Heinrich Barth, born in 1821 in Germany, was a very serious student. When he went to the University of Berlin, he studied so hard that his father feared he had no friends.
Hoping to cure his son of his shyness, his father sent him on a tour of Paris, London, and the North African coast. The trip did little for Barth’s social ability, but he was fascinated by Africa.
At age 28, he joined an English expedition led by a former missionary, James Richardson. In March 1850, the party left the Libyan city of Tripoli and journeyed into the Sahara Desert.
About 500 miles south of Tripoli, Barth discovered rock paintings thousands of years old. They depicted the Sahara as it changed from fertile plains into a vast desert.
After a year of travel, Richardson died of malaria, and Barth took over the expedition. Though usually shy and awkward, Barth proved adept at impressing the sultans of the kingdoms through which he traveled. He showered them with expensive gifts, and they received him warmly.
While a companion explored Lake Chad, a lake in west central Africa, Barth discovered parts of the Benue River and the Shari River. He planned to travel to Timbuktu along roads made dangerous by robbers. To fool them, Barth pretended to be delivering religious books to the leader of Timbuktu.
The ruse worked, and Barth and his men entered the city safely. For two more years, Barth explored West Africa, finally returning to Tripoli in August 1855. He soon returned to Europe, having spent nearly six years in Africa.
Barth devoted the next three years to recording his experiences in a book. Many contemporary readers found his writing tedious. Later, Barth’s attention to detail and keen eye for observation would earn him praise as one of Africa’s greatest explorers.