Discussion: A Labyrinth of Kingdoms: 10,000 Miles Through Islamic Africa


Sarah Darkmagic - Posted on 26 August 2013

I recently finished A Labyrinth of Kingdoms: 10,000 Miles Through Islamic Africa by Steve Kemper. The book tells the story of Heinrich Barth, a German scientist who joined a British expedition tasked with exploring Islamic North and Central Africa. Over time, his two other companions on this trip died and he went on alone, eventually reaching the famed city of Timbuktu. Starting in 1849, the expedition took five and a half years and covered 10,000 miles.

What is amazing to me is how this expedition appears to be forgotten by history. As Kemper argues, part of this may be due to timing. The expedition happened at the tail end of the error of discovering the unknown and at the dawning of imperialism and some of Barth's research and findings undercut the beliefs required for imperialism. These include that at least the parts of Africa he visited had governance systems and histories, including some written. These were not exactly lawless lands full of people with no sense of history. Part of it is also Barth himself. He is a character and was not always as adept at navigating European politics as he was dealing with those he met on the trail.

While some might not appreciate the level of detail in the book, I enjoyed it, especially since one of the great values in Barth's work is that he took a snapshot of Africa before colonialism came through and made that impossible. I also found the details important in dispelling many myths about Africa and in presenting many of the historical figures as complex individuals making rational decisions given the reality of their world. Along with other works, I wonder if the details of the Barth's original books could be used to create an interesting historical setting that explains the world outlook in a way that makes sense to outsiders.

For instance, I loved the description of harems in some of the cultures. Concubines were part of a consumption culture. The women were an outward sign of wealth because 1) it took money to feed and house the women and 2) any children that resulted were entitled to full rights, the same as any of the other children. The women were concubines instead of wives because Islam limited men to a much smaller number of wives. Barth describes one man who collected women from each of the tribes and was interested when he heard about a new group because it meant he could add a new woman to his collection. Another man discusses with Barth how strange it is the European men drink alcohol so much to which Barth replies that since Europeans are limited to one woman, they must get their pleasures somewhere.

The book also touches on slavery, something that was important at the time. Abolitionists feature at times, although Barth often points out the issues with their schemes. He describes the devastation wrought by the razzia or raids, sometimes for livestock or other plunder but often for slaves. The whole system often relied on a neverending loop, plunder to get money for guns to protect yourselves from other groups doing the same things, all the while feeding the gun manufacturers. He also describes the differences between slavery as practiced in Africa and the chattel slavery practiced mainly in the Americas.

I also find the work important because it's an example not only of the fact that there were people arguing against the racism of the time, the same sort of racism we find in the foundational works of fantasy, but also what happened to those who stood up against that train of thought. Often when I try to discuss how our history is political, people try to argue that there wasn't a group trying to keep these sorts of arguments out. This book points out that the truth is probably at least a little more complex than that. Additionally, it means that for those who lived at the time and afterwards can't claim complete ignorance. These books and ideas existed. Barth did have some degree of popularity.

There are lots of interesting insights and contradictions with frequently repeated "facts" about Africa. Between the adventuring, politics, and descriptions of the land and peoples, there's bound to be a bunch of inspiration for games.

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