Barth, Heinrich

1821–1865
German traveler and explorer

Barth, Heinrich

Heinrich Barth was a German-born scholar who made two long trips to Africa that he recorded in a book called Travels and Discoveries in North and Central Africa. Barth’s extensive knowledge of the peoples and places described in his book made it a standard reference for scholars of Africa.

Barth was educated in Berlin, where he earned a doctorate in 1844. Although he already spoke five languages, he went to London to perfect his Arabic before traveling in North Africa from 1845 to 1847. Shortly after his return to Germany, he accepted an invitation to join a British expedition to central Africa. The expedition began in 1850 but within a year its leader, James Richardson, died. Barth took over the expedition, which continued exploring as far south as the present-day countries of CHAD, CAMEROON, MALI, NIGER, and NIGERIA. Before returning to Europe in 1855, Barth visited the Arab leaders of the Sokoto Caliphate as well as their rivals in the cities of Kukawa and TIMBUKTU.

After leaving Africa, Barth settled in London. There he wrote an account of his travels, but it received little attention. Furthermore, the proud Barth quarreled with the Royal Geographic Society and the British government. He went home to Germany in 1859 but had no success there either. He failed to win political posts he sought, and he was denied full membership in the Royal Academy of Sciences. The University of Berlin also refused to name him to succeed his mentor Karl Ritter as professor of geography. In 1862 he published an important book, the Collection of Vocabularies of Central African Languages. He died three years later without achieving recognition for his accomplishments. That recognition came years after his death. (See also Travel and Exploration.)