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Biography: René-Auguste Caillié


Route across Africa, René Caillié 1827

Route across Africa taken by René-Auguste Caillié, 1827-28

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Born: 1799, Mauzé, western France
Died: 1838

René-Auguste Caillié was born in 1799 in the town of Mauzé, western France. His family was poor, his father, a baker by trade, was an alcoholic and had been convicted for theft -- Caillié was orphaned at the age of 11. Despite a limited education, Caillié gained inspiration from the story of Robinson Crusoe, and set on a path to fame by emulating the fictional hero.

Caillié left France at the age of 16 as part of an expedition to Senegal, by 18 he had also visited the French territory of Guadeloupe, part of the Windward Islands in the Caribbean. Whilst travelling, Caillié read Mungo Park's account of the 'discovery' of the source waters of the Niger at Segu (Ségou) in 1796, and the revelation that it in fact flowed eastwards (although where it reached the sea was still a mystery to European explorers). He was determined to make his name as an explorer.
Fortunately for Caillié the Geographical Society of Paris announced a prize of 10,000 francs in 1824 to the person who first visited the African city of Timbuktu. Timbuktu was considered an almost mythical place, a city of gold nestled in the hostile lands of Muslim North Africa. Europeans were not welcome. Several expeditions had been financed from England, but no one had yet returned alive from Timbuktu – even Mungo Park, who had set off down the Niger from Segu in 1805, had disappeared.
Animosity between British and French Geographical Society's existed over another British explorer, Gordon Laing. There was vague evidence to suggest that Laing had successfully reached Timbuktu in 1826, but had been murdered shortly after leaving. The British consul in Tripoli, Hanmar Warrington, had accused the French consul, Baron Rousseau, of complicity in Laing's death -- it didn't help that Warrington was Laing's father-in-law. (Rousseau was cleared by a French board of enquiry.)
In 1824 Caillié returned to Africa and settled in a Muslim community on the Rio Nuñez to learn the language and customs. After three years he felt confident enough to join a caravan heading to Timbuktu -- disguised as a Muslim, and carrying a minimum of supplies: a single bag of trade goods, an umbrella, compass, medical kit, and a journal. He dismissed his poor language abilities by saying he was an Egyptian, kidnapped by Napoleon's army and taken to France to be raised amongst the heathen.
Caillié's journey to Timbuktu in 1827 was relatively uneventful, except for five months of illness and a bad fall from a camel, he encountered danger once –- hiding from the Tuareg under a pile of mats. His entrance into the fabled city was a disappointment: later describing the view as "a mass of ill-looking houses, built of earth." Caillié stayed in a house only one street away from that where Gordon Laing had slept the previous year, and was shown a compass said to belong to Laing.
After a two week stay, Caillié disguised himself as a beggar and joined a large caravan (1,200 camels, slaves, and merchandise) travelling north to Tangier. Because of bad dysentery Caillié travelled almost the whole journey on camel back –- the only person allowed to do so. Caillié arrived in Rabat, a centre of French authority in Morocco, penniless and in rags. After a night sleeping rough and being attacked by dogs, he was refused access to the French consul. He travelled on to Tangier.
The French naval authorities in Tangier refused to believe Caillié had made the journey and the French Consul would only see him in secret – he was smuggled into the consulate after dark. He obtained passage back to France on a French sloop disguised as a sailor, and then made his way to Paris.

In 1828 René-Auguste Caillié was finally given the recognition he craved: he was awarded the Geographical Society's prize of 10,000 francs, given a state pension and a place in the Legion d'Honneur. He retired to his home town of Mauzé, where he briefly served as mayor, and set to writing his account of the journey. Unfortunately, his disguises had left little opportunity for geographical or scientific endeavour – he took compass readings whilst pretending to search for medicinal plants, and kept his journal whilst pretending to study the Koran. His book, Journal d'un voyage à Temboteu et à Jenne (Travels through Central Africa to Timbuctoo) was published in both Paris and London in 1830.

At the age of 38, and in relative obscurity, René-Auguste Caillié died of a mysterious illness, picked up (it was said) during his travels in Africa. A statue was erected in him memory, but world had moved on -- slavery was abolished and Africa was now considered a source of alternative resources: minerals and land. The European scramble for Africa was soon to begin...

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