told, A LABYRINTH OF KINGDOMS tells a forgotten story of survival, adventure, and scientific discovery by a remarkable man.

Photo credit: Robert Benson

Steve Kemper is the author of Code Name Ginger. His work has appeared in many national publications, including Smithsonian and National Geographic. He lives in West Hartford, Connecticut.

“Steve Kemper’s elegant, richly rewarding biography should go a long way toward correcting that. On one level, the book is a superb chronicle of Barth’s travels, from the harrowing heat and physical danger to the dazzling diversity of people he encountered on his path. It’s also an astute character study of a relentlessly curious scientific personality.” --Kate TuttleBoston Globe
"Heinrich Barth belongs in the ranks of the greatest explorers of Africa. But unlike most of the others, he was less interested in imperial conquest and self-promotion than in the cultures, the peoples, the languages, and the ancient manuscripts that he found there. It's a pleasure to see a lively, readable biography of him in English at last."  --Adam Hochschild,author of King Leopold's Ghost and To End All Wars
“Sometimes a book grabs you by the throat and won’t let you put it down. I recently experienced that with Steve Kemper’s A Labyrinth of Kingdoms: 10,000 Miles Through Islamic Africa. I got so wrapped up in the story that I broke my long-standing rule about traveling with hardcover books because I wanted to finish it. I read on the plane. I read whenever there was a pause in vacation activities (and sometimes when there wasn’t). I read on the train from the airport and was so engaged that I almost missed my stop.” –Pamela Toler, History in the Margins
“Mr. Kemper has written an enjoyable account of Barth's great journey packed with arresting details.” –Tim Jeal, Wall Street Journal
“If you have an ounce of historical exploratory curiosity in your veins, course through this forgotten tale. Timbuktu awaits.”  -Robert F. Wells, Expedition News


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