04 September 2006

Terrible journey of Robert Adam in Timbukto

:: Timbuctoo

In 1813 a young American sailor, starving and close to death, was recognised on a London street, by a man who had met him some time before in Cadiz. The sailor, aged 28, was called ROBERT ADAMS. Originally from Hudson, New York, he was the son of a sail-maker. When asked how he came to be penniless, living on the streets of London, he said that he had been enslaved for 3 years in the Sahara, and had been taken to TIMBUCTOO.

Knowing that no white man had ever returned from Timbuctoo alive, the acquaintance took Adams to the Africa Committee, an organisation founded exclusively for the purpose of making an Englishman the first white man to get to Timbuctoo and back. At first, the Committee were sceptical of the young American. But after hearing the details of his journey, they asked him to narrate his story, which was later published:

In the spring of 1810, Robert Adams set sail from New York aboard the brig Charles. After stopping at Gibraltar, the vessel proceeded down the western coast of Africa, trading. But after losing its bearings, the ship was wrecked on rocks near Cape Blanco. Adams and some of the other crew members struggled to shore. At dawn the next morning they awoke on the beach to find they were surrounded by Moors.

Along with the captain and various crew members, Adams was stripped naked, put in chains and led towards the interior of the Sahara. Their pale skin was soon welted with grotesque sores and was badly burnt by the desert climate. The captain was the first to deteriorate. When he refused to abide by the captors' orders, he was executed.

Adams befriended a Portuguese sailor who had also been enslaved by the same Moors. (In the early 19th century there were, apparently, hundreds of European and American shipwrecked sailors enslaved in the Sahara). Still naked and in chains, Adams and the other white slaves trekked deeper and deeper into the Sahara.

En route his captors traded most of the white slaves - except for Adams and the Portuguese - for supplies. The desert crossing was almost unbearable. His flesh burnt and raw from lice, Adams was forced to drink the camels' urine to survive.

After a month of unspeakable hardship, the caravan was ambushed by a band of African warriors, who enslaved the Moorish captors. Fifteen of the Moors were beheaded on the spot; the rest were shackled. At the hands of their new masters, Adams, the Portuguese, and the enslaved Moors were led on a marathon trek to the heart of the Sahara… to Timbuctoo.

When they eventually arrived at the mysterious city, Adams and the Portuguese caused a great stir. One by one, the people of Timbuctoo came to gawk at them. None had ever seen a white man before. The foreigners became the guests of the King, who took them elephant-hunting in the desert. They were permitted to roam freely within the city. The Queen took a special interest in Adams. She and her attendants would sit for hours, feeding him titbits, observing him.

After four months at Timbuctoo, a party of Moors arrived. They ransomed Adams, as well his former captors and the Portuguese. Again they set off into desert. Stripped naked once more, Adams was again forced to survive on camel urine. Then, at the point of starvation, the camels were killed one by one and eaten. Anyone unable to keep up was left behind to die in the desert dunes.

At one encampment deep in the Sahara, Adams was forced to tend goats. Sick and now little more than a skeleton, he refused. Next morning, jackals having slaughtered many of the flock, Adams was given the traditional punishment - whipping by 12 Moorish women.

Soon after, Adams was traded to another Moorish master, who gave him to his second wife as a gift. The young woman made him watch over her flock of goats. When, after some time, Adams argued that he wanted some payment for his efforts, the master's wife led the American into her tent. They became lovers.

The affair continued for six months. When it was discovered, Adams was taken by the master to a settlement in the northern Sahara and traded to a local chief. The encampment was home to numerous other enslaved sailors, including three former shipmen from Adam's vessel, the Charles.

Adams' new master was merciless, putting him in the heaviest irons for five weeks; and then having him flogged to the point of near death. In time, the ship's mate from the Charles' died of sickness. The two other sailors from the ship converted to Islam to escape the brutal regime.

Two days' later, word came from the Consul from the port of Mogador, that he would ransom any white man whom had remained a Christian. On hearing the news, the two converts broke down. Adams, after a tearful parting from his comrades, journeyed north to Mogador where he became the Consul's guest.

Once he had recuperated, Adams searched for a boat heading for America. Unfortunately, the United States was at war with England (the 1812-14 war). Passage to New York was impossible. Instead, Adams was forced to take a ship to Liverpool. It was blown off course on the Welsh coast. Adams was forced to hitch from the port of Holyhead to London.

When Adam's narrative was published, it was mocked on both sides of the Atlantic. Most didn't believe the young American sailor's description of Timbuctoo, although the details had been verified as truthful. The main reason for the disbelief was that Adams' account had none of the intoxicating legend that everyone was expecting. He described Timbuctoo as quite an ordinary place… and was pilloried for dispelling the myth.

There is no doubt that - at a time when Europe's great adventurers were desperate to get to Timbuctoo - it was a young American, Robert Adams, who beat them there. The irony is that, unlike them, he never wanted to go there at all.


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