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.
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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