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Alexander Gordon Laing, Scottish explorer, first European to visit Timbuktu.

Explorer from a Braver Age

 “I shall show myself to be… a man of enterprise and genius”

– Alexander Gordon Laing

Major Alexander Gordon Laing (27 December 1794 – 26 September 1826) was an explorer and the first European to reach Timbuktu via the north/south route. Laing was a Scottish military officer and explorer that managed to claim his place in history by becoming first European to reach the city of Timbuktu located in the West African nation of Mali on the southern edge of the Sahara Desert using the north/south route.

Think about this man next time you complain about your long flight. The explorers of old were not like most people—not just because of the distances they travelled but because of the courage, intelligence, and seamanship that allowed them to travel incredible distances, survive appalling conditions, and eat new and fascinating animals.

For late 18th– and early 19th–century Europeans, Timbuktu was the El Dorado of Africa. But there’s a reason the word “Timbuktu” is still synonymous with remote isolation because even if Alexander Laing could have accessed Google Maps it wouldn’t have done him any good. With only a vague idea of where he was heading, the British army officer and his tiny retinue left Tripoli in July 1825. Laing’s local guide promised the plucky Scotsman the journey would take only a few weeks, but the caravan spent 13 months wandering the desert, avoiding warring nomads, and fighting its own war with thirst and hunger. The worst of Laing’s ordeal came 1,600 kilometres (1,000 mi) and nearly a year into his journey when his guide betrayed him to bandits. Laing survived and recounted the event like a minor inconvenience akin to burnt chips in a letter to his father-in-law. After detailing multiple cuts and fractures all over his face, head, and neck, he concludes:

“I am nevertheless, as already I have said, doing well.”

Laing stumbled into Timbuktu a couple months afterwards. He and his journal disappeared, but his subsequent murder was confirmed in 1828 by the second European explorer to reach the city.

What motivates explorers? What sort of person is driven to risk their life to discover something new about the world? Explorers were motivated by many factors. Many were driven by nationalism, or faith, or personal pride. Although their actions were not always honourable, all of them expanded the scope of human knowledge and left a lasting impact. 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.

The city of Timbuktu has always excited men’s imaginations. For early explorers, its riches were legendary. The streets were said to be paved with gold and within its ancient city walls lay fabulous riches, temptations and dazzling wealth just waiting to be discovered. Later, it was a piece of African lore that adventurers yearned to unravel. Even today few cities fire the imagination and conjure up images of exotic treasure, desert romance and riches than Timbuktu. Assuming, of course, you can actually find it.

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 spilt 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.

Alexander Gordon Laing, 1793-1826. For 19th-century Scots explorer Alexander Gordon Laing, stumbling through its city walls – parched from the desert, pained by injury yet elated to be the first European to finally find this long-lost city – Timbuktu was not simply the fulfilment of a dream that had taken months to conclude. It was also, sadly, a major disappointment.

Alexander Gordon Laing, whose name is connected with the history of African discovery, was born in Edinburgh on the 27th of December 1793. His father, William Laing, A.M., was the first who opened an academy for classical education in the new town of the Scottish capital; where he laboured for thirty-two years and was one of the most popular teachers of his day. His maternal grandfather, William Gordon, was also a teacher of very considerable note and is known in the schools as the author of a system of geography, a treatise on arithmetic, a translation of the first six books of Livy, &c.
With such a parentage it might naturally have been supposed, that he was more likely to have spent his days amid the quiet pursuits of literature, than in the bustle of the camp, and amid the din of arms; the appearances of his early years seemed to favour the supposition. Under the tuition of his father, young Laing received the elementary education that was necessary to prepare him for the university, and he was enrolled in the Humanity class at the early age of thirteen years. Previous to this he had acquired a very considerable knowledge of the Latin language, of which he was passionately fond; and the appearances he made in the class then taught by professor Christison, were of so marked a kind as to secure him the very flattering notice of his preceptor; he was held up as a model for the imitation of his fellow students, and, there were but few who could entertain any hope of excelling him.

At the age of fifteen, Laing entered the business of active life, having engaged himself as assistant to Mr Bruce, a teacher in Newcastle. In this situation he remained only six months, when he returned to Edinburgh, and entered into a company with his father, taking charge of the commercial department of the academy, for which his beautiful penmanship and other acquirements singularly qualified him.

In 1809, volunteering was very general in Edinburgh, and, young Laing attached himself to a corps then forming. In 1810, he was made an ensign in the prince of Wales’ volunteers, and from that period the academy had no more charms for him. In his eighteenth year, he abandoned the irksome duties of teaching and set off for Barbadoes to his maternal uncle, Colonel, afterwards lieutenant-general Gordon, through whose kind offices he looked forward to an introduction into the army. At that time colonel Gordon held the office of deputy quarter-master-general in Barbadoes, and on his nephew’s arrival, he gave him a situation as clerk in his counting house. In this situation Mr Laing repeatedly came in contact with Sir George Beckwith, then at the head of the command of the military on the station, who was so much pleased with the young clerk, and took so deep an interest in his fortunes, as to secure for him unsolicited an ensign’s commission in the York light infantry.

Alexander joined the military and rose through ranks, being part of York Light Infantry Volunteers since 1811, 2nd West India Regiment since 1815, and Royal African Colonial Corps since 1822 where he reached the rank of Captain.

It was in 1822, that his exploits as an explorer began when he was sent by the governor Sir Charles MacCarthy, to the Mandingo country, with the double object of opening up commerce and endeavouring to abolish the slave trade in that region. Later in the same year, Laing visited Falaba, the capital of the Solimana country, and located the source of the Rokell. Laing had personally requested this mission, suggesting to the Governor that Falaba was rich in gold and ivory. He also tried to reach the source of the Niger but was stopped by the local population within about three day’s march of the source. He did, though, fix the location with approximate accuracy. He later reported that he was the first white man seen by the Africans in that region. His memoir tells us of his attitude towards Africans at this point, typical of what became the dominant European view:

Of the Timmanees he writes in his journal very unfavourably; he found them depraved, indolent, avaricious, and so deeply sunk in the debasement of the slave traffic, that the very mothers among them raised a clamour against him for refusing to buy their children. He further accuses them of dishonesty and gross indecency and altogether wonders that a country so near Sierra Leone, should have gained so little by its proximity to a British settlement.

Promises by the King of Soolima to send back with him a company of traders never materialized. He returned to base empty handed but with data on the topography.

During those years he managed to visit Sierra Leone, Mandingo country, Solimana country where he took part in several armed conflicts against slavers. He was also involved into deepening trade between African countries and England, and was also very interested in geography, managing to find and map the source of river Rokel and relatively precisely ascertain the source of river Niger.

During 1823 and 1824, he took an active part in the Ashanti War, which was part of the anti-slave campaign and was sent home with the dispatches containing the news of the death in action of Sir Charles MacCarthy. The war, as well as Laing’s explorations, were part of what later writers called the “pacification” of Africa, at least from the European point of view. During that time he was promoted to the Africa-only rank of Major, which he carried during many months of Ashanti War in the modern day Ghana. When he arrived back in England, in 1824, he prepared a narrative of his earlier journeys, which was published in 1825, and entitled, Travels in the Timannee, Kooranko and Soolima Countries, in Western Africa.

1825 and 1826 were the most famous years of the life of Alexander Gordon Laing. It was during that time that he managed to secure the permission for finding the source of river Nigger and finding the route to the city of Timbuktu. His journey came with the blessing of the Famous British explorer Joseph Banks, and Henry, 3rd Earl Bathurst who then commanded the British colonies in the Africa. Laing was instructed to explore the hydrography of the Niger basin.

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.

Map of the Niger River. The Niger River basin is in green.

So far, the journey went without “without incident.” However, while preparing for the next stage of the journey, a passing Tuareg “spotted Laing and accused him of being none other than Mungo Park.”Park, a fellow Scot, had made a reputation for himself in Europe as an African explorer before drowning on a expedition along the Niger, but among Africans his name had become “a generic insult hurled at European travellers.” Park had tended to shoot any African he thought looked menacing, thus his reputation among Africans was as a devil who had appeared “apparently out of nowhere.” His reputation was as a “ruthless murderer of defenceless men.” Ironically, Laing considered himself a successor to Park.
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.

On January 10, 1826, Laing and an Arab caravan of Tuareg left Tuat for Timbuktu, heading across the desert of Tanezroft. His letters written in the following May and July tell of his sufferings from fever and of the plundering of the caravan by bandits. His companions convinced that he was Park, now blamed Laing for every calamity.

He had 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. 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.

He was able to send some letters and papers back while in route. In this letter to the consul (his father-in-law), dated 10 May 1826, Laing describes wounds he received in an attack by nomadic Tuaregs:

“When I write from Timbuctoo, I shall detail precisely how I was betrayed, and nearly murdered in my sleep. . . . I have five sabre cuts on the crown of the head, and three on the left temple; all fractures, from which much bone has come away. One on my left cheek, which fractured the jawbone, and has divided the ear, forming a very unsightly wound. One over the right temple, and a dreadful gash on the back of the neck . . .  I am nevertheless, as already I have said, doing well, and hope yet to return to England with much important geographical information. The map indeed requires much correction, and please God, I shall yet do much in addition to what I have already done towards putting it right”.

“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.

Timbuktu, now a UNESCO World Heritage site.

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 man 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 heydey 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 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.
He planned to return home according to his letters. Modern historians presume he was murdered on the night of 26 September.
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 act 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.

Gordon Laing’s House in Timbuktu.

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.
A 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.

In their dealings with African leaders, the British tended to assume that their presence in Africa would be welcome, even that territory would be ceded or trade concessions made almost as if they had an automatic right to these. On route, says Kryza, the caravan master faced a dilemma, of which Laing was probably unaware:

On the one hand, as a traveller who was undoubtedly rich (in Babani’s eyes, all Englishmen were rich), Laing occupied a place near the top of the ladder. On the other hand, as an infidel from a country populated by unclean kafirs, Laing was lucky to be tolerated at all, and surely merited the bottom rung.

Laing, in his dealing with African kings, certainly saw himself as their better, although even as a Major, his rank was actually rather modest. On the other hand, he is reported to have complained about Park’s legacy, remarking that it had been very unthoughtful of the earlier explorer to “attempt to make discoveries in a country at the expense of the blood of its inhabitants.”

Laing’s papers were never recovered, and his father-in-law, Hanmer Warrington accused the French (who also wanted to reach Timbuktu) of interference and having procured Laing’s journal; however, there has never been any evidence for this. René Caillié reached Timbuktu two years after Laing and by returning alive was able to claim the 10,000-franc prize offered by the Société de Géographie for the feat. Both men were awarded the Gold Medal of the Society for 1830. In 1903, the French government placed a tablet bearing Laing’s name and the date of his visit on the house occupied by him during his 38-day stay in Timbuktu. This house, located in the Djingareiber district, inside the old town, was declared a National Heritage by decree of 18 December 1992.

Men such as Laing changed Africa forever. He set in the broader context of what was effectively the beginning of the Scramble for Africa. Laing’s exploration ensured that much of the Niger River region fell within the British sphere of influence, a rich prize given the usefulness of the Niger River for purposes of communication and transportation. Within a century, with the exception of Ethiopia, the whole of Africa was under European rule. When the continent was divided up, the presence of existing interests was a major factor in determining how the distribution was made.

Laing does appear to have thrived on adventure, but he was not quite the disinterested explorer. His eagerness to explore where he thought ivory and gold could be found suggests that he was also interested in earning his own fortune. He was a brave African explorer who penetrated the heart of the continent with the sole purpose of finding out what is there to be found, tales of his exploits soon captured the imagination, fed the fantasies and filled the literature of Europe.

No pot of gold for explorer Alexander Gordon Laing – The Scotsman

Alexander Gordon Laing and His Trip to Timbuktu – Famous Explorers

Alexander Gordon Laing – New World Encyclopedia

Alexander Gordon Laing | Scottish explorer | Britannica.com

Alexander Gordon Laing – Wikipedia

Alexander Gordon Laing: Biography on Undiscovered Scotland

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Great British Nutters: Alexander Gordon Laing: Mission to Timbuktu

Alexander Gordon Laing – Encyclopedia

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