Timbuctu


Timbuctu
   In the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, Timbuctu was a prized destination for competing European adventurers. Located in the contemporary West African country of Mali, Timbuctu had for centuries been an established scholarly center and locus for trans-Saharan trade in salt and gold. During the medieval period, the great empire of Mali and its successor, Songhay, incorporated the city within their dominion. Timbuctu gained international prestige in the fourteenth century after the Malian ruler, Mansa Musa, made an extravagant pilgrimage to Mecca. During the journey, his entourage dispersed gold so freely in Cairo that the value of the precious metal was depressed in the city for several months after his departure. After this event, tales of Timbuctu’s wealth reached foreign lands and shaped European perceptions of the city for centuries to come. By the nineteenth century, however, this longstanding perception was in stark contrast to Timbuctu’s reality of steady decline following a devastating Moroccan conquest in 1591.
   As European explorers and adventurers descended on every corner of Africa during the nineteenth century, Timbuctu remained an elusive prize. Several Europeans perished in their quest to reach the city, including British military officer Alexander Gordon Laing, who reached Timbuctu in 1826, but was murdered before returning home. Frenchman René Caillié entered the city two years later and was able to return to Europe to relate his findings. Several decades later, German Heinrich Barth reached Timbuctu in 1853. Their accounts of the city’s appearance and meager resources shattered the centuries-old view of Timbuctu’s wealth. By the late nineteenth century, a European colonial infrastructure was being established in West Africa, and Timbuctu was captured and controlled by French forces in 1894.
   See also <>; <>.
   FURTHER READING:
    Bovill, Edward W. The Golden Trade of the Moors: West African Kingdoms in the Fourteenth Century . Princeton, NJ: Markus Wiener Publishers, 1995;
    Caillié, René. Travels through Central Africa to Timbuctu, and across the Great Desert, to Morocco, Performed in the Years 1824–1828 . London: Cass, 1968.
   BRENT D. SINGLETON

Encyclopedia of the Age of Imperialism, 1800–1914. 2014.

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