On this day in 1828, French adventurer René Caillié became the first European in history to successfully complete the journey to the West African city of Timbuktu and return alive.
The first historical reference to Timbuktu was made by the great explorer Ibn Battuta, who visited in 1353. Two centuries later, in 1550, Moorish diplomat and author Leo Africanus described his experience of Timbuktu in his book Descrittione dell’Africa, which became widely known throughout Europe as the definitive resource to the region. As a result of his account, Timbuktu was perceived as a place of unsurpassed exoticism, wealth, and fantasy. In 1824, the Société de Géographie in Paris offered a 10,000-franc award to any European explorer that could visit the ‘African El Dorado’ and return alive. René Caillié was determined to win.
Caillié was born on 19 November 1799 into difficult circumstances. He was the orphan son of a prison convict, and grew up uneducated and physically slight. After reading Robinson Crusoe as a child, he was inspired to take on challenges and adventures abroad. In 1815, when he was only 16, Caillié visited Senegal and Guadeloupe. In 1818, he travelled to the West African state of Bondu on a mission to bring supplies to a British expedition there. And in 1824, he decided to take up the Société de Géographie’s challenge and journey to Timbuktu.
To prepare for the journey, Caillié spent almost a year living on the Brakna Moors north of the Senegal River, where he learnt to speak Arabic and learnt the laws and customs of Islam (which he converted to). Afterwards he travelled to Sierra Leone and worked as superintendent of an indigo plantation to save money. Once he had amassed enough capital, he started the long trek to Timbuktu by joining a Mandingo caravan. The French adventurer assumed the role of an Egyptian Arab, claiming that he had been abducted by the French and was now trying to find his way home, and travelled undercover.
Caillié continued by caravan to Djenne in Mali—although he had a five-month break because of serious illness—and from Djenne he continued to Timbuktu by river. He stayed for two weeks and then returned to France, where he was happy to tell the truth about the fabled city: it was no “African El Dorado,” but simply a small, destitute village. In addition to winning the prize, Caillié was awarded the Legion of Honour and received public funding to publish a three-volume account of his voyage in 1830.
Rene Caillié was a thoroughly unusual 19th century African adventurer because he travelled on his own, learning the languages and embracing the customs of the natives; rather than travelling with soldiers and porters. It was a clever way of travelling through hostile territories, and may well have saved his life. British officer Major Gordon Laing, who was the very first European to enter Timbuktu in 1826, had travelled in the usual way and was murdered shortly after departing. Caillié died in 1838 in his native France.
Today Timbuktu still conjures up a sense of mystery, and polls have found that many people believe it’s a mythical place–perhaps a residual effect of centuries of legendary tales.
Credit: © John Elk III / Alamy
Caption: The Sankore Mosque was the center of Timbuktu’s thriving scholarly community in the 16th century, but declined after the Moroccan invasion in the 1590s.