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Gustav Nachtigal (23 February 1834 – 20 April 1885) was a Germanmarker explorer of Central and West Africa. He is further known as the German Empiremarker's consul-general for Tunisiamarker and Commissioner for West Africa. His mission as commissioner resulted in Togoland and Kamerun becoming the first colonies of a German colonial empire. The Gustav-Nachtigal-Medal, awarded by the Berlin Geographical Society is named after him.


Gustav Nachtigal, the son of a Lutheran pastor, was born at Eichstedtmarker in the Prussian province of Saxony-Anhaltmarker. After medical studies at the universities of Hallemarker, Würzburgmarker and Greifswaldmarker, he practiced for several years as a military surgeon. Finding the climate of his native country increasingly detrimental to his health, he went to Algiersmarker and Tunismarker in North Africa and took part, as a surgeon, in several expeditions into Central Africa.

Commissioned by King Wilhelm I of Prussia to carry gifts to Umar of Borno, sheik of the Bornu Empire, in acknowledgment of kindness shown to German travelers, he set out in 1869 from Ottoman Tripolimarker and succeeded after a two years journey in accomplishing his mission. During this period he visited Tibestimarker and Borku, regions of the central Sahara not previously known to Europeans.

From Bornu he traveled to Baguirmi, an independent state to the southeast of Bornu. From there he proceeded to Wadai (a non-Muslim kingdom to the northeast of Baguirmi) and to Kordofan (a former province of central Sudanmarker). Nachtigal emerged from darkest Africa at Khartoummarker (then an Egyptian outpost, today the capital of Sudan) in the winter of 1874, after having been given up for lost. His journey, graphically described in his Sahara and Sudan, placed him in the top ranking of discoverers.

After the establishment by Francemarker of a protectorate over Tunisiamarker, Nachtigal was sent as consul-general for the German Empiremarker and remained there until 1884. Thereafter he was appointed by Chancellor Otto von Bismarck as special commissioner for West Africa. Local German business interests in that region began advocating for protection by the German Empire after they had acquired huge properties in West Africa. Nachtigal’s task was thus to accept that real estate on behalf of Germany before the British could advance their own interests — and Togoland and Kamerun became Germany’s first colonial possessions. On his return voyage he died at sea aboard the gunboat SMS Möwe off Cape Palmasmarker on 20 April 1885 and was initially interred at Grand Bassammarker. In 1888 Nachtigal’s remains were exhumed and reburied in a ceremonial grave at Dualamarker in front of the Kamerun colonial government building.


1934 postage stamp honoring Gustav Nachtigal; the description reads: Kolonialgedenkjahr [Colonial commemoration year]
Gustav Nachtigal is regarded as the other great German explorer of Africa, in company with Heinrich Barth. Like Barth, Nachtigal was primarily interested in ethnography, and additionally in tropical medicine. His works stand out because of their wealth of details and above all because of his unbiased views of Africans. In contrast to most contemporary explorers, Nachtigal did not hold to the alleged inferiority of Africans; his convictions are clearly reflected in his descriptions and choice of words.

He had witnessed slave hunts performed by African rulers and the cruelties inflicted by them on other Africans. The horror that he felt about these atrocities made him enter colonial endeavors because he somewhat naively accepted that European domination of the African continent might stop slave hunting and slave keeping.


Original Publication
  • Saharâ und Sûdân. 2 volumes, Berlin 1879-81, volume 3 published by E. Groddeck, Leipzig 1889.

English Translation
  • Sahara and Sudan. volume I: Fezzan and Tibesti; volume II: Kawar, Bornu, Kanem, Borku, Ennedi; volume III: The Chad Basin and Bagirmi; volume IV: Wadai and Darfur. Translated from the original German with an Introduction and Notes by Allan G. B. Fisher and H. J. Fisher. London — New York — Berkeley - 1971-1987.


  • Gustav Nachtigal — ein deutscher Forscher und Afrika (Manuscript of speech held at the Togo Exhibition at Düsseldorf 1986. Peter Kremer.
  • Die Forschungsreisenden, Cornelius Trebbin & Peter Kremer, Die Tuareg. Düsseldorf 1985.

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