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 more opulent 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.