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The (foolhardy?) quest for Timbuktu

Crocodiles, caravans, and slave raids did not dissuade these explorers.

By Diana Muir / March 14, 2006



It is a great hardship for modern children that they can no longer hope to grow up to become explorers. At best, a child of the 21st century might hope to discover a new species of mugwort in some remote meadow; paltry, when compared to the boyhood dreams of their great-grandsires who could actually hope to discover an uncharted mountain range, an unvisited island, or a city of gold so remote that no European had ever set foot in its fabled streets.

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The Race for Timbuktu is about a time when boys could realistically hope to grow up and become the discoverer of a famous lost city. (And although it was a mere two centuries ago, the era is so remote that girls were limited to the hope that they might grow up to marry such a man.)

The King of Timbuktu made the hajj to Mecca in 1324. His entrance into Cairo was reported to have been "preceded by five hundred slaves, each carrying a gold staff. A baggage train of eighty camels ... each carrying three hundred pounds of gold."

News of the wealth of Timbuktu continued to filter out of Africa, but long after Europeans had figured out the difference between the Indies and the Americas, and fixed the islands of Polynesia onto accurate maps, all that was really known of Timbuktu was that it was fabulously rich and located on a great navigable river called the Niger.

Europe knew neither the course, nor the outlet of the Niger. Nor could any European locate Timbuktu on maps of Africa that showed accurate coastlines, with a great blank space in the center.

On June 9, 1788, Sir Joseph Banks dined with eight friends, and together they founded the Association for Promoting the Discovery of the Interior of Africa. Sir Joseph, the great botanist, had, as a wealthy young man, sailed as a gentleman naturalist on James Cook's celebrated first voyage.

Neither Sir Joseph nor any of the other distinguished, middle-aged gentlemen with whom he associated planned to actually travel to Timbuktu. They knew that there would be no shortage of ambitious, impecunious young men eager to take up the challenge, so glittering was the prize.

The fabled gold of Timbuktu was not the reward sought by would-be explorers. At least, they did not expect to emerge from the heart of Africa at the head of 80 camels, each carrying 300 lbs. of gold.

The young man who found Timbuktu - and lived - could expect to be greeted as a hero, paid handsomely for the right to publish his memoirs, and be rewarded with a job exceeding anything he might have hoped for had he not entered the race for Timbuktu.

Dixon Denham, for example, never made it to Timbuktu. Instead, while attempting to reach the fabled city, he stumbled upon Lake Chad and charted much of its vast shore. He returned to England a certified hero, and was made governor of Sierra Leone.

Timbuktu could be reached by sailing up the Nile, then heading west across the desert; by landing at Tripoli and heading south; or by heading northeast from the Gulf of Benin, and hoping to encounter the city roughly where the desert began.

Kryza's account of the young men who embarked on the quest is by turns gripping and astonishing. What can a young Scotsman have been thinking to have arrived alone, on foot, at Kano, a wealthy slave- trading emirate in present-day Nigeria, and informed the emir that King George wished him to open his kingdom to British merchants and give up slaving?

Slaves, ivory, gold, and salt, carried across the Sahara in caravans, were the commodities that had made Timbuktu rich. The rivalry among young Englishmen willing to stake all on the hope of winning glory and fortune heated up as rival exploration parties made simultaneous attempts at the prize, and French explorers entered the race.

One hardly knows whom to cheer for as they blunder across the continent.

As Kryza sets each one in motion toward the prize, I found myself hoping that, at least, he wouldn't die on his journey into the unknown.

Of course, the destination was unknown only to the Europeans. Trade moved regularly up and down the Niger, and explorers heading south from Tripoli met huge caravans leading long gangs of chained slaves across the desert to market in North Africa.

Central Africa was remote, but it was not isolated. The Emir of Kano knew that Britain was a powerful kingdom that had reduced the powerful Mughal (Islamic) Empire of India to a colony.

He knew that British merchants had preceded the British Army in India. Confronted with a young Briton who wished to abolish central Africa's most lucrative trading commodity - slaves - and obtain a good map of the Niger to facilitate access for British merchants, he understood the implications.

Contemporary geopolitics echo throughout "The Race for Timbuktu," but they don't spoil the read. Kyrza has given us a ripping good yarn filled with man-eating crocodiles, slave raids, and caravans crossing the vast, trackless Sahara in a time when the world was far, far larger than it is today.

Diana Muir is a freelance writer in New York.

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