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René Caillié

René Caillié (November 19, 1799 – May 17, 1838) was a French explorer, and the first European to return alive from the town of Timbuktu.

Caillié was born at Mauzé-sur-le-Mignon, Deux-Sevres, Poitou, the son of a baker. He was born in to the lowest levels of European society. The orphaned son of a prison convict, uneducated, frail, and thin, he was the anti-hero of the traditional military commander adventurer. The reading of Robinson Crusoe kindled in him a love of travel and adventure, and at the age of sixteen he made a voyage to Senegal whence he went to Guadeloupe. Returning to Senegal in 1818 he made a journey to Bondu 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 Kakundi near Boké on the Rio Nunez on April 19, 1827, he 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 a place called Time he was detained five months by illness. Resuming his journey in January 1828 he went north-east and reached the city of Djenné, whence he continued his journey to Timbuktu by water. 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.

Unknown to Caillié, he had been 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 Edmé-François Jomard) was published in three volumes in 1830.

Caillié died on May 17, 1838, at La Gripperie-Saint-Symphorien (then Saint-Symphorien-du-Bois), commune of Charente-Maritime where he owned the manor L'Abadaire, of a malady contracted during his African travels. For the greater part of his life he spelt his name Caillé, afterwards omitting the second "i".

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 (and which it had once deserved).


  • Caillié, René (1830), Travels through Central Africa to Timbuctoo; and across the Great Desert, to Morocco, performed in the years 1824-1828 (2 Vols), London: Colburn & Bentley   Google books: Volume 1, Volume 2.
  • Caillié, René (1830), Journal d’un voyage à Temboctou et à Jenné, dans l’Afrique centrale ... pendant les années 1824, 1825, 1826, 1827, 1828 ... Avec une carte itinéraire, et des remarques géographiques, par M. Jomard. (3 Vols), Paris  

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