Major Alexander Gordon Laing, explorer, was born on the 27th of December, 1793.
If you’re someone who can’t find their way to the edge of town without a ‘sat-nav’, spare a thought for a generation of 19th Century Scotsmen who ventured into the uncharted territory of deepest, darkest Africa in search of fame and glory without even so much as a sketch map. Explorers like James Bruce, Hugh Clapperton, David Livingstone, Mungo Park and Major Alexander Gordon Laing were intrepid when the word had meaning. For the most part, those guys’ adventures were for bigger reasons than simply “it was there”. Such men displayed a vast reservoir of physical courage, moral fibre and inexhaustible perseverance and none more so than Alexander Laing who, in 1826, became the first European to reach the ancient and fabled city of Timbuktu.
For Laing, in that time of British Colonial expansion, Timbuktu was the “far-famed capital of Central Africa” and for many Europeans, a legendary ‘lost city of gold’. Its reputation stemmed from fantastic tales of unimaginable wealth, such as that of its greatest ruler, Mansa Musa, who in the 14th Century had passed through Cairo on his way to Mecca accompanied by twelve thousand silk clad slaves and eighty gold laden camels. During a period when bloodthirsty, medieval Europeans were fighting the Crusades and Robert the Bruce was devastating the north of England, peaceful merchants from across the north of the African continent visited the markets of the central African capital to trade in gemstones, ivory and gold. Centuries later, there was a rivalry, almost a national obsession, between the French and the British, manifest in a prize of 10,000 Francs being offered by the Société de Géographie to the first man to reach the fabled city, hidden somewhere in Africa’s vast, unexplored interior.
Enter Alexander Gordon Laing, who was born in Edinburgh on the 27th of December, 1793. He was educated by his father William, a private teacher of classics, and at Edinburgh University, intending to become a teacher. However, in 1811, Alexander Laing went to Barbados to act as clerk to his maternal uncle, General Gabriel Gordon, who was then a mere Colonel. Whilst in Barbados, Laing volunteered for the British Army and, through the services of the Governor, became an Ensign in the York Light Infantry. In 1822, he was given command of a company in the Royal African Corps and in that same year, he was charged with opening up commerce and abolishing the slave trade in Mandingo country, in Sierra Leone. He also found time to make his first discovery of exploration, when he ascertained the source of the Rokell. Laing also took an active part in the Ashanti War of 1823-24, after which he returned to Britain.
Whilst back in England, Laing produced a narrative of his exploratory journeys, which was published in 1825 and entitled ‘Travels in the Timannee, Kooranko and Soolima Countries, in Western Africa’. He saw his future as an explorer and set his sights on Timbuktu and the source of the Niger, which he had endeavoured to reach in 1822, before being stopped by the natives, but not before he had been able to fix its location with approximate accuracy. Laing had impressed Henry, the Earl of Bathurst, who was at that time the Secretary of State for War and the Colonies, and so the Earl, an advocate of African exploration, became a patron and in February, 1825, Laing set off on his journey.
Unlike Mungo Park, another Scot who had disappeared twenty years earlier whilst trying to trace the Niger with a huge team, including forty-six Europeans, none of whom survived by the way, Laing set out with three Africans, a Caribbean-born servant and a Jewish interpreter. Laing made it to Timbuktu, but he was betrayed and almost killed on the way, and he was betrayed and killed for certain on his way back. Somewhere south of an oasis called Wadi Ahnet, on the 2nd or 3rd of February, 1826, Laing was savagely assaulted in his tent whilst the Arab traders, whose caravan he had joined, looked on dispassionately. Laing’s guide, Sheikh Babani, had struck a deal with the Tuareg to dispose of the Scotsman and share his belongings. But they hadn’t reckoned with Laing, who despite being hacked almost to pieces and suffering a total of twenty-four gruesome injuries, refused to die. In a staggering feat of endurance and indomitable will, Laing carried on, survived a dysentery epidemic and finally, on the 13th of August, 1826, arrived at his destination.
His two thousand mile journey had taken three hundred and ninety-nine days, during which he had faced sandstorms, unbearable heat, loneliness, hunger, thirst and violence. Imagine his reaction when he looked upon what was little more than a dusty, dirty, dismal wee dump on the southern edge of the Sahara. He must’ve been in denial or hallucinating when he wrote to his father-in-law that “it has completely met my expectations”. Laing remained in Timbuktu for thirty-five days, studying old Islamic manuscripts, before leaving on the 21st of September as it had become “exceedingly unsafe”. Not having much choice, he joined another Arab caravan and travelled north meet his fate. According to Bongola, Laing’s sole remaining companion, he was murdered at night on the 26th of September, 1826, by another Sheikh, Ahmadu Labeida.
In a ‘Biographical Dictionary of Eminent Scotsmen’, originally edited by Robert Chambers and published by Blackie & Son just thirty years after Laing’s death, there is reference to a ‘masterly summary’ of evidence contained in the ‘Quarterly Review’ (number 84) in support of allegations that the French were treacherously complicit in Laing’s murder. Facts were apparently established to the entire satisfaction of the consuls of Britain, the Netherlands, Denmark, Sweden, and Sardinia that, in 1828, Major Laing’s papers were secreted in Tripoli and handed over to the Baron de Rosseau, the French Consul. Furthermore, it states that during the greater part of the Laing’s journey, the Consul had been in secret correspondence with the conspirators, including Sheikh Babani, one Hassunah D’ Ghies, son of the Prime Minister of the Bashaw of Tripoli, and the eventual murderer it refers to as Bourabouschi.
Interestingly, in 1828, a Frenchman called René Caillié also reached Timbuktu, but perhaps significantly and unlike poor Laing, he returned to claim the Société de Géographie’s prize. Much later, in 1903, for some reason known only to them, the French government placed a tablet bearing Laing’s name and the date of his visit on the house he had occupied during his stay in Timbuktu.
The photograph is by Sam Perkins (check him out on Facebook at Sam Perkins Photography) and was taken near Oban.