Heinrich Barth and Respectful Encounters with the Other

Interdisciplinary scholar and explorer of Africa Heinrich Barth (1821-1865), met with some indifference during his own lifetime and long disregarded by scholars and public memory, took centre-stage at an international workshop supported by the GCR21 last week. Known for his pioneering travels through Africa, especially those documented in his five-volume ‘Travels and Discoveries in North and Central Africa’ (1857-1858), Barth distinguished himself as a respectful observer of life and culture in the areas he visited. Sometimes noted, disparagingly, as simply an ‘explorer’ of Africa, he was also an early ‘proto-anthropologist’, linguist, and universal scholar who authored volumes of letters and journals of his time and left us precious knowledge about 19th century African culture which would have been otherwise undocumented.

Critical of the rising European imperialism of the time, Barth took a genuine interest in African cultures and never regarded Africa as inferior to Europe. To the contrary, he was keenly interested in understanding African cultures and languages, and was fluent in various dialects of Arabic, as well as at least four tribal languages of Africa. He was therefore able to engage directly with the populations with whom he lived and worked. His scholarly pursuits helped to set the groundwork for African studies and linguistics, and foreshadowed an ethics of anthropological practice.

Inspired by this early and thoughtful engagement with the Other, the Käte Hamburger Kolleg / Centre for Global Cooperation Research held a workshop last week which addressed themes from Barth’s practice and writings and linked them to modern research on race, religion, and the historical Western engagement in Africa. It 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). The Centre’s own Nina Schneider, 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).

The 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. Conclusions from the various discussions stressed that cultural understanding must be guided by compassion and respect for regional practices. This lesson should inform not only future research, but also global cooperation at large.

Barth must be understood as a figure in African ‘proto-anthropology’, certainly, but his work is still met with criticism. Though he was ahead of his time in some ways, his scholarship sometimes suffered from a certain ethnocentrism typical of 19th century European inquiries into Africa. His methodology stressed learning from the Other and understanding their systems, and he constantly reflected on the vocabulary that ought to be used to describe the Other; he is also known to have respectfully waited for an invitation into the societies he wished to study. Overall, Barth was a prototypical figure who widened the lens of proto-anthropological research beyond colonial and racist understandings, but hagiographic depictions would be misplaced, too.

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. Marx has also recently published a vast collection of Barth’s letters, which shed light on the man and his endeavours, and published the most updated and detailed biography of Barth (Von Berlin nach Timbuktu: Der Afrikaforscher Heinrich Barth – Biographie; Wallstein Verlag, 2021)

Barth was critical of his own Zeitgeist, believing in the possibility of respectful encounters, and thus inspiring a future of racism-free interventions and ethical anthropological research. His legacy of living with respect for the Other and long-term immersion in different cultures make him a figure worthy of revisiting. The discussions produced during the workshop offer some guidance for future ethnographic research, as well as an impetus to rediscover this overlooked figure 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. Studying empirical evidence in greater depth proves otherwise – as a close look at Barth invariably shows.