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Tillabooks: Will's Book Blog

Sunday, May 14, 2006

The Race for Timbuktu by Frank Kryza

The Race for Timbuktu: In Search of Africa's City of Gold by Frank T. Kryza. New York: HarperCollins Publishers, 2006. ISBN: 978-0-06-056064-5

How do you spell Timbuctoo? Timbuctu, Tombouctou, Timbutu, Tombuto, even Tenbuch can be found. Timbuktu does seem to be the preferred contemporary spelling of the city whose very name was for many years a metaphor for the most distant and exotic place imaginable. This book is the story of the first attempts by modern (i.e. 19th century) European explorers to reach the fabled town, said to be on the banks of the Niger river, whose route and eventual egress (which direction? which ocean? which lake?) were no less a mystery at the time.

Several early abortive attempts are described, followed by the main course, consisting of a competition between Major Alexander Gordon Laing and Hugh Clapperton, each determined to be the first, and to win a 10,000 franc prize offered by the French Geographical Society. Laing actually made it first, in September of 1826, but was killed shortly after by the locals, and never made it back to claim the prize. Clapperton never did make it, dying of fever and dysentery en route. Fever, often malaria, killed off many of the Europeans attempting to explore the African interior.

The story is intriguing, but the author could have benefited from more rigorous editing. His prose is sometimes unclear, and the narrative occasionally seems confused. But my single biggest complaint is the lack of useful maps. There are only two decent maps in the entire book, one showing Clapperton's route on his first attempt, and another showing Laing's route, both starting at Tripoli, on the Mediterranean, and heading south.

Although much of the book alternates chapter by chapter between Clapperton and Laing, as they each strove to be the first to reach Timbuktu, no map is provided of Capperton's route on his second attempt. He sets off from the coast of West Africa, and while some of the locales he visits are included on the map of Laing's route, others are not, frustrating the reader who wants to see just where he went.

Moderately recommended for anyone with an interest in 19th century African exploration.


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