Alexander Gordon Laing

From New World Encyclopedia

Alexander Gordon Laing (December 27, 1793 – September 26, 1826) was a Scottish explorer and army officer who contributed to mapping the source of the Niger River and was the first European in centuries to reach Timbuktu. He was murdered before he could return to Europe to claim the prize offered by the French Geographical Society. Laing's achievements helped to open up more territory to British commerce and later colonization. His letters provide valuable insight into the attitudes and ambitions of a European in Africa at this time. His career was set in the context of British-French rivalry, which contributed to his ambition to be the first to reach, and to return from, Timbuktu. As territory opened up, interests were established that later translated into colonial domination as the Scramble for Africa divided the continent up among the European powers. Had Laing lived, he may have achieved greater renown as an explorer. Nonetheless, he left a mark on the history of European-African encounters which, as one writer put it, changed Africa forever.[1] For Laing and others of his era, Africa was a dark but rich continent where young men could embark on imperial adventures which, potentially, could lead to advancement, discovery, wealth, and possibly even power and influence on a scale unobtainable at home.


Laing was born in Edinburgh. He was educated by his father, William Laing, a private teacher of classics, and at Edinburgh University. After assisting his father running the Academy, and for a short time a school master in Newcastle, he volunteered for military service in 1809, becoming an ensign in the Prince of Wales Volunteers. In 1811, he went to Barbados as clerk to his maternal uncle, Colonel (afterwards General) Gabriel Gordon, then deputy quarter-master general, hoping for a transfer to the regular army. He was following in the footsteps of many fellow Scots, for whom the British Empire provided opportunities for social, economic, or political advancement beyond what Scotland's sphere could offer. Through General Sir George Beckwith, governor of Barbados, he obtained a commission in the York Light Infantry. He was then employed in the West Indies, where he was soon performing the duties of a quatermaster general. A bout of illness followed, during which he recuperated in Scotland. He was also on half-pay during this eighteen-month period. However, by 1819, he was fully restored to health and looking to rejoin his regiment. Due to reports of competent service in the West Indies, he was promoted to a lieutenant in the Royal African Corps and dispatched to Sierra Leone.

Exploring Africa: The Niger Valley

It was in 1822, that his exploits as an explorer began when he was sent by the governor Sir Charles MacCarthy, to the Mandingo country, with the double object of opening up commerce and endeavoring to abolish the slave trade in that region. Later in the same year, promoted to Captain, Laing visited Falaba, the capital of the Solimana country, and located the source of the Rokell. Laing had personally requested this mission, suggesting to the Governor that Falaba was rich in gold and ivory. He also tried to reach the source of the Niger, but was stopped by the local population within about three days march of the source. He did, though, fix the location with approximate accuracy. He later reported that he was the first white man seen by the Africans in that region. His memoir tells us of his attitude towards Africans at this point, typical of what became the dominant European view:

Map of the Niger River. The Niger River basin is in green

Of the Timmanees he writes in his journal very unfavourably; he found them depraved, indolent, avaricious, and so deeply sunk in the debasement of the slave traffic, that the very mothers among them raised a clamour against him for refusing to buy their children. He further accuses them of dishonesty and gross indecency, and altogether wonders that a country so near Sierra Leone, should have gained so little by its proximity to a British settlement.[2]

Promises by the King of Soolima to send back with him a company of traders never materialized. He returned to base empty handed but with data on the topography.

Ashanti War

During 1823 and 1824, he took an active part in the Ashanti War, which was part of the anti-slave campaign and was sent home with the dispatches containing the news of the death in action of Sir Charles MacCarthy. The war, as well as Laing's explorations, were part of what later writers called the "pacification" of Africa, at least from the European point of view.

While in England, in 1824, he prepared a narrative of his earlier journeys, which was published in 1825, and entitled, Travels in the Timannee, Kooranko and Soolima Countries, in Western Africa.

Henry, 3rd Earl Bathurst, then secretary for the colonies, instructed Captain Laing to undertake a journey, via Tripoli to Timbuktu, to further elucidate the hydrography of the Niger basin. He was actually taking part in a race for the fabled city, launched in 1824, when the French Geographical Society offered a prize of 10,000 francs for the first person to reach Timbuktu, which was believed to be a "city of gold" across and "live to tell the tale."[3] The British wanted to beat the French. However, as well as commissioning Laing, they also commissioned Hugh Clapperton, expecting that the two men would cooperate. Instead, Copperton planned his own mission. This may account for lack of careful planning by Laing, whose 2,000 mile journey quickly encountered problems. Laing left England in February 1825, and at Tripoli on July 14, he married Emma Warrington, daughter of the British consul, Sir Hanmer Warrington. Kryza describes him at this point as "a tall, trimly built man … who carried himself with … self-assurance"[4] who fell "instantly in love" with Emma.[5] The marriage was not consummated, because there was no Church of England priest available and so the marriage had been a civil ceremony. Sir Hanmer would not allow the couple to co-habit until their union had been blessed by a priest.[6] Two days later, promoted to Major and leaving his bride behind, he started to cross the Sahara, accompanied by a Tuareg sheikh who was subsequently accused of planning his murder. Ghadames was reached, by an indirect route, in October 1825, and in December, Laing was in the Tuat territory. The plan was to reach the Niger, then travel downstream to Timbuktu.


Timbuktu, now a UNESCO World Heritage site.

So far, the journey went without "without incident."[7] However, while preparing for the next stage of the journey, a passing Tuareg "spotted Laing and accused him of being none other than Mungo Park."[8] Park, a fellow Scot, had made a reputation for himself in Europe as an African explorer before drowning on a expedition along the Niger, but among Africans his name had become "a generic insult hurled at European travelers." Park had tended to shoot any African he thought looked menacing, thus his reputation among Africans was as a devil who had appeared "apparently out of nowhere."[9] His reputation was as a "ruthless murderer of defenseless men."[10] Ironically, Laing considered himself a successor to Park.[11] On January 10, 1826, Laing and an Arab caravan of Tuareg left Tuat for Timbuktu, heading across the desert of Tanezroft. His letters written in the following May and July tell of his sufferings from fever and of the plundering of the caravan by bandits. His companions, convinced that he was Park, now blamed Laing for every calamity. Probably in May, Laing was attacked during the night while sleeping in his own tent, and was seriously wounded—in twenty-four places—during the fighting. Laing's "right hand was almost severed," his "jaw was broken," he "had five deep gashes in his scalp and the lobe of his ear had been hacked off." He was apparently rescued by another Tuareg, who "carried" him the rest of the way to Timbuktu.[12] He refers to these injuries in a letter to his father-in-law dated May 10th, 2006. Another letter dated from Timbuktu on the 21st of September announced his arrival in the fable city on the preceding 18th of August, and the insecurity of his position owing to the hostility of the Fula chieftain Bello, who ruled the city. He added that he intended leaving Timbuktu in three days time. No further news was ever received from Laing. He apparently spent a month in Timbuktu, then set off in the direction of the Senegal River, territory with which he was familiar from his earlier journeys. Within a few days of leaving Timbuktu, Laing was dead—presumably killed.

In their dealings with African leaders, the British tended to assume that their presence in Africa would be welcome, even that territory would be ceded or trade concessions made almost as if they had an automatic right to these. On route, says Kryza, the caravan master faced a dilemma, of which Laing was probably unaware:

On the one hand, as a traveler who was undoubtedly rich (in Babani's eyes, all Englishmen were rich), Laing occupied a place near the top of the ladder. On the other hand, as an infidel from a country populated by unclean kafirs, Laing was lucky to be tolerated at all, and surely merited the bottom rung.[13]

Laing, in his dealing with African kings, certainly saw himself as their better, although even as a Major, his rank was actually rather modest. On the other hand, he is reported to have complained about Park's legacy, remarking that it had been very unthoughtful of the earlier explorer to "attempt to make discoveries in a country at the expense of the blood of its inhabitants."[14]


His papers were never recovered, though it is believed that they were secretly brought to Tripoli in 1828. In 1903, the French government placed a tablet bearing the name of the explorer and the date of his visit on the house occupied by him during his thirty-eight days stay in Timbuktu. In 1910, a skeleton believed to have been his was "exhumed by the French authorities."[15]

Context of his life

Africa was regarded by the European powers as ripe for commerce and colonization. Europe needed raw materials to fuel its Industrial Revolution, and Africa was an obvious source of resources. Encounter with Africans led Europeans to posit their own superiority, and soon the exploitative aim of colonization was accompanied by the conviction that by dominating Africa, they were also civilizing it. Laing's countryman, David Livingstone, who first went to Africa in 1841, set three goals: To end slavery, to convert Africans, and to spread civilization. In fact, the developmental gap between Africa and Europe was not that wide. Europe's advantage lay mainly in navigation and warfare. Before Africa could be exploited, it first had to be explored. Quite a few early explorers were missionaries, but government employed explorers, such as Laing, also played key roles. Niger became contested territory between the French and the British. The region known later as Nigeria, however, became an area of British influence and eventually a colony. Laing's early explorations contributed significantly to British ambition in this area. Kryza paints a picture of Laing as a new type of explorer, who, in pursuit of a "new and glorious calling" penetrated the African interior "for the sole purpose of finding out" what was there. This soon captured the European imagination, and filled it literature.[16] In this view, Laing fits the Orientalist mold of someone who saw Africa as something to be possessed. For the European, Africa was there to be "taken," to be explored, to map, to make the location of one's career.


Kyrza says that men such as Laing changed Africa for ever. Kryza (2006) has used Laing's correspondence to reconstruct the story of his race for Timbuktu, which he sets in the broader context of what was effectively the beginning of the Scramble for Africa. Laing's exploration ensured that much of the Niger river region fell within the British sphere of influence, a rich prize given the usefulness of the Niger River for purposes of communication and transportation. Within a century, with the exception of Ethiopia, the whole of Africa was under European rule. When the continent was divided up, the presence of existing interests was a major factor in determining how the distribution was made. Kryza writes of a new type of European hero, the lone, brave African explorer who penetrates the heart of the continent with the sole purpose of finding out what is there to be found, and says that tales of their exploits soon "captured the imagination, fed the fantasies and filled the literature of Europe."[17] Laing does appear to have thrived on adventure, but he was not quite the disinterested explorer. His eagerness to explore where he thought ivory and gold could be found suggests that he was also interested in earning his own fortune. In his comments on Africans, one sees the type of effortless superiority that made it easy for Europeans to exploit and dominate people they thought inferior to themselves.


  1. Kryza, 2006.
  2. Significant Scots, Alexander Laing. Retrieved October 16, 2007.
  3. Kryza, p 47.
  4. Kryza, p 1.
  5. Kryza, p 26.
  6. Villiers and Hirtle, p 250.
  7. Ibid.
  8. Ibid.
  9. Ibid, p 248.
  10. McLynn, p 324.
  11. Kryza, p 141.
  12. Ibid, p 32.
  13. Kryza p 200.
  14. Villiers and Hirtle, p 251.
  15. ibid, p 252.
  16. Kryza p 20.
  17. Ibid, p 20.

ISBN links support NWE through referral fees

  • Bovill, E. W. Missions to the Niger. Nendeln, Liechtenstein: Kraus Reprint, 1975.
  • Kryza, Frank T. The Race for Timbuktu In Search of Africa's City of Gold. New York: Ecco, 2006. ISBN 9780060560645
  • Laing, Alexander Gordon. Travels in the Timannee, Kooranko and Soolima Countries, in Western Africa. London: John Murray, 1825.
  • Fleming, Fergus. Off the Map Tales of Endurance and Exploration. New York: Atlantic Monthly Press, 2005. ISBN 9780871138996
  • McCullin, Don. Hearts of Darkness. New York: Knopf, 1981. ISBN 9780394514765
  • McLynn, Frank. Hearts of Darkness: The European Exploration of Africa. New York: Caroll & Graf, 1992. ISBN 088184926X
  • Villiers, Marq de and Sheila Hirtle. Timbuktu: The Sahara's Fabled City of Gold. New York: Walker & Co, 2007. ISBN 9780802714978

External Links

All links retrieved May 15, 2021.


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