Alexander Gordon Laing, 1793-1826

Travels in the Timannee, Kooranko, and Soolima Countries, in West Africa. London: John Murray, 1825. [Rare Books Division]

The importance of the trade, in respect to its present extent and commercial value, was inconsiderable, compared to the influence which might be expected from it, in promoting the habits of industry, and of settled and civilized life, amongst the Mandingo nation, who had already advanced in these respects beyond the other nations in the neighbourhood of Sierra Leone; and, previously to the war, had shown a rapidly increasing desire to obtain the luxuries of Europeans in exchange for the produce of their labour. His Excellency considered that his mediation might prove beneficial, in producing a reconciliation between the belligerent chiefs; and being desirous, at the same time, to recommend the natives of the circumjacent countries to direct their attention towards the cultivation of white rice, he thought it advisable to despatch a small embassy (of which he was pleased to put me in charge . . . .

—Laing (pp. 2-3)

A Scottish officer in the British army, Laing served several years in the West Indies before he arrived in the colony of Sierra Leone in 1822. His commander dispatched him into the interior to gauge native sentiment regarding commerce and the slave trade and to effect a reconciliation between two Mandingo chiefs, whose violent rivalry was perceived as a threat to trade and security in the colony. From February to October 1822, Laing traveled throughout the Mandingo, Timannee, Kooranko, and Soolima territories of Sierra Leone. He spent several months in Falaba, the capital of Soolima, where he was well received. He sought the source of the Niger River—only three days away, he was told—but was frustrated by the superstitious local chief. In military operations against the Ashanti people on the Gold Coast the next year, Laing was successful in securing the allegiance of all the Fantee tribes.

In 1824 he received instructions from the British colonial secretary to proceed from Tripoli to Timbuktu on an expedition to determine the source and course of the Niger River. In July 1825, two days after marrying the daughter of the British consul there, Laing set off into the desert, guided by a knowledgeable sheikh with a small caravan. He was never seen by his family again, although he was able to send some letters and papers back while in route. In this letter to the consul (his father-in-law), dated 10 May 1826, Laing describes wounds he received in an attack by nomadic Tuaregs:

When I write from Timbuctoo, I shall detail precisely how I was betrayed, and nearly murdered in my sleep. . . . I have five sabre cuts on the crown of the head, and three on the left temple; all fractures, from which much bone has come away. One on my left cheek, which fractured the jawbone, and has divided the ear, forming a very unsightly wound. One over the right temple, and a dreadful gash on the back of the neck . . . &c. I am nevertheless, as already I have said, doing well, and hope yet to return to England with much important geographical information. The map indeed requires much correction, and please God, I shall yet do much in addition to what I have already done towards putting it right.

He made it to Timbuktu in August—the first European known to have done so, as confirmed later by Frenchman René Caillié [see CAILLIÉ]—but he was murdered on his return. Laing’s story has become part of African exploration lore.