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Travelling to Timbuctoo - Not Everyone Gets There!

Travelling to Timbuctoo - Not Everyone Gets There! Shapero Rare Books
The first thing that needs saying is that not everybody that sets out for Timbuctoo gets there. In my case, driving down from Algiers in the 1970’s, much to my regret now, I got side tracked in Tamanrasset. In earlier times it was sickness and hostile locals that often proved fatal.
Travelling to Timbuctoo - Not Everyone Gets There! Shapero Rare Books

Why Timbuctoo? In the West it’s often used to convey somewhere faraway, maybe non-existent, but in reality it was for hundreds of years one of the most important cities in Africa. It was not only the centre of the trans-Saharan trade, particularly of salt, but it was also an important cultural centre, built around its Islamic heritage. A city of mosques, and renowned libraries, some of which are still intact.

Tales of Timbuctoo’s wealth and the prospect of trade were a huge driver for European exploration of the West coast of Africa, indeed the African Association was formed with Timbuctoo in mind. The Proceedings of the Association for Promoting the Discovery of the Interior parts of Africa (1790), is the starting point for the British exploration of the region. It established the direction of the flow of the Nile (from East to West) for the first time, and is packed with useful information on travelling by camel and how many miles could be covered in a day.

A contrarian view of Timbuctoo is provided by the American sailor, Benjamin Rose, better known as Robert Adams. His account is particularly interesting as he had an Afro-American mother. His view might have been influenced by the fact that he had been shipwrecked when serving on board the Charles and sold into slavery. He describes Timbuctoo as a dull squalid place, boasting none of the glories of old. Our copy of The Narrative of Robert Adams (1816), is in a beautiful nineteenth century binding by Winstanley of Manchester.

Captain George Lyon was sent, in 1818, on an expedition by Sir John Barrow to explore the course of the Niger and establish the location of Timbuctoo. He was one of the ones who didn’t quite make it, falling victim to illness. He did, however, recover and made it home and later travelled on Parry’s Arctic expedition as Commander on board the Hecla. What really distinguishes Lyon’s account, A Narrative of Travels in North Africa (1821), are the striking series of 17 hand-coloured plates after his sketches, which provide a superb visual record of the way of life of the Tuareg, the dominant people of Timbuctoo and the surrounding region.

A rarity of Timbuctoo travel literature is the account of John Davidson, Notes taken during travels in Africa (1839). This really was a tragic expedition. Davidson set out with Edward Donellan. On arrival at Tangier the British consul begged Davidson to give up his visit to Timbuctoo on account of the tribal warfare being waged on the edge of the Sahara, but the explorer pressed on regardless.

Before reaching his destination he was shot dead and his possessions stolen. Donellan continued with the caravan to Timbuktu and was never heard of again. Davidson's letters and most of his journal found their way back to Britain and were privately published in 1839.

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Shapero Rare Books is an internationally renowned dealer in London, specialising in antiquarian & rare books and works on paper, with particular expertise in fine illustrated books from the 15th to the 20th century, travel & voyages, natural history, modern firsts, rare children’s books, guidebooks, Hebraica & Judaica, Eastern European, and Islamica

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