René Caillié: To Timbuktu And Back Alive

The modern traveler has little conception of the hardships and expense that were involved in the journeys of ages past.  Surrounded by comfort, his every whim catered to by a global tourism industry, he is blissfully unaware of the suffering and danger necessarily involved in travel to remote regions of the globe before the modern consumer age.  His chief preoccupations are the adjustment of his body to new time zones, the temperature of his air-conditioning, and the quality of his accommodations.  Perhaps it is well that this is so:  for nothing so unbalances the complacent mind than the realization that its perspective is based on narrow, parochial experience.  Knowledge can both liberate and destroy.

The French explorer Auguste René Caillié was born in 1800 at Mauzé in the department of Deux-Sèvres; like many of the great travelers we have studied, he was possessed of a restless spirit and was orphaned at an early age.  His education was rudimentary, but this mattered little.  He had imagination, and that was enough.  The fires of exploration and adventure were lit in him as a boy after reading the novel Robinson Crusoe; from this point, he read everything he could acquire about African exploration.  He tells us in his Travels Through Central Africa To Timbuctoo:

Geographical books and maps were lent to me: the map of Africa, in which I saw scarcely any but countries marked as desert or unknown, excited my attention more than any other. In short, this predilection grew into a passion for which I renounced every thing: I ceased to join in the sports and amusements of my comrades; I shut myself up on Sundays to read all the books of travels that I was able to procure. I talked to my uncle, who was my guardian, of my desire to travel: he disapproved it, forcibly representing the dangers which I should incur at sea, and the regret which I should feel far away from my country and my family—in short, he neglected nothing to divert me from my project. My resolution, however, was irrevocable; I still insisted on setting out, and he made no further opposition. All that I possessed was sixty francs, and with this trifle I proceeded to Rochefort in 1816, and embarked in the brig La Loire, bound to Senegal.

So it is with young men, and so it should be.  With only sixty francs in his pockets, Caillié set out to see the world.  Our era is too smothering of its young men; instead of encouraging their healthy and vigorous energies, and pushing them to seek what is beyond the horizon, we constrict and neuter them with shame and debilitating guilt.  But that is a subject for another place.  Once in Senegal he joined an English expedition that was heading for the mouth of the Gambia; his party then penetrated as far as Bondou.  He returned to Bordeaux and then headed back to Senegal again.  He joined another, larger expedition:  it contained seventy men with over thirty loaded camels.  The party left Gandiolle in Cayor in February 1819, and soon encountered difficulties in the desert; the leader had failed to bring a sufficient supply of water, and the group was tormented by thirst.

Caillié contracted fever on this expedition and had to return to France.  But in 1824 he was able to return to Senegal equipped with both experience and heightened resolution.  With his contacts there, he was able to secure the means to study Arabic and the Islamic religion with some local communities.  These people–who were known as “Bracknas”–were understandably suspicious of his motives and of his activities in the country; but he apparently won them over enough to reach a decent working relationship.  According to him, the Bracknas were divided into five social classes:  Hassanes (warriors), Maraboutir (clerics), Zenagues, and Laratines (slaves).

In 1825 he returned to St. Louis and began to save money for future explorations.  He amassed around two thousand francs, collected assistants, and told them he had been born in Egypt to Arab parents, but then been taken to France to be raised.  It would not have been advisable for him to attempt to reach Timbuktu as a Christian foreigner.  His goal now was to reach the fabled city and return alive, something that no other European Christian had yet accomplished.  The city had been known as a center of Islamic learning in medieval times, but current geographic and ethnographic information about it was lacking.  In April 1827, Caillié began his trek.  He first crossed the region inhabited by the Foulahs and the people of Fouta Djallon.  His party then crossed the Ba-Fing, a tributary of the Senegal River, which has a very swift current.  In May 1827 he crossed the Tankisso River, a large waterway that was connected to the Niger River system.  On June 11, he reached the Niger, at Couronossa.  It was an intimidating river, described by Caillié as around 900 feet wide.

Crossing a river near Senegal

After many adventures, too numerous to recount here, he neared Timbuktu.  When he finally laid eyes on the city, his impressions were these:

The sky was of a dull red color on the horizon; all nature seemed melancholy; profound silence prevailed, not so much as the song of a bird was heard. And yet there was something indescribably imposing in the sight of a large town rising up in the midst of the sandy desert, and the beholder cannot but admire the indomitable energy of its founders. I fancy the river formerly passed nearer the town of Timbuctoo; it is now eight miles north of it and five of Cabra.

But he had little time to waste.  The traveler must take advantage of the opportunities that present themselves, especially when one’s survival is at stake.  Less than a week after he arrived in Timbuktu, he received word that a large caravan of 600 camel was heading for Talifet.  Since the next one would not be departing for another three months, he made haste to join it.  It left on May 4, 1829, and reached El Arawan after enduring real suffering from the heat and sandstorms.  The caravan left El Arawan on May 19 and set out for Morocco; he was now crossing the Sahara from south to north.  By now he was enduring real suffering; a fall from a camel had given him a painful injury that refused to heal.  His Moorish companions took delight in ridiculing him, taking pleasure in his ignorance of desert travel.  But as an old Arabic proverb says, the caravan always moves on, despite the barking of dogs or the swirling of insects.  It eventually reached Marabouty and El Harib, but Caillié was still suffering greatly.

The caravan finally arrived at Fez in August 1829, and then moved on to Rabat.  His funds had by now run out and he was unable to buy anything substantial to eat.  He subsisted primarily on Islamic charity and on the generosity of a few Moroccan Jews he met who, shocked by his disheveled and haggard appearance, took pity on him.  Eventually, by a combination of craftiness and luck, he was able to secure his way aboard a ship to Tangiers.  There he made contact with a French government official named Delaporte, to whom he revealed his true identity.  From there Caillié finally reached Toulon, France, where he could hardly believe he was still alive.  He had accomplished something that no European had done before him:  to travel to Timbuktu and return home alive.  Others before him had reached the city, but none had come back alive.

Both the French and English geographical societies had long wished for an expedition to the city, but Caillié had pulled it off on his own, using nothing but his own abilities and daring.  He had added a great deal of information to European knowledge of the West African regions, and for this the French Geographical Society awarded him 10,000 francs and the Cross of the Legion of Honor.  He died young at the age of 38.  It is right that we should remember these brave men who suffered and died in the quest for glory and knowledge.

It was an age of heroic exploration.  The day we cease to honor men like René Caillié is the day we become unworthy of our patrimony.


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