René Caillié (19 November 1799 – 17 May 1838) was a French explorer and the first European to return alive from the town of Timbuktu.
Caillié was born in western France in a village near the port of Rochefort. His parents were poor and died while he was still young. At the age of 16 he left home and signed up as a member of the crew of a French naval vessel sailing to Saint-Louis in French West Africa. He stayed for several months and then crossed the Atlantic to Guadeloupe on a merchantman. He made a second visit to Africa two years later when he accompanied a British expedition across the Ferlo Desert to Bakel on the Senegal River.
Caillié returned to Saint-Louis in 1824 with a strong desire to become an explorer and visit Timbuktu. In order to avoid some of the difficulties experienced by the earlier expeditions, he planned to travel alone disguised as a Muslim. He persuaded the French governor in Saint-Louis to help finance a stay of 8 months with the nomadic people in the Brakna region of southern Mauritania where he learned Arabic and the customs of Islam. He failed to obtain further funding from either the French or the British governments, but encouraged by the prize of 10,000 francs offered by the Société de Géographie in Paris for the first person to return with a description of Timbuktu, he decided to fund the journey himself. He worked for a few months in the British colony of Sierra Leone to save some money, then travelled by ship to Boké on the Rio Nuñez in modern Guinea. From there in April 1827 he set off across West Africa. He arrived in Timbuktu a year later and stayed there for two weeks before heading across the Sahara Desert to Tangier in Morocco.
On his return to France, he was awarded the prize of 10,000 francs by the Société de Géographie and helped by the scholar Edme-François Jomard, published an account of his journey. Caillié married and settled near his birthplace. He suffered from poor health and died of tuberculosis aged 38.
Early life and first trip to Africa
René Caillié was born on 19 November 1799 in Mauzé-sur-le-Mignon, a village in the department of Deux-Sèvres in western France. His father, François Caillé, had worked as a baker but four months before René was born he was accused of petty theft and sentenced to 12 years of hard labour in a penal colony at Rochefort. He died there in 1808 at the age of 46. René’s mother, Élizabeth née Lépine, died three years later in 1811 at the age of 38. After her death, René and his 18 year old sister, Céleste, were cared for by their maternal grandmother.
In the introduction to his Travels through Central Africa to Timbuctoo Caillié described how as a teenager he had been fascinated by books on travel and exploration:
… and as soon as I could read and write, I was put to learn a trade, to which I soon took a dislike, owing to the reading of voyages and travels, which occupied all my leisure moments. The History of Robinson Crusoe, in particular, inflamed my young imagination : I was impatient to encounter adventures like him; nay, I already felt an ambition to signalize myself by some important discovery springing up in my heart.
Caillié left home at the age of 16 with 60 francs that he had inherited from his grandmother. He made his way to the port of Rochefort, 50 km from Mauzé-sur-le-Mignon on the River Charente. There he signed up as a crew member on the Loire, a French naval storeship that was to accompany the frigate Méduse and two other vessels on a voyage to reclaim the French colony of Saint-Louis from the British under the terms of the 1814 and 1815 Paris Treaties. The four ships left their anchorage near the Île d’Aix at the mouth of the Charente River in June 1816. The Méduse went ahead of the Loire and was wrecked on the Bank of Arguin off the coast of present day Mauritania. A few survivors were picked up by the other vessels. The shipwreck received a large amount of publicity and was the subject of a famous oil painting, The Raft of the Medusa, by Théodore Géricault. When the three remaining French ships arrived at Saint-Louis they found that British governor was not ready to hand over the colony and therefore continued southwards and moored off the island of Gorée near Dakar. Caillié spent some months in Dakar, which was then only a village, before returning by ship to Saint-Louis. There he learned that an English expedition led by Major William Gray was preparing to leave from the Gambia to explore the interior of the continent. Caillié wished to offer his services and set off along the coast with two companions. He intended to cover the 300 km on foot but found the oppressive heat and lack of water exhausting. He abandoned his plan at Dakar and instead obtained a free passage on a merchantman across the Atlantic to Guadeloupe.
Caillié found employment for six months in Guadeloupe. While there he read Mungo Park’s account of his exploration of the Middle Niger in present day Mali. Park had been the first European to reach the Niger River and visit the towns of Ségou, Sansanding and Bamako. An account of his first trip had been published in French in 1799. Park made a second expedition beginning in 1805 but was drowned in descending the rapids on the Niger near Bussa in present day Nigeria. An account of the second trip had been published in English in 1815.
Caillié returned to Bordeaux in France and then travelled to Senegal where he arrived at end of 1818. He made a journey to Bundu to carry supplies to a British expedition then in that country. Ill with fever he was obliged to go back to France, but in 1824 was again in Senegal with the idea of reaching Timbuktu. The Paris based Société de Géographie was offering a 10,000 franc reward to the first European to see and return alive from Timbuktu, believed to be a rich and wondrous city.
He spent eight months with the Brakna Moors living north of the Senegal River, learning Arabic and being taught, as a convert, the laws and customs of Islam. He laid his project of reaching Timbuktu before the governor of Senegal, but receiving no encouragement went to Sierra Leone where the British authorities made him superintendent of an indigo plantation. Having saved £80 he joined a Mandingo caravan going inland. He was dressed as a Muslim, and gave out that he was an Arab from Egypt who had been carried off by the French to Senegal and was desirous of regaining his own country.
Starting from Kakondy near Boké on the Rio Nuñez on April 19, 1827, Caillié travelled east along the hills of Fouta Djallon, passing the head streams of the Senegal and crossing the Upper Niger at Kurussa. Still going east he came to the Kong highlands, where at the village of Tiémé in present day Ivory Coast, he was detained for five months (3 August 1827 to 9 January 1828) by illness. Resuming his journey in January 1828 he went north-east and reached the city of Djenné where he stayed from 11 to the 23 March. From Djenné he continued his journey to Timbuktu by boat. After spending a fortnight (April 20 – May 4) in Timbuktu he joined a caravan crossing the Sahara to Morocco, reaching Fez on the August 12. From Tangier he returned to France.
Caillié was preceded at Timbuktu by a British officer, Major Gordon Laing, but Laing had been murdered in September 1826 on leaving the city and Caillié was the first to return alive. He was awarded the prize of 10,000 francs offered by the Société de Géographie to the first traveller who should gain exact information of Timbuktu, to be compared with that given by Mungo Park. He also received the order of the Legion of Honor, a pension, and other distinctions, and it was at the public expense that his Journal d’un voyage à Temboctou et à Jenné dans l’Afrique Centrale, etc. (edited by Edme-François Jomard) was published in three volumes in 1830.
Caillié died of tuberculosis on May 17, 1838, at La Gripperie-Saint-Symphorien, in the department of Charente-Maritime where he owned the manor L’Abadaire.
Caillié is remarkable for his approach to exploration. In a period given to large-scale expeditions supported by soldiers and employing black porters, Caillié spent years learning Arabic, studying the customs and Islamic religion before setting off with a companion, and later on his own, traveling and living as the natives did. He also did not romanticize his discoveries to increase his fame, unlike Laing who recorded that Timbuktu was a wondrous city, Caillié told the truth: it was a small, unimportant, and poor village with no hint of the fabled reputation that preceded it.