The meticulous account by Gustav Nachtigal of his travels in the Sahara and Sudan, covering some 10,000 km (see interactive map here) over five and a half years, is one of the most significant primary historical sources on 19th century Africa, of far greater historical value than most of the accounts of famous British explorers. Previews of all four volumes are available on Google books (1, 2, 3 and 4).
Nachtigal also provides critical historical insights into many contemporary challenges in Africa, such as Darfur, Chad and Libya. For example, it is no exaggeration to say that Nachtigal’s account of the Tubu/Toubou people is essential to a full understanding of the troubled history of Chad since independence in 1960, and more recently to Libya post Gaddafi.
“Gustav Nachtigal ranks among the greatest of African travelers by reason of the range, accuracy, and indeed the minuteness of his observations and for the sympathy he displayed toward those among whom he traveled. He is a major, and in some areas, the major source for the history of the Central Sudanic Belt.”
—International Journal of Middle Eastern Studies
Nachtigal’s account provides rich material on African history, demography, political and social institutions and customs (including slavery within Africa itself), on topography, botany and medicine (see here and here; Nachtigal was himself a doctor), and many other topics, each considered with careful scientific precision.
Humphrey and his father drew on Nachtigal’s record to publish a significant book on slavery within Muslim society in Africa. One of the most dramatic accounts in all of Nachtigal’s writing was of an extensive slave-raiding expedition (in volume 3): “Nachtigal gave nowhere more compelling evidence, as an eye-witness in the very midst of the action, of man’s inhumanity to man than here.”
Other dramatic accounts include Nachtigal’s visit to Tibesti, the home of the Tubu, in volume 1: “No one had ever before entered that mysterious district and on his return given a full account of it; and no European was to enter it again for more than forty years after Nachtigal. … Nachtigal came closer to enslavement, or to death from thirst and exposure, or to murder in Tibesti than at any other point of his travels. His journey to Tibesti was one of the most courageous episodes in the exploration of Africa, and provides the most dramatic sequence in the whole of Sahara and Sudan. At the same time, in his reasonable, unostentatious account the character of this quiet traveller, always a gentleman, comes through clearly.” (Translators’ Introduction, vol. 1)
Nachtigal’s travels were inaccessible and often unknown in the English speaking world, until Humphrey and his father translated Nachtigal’s account from the German original. Humphrey was always clear about the significance of this work in relation to his other academic research. As he said in his introduction to the final volume to be published:
“To make Nachtigal, a primary source of immense and permanent importance in African studies, available for the first time to readers without German, in this country, in North America, and, most significantly of all, throughout Africa, is to make a lasting contribution which will far out-live any of my own writing.”
And it was Nachtigal’s character that endeared him so much to Humphrey and his father Allan, and almost made Nachtigal a member of the family for some 25 years (see here):
“In his dealings with the many Africans whom he met, Nachtigal behaved always with an honest courtesy. Misled neither by a reckless condemnation of ways of life different from his own, not by an anaemic tolerance which excuses everything different whether good or evil, Nachtigal strove always to see the African world around him steadily and whole. Not only Nachtigal himself lives in his writings; he gives life also to a large number of those people whom he met, and it is our hope that, through this translation, they may be made known to Africans of later days, among whom are many of their descendants.” (Translators’ Introduction, vol. 2)
The four volumes in English of Nactigal’s Sahara and Sudan would never have appeared had it not been for the extraordinary dedication over some 20 years of their primary publisher, Christopher Hurst. In the obituary of Christopher, Christopher’s close colleague and successor as Managing Director of the publishing company, wrote that “the publication of Humphrey Fisher’s translation of Gustav Nachtigal’s four volumes of Saharan travels [was] one of the books closest to [Christopher’s] heart”.