Sunday, January 03, 2010

The Right Stuff

I'm re-reading an excellent book at the moment called Barrow's Boys I won't go into explaining the name but suffice it to say it's about the efforts of the British to explore the as yet unmapped regions of the globe in the early 19th century. This was mainly focused on North Africa and finding the path and source of the Niger river and also the search for the fabled North-West Passage across the top of Canada in an attempt to find a navigable link between the Atlantic and the Pacific.

Various explorers were despatched, and the book is an account of their efforts. Some achieved their goals. Most did not. Quite a few died horribly, mostly through disease. Some went so convinced they knew exactly what they were doing they dismissed previous explorers accounts of their journey and consequently repeated mistakes already made by others and thereby met their doom.

One of my favourites is a chap called Gordon Laing. Arrogant, and quite possibly mad, and if not, then certainly deluded, he set out from Tripoli in order to find the path of the Niger. At one point his party was set upon by Tuareg bandits upon whose lands he had encroached without paying the appropriate protection money. His camel train and entourage were routed and he was left for dead in the desert. He did however manage to pick himself up and continue his journey - strapped to the back of a camel - and describes his injuries thus:

"To begin from the top: I have five sabre cuts on the crown of the head and three on the left temple, all fractures from which much bone has come away; one on my left cheek which fractured the jaw bone and has divided the ear, forming a very unsightly wound; one over the right temple and a dreadful gash on the back of the neck, which slightly grazed the windpipe; a musket ball in the hip, which made its way through my back, slightly grazing the backbone; five sabre cuts on my right arm and hand, three of the fingers broken, the hand cut three-fourths across, and the wrist bones cut through; three cuts on the left arm, the bone of which has been broken but which is again uniting; one slight wound on the right leg and two with one dreadful gash on the left, to say nothing of a cut across the fingers of my left hand, now healed up."

On arrival at his destination he caught the plague and spent nine days "so ill with fever that it was presumed, expected and hoped that I would die." As he lay in his deathbed he was also robbed of pretty much everything he owned. Considering the injuries he describes to his hands it was amazing he could actually write but he does manage to add, at the end of the above account "I am nevertheless doing well." and he pressed on to become the first European to reach Timbuctoo.

He stayed in Timbuctoo for just over five weeks and then set off north, possibly heading for Morocco where he again met more Tuareg bandits. This time they succeeded in killing him. He was throttled by two men hauling on either end of a turban that had been wrapped around his neck. They then cut off his head and left him for the vultures. The only survivor of his party was a servant who had feigned death and then made his way back to Timbuctoo to explain what had happened.

Gordon Laing's journey is one of the more gruesome but certainly not the most unusual account described in the book. It's fantastic.


sabrina said...

I don't know why but i immediately thought of Yossarrian from Catch 22...he was mad as hell as well. Have you read the book?

King of Scurf said...

Wow, you're alert today Saby - you commented within 19 minutes of me posting!

I haven't read Catch 22 but it's been on my list for years.