Even today few cities fire the imagination and conjure up images of exotic treasure, desert romance and riches than Timbuktu. Assuming, of course, you can actually find it.
For 19th century Scots explorer Alexander Gordon Laing, stumbling through its city walls – parched from the desert, pained by injury yet elated to be the first European to finally find this long-lost city – Timbuktu was not simply the fulfilment of a dream that had taken months to conclude. It was also, sadly, a major disappointment.
Laing had battled his way across Africa, leaving his new bride behind in Tripoli, and fallen victim to a vicious attack by his own guides. As his tired eyes rested on the glittering prize he had almost died trying to reach, the Edinburgh-born army officer may well have wondered if the grim sight before him was some trick of his imagination.
This was no glittering prize. Instead, Timbuktu was a miserable and impoverished town. No gold, no treasure and, for Laing, certainly no happy ending.
Today Timbuktu is still regarded as a byword for remoteness and fantasy, and as a BBC Scotland programme tonight will explain, for Laing and fellow explorers determined to chart Africa’s vast landscape – one eye on their own fame and fortune, the other on furthering British trade and colonial interests – the Mali city of dreams was the biggest prize of all.
Laing’s astonishing tale, along with those of other Scottish explorers who ventured to the ends of the Earth in the name of discovery, is the first in the channel’s Explorers season, a series of programmes which delves into the stories behind adventurers’ epic journeys, the unique character traits that drove them on and, in some cases, the grim deaths that eventually befell them.
While some Scottish explorers’ exploits are engraved on the national psyche, such as David Livingstone and Mungo Park, others like Alexander Gordon Laing have long since slipped into near obscurity. Yet he achieved that most coveted of prizes – he became the man who actually did go from here to Timbuktu.
Getting there was a challenge that makes modern minds boggle. But at least the end result – a city of wealth – was expected to make it all worthwhile.
“Timbuktu was the African Eldorado,” says historical geographer Dr David Lambert, of the University of London, one of three experts interviewed in Scots Who Found the Modern World on BBC Two tonight.
“It was a city full of gold – gold streets, roofs paved with gold. Europeans knew there had to be gold in Africa and they believed it must be found in Timbuktu.”
Professor David Anderson, of Oxford University’s African Studies department, agrees the city had formed a specific image in the minds of Europeans. “Timbuktu in the early 19th century was the image of mysterious Africa linked with the gold trade, silver trade and salt trade. It was known of from ancient writings but had not been visited by a European.”
This made it a fine prize for anyone brave enough to try to find it.
Alexander Gordon Laing was born in Edinburgh in December 1792. He was taught by his father, William, the founder of a school of classical education, before studying at Edinburgh University. His future seemed destined to be in the classroom but, by the age of 18, Laing craved adventure.
By 1822 he was in Africa, serving as captain with the Royal African Colonial Corps. Tall and dashing with a mop of curly hair and impressive side chops, he set off across the continent, furthering British commercial interests and helping abolish the slave trade on the way.
According to Dr Lambert, Laing had the right characteristics for the challenge laid down by the British Colonial Office – find Timbuktu.
“Alexander Gordon Laing was ambitious, self-important, full of energy,” he says, “Some people thought he was mad. It’s hard to know whether he was the perfect explorer. He was a ball of energy and maybe the perfect man for the times.”
While a second Scots explorer, Dumfries-born Hugh Clapperton, was ordered to attempt to reach Timbuktu from the south, Laing was told to leave from the north, the hope that both would form a pincer movement and snare the city from both directions. It was while he prepared for his expedition in Tripoli that Laing met and fell in love with Emma Warrington, daughter of the British consul. The couple married just weeks after they met, but four days later were parted as Laing set off on his treacherous journey.
Love-struck Laing later wrote to relatives at home in Edinburgh, urging them to stay in touch with his new wife.
“I hope you have written to my dearest Emma, the most amiable girl that God ever created,” he wrote. “She is, indeed, such a being as I had formed in my mind’s eye but had never before seen, and has just as much common sense as has fallen to the lot of your most worthy elder brother.”
Yet true love did not prevent Laing from continuing what would prove to be a horrific journey.
He had set off with native guides from the powerful Tuareg tribe, laden with merchandise and gifts to help pave his way. It was too tempting for the natives and, as Laing slept under the stars of the Sahara desert, they pounced, stealing his goods and savagely attacking him.
Laing suffered 24 separate wounds, 18 of which he described in a despatch home as “exceedingly severe”. Yet still he pressed on in the oppressive heat, over arduous terrain with the constant threat of attack and with pitiful food – typically dried fish steeped in camel’s milk.
According to Dr Lambert, such determination in the face of personal danger was a fundamental element among Scottish explorers at the time.
“They were driven people,” he says. “They read about earlier failures and there was almost a mania, a drive forcing these people on. Partly it comes down to fame and fortune, partly to science, but clearly something about wanting to be first.”
The news from the other British Timbuktu expedition was grim. Hugh Clapperton had died from natural causes after being kept under house arrest in Sukoto. The route was clear for Laing to claim glory as the first European to set foot in Timbuktu where, surely, all the riches of the world awaited . . .
Broken but still battling on, Laing, in full military uniform, arrived at Timbuktu city gates in August 1826 after almost 400 days travelling. But what he found was far from what he had expected.
“He had struggled across the desert to get there, but didn’t find the city of gold of European legends,” says Dr Lambert.
Timbuktu was a poor community, streets clogged with dying animals and waste, and certainly not paved with gold. However, while Laing’s letters home claimed that “in every respect except in size it has completely met my expectations”, the truth was the fabulous riches Timbuktu had promised were really just a collection of mud-walled homes and starving people.
Laing remained for a month before heading off, but he didn’t get far. Just two days into his journey west, he was again attacked. This time his injuries were fatal.
Tragically, Laing’s papers, notes of his journey and maps were lost. It meant that while he was the first European to set foot in the fabled city, fame and fortune would instead fall to the man who followed in his footsteps, French explorer René-Auguste Caillié.
Several months after Laing left, Caillié arrived – yet for him came a 10,000 Franc prize from the Société de Géographie, the order of the Legion of Honor and a generous pension.
Timbuktu had, for some at least, proved its worth.
* Scots Who Found the Modern World, part of BBC Scotland’s Explorers season, is on BBC Two tonight at 9pm.