The golden city of Timbuktu, like the lost city of Atlantis, occupies a large place in the world's mythology, but resemblances pretty much end there. Atlantis was Plato's metaphor for the ideal society that began to deteriorate as idealism was corrupted by greed, and its disappearance into the sea was punishment for its sins; but even though people have sought for centuries to recover it (and some have claimed to have done so), Atlantis was almost certainly a figment of Plato's imagination -- a glorious myth and a powerful symbol, but nothing more.
Timbuktu, by contrast, was and is a real place, as Frank T. Kryza writes, "easily located on any modern map of Mali, near the center of the country, on the southern edge of the Sahara, about eight miles north of the river Niger." It is "an insignificant place, a village that festers, foul-smelling and intractable," with "a population of less than 19,000." Two centuries ago, though, "no place burned more brightly in the imagination of European geographers -- and fortune hunters." It was believed to be "a city paved with gold," an "opulent city boasting real infrastructure -- markets, mosques, and important Islamic libraries and schools." Finding it, and laying claim to its vast wealth, became an obsession in Europe and, in particular, in England, where, in 1788, a small group of influential men, led by the celebrated botanist Sir Joseph Banks, founded the Association for Promoting the Discovery of the Interior of Africa, a continent almost entirely unknown to the Age of Enlightenment.
Beginning soon thereafter, the African Association began sponsoring expeditions into Africa, often with the ultimate aim of crossing the Sahara and establishing a British foothold in Timbuktu. One explorer, Mungo Park, in June 1796 became "the first European on record to lay eyes on the river Niger," and upon his return to London immediately became what would now be called a celebrity, the first of "a new and glorious calling . . . the lone, brave African explorer."
Gradually the leadership behind African exploration shifted from the association and Sir Joseph (who by the early 1800s "had become ill and was confined to a wheelchair") to the Colonial Office and the Admiralty, the latter under the leadership of the vigorous and farsighted Sir John Barrow. With the establishment of the Colonial Office in 1812, Lord Henry Bathurst, its "real creator," became a similarly important and influential figure in the drive to Africa, so it mattered greatly to Alexander Gordon Laing, a young company commander in the Royal Africa Corps, that Bathurst liked him and became his "powerful mentor and protector." It was Bathurst who came to Laing's rescue after an indiscretion threatened his career, and it was Bathurst who authorized the African expedition that Laing began in the summer of 1825.
The story of that expedition is at the center of The Race for Timbuktu , 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.
Alexander Gordon Laing was in his early thirties when he set out for Timbuktu. A Scotsman of respectable but modest background, he read adventure tales as a boy and "felt," he later wrote, "an ambition to signalize myself by some important discovery." He was ambitious, "good-looking and well-liked," with "the air (if not the pedigree) of a gentleman." He joined the Prince of Wales Edinburgh Volunteers at 17 and rose rapidly, though he "sometimes displayed a mocking contempt for rank and social hierarchies." He impressed Bathurst with "his command of the facts, the acuity of his intellect, his courage, and his poise."
Bathurst was "a proponent of finding Timbuktu and tracing the definitive course of the Niger." Though it was commonly assumed that Timbuktu should be approached in a straight line from Marrakesh, he believed that Tripoli was the best launching point for Laing's expedition because, though it entailed a longer route through exceedingly difficult terrain, it reduced the risk of intervention by bandits or others with unfriendly purposes. So off to Tripoli Laing went.
He found more than he'd expected. The British consul there, Hanmer Warrington, was a forceful personality with a large family. Warrington was "a fanatical patriot convinced of English superiority . . . blustering and insufferable to all who crossed him." His initial response to Laing was favorable (he was, Warrington told Bathurst, a "well set-up man, of fine physique, highly gifted in many ways"), but admiration turned to skepticism after Laing fell madly in love with Emma, the second of Warrington's three daughters, and she with him. Talk of marriage soon began, and though Warrington resisted strenuously, the ceremony took place on July 14, 1825, but "Laing (so far as we know) was not allowed to consummate the marriage." Instead, four days later he set off for Timbuktu, leaving behind an ardent, heartbroken and presumably frustrated bride.
Six weeks later, another young military officer, Capt. Hugh Clapperton of His Majesty's Royal Navy, set sail from England for the West African coast. He too had ambitions for Timbuktu, and he seems to have been jealous of the head start that Laing had on him. To make up time, he planned to approach from the west, a shorter but more dangerous route. Each of the two men had guides, servants and beasts of burden -- all the usual appurtenances of empire on the march -- and each suffered grievous losses along the way. The challenge faced by Laing, for example, was daunting: "To reach Timbuktu, the golden city of the Sudan, he would have to cross two thousand miles of the harshest desert in Africa, territories where [Tripoli's] jurisdiction did not extend. Conditions could be unimaginably harsh in these lands, where human life was held more cheaply than a good pair of boots. Lawless [Bedouin] bands made their living off the plunder of caravans."
By the time it was completed, the journey across the Sahara, which Laing "had estimated would take, at most, a few weeks had in fact taken 399 days -- he had counted every one -- fifty-seven weeks of loneliness, suffering, privation, and bloodshed, fourteen months of solitude, without the companionship of a native of his own land, without the woman he loved. . . ." Not merely was the Sahara cruel, but in February 1826 he was betrayed by the sheikh to whose guidance he had entrusted himself and brutally attacked by bandits; he was left with two dozen wounds, 18 of which were so severe that "he feared he would be disfigured for life and dreaded Emma's reaction when she saw him again, if he survived."
He did, at least long enough to reach Timbuktu. Clapperton's mission had failed, leaving the chase to him, but his triumph was muted, at best: "Laing was surely disappointed to discover in Timbuktu not even the palest shadow of the city abounding in wealth and architectural wonders that he -- and all Europe -- had imagined. The metropolis was quite obviously caught in a spiral of decay and war. . . . A thousand years old, it had a look of irreversible decrepitude. Unprepossessing even from a distance, up close Timbuktu was dirty and falling apart, stinking horribly of unwashed people and sick animals . . . . Inertia gripped everyone and everything."
Laing did find consolation in the rich collection of Arabic manuscripts at the Sankore Mosque and "stayed in Timbuktu for thirty-five days, gathering research, studying Arab manuscripts, copying city records, and talking to scholars." Whatever pleasure that afforded him did not last long. On his way out of Timbuktu, he was again betrayed, and this time murdered. His papers, which could have provided invaluable evidence for future explorers and students of Africa, were stolen or destroyed or simply left to the wind and the sand. He never again saw his beloved Emma, who lived out the brief time remaining to her in a state of bottomless grief. All the treasures he had sought were gone, as evanescent as the treasure of the Sierra Madre. ·
Jonathan Yardley is The Washington Post's book critic. His e-mail address is email@example.com.