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West Africa expedition, by Alexander Gordon Laing, 1822

Scottish explorer Alexander Gordon Laing (1794-1826) gained brief, posthumous fame by becoming the first westerner to journey into Timbuktu, before being killed shortly after leaving the town. This was the final adventure of a career soldier: Laing was a volunteer, commissioned in 1810, who commenced his service in the West Indies. He was variously stationed in Barbados, Honduras and Jamaica. When his regiment was posted to Sierra Leone in 1820, Captain Laing began to take an interest in exploring the interior and in finding the source of the Niger River.

During the early 1820s, Sir Charles MacCarthy (1764-1824), Governor of Sierra Leone, sent Laing on several expeditions into the hinterland in order to establish trade relationships and political alliances. Such undertakings could only be realized after the suppression of the slave trade, as access to the interior was no longer prevented by slave traders. This diary chronicles the most extensive of these forays along the Rokelle River, through the lands of the Soolima and Mandingo people, and to the fortress town of Falaba, capital of the most northerly province in modern Sierra Leone.

Laing’s account reflects both the official and private purposes behind his expedition. It records the progress made in persuading local power-brokers to trade with the British and to create alliances, particularly in Falaba, until then unvisited by the British. Elsewhere in his notes held at the Royal Society, Laing recorded his conversations with the ruler of Falaba in some detail. The manuscript is inevitably an ethnological record as well as a trade diary. The customs of his African contacts, the manner in which they adorn and dress themselves, interested Alexander Laing greatly.

Throughout his journey Laing concentrates on river courses, tracing the source of the Joliba and beginning the business of investigating the origin of the Niger. The trade advantages of such geographical knowledge are clear, but Laing had wider ambitions as an explorer and by 1824, he would have sanctioned an official mission to find the source of the Niger, travelling from Tripoli to Timbuktu, which he reached, finally, in 1826.