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the first European to reach Timbuktu
René-Auguste Caillié was born into a poor family in Mauzé, France, in 1799. Orphaned at the age of 11, he decided on a life of adventure after reading Robinson Crusoe. That life began when, at the age of 16, he joined an expedition to Senegal, from whence he then joined a voyage to Guadeloupe in the Windward Islands. Returning to Senegal in 1818, he made a journey to Bondu to deliver supplies to a British expedition then exploring the region. He hoped to join the expedition, but fever forced him to return to France.
In 1824, the Geographical Society of Paris announced a prize of 10,000 francs to the first person to return from and report on a journey to Timbuktu, a Muslim city on the southern fringes of the Sahara Desert that was supposed to be rich with gold and other treasures. Several expeditions had been financed from England, but no one had yet returned alive. Caillié seized the opportunity and left for Africa that same year.
Before embarking on what he hoped to be his greatest adventure, Caillié spent three years living in a Muslim community on the Rio Nuñez to learn the language and customs. By 1827 he felt confident enough to join a caravan heading to Timbuktu -- disguised as a Muslim and claiming that he was an Egyptian who had been kidnapped by a French army and was now trying to get back to his homeland. Aside from a five-month battle with illness and a bad fall from a camel, Caillié's journey was relatively uneventful; he only encountered danger once, when he had to hide from the Tuareg under a pile of mats. The Timbuktu he arrived at, however, proved to be "a mass of ill-looking houses, built of earth" instead of the great city of wealth it had been fabled to be.
After two weeks in Timbuktu, Caillié disguised himself as a beggar and joined a large caravan travelling north to Tangiers. Penniless and in rags by the time he reached Rabat, a center of French authority in Morocco, he was refused access to the French consul. Upon reaching Tangiers, the French naval authorities there refused to believe that Caillié had come from Timbuktu and the French consul would only see him in secret. He finally managed to obtain passage back to France, on a French sloop disguised as a sailor.
In 1828, the Geographical Society of Paris determined that Caillié had indeed earned the 10,000-franc prize; he was also granted a state pension and given a place in the Legion d'Honneur. He subsequently retired to his home town of Mauzé, where he briefly served as mayor, and set to writing his account of the journey; Journal d'un voyage à Temboteu et à Jenne (Travels through Central Africa to Timbuctoo) was published in both Paris and London in 1830. He died of an unknown illness in 1838.
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This page was last updated on 04/19/2018.