René Caillié, 1799-1838

Travels Through Central Africa to Timbuctoo, and Across the Great Desert, to Morocco, Performed in the Years 1824-1828. 2 vols. London, 1830. Gift of C. W. McAlpin, Class of 1888. [Rare Books Division]

The History of Robinson Crusoe, in particular, inflamed my young imagination: I was impatient to encounter adventure like him; nay, I already felt an ambition to signalize myself by some important discovery springing up in my heart. Geographical books and maps were lent to me: the map of Africa, in which I saw scarcely any but countries marked as desert or unknown, excited my attention more than any other.

Caillié (Vol. 1, p.2)

A native of France with little formal education, Caillié left home in 1816 to seek adventure on a ship headed to West Africa. He jumped ship in Senegal, joined an English expedition seeking news about the disappearance of Mungo Park [see PARK], and eventually returned to France when he was stricken with tropical fever. In 1824 he was back in Senegal and traveled to the desert region of today’s Mauritania, where he spent a year living with members of the Braknas tribe, learning Arabic and studying Islamic ritual. He had heard that the Geographical Society of Paris was offering a prize of 10,000 francs to the first European who reached the fabled city of Timbuktu and lived to describe it. Caillié was convinced that only someone posing as an Arab traveler could succeed.

Departing from Conakry, a seaport in today’s Guinea, on 19 April 1827, Caillié headed inland, following a route that took him west to Timé (Tiemé), where he spent four months sick with scurvy, and then north to Jenné (Djenné, Mali).He arrived in Timbuktu on 20 April 1828 in the hold of a ship he shared with slaves. Masquerading as a poor Egyptian trying to get home after years living in France, he spent two weeks in the city, surreptitiously taking notes and making drawings. He was struck by the austerity of the settlement as compared with historical descriptions of its magnificence by Leo Africanus (ca. 1492-ca.1550) and other early travelers. He also learned that Scotsman Alexander Gordon Laing [see LAING] had reached the city in 1826 but had been murdered by his Muslim guide on the return. In early May, Caillié joined a slave caravan traveling northward through the Sahara Desert, and he eventually crossed the Atlas Mountains to Tafilet and Fez (Morocco). He arrived in Rabat penniless and in rags but was refused aid. Reaching Tangier on 7 September, he was able to meet the French consul in secret and obtained passage back to France. Awarded the Geographical Society’s prize and a government pension, Caillié succumbed in 1838 to the tuberculosis he had developed in Africa. Although he is usually remembered only for his Timbuktu achievement, his 4500-mile journey opened up much other terrain unknown to Europeans.