Since there are no more events left at the Library Society this month (other than standing events like Toddler Tuesdays), your loyal blogger is going to make a book endorsement, preceeded by a brief story. Because today, April 20th, is the 182nd anniversary of René Caillié's entrance into Timbuktu.
In the late 1700s, European soldiers left unemployed by the end of the Seven Years War, lined up in the search for the fabled lands of the African interior. Legend held it to be the home of the great river Niger, which flowed into the Nile, and drained a valley filled with rich kingdoms and cities. The greatest of these -and the rumour that kept European explorers awake at night- was a city of solid gold, known as Timbuktu.
A Scot named Mungo Park became the first white man to reach the Niger River (1795), but was forced by bandits and ill health to return home before reaching Timbuktu. Soon after, another Scot, Alexander Gordon Laing, crossed the Sahara and became the first European to visit Timbuktu: he received twenty four wounds fighting with desert raiders on the way there, and lost his life shortly after leaving, leaving the "golden city" as distant and mysterious to Europeans as it ever was.
It took René Caillié to get there and get back. Caillié was a sickly orphan, born in the west of France in 1799. A voracious reader, the young Caillié's favourite book was Robinson Crusoe, and at age sixteen he set off for adventures that would impress even Defoe's fictional hero. He worked in West Africa- even helping to resupply a failed British mission to Timbuktu- and became familiar with the string of elaborate expeditions that, one after another, could not manage the trip to Timbuktu. Caillié decided that he, individually, could succeed where great collective effort had failed.
To do this Caillié went native. He moved to Mauritania, living with Senegalese Moors, absorbing their language and culture. Having done this, he moved down the coast to a British indigo plantation, where he worked to save up money for his trip. One day he put on his best Moorish garb and declared he was an Arab from Egypt, abducted by the French on the way to Mecca, and joined a native caravan headed east.
Caillié blended in well enough. His ostentatious show of Muslim prayer probably aroused more suspicion than it allayed, but was certainly received better than the bombastic shows of Christian religiosity performed by prior British travellers. Largely he was ignored because he was too poor to steal from. Arriving safely at Timbuktu, he spent a few weeks wandering the ancient city, noting that it was made not of gold, but "...a mass of ill-looking houses, built of earth." While it was once an important city during the Mali and Songhai empires, its glory days were long gone. He caught a caravan headed north, trekked across the Sahara, and arrived safely back in France. He became a national hero: he was awarded many francs, the Légion d'honneur, and the state even underwrote the publishing of his book Travels through Central Africa to Timbuctoo; and across the Great Desert, to Morocco.
The other half of this story- and my endorsement- is what France later did in pursuit of Caillié's legacy: thirty years of failed expedition after failed expedition in an attempt to tame the Sahara and open a north-south route from Algiers to the Niger. This (perhaps surprisingly) interesting story is covered in Douglas Porch's The Conquest of the Sahara. It's at the Library Society... upstairs, to the right, fourth isle down, number F78 P82. And don't forget, reading 300 pages describing the Sahara makes good preparation for the upcoming Charleston summer...