Trade Routes of Timbucktoo
Credit: Map is from the Florida Geographic Alliance

There are few cities that have shared the same type of legendary mystique as has the city of Timbuctoo.  The closest that come to mind are El Dorado and Atlantis.  During the 1800’s Timbuctoo was seen as a cross between those two legends.  To Europe it was a legend, believed  a place of great knowledge and learning, a place where the roads were gold and the people had difficulty walking because their clothes were woven from threads of gold. The city was a major learning center filled with scholars and literary manuscripts that were belived to be so extensive that it would take multiple lifetimes to read them all.

The stories that spread throughout Europe were not created from spun daydreams instead these legends originated from a journal written in the 1400’s. A man by the name of Ibn Battutta was a famous Arab traveler and explorer who had been exploring, many places in Africa, including the Empire of Mali.  During the 1400’s, when Battutta had visited the Empire it was indeed rich in gold, as well as salt, and one of its many trade centers was a city by the name of Timbuctoo.  At this point in history 2/3 of the worlds gold had come from this region, and much of the slave trade did as well.  Unfortunately, the Empire eventually ran out of gold, but the story of the wealth and knowledge found there continued to spread throughout Europe. 

The reason why the legends continued to spread and grow was because Timbuctoo is located in a very difficult to reach location in Africa.  Located on the edge of the Saharan desert just 8 miles from the Niger River there were only two ways to reach it.  The first was through the bandit infested desert to the north, and the second was through the insect ridden tropics of West Africa.  Both routes were extremely dangerous. 



During the 1700’s the President of the African Society, Sir Joseph Banks commissioned several explorers with the task of reaching the legendary city of Timbuctoo.   The first reports made of someone successfully reaching Timbuctoo however did not come from one of his expeditions.  It came from an American sailor who called himself Benjamin Rose and Robert Adams at various times.  In 1810 he had been shipwrecked off the coast of Africa and enslaved by Moroccan Traders; whose route eventually took them to Timbuctoo.  His accounting of the city was not flattering apparently it was a dull, filthy little city, where sometimes, if you were very lucky, you could purchase some tobacco from the traders.  His accounts of the city were completely disregarded as pure poppycock, and the expeditions continued.

Banks died in 1820, and his position was handed over to Mr. John Barrow.  The first stroke of luck in the expeditions occurred when a Scotsman by the name of Captain Gordon Laing, put forth an application for the next expedition.  He claimed to have an idea about the starting point of the Niger River and wanted to follow it to where it came out to see.  He would, of course, have to visit Timbuctoo as it was along the way to where he was going.  Even more importantly, he didn’t require much in the way of funds.  The expedition that had been just before Laing’s cost about £40,000, Laing’s on the other hand asked for less than £1,000, although he actually spent much more than that on his journey. 

Laing was a very enthusiastic explorer and he did in fact make it all the way to Timbuctoo.  However, he was the only man from his expedition to have made it there, and he had been shot, and knifed by Tuareg tribesmen (bandits) during a raid along the way.  When he arrived he found a small town where everything that the Europeans believed to be true was in fact wrong.   He also found that the town was dangerous for a white Christian, and he was persuaded to get out of there before he was killed.  Catching a caravan to Morocco he gave u pon his goal of mapping the whole of the Niger and tried to get out with his life.  The Tuareg however found him, and hung him with his own turban. 

While Laing got to Timbuctoo he didn’t manage to survive it.  That honor went to a Frenchman by the name of René Caillié.  He decided that instead of traveling as a European he would be better off pretending to be from Egypt.  Instead of the northern route Caillié chose to go through the jungles, where ironically it was scurvy that held him up for about 6 weeks.  The man definitely wasn’t eating his fruits and vegetables like he should. 

Eventually, he arrived at Timbuctoo and spends several weeks regaining his health, while taking notes on the city.  Eventually he rode with a caravan north, and by himself he traveled across the Atlas Mountians while pretending to be a healer, and eventually he made it to the French consul.  When he returned to France he collected the reward for finding Timbuctoo (10,000 francs) and was given a pension of 6,000 francs by King Charles X. 

 It wasn’t until 1850 that another man dared to make the trip to Timbuctoo.  A german explorer by the name of Heinrich Barth made the 10,000 mile trip across the Sahara from Tripoli to Timbuctoo, but by this time Caillié was already dead.

Today we know that what Ibn Battutta described in his journal of Timbuctoo was the truth, and it was in the 1500's that it was at it's prime.  Fortunatly, the manuscripts were carefully protected and preserved by the families of Timbuctoo and held in secret until recently.