Portrait by Amélie Legrand de Saint-Aubin
19 November 1799|
Mauzé-sur-le-Mignon, Deux-Sèvres, France
|Died||17 May 1838
La Gripperie-Saint-Symphorien, Charente-Maritime, France
|Cause of death||Tuberculosis|
|Known for||Visit to Timbuktu|
|Spouse(s)||Caroline Têtu (m. 1830)|
Caillié was born in western France in a village near the port of Rochefort. His parents were poor and died while he was still young. At the age of 16 he left home and signed up as a member of the crew of a French naval vessel sailing to Saint-Louis in French West Africa. He made a second visit to Africa two years later when he accompanied a British expedition across the Ferlo Desert to Bakel on the Senegal River.
Caillié returned to Saint-Louis in 1824 with a strong desire to become an explorer and visit Timbuktu. After the failure of large expeditions, he wanted to travel alone disguised as a Muslim. He persuaded the French governor in Saint-Louis to help finance a stay of 8 month with the nomadic people in the Brakna region of southern Mauritania where he learned Arabic and the customs of Islam. He failed to obtain further funding from either the French or the British governments, but encouraged by the prize of 10,000 francs offered by the Société de Géographie in Paris for the first person to return with a description of Timbuktu, he decided to fund the journey himself. He worked for a few months in the British colony of Sierra Leone to save some money, then travelled by ship to Boké on the Rio Nuñez in modern Guinea. From there in April 1827 he set off across West Africa. He arrived in Timbuktu a year later and stayed there for two weeks before crossing the Sahara Desert to Tangier in Morocco.
On his return to France, he was awarded the prize of 10,000 francs by the Société de Géographie and helped by the scholar, Edme-François Jomard, published a book containing an account of his journey. Caillié married and settled near his birthplace. He suffered from poor health and died of tuberculosis aged 38.
René Caillié was born on 19 November 1799 in Mauzé-sur-le-Mignon, a village in the department of Deux-Sèvres in western France.[b] His father, François Caillé, had worked as a baker but four months before René was born he was accused of petty theft and sentenced to 12 years of hard labour in the bagne, a high-security penal colony, at Rochefort. He died there in 1808 at the age of 46. René's mother, Élizabeth née Lépine,[c] died three years later in 1811 at the age of 38. After her death, René and his 18 year old sister, Céleste, were cared for by their maternal grandmother.
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 from where he went to Guadeloupe. Returning to Senegal in 1818 he made a journey to Bundu 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 Kakondy near Boké on the Rio Nuñez 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 the village of Tiémé in present day Ivory Coast, he was detained for five months (3 August 1827 to 9 January 1828) by illness. Resuming his journey in January 1828 he went north-east and reached the city of Djenné where he stayed from 11 to the 23 March. From Djenné he continued his journey to Timbuktu by boat. 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.
Caillié was 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 Edme-François Jomard) was published in three volumes in 1830.
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.
- Caillié, Réné (1830a), "Description de la ville de Temboctou", Revue des deux mondes (in French) 1: 254–295.
- Caillié, René (1830b), 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 (1830c), 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) (in French), Paris: Imprimerie Royale. Gallica: Volume 1, Volume 2, Volume 3. Google books: Volume 1, Volume 2, Volume 3.
- Caillié spelled his family name as both Caillié and Caillé. His birth was registered as Caillié although his father used Caillé. René's siblings were registered as either Caillé or Caillet. His first name was sometimes written as Réné with two accents. After his return from Timbuktu, Caillié would use the first name "Auguste" when signing his personal correspondence.
- Caillié, in his book Travels through Central Africa to Timbuctoo, incorrectly gives the year of his birth as 1800.
- The death certificate of Caillié's mother gives her first name as "Anne". This is also the name given by Jomard in 1839. However, Élizabeth is used on her marriage certificate, on René's birth certificate and on René's own marriage certificate.
- Jomard, Edme François (1839), Notice historique sur la vie et les voyages de René Caillié: accompagnée d'un portrait (in French), Paris: Delauny.
- Masonen, Pekka (2000), The Negroland Revisited: Discovery and Invention of the Sudanese Middle Ages, Helsinki: Finnish Academy of Science and Letters, ISBN 951-41-0886-8.
- Quella-Villéger, Alain (2012), René Caillié, l'Africain : une vie d'explorateur, 1799-1838 (in French), Anglet, France: Aubéron, ISBN 978-2-84498-137-0
- Viguier, Pierre (2008), Sur les Traces de René Caillié: Le Mali de 1828 Revisité (in French), Versailles, France: Quae, ISBN 978-2-7592-0271-3.
- This article incorporates text from a publication now in the public domain: Chisholm, Hugh, ed. (1911). Encyclopædia Britannica (11th ed.). Cambridge University Press
- Duval, Jules (1867), Un Ouvrier voyageur: René Caillié (in French), Paris: Hachette.
- Jacques-Félix, Henri (1963), "Contribution de René Caillié à l'ethnobotanique africaine au cours de ses voyages en Mauritanie et à Tombouctou: 1819-1828", Journal d'Agriculture Tropicale et de Botanique Appliquée 10 (8-9, 10-11): 287–334, 449–520. The article was also published as a monograph.
- Pineau, Jean-Marc (2007), Mon voyage à Tombouctou : Sur les pas de René Caillié (in French), Paris: Presse de la Renaissance, ISBN 978-2-7509-0297-1.
- Quella-Villéger, Alain (1999), René Caillié, 1799-1838: une vie pour Tombouctou (in French), Poitou-Charentes, France: Actualité Scientifique, ISBN 978-2911320125.
- Toute, René (2005), Histoire de la Recherche Agricole en Afrique Tropicale Francophone. Volume III: Explorateurs et marchands à la recherche de l’Eldorado africain 1800–1885/1890, Rome: Organisation des Nations unies pour l'alimentation et l'agriculture (FAO), pp. 18–33, ISBN 92-5-205407-3.
- Major European Explorers / Travelers of Central, West & East Africa: René Caillié, 1799-1838, Princeton University Library, 2007