Many Died in the Race for Timbuktu

July 5, 2010

The Race for Timbuktu: in search of Africa’s City of Gold
© 2006 Frank T Kryza
Harper Collins New York

Rating Two Stars Good – Worth Reading but some major flaws

The search for Timbuktu from the formation of the African Association in 1788 until 1830 when the anticlimactic winner of the “race” published his ‘Travels through Central Africa to Timbuktu’ is the subject of Kryza’s book. The Race for Timbuktu includes details of the ordeals of the travelers sent out by the African Association to solve both the mysteries of the famed city of gold, Timbuktu and the location of the termination of the Niger River. Speculation on the Niger issue included the idea that it emptied into one of the two other great African rivers, the Nile, or the Congo, an inland lake and least likely directly into the Atlantic. The African Association made up of rich and powerful British Aristocrats sent many unprivileged and ambitious young British doctors and military officers to their deaths. The doctors who were almost always included on these journeys usually died early. The African Association underpaid the adventurers and rarely provided their families or dependents death benefits.

Chapter 10 is entitled the race begins. Kryza takes nine chapters to get around to the book’s objective. These first nine chapters would have benefited with editing. The callousness of the African association deserved documentation but a summary of the deaths of the numerous travellers many of whom did not make it far the West African Atlantic Coast or the North African Mediterranean coast would have been enough. Three of the doomed British Travellers did make contribution worthy of detailed discussion. They were Dr Mungo Park, Lieutenant (later Captain) Hugh Clapperton and Major Alexander Gordon Laing. The two travellers that did succeed, Renne Caille the Frenchman who did return alive from Timbuktu and Richard Lander, a servant on Clappertons second journey who returned 5 years after Clappertons death to confirm the Atlantic exit of the Niger are hardly mentioned.

In 1795 Dr. Mungo Park entered Africa via the Atlantic route. He went up the Gambia River and then continued overland through hostile Muslim territory. He was captured and sentenced to death but fortunately due to an attack on his captors by their enemies he managed to escape to the land of the Bambara and arrived at Segou which is located on the Niger River. Segou exists to this day as a major city in Mali. Although he had not reached Timbuktu nor found the exit for the Niger, Park became the first recorded European to see the Niger River Upon his return to Britain 2 ½ years after his departure he was hailed a hero.

By 1805 Park who found the life of a Scottish general practitioner boring, returned to Africa in an attempt to complete the original objectives. He managed to get to Segou again, and tried to navigate down the Niger through hostile territory with the aid of firearms. He progressed 2000 miles downriver but 500 miles from the end of the Niger his boats were caught on stones in the rapids and he was either killed by arrows or drowned. His journals were never recovered.

In 1821 Hugh Clapperton a naval lieutenant went with his friend Dr. Oudney a surgeon and an interloper foisted on the expedition a gentlemen army officer Major Dixon, They travelled south form Tripoli, on the Mediterranean across the Sahara and came to Bornu the most powerful kingdom between the Niger and the Nile. They explored Lake Chad and described the Kingdom of the Bornu and the Caliphate of Sokoto. These were substantive contributions but Clapperton did not find the Niger or Timbuktu. Dr. Oudney did not survive this journey and Major Dixon who used this trip to obtain higher office, died of malaria within the year of being appointed governor of Sierra Leone.

After almost 4 years in Africa, Clapperton returned to Britain. He considered himself the successor of Mungo Park and was offended to hear that the African Association had engaged A. Gordon Laing to reach the goals which had eluded him. Therefore Clapperton returned to Africa within 3 months of his arrival in Britain. On this occasion he chose the shorter Atlantic route which he thought would help him reach Timbuktu before Laing. But Clapperton did not make any more progress on his second journey than his first. He failed to reach the Niger and died of infectious diseases and malnutrition in Sokoto.

Alexander Gordon Laing set out for Timbuktu using the Mediterranean route. He left for Tripoli for Timbuktu in 1825 just a few months prior to Clapperton’s return to Africa. The numerous delays of his departure from Tripoli gave him time to fall in love and marry the British consuls daughter. From Tripoli with his own caravan he struggled from oasis to oasis with frequent stops which were many months at a time. His companions and employees organized an attempt on his life in which he suffered 18 disabling and disfiguring injuries. The ordeals of the journeys, the waits in the oasis and the fact that he continued to Timbuktu after the attempted murder demonstrated his bravery and tenacity. He reached Timbuktu, stayed there one month studying in the libraries. He did not find a city of gold a town well past its prime with little evidence of its previous glory. Laing had to flee Timbuktu due to tribal warfare and personal danger and threats. Days after his flight he was successfully murdered. His notes disappeared likely being destroyed by his murderers but possibly purchased by the French Consul in Tripoli.

A few of the other characters presented in the book were of interest. The British Consul in Tripoli Warrington and Caliph Bello of Sokoto in particular. Warrington’s search for Laing’s notes is drawn out and unsuccessful. Bello thwarted Clapperton’s exploration because he rightly thought that the British would undermine the slave trade and his trade routes if they had access to the African interior from the Atlantic Ocean through the Niger.

The author seemed to feel the need to spice up his book with gossip. The question of whether Emma Warrington was pregnant when she married Laing is discussed repeatedly. The accusation which appears to have been false that Clapperton was a homosexual, a capitol offence in the British Navy had relevance to the conflicted relationships with his fellow travellers on his first journey but again not very interesting. Even during the British Regency this was tame and to the modern reader unlikely to tintilate. More detail on Renne Caille and Lambert would have been more interesting.

Rene Caille a Frenchman was the first European to get to Timbuktu and return alive. He won the 10,000 franc prize offered by the French Geographical Society, for the first expedition to return from Timbuktu. Many felt that the fact he made his expedition disguised as an Arab undermined his claim to have been the first European to return alive. But this prize was not the motivation for Laing or Clapperton so hardly seemed relevant There race between Clapperton and Laing was personal and in many ways irrational.

The Niger drained into the Atlantic obscured by the many small channels of its delta. Dr Mungo Park must have known this fact this at the time of his death 500 miles from its exit as did the local Africans who found it against their interests to tell the Europeans. Five years after Claperton’s death his former servant Richard Landers returned with his brother John to confirm that the Niger Delta exited into the Atlantic. The irony was that British sailors had known this area for decades as the Oil Rivers.

In the Afterwards and Acknowledgement to this book Kryza states he was inspired to write his book by the Pulitzer Prize winning book by Sanche de Granmont about the Niger river entitled The Strong Brown God. Although Kryza’s book was worth reading I am wondering if it would have been better to read the earlier work. I will let you know after I find and read it.


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