Auguste René Caillié

The French explorer Auguste René Caillié (1799-1838) was the first modern European to reach the famous Sudanic cities of West Africa, Timbuktu, and Djenné and to return and tell about it.

René Caillié was born in Mauzé. He never knew his father, and his mother died in 1810. Caillié left school at an early age to become an apprentice shoemaker. Life in the French provinces did not prevent him from reading and hearing about voyages of adventure; he early conceived the idea of visiting Africa and becoming an explorer. He eventually formulated a plan for gaining entry to the remote city of Timbuktu, a passion which shaped the rest of his life.

At 16 and with only 60 francs, Caillié left home for Senegal. He arrived at Cape Verde in July 1816, visited Saint-Louis, shipped to Guadeloupe in the West Indies, and finally returned to Senegal to join an expedition exploring the headwaters of the Senegal River. Caillié's first experience with the African interior left him exhausted. He returned to France, worked for a wine house in Bordeaux, and sailed to the West Indies several times. After regaining his health, he set out again for Senegal in 1824.

Caillié was unable to obtain official French backing to travel to Timbuktu. He decided nonetheless to prepare himself and spent 8 months living among the Brakna Moors, learning Arabic, studying the Koran, and becoming used to nomadic life in the Sahara. Unsuccessful in gaining British backing in Sierra Leone, Caillié finally set out on his own on April 19, 1827, from Kakandé (which became French Guinea) with only 2,000 francs. His experiences on the African coast and his knowledge of the customs enabled him to travel relatively unmolested.

Caillié reached the Niger River on June 10, 1827; the city of Djenné on March 11, 1828; and Timbuktu on April 20. He pretended to be an Egyptian Moslem pilgrim, and a prosperous local merchant befriended and protected him during his 2-week stay. Caillié made copious notes on the inhabitants, trade, buildings, and customs. Fearing detection in an intolerant city, he rented a camel and crossed the Sahara with a caravan which reached Fez in Morocco on Aug. 12, 1828. The French consul arranged for his passage to France in September, where he was received with excitement and adulation.

The Geographical Society of Paris awarded him its 10,000-franc prize for the first traveler to visit and return from Timbuktu. Caillié wrote a three-volume account of his travels afterward, which made him a famous man; yet he was unsuccessful in gaining support for further exploration in Africa. He lived a relatively quiet life with his wife and children on his farm in Mauzé until his death on May 17, 1838.

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Further Reading on Auguste René Caillié

Caillié's account of his travels was translated into English as Travels through Central Africa to Timbuctoo (2 vols., 1830; repr. 1968). A popular account of Caillié's travels is Galbraith Welch, The Unveiling of Timbuctoo (1939).