Alexander Gordon Laing lived from 27 December 1794 to 26 September 1826. he was an explorer who is remembered as the first European to reach the city of Timbuktu from the north. The wider picture in Scotland at the time is set out in our Historical Timeline.
Laing was born in Edinburgh. He was educated at home by his father, William Laing, a private teacher of classics, before going on to study at the University of Edinburgh. In 1811 Laing went to Barbados to work as a clerk for his maternal uncle, Colonel Gabriel Gordon. With the support of the governor of Barbados, he became an Ensign in the York Light Infantry Volunteers in 1813. He was promoted to lieutenant in 1815 and two years later transferred to the 2nd West India Regiment after the York Light Infantry was disbanded.
In 1822 Laing was promoted to captain and transferred to the Royal African Colonial Corps. He quickly embarked on the first of a series of journeys of exploration intended to open up commerce, abolish the slave trade, and fill in gaps on the map of west Africa. His efforts to reach the source of the Niger were unsuccessful. In 1824 he was promoted to the local rank of major, and in 1823/4 took part in the First Anglo-Ashanti War. After returning to Britain he published an account of his travels.
At the time the greatest unachieved prize in west African exploration was reaching Timbuktu, a "lost city" known from native accounts which had gained almost legendary status, and Laing resolved to make the journey. It seems likely that Scottish explorer Mungo Park had sailed past Timbuktu while following the River Niger in December 1805 or January 1806, but he'd not lived to tell the tale. Alexander Gordon Laing wanted to be the first European to reach the city and return safely, and in the process resolve growing Anglo-French rivalry in the exploration of this part of Africa. The powers that be in Britain felt that if the journey were attempted from the north, from Tripoli, it would stand the best chance of success, and would also be of most scientific value, so Laing sailed for Tripoli in February 1825.
On arrival he met and fell in love with Emma Warrington, the daughter of the British Consul, Hanmer Warrington. The two were married in Tripoli on 14 July 1825 and two days later Laing left his new bride and set off south into the Sahara Desert with a small group of supporters. It took them until October 1825 to reach the oasis of Ghadames, still 1,000 miles north of his goal, and in December 1825 they reached In Salah, in the heart of the desert.
On 10 January 1826, Laing set off south to cross the remaining distance to Timbuktu. Things went seriously wrong when the party was attacked by a band of Tuareg. In a letter which he was later able to have carried back to Tripoli he reported that most of his party had been killed, and he himself had received multiple wounds, including the loss of his right hand. Despite this he was able to join a south-bound caravan and reach Timbuktu on 18 August 1826, thirteen months after leaving Tripoli. He thus became the first European to cross the Sahara from north to south. Laing wrote another letter on 21 September, which eventually reached Tripoli. This reported his position in the city as being very difficult, and noted his intention to leave three days later. It was later established that he had done so, and that he was murdered in the desert on the night of 26 September 1826.
Frenchman René Caillié reached Timbuktu two years after Laing and when he returned to Paris successfully claimed the 10,000-franc prize offered by the Société de Géographie for being the first to reach the city and return safely. Alexander Gordon Laing and René Caillié were both awarded the Gold Medal of the Society in 1830. In 1903, the French government placed a tablet bearing Laing's name and the date of his visit on the house occupied by him during his stay in Timbuktu. We've not been able to establish what became of Laing's young widow, the unfortunate Emma Warrington.