Heinrich Barth, A Forgotten Mastermind of Euro-African Cooperation

Event Reports

From September 31st, 2021 to October 1st, 2021, the Centre organized an international workshop focusing on interdisciplinary scholar and explorer of Africa Heinrich Barth (1821-1865), who has been met with some indifference during his own lifetime and long disregarded by scholars and public memory. Barth was the most important 19th-century explorer of Africa who, after his early death, became quite forgotten because his work did not support the imperialist ambitions and colonialist ideologies unfolding during the following decade. Yet, Barth was an outstanding theorist and practitioner of peaceful cooperation between Europeans and Africans. He is an ideal figure to explore precolonial ideas and practices of global cooperation on one hand, and its counterpart – imperialist rule – on the other.

The workshop was accompanied by two special lectures and a KHK Dialogue inspired by Heinrich Barth: ‘Black Memory and White Memory’ (Public Keynote Lecture with Prof. em. Dr. Wolfgang Reinhard), ‘Racism-free encounters with the Other? Reflections from the Past and Present’ (21st Käte Hamburger Dialogue), and ‘Heinrich Barth and African Book Cultures’ (Public Keynote Lecture with Prof. Dr. Shamil Jeppie). Nina Schneider, research group leader at the GCR21, together with Christoph Marx (University Duisburg-Essen), and Stephanie Zehnle (Christian-Albrechts-University of Kiel) served as organizers of the lectures, in cooperation with the Heinrich Barth Institute (University of Cologne).

One major aim of this event was to fill the academic void around Barth and rediscover his concepts and practices of Euro-African cooperation. Barth’s perspectives on Africa as well as his approaches differed considerably from those of the imperialists a few decades later but also from those of today’s politicians who put a priority on containing emigration from the region but have no visible concepts to combat the region’s problems. The two-day workshop problematized the constellation of Barth’s multi-disciplinary inquiry and extended the discourse to include the dynamics of observer–observed, and of self–other. Numerous scholars explored Barth’s works through the lenses of history, ethnography, anthropology, Islam studies, philology, and linguistics. How did Heinrich Barth theorize Euro-African cooperation in his writings and how well are his theories researched? What distinguished Barth from other scholars/diplomats of his time and what did they have in common, respectively, e.g., with Alexander von Humboldt or Georg Forster?

The workshop offered new insights on Heinrich Barth’s legacy as well as new opportunities for collaborations regarding future research. Prominent Barth scholar Christoph Marx gave an eloquent presentation focused on the racial implication of Barth’s engagement in Africa. Marx led a very nuanced debate on whether Barth was a racist or not. In conclusion, Barth was very different from thinkers of his time. He carefully reflected about the categories he used. A close reading of his work shows some tendency toward some prejudices of the time, but also a high admiration for African culture, never regarded as incomparable to its European counterpart. Other conclusions from the various discussions stressed that cultural understanding must be guided by compassion and respect for regional practices. The workshop should inform not only future research, but also global cooperation at large. It contributed to studying concepts and practices of global cooperation from a historical and precolonial perspective. It addressed also the center’s research themes of ‘Legitimacy and Delegitimization’ and, conceivably, of ‘World Orders’.

The second keynote held by Prof. Dr. Shamil Jeppie examined Heinrich Barth and his books. Barth’s major contribution to the exploration of Africa led to the publication of thousands of pages of text, which, as Jeppie claims, should itself be a subject for a ‘book history’. In his writing Barth commented on a range of objects he encountered in markets and various places he stayed. Books feature in these remarks. The lecture was well received and gave, once again, interesting insight into Barth’s legacy and historical impact.

Lastly, the interdisciplinary dialogue at the end of the workshop focused on racism and racism-free encounters, in a long-durée perspective. During the dialogue several questions came up: When, how and why did the modern meaning of race – attached mainly to physical traits – emerge in different parts of the world? To what extent were racist practices in other world regions linked to European history? What is the relation, if any, between racism and colonialism and slavery, respectively? Can there be racism-free encounters with the ‘Other’? The dialogue sparked a critical and complex discussion and offered ideas for further debates.

Overall, the debates and discussions produced during the workshop and the dialogue as well as the lectures by Prof. em. Dr. Wolfgang Reinhard and Prof. Dr. Shamil Jeppie offered some guidance for future ethnographic research, as well as an impetus to rediscover the overlooked figure of Heinrich Barth in European research on Africa. They also shed a critical light on simplistic postcolonial discourses which automatically denounce protagonists from the era of European expansion as imperialists and racists and suggest more complex, nuanced debates. Studying empirical evidence in greater depth proves otherwise – as a close look at Barth invariably shows.

Nina Schneider