On this day in history : 18th August 1826 – Alexander Gordon Laing, a Scottish explorer, becomes the first European to reach Timbuktu – and is murdered there a month later….

Alexander Gordon Laing – Public domain

Laing had left Tripoli in Libya on the 16th of July 1825 to journey across the Sahara Desert, on his mission to explore the Niger Basin…. He left behind Emma Warrington, his bride of just two days…. It took Laing and his party until the 25th of October to reach the oasis of Ghadames – and they still had 1,000 miles to cover before they would reach their destination…. By December 1825 they had arrived at Salah, the middle of the desert….

On the 10th of January 1826 the party set off on the remaining leg of their journey…. However, it wasn’t long before they were attacked by a band of Tuareg, whilst they slept in their tents…. It is thought Laing may have been mistaken for Mungo Park, a fellow Scottish explorer…. Park was hated and feared by the Tuareg people – as he had a tendency to shoot any African he found disagreeable or threatening….

During the attack most of the party were killed…. Laing himself received substantial injuries…. He suffered a total of 24 serious injuries including a broken jaw, having the lobe of his ear hacked off and a hand severed…. Despite all this he was able to join a caravan travelling south and finally reached Timbuktu (which is now in Mali) on the 18th of August 1826….

Laing’s house in Timbuktu – Image credit : upyernoz CC BY-SA 2.0

He was received with hostility from Fula Chieftain Bello, ruler of Timbuktu….and worried for his own safety he only stayed for a month…. He then set off in the direction of the Senegal River, an area he was familiar with from previous expeditions…. Only he was never to be seen again…. In 1910 a skeleton, believed to be his, was exhumed from a grave by the French authorities….

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