The Gates of Africa: Death, discovery and the search for Timbuktu
Posted: 27 Feb 2007 @ 00:00
Book title: The Gates of Africa: Death, discovery and the search for Timbuktu
Author: Anthony Sattin
Church Times Bookshop £25.00
BISHOP Samuel Wilberforce once wrote that, if he were a cassowary on the plains of Timbuktu, he would “eat a missionary, Cassock, bands and hymn-book too.”
But the only “missionaries” he would, in fact, have found there would have been the geographical ones sent out by the African Association to explore the continent in the cause of science.
The “Association for Promoting the Discovery of the Interior Parts of Africa”, to give its full title, was founded in 1788 through the agency of Sir Joseph Banks, the celebrated traveller and botanist of the period. He was no doubt anxious to disprove the truth of Jonathan Swift’s gibe about geographers who “in Afric- maps, With savage-pictures fill their gaps, And o’er unhabitable downs Place elephants for want of towns”.
Anthony Sattin’s fascinating book is basically a history of the Association, and of the journeys of exploration which it set in motion.
Those journeys were mainly to West Africa, with the particular aims of tracing the course of the River Niger and of discovering the city of Timbuktu, legendary capital of a once-mighty empire. Timbuktu has entered the language as a synonym for (in the words of the Oxford English Dictionary
) “any distant or remote place”. In the Middle Ages it was reputed to be so wealthy that the roofs of houses, and even the slaves, were adorned with gold.
Discovery, however, led to disillusion. Réné Caillié, the first European to enter it and live to tell the tale, reported that the golden city was nothing but a mirage. Timbuktu turned out to be a dusty little town with neither gold nor grandeur — a mass of mud houses surrounded by arid plains of white sand.
Two years previously, in August 1826, an Englishman, Gordon Laing, had also tracked down the city, but he was murdered by unfriendly locals on the way home. Indeed, that was one of the Association’s thorniest problems: its “missionaries” (as they were officially termed) tended never to make it to the objects of their search — or, if they did get there, often failed to get back again.
Moreover, there was a certain leisureliness about their journeys. One of the Association’s best-known missionaries, the Swiss-born Jean Louis Burckhardt, spent ten years transforming himself into the perfect Arab in order to ease his progress — and then died of dysentery two months before his projected departure from Cairo across the Sahara to Central Africa.
This was a terrible blow to the Association, which had been pinning its hopes on the success of his venture; and it was one of the factors that led to its merger in 1831 with the newly founded Royal Geographical Society.
Anthony Sattin describes the often hair-raising adventures of his explorers with verve and a wry wit. He is a journalist and broadcaster, and the author of several other books on African themes. He writes in an engagingly knowledgeable style about a period of history which now seems almost as remote as that golden city of Timbuktu for which so many travellers searched in vain.
Dr Palmer is a former editor of the
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