By Pamela Toler
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.
In the Victorian era, European explorers made their way through Africa in the name of “Christianity, Commerce and Civilization”. The adventures of Burton, Stanley, and Livingston are well known. Those of German scientist, historian and linguist Heinrich Barth are almost forgotten. Kemper tells the story of Barth’s five-year, 10,000-mile journey through North and Central Africa.
The British Foreign Office hired Barth in 1849 as the lead scientist for an expedition through the central Sudan. When the other members of the expedition died, Barth traveled on alone. Beset by failed supply trains, bandits, avaricious rulers, anti-Christian violence, desert storms, floods and fever, Barth nonetheless wrote detailed accounts of everything he saw. Unlike other African explorers, he showed a deep respect for the peoples and cultures he encountered.
A Labyrinth of Kingdoms is a fascinating account both of one man’s journey and of African cultures on the eve of European expansion. Like Barth himself, Kemper turns his attention beyond the narrow concerns of European imperialism and looks at the broader context of Islamic Africa. He gives the reader brief histories of the kingdoms Barth traveled through, including the fabled city of Timbuktu. He compares Barth’s adventures and observations not only to those of the British explorers who were his contemporaries, but to the great Islamic travelers of the past who wrote about their experiences in the same regions.
Barth’s story is equal parts adventure and scholarship. Kemper treats both with a sure hand.
(This review previously appeared in Shelf Awareness for Readers)