Perthes and Heinrich Barth: Inter-European Networks At Play – Part I

Often this blog has alluded to the networks of the Justus Perthes Publishing House, which were nurtured and maintained by its leading spokesmen during the nineteenth and early twentieth century. August Petermann, a central figure in the history of the company and its leading cartographer from 1854 to 1878, fostered, systematized and institutionalized much of the global outreach of the publishing house, shaping the communication style and image of the publishing house until today. Petermann was, in this regard, mostly hailed for establishing the scientific periodical Mittheilungen aus Justus Perthes’ Geographischer Anstalt (later Petermann’s Geographische Mittheilungen), which became a globally read mouthpiece for the German branch of the newly institutionalized academic discipline of geography. While his centrality to the history of the company and consequentially to the archive cannot and should not be denied, the publishing strategies and the transnational and trans-imperial networks he introduced and maintained were later nurtured by others and became features of the publishing house itself.

One striking example of August Petermann’s early brokerage is the world-famous expedition to West Africa under the leadership of the missionary James Richardson, who was accompanied by the German astronomist Adolf Overweg, and the German historian Heinrich Barth. As a classicist by training, Barth was hailed for his thorough account of his travels and the diplomatic relations he fostered with local peoples. Visiting Timbuktu in disguise at a time when it was forbidden to Christians, Barth broke new ground in the European perception of African politics and agency in the area. The collection and publishing of scientific data as well as the inter-European cooperation, which led to this early expedition into the West African hinterland, are still regarded as the two most striking features of the endeavour.

But despite Barth’s remarkable achievements, it was Petermann who was responsible for both publicizing the expedition and publishing the texts and data borne from it, as well as enabling Barth to take part at all. Petermann was still in London when the mission was planned as a British endeavour under the auspices of the Foreign Office, and we will later talk about how Petermann utilized his connections to British-German intermediaries to include Barth. Petermann’s time in London remains mysterious in many ways: He adopted the title “Physical Geographer and Engraver on Stone to the Queen” in 1852/3 for ads in local newspapers – but when he left for Gotha shortly afterwards, his time in Britain acquired a suspicious legacy, which included accusations of plagiarism and fraud (Withers 2019). 

Taking his networks and strong ties to the British Empire with him, he started working for Justus Perthes Geographische Anstalt as Chief Cartographer in 1853. Heinrich Barth’s expedition to Africa coincided with Petermann’s professionalization of science communication at Perthes, which crystallized in the establishment of Mittheilungen aus Justus Perthes’ Geographischer Anstalt as a geographic and cartographic journal in 1855. This article is not only meant to shed light on these entanglements, but also to show how the sources in the Perthes Collection can help historians to understand the complexities of cartographic knowledge production and publishing in the nineteenth century.

Planning and Optimizing the Expedition:
Broadening Goals and Alliances

The crucial connections to German politics and science, which Petermann exploited in the wake of the expedition, were Christian Karl Josias von Bunsen, a Prussian envoy to London, and Carl Ritter, the first regular Professor of Geography at a German university. After having learned of the planned expedition to Bornu under the auspices of the British Foreign Office, Petermann used his connection to von Bunsen not only to lobby for the addition of another German participant to the expedition but also to argue for one who was knowledgeable in data collection and measurement as well as academically educated. Petermann’s goal, the collection of geographical and cartographical data, relied on the inclusion of scientific personnel and represented a deviation from the main aim of the expedition, which was to secure new trade contracts with African political leaders and, supposedly, to encourage alternatives to the outlawed slave-trade.

Without Petermann’s role in lobbying for the inclusion of a German scientist, it is unlikely that the expedition would have become a scientific endeavour at all. Petermann himself remained based in London for the following years but seemed eager to further German inclusion in the British expedition. He was likely motivated not only by patriotism but also by his connections to Carl Ritter, who had been Professor of Geography in Berlin since 1820. His friendship with Ritter made a network of academically educated young men available to Petermann. After receiving approval for the inclusion of another German participant, it seems only logical that Petermann delegated the decision to Ritter. By offering the position to his student Heinrich Barth, Ritter likewise enabled Petermann’s vision of a more academic, especially geographically oriented expedition. During the expedition, Petermann maintained contact with the different members of the expedition, especially with Barth. An early letter from Barth to Petermann is especially indicative– not only in terms of showing the initial trust between both men and how they kept each other informed even during Barth’s travel but also in regard to the apparently complicated relationships amongst the expeditioners themselves. Writing from Murzuk in 1850, Barth complained about both his companions in different ways. In a letter, which is preserved in the Perthes collection, he starts off questioning Richardson’s credentials before hinting at Overweg’s inappropriate secrecy, which partly also hindered the success of the expedition from Petermann’s and Barth’s perspective:

A paper, folded in half, showcasing neat handwriting, which addresses August Petermann. The sheet of paper is simultaneously the first and last page of Barth's letter.

The first (and last) page of the letter Heinrich Barth sent to August Petermann from the expedition stop at Murzuk in June 1850.
Gotha Research Library, Perthes Collection, SPA ARCH PGM 039/01, Bl. 6 (CC BY-SA 4.0).


„When we spent that evening with you in London, we calculated our progress quite differently from how it actually happened. But with a leader like friend R[ichardson], it is still a wonder that we got here so quickly and are about to move on, following our camels next Wednesday, which have already moved on to the next well. The actual caravan will in any case follow its straight path to Aîr – not Ahîr – but R.[ichardson] and perhaps we too will visit R’ât. At the end of next month we expect to reach Air, where we will stay for almost a month to explore this almost terra incognita, which seems to be even more displaced by R.’s reports, then we will go to Zinder, the gateway to Sudan, which will probably be a rather long stop again […]. I sent a first sheet of the area we are visiting to London 3 weeks ago and it may reach you. The whole thing is constructed only according to my own routes with the compass and according to a few main angles, since O.[verweg] did not want to or could not give us his solar observations. The whole is, I think, a not entirely uninteresting sheet and represents a landscape in its various characteristics, which one usually considers to be very monotonous. […] You would oblige me greatly, dear Petermann, if you would send me an exact copy of the special map of Lake Chad and the mountain basin of Mora in Denham’s Travels. Perhaps O. has already asked for it. Unfortunately, I only have the small edition with me, where those special sheets are missing. Any instruction wrapped in sympathetic lines will please me immeasurably.”

“Als wir in London so gemüthlich jenen Abend bei Ihnen zubrachten, berechneten wir unseren Fortschritt ganz anders, als er wirklich vor sich gegangen ist. Aber mit einem Haupt wie Freund R[ichardson] ist es noch immer ein Wunder, daß wir so schnell hierhergekommen sind und im Begriffe sein, weiterzuziehen, indem wir nächsten Mittwoch unseren Kameelen, die schon zum nächsten Brunnen vorgezogen sind, nachfolgen werden. Die eigentliche Karawane wird jedenfalls ihren geraden Weg nach Aîr – nicht Ahîr – verfolgen, R. aber und vielleicht auch wir werden aber R’ât besuchen. Ende nächsten Monates denken wir jedenfalls Air zu erreichen, wo wir wol fast einen Monat bleiben werden um diese so gut wie terra incognita, die durch R.s Berichte nur noch mehr verschoben zu sein scheint, zu erforschen, dann geht es nach Zinder, dem Eingangsthor von Sudan, das wol wieder eine ziemlich lange Station werden wird […]. Ich habe vor 3 Wochen ein erstes Blatt der von uns besuchten Gegend nach London geschickt und es kommt Ihnen vielleicht zu Gesicht. D[as] Ganze ist nur nach meinen eigenen Wegrouten mit dem Kompaß und nach einigen Hauptwinkeln construirt, da O[verweg] seine Sonnenbeobachtungen nicht hergeben wollte oder konnte, Dadurch sind wol kleine Fehler entstanden aber gewiß nur unbedeutend, da die Winkel decken. Das Ganze ist, denke ich ein nicht ganz uninteressantes Blatt und stellt ein Land in seiner verschiedenen Charakteristik dar, das man gewöhnlich für sehr einförmig hält. […] Sie würden mich äußerst verpflichten, lieber Petermann, wenn Sie mir eine genaue Kopie der Specialcharte des Tschadsees und des Bergbassins von Mora in Denhams Reisen schicken wollten. Vielleicht hat schon O. darum gebeten. Ich habe leider nur die kleine Ausgabe bei mir, wo jene Specialblätter fehlen. Jede Belehrung in theilnehmende Zeilen eingehüllt wird mich unendlich erfreuen.“Heinrich Barth to August Petersmann, Murzuk, 6th of June, 1850. Gotha Research Library, Perthes Collection, SPA ARCH PGM 039/01, Bl. 6. Transcript by the Heinrich Barth Letters Edition of the University of Duisburg-Essen, Letter #118 (14/02/2022).

When Petermann went to Gotha to join the Justus Perthes Publishing House in 1854, he took the inter-European networks he created with him – and also the privileged access to the travellers and the organizers of the expedition. Gotha might seem like an odd choice – and indeed, Petermann was somewhat reluctant to return to Germany. But apart from the illustrious position offered to him at Justus Perthes, Gotha was near his hometown in Saxony, and also itself closely tied to London via the marriage between Queen Victoria and Albert of Saxe-Coburg and Gotha.

From Cooperation to Competition: Petermann’s Work in Gotha

Map of West Africa II – a glimpse at how Petermann intricately reworked a map, referring to the letters and materials he had access to.
Gotha Research Library, Perthes Collection, SPK 40.02 A (02) (CC BY-SA 4.0).


If there is one single map that displays the British-German networks and how they informed the work under Petermann’s auspices at Justus Perthes Gotha, it is probably the map of West Africa II designed in 1839 and originally published by the Society for the Diffusion of Useful Knowledge. The copy preserved by the Perthes Collection is unique in that it features traces of Petermann’s neat handwriting running along the margins and through the design, noting corrections on the outline of the map based on the expedition’s observations, marking places where European travellers died and following the route the expedition took. At the margins, Petermann noted his sources, referring to specific letters he had received and the measurements that informed his changes. While his remarks are not dated, the latest reference he mentions is from April 15, 1854 – which pushes the completion of his commentary and editing of the map towards the later part of 1854/early 1855 at the earliest. This period coincides with the beginning of his employment at Justus Perthes Gotha. Most interestingly, Petermann also marked an area with the suggestive title “limits of Barth’s map,” indicating that he used a draft by the traveller as another source for his own sketch map. Also, Petermann’s remarks are written in English, a habit he retained. The sketch map developed in this way seems to be an early version of the map that was finally published alongside Barth’s traveller’s account (1855-58 in five volumes) and the marketing of it in Mittheilungen aus Justus Perthes’ Geographischer Anstalt in 1855.

While the inter-European nature of the expedition could not have been denied, there was a marked tendency for British scholars to refer to Richardson as the leader of the expedition, while the German-speaking press, and especially the Justus Perthes publishing house, focused their attention on Barth, who survived both Richardson and Overweg (and later Vogel) and was, therefore, the main agent of the expedition during the later stages of the journey. Although Petermann was closely tied to British networks throughout his life, he could not resist comparing Barth with one of the most famous British explorers, the missionary David Livingstone. Livingstone’s first expedition to Southern Africa crucially took place at a similar time as the Richardson/Barth expedition; and their traveller accounts competed for readership (Marx 2021: 204-205; 209-210.). In the map published by Justus Perthes Gotha which compared the impact of both researchers, one can see how they deliberately diminished Livingstone’s impact while elevating Barth as a German hero of the exploration of the African continent.

Map of Africa and the Zambesi River comparing the voyages of Barth and Livingstone from 1857 made by August Petermann.
Gotha Research Library, Perthes Collection, SPA 4° 00100 (003) (CC BY-SA 4.0).

Apart from the obvious benefits of promoting the author of future Perthes publications, the trans-European scientific competition might have been a decisive element for Petermann in advising the publication of the map. He remained very conscious of his own involvement with Barth’s expedition and especially Barth’s employment. In the accompanying article to the map, however, the authors make another point to justify weighing the impact of both explorers against each other: After honouring Livingstone’s qualities as a traveller, the authors highlight the difference in the quantity of geographical information obtained from both explorations and the different methods the researchers employed:


„Despite all this, it seems to us that many of Livingstone‘s friends and a large part of the gullible public overestimate the importance of these voyages and their successes and give room to premature views and hopes. […] Livingstone‘s previous reports have not been free from astonishing errors and contradictions, such as changes in the positions of almost three full equatorial degrees, total reversals in the river network, etc. However this may be, the discovery of the upper Zambesi remains one of the greatest achievements ever made in Africa; […]. It is one of the most outstanding results of Dr Barth‘s research and discoveries that he, linking a large and extensive network of routes of indigenous, especially educated Muhamedan travellers to his own, is able to present the geographical outlines of much larger stretches of land than those he himself has visited.“

“Trotz alledem scheint es uns, als ob viele von Livingstone’s Freunden und ein grosser Theil des leichtgläubigen Publikums die Wichtigkeit dieser Reisen und ihrer Erfolge überschätze und verfrühten Ansichten und Hoffnungen Raum gebe. […] Die bisherigen Berichte Livingstone’s sind nicht frei gewesen von erstaunlichen Irrthümern und Widersprüchen, wie Veränderung in den Positionen von beinahe drei vollen Äquator-Graden, totale Umdrehung im Flussnetz u. dergl. Wie dem jedoch sein mag, so bleibt immerhin die Entdeckung des oberen Zambesi eine der größten Errungenschaften, die überhaupt in Afrika gewonnen sind; […] Es ist eines der hervorragendsten Resultate der Forschungen und Entdeckungen Dr. Barth’s, dass er, ein grosses und umfangreiches Netz von Routen eingeborener, besonders gebildeter Muhamedanischer Reisenden an seine eigenen anknüpfend, die geographischen Grundzüge viel grösserer Landstrecken, als derjenigen, die er selbst besucht hat, – darzulegen im Stande ist.“ (PGM 1857: 92)


While this might sound like fair criticism and observation, as Livingstone was by all means first and foremost a missionary and lacked academic training, this becomes a moot point: Both travellers employed a similar methodology, though this fact is turned against Livingstone at the end of the article. Complaining that some of his observations of possible river branches might “only in the best case depend on the words of the natives” a few pages later the authors suddenly write sceptically of the information given by Livingstone. While there might be some frustration with Livingstone’s failure to record his sources more clearly, it is more likely that imperial and scientific competition as well as racial hierarchies and educational conventions played into this judgement: It was the German traveller Dr Barth, who conveyed reliable information by relying on ‘educated’ African travellers, while the British missionary Dr Livingstone “only asked the natives.”

The Perthes Collection: From Inter-European to Transimperial Networks

While the German Empire was only found in 1871, the inter-European networks Petermann had fostered grew over time into Perthes’ ambition to take part in trans-imperial endeavors and the European colonial project in Africa. In the wake of the Congo conference, when the Spezial-Karte von Afrika was published in 1885, the writer of the editorial rejoiced: Finally, the German Empire was sending its own sons to Africa! In a manner that bordered on hilarious reductionism, Wichmann, the author, credited Petermann, who had died in 1878, with laying the groundwork for the Congo Conference. While this quotation is certainly not very instructive as an assessment of Petermann’s real contribution to German “Afrikapolitik,” it certainly reveals the self-image of the Perthes Publishing House and the lionization of Petermann even after his untimely death.

This article is the first of two which use the special case of Heinrich Barth’s Africa expedition to show certain characteristics of the Perthes Collection: While this article focuses on the trans-imperial nature of its holdings, a second article revisits the publication strategy of the Perthes Publishing House in the mid-nineteenth century, which nurtured and capitalized on a very specific image of Heinrich Barth as one of their primary authors.


Further Reading

Demhardt, Imre Josef, „Rastlos nach dem unerforschten Innem längstgekannter Continente …“ – Afrika in den Anfängen in Petermanns Mitteilungen, in: Lentz, Sebastian/ Ormeling, Ferjan (eds.), Die Verräumlichung des Welt-Bildes. Petermanns Geographische Mitteilungen zwischen „explorativer Geographie“ und der „Vermessenheit“ europäischer Raumphantasien, Stuttgart 2008, pp. 65–73.

Diawara, Mamadou/ de Moraes Farias, P. F./ Spittler, Gerd (eds.), Gerd, Heinrich Barth et l’Afrique. Studien zur Kulturkunde, Köln 2006.

Driesch, Ursula von den, Petermann, August in: Neue Deutsche Biographie, Vol. 20 (2001), pp. 237–238 [Online-Version]; URL:

Marx, Christoph, Von Berlin nach Timbuktu. Der Afrikaforscher Heinrich Barth, Biographie, Göttingen 2021.

N.N., Dr. D. Livingstone’s Reisen in Süd-Afrika, 1841–1856. In: Mittheilungen aus Justus Perthes’ Geographischer Anstalt, Vol. 3 (1857), pp. 91–108.

Schröder, Iris, Das Wissen von der ganzen Welt: Globale Geographien und räumliche Ordnungen Afrikas und Europas 1790–1870, Paderborn 2011.

Weigel, Petra/ Siegel, Steffen (eds.), Die Werkstatt des Kartographen. Materialien und Praktiken visueller Welterzeugung, München 2011.

Withers, Charles W. J., ‘On Trial—Social Relations of Map Production in Mid-Nineteenth-Century Britain’. In: Imago Mundi, Vol. 71 (2019), No. 2, pp. 173–195.

Cite this blog post
Claudia Berger (2022, March 8). Perthes and Heinrich Barth: Inter-European Networks At Play – Part I. Mapping Africa and Asia. Retrieved April 16, 2024, from

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