The Race for Timbuktu: In Search of Africa's City of Gold
Frank T. Kryza
In the first decades of the nineteenth century, no place burned more brightly in the imagination of European geographers––and fortune hunters––than the lost city of Timbuktu. Africa's legendary City of Gold, not visited by Europeans since the Middle Ages, held the promise of wealth and fame for the first explorer to make it there. In 1824, the French Geographical Society offered a cash prize to the first expedition from any nation to visit Timbuktu and return to tell the tale.
One of the contenders was Major Alexander Gordon Laing, a thirty–year–old army officer. Handsome and confident, Laing was convinced that Timbuktu was his destiny, and his ticket to glory. In July 1825, after a whirlwind romance with Emma Warrington, daughter of the British consul at Tripoli, Laing left the Mediterranean coast to cross the Sahara. His 2,000–mile journey took on an added urgency when Hugh Clapperton, a more experienced explorer, set out to beat him. Apprised of each other's mission by overseers in London who hoped the two would cooperate, Clapperton instead became Laing's rival, spurring him on across a hostile wilderness.
An emotionally charged, action–packed, utterly gripping read, The Race for Timbuktu offers a close, personal look at the extraordinary people and pivotal events of nineteenth–century African exploration that changed the course of history and the shape of the modern world.
three days before he died. Though some of Laing’s dispatches certainly failed to reach their destinations, lost in transit, enough survive to make possible the telling of his entire story, not just in broad outline but in day-by-day detail. These materials have been available for years, catalogued by the great amateur Africanist E. W. Bovill in the late 1950s and early 1960s for the Hakluyt Society. Bovill reprinted all the important ones in 1964.* The materials I used to tell Laing’s story
reprint, 2002. Lander, Richard. Records of Captain Clapperton’s Last Expedition to Africa. 2 vols. London: Frank Cass & Co., Ltd., 1967 (facsimile reprint of the 1830 edition). Lecky, William E. H. History of European Morals from Augustus to Charlemagne. New York: G. Braziller, 1955. Lister, R. P. The Travels of Herodotus. London: Gordon & Cremonesi, 1979. Lloyd, Christopher. Mr. Barrow of the Admiralty: A Life of Sir John Barrow, 1764-1848. London: Collins, 1970. Lupton, Kenneth. Mungo Park
were Laing’s “fatal intentions” that Warrington had “rendered abortive”? And what was the “circumstance of a very delicate nature” which had to be suppressed? The great amateur English historian E. W. Bovill, who catalogued all of Laing’s papers in the early 1960s, was unable to trace the missing letters to “Mr. Amyot.” Possibly they were destroyed. Certainly, the set of conditions attendant to Laing’s marriage would have been enough to try the emotions of a less sensitive man. Did the young
had a hut ready for them and visited immediately. To Clapperton’s embarrassment, the king entered with his six youngest wives, all of them naked. Female beauty, Yarro proclaimed, had no right to hide itself behind clothing; as soon as it became necessary for a woman to clothe herself, he said, you knew that she was past her prime. The women themselves were nubile, exquisitely attractive, and appeared ingenuously unconscious of being unclothed. When the chief offered Clapperton his daughter, he
lane behind the Gurgi Mosque in Shar’a al-Kurwash.* Bakers at open-air ovens wielded wooden shovels, depositing crisp yellow loaves beside the white dough molds awaiting their turn. The baker worked below ground level so that the street itself became his countertop. The cry “Barlik! Barlik!” warned passersby of the emerging loaves. The undersized doorway to the consulate was deceptive. Inside, an ample courtyard led to a staircase, and a graceful loggia looked out on the open space. Uniformed