Popular Science Monthly/Volume 27/September 1885/Sketch of Dr. Gustav Nachtigal

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THE name of Dr. Gustav Nachtigal is associated with some of the most arduous achievements of African research, which were also not of inferior importance; and in the last year of his life he was prominent, as the designated servant of his Government, in those transactions which had for their object the establishment of German colonies and influence at commanding positions in the "Dark Continent."

Dr. Nachtigal was born on the 23d of February, 1834, at Eichstadt, near Stendal, in the former Prussian province of Altmark, where his father was a clergyman. He lost his father at an early age, and the burden of the support of himself and his little sister, as he used afterward to relate with grateful admiration of her heroic devotion, fell hard upon his poor widowed mother. Having received the usual primary education and completed his course at the gymnasium, he studied medicine at the schools in Berlin, Halle, Würzburg, and Greifswald. At the last place he was a pupil of the famous pathologist Niemeyer, and contracted from him, as he afterward told a friend, much of his enthusiasm for science. He received his doctor's degree here in the fall of 1857, passed the state examination during the ensuing winter, and was appointed under-physician to the thirtieth infantry regiment, which was stationed at Cologne. In 1859, he was promoted to be assistant-surgeon of the thirty-third regiment, also in Cologne. Two years later, when he received his furlough from active service, his superiors could say of him: "A thoroughly scientifically taught physician, Nachtigal is full of energy, and shows great devotion to his profession. His quiet self-possession, and his clear understanding, together with great tact in demeanor, attest that he is peculiarly well fitted to the higher positions of the military medical service."

In 1862, having been attacked with a disease of the lungs, which the North-German climate promised only to aggravate, Nachtigal was compelled to seek a milder atmosphere in the south, and removed to Algiers, and afterward to Tunis, where he found a lucrative practice, and obtained a knowledge of the Arabic language, and of the manners and customs of the people, that proved useful to him in his future explorations. At Tunis he became physician to the Bey, whom he accompanied upon a campaign against some of his rebellious subjects.

Toward the end of 1868 Gerhard Rohlfs came to Tripoli, charged with a commission by the King of Prussia to dispatch an assortment of presents to Sultan Omar, of Bornoo, in acknowledgment of the hospitality he had given and the valuable services he had rendered to the German travelers Earth, Vogel, Overweg, Von Beurmann, and Rohlfs, who had at various times visited his capital, and in return for a silver-mounted harness which he had sent to his Majesty. King William was sending, in response to these favors, a fine collection of European manufactured goods, a throne-chair, and a portrait of himself. The occasion of this visit was the decisive point in Nachtigal's life. Rohlfs found in him just the man to carry the gifts to their destination, and he, the choice having been approved by Bismarck, left Tripoli, with his caravan of eight camels, on the 18th of February, 1869, on his long southern journey, traveling under the name of Edris Effendi. The first stopping-place was at Moorzook, the capital of Fezzan, where Nachtigal found that the country beyond was in so unsettled a condition, and the roads were so infested, that it would be futile to attempt to continue the journey at that time. Probably a year would have to pass before he could go on. He would not wait idly, and he resolved to use the occasion to make an excursion to the highland country of Tibesti, southeast of Fezzan, the ancient land of the Troglodytes, or cave-dwellers, which had long excited the interest of European travelers, but which no one had ever been able to reach. Its people, the Tibbu, had the worst reputation for robbery and treachery of all the Africans. Nachtigal attempted and made the journey from which all others had shrunk. He was smuggled secretly into the country by his guides. The party lost their way and wandered for many days through the desert without food or water, making a near approach to death by thirst. This, as a German biographer describes it, condensing from Nachtigal's own account, in the midst of summer in the burning wilderness, where two days without water meant death. Amid stones and sand, through barren ravines and over rocks, marched the travelers, their parched tongues cleaving to their mouths, and the half skin of water which they still had having to suffice for ten persons. The guide went upon a knoll to look around, while the rest of the party hung anxiously upon his eyes as he made his report, "None yet." The exhausted camels lay down, and Nachtigal by the side of one of them, to die, while the Mohammedan servants prayed to be received into paradise. At last a few Tibbus attached to the caravan succeeded toward evening in getting some water and saved the lives of the party. Such was his manner of entering this forbidding land, while the savage inhabitants regarded him with suspicious hostility, believing that no good, only evil, could be in his intention. Nachtigal bought the protection of one of the chiefs at the expense of all he had, and was able to travel over the country and stay a month at the capital. Thence he returned, without guide or beast, with scant provision of food and a water-bag slung over his shoulders, and reached Moorzook, literally naked, at the end of October.

He was able, in the spring of 1870, to resume his journey to Bornoo, with the presents, which had remained at Moorzook while he was in Tibesti. He reached Kuka, the capital of Bornoo, on the 6th of June, and was received by Sultan Omar with a hospitality which would have been as marked had he brought no gifts, and with many expressions of appreciation of the presents. His mission here having been fulfilled, he availed himself of the friendship of the Sultan to make a journey of exploration to Berkû, Kánew, and Bagirmi, on Lake Chad. He spent a wretched life of nine months among highwaymen, but was able to accomplish much for science. He showed that the Bahr-el-Ghazul is an outlet from Lake Chad to the northeast during the rainy season, and made the acquaintance of the southern Tibbu, among whose northern relatives he had faced so many dangers a few months before.

Sultan Omar would not allow him to go to Wadai, east of Bornoo, for it was too dangerous a land; but he readily gave him a letter to the Sultan of Bagirmi, in the south, although a war was then raging there. With a hundred and fifty Maria-Theresa thalers, which he borrowed from a Tripolitan merchant on a note for double the amount, he bought goods and fitted out a caravan, and started on his journey early in 1872. He was well received by the Sultan, but came very near being debarred intercourse with the court on a question of ceremony. Every one who sought audience with his Majesty had to come barefooted. Nachtigal was willing to take off his shoes, but insisted on keeping his stockings on. There was considerable discussion over the matter, but the traveler carried his point and introduced a novelty at the court, for no one there had ever seen a man in stockings before. The Sultan was about to start on a campaign against a rival chief, and Nachtigal embraced the opportunity to go with him and see a country which had not been explored. The gain to science was purchased at great expense in the witnessing of cruelties, without power to protest against them, inflicted upon all adversaries who came in the way, and others–murders, torture, capture of slaves, and barbarities indescribable. In one of the battles Nachtigal was in great peril during a temporary rout of the Sultan's forces, from which they afterward recovered, and for which they paid their customary vengeance. Yet he was able to render some aid to humanity by surgical treatment of the wounded, and he did what he could; but a large proportion of the cases, having received wounds in their vital parts, were past recovery. Having taken his leave of the Sultan of Bagirmi, Nachtigal, suffering a part of the time from fever, made his way through a flooded country, in which he had to wade or swim the rivers which he had before crossed almost dry, back to Kuka, in Bornoo, where he enjoyed another hospitable reception from Sultan Omar.

Nachtigal next undertook, in the face of what was considered extreme danger, to visit Wadai, on the eastern side of Lake Chad. It was a country of very bad repute. The only European who had ever reached it, Eduard Vogel, had been put to death by the command of the Sultan in 1856. Moritz von Beurmann, who had been sent out to learn Vogel's fate, had been murdered on the borders of the land. It took much courage even to think of a journey there, but Nachtigal had hope in the fact that a new Sultan, a more intelligent man than his predecessors, had come into power. He proceeded cautiously, in doubt as to what kind of a reception he might expect, but gradually found the way cleared, and was finally admitted to an audience from which he came away with a satisfaction he could not, he said in a letter to a friend, fully express. "I found Sultan Ali the most intelligent prince that reigns in all the Soudan, and was charmed with the friendly greeting he gave me. This was all the more remarkable, because, as I knew, he had at first hesitated to receive me, and was not at all glad that I had come." The murder of Vogel, eighteen years before, had been forgotten by most of the people, and the search for the papers he left was fruitless.

Nachtigal had by this time become quite exhausted with his five years of arduous travel and dangers, and early in 1874 started homeward. He went through Darfoor to Kordofan, where, meeting the Egyptian garrison, he almost felt as though he were in Europe. Khedive Ismail sent a steamer to bring him to Cairo, and was the first to receive him there. He stayed a year in Cairo to recover a degree of health, and then proceeded to Berlin, where he intended to make his home.

Here he at once assumed an active position among the scientific men interested in the promotion of geographical research. He was elected President of the German-African Society; was consulted by the King of the Belgians in the proceedings that have led to the formation of the Congo state, and was a most useful member of the Executive Committee of the "Association Internationale Africaine"; and was for three years in succession elected President of the German "Gesellschaft für Erdkunde," and was its representative at the International Congresses in Paris in 1875 and 1878, and in Venice in 1881. The Paris Geographical Society voted him its golden medal, and the other similar societies of the world gave him medals or diplomas of honor. He dwelt in Berlin till 1882, busily engaged most of the time in performing the duties of his scientific commissions, and in preparing the narrative of his travels, his great work, "Sahara und Sudan," or "Experiences of Six Years of Travel in Africa" of which the first volume was published in 1879, and the second, bringing up the story to his departure from Bagirmi, in 1881; while the third is unfinished. In 1882 Germany needed a diplomatic representative in Tunis: Dr. Nachtisral was chosen as the most suitable man in the nation to fill the position. After remaining there three years as consul-general, a more important duty fell upon him—also by the designation of the great Chancellor of the Empire—that of going to the west coast of Africa to superintend the planting of the German colonies in the Togo country and the Cameroons. This was in May, 1884. He was there attacked by the fever which seems to be the inevitable doom of all white men who stay long on the Guinea coast. To get him away, if possible, from this scourge, he was put upon the German corvette Move and sent to sea. On board this vessel, a few miles out from Cape Palmas, he died on the 20th of April of this year. His body was brought ashore and buried at Cape Palmas.

Dr. Nachtigal, says one of his German biographers, was one of the "strong and enthusiastic representatives of German learning, uniting with complete devotion to science a heart warmly inspired with the idea of spreading abroad the power and civilization of the Fatherland; and he regarded it an object of life to press forward into unexplored lands and ever to be adding new objects to scientific cognizance."

"With Nachtigal," says Dr. Karl Müller, in "Die Natur," "has passed away one of the brightest stars of the literature of travel; a man who, treading in the footsteps of a Barth, was, like him, so happy as to come back and contribute no little in his turn to our knowledge of Central Africa. . . . With fifty-one years upon him, he still bore the expectancy of a longer life, even though the old chest-disease he had suffered from at home had not entirely passed away. For we had learned to know and esteem him all the more highly because in spite of his disease he was among the most active and most lively. His fate," Dr. Müller adds, "is a sad answer from West African Nature to German colonizing ambitions."

Everything living, said his friend Dr. Paul Gussfeldt, in a memorial address, "seemed to arouse his sympathy. His love for animals was particularly touching. I can hardly avoid a sorrowful laugh today when I think of his contracted house in Berlin, which he shared with a parrot and three little dogs as companions having equal rights. . . . What to others seemed a legitimate hunter's shot, to him, who himself had barely a hold on life, was murder. It is well known that Nachtigal, during the whole course of his travels, never fired a gun. The fact points out one of his strong characteristics. It shows that neither necessity nor fearful peril, such as he was exposed to in Bagirmi, could disturb the delicate stringing of his soul."