The Race for Timbuktu: In Search of Africa's City of Gold

The Race for Timbuktu: In Search of Africa's City of Gold - Frank T. Kryza This is a story of European, specifically British, exploration of the African interior in the late 18th and early 19th century. At one point the book shows a 1829 map of Africa, and it was striking how much white space was on it. The Moon was better mapped--because you could study the Moon with a telescope--trying to get to the interior of Africa if you were a European was a different story. (The slave trade wasn’t conducted by Europeans in the African interior but by Africans themselves. Europeans primarily only hugged the coasts of Sub-Saharan Africa until late in the 19th century.) The Race for Timbuktu is a story of exploration and cultures colliding worthy of Star Trek--only without the Prime Directive and not just the Red Shirts drop like flies. I thought the book did well on several levels. The explorers themselves come across as distinct personalities. Kryza quotes one historian of African exploration in the 1960s as saying that: “It remains difficult, in the checkered history of geographical discovery, to find a more odious man than Dixon Denham.” Having read Hochschild’s King Leopold’s Ghost, I would have thought it was hard to beat Henry Morton Stanley on that score, but I think Denham as portrayed by Kryza at least comes close. Other explorers such as Mongo Park, Lyons, Clapperton and Laing were more sympathetic, but just as interesting. I was also fascinated by the delineation of the connections between the loss of the American colonies, the push to end the slave trade, and how it drove British expeditions to find the lost city of Timbuktu and trace the course of the Niger River. The author does a great job in conveying what a barrier the Sahara Desert on one side and the tropical diseases of the Congo River basin on the other side presented and how they isolated Timbuktu. Timbuktu, in what is today Mali is on the banks of the Niger and the southern border of the Sahara was a legendary city where “camel met canoe.” It was “likely founded around 1100” and at one point had a population reaching 100,000, was in its heyday fabulously wealthy, and had boasted an important center of Islamic scholarship in Medieval times. If I had one disappointment, it is we actually don’t spend much time or space on Timbuktu itself--this is a book about the journey, not the destination. Kryza claims he is “no scholar, and this is not a scholarly book” but he does include a bibliography and extensive notes on each chapter pointing to his sources. The book was entertaining, but felt solid in its facts.