When studying the history of the exploration of the African continent, one is struck by the relative recentness of our acquisition of its geographic details. Ancient man undoubtedly mounted expeditions here and there, but none of them has left a lasting modern mark. Egyptians, Carthaginians, Greeks, and Romans eventually contented themselves with an awareness of the continent’s general contours. Its interior they count not penetrate; deserts, mountains, rain forests, disease, heat, and hostile native peoples proved too forbidding.Continue reading
Giovanni Battista Belzoni ranks as one of the most unexpected and fascinating of European travelers. With little formal experience and education, he managed not only to explore and document various parts of the Arab world, but also to carry out engineering and logistical feats that would have daunted even the trained professionals of his era. This fearless Italian was born in Padua in 1788. He was but one of fourteen children, and the son of a barber; finding few career prospects in his native city, he set out for Rome at the age of sixteen with the intention of pursuing a monastic career. The Church at least could offer him food, drink, and a roof over his head; and for a poor youth, these inducements were considerably attractive.
There is a certain type of Englishman who is not content with confinement in any one locale. He seeks new vistas, new challenges, and the chance to test his mettle against geography, climate, and the decrees of Fortune. We have chronicled a number of such men in these pages. To this list we must add the name of British naval officer George Francis Lyon (1795–1832), who enjoys perhaps the unique distinction of being known for exploratory achievement in two very different climatic conditions: the polar regions of the Arctic and the desert expanses of northern Africa.
The modern traveler has little conception of the hardships and expense that were involved in the journeys of ages past. Surrounded by comfort, his every whim catered to by a global tourism industry, he is blissfully unaware of the suffering and danger necessarily involved in travel to remote regions of the globe before the modern consumer age. His chief preoccupations are the adjustment of his body to new time zones, the temperature of his air-conditioning, and the quality of his accommodations. Perhaps it is well that this is so: for nothing so unbalances the complacent mind than the realization that its perspective is based on narrow, parochial experience. Knowledge can both liberate and destroy.
In a previous article we have sketched the life of John Lewis Burckhardt. He was born in Lausanne, Switzerland in 1784 of a prominent family. At the age of 16 his father moved the family to Leipzig; and four years after this they moved again to Göttingen. His family was staunchly opposed to the new Napoleonic government that had taken power in France, so he moved to London in July 1806 to seek employment prospects there. At some point, and possibly influenced by the daring men he had contact with there, he decided on a career in exploration.
We have previously described in these pages the exploits of Heinrich Barth, one of the titans of African exploration. Before him was Dixon Denham, a British explorer whose name is also hardly known today. He covered some of the same ground as did Barth, but he had a different style; where Barth was a scientist and ethnographer at heart, Denham was a soldier with an eye for people, relationships, terrain, and–it must be said–trouble.
The name Heinrich Barth is almost unknown today. But he is without doubt the greatest explorer that Germany produced in the nineteenth century, and probably even in the twentieth. Not only did he penetrate completely unknown regions of Africa, but he kept a meticulous record of his travels, to such an extent that his published works are still useful to scholars today. Even in his own day he did not receive the recognition that he deserved; central Africa was then so unknown even to educated Europeans that a balanced appraisal of his work was not possible at the time. Yet a review of his life and travels leaves little doubt that he must be ranked among the bravest and most resourceful of all explorers of the African continent.