Skip to main content

Alexander Laing's Ill-Fated Expedition to Timbuktu

I've spent half a century writing for radio and print (mostly print). I hope to still be tapping the keys as I take my last breath.

Alexander Gordon Laing modestly proclaimed that “I shall show myself to be . . . a man of enterprise and genius.” To achieve this goal, he proposed, in 1825, to travel alone across the Sahara Desert to Timbuktu, a place believed to be overflowing with jewels and gold.

Alexander Gordon Laing.

Alexander Gordon Laing.

Africa a Graveyard for Explorers

Once the mysterious dark continent had entered the consciousness of Europeans, many adventurous young men convinced themselves that exploring they should go. They had almost no knowledge of what they were up against and most paid the ultimate price for their lack of foresight and wisdom.

James H. Tuckey was a British Royal Navy captain. In 1816, he and several companions set out to find the source of the River Congo. Tuckey and most of his crew succumbed to yellow fever before completing their mission.

John Barrow of the Admiralty in London had planned the mission. He wrote that “never were the results of an expedition more melancholy and disastrous.” Maybe, he hadn't remembered the Mungo Park story.

Having previously explored West Africa late in the 18th century, John Mungo Park could have been under no illusions about the difficulties of travelling there. In 1794-95, he tried to discover the source of the River Niger but had run out of resources and had spent months struggling to combat the ravages of fever. He survived that encounter with disaster and, in 1805, answered the government's call to visit the river again.

Ignoring local advice against the timing of his venture, Mungo Park began his exploration in the rainy season with an overland trek from Gambia to the Niger River. He led a party of 46 men whose numbers had dwindled to 11 by the time he reached the river. Yellow fever and dysentery wiped out three quarters of Mungo Park's crew and they lost most of their supplies to a fire. Hostile natives and drowning in the river took care of the rest.

The Niger River with Timbuktu spelled Tombouctou.

The Niger River with Timbuktu spelled Tombouctou.

Alexander Gordon Laing's Great Adventure Begins

Undaunted by the disastrous failure of previous adventurers, Alexander Laing arrived in Tripoli, Libya in the spring of 1825. The dashing and handsome Captain Laing soon won the heart of Emma Warrington, daughter of the British consul. He was likewise smitten and the couple married on July 14, 1825. The honeymoon was very short, for two days later, Laing set off on his journey to Timbuktu.

He had assembled the camels he needed for the trip and, although it was put about that he was travelling alone, he had companions. There was a servant from the Caribbean named Jack le Bore and a freed slave called Bongola.

A couple of carpenters were added to the party because, after reaching Timbuktu, Laing intended to discover the source of the Niger River and the woodworkers were going to be needed to build a boat. Also, there was an interpreter and a merchant, Sheikh Babani, who was going to guide the intrepid Scotsman to Timbuktu, a place no European had yet reached.

They set off into the blast furnace heat of the Sahara Desert with the possibility of failure never entering the over-confident Laing's head.

The inhospitable Sahara Desert.

The inhospitable Sahara Desert.

Early Difficulties on Sahara Crossing

It took them eight weeks to get to Ghadames about 600 km (372 miles) from Tripoli, but their route was much longer. They had to make large detours to avoid sections of the regular caravan path where bandits were known to be operating.

The daytime temperatures hovered near 50 C (120 F) and turned their water supply into a hot, muddy soup.

They were so exhausted and plagued by fever that they rested at the Ghadames desert oasis for a couple of months. But Laing was not discouraged; a comet in the night sky he took to be a sign that all would be well and he wrote that “it beckons me on & binds me to the termination of the Niger and to Timbuktu.”

They set off again and, a month later, arrived at In Salah, a blisteringly hot town built around an oasis. This is where the Laing team found themselves in the company of many traders sitting tight in the community. The word on the street was that Tuareg nomads were active attacking and plundering caravans. Those who knew the desert counselled patience; wait for the threat to pass.

Laing tried that for a while, but he was a man of action and idling away the time in In Salah didn't fit well with his character. He persuaded the reluctant merchants to join him in a push to Timbuktu. In early January 1826, he left In Salah in the company of 45 men and more than 100 camels believing there was safety in numbers.

There wasn't.

Tuareg Attack

After a couple of weeks, a group of Tuareg men appeared and rode alongside the caravan to an oasis called Wadi Ahnet. Camped for the night in early February, Laing awoke to find the Tuareg surrounding his tent and firing muskets.

Laing took a round in the hip before the robbers started hacking at him the swords. His interpreter and one of his carpenters tried to step in and were killed. None of his fellow travellers intervened. The Tuareg ransacked Laing's belongings and rode off, leaving him for dead. No one else in the caravan was touched.

The man who had agreed to guide the explorer to Timbuktu, Sheikh Babani, had set up the attack in a deal that would give him a share of Laing's belongings.

While gravely injured, Laing was not dead; he had numerous deep gashes and broken bones. His jaw was fractured and an ear was dangling by a thread. He should have succumbed but he didn't. The next morning, his merchant companions left without him while a couple of servants who survived stayed to help him.

When some of his strength returned, his servants hoisted him onto a camel and they set off once more for Timbuktu, 650 km (400 miles) away. The little party reached the oasis of Azaud, where a friendly sheikh took him in. Laing stayed in Azaud for three months but got caught up in a dysentery outbreak that killed all of his companions except Bongola, the freed slave.

Once more, he took up his epic trek and, on August 13, 1826, arrived at Timbuktu, battered, scarred, and weakened by dysentery.

The Disappointment of Timbuktu

Alexander Laing must have faced a massive let down when he saw the dusty city of mud-brick buildings. Where were the gold-encrusted palaces and bejewelled citizens? Timbuktu’s glory days were a long way behind it.

In the 14th century, Mansa Musa ruled the vast empire of Mali. The British Museum has estimated he owned almost half of the Old World's known gold. Under him, Timbuktu became a centre of Islamic study.

In 1324, he made a pilgrimage to Mecca with an entourage that numbered 60,000 people. But that was then; the Timbuktu of 1826 was impoverished and run down.

On top of that, Laing discovered he was not a welcome visitor. Journalist Simon Bendle has written that “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.' ”

After about a month, he joined a caravan of traders headed to Morocco and left Timbuktu and his quest for the source of the Niger River behind him. Two days into the journey, he was murdered, perhaps because he refused to convert from Christianity to Islam.

The Timbuktu house in which Laing stayed. A plaque over the door reads “To the memory of Major Alexander Gordon Laing 2nd West India Regiment.

The Timbuktu house in which Laing stayed. A plaque over the door reads “To the memory of Major Alexander Gordon Laing 2nd West India Regiment.

Bonus Factoids

  • The legendary status of Timbuktu as a city of fabulous wealth prompted the Société de Géographie in France to offer a reward of 10,000 francs to the first European to reach it. Alexander Laing was the first European to see Timbuktu but he didn't live to tell the tale. The honour and prize money went to Frenchman René-Auguste Caillié who arrived in Timbuktu in 1828.
  • The only survivor of Laing's ill-fated expedition was Bongola who brought back news of his master's death. Laing's wife was shattered at the loss of her husband with whom she had spent just two days. She remarried but slid into melancholy and ill health, dying in October 1829, just 28 years old.

Sources

  • “Forgotten Failures of African Exploration.” Dane Kennedy, The Public Domain Review, April 22, 2015.
  • “Biography of Mungo Park.” Alistair Boddy-Evens, thoughtco.com, October 21, 2019.
  • “Major Alexander Gordon Laing.” On this Day in Scotland, December 27, 2010.
  • “Is Mansa Musa the Richest Man Who ever Lived? Naima Mohamud, BBC, March 10, 2019.
  • “Alexander Gordon Laing: Mission to Timbuktu.” Simon Bendle, greatbritishnutters.blogspot.com, August 11, 2008.


This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

© 2021 Rupert Taylor