Tragedy on the trail of city of gold

The Gates of Africa
July 16, 2004

Explorers have often sought the fabled, the fabulous or the mythical. In the eastern Sahara, for example, as late as the 1930s, travellers tried to find the missing oasis of Zerzura or traces of the lost army of Cambyses. In the western Sahara, particularly from the last decades of the 18th century, the desire was to find traces of long-lost empires and sources of gold. The prime target was the city of Timbuktu.

Knowledge of the area, was, however, no more than rudimentary. Maps were either blank or the product of armchair geographers. Moreover, adding something substantial to knowledge of the area was fraught with difficulties, for apart from having no clear idea where to look, there were the problems of hostile tribes, implacable and sometimes venal rulers, torrential tropical rains and searing desert droughts, largely unnavigable rivers, and killer diseases. Whether approached from the Gulf of Guinea, from the Gambia or Senegal, from Morocco, Tunis or Tripoli, or from Egypt and the Red Sea, the search for Timbuktu and the route of the great river Niger was fraught with difficulties. It was a massive challenge that intrigued and fascinated that great gouty botanist, scientist and socialite Sir Joseph Banks. In a London tavern in 1788, he and his influential cronies decided to establish the African Association. Anthony Sattin has set out to tell the tale of how the association tried to search for Timbuktu.

It is a gripping story, beautifully told, and more characterised by tragedy than by triumphs. One of the more remarkable parts of the story is that so many of the explorers recruited by the association were not British. John Ledyard was American, Daniel Houghton was Irish, Frederick Hornemann was German and Jean Louis Burckhardt was Swiss. Moreover, five of the first six explorers sent out died: Ledyard, Houghton, Mungo Park, Henry Nicolls and Hornemann. Later, Burckhardt also expired from dysentery in Egypt before he could return home.

There were, however, triumphs, and Park and Burckhardt are among the greatest of all explorers from the era. But the African Association was important in other ways. It demonstrated that exploration was not the preserve of governments, it provided its explorers with equipment to carry out scientific and topographic research, and it demonstrated the need for explorers to learn foreign languages and to try to understand other cultures. These lessons were adopted by the Royal Geographical Society at whose founding in 1830 the association voted itself out of existence. The great African explorations of the second half of the 19th century were made possible, Sattin argues, because the African Association showed what could be achieved and how it could be done.

The Gates of Africa tells a story that has never been adequately told before and does so with style and scholarship. A remarkable story told remarkably well.

Andrew Goudie is master of St Cross College, Oxford.

The Gates of Africa: Death, Discovery and the Search for Timbuktu

Author - Anthony Sattin
Publisher - HarperCollins
Pages - 382
ISBN - 0 0 712233 0

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