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He has a musket ball in the hip, which has made its way through his body, grazing his backbone. He also has five saber wounds to his right arm and hand, which is "cut three fourths across," and the wrist bones are hacked through. He has three cuts on his left arm, which is broken, one slight wound on the right leg, and two, including "one dreadful gash," on the left, to say nothing of the blow to the fingers of the hand he is using to write.

Scanning this butcher's bill, as the anxious consul must have done when the letter reached Tripoli six months later, the reader looks for signs of retreat. Laing is planning, surely, to return by the quickest possible route, as soon as he is fit, devising a way to avoid the bandits on the home leg? Not at all. The pull of Timbuktu, which lies over the horizon, as yet unmolested by European gaze, is too strong. He will not dishonor himself by giving up now. He is "doing well" despite his wounds, he tells the consul. He hopes yet to return to England with "much important Geographical information." He has discovered many things that must be corrected on the map of Africa, and he beseeches God to allow him time to finish the job.

Almost two months later, Laing writes again. His situation has become worse. The camp has been overwhelmed by a "dreadful malady" akin to yellow fever that has killed half the population, including his last remaining servant. "I am now the only surviving member of the mission," he informs the consul miserably. "My situation is far from agreeable." Still, so potent is his sense of destiny that he carries on:

I am well aware that if I do not visit it, the World will ever remain in ignorance of [Timbuktu] I make no vain glorious assertion when I say that it will never be visited by Christian man after me.

Laing achieved his great ambition six weeks later, entering Timbuktu on August 13, 1826. Then something rather odd happened: he went quiet.

For five weeks he sent no word of his arrival to the consul. It was September 21 before he wrote again, and then the letter was barely five hundred words long. He is still holding the pen in his left hand, and his writing now is cramped, tense. His life is threatened, he tells the consul, and he is in a hurry to leave:

I have no time to give you my account of Tinbuctu, but shall briefly state that in every respect except in size (which does not exceed four miles in circumference) it has completely met my expectations.... I have been busily employed during my stay, searching the records in the town, which are abundant, & in acquiring information of every kind, nor is it with any common degree of satisfaction that I say, my perseverance has been amply rewarded.

The day after composing this letter, Laing left Timbuktu and walked out of history.

The consul forwarded the final dispatch to London with a covering note claiming a victory of sorts—it was the "first letter ever written from that place by any Christian"—but in terms of delivering information about the great object of European geography, Laing's expedition was a flop. If Timbuktu had met his high expectations "completely," where was the detail? Most puzzling was Laing's assertion that there were abundant "records in the town," from which he had drawn "information of every kind." What kinds of records could warrant a soldier's attention? How could they be of use to the British government?


Almost two centuries later, it is clear that the "records in the town" were some of the great quantity of mostly Arabic texts that are now known collectively as the manuscripts of Timbuktu. The city's documents, which Laing appears to have been the first European to see, are so numerous no one knows quite how many there are, though they are reckoned in the tens or even hundreds of thousands. They contain some of the most valuable written sources for the so-called golden age of Timbuktu in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, and the great Songhay empire of which the city was a part. They have been held up by experts as Africa's equivalent of the Dead Sea Scrolls or the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, proof of the continent's vibrant written history.

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