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Race for Timbuktu: In Search of Africa's City of Gold

Race for Timbuktu: In Search of Africa's City of Gold

3.8 4
by Frank T. Kryza

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In the first decades of the nineteenth century, no place burned more brightly in the imagination of European geographers––and fortune hunters––than the lost city of Timbuktu. Africa's legendary City of Gold, not visited by Europeans since the Middle Ages, held the promise of wealth and fame for the first explorer to make it there. In 1824,


In the first decades of the nineteenth century, no place burned more brightly in the imagination of European geographers––and fortune hunters––than the lost city of Timbuktu. Africa's legendary City of Gold, not visited by Europeans since the Middle Ages, held the promise of wealth and fame for the first explorer to make it there. In 1824, the French Geographical Society offered a cash prize to the first expedition from any nation to visit Timbuktu and return to tell the tale.

One of the contenders was Major Alexander Gordon Laing, a thirty–year–old army officer. Handsome and confident, Laing was convinced that Timbuktu was his destiny, and his ticket to glory. In July 1825, after a whirlwind romance with Emma Warrington, daughter of the British consul at Tripoli, Laing left the Mediterranean coast to cross the Sahara. His 2,000–mile journey took on an added urgency when Hugh Clapperton, a more experienced explorer, set out to beat him. Apprised of each other's mission by overseers in London who hoped the two would cooperate, Clapperton instead became Laing's rival, spurring him on across a hostile wilderness.

An emotionally charged, action–packed, utterly gripping read, The Race for Timbuktu offers a close, personal look at the extraordinary people and pivotal events of nineteenth–century African exploration that changed the course of history and the shape of the modern world.

Editorial Reviews

Jonathan Yardley
…a lively and informative, if somewhat disorganized, history by a former newspaper reporter and energy specialist. Kryza has spent a lot of time in Africa (he first went there in 1963, when he was in junior high school) and knows it well; he also obviously has spent a lot of time in libraries, researching the copious literature of African exploration. The "race" to Timbuktu he describes seems more a storytelling device than a matter of historical fact, and he does a good deal of hemming and hawing before finally bringing Laing onto center stage, but these narrative shortcomings can be forgiven.
—The Washington Post
Publishers Weekly
Kryza recreates the bold journeys through the unknown Africa of early 19th-century British explorers Alexander Gordon Laing and Hugh Clapperton, competing to find the fabled city of Timbuktu. Kryza's meticulous research of letters, diaries and official records forms the basis for affecting descriptions of the hazards and horrors the two explorers faced. Kryza, who lived in Africa for 11 years and traveled Laing's route, writes evocatively of the beauty of the African landscape and provides chilling glimpses of the barbarism of the slave trade. He also exposes the unbridgeable cultural gap between 19th-century Muslims in North Africa and the Christian explorers. But what most impresses are the sheer number of ways there were to die in Africa, known as the "White Man's grave"-malaria, dysentery, drowning, parasitic infections and heat stroke were a few of the natural threats, which paled beside the likelihood of being killed by fellow travelers, slavers, bandits or capricious rulers. Kryza (The Power of Light) starts slowly, but when the focus settles on Laing and Clapperton, readers will be eager to find out their fates. 20 b&w illus. Agent, Christy Fletcher. (Jan.) Copyright 2005 Reed Business Information.
Library Journal
Kryza's excellent book on the early 19th-century European expeditions to reach Timbuktu and chart the course of the Niger River is a joy to read. The city of Timbuktu today is a fraction of its former splendor, influence, and wealth-the latest population estimate reveals a city of fewer than 30,000 with rampant poverty-but in former days it was legendary, with a huge influence on trade across the Sahara and rumors abounding about gold, ivory, and slaves. The question was how to get there: by sand or sea, or by heading inland from the West African coast with its swamps, natives, and disease. As Timbuktu was only 900 miles from the sea, many expeditions, including the famous Mungo Park expedition, started there but were never heard from again. When the first European, Alexander Gordon Laing, walked into the city in 1826, after spending more than a year crossing the Sahara, he felt a sense of dejection, for he expected more. Dead barely a month later, he never realized his fame. Kryza (The Power of Light), a former journalist, uses the letters, notes, and sketches of Laing and others to detail nearly every day of Laing's journey across the desert. A highly readable addition to public and academic libraries with geographical and African collections.-James Thorsen, May Memorial Lib., Central North Carolina Regional Lib. Syst., Burlington Copyright 2005 Reed Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
A jolly good tale of 19th-century imperial adventure-one that ended badly for just about everyone, but at least satisfied curiosity. Timbuktu, in the heart of what is now Mali, "is an insignificant place, a village that festers, foul-smelling and intractable." So writes old Africa hand Kryza, a onetime reporter and editor for the New Haven Journal-Courier, who ambitiously sets out to follow the traces of 19th-century British travelers seeking the town's whereabouts. They had good reason, too, Kryza writes, for in the Middle Ages, the caravans that would occasionally turn up in places like Algiers and Cairo from Timbuktu were laden with gold, unicorn horns, virgins and other such desirable commodities; tales of the fabled kingdom spread to Europe, and Timbuktu became a byword for the unattainable. Kryza's hero, a Scottish army officer named Alexander Gordon Laing, determined in 1825 that he would in fact attain it, though he faced much opposition and competition at home-a superior officer determined to end his military career, fellow adventurers, a dastardly Frenchman mooning for his wife. He had good things going for him, though: a natural intrepidity, backing by a well-placed nobleman and a historical accident that Kryza gamely notes-the fact that the English, having beaten "Bono Barto, as the Arabs call him," had earned some respect among the desert peoples. Bonaparte was one thing, Laing's rivals another and the Tauregs quite another; as Laing crossed the Sahara on a circuitous fact-gathering mission, he was attacked by Tauregs, who left him with frightful saber cuts and other wounds, after which Laing seems to have thought death not such a bad thing. He found Timbuktu, and in moreopulent condition than Kryza did nearly two centuries after him-and then Laing disappeared. Kryza's ever-competent narrative, drawing on hitherto unavailable documents, closes by examining the possibilities and offering a convincing forensic case concerning his unfortunate end. A treat for fans of Saharan exploration.

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HarperCollins Publishers
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The Race for Timbuktu

In Search of Africa's City of Gold
By Frank Kryza

HarperCollins Publishers, Inc.

Copyright © 2006 Frank Kryza
All right reserved.

ISBN: 0060560649

Chapter One

A Scotsman at Tripoli

On May 9, 1825, in the silver half-light of dawn, HM Brig Gannet sailed at six knots into the southern Mediterranean port of Tripoli, all but her foresail furled to reduce her speed in the propelling breeze. Having navigated the rocks at the bay's seaward end, she passed the dour battlements of the "Old Castle," the crenellated fortress that served as palace and principal residence of Tripoli's bashaw or ruler, before steering for the central harbor and the deep anchorage reserved for her. Whirlpooling zephyrs kept her circling for a half hour before she could position herself to drop anchor. The British naval vessel had made the journey from Malta in a leisurely six days.

On the bridge with Captain Bruce stood the only debarking passenger, a tall, trimly built man in his thirties who carried himself with the self-assurance of a military officer, though he was dressed in civilian clothes. A Scotsman, Major Alexander Gordon Laing was en route from England.

He surveyed the harbor and coastline with alert interest as the square-rigged vessel's anchor chain rumbled from its hawsehole. The Gannet's prow swung slowly into the wind, now a soft south breeze laden with the smells of land.

On shore, a half mile from the ship, the gray stenciled silhouette of the Moorish fortress broke the center of the city's skyline. Slender minarets, flat housetops, and sturdy battlements flanked it in a crescent westward. The delicate palm fringe of an oasis dimmed to the east. Green-topped minarets caught the sun's orange-gold light in a cloudless sky. The white-walled city shimmered through the curtain of changing light.

Captain Bruce told Major Laing he could expect a warm welcome from the British consul, Colonel Warrington, "a lovable John Bull of a man, well known to half the admirals and captains in the Royal Navy." Indeed, Laing had already heard a great deal about Warrington in London.

He commented to Captain Bruce on the size of the desert city; he had expected a much smaller place. Tripoli was isolated, five hundred miles from the main highways of sea travel. He saw it now as a metropolis larger than he had imagined, though certainly a city much alone -- the edges of the desert plainly visible to the east and west: Tripoli, the white-burnoused city, pulsating in its oasis on the edge of the desert.

As the Gannet's hands secured the vessel, the adan -- the Muslim call to prayer -- drifted over town and harbor. The Gannet's first mate reported he had ordered the vessel's longboat put alongside to take Laing ashore, but before it could be lowered, dozens of slim pirogues crowded the brig. These encircled the ship, their owners outshouting each other, naming the services and wares each was eager to hawk to the men on board -- transport to shore, fresh fruit, potable water, leather goods. . . . Larger craft quickly followed, battling the pirogues to attach themselves to the Gannet's hull. These were cargo lighters and flimsy dugouts manned by boatmen who wore loincloths and seemed engaged in a shrieking contest. Their job was to take cargo ashore and restock the hold. By 2 p.m., the American corvette Cyrene, under the command of Captain Grace, had arrived from Tunis and anchored next to the Gannet. By late afternoon, the bashaw himself sent a third vessel, a large flat galley manned by oarsmen, to collect Laing and his baggage and bring them to shore.

"Shaking hands with Captain Bruce and his officers," Laing confided to his diary, "I disembarked amidst the cheers of the crews of both Gannet and Cyrene, who manned the rigging on the occasion." His send-off was heady stuff for a junior officer; Laing felt he was accorded the treatment of a visiting head of state.

The port founded by the Phoenicians and later fortified by the Romans was now governed by a bashaw (or pasha), agent of the Sublime Porte in Constantinople.

The Regency of Tripoli was the most important of the three kingdoms on the southern Mediterranean coast (Algiers and Tunis being the two others) which owed their nominal independence to the Turkish sultan. Tripoli's bashaw was preceded by a functionary carrying his staff of "Three Horse Tails,"* a rank equivalent to the governors of the three most important provinces in the Ottoman Empire: those of Cairo, Budapest, and Baghdad. The royal yacht carrying Laing was festooned with the bashaw's flags and other symbols of office. It twisted its way through the fleet of Mediterranean sailing vessels that crammed the ancient harbor.

The distance from shore was less than fifteen hundred yards, but the bashaw's leaking vessel had nearly swamped when Laing jumped onto a flight of slime-coated stone steps leading to the wharf at the center of the mole. Here, a small mob of ragged Africans began to grapple for Laing's luggage. One man tried to make off with a sailor's duffel bag but was stopped when another man kneed him in the groin and demanded a coin for apprehending the thief. The less athletic contenders for porter were chased away and the Scotsman followed a procession of luggage bearers to the foot of the quay.

"On placing my foot on terra firma," Laing recalled, "(which was not until a very late hour, our progress being impeded by the freshening breeze which blew direct from the harbor) I was received by Hanmer Warrington, Esq., His Majesty's consul general, and treated with that friendly hospitality which all preceding travelers from this quarter have experienced in common with myself."

Rumors about Warrington abounded in London. Most alleged that the consul -- a beefy, pear-shaped man -- was no more than a bibulous Falstaff who had been released from debtors' prison in Gibraltar and exiled to his isolated post on the frontier of the Sahara only because he was the husband of an illegitimate daughter of George IV. Even so, the men in London who disliked Warrington (and these were legion) could not deny that in his . . .


Excerpted from The Race for Timbuktu by Frank Kryza Copyright © 2006 by Frank Kryza. Excerpted by permission.
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Meet the Author

Frank T. Kryza has spent eleven years in Africa and himself traveled much of the territory described in The Race for Timbuktu. Author of The Power of Light, he is a twenty-year veteran of the energy industry and a former Connecticut newspaper reporter and editor. He lives in Dallas, Texas.

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Race for Timbuktu: In Search of Africa's City of Gold 3.8 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 4 reviews.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
This was a great book, very readable, just enough detail - the author has done a fantastic job of bringing the people of the time to life with only archives to work from - reads like an adventure story which it certainly was Please write more about the time period and Africa Mr. Kyrza - great job!
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Since its been some weeks since I read this book my impressions are not fresh. I recall an enjoyable light history on a subject I knew little about. My nephew is an officer in the French army who has served recently in Mali so this book added insight into his experience. The hardships of travel in the sub-Saharan desert were so arduous these early explorers seemed to be inviting their own deaths. I would recommend it to all armchair adventurers.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
This is the story of the quest to find the fabled city of Timbuctoo. European explorers set off across the Sahara desert with only rumors and guesses to guide them. Most died along the way. The National Geographic Society and dreams of colonial wealth inspired the search, but the explorers themselves wanted only fame. A very hard way to gain notice.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago