Today's Reading

PROLOGUE: A MAN OF ENTERPRISE AND GENIUS
 
In among the millions of documents held by the British government's National Archives is a slim dossier known as CO 2/20. The volume is not much requested. These archives, after all, hold papers that cover a thousand years of British history, and most visitors to the airy reading rooms at Kew come in search of more obvious treasures: Domesday Book, Shakespeare's will, or the newly opened files of cold war traitors and spies. Every couple of years, however, someone will demand Colonial Office file 2/20, and a message will be passed to the Cheshire town of Winsford, where the dossier is held in a storage facility deep within Britain's largest salt mine. There, an employee will venture into the arid darkness, pluck the file from more than twenty-two miles of shelving given over to the National Archives, and dispatch it south.

The box that arrives days later at the reading room is made of thick cardboard and bound with white cotton tape. Inside is a sheaf of a hundred or so handwritten communications—manuscripts, we might say—that were sent from the British consul in Tripoli to London in the mid-1820s. Each piece of ragged, well-traveled paper illuminates a small corner of time and place, and a handful have special relevance for our story. These are the last letters of a neglected explorer, Alexander Gordon Laing, and encompass the period of his expedition to discover the "far famed Capital of Central Africa," as he described the city of Timbuktu.

Laing, a muttonchopped army major from Edinburgh, was fated to become the first European explorer to reach this elusive place. In the 1820s, Timbuktu dominated Europe's ideas about Africa as El Dorado had once colored its concept of the Americas. Timbuktu was believed to govern a rich sub-Saharan region called the Sudan, after the Arabic Bilad al-Sudan, "the land of the blacks." Rumors of the city's existence had circulated in Europe for hundreds of years, and its riches had been trumpeted since at least the fourteenth century. As Marco Polo's Zipangu was said to be a land where the king's palace was roofed with precious metal, Timbuktu's houses too were reported to be covered with gold. Scores of travelers had been sent to find it, but every attempt had ended in death or failure.

In 1826, it was the turn of Major Laing. Laing was a particular British sort, a product of that time between Waterloo and the Charge of the Light Brigade when military men sought death or glory, or a combination of the two. With his good looks and self-absorption, he could have slipped out of the pages of Vanity Fair, but it was a different novel, Daniel Defoe's Robinson Crusoe, that inspired his life of adventure. "The reading of voyages and travels occupied all my leisure moments," he once recalled. "The History of Robinson Crusoe...inflamed my young imagination." Like Defoe's hero, Laing was desperate to avoid the "middle station" of British life; like Crusoe he would cast himself into the world in order to find meaning and purpose. "I shall do more than has ever been done before," he wrote, "and shall show myself to be what I have ever considered myself, a man of enterprise and genius."

Not everyone shared Laing's immodest assessment of his abilities. While he was stationed in Sierra Leone in 1824, his commanding officer wrote to the minister for war and the colonies that Laing's "military exploits were [even] worse than his poetry." But this diatribe apparently had little effect; that year Laing was appointed leader of a new British mission to locate the city he believed it was his destiny to find. Becoming the first to reach Timbuktu would give him what he most desired in the world, as he explained in a poem:

Tis that which bids my bosom glow
To climb the stiff ascent of fame
To share the praise the just bestow
And give myself a deathless name.

Laing set out from Tripoli in the summer of 1825, riding into the 120-degree heat of the Sahara. The land at this time of year was so arid even his camels grew skeletally thin. His guide, a mild and agreeable presence on the coast, became greedier the farther south they traveled, and in the Tanezrouft, a burning plain the size of California, he appears to have betrayed Laing to a group of Tuareg. Heavily armed men surrounded the explorer's tent in the night, shot him, and hacked at him before leaving him for dead.

Laing's account of the injuries he sustained in this attack is one of the most remarkable artifacts in the Colonial Office dossier. It was written on May 10, 1826, from a desert camp two hundred miles north of Timbuktu. Until this point, his dispatches were composed in a flamboyant, forward-leaning copperplate. This letter, dotted with mildew now, its folded seams darkened by Saharan dust, is an untidy up-and-down scrawl, written, as he explained, with his left hand.

"My Dear Consul," he writes, "I drop you a line only, by an uncertain conveyance, to acquaint you that I am recovering from... severe wounds far beyond any calculation that the most sanguine expectation could have formed." The detail of the incident is a surprising tale of "base treachery and war," but it must keep for another time. For now, he will acquaint the consul with the number and nature of the wounds he has suffered in the attack:

To begin from the top, I have five sabre cuts on the crown of the head & three on the left temple, all fractures from which much bone has come away, one on my left cheek which fractured the Jaw bone & has divided the ear, forming a very unsightly wound, one over the right temple, and a dreadful gash on the back of the neck, which slightly scratched the windpipe.

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