Labyrinth of Kingdoms
10,000 Miles Through Islamic Africa
W.W. Norton & Company 2012
Three years ago I travelled overland with my wife from Victoria Falls through Zambia, Malawi, Mozambique and Tanzania. It felt like we were on a real adventure. Having just read Steve Kemper‘s excellent book Labyrinth of Kingdoms: 10,000 miles through Islamic Africa (Norton, 2012) about the real explorer, Heinrich Barth, I now feel like our trip was little more adventurous than a trip to the shops to buy some milk.
Steve’s book brings home what an extraordinary feat a 19th-century expedition really was. The 10,000 miles that Barth covered took him over five years, from Tripoli down across the Sahara to Lake Chad, and then through the Sahel to Timbuktu. His passage took him through kingdoms, entrepot states and vast areas patrolled by ruthless bandits.
The story is an insight into what really lay in those blank bits on European maps of the time – often everything in Africa other than the coast and a couple of rivers. These areas, far from being blank, teemed with life. Steve does a terrific job in documenting the various places that Barth travelled through, the difficulties he faced, the colourful characters he came across and the different ways in which lives were lived. There is banditry, slavery, wealth, poverty and wonder, and the book also gives an invaluable insight into the mammoth logistical tasks associated with embarking on an expedition.
The central question that Steve puts forward is why Barth is not feted as one of the great men of this Age of Exploration, along with Speke, Burton, Livingstone and Stanley. By the end of the book you’re left pondering exactly the same question. It’s a book that I heartily recommend – but first have a listen to the interview!
PS Steve Kemper is @stevekemper on Twitter and his website.
Oh, and you might also want to follow me at @npw99 and NBN at @newbooksnetwork and @newbooksafrica