Maj. Alexander Gordon Laing’s knees dug into the sand. He struggled for breath as an unfurled turban was tightened around his throat. Laing, the first European to enter Timbuktu, was dead soon after leaving the fabled city.
When René Caillié heard about Laing, he was in Djenné, Mali, and in the midst of planning his own expedition to Timbuktu, going incognito as a local. In his journal, Caillié wrote, “I deplored the unhappy death of the intrepid traveler, and reflected that in the case of my disguise being discovered I should in all probability share the same fate.”
Dead or alive, [Timbuktu] shall be mine.
René Caillié, French explorer
Caillié was born in 1800 to impoverished parents in rural France. Quickly orphaned, he found his only joys in life were tales of travel and adventure. And nothing thrilled him more than a sparsely charted map of Africa and a city surrounded by an “unknown” desert. In his 1830 memoir, Caillié recalls: “Timbuctoo became the continued object of all my thought, the aim of all my efforts, and I formed a resolution to reach it or perish.”
European fascination with Timbuktu goes back to 1375, notes Mauro Nobili of the University of Illinois, an expert on the precolonial and early colonial history of the sub-Saharan city. “It was then that ‘Tenbuch’ was featured on a very popular map from the Majorcan Cartographical School,” says Nobili.
The illustrated map places the city at the feet of Mali’s Emperor Musa I, who is shown grasping a huge gold nugget. Europeans had been acquiring gold on Africa’s northern coast since around A.D. 1000, but they didn’t know where it came from. The 1375 map, coupled with the inaccurate Description of Africa (1550) by Leo Africanus, mythologized Timbuktu as Africa’s El Dorado, its City of Gold.
Dreaming of Timbuktu, Caillié moved to Saint-Louis on the coast of Senegal in 1816. Some disastrous expeditions left him penniless but rich in the knowledge that Europeans were not welcome in the interior. Eight years later, Caillié convinced a wealthy patron to fund an audacious attempt to reach Timbuktu. His plan was to travel not as a Christian but as an Arab Muslim.
The first phase of Caillié’s plan was spent with the Moors in Brakna, Mauritania. There he claimed to be a convert named Abdallahi (God’s slave). After eight months of studying the language and religion, Caillié returned to Senegal for more funds. But his sponsor had disappeared. Dejected, Caillié sailed to Sierra Leone looking for new financiers and, at the very least, a job.
While working at an indigo factory, he was rejected by more investors. Evidently, if Caillié wanted to reach the mystic city, he would have to pay for it himself. So he saved up and quit his day job just as incredible news arrived from Paris: The Geological Society of France was offering a reward of 10,000 francs to any European who could reach Timbuktu and return with its secrets.
“Dead or alive, it shall be mine,” he penned.
In 1827 he reached Conakry, Guinea, pretending to be an Egyptian who had been abducted as a baby by French soldiers. Now free from slavery, he claimed he was making a pilgrimage to Mecca … via Timbuktu. In a Mandinka-Fula caravan, Caillié trekked east through the jungle. With a sore on his foot, he arrived at Tiemè, Côte d’Ivoire, and rested. Infection and scurvy almost killed him there, but villagers saved his life.
Six months later Caillié left for Djenné, just a short canoe ride from his goal. It was there that he heard of Laing’s fate.
On April 20, 1828, Caillié approached the object of his near-lifelong obsession. As he entered Timbuktu, the Frenchman restrained his “indescribable satisfaction” and repeated silent thanks to the Christian God. Then he looked around and sighed, thinking: “The sight before me does not answer my expectations.”
“Caillié’s disillusionment was a direct result of Timbuktu being in crisis,” says Nobili.
Caillié visited Timbuktu just after an Islamic caliphate enveloped the city and banned one of its key commodities: tobacco. The gold trade was down too. Far from the source of Africa’s gold, Timbuktu was a major trading hub for the precious metal in the 16th century. But its importance had dwindled after European traders started working the west coast of the continent.
Caillié stayed in the underwhelming city for 13 days, making sketches, visiting mosques and talking about Laing. His fellow adventurer had been viciously beaten by robbers outside the city and then brought to Timbuktu to heal. Once inside, Laing proclaimed loudly that he was there at the behest of the king of England. Citizens commanded the Scotsman to recognize the prophet Muhammad. When Laing refused, he was left in peace.
The tribe that met Laing on the road home was far less tolerant of the foreigner.
Caillié returned to France via Morocco and received his reward in Paris, having traveled 4,500 miles in 508 days. Ten years later, he died of tuberculosis, a disease he’d picked up during his travels. Fame escaped him.
If this were a Hollywood movie, Caillié would have returned to Europe as an advocate for Africans and Islam, humbled by the many times locals saved his life and helped make his dream come true. Caillié did not do so. Though he did not wear white supremacy on his sleeve, he had it in his heart, as his journals confirm. His cultural appropriation was not an homage — it was merely a trick that further exposed Africa to colonial powers.