In the year 1324 Malian Emperor Mansa Musa made his legendary hajj to Mecca. This event, famous for its extravagance, was the introduction of Mali into the popular imagination – and economies – of the Islamic caliphates of old. Following the gilded trail back with Musa to Timbuktu were the emissaries, ambassadors and traders; the artisans and scholars and scam artists of powers great and small scrambling to find a place in Africa’s “El Dorado”. There, where the dry ocean of the Sahara meets the extensive expanse of black Africa, on a bend in the Niger River, sat the small trading post of Timbuktu – newly acquired by Musa’s expanding empire. A perfect jumping off point – and an ideal meeting place of cultures – Timbuktu rapidly became an epicenter of trade and Islamic learning, with a university founded by Musa reaching 25,000 students and boasting libraries with almost half a million books (during a time when Oxford had only hundreds, maybe a thousand). A place where, it is fabled, the currency was not in gold or silver but in books. For a while Timbuktu flourished, but time and changing trading patters – and a Moroccan invasion – put an end to Timbuktu’s preferential status as a city richer than London, Paris or Vienna.
But the legend continued. Timbuktu, Africa’s El Dorado, remained in the popular imagination of the Europeans as the elusive prize – if only they could find it.
“The Race for Timbuktu” by Frank Kryza is the story of one chapter of this search. Specifically, it is the story of how a group of British explorers tried to penetrate the dark heart of Africa. Braving Tuareg raids, desperate Saharan expanses devoid of water, disease, betrayal, tribal wars and Muslim Jihads a group of intrepid explorers sought to penetrate the unknown to arrive at last to Timbuktu.
I like this story because, above all, it is a human story. Kryza delves into the personal travails of the travelers on their journey, never whitewashing their not insignificant interpersonal weaknesses, while nevertheless also highlighting the tremendous bravery and courage of conviction of these singular men as they competed for the great prize – to be the first white man to visit Timbuktu, and return. It is a hard story, because it is one of suffering and pain and betrayal. It is a disappointing story, because the characters themselves often leave so much to be desired. And it is a sad story because so many died on the journey; while for those who made it, their frustration as they enter Timbuktu to find that the glory days of that fabled city were centuries in the past is almost tangible.
It is a story worth the read, because it marks the last chapter of Africa’s isolation and the first chapter of Africa’s place in the modern world – for good and for bad.