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)


Donna Parsons said...

Thank you; I'd never heard of this or him until a mention in Franklin Graham's Operation Christmas Child; amazing they found this place

Simon Bendle said...

Thanks for the comment Donna!


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