Thursday, February 14, 2013

Livingstone and Stanley: Saint and Sinner

Let us cast off the works of darkness, and let us put
on the armour of light
– Romans 13:12

Henry Stanley "finds" Dr Livingstone in Africa, 1871
CENTRAL AFRICA WAS STILL mystery to all Europeans right up to the middle of the nineteenth century. Its great lakes and teeming rainforests were unknown, its diverse tribes and abundant wildlife undreamed of. White settlers had been holed up in forts and ports dotted along Africa’s coastline for centuries - but not one had yet penetrated its fearful interior. Some imagined a huge silent desert within, a scorched landscape of fierce winds and blistering temperatures. Others pictured only slavery, savagery and poisonous snakes. Maps were blank. People were clueless. In many European minds, central Africa – colourful, chaotic, vibrant central Africa - was a benighted, empty place. It was a void, a vacuum, a great unknown – the dark heart of a troubled continent.

Step forward two extraordinary Brits, the first outsiders to shine a pinpoint of light into the gloom. One was a pious Scottish doctor, the other a hard-bitten newspaper reporter from north Wales. Both men appear to have been carved from granite. And over the next five decades both pulled off a string of mind-bogglingly brave journeys that today seem barely believable. Where previous explorers had been forced to turn back, or died of fever, or ended up speared like cocktail sausages, this pair crisscrossed Africa repeatedly, often on foot, covering thousands of miles, enduring terrible trials, surviving every kind of hazard the “dark continent” could throw at them. Their paths crossed only once, on the shores of Lake Tanganyika in 1871. That meeting, one of the most famous in history, began with probably the most celebrated greeting of all time: “Dr Livingstone, I presume?”

David Livingstone was born in the small industrial town of Blantyre, near Glasgow, in 1813. His childhood was harsh. The God-fearing Livingstones – five children, two adults – lived in a single room in a crowded factory tenement. By the age of ten, David was working six days a week in the local mill. Conditions were grim, beatings common, fourteen-hour shifts were the norm. Yet somehow the young Livingstone also managed to teach himself Latin, botany, theology and maths. By his twenties, he was studying medicine part-time at Glasgow, using his wages as a cotton spinner to pay for the classes. And just four years later, aged twenty-seven, this amazing lad from Lanarkshire was sailing away from Britain for Cape Town, on the southern tip of Africa, to take up his first position as a professional missionary-doctor.

Livingstone would be no ordinary evangelist. Refusing to settle at a traditional mission station, he cast himself instead in an entirely new role as a kind of itinerant preacher-explorer. And for the next decade he wandered tirelessly across what is now Botswana, pushing into unknown areas, meeting un-contacted people, spreading his Gospel to as many souls as possible. He trudged across the vast Kalahari Desert, becoming the first non-African to do so. He marched on into unexpected grassland, scrubland, forest and swamp, reaching as far as the mighty Zambezi River, 1,500 miles north of the Cape. In February 1844 he was mauled by a lion which nearly tore off his left arm. With gritted teeth, and without anaesthetic, Livingstone set the shattered bones himself, waited for his terrible wounds to heal – then continued his lonely wanderings, unfazed and undaunted, a fearless Christian soldier marching as to war.

It was while recovering from his terrible mauling that Livingstone proposed to Mary Moffat, the dumpy daughter of a fellow missionary. Six months later they were married. Poor Mary. Livingstone threw himself into marriage with the same zeal he had applied to his work and within six years his young bride had produced five children. Wherever the restless protestant missionary now wandered, Mary and her growing brood were expected to follow. In 1850, he dragged the lot of them back across the sandy Kalahari in a bumpy old ox wagon - despite Mary being heavily pregnant. The following year, in the desert again, the children’s tongues turned black from dehydration after five days without water. They survived on frogs, locusts and caterpillars. They went months without eating a vegetable. All of the kids got malaria. One of them, a little girl, caught a chest infection and died screaming in agony within weeks of being born.

Most Africans who witnessed Livingstone’s antics thought he was raving mad. People stared in amused fascination as he strode into their thatched villages, his parched lips split, his red face blistered by the fierce sun. When he bowed his head in prayer, his puzzled audiences imagined he was talking to spirits living under the ground. When he began to preach, they either ran off in panic or doubled up with helpless laughter. Just one man took him seriously: Chief Sechele of the Bakwain tribe. Sechele listened attentively, responded warmly and even surprised Livingstone by offering to help him win converts. But the headman’s proposal to flog his own people – and keep flogging them – until they believed in the Christian God wasn’t quite what the good doctor had in mind and the kind but unorthodox offer was politely declined.

In 1848 Sechele himself became a Christian. Eight long years in the field and Livingstone finally had his first successful conversion – the first, he hoped, of many. But it was a false dawn. Incredibly, Scotland’s most famous missionary wouldn’t manage to convert another soul – not one – in three long decades spent in Africa. Worse: Sechele soon lapsed. Within a year, the Bakwain chief had abandoned the path of righteousness and returned instead to his old pagan ways and the decidedly un-Christian embrace of his five pretty wives.

Such a hopeless missionary record would surely have sunk a less determined man. But David Livingstone didn’t do hopeless. Instead he ditched his ineffective wandering-preacher idea and came up with an ambitious new plan to travel to the very heart of Africa and open up the continent to European traders. The introduction of western commerce, he believed, would squeeze out slavery and heathen practises. Tribes would then become rich and “civilised”. And that in turn would lead to mass conversions to Christianity. This was optimism at its most blind. Livingstone was, in effect, proposing to single-handedly transform Africa and its people. He would be a pioneer, a trail-blazer, a visionary leading the way for others to follow. He would boldly go where no white man in his right mind had gone before.

Mercifully, Mary and the children were spared further torment. In early 1852 they sailed home from Cape Town as Africa’s self-appointed saviour set off on what would prove to be one of the most spectacular journeys in the history of exploration. He began with a punishing tramp north from the Cape, back into the African interior. That alone took nearly a year. After reaching the Zambezi, he steered west and struggled for a further 1,000 miles through unmapped bush to the Atlantic port of Luanda, now the capital of Angola. Livingstone was practically a dead man when he arrived at Luanda. Stick thin and shivering with fever, he had to be carried into the town. But with typical insane self-belief, he then abruptly turned around and retraced his steps back to the very centre of the continent where he rejoined the Zambezi and followed the great river as it twisted and looped its way to Africa’s distant eastern shore.

Livingstone faced every kind of African danger on that incredible odyssey – attacks by fierce tribesmen with teeth filed to points, hairy canoe journeys down crocodile-filled rivers, long punishing marches through furious tropical downpours. He endured chronic dysentery. He suffered more than thirty bouts of malaria. The huge experimental doses of quinine he took for fever made him vomit blood and temporarily lose his hearing. But no obstacle could stop the dauntless Scot. Travelling with few supplies and only a handful of porters, he tramped across desert, bush and jungle for a total of 6,000 miles. Along the way he “discovered” the great falls at Mosioatunya, or “the smoke that thunders”, and renamed them Victoria Falls. And when he staggered into the Indian Ocean port of Quelimane on 25 May 1856, an incredible four years after leaving Cape Town, he became the first explorer to have crossed the African continent from coast to coast.

Livingstone was greeted as a national hero when he returned to Britain. Crowds mobbed him in the street. Queen Victoria invited him to tea. His vivid account of his epic journey, Missionary Travels, was a mega-bestseller. There’s a formal portrait from this period showing Dr Livingstone booted and suited and surrounded by his family. He sports a tremendous moustache and sideburns and is gazing into the distance, looking relaxed, comfortable, contented. This was his finest hour. A less extraordinary man would have surely hung up his compass and boots right then, quit while he was ahead. But of course the great missionary-doctor was not for quitting. The following year, 1858, he sailed back to his beloved Africa – this time at the head of a large government-funded expedition.

Livingstone now boasted an official title, Roving Consul, and began wearing a distinctive blue cap with gold trim, his trademark “consular cap”. Six British experts travelled with him, including a geologist and an engineer. Their aim was to steam up the Zambezi in a paddleboat and transform the river into a commercial waterway, “God’s highway” to Africa’s interior. The Zambezi Expedition, which was to drag on for six years, was a disaster. Waterfalls and wild rapids made the river un-navigable. Tribal war and famine killed any chance of trade. Livingstone, always a bit of a loner, proved a hopeless leader of men. And farce turned to tragedy when groups of idealistic Christians, inspired by their hero, began following him out to Africa and dying like flies. In one of the worst cases, two evangelical families – four adults, seven children – laboured 1,000 miles upcountry from the Cape before all but three of them were killed by fever. An Anglican bishop went barrelling off into the bush in full canonicals - complete with crosier - and he too was soon hastening to the Promised Land. In 1862, Mary Livingstone rejoined her husband and within months she had also succumbed to malaria. By the end of her life, poor Mary had become a desperate alcoholic, driven to drink by her husband’s long absences and the pressure of raising a large family alone. Her death at forty-one plunged Livingstone into despair. “For the first time in my life,” he wrote in his journal, “I feel willing to die.”

The government eventually called time on the catastrophic Zambezi Expedition and Livingstone returned home to face ridicule in the press. “We were promised trade; and there is no trade,” scoffed The Times. “We were promised converts and not one has been made.” More tragedy followed when his eldest son, eighteen-year-old Robert, died in a prison camp in the American Civil War. And Livingstone – now in his fifties - was increasingly troubled by non-stop diarrhoea and persistently bleeding haemorrhoids, the price of so many hard years in the tropics. But with his usual stoic denial, the fallen hero simply refused to throw in the towel, refused to give up on Africa. Another expedition was swiftly organised, this time partly funded by Royal Geographical Society. With his new sponsors in mind, Livingstone settled on a spectacular secular goal: finding the source of the River Nile. And in the summer of 1865 he left England and disappeared into the African bush for a third - and final - time. There were no Europeans with him now. Fifty-nine Africans marched alongside him, carrying his gear. Only one white man would ever see the Roving Consul alive again: an ambitious young newspaper hack by the name of Henry Morton Stanley.

Henry Stanley was born in Denbigh, north Wales, in 1841 – the year Livingstone had first set foot in Africa. Originally called John Rowlands, he endured a brutal and lonely childhood after being abandoned by his unmarried mother and dumped in a local workhouse. At seventeen, he sailed to the United States where he changed his name. He distinguished himself by fighting for – and deserting from – both sides during the American Civil War. With the return of peace he established himself as a promising new journalist, filing a string of colourful stories from the emerging Wild West and landing a job on the country’s most popular daily, the New York Herald. Stanley soon caught the eye of the newspaper’s flamboyant and filthy rich owner, James Gordon Bennett Junior. And it was Bennett who handed Stanley the secret assignment that would turn him into a celebrity. It was a straightforward challenge, a do-or-die mission. Two words: find Livingstone.

David Livingstone had been missing for half a decade by the time the Herald’s special correspondent began his formidable search. The intrepid Welshman knew little about Africa, less about exploring – and his only clue to the doctor’s whereabouts was a single letter, sent from Lake Tanganyika, which had somehow found its way to the coast. But confidence is everything, and Stanley was full of it. A tough-looking lad – just five-six but solid, like a wrestler – he had bull-neck, fierce blue-grey eyes and the beginnings of a magnificent walrus moustache. Resplendent in pith helmet and white flannel suit and riding a dazzling Arab stallion, he set off inland from the eastern port of Bagamoyo, now in Tanzania, on 21 March 1871. Behind marched a small army of porters and guards. The men carried miles of cloth and brass wire to trade with tribes in the interior. They had forty guns, tons of ammunition, a mountain of battle-axes, swords and knives. Stanley’s personal baggage included a tin bath, a bearskin rug and a bottle of Worcestershire sauce. He took a dog, Omar, to guard his tent. An American flag flew at the front of the column. And two hard-nut British sailors – a Scot and a Cockney – were brought along as back-up.

Stanley was ready for anything. He needed to be. Within a week of leaving the coast, the thoroughbred stallion was dead, its blood poisoned by biting tsetse fly. The expedition’s baggage donkeys quickly sickened. And after a desperate five-day slog through mosquito-infested swamps, the heavily-laden men started to come down with smallpox, malaria and chronic diarrhoea. An African carrier was the first to die, from dysentery. Omar, the dog, bought it next. Suspected elephantiasis killed the Scottish sailor. Then malaria got the Cockney. Stanley also found himself in the grip of a terrifying fever. He lost three stone. He saw “insane visions”. He endured “frenetic brain-throbs”. But he drove himself and his party onwards – sick, exhausted but unwavering – still just thirty years old, the only white in a group of a hundred men.

And sickness wasn’t the only enemy. Spear-waving African warriors repeatedly threatened and harassed the column. Frightened, fed-up porters began deserting in droves. Others refused to shoulder their loads. And with nerves starting to crack and morale running dangerously low, Stanley was forced to chain and beat some of his reluctant carriers to keep the show on the road. By October 1871 – seven months into the journey – the expedition had dwindled to just thirty-three disconsolate travellers. The Indian Ocean was seven hundred miles behind them now, a very long walk home. But then, at last, some brighter news. Ahead lay Lake Tanganyika. Somewhere on its eastern shore stood a large ivory- and slave-trading town called Ujiji. And there, amid the jumble of straw huts and flat-roofed mud houses, a decrepit old European man was rumoured to have set up home.  

Stanley was bursting with anticipation when he rode into Ujiji on one of his last clapped-out donkeys. His sun helmet had been freshly chalked the previous night, his flannel suit pressed, his knee-high leather boots oiled and buffed. The Stars and Stripes was again unfurled. His men fired their rifles into the air in greeting. And when a crowd of locals gathered and led Stanley directly towards an elderly white man, the eager reporter could barely control his excitement. Before him stood a pale-faced, grey-bearded old-timer in tweed trousers, a red waistcoat – and a faded blue-and-gold cap. Was it Livingstone? It had to be. Stanley’s initial thought, he later wrote, was to vent his joy by “turning a somersault” and “slashing at trees”. His search was over. He’d pulled off the near-impossible. He had the greatest scoop of his short career. But of course there were no unseemly displays of acrobatics that day, no improper assaults on the foliage. This was 1871. Chaps had standards. Manners were crucial. So instead Stanley calmly climbed down from his donkey, met the stranger’s eye, politely raised his hat, and said…

Well, what did he say? New evidence unearthed by historian Tim Jeal suggests it wasn’t “Dr Livingstone, I presume?” at all but something mundane, something that no one even bothered to record. Jeal thinks Stanley made up his epic one-liner later. And he’s convinced the working-class Welshman did so because he wanted to portray himself as the archetypal Victorian “gentleman” – unfazed and unflappable – someone like Alexander Kinglake whose ice-cool greeting to a fellow English traveller in the Sinai desert had so impressed Britain a quarter of a century earlier. The result was a masterstroke of British understatement. Four simple words at once inspired, unforgettable and unintentionally hilarious. In Stanley: the Impossible Life of Africa’s Greatest Explorer, Jeal calls the remark “probably the most famous phrase in the history of journalism”. But there’s no mention of it in Stanley’s diary or letters. Livingstone’s journal doesn’t refer to it either. And so it’s a phrase, Jeal concludes, that was “almost certainly never uttered”.
What we do know for sure is that Livingstone did lose his cool that day. He’d been back in Africa for nearly six years now and was in a bad way. His teeth were all gone, flesh-eating ulcers had gnawed at his feet, a succession of grim diseases – pneumonia, dysentery, rheumatic fever - had left him pitifully weak and tortured by continual bleeding from his backside. Exhausted and flat-broke, the haemorrhoidal old hero was living on food handouts from, off all people, Arab slavers. His original fifty-nine followers had shrunk to just four “faithfuls” who spent much of their time stealing and smoking marijuana. Isolated and in constant pain, his only comfort was his Bible which he read repeatedly from cover to cover. When Stanley advanced into town wearing a gleaming white suit and bearing medicine and letters from home it must have seemed to Livingstone that his prayers had pierced the clouds and an angel had tumbled to earth. He held it together long enough for the pair to withdraw to a hut, away from onlookers. “You have brought me new life,” he told the newcomer steadily, repeating the words in disbelief. But then his eyes welled, his throat choked, and he dissolved into a puddle of unmanly tears.

Stanley and Livingstone spent the next four months exploring parts of Lake Tanganyika together. A tight father-son bond was forged during that short time. And when the odd couple parted, in March 1872, it was the younger man’s turn to get misty-eyed. Stanley tried hard to persuade his new friend to return to Britain with him. The old boy badly needed to see a doctor about his bowels and could have used a set of false teeth. But Livingstone refused to quit Africa before he had settled the Nile question and his protégé turned for the coast alone. “I looked back and watched his grey figure, fading dimmer in the distance…” Stanley wrote, “I gulped down my great grief and turned away.” Five months later the triumphant Welshman was back in Europe writing How I Found Livingstone and on his way to becoming one of the most celebrated men on the planet. Livingstone – approaching sixty now but looking far older – had little more than a year to live.

It was the bleeding haemorrhoids that got him in the end. Ash-grey and desperately weak from blood-loss, David Livingstone passed his last night prostrated in a straw hut near the great Bangweulu swamps of modern-day Zambia. He was done-in, finished. His body said no more. In the early hours of 1 May 1873, sensing death’s approach, the old warhorse gathered what remained of his strength and with one last almighty effort dragged himself off his cot to kneel. Next morning his men found him there - stone dead – still on his knees beside the bed, his head in his hands as if in prayer. They buried Livingstone’s heart and other internal organs under a tree. But his body, preserved in salt and wrapped in cloth and bark, was carried more than 1,000 miles to the ocean in a final epic act of loyalty by his faithful followers. A British ship took the doctor home. His withered remains were interred in the nave of Westminster Abbey on 18 April 1874. Benjamin Disraeli, the prime minister, was among the mourners. Queen Victoria sent flowers. Thousands of ordinary people stood outside the ancient church, many of them in tears. And Henry Stanley, the “workhouse bastard” who Livingstone had thought of as a son, was invited to help carry the coffin.

A torch was passed that day under the great gothic arches of Westminster Abbey. Within six months Stanley was back in east Africa determined to complete Livingstone’s work and solve the Nile puzzle once and for always. This time Stanley set off into the interior with two hundred Africans, three English toughs, five dogs - and the backing of newspapers on both sides of the Atlantic. His first job was to carefully survey Lake Victoria, seven hundred miles inland. Next he marched south to Lake Tanganyika, which was also circumnavigated. Then he pushed even further west, deep into the steaming cauldron of Congo, to investigate a river called the Lualaba which Livingstone believed flowed into the Nile. Stanley reached the banks of the wide, fast-flowing Lualaba in October 1876. By now more than a quarter of his followers had already been lost to hunger, disease and desertion. Two of his three Englishmen were dead, killed by fever and smallpox. And dozens of troublesome African warriors had been silenced with bullets along the way. But the hardest part of the journey still lay ahead. Now Stanley would attempt to trace the Lualaba through dense, uncharted jungle – all the way to the sea if necessary - and find out exactly where the mysterious waterway went.

The 1,000-mile odyssey that followed topped even David Livingstone’s epic coast-to-coast slog. With only a handful of small boats between them, the majority of Stanley’s men set off downstream on foot, hacking and groping their way through the nightmarish tangle of branches and creepers that infested the riverbank. Insects assaulted them. Deadly snakes threatened them. Local forest-dwellers, wary of slave raiders, rained spears and poisoned arrows down on them. On New Year’s Day 1877 the weary column faced a terrifying charge by armed tribesmen in war canoes yelling, “Meat! Meat!”. Stanley raised his gun, took aim - and hit two of the advancing cannibals with a single bullet, a fluke shot that abruptly halted the attack.

Things appeared to improve slightly when Stanley bought enough canoes for all his men to continue by water. But then they ran into a new problem: rapids. A chain of seven huge waterfalls, spread over sixty miles, meant the entire flotilla – two dozen boats – had to be pulled repeatedly from the river and dragged around the raging torrents. It took almost a month to hack paths through the thick bush. Day and night the travellers listened to the eerie sound of war-drums drifting out of the forest around them. Human skulls grinned from poles when they passed deserted villages. One night an intruder crept into camp and planted an eighteen-inch knife in a sleeping porter’s chest. But that great chain of waterfalls – later named Stanley Falls – also proved to be hugely significant. It was here that the north-flowing Lualaba changed course and swung sharply westwards, no longer in the direction of the Mediterranean but towards the Atlantic Ocean. That meant the Lualaba could not run into the Nile as Livingstone had suspected. Stanley realised he must instead be on the upper reaches of another huge African river, the Congo. And, through a process of elimination, he now knew that the Nile’s starting point had to be a large outlet he’d earlier seen spilling from Lake Victoria’s northern shore, the one first sighted by John Hanning Speke back in 1858. He’d cracked it. The greatest geographical question of the day was answered. Now all he had to do was stay alive long enough to tell the world about his spectacular discovery.

There was certainly no guarantee of that. Eight-hundred miles of chokingly hot jungle still stood between Stanley and Africa’s Atlantic coast. His porters, rotted by scurvy and flesh-eating ulcers, were on the point of mutiny. His translator would soon go insane and run off into the forest with a parrot on his shoulder, never to be seen again. Meanwhile the surging Lualaba-Congo River – now seven miles wide in places - was dragging his small fleet of canoes towards the ocean at terrifying speed. Boatloads of men were swept over waterfalls. The expedition’s last English officer was among the drowned. Stanley began to sink into a depression. And when he finally arrived at the river’s mouth in August 1877 he looked like death, skull-faced and prematurely grey, his boots rotten, his clothes in tatters. He’d been on the move for nearly three torturous years. His colossal trek – 7,000 miles – had cost more than a hundred lives. But the boy from the north Wales workhouse had also made history. The Nile mystery was settled and, more, Stanley had become the first explorer to successfully trace the immense Congo River from its shadowy beginnings deep within the great forests of central Africa all the way to the Atlantic Ocean.

It was a staggering achievement, arguably the greatest journey of all time. Stanley - still just 36 - returned to Europe and for a short while lived the high life, hobnobbing with royalty and producing another bestseller, Through the Dark Continent. But just two years later he was back in Congo, this time hired by Leopold II, King of the Belgians, to open the region to trade. Africans who met Stanley during this period called him Bula Matari - “breaker of rocks”. For five gruelling years he built roads, set up trading posts and cut land deals with Congolese chiefs. A quarter of all Europeans sent out to help him died. But nothing could kill off the determined little Welshman with the heart of a lion and the constitution of an ox. What did not survive, however, was Stanley’s reputation. Despite Leopold’s lofty rhetoric, the Belgian king did not bring commerce to Congo. The opposite: he looted it. The new colony was turned into his vast private estate and stripped of its valuable rubber, ivory and timber. Enslaved Africans who didn’t work hard enough for the king’s agents had their hands, feet and even breasts cut off. Women were flogged to death, villages burned, the old and sick were bayoneted. Stanley played no part in these atrocities. The worst were committed long after he had returned to Britain. But we judge a man by his friends and, for right or wrong, the name Henry Stanley will be forever linked with the sinister figure of King Leopold II and Belgium’s vicious “rape of the Congo”.

Stanley finally quit central Africa in 1884 and settled in London. He was middle-aged now, comfortably off, keen to be married. His wandering days seemed over, his exploring a thing of the past. But extraordinary events in Sudan, Congo’s neighbour to the north, drew him back for one last impossible adventure. Sudan – Africa’s largest country – was theoretically under joint British-Egyptian rule at the time. But a bloody uprising by Muslim extremists was spreading rapidly. Its leader – the messianic Mahdi, or Guided One – was calling for the holy slaughter of infidel invaders. And his fanatical followers had stunned Britain by sweeping into the capital Khartoum and butchering General Charles Gordon on the steps of his palace. In the far south of the country, Gordon’s governor of Equatoria province – Emin Pasha - found himself cut off from the outside world, isolated and alone, the last colonial standing in a country aflame. The Pasha’s desperate pleas for help found their way to the British press. A rescue operation was mounted. Stanley agreed to lead it. And in March 1887, Africa’s greatest explorer once again found himself back at the mouth of the Congo River and about to embark on his toughest test yet, the Emin Pasha Relief Expedition.

Having already crossed the continent from east to west, Stanley now set out to do the same thing in reverse. His idea was to take his rescue party more than 1,000 miles upstream into the far north-eastern corner of Congo, where the country borders Sudan. From there the men would strike out overland, hacking a path through untrodden forest towards Equatoria and the embattled Pasha. With luck they would reach their man before he was cut to pieces like Gordon. The governor would then be evacuated to Africa’s east coast and returned in triumph to Europe. To this end Stanley set off up the Congo River with an incredible eight hundred porters and soldiers, ten of them British officers. The journey began with everybody squeezed aboard steamboats together with tons of food, guns, gunpowder and ammunition. But at the first set of impassable rapids all the men were forced to disembark, shoulder heavy bundles of supplies and weaponry – and trudge on through the humid jungle in a single line that stretched for four miles. Tropical rain hammered down. The ground turned to sludge. Hundreds of men became feverish. But worse – much worse – was in store further up the gloomy, muddy river.

By June the expedition had reached an isolated village called Yambuya, deep in the interior, where Stanley divided his men into two groups. Anxious to reach Emin Pasha as quickly as possible, he now pressed on with an advance column of four hundred lightly equipped men. The rest of his party stayed at Yambuya with orders to guard the heavy stores and follow later when more porters had been recruited. Splitting the expedition was a mistake. A harrowing year would pass before the two groups were reunited. The men with the rear column would suffer appallingly in their leader’s absence. But Stanley’s main concern in mid-1887 was not those he was leaving behind but rather what lay ahead: a haunting, evil-smelling swamp-jungle which locals called the Ituri Forest.

Stanley was the first white man to set foot in the Ituri Forest. And no sooner had he done so than poison-tipped arrows were once again thumping into the ground around him. One of his deputies, Lieutenant William Stairs, was hit in the chest, just below the heart; his life was saved by the expedition’s doctor who bravely sucked out the poison with his mouth. Others weren’t so lucky, dying of lockjaw several days after being wounded. Dysentery returned to claim more lives. Some men collapsed from hunger and exhaustion. Those too weak to keep up were simply left behind. The rest shambled on, often waist-deep in stinking mud, surviving on a grim diet of slugs, caterpillars and unpalatable wild beans. There was only one bright spot on that terrible forest-crossing: one of the world’s first meeting between white man and pygmy. The young Mbuti woman stood two-foot-nine-inches tall. Stanley found her “very prepossessing”.

The intrepid party eventually emerged from the dark swamp and found Emin Pasha on the sunny banks of Lake Albert. This meeting was to prove much less satisfying. Despite the Pasha’s odd Turkish name, Stanley had always imagined he was coming to the aid of a very British hero, a ramrod military chap who was bravely holding out against all odds. He was therefore surprised to find himself face to face with a short, dark bearded fellow in a neat suit and fez. Far from being British, the governor of Equatoria was a German doctor, born Eduard Schnitzer. Far from being a hero, he had deserted a large family back in Europe. And far from being in desperate straits, he now cheerfully informed his rescuers that he didn’t need relieving after all since the rebel threat had apparently eased. Stanley was not amused. But nor was he going to settle for any nonsense. Too much money and too many lives had been invested in this mission for it to be abandoned, and the Pasha was informed bluntly that he should prepare to be “rescued” - whether he liked it or not. First, however, there was the question of the rearguard. Ominously, nothing had been heard from the men at Yambuya in a year. Stanley realised he now had no choice but to head back into the primeval Ituri Forest and find out exactly what was going on.

What happened next was grotesque, an unfitting finale to twenty amazing years of adventure. Stanley tracked down the remnants of the rear column at a place called Banalya, just ninety-five miles from Yambuya. And as he strode into camp he found himself entering a “charnel house”, a place of horror and death. Half the men he had left behind were now dead, the others walking corpses. Bodies lay unburied on the ground. Skeletal survivors stared ahead blankly, their skins covered in “ulcers as large as saucers”. Just one of the rearguard’s five Europeans remained, Sergeant William Bonny. And it was from him that Stanley first learned of the stomach-churning events of the previous year. Major Edmond Barttelot, the officer in charge, had apparently gone mad and for months had rampaged around flogging, shooting and working men to death. One of his victims died after being given 300 lashes with a hippo-hide whip; another was forced to dig his own grave before being executed for desertion. The major was finally shot by an African. But an even worse crime – one so appalling it’s barely comprehensible – was committed by his deputy, James Sligo Jameson, a member of the Irish whiskey family, who before dying of fever had bought an eleven-year-old girl for six handkerchiefs and handed her to cannibals so he could sketch her being killed, cooked and eaten. Sergeant Bonny showed Stanley the Irishman’s journal, which corroborated the horrific story. He was more circumspect, however, about the brutal beatings that he too had inflicted on the men in his command. And he made no mention at all of the African women that all five European officers had routinely bought or kidnapped for sex.

With the rear column’s wretched survivors in tow, Stanley now undertook a third grim march through the haunting Ituri Forest. He reunited his expedition at Lake Albert. He delivered his reluctant Pasha safely to the coast. But by that point four hundred of his original eight hundred men were dead. Stanley, aged forty-eight, his hair and moustache now snow white, looked like a man of eighty-four. And in a farcical twist the Pasha showed his thanks by promptly disappearing back into the interior and getting himself beheaded by Arab slavers. Stanley would never again put his life on the line in Africa. He settled in Britain, married, adopted a son. He advertised tea, tents, Bovril and soap. He was knighted and became a Liberal-Unionist MP. In 1903 his cast-iron constitution finally failed him and he suffered a paralysing stroke. The following year, aged sixty-three, he was dead. Henry Stanley’s last wish was to be buried in Westminster Abbey alongside his great friend and saintly father-figure, David Livingstone. It was denied. Instead the workhouse bastard turned empire builder, Livingstone’s saviour and Leopold’s stooge, the fierce little Welshman who made light of Africa’s darkest terrors, lies in the quiet Surrey churchyard of Pirbright near his final home. His gravestone is a huge block of granite, taller than a man. It bears his Congolese nickname, Bula Matari. And there’s a fitting epitaph, just one word, carved into the hard stone. It says simply: “Africa.”

* Thanks for visiting Great British Nutters. I hope you have enjoyed what you've read. I no longer post here but have started a new blog called History Nuts. It's along similar lines but with much shorter posts. Please take a look. You can also follow @historynuts on Twitter or via my Thanks again!

Jeal, Tim, Livingstone (Yale, 2001)
Jeal, Tim, Stanley: the Impossible Life of Africa’s Greatest Explorer (London, 2007)
Hochschild, Adam, King Leopold’s Ghost (London, 1999)
Morris, Jan, Heaven’s Command (London, 1973)
Pettitt, Clare, Dr Livingstone, I Presume? (London, 2007)
Ross, Andrew, David Livingstone: Mission and Empire (London, 2002)

Wednesday, February 13, 2013

Percy Fawcett: Zed or dead

Col Percy Harrison Fawcett
“That the cities exist, I know…” – Colonel P H Fawcett

PERCY FAWCETT WAS A TOUGH, hard-headed, practical man, there’s no doubt of that. He was a soldier and surveyor; a fearless explorer; a first-rate sportsman who played cricket for his county. But this man of action was also an oddball, a dreamer, a mystic of the kookiest kind. He believed in ghosts. He dabbled in the occult. And he was convinced that a Lost World lay undiscovered in the heart of the South American jungle.

Percy called this mysterious place “Z”, and finding it was an obsession. He imagined it as a string of exotic tumble-down cities, older than the pyramids of Egypt, buried deep in the Amazon Basin. He believed an advanced people once lived there, set apart from the rest of mankind for millennia, with their own unique arts and sciences and culture.  Whoever discovered Z would unlock the door to a pre-historic civilization. He’d turn history on its head. He’d change our understanding of the world forever.

If anyone could find a Lost World in virgin rainforest, it was Colonel Percy Harrison Fawcett. A powerfully built man, well over six foot, with an impressive military moustache and steely blue eyes, Percy had earned a reputation in the army as a gritty, courageous eccentric. Born in Devon in 1867, he’d joined the Royal Artillery at nineteen, serving in Ireland, Malta and Ceylon (now Sri Lanka). He worked for the British secret service in North Africa. And in 1906, at the age of thirty-seven, he went to South America for the first time, hired out to the government of Bolivia to survey an area of wild forest on its disputed frontier with Brazil – the job that would change his life.

The Amazon can be a terrifying and remote place, even today. Ten times the size of France, there are Indians living there still who’ve never clapped eyes on a white man. As recently as 2008, uncontacted people were spotted from a surveillance plane flying low over unexplored territory. The painted tribesmen were photographed raising longbows to defend themselves against the aircraft. Back in Percy’s day, things were much tougher and far scarier. If a poison-tipped arrow or a dart from a blowpipe didn’t kill you, a wild animal probably would. Unless, of course, some obscure tropical disease hadn’t finished you off first.

But Percy loved jungle life. And after completing that first surveying job, he plunged back in again and again, in thrall to the rainforest’s savage beauty and fascinated by the strange stories of buried treasure and fabulous ruins that he heard from Indians in the interior. Between 1906 and 1925, he led eight epic expeditions to the very wildest parts of Bolivia and Brazil. He always traveled light with scant supplies. He rarely took more than a handful of companions with him. And every one of those mad trips was nothing less than a journey to the depths of hell.

Percy would spend weeks paddling doggedly up uncharted rivers in a leaky canoe, or trudging for days through tangled undergrowth or fetid, stinking swamps. Death stalked him: he saw companions drown and succumb to fever; some died of plain exhaustion; one bloke wandered off into the bush alone and wound up full of arrows. But always Percy pressed on, undaunted and unscathed, British to his bootstraps, apparently impervious to the suffering and fear around him.

Indeed judging by his letters and journals, the kooky colonel viewed the whole tropical horror show as a bit of a lark. The vampire bats that bit his feet while he slept were “a nuisance”. The razor-toothed piranhas that seemed to infest every river he crossed made his “toes tingle”. Nothing fazed him: not rattlesnakes or vipers, crocodiles or jaguars, man-eating ants or spiders the size of tea plates. When Percy shot a giant anaconda, he claimed to have measured its length at an incredible sixty-two feet. That’s almost as long as a bendy bus, twice the size of any other snake ever recorded – and almost certainly a whopping, cheeky lie.

Percy take on South America’s native people was also contrary. Many Europeans of his time regarded Indians as little more than blood-thirsty barbarians, barely humans at all. Not Percy. “I had no apprehensions on this score,” he writes, “as past experience had shown that the savage was invariably painted blacker than he deserved.” He believed Indians were an essentially kind and welcoming bunch who wanted only to be treated fairly by whites. And in 1910 he went out of his way to prove it with a daring trip up the Heath River.

Everyone gave the same warning before he set off: don’t go. The Heath Indians, they said, were the most vicious of all the warring tribes. The journey was unthinkable, an act of madness, a suicide mission. “All the same, we’ll have a shot at it,” was Percy’s cheery reply. And then away he went, barrelling off into the steaming jungle with a battered old Stetson on his head and a pistol tucked into his belt - Indiana Jones on a mission of doom.

Percy took half a dozen men with him, including three English soldiers. His small party poled their boats slowly upstream for a week, slogging deeper and deeper into forbidden territory. And on day seven they rounded a bend, ran aground on a sandbar – and found themselves bang in the middle of an Indian camp. It was a nasty surprise all round. The Heath Indians, expecting attack, started yelling and screaming and fled in their canoes to the opposite riverbank, where they dived behind bushes. “You have nothing to fear,” Percy cried after them. There was a silence, brief and ominous. Then a shower of poisonous arrows came whizzing back over the water by way of response.

What happened next is bizarre. The Europeans had rifles and could have started blazing away. But Percy, preferring diplomacy, instead tried calling out a few Indian words of greeting – despite not being entirely clear off their meaning. “The arrows,” he reports excitedly, “flew thicker than ever!” He tried raising his arms in what he hoped would be seen as a “peace overture”. It wasn’t: the onslaught continued. Then inspiration struck. Percy ordered one of his English soldiers – a musical fellow named Gunner Todd – to unpack his accordion. And to a man the explorers launched into a tub-thumping, spirit-rousing, foot-stomping sing-along.

“The scene must have been ludicrous,” Percy writes. “Here we were dodging arrows and singing at the tops of our voices, while Todd played away and stamped the time with both feet. Anyone coming on this scene would have said we were all roaring drunk.” There’s no record of what the Indians made of it. But after hearty renditions of “Onward Christian Soldiers” and “A Bicycle Made for Two” the arrows stopped. Puzzled native faces began to peep out from the foliage. And Percy seized the moment, bravely paddling across the river to introduce himself and establish friendly relations. “Soon”, he writes triumphantly, Todd was explaining the accordion to the Indians “and calling them ‘Bill’ and ‘Joe’… in broadest Cockney.”

Percy tested his “friendly Indians” theory again three years later when he headed off into another no-go area of central Brazil, homeland to the feared Maricoxis tribe. The Maricoxis were cannibals. They were said to spit their victims on bamboo polls before cooking them over fires, like human kebabs. Once more people advised Percy to rethink his travel plans. “You will be food for the pot,” they warned. Percy listened patiently, politely – and then off he went to meet the man-eaters.

After five days of hacking through dense, trackless forest, he found them. Stumbling into a clearing, he came face to face with a group of the most “villainous savages” he’d ever seen - “great ape-like brutes who looked as if they had scarcely evolved”. The Maricoxis didn’t think much of Percy either and one of their number – enormous, stark naked and “hairy as a dog” – leapt to his feet and confronted the pale-faced intruder. More “hideous apemen” quickly gathered - all armed, “all grunting ‘Eugh! Eugh! Eugh!’” And even the unflappable Percy was forced to admit it: he’d got himself into what he could only describe as “a very delicate situation”.

The naked bushman began an alarming little war dance. He hopped from foot to foot, made weird barking sounds and raised and lowered his bow several times in a threatening fashion. Percy remained calm and looked the fellow steadily in the eye. Then the bruiser stopped abruptly, pulled back his bowstring and pointed the tip of his arrow directly at Percy’s chest. It didn’t look good. The guy meant business. He was clearly thinking about dinner.

Percy reached for the Mauser handgun at his hip. “I never raised it,” he writes, “I just pulled the trigger and banged it off into the ground at the ape-man’s feet.” The explosion sent the startled warrior running off into the forest, his grunting Maricoxis mates not far behind. Percy shot a few rounds into the bushes after them – just to make sure they all kept going. Then he put back his weapon, dusted himself off and carried on with his exploring.

Percy was still wandering around the wildest reaches of the Amazon when World War I broke out in 1914. He went back to Europe to fight of course, serving with distinction on the Western Front. But right after the Armistice he returned to his beloved jungle. And from that point, things changed. Percy was past fifty now, and he started acting like a man with no time to lose. He quit the army. He jacked in his surveying work. He began funding his own expeditions through newspaper deals. And for the first time he concentrated all his energies on what had begun only as an eccentric hobby, a quirky side-project – the quest to find Z.

By now Percy believed he had a clear idea where he’d find his Lost World. Years of information-gathering had convinced him that it lay deep within the Mato Grosso, then an almost entirely uncharted area of wilderness in the exact centre of South America. He kept the precise location to himself. But he had a definite spot in mind. And despite the extreme dangers of the region, he felt confident that – “given normal luck” – he could get there. Percy had also concocted a remarkable theory to explain Z’s spectacular rise and fall. It had been destroyed, he concluded, by the same mysterious catastrophe which sank the legendary island of Atlantis. This great cataclysm had scattered its people. But ever the optimist, he hoped – indeed expected - to find a few descendants of the survivors residing still among the fabulous ruins.

Percy made his first all-out bid to find his vanished cities in 1920, heading into the Mato Grosso with an enormous Australian named “Butch” Reilly and a young adventure-seeker called Felipe. The trio went north from the region’s capital, Cuiaba, directly into swamplands. And they immediately found themselves battered by rainstorms, tortured by biting flies and subjected to kamikaze attacks by monster-sized bees which targeted their faces and necks. The men brought two oxen and two horses to carry their gear. All four animals either drowned or collapsed and died from the strain.

Despite being “six feet five and broad as a barn door”, Butch Reilly broke first and turned back. Percy and Felipe ploughed on manfully, heavy loads hanging off their backs, sodden boots tearing agonizingly at their feet. But it was a losing battle. Less than two months into the expedition, Felipe developed “a sort of got-it-all-over disease”. A broken man, he begged to be left by the trail to die. Percy wanted to go on but had no choice: he sounded the retreat and the pair trudged despondently back to civilisation, slipping and stumbling in the slime.

That abortive trip proved one thing to Percy beyond all doubt: if he was going to reach Z at all he needed to find a travelling companion who could match his own extraordinary powers of endurance. Time and again, he’d outlasted his men on the trail. He needed someone special at his side – someone who, like him, was capable of driving themselves beyond normal limits; someone whose courage would never falter, whose strength would never break. In 1925, finally, Percy believed he’d found that man. It was his son, Jack Fawcett.

Jack was a big, strong, serious-minded lad who, like dad, neither drank nor smoked. At school he’d distinguished himself in sports, in fights, and by standing up to severe canings from his headmaster. Twenty-one now, he was old enough to join his dad in the jungle and itching to do so. Jack’s best mate – a young man called Raleigh Rimmell – was also up for it. And Percy was delighted to have them on board. It didn’t bother him that both were young and neither had any experience of exploring the tropics. “Jack and Raleigh will have to learn to swim…” he writes, “by being flung into the deep water.”

By early March 1925 the boys were in deep all right. They’d crossed the Atlantic to Brazil’s east coast and spent eight monotonous days on a crowded riverboat with Percy, chugging inland through dull swampy country. They’d already been stung by horseflies, attacked by flying termites and devoured by great clouds of mosquitoes. It was very hot, it was very rainy. And there was only one thing of which they could be sure: their lives were going to get a whole lot tougher before they could expect to find Z, hopefully sometime in August.

The three Englishmen left Cuiaba on 20 April and travelled along the same torturous route that Percy had taken five years earlier. They took with them two Indian guides and a dozen cargo animals - and they made steady progress. On 16 May the travellers were in good spirits when eight curious Indians joined them in camp. Father and son performed a little concert for the naked guests – Jack on his piccolo, Percy playing the banjo he carried with him always. Three days later there were more celebrations as Jack turned twenty-two. It was, he said, the most interesting birthday he’d ever had.

On 29 May, they reached Dead Horse Camp, the spot where one of Percy’s pack-animals had died on his previous expedition with Felipe. Their Indian helpers turned back at this point, too frightened to go on. “We have reached here after rather unusual difficulties,” Percy writes to his wife, Nina, in a letter sent back with the guides. He tells her of “bugs galore” and millions of “stinging horrors”. He says he’s worried about Raleigh, whose foot has become swollen and ulcerous from a tick bite. But otherwise Percy’s upbeat, hopeful. He signs off in bullish fashion: “You need have no fear of any failure”.

Percy, Jack and Raleigh marched out confidently from Dead Horse Camp the next day with their rifles over their shoulders and their food packs on their backs. And that’s it. That’s all we know. None of them was ever heard from again.

At first, no one was bothered by the silence. People were used to Percy vanishing for months, even years, at a stretch. But by 1928 it was clear something was wrong. And soon the speculation began. Were they dead? Had they reached Z? Perhaps they’d gone mad and were wandering in the forest still, befuddled and lost. Some of Percy’s more crackpot supporters suggested he’d set up a commune in the jungle. Others became convinced he was being held prisoner by an isolated tribe who revered him as a god.

A Royal Navy man, Commander George Dyott, was the first to try to solve the mystery. Supported by twenty-six men and seventy-four mules and bullocks, he followed Percy, Jack and Raleigh’s trail to a remote village beyond Dead Horse Camp. There he was told – in sign language – that a vicious neighbouring tribe had massacred the English travellers three years earlier. In 1930 a reporter called Albert de Winton set off into the forest to try to stand up Dyott’s story – he never returned. Scores of journalists, scientists, mavericks and adventurers have been seeking to do the same ever since. None have succeeded. Many disappeared in the process.

There’s been the occasional intriguing report of a sighting. In 1927, a French engineer emerged from the jungle claiming he’d met an old white man there who’d introduced himself as “Fawcett”. In 1932, a Swiss hunter said he’d spoken to a ragged European fellow in the bush who wore animal skins and had wept over his lost son. But the descriptions provided were never quite right. Percy’s family was never convinced. And besides, Nina Fawcett, as kooky as her husband, said she was in telepathic communication with her man and he’d assured her that all was well, Jack and Raleigh were fine, and the search for Z was continuing apace.

So who knows, maybe Percy and the boys did find their Lost World. Perhaps the colonel’s unshakeable faith was finally rewarded, his fantastic dream brilliantly fulfilled. “Whether we get through, and emerge again, or leave our bones to rot in there, one thing’s certain,” Percy said before setting out on his last great climactic journey, “the answer to the enigma of Ancient South America – and perhaps of the prehistoric world – may be found when those old cities are located and opened up to scientific research. That the cities exist, I know…”

* Thanks for visiting Great British Nutters. I hope you have enjoyed what you've read. I no longer post here but have started a new blog called History Nuts. It's along similar lines but with much shorter posts. Please take a look. You can also follow @historynuts on Twitter or via my Thanks again!

Fawcett, Percy, Exploration Fawcett (London, 1988)
Fleming, Peter, Brazilian Adventure (London, 1933)
Churchward, Robert, Wilderness of Fools (London, 1936)
Dyott, G M, Man Hunting in the Jungle (London, 1930)
Mair, George, Doctor Goes West (1958)
Cummins, Geraldine, The Fate of Colonel Fawcett (London, 1955)
Williams, Harry, With Colonel Fawcett in the Amazon Basin (London, 1960)

Friday, October 10, 2008

John Hornby: the Slapdash Explorer

“The finest man I have ever known and one who has made a foundation to build my life upon” – Edgar Christian

Hornby's final resting place
THERE ARE TWO WAYS of looking at Jack Hornby: lovable oddball-adventurer or hare-brained suicidal idiot. Either way, he’s a hard man to dislike. Even by the eccentric standards of British Arctic explorers, Jack’s life – and death – were spectacularly strange.

He was born in Cheshire in 1880, the son of Albert “Monkey” Hornby, a celebrated sportsman who captained England at rugby and cricket and played football for Blackburn Rovers. Like his dad, Jack was a pocket Hercules – short, wiry and strong. And like his old man, he was educated at Harrow. His was a life of pomp and privilege. And at the age of twenty-three, he threw it all in and left Britain in search of adventure.

Jack sailed to Canada and headed straight up into its extreme, frozen north – the so-called Barren Ground or Barrens. And for the next quarter-century, the tough little toff wandered aimlessly up there, embarking on some of the most fantastically ill-equipped and ill-judged expeditions of all time. He was what you might call a slapdash explorer. Unprepared and Unconcerned was his motto; surviving by the skin of his teeth his idea of fun.

The Barrens are brutal: a landscape of icy plains and lakes that stretch flat and treeless for a thousand miles along the Arctic Circle. It has a terrible beauty. Winter lasts nine months; temperatures plunge to glacial depths; snowstorms can kill a man in minutes. Yet the harder things got, the more Jack enjoyed himself. The colder and hungrier he became, the more he felt alive. “Not many men know how to starve properly,” Jack once boasted, “but I think you can be taught.”

He would be gone for months, sometimes years – heading out into the Great Unknown with little more than a rifle, a fishnet and a belly-full of British pluck. He moved around by canoe, dog sledge or on foot, dragging his gear behind him. He built his own shelters. He hunted and trapped his own food. Sometimes he travelled with Indians, sometimes with other whites – but mostly he operated alone.

When he did come in from the cold, his reappearance always caused a stir. His hair would be long and tangled, his beard bushy, his trousers ragged. Jack never washed in the Barrens and didn’t care who knew it. And once he’d stocked up on fresh supplies of tea and bullets, he was always in a tearing hurry to get back to the wilds.

Jack’s grit and stamina became the stuff of legend. They called him the Hermit of the North. He was the lone wolf, the white man who could live off the land like an Indian – even in the frozen sub-Arctic. The Edmonton Journal reported that the eccentric Englishman “could out-run any Indian on the trail, could outlast any Indian in endurance and could out-starve any Indian when there was nothing left but starvation”.

The outbreak of 1914-18 war saw Jack in France, where he fought with honour in the trenches. But within a year of that blood-bath ending he was back in the Barrens and pulling off his oddest feat yet: enduring a bitter winter living alone in an abandoned wolf’s den. He headed out to the wilds alone again the following year – one of the coldest on record – and nearly starved to death as the thermometer sank to minus 62F. The winter of 1924-25 was a similar desperate struggle for survival, this time spent holed up in a freezing cave with another adventurous Englishman, James Critchell-Bullock.

“Rather more than eccentric” was Critchell-Bullock’s verdict on Jack when the skeletal pair finally crawled back to civilization. Joining mad Jack in the Barrens had nearly cost Critchell-Bullock his life. Yet the newcomer found it impossible to dislike his reckless, gutsy little companion. Critchell-Bullock called him “the most lovable creature I ever knew”.

Jack headed to Europe again in 1926 for his famous dad’s funeral. And while he was there he picked up another fan – his young cousin Edgar Christian. Just seventeen and straight out of public school, Edgar was a trusting, ambitious kid in awe of his heroic relative. He was also tall and strong and keen to see the Canadian wilds. So Jack, now forty-five, agreed to take the lad on his next expedition – the trip, he figured, would make a man of him.

Surprisingly, Edgar’s dad, Colonel Wilfred Christian, agreed to let his son go. He wrote wishing the lad every success in his “great adventure” with Jack. “You are out to lay the foundation of your life…” the colonel told Edgar, “all your future depends on how you face the next few years.” No one warned the boy how savage the Barrens can be. And Edgar was too young to know that lovable lunatics like Jack Hornby can be dangerous men to follow.

The cousins sailed to Montreal in April, 1926, and trained it across Canada to the northern city of Edmonton, the stepping off point for expeditions into the Barrens. People they met along the way wondered what Jack thought he was doing taking a teenager with him up to the edge of the Arctic. Some tried to talk him out of it. But Jack waved them away. He was confident that this trip, like all the others, would work out just fine.

In Edmonton, the pair ran into Harold Adlard, a young shop worker from Dorking in Surrey who was also mustard-keen to see the Barrens. Jack had known and liked Harold for years – so on a whim he too was enlisted. It doesn’t seem to have bothered Jack for a moment that both his young companions were “greenhorns”. Neither had any experience of survival in the wilds. Each was putting his young life in Jack’s gnarly hands.

The unlikely trio set out on 25 May, traveling by train for a day and then, when the rail line ended, transferring to a large canoe and taking to the water. They paddled north for more than a thousand miles – along mighty rivers, across enormous lakes, past remote Indian villages and Christian missions, beyond the last isolated cabins and trading posts, then further north still till they crossed the tree-line where the Canadian forest stops suddenly and the flat, naked plains of the Barrens begin.

The going was rough. Progress was slow. The mosquitoes made mincemeat of Edgar. And the three adventurers had to keep dragging their boat out of the water and carrying it overland, together with all their equipment and supplies, around rapids and waterfalls.

The kit, although basic, still weighed about a ton: they had rifles, ammunition, axes, stoves, a tent, tea, blankets and animal traps. But oddly Jack had taken no shotgun, the best weapon for hunting small animals. And the few hardy fur trappers and frontiersmen they met on route noticed something else about Jack’s little party: their supplies of flour and dried meat looked alarmingly thin for a winter in the Barrens.

Jack and the lads traveled slowly north for more than three months. In June, Edgar turned eighteen. In July, they met a Swedish trapper going in the opposite direction – he was the last person they saw on their journey. In August, the trio watched in awe as thousands of caribou (reindeer) thundered past on their annual southward migration. And at the start of September, later than expected, they finally arrived at their destination, a wooded bend on the Thelon River, high up in the Barren Ground.

Jack had passed here the previous year and marked it down as a perfect spot to overwinter. The place was a little miracle: an oasis of trees, grass and flowers in the middle of the bald, rocky Barrens. Jack was convinced they’d find plenty of animals to eat amongst all that foliage – even in coldest months, even when most creatures had moved south or gone to ground. And the icy months would soon be on them. The river was about to freeze making travel impossible. So he ordered a halt and the men made camp.

This was Jack Hornby at his most slapdash. He had previously seen the Thelon “oasis” in high summer - there was no evidence to suggest it’d be teaming with life during winter too. Yet he felt confident that he and his young companions would be okay here. He convinced himself they’d be able to catch fish, trap birds and shoot prime caribou in these woods till spring arrived. He was sure of it. He was positive. And, not for the first time, he was spectacularly wrong.

It took a further two months for Jack, Harold and Edgar to build a log cabin and storehouse, and by the time that work was done they were already hungry. Jack’s imagined herds of caribou never arrived. The men caught next to nothing in the traps they set. And as winter started to bite the river ice got so thick, fishing became a nightmare.

On 14 October, Edgar started a diary. Jack, he notes, had already started to leave the Thelon woods and go out onto the freezing, windswept Barrens to look for caribou. But he shot nothing. Instead the hungry men had to make do with the occasional trapped bird or weasel or scrawny fox. Sometimes they ate mice. And then, at the end of October, the first blizzard of winter arrived, trapping the men in their cabin.

Things got worse in November. The days closed in, the snow underfoot became deep and treacherous. Frostbite threatened if the men spent too long outdoors hunting or chopping firewood. On 27 November, Harold marked his twenty-seventh birthday in subdued style. That same day Jack was forced to dig up an emergency stash of fish that he’d buried in the frozen earth only a few weeks earlier.

Through December the adventurers continued to scrape by on slim pickings: a hare one day, a wolverine another, a trout the next. Some days they caught nothing at all. Two long hunting trips into the Barrens proved fruitless. Harold became dull and silent from hunger – “not quite the ticket”, according to Edgar. And the teenager himself was near-paralyzed by the cold.

Only Jack remained unbowed. The caribou had failed and other smaller animals were thin on the ground - but he remained upbeat. Something would turn up, he was sure of it. There was still some flour and sugar left which would keep them going for a while. And after that, well, Jack figured they would just have to tough it out – his young companions would have to learn how to “starve properly”.

In January the thermometer fell to minus 54F. A three-day blizzard made gathering food impossible. Jack kept his companions going by collecting old bones that lay discarded in the snow outside the cabin, and then smashing and boiling them to make a nutrient-rich grease which he mixed with flour to make a meal of sorts.

At the start of February, a small miracle – Harold shot a scrawny caribou spotted wandering on the Barrens and it gave them enough meat for six days. But by 15 February, things were once again looking grave. More fish and animal scraps were found in the snow and boiled. “Hope to God, we get caribou soon as nothing seems to get in traps…” writes Edgar in his diary, “flour is nearly gone & we are grovelling round for rotten fish.”

It was now so cold Edgar could barely bring himself to step outside. Harold’s face was frostbitten so he too had to stay indoors. But as the lads slowed down, Jack went into overdrive, determined to keep his two greenhorns afloat. He gave them his share of the food scraps they’d scraped from the snow, convinced that he could run on empty. And, despite a frostbitten hand, he took up his rifle almost every day and forced himself to march out onto the frozen plains to look for caribou. Each night he returned empty-handed.

By the middle of March, Edgar was starting to worry about his cousin. Jack’s toughnut behaviour was unsustainable; he was beginning to fail. He “looks very poor”, Edgar notes in his journal, “and must feel it though he will keep a-going”. Jack did keep a-going, until 4 April. On that day he made his last desperate - and once again fruitless - trip out onto his beloved Barrens. But then Jack Hornby’s strength was spent.

All three men were now filthy, soot-covered skeletons. And for the next fortnight, not one of them trapped or shot a single animal. They were surviving solely on ground-up bones, discarded fish guts and boiled animal hides – anything that might bring them a drop of nourishment. Too weak to cut fresh wood, they began dismantling the storehouse they’d worked so hard to build and feeding the logs into their stove to keep warm. Harold was staggering round in a fog, a broken man. Edgar was so weak he could barely stand. And on 9 April, Jack collapsed in agony, pain tearing through his left leg which he’d hurt in a fall and was refusing to heal.

The next morning, Edgar’s diary has Jack “looking very bad… [he] seems to be all in”. And that evening, after six months of near-starvation, Jack finally admitted defeat and set down his will, leaving everything to his young cousin. He also wrote to Edgar’s parents, calling their boy “a perfect companion” and expressing hope for the lad’s safe return. And then, after doggedly clinging to life for another grim week, Jack Hornby, the Hermit of the North, the slapdash explorer, died of hunger at the age of forty-six.

His death knocked Edgar for six. The boy sat stunned as Harold took care of Jack’s bony body, wrapping it in a groundsheet and dragging it outside the cabin. By the next day the plucky teenager had regained his balance. “We are both very weak,” he writes in his diary, “but more cheery and determined to pull through and go out to let the world know of the last days of the finest man I have ever known and one who has made a foundation to build my life upon.” But the teenager was being hopelessly optimistic. Within days Harold too was sinking fast. On 27 April, he suffered a hunger-induced stroke. Five days later, he had another. And by the next evening Harold too was dead, leaving eighteen-year-old Edgar Christian alone in the Barrens.

The boy was now so skinny his “joints seemed to jerk in and out of position instead of smoothly”. He was suffering nose bleeds. Moving around was “a wobbly process”. But it was May - spring was close. The lad knew that soon, any day now, the caribou would come thundering north again in their thousands. If he could hang on till then and shoot one, he’d be able to regain his strength. The caribou migration would save him, just as Jack had predicted. He would escape the Barrens. He would make his cousin proud.

Despite his suffering, Edgar kept up that diary. He records fighting off fevers. He describes moving around like a zombie, his brain sluggish from lack of food. But he never panicked and he never gave up. Every day Edgar waited for the caribou’s return and for spring’s sunshine to once again fill the Thelon oasis with life. And he waited in vain: the sky above him stayed cold and grey, the clump of trees around his cabin remained dead and wintry.

Edgar made his last journal entry on 1 June, 1927. Like Jack before him, he describes feeling “all in” and “weaker than I have ever been in my Life”. Then he pulled out a separate sheet of paper and wrote farewell notes to his parents. “Bye Bye now Love & Thanks for all you have ever done for me,” he tells his dad. “Please don’t blame dear Jack,” he asks his mum. And after stashing his papers safely inside the cabin’s empty stove, he dragged himself onto his bunk, pulled a red blanket up over his hollow face, closed his eyes and waited for sleep to take him.

Just over a year later a party of mining prospectors passed along the Thelon River and discovered Edgar Christian’s body still lying on the bunk. A search of the log cabin turned up the boy’s diary and a few ounces of tea, but no other food. Outside the prospectors found the remains of Harold Adlard and Jack Hornby lying head to toe in the dirt. It was July 1928 now, high summer in the Barrens, and all around them the wooded bend on the Thelon River was teeming with life.

* Thanks for visiting Great British Nutters. I hope you have enjoyed what you've read. I no longer post here but have started a new blog called History Nuts. It's along similar lines but with much shorter posts. Please take a look. You can also follow @historynuts on Twitter or via my Thanks again!

Powell-Williams, Clive, Cold Burial: A Journey into the Wilderness (London, 2001)
Waldron, Malcolm, Snow Man: John Hornby in the Barren Lands (New York, 1997 reprint)
Whalley George, The Legend of John Hornby (London, 1962)

Monday, September 8, 2008

Robert Baden-Powell: Boy’s Own Adventurer

“We are having a very enjoyable game” – RSS Baden-Powell

Cool as a cucumber: Col B-P
ROBERT STEPHENSON SMYTH BADEN-POWELL was small and wiry and had receding red hair– an unlikely looking military hero. But inside he was as tough as teak. And at the bloody Siege of Mafeking the little chap proved himself a giant.

Mafeking was a remote outpost of the Empire in southern Africa, a small, defenceless, tin-roofed town that found itself on the front line of the Boer War in 1899. Within days of the conflict breaking out it was surrounded by the enemy. They’d come expecting a walkover.

The Boers were led by General Cronje, a veteran hard case known as the “old fox”. He had seven thousand troops in his command and an impressive battery of heavy artillery. Colonel Baden-Powell was in charge at Mafeking. He had just two thousand men, most untrained part-timers, plus an ancient cannon that had previously been used as a gatepost. On the face of it, Mafeking didn’t have a hope.

A more rational man might have run up the white flag. But Baden-Powell had orders to hold the town, so that’s precisely what he intended to do. And while he was at it, he planned to have himself a ripping adventure worthy of the pages of the “Boy’s Own Paper”.

Baden-Powell – “BP” to his mates – was a product of the Victorian public school system. Years of cold baths, sound thrashings and sport had made him the man’s man he was. He had no time for chaps he considered “wasters” or fellows inflicted with “girlitis”. Life, for him, was like a football match. Success was about pulling together.

Despite the long odds, BP was convinced that Mafeking had a (slim) chance if it kept its collective chin up and stood united. Team spirit was what it was all about - and fate had cast him in the role of team captain. In the famous words of the Victorian poet Sir Henry Newbolt, it was time to “Play up! play up! and play the game!”.

The Boers began their bombardment at 9am on 16 October, 1899, and the people of Mafeking braced themselves for total destruction. Dozens of missiles came whistling over a defensive ring of barbed wire and hastily dug trenches. Shells ploughed into the market square, sailed clean through flimsy mud buildings, smashed trees and destroyed telegraph poles. The pounding continued for hours.

But Baden-Powell was ahead of the game. Already the town had been honeycombed with underground bomb shelters where people were safe from shrapnel. A dummy fort with dummy soldiers and fake guns had been built to draw fire away from real targets. Hundreds of fake mines – boxes filled with sand – had been laid with great ceremony to discourage an all-out Boer charge. And the result of that first onslaught? Nobody was killed; no one was even injured.

When the dust settled, an enemy messenger came forward and asked Baden-Powell for Mafeking’s surrender - “to avoid further bloodshed”. The colonel gave him a hard look. “Certainly,” he told the man, “but when will the bloodshed begin?” British casualties thus far, he added, were one chicken dead and a donkey wounded. It was one-nil to Baden-Powell.

General Cronje response was predictable: more bombs and bullets. But Mafeking held steady and Baden-Powell refused to be shaken or cowed. After one particularly heavy bombardment, the colonel sent a runner through enemy lines with a note to reassure the outside world that Mafeking was okay. The message was telegraphed throughout the British Empire. “October 21st. All well,” it read, “Four hours’ bombardment. One dog killed.”

As the Boers continued to blaze away, the colonel’s courage and calmness under fire became legendary. “To see BP go whistling down the street… bright and confident is better than a pint of dry champagne,” wrote a newspaper man in Mafeking. Good humour and optimism came off him like heat. Major Alick Godley, thought it “splendid” to see his boss sitting in a chair surrounded by officers “dictating messages as cool as a cucumber” as shells burst around him.

During the day, BP would stand atop a wooden lookout platform above his headquarters, surveying the town’s defences like Admiral Nelson. At night, he’d crawl into no-man’s land on his belly to spy on enemy positions, amazing his men when he came wriggling back towards Mafeking’s trenches at dawn. He never seemed to sleep and he never stopped humming and whistling. He acted like he was invincible.

It was all an act of course. There were times when Baden-Powell’s heart must have been in his boots. He knew better than anyone that if the Boers were bold enough to try an all-out attack they’d crush Mafeking. And the alternative was equally dire: a grim, drawn-out siege. How long could his isolated garrison hold out under the baking African sun before disease, shells and starvation overwhelmed them?

But surrender was out of the question, and there was nothing to be gained from moping around. So BP kept smiling and whistling and looking on the bright side. If this was to be the final curtain, he was determined that he and his Mafeking team would face it with a bow.

Civilians as well as soldiers were holed up in the besieged town – about 7,500 blacks, 1,700 whites, a few Indians and some Chinese. And since it had been agreed with the Boers that there would be no fighting on Sundays, Baden-Powell turned the day of rest into a day of fun. He organised cricket and football matches. There were gymnastic displays. People promenaded around town in their Sunday best as though they were in London’s Hyde Park. Music hall shows and dances went on into the night.

The entertainment sometimes got bizarre. There were competitions to find the “best siege baby”, the best bull, the finest cow. A parade of old carriages was held. And whenever the colonel put on his “world-wide show of singing and dancing and playing the fool” all sorts of wannabes queued up to strut and grin their hour upon the stage.

One bloke turned out to be a decent conjurer. Others sang comic songs or recited poems. But the star of the show was always none other than Baden-Powell himself. The colonel would bring the house down by prancing around in a wig and ladies’ clothing or impersonating a cockney barrow boy. Then he’d wrap up his act by playing “Home, Sweet Home” on the mouth organ and exit to thunderous applause.

It was a far cry from what was happening on weekdays. At the start of the standoff, the Boers had made several attempts to overrun Mafeking’s defensive trenches. But after facing unexpectedly fierce resistance they switched tactics. Commandant Snyman took over from General Cronje. A massive siege gun arrived from Pretoria pulled by sixteen oxen. The Boers dug in and focused on trying to bomb and starve the little town into submission.

No one in Mafeking was safe as hundreds of shells and thousands of bullets rained down. A small boy was mortally wounded when a bomb dropped on him from the sky while he was playing marbles. A woman took a stray bullet in the neck and died instantly while pouring her husband a cup of coffee. The town’s makeshift hospital and cemetery quickly began to fill.

Frontline clashes claimed many more lives. One of the bloodiest incidents came ten weeks into the siege - at dawn on 26 December, 1899. BP ordered a surprise attack on a Boer position known as Game Tree Fort to try to knock out a gun. The assault was a disaster: twenty-six men were killed, twenty-three wounded, and a handful captured. The Boers lost just three soldiers. The day became known in Mafeking as Black Boxing Day.

As the New Year approached and the nineteenth century drew to a close, the future could not have looked grimmer for Baden-Powell and his team of part-time warriors. They remained outgunned and outnumbered. Rumours that British reinforcements were on their way had come to nothing. The enemy kept lobbing shells. And fever, diphtheria and dysentery had started to take a deadly grip on the town.

To make matters worse, Mafeking’s food was running out. By February 1900, the first three deaths from starvation were reported among the poorest black Africans.

Yet Baden-Powell remained chipper. He issued special postage stamps for “the independent republic of Mafeking” with his face on them in place of the queen – everyone thought that a splendid joke. He kept a special list of miraculous escapes that people marvelled at (a guy who got shot in the head was at number one: the bullet passed through his skull, just behind the forehead, and exited without causing any serious damage). And he threw his weight behind the “Mafeking Mail” newspaper (slogan: “Issued Daily, Shells Permitting”).

The Boers had long ago cut Mafeking’s rail and telegraph links. But thanks to brave African runners who risked their necks to slip past the encircling enemy with notes, some communication with the outside world was maintained. On 12 April a telegram arrived for BP from a surprising fan back in Britain – the queen. The message was short and sweet: “I continue watching with confidence and admiration the patient and resolute defence which is so gallantly maintained under your ever resourceful command. Victoria R.I.”

As the siege dragged into its seventh month, the colonel’s unflagging boyishness even seemed to rub off on the Boers. One day an enemy commander sent over a jokey note asking if his men could join in one of the garrison’s Sunday cricket matches. “Sir, I should like nothing better,” was Baden-Powell’s neatly typed reply, “after the match in which we are at present engaged is over. But just now we are having our innings and have so far scored 200 days, not out, against the bowling of Cronje, Snyman, Botha… we are having a very enjoyable game.”

Around this time Baden-Powell also sent an amazingly chirpy telegram to his commander-in-chief, Lord Roberts. “After two hundred days’ siege… the patience of everybody in Mafeking in making the best of things… is a revelation to me,” it reads. “The men… have adapted themselves to their duties with the greatest zeal, readiness, and pluck, and the devotion of the women is remarkable. With such a spirit our organization runs like clockwork, and I have every hope that it will pull us successfully through.”

The men and women who were “making the best of things” and “having a very enjoyable game” were by this stage close to starvation. Horse meat and a rough porridge made from oat husks was the only food. Malnourished horses, BP notes in his diary, were “dying as fast as they can be made into sausages”.

Mafeking’s native Africans raided Boer cattle at night to bring in more meat. A soup kitchen was set up for the poorest and weakest. But a staggering seven hundred blacks still died of hunger and disease during the siege, many of them children. That’s hundreds more than the total killed by shells or in battle, black and white.

By the start of May the situation was dire. About a quarter of Mafeking’s fighting men were now dead or wounded in action. The last scraps of food would be gone within a few weeks. It looked like the game was almost up and Baden-Powell was forced to start thinking about how he might evacuate the town.

But then, finally, some good news. Word reached Mafeking that a British relief force was on its way – two thousand fresh men, artillery and machine guns. The Boers got wind of this too and made a last desperate attempt to storm the stubborn, bullet-riddled town. But again BP’s half-starved men held firm. The British reinforcements fought their way steadily closer, driving the enemy before them.

On 16 May an advance patrol of eight riders reached Mafeking to be greeted by a nonchalant passer-by. “Oh yes, I heard you were knocking about,” was his only comment. But by the time the main relief force marched in the following morning, such battle-hardened stoicism had evaporated. Gaunt faces stared at the rescuers “as though they were angels”, wrote a journalist who arrived that day. “One man tried to speak; then he swore; then he buried his face in his arms and sobbed.”

The siege was over. The game was won. The people of Mafeking had gone two hundred and seventeen days not out against the enemy’s fast bowlers. And the victory was largely down to one remarkable man – their gutsy, unflappable and always cheery team captain, Colonel RSS Baden-Powell.

When the news reached Britain of the relief of Mafeking, the country went nuts. Thousands poured onto the streets of London to celebrate. Baden-Powell became a national hero. The little colonel was quickly promoted to a bigwig major-general.

And of course Baden-Powell’s story doesn’t end there. Within a few years he’d gone on to create the world’s greatest youth movement, the Boy Scouts. The movement’s original ten-point Scout Law has Mafeking written all over it. “A Scout goes about with a smile on and whistling,” reads law number eight. “It cheers him and cheers other people, especially in time of danger.”

* Thanks for visiting Great British Nutters. I hope you have enjoyed what you've read. I no longer post here but have started a new blog called History Nuts. It's along similar lines but with much shorter posts. Please take a look. You can also follow @historynuts on Twitter or via my Thanks again!

Jeal, Tim, Baden-Powell (London, 1989)
Ferguson, Niall, Empire: How Britain Made the Modern World (London, 2003)
Aitken, W Francis, Baden-Powell, The Hero of Mafeking (London, 1900)

Monday, August 11, 2008

Alexander Gordon Laing: Mission to Timbuktu

“I shall show myself to be… a man of enterprise and genius” – Alexander Gordon Laing

Alexander Gordon Laing
THE FIRST EUROPEAN EXPLORER to reach Timbuktu was a dashing young Scotsman called Alexander Gordon Laing. It was a staggering feat, achieved alone against appalling odds. And it was supposed to turn Laing into a star.

Timbuktu was the ultimate prize for adventurers back in the early nineteenth century. The “lost city”, hidden somewhere in Africa’s vast unexplored interior, was believed to be dripping with gold and precious jewels. Finding the place - and putting Britain’s stamp on it before the French did – was something of a national obsession.

Laing was always confident that he would succeed where dozens before him had failed. A tall, tough, handsome bloke with wild curly hair and whopping sideburns, by the mid-1820s he’d already made a bit of a name for himself in West Africa as a brave soldier and adventurer. He had just turned thirty when he set his sights on Timbuktu.

The plan was bold and direct: Laing would sail to the north African port of Tripoli where he would brush up on his Arabic and hire some camels. From there he would head south into the furnace of the Sahara Desert. Then he’d simply keep going, travelling from well to well, oasis to oasis, till he found his city of gold.

And he wasn’t going to stop at Timbuktu. After locating the legendary city, he planned to press on and find the mysterious river Niger. No one had yet mapped that great West African waterway or worked out where it spilled into the sea. Laing, never short of self-confidence, planned to solve that puzzle too. “I shall do more than has ever been done before,” he wrote to his parents, “and shall show myself to be what I have ever considered myself, a man of enterprise and genius.”

Genius or not, it was never going to be easy. The adventurous Scotsman would be heading into the world’s largest and harshest desert without a clear idea of where he was going. The Sahara was home to some of the cruellest and most ruthless bandits on the planet, men who wouldn’t think twice about killing someone for their boots. And if a gang of murderous thieves didn’t get him, malaria, dysentery or some other grim tropical disease almost certainly would.

The history of British exploration in that part of the world didn’t exactly bode well. For decades, young white men with a thirst for glory had been heading into Africa’s hostile interior to try to unlock the mysteries within. Most never came back. Twenty years earlier another Scot, Mungo Park, had disappeared while also trying to trace the Niger to its mouth. Forty-six Europeans set out on that journey with Park; not one of them survived.

Now Laing was going to try something similar, only without the support of a small army of compatriots. But rather than spending time worrying about it, the young soldier of excessive optimism did something no one could have predicted – he fell madly in love. Within days of arriving in Tripoli, his heart was fixed on Emma Warrington, the “delicate, flower-like” daughter of the city’s British Consul. Within weeks, Laing was down on one knee.

Emma’s dad, Hanmer Warrington, was amazed. “Although I am aware that Major Laing is a very gentlemanly, honourable and good man still I must allow a more wild, enthusiastic and romantic attachment never before existed,” he wrote to Laing’s boss in London, the colonial secretary Lord Bathurst. But Emma didn’t care; she was swept away by her handsome suitor. The love-struck couple tied the knot on 14 July, 1825. And just two days later Laing kissed his new bride goodbye, mounted his camel and set off into the Sahara on his death or glory mission.

We’ll never know the full horror of what the adventurous Scot went through on his long, lonely trek across the desert. His private journal was lost and Laing, as we shall see, never got to tell his tale. But several letters he sent back to Tripoli in the hands of messengers do survive. And these speak of a brutal, spirit-crushing journey plagued by hunger, thirst and horrific violence.

Laing left Tripoli with a small group of brave supporters: a Caribbean-born servant called Jack le Bore who’d been with him for years; two African ship’s carpenters named Roger and Harry (they’d come in handy when he reached the Niger); a freed slave called Bongola; and a Jewish interpreter, Abraham Nahun. Outside the city’s gates, they teamed up with Sheikh Babani, a merchant from the desert who promised to guide Laing to Timbuktu in ten weeks.

The intrepid party moved steadily south under the brain-boiling sun, travelling along trade routes that have been used by desert caravans for centuries. Temperatures at midday hit 120F. Their drinking water turned hot and muddy in their goatskin pouches. Food was grim-smelling patties made of dried fish and camel’s milk. They were forced to travel hundreds of miles out of their way to avoid trails stalked by bandits.

It took Laing and his men eight weeks just to get to Ghadames, an oasis town still more than a thousand miles north of Timbuktu. Sick and exhausted, they rested there for nearly two months. When a bunch of love letters arrived from Emma, Laing decided to throw in the towel; it was time to return to his wife. But then the young explorer changed his mind again and resolved to press on after all. A large comet in the sky filled him with confidence. “I regard it as a happy omen,” he wrote, “it beckons me on & binds me to the termination of the Niger and to Timbuktu.”

Four weeks later the Scotsman and his team rolled into In Salah, another desert settlement in present-day Algeria. It was now December, 1825. Laing had been on the road for five months. But at In Salah he faced yet another long delay as the whole town dithered about whether it was safe for him to go on.

The word on the street was that the lawless Tuareg – fierce nomads who lived by plundering trade caravans – were stepping up their attacks in the desert. Dozens of Arab merchants had been sitting tight at In Salah for months, waiting for the threat to pass. Everyone suggested Laing do likewise. Only a madman would strike out into the desert now, they said. Timbuktu would have to wait.

So Laing tried waiting. Christmas came and went, New Year arrived. But the dashing young Scot wasn’t good at hanging around. Pretty soon he’d had enough. He tried to persuade some of the merchants in town to move south with him. When that didn’t work, he announced that he would go it alone.

His fearlessness gave everyone a jolt. Shamed into action by the mad Christian in their midst, the cautious Arab traders finally decided it was time to pack up their gear and move on. On 9 January, Laing left In Salah, not alone but with a caravan of forty-five men and one hundred camels. If he thought he’d found safety in numbers, he couldn’t have been more wrong.

Towards the end of the month, twenty heavily armed strangers appeared out of nowhere and began riding silently alongside the caravan. They wore the blue robes of the Tuareg, their faces veiled with only a slit for the eyes. No one wanted them around – but no one dared tell them to go.

The sinister, uninvited escort accompanied Laing’s caravan through the wilderness to a filthy, mosquito-infested oasis called Wadi Ahnet. And it was there, on either 2 or 3 February 1826, that the plucky Scotsman was betrayed, savagely assaulted and left for dead.

The attack happened at night. The Tuareg waited till Laing was asleep before surrounding his tent and firing off two musket volleys. The Scotsman was hit in the hip. And before he could reach his sword the attackers were on him, hacking at his head and body with their sabres. They kept chopping until Laing stopped moving.

Laing’s servants tried to intervene. Roger the carpenter and Abraham the interpreter were killed. The second chippie, Harry, was wounded in the leg. A camel driver called Hamet was crippled by a cutlass. Laing’s long-time servant Jack le Bore and the ex-slave Bongola saved themselves by fleeing into the surrounding dunes.

After plundering Laing’s tent, the Tuareg rode off on their camels, whooping it up like Apaches on the warpath. None of the other travellers in the caravan was robbed or hurt that night; none lifted a finger to help poor Laing.

Sheikh Babani was behind the bloodshed. Babani, the very man who’d promised to guide Laing through the Sahara in safety, had struck a deal with the Tuarag, agreeing to stand aside while the bandits murdered the explorer. In return, he was to get a share of the Scotsman’s belongings. But Laing spoiled things by refusing to die - despite being left looking like the victim of a shark attack.

His wounds were gruesome in the extreme. He sustained five deep sabre cuts on his right arm which smashed the bones in his wrist, broke three fingers and almost severed the hand. His left arm was also broken and slashed in three places. There was a deep gash on the back of Laing’s neck, another on his left leg - and a musket ball was lodged in his hip. But perhaps the worst damage was about the head: three sabre cuts on the left temple had chipped away bits of bone; another blow had fractured his jawbone; his left ear was split in two and left dangling; his right temple had a gaping wound.

In total, Laing suffered twenty-four injuries in the night attack at Wadi Ahnet, eighteen of them severe. The next morning the Arab merchants in his party left without him. Only his surviving servants stuck around to help. But giving up wasn’t an option now. As soon as he was strong enough, Laing asked his men to lift him onto a camel and strap him into an upright position. Then the bloodied explorer and his bewildered comrades continued their merciless journey across the burning sands.

Somehow Laing rode on in that desperate state for 400 miles, flopping about on top of his camel, sometimes weeping in agony and despair. It was an incredible feat of endurance for such a savagely wounded man. Laing feared he would be disfigured for life. He dreaded his beloved Emma’s reaction to his scars (if, that is, she ever saw him again).

In April he arrived at the oasis town of Azaud, where he was welcomed by an Arab chief called Sheikh Mokhtar. Laing stayed here three months to try to recover. But soon there was a new disaster: a dysentery epidemic. The disease carried off his servants Jack le Bore and Harry the carpenter. Sheikh Mokhtar also succumbed. Laing got sick too, but survived. When Hamet the camel driver turned around and headed for home, Bongola was his only remaining companion.

The horror of it all started to get to Laing and he wrote a weird letter to his father-in-law, Hanmer Warrington, back in Tripoli. He alone was destined to get to Timbuktu, he claimed. “I make no vain glorious assertion when I say that it will never be visited by a Christian man after me!” he boasted. And then, brushing off warnings of more yet danger ahead, he set off on the final leg of his epic journey.

On 13 August, 1826, the battered Scotsman finally approached the city walls of Timbuktu, his “far-famed capital of Central Africa”. A journey he had expected to take a few weeks had lasted three hundred and ninety-nine days. He’d travelled two thousand miles through the most hostile and unforgiving terrain in Africa. He’d faced sandstorms, life-destroying heat, loneliness, hunger, thirst and extreme violence. And the poor bloke must have been gutted - gored by his own stupidity and naivety – when he at last clapped eyes on his legendary “city of gold”.

Timbuktu was once a place of dazzling riches, that’s a fact. In its heyday merchants from across North Africa had descended on its vast markets to trade in gemstones, ivory, gold and human beings. When Timbuktu’s greatest ruler, Mansa Musa, passed through Cairo in 1324 on his way to Mecca he was accompanied by twelve thousand silk-clad slaves and eighty camels laden with gold. Word spread to medieval Europe of Timbuktu’s unimaginable wealth and the city’s reputation was sealed.

But its glory days were long, long gone by the time Laing arrived. He found no palaces studded with gems, no market places heaving with treasures. The Timbuktu that greeted Laing was (and remains) a disappointment: a dusty, grimy, insignificant little place on the southern edge of the Sahara in what is now the Republic of Mali.

To make things worse, Laing also found that he wasn’t welcome. Sultan Bello, the region’s powerful ruler, made it clear he didn’t want uninvited Scotsmen hanging around his manor. Laing stayed in Timbuktu for thirty-five days, spending his time studying old Islamic manuscripts. But on 21 September, 1826, he wrote to Emma’s dad saying Timbuktu had become “exceedingly unsafe” and it was time to move on. That letter is the last anyone ever heard of Alexander Gordon Laing.

We know the young soldier did leave Timbuktu as planned. Fearing Sultan Bello, he abandoned his idea of finding the river Niger and instead joined a caravan of Arabs heading to Morocco. Laing travelled north with them for two days. Then he was betrayed for a second time and butchered by a man who was supposed to acting as his guide and protector.

The killer was an apparently friendly sheikh who had offered to escort the Christian explorer through the desert. His name was Ahmadu Labeida. And there are two versions of how he despatched poor Laing.

According to the first, the explorer had gone on ahead and was resting in the shade of a tree with his two servants, Bongola and an unnamed Arab boy. Labeida and three accomplices suddenly rode up and began threatening him. Labeida demanded Laing become a Muslim. The Scotsman refused. There was a fierce stand-off. Then two of the gang grabbed Laing’s arms, Labeida drove a spear into his chest – and the fourth guy cut off his head.

The attackers also murdered the Arab lad. Then they’re said to have divided Laing’s money, burnt his papers out of fear they contained magic, and abandoned the two bodies at the foot of the tree.

This story was relayed to a French army officer in Timbuktu nearly a century after the event. It was told by an old man in his eighties who claimed to be Labeida’s nephew. According to the oldster, his uncle had often boasted of how he slaughtered the “Christian infidel”. It was a dramatic story and one that would have gone down well at a time when Europeans were carving up Africa into colonies. But it’s all a bit over the top - and almost certainly untrue.

A more likely but less colourful version comes from Laing’s surviving servant, Bongola, who turned up at Tripoli two years after the explorer’s death. Bongola testified that Labeida’s gang struck at night, stabbing Laing and the Arab boy to death as they lay sleeping. Bongola was wounded in the struggle but escaped. In the morning he found his master’s body – it had been decapitated and was covered in deep sabre cuts.

The news of Laing’s grisly death broke Emma’s heart and destroyed her health. She tried to regain her balance by remarrying and moving to Italy, but nothing could stop the slide. Emma Gordon Laing died of consumption in Pisa in October 1829, aged twenty-eight – just four years after kissing her intrepid husband goodbye and watching him ride off into the African desert in search of his city of gold.

* Thanks for visiting Great British Nutters. I hope you have enjoyed what you've read. I no longer post here but have started a new blog called History Nuts. It's along similar lines but with much shorter posts. Please take a look. You can also follow @historynuts on Twitter or via my Thanks again!

Bovill, Edward William, Missions to Niger: the Letters of Major Alexander Gordon Laing, 1824-26 (London, 1964)
Kryza, Frank T, The Race for Timbuktu: In Search of Africa’s City of Gold (New York, 2006)