The Book Smugglers of Timbuktu

Author: Charlie English

ISBN 9780008184902

Book review by RD Whales

The author, former head of international news at the Guardian, has produced a fascinating account of the destruction of, search for and discovery, protection and restoration of early written documents about Africa. He had hundreds of hours of interviews in Mali, the US, the UK, Germany, Belgium, the Netherlands, France, Spain and South Africa (at the University of Cape Town). Former South African President Thabo Mbeki also gets a mention.

English’s prologue sets the scene for a period of discovery in Mali. There were hundreds of thousands of documents in Arabic text considered to be Africa’s equivalent of the Dead Sea Scrolls and the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle. They were nearly destroyed in 2012 when Timbuktu was overtaken by al-Qaeda. Jihadists began to destroy centuries-old mausoleums and monuments. The mayor told the world that all manuscripts had been burned.

However, they had been smuggled to safety by librarian head, Abdel Haidara, who became famous. Supported by UNESCO, he was appointed “seeker of documents” and collected 101 820 manuscripts. This excited European historians who had thought there was only oral history in dark Africa.

When Malian’s al-Qaeda joined the Tuareg rebels they received the blessing of Osama Bin Laden.

Haidara formed the Savama organisation to safeguard the written heritage. He collected 16 000 manuscripts from various sources. In 2012 Timbuktu had faced danger from Tuareg rebels and Haidara continued to hide documents.

Africa became “fashion” in Britain in the 18th century and the Saturday Club was formed in 1788 by nine powerful men, headed by Sir Joseph Banks, a friend of George III. The Club established the African Association for exploration. It was believed that Timbuktu was started in 1100 close to the Niger River and on the edge of the Sahara Desert. Situated on a travel route it grew commercially.

Later in the 18th century the African Association sent its first recruit to West Africa, known as “white man’s grave”. He travelled 12 500 miles west from Cairo and died of poisoning.

The Association’s fourth traveller to Africa, Mungo Park, left Britain in 1795 and was a success. He became the first European to see the Niger and in Britain wrote a best seller: Travels in the Interior Districts of Africa.

He returned to Africa and built a boat on the Niger to travel to Timbuktu, but did not survive man canoe attacks. Banks died in 1820 and only six year later did another traveller reach Timbuktu.

A competitive geographical society in France offered a large cash prize for travellers to West Africa. The favourites were Rene Caillie and Major Alexander Gordon Laing. Laing was chosen to lead a mission from Tripoli where Frederick Warrington was British consul. He travelled in Muslim robes but his guide to Timbuktu told Tuareg rebels who shot and stabbed Laing.

He was the only member of the party to survive and he reached Timbuktu on 13 August 1826. He was disappointed in the run-down city, left on 22 September and disappeared.

In 1827 the French consul Baron Jean-Baptiste Rousseau claimed to have a history of Timbuktu which would become the essential text for historians. He put the city’s founding in 1116 by a woman, Buktou, who provided hospitality to merchants. Tribes called her home Tni-Buktou, (tni being the possessive) and a vast city grew from that.

France published information in 1828 which Warrington assumed was from Laing’s reports.

Rene Caillie went to Africa in 1824, crossed the Niger and joined a caravan to Timbuktu which he found disappointing. Interrogated in Paris by the French Society of Geography, he was given prize money and a medal, to be shared with Laing, and his account of his travels in 1830 made him famous. The British said it was another lie and Warrington broke off diplomatic relations.

Rebels trashed Timbuktu throwing out hundred-year-old documents. Haidara told journalists of the papers found and said the jihadists threatened the future. Shamil, head of The University of Cape Town’s Tombouctou manuscripts, said he had no faith in the rebels. Scholars pleaded for protection of the manuscripts and received support from most universities.

Haidara and others moved precious documents to safety. Appeals for funds from South African Muslims received no response. When he returned he found the capital in chaos and formed a Crisis Committee, which was disrupted by the jihadists. UNESCO accepted sixteen mausoleums as World Heritage Sites. Haidara said all manuscripts should be hidden in Bamako.

The Royal Geographical Society was formed and in 1832. William Cooley exposed an explorer’s books and initiated enquiry into West African history. He published Negroland of the Arabs, an account of the historical geography of sub-Saharan Africa.

In 1850 Heinrich Barth went on a five-year expedition with Richardson’s mission. Richardson died and Barth travelled to the Niger. He proceeded to Timbuktu, and in 1853 rode in the footsteps of Caillie. He made momentous discoveries about Songhay and found a history of Sudan.

A Timbuktu-born scholar, al-Sadi, became imam and administrator of Timbuktu in 1854 and produced a broad sweep of history. Timbuktu’s scholars were religious leaders who possessed divine grace.

Musa Mansa became the first ruler and his successors continued for 100 years until Malian power faded and others ruled. Eventually Abi Bakr al-Turi took the throne and established Songhay as the largest empire in West Africa.

Barth said the chronicles would be one of the most important additions to the history of mankind. He studied manuscripts and sent notes to the German Oriental Society in Leipzig.

Jihadists became the sole authority in northern Mali and continued to destroy Timbuktu’s tombs with hoes and pick axes. Eight hundred manuscripts were moved out, about two-thirds of the collection. Haidara received 30 000 dollars for moving them.

Barth’s manuscripts were reconstructed and published by the German Oriental Society, and French orientalists. He wrote Travels and Discoveries in North and Central Africa. This made him the greatest traveller in Africa and he received gold medal awards.

Tuareg ruled in the 15th century and the most famous immigrant was clairvoyant Sidi Yahya.

Haidara, with the help of a dynamic American woman who obtained funds, continued to work on evacuating private libraries. The need to save documents became urgent.

In 2012 the German embassy was informed that 80 000 to 10 000 manuscripts had been evacuated from Timbuktu. On 20 December the UN Security Council deployed and African force in Mali. Jihadists then destroyed more mausoleums.

In January the French said the country was going to war at the request of Malians.

The destruction of more manuscripts was feared and Haidara hid them in homes. Money was raised to move 136 000 manuscripts.

Britain had evidence of a literate civilisation but racism was against them when the International Society for the Suppression of Savage Customs was formed. Belgium exploited Africa, extracting rubber and ivory, and Barth was considered by Berlin to be an adventurer not a scholar.

The scramble for Africa began and Henry Morton Stanley was enlisted.

In 1884 Otto von Bismarck wanted rules for annexation. Belgium became recognised as the government of the Congo Free State so they could ransack the territory. France seized Algiers and later conquered most of the northern territory. Timbuktu learnt they were becoming part of France.

A commander found and sent to France many manuscripts while searching for wealth. Tuareg rebels massacred his successor, but were themselves destroyed by the next leader.

Journalist Dubois was asked for an account of France’s new possession. He discovered manuscripts, including a complete Tarikh al-sudan showing that Songhay civilisation had come from Egypt. However, Timbuktu in 1895 was in near ruin. Caillie had not been wrong. It had been uncovered as the holy, learned, light of the Niger, with a golden past, and the great scientific centre of Islam. The book collection swelled to about two thousand volumes – from poetry to medicine.

Dubois’s book on Timbuktu rescued the city from Caillie’s debunking and Barth’s observations. The city would become wealthy and cultured and the centre of European civilisation and science.

Flora Shaw of the Times, and a friend of Cecil John Rhodes, published a history of West Africa in 1905, A Tropical Dependency. She said Timbuktu University was the greatest achievement. She believed the Malians had arrived in America before Columbus and founded the Aztec empire. Various coincidences supported the story.

Musa told her that the Sultan before him had taken a thousand ships of men and a thousand ships of provisions and wasn’t seen again. Laing, Caillie and Barth had unearthed information and Dubois uncovered the region’s past.

In January there were huge blasts. The French air campaign included Gadafi and Zeid’s headquarters. The jihadists continued to destroy everything and Timbuktu entered the most dangerous phase.

Cisse investigated a burning building and found jihadists had burnt manuscripts in the boxes.

In 1911 the French in Senegal sent an explorer who received a manuscript of the highest importance, believed to be the only surviving city document of the Sudan. It was a collection of biographies of the kings of Songhay written in the 15th Century. It had been doctored by Lobbo for his political interests.

A collated work had been produced in 1665. The Faffah, which concluded in 1599, was regarded as the most important discovery for the history of the region since Tarikh al-sudan.

Songhay lived under Timbuktu’s holy men for one hundred years and scholars and students moved there. Demand for books drove a large professional copying industry. It was the best known town for the solidity of its institutions, liberties, politics and security

The end when it came was an enormous shock. Musa deposed his father Muhammed in1529 and the city became degenerate. The Sadian Sultan al-Mansur wanted to protect the Sahara from the Christians. He was told he would never be safe from Songhay spears.

He chose a eunuch, Jawdaw, to lead an elite army of 4 000 soldiers, including mounted gun, mercenaries and 1 500 Morocco cavalry. They advanced on Timbuktu, drove people out and established a fort. The people revolted during Mahmud’s absence but when he returned he executed leading scholars, and houses were plundered including Ahmad Baba’s library.

This then became Baba’s most productive period during which he wrote 30 of his 56 known works. When the sultan died he returned to Timbuktu, the only deported scholar to see his home again. Mahmud’s destruction left Timbuktu with the lowest people becoming the highest and the highest becoming the lowest.

Almost two hundred years before the Africa Association sent its first explorer, Timbuktu had begun its long decline.

The French planned a final advance of the city and the jihadists fled. French and Malians advanced and the French were mobbed for the liberation of Timbuktu. French soldiers discovered where most of the manuscripts were. There were also twenty boats with 300 boxes of manuscripts leaving Timbuktu and 150 more. UNESCO established a research institute, the Ahmad Baba Centre, with a restoration department for the 6 300 documents as well as printed works.

Black American Henry Louis Gates, head of African studies at Harvard in 1999, made a film, Wonders of the Africa World, approaching the subject from a slave descendant’s standpoint. He shed tears at the discovery of proof of Africa’s intellectual past.

In 2002 President Thabo Mbeki went to Timbuktu and the University of Cape Town’s Tombouctou Manuscript Project said they had underestimated a wide continental heritage of creativity and written tradition and literary heritage.

CT’s Tombouctou Manuscript team were asked for information and academics urged caution. They called Mali but no one would explain. Pictures of the ashes from the Ahmad Baba showed that not all the documents could have been burned. They were told it was for security, but by that time caution was unnecessary.

Information from Haidara started to come out. Pressed by journalists he revealed details of the evacuation and the number began to mount. Calculations put the total at 400 000.

In March 2013, six weeks after liberation, the American woman launched a new fund-raising drive: Timbuktu Libraries in Exile. She said in tears that Timbuktu and surrounding village people, afraid for their lives and with no income, had come forward to help save the heritage. She revealed that during the new findings she had discovered that an inventory had been made showing religious texts were outnumbered by secular work such as poetry, novellas, essays, cookbooks science, medicine and music and more.

She had seen that “ambassadors of peace” texts by Islamic diplomats could be used for reconciliation processes. But larger amounts of cash were needed. The target was seven million dollars. Haidara’s target was twenty-two million dollars for a three-year programme which included. dehumidifiers (to protect documents) and a large building restored to be used as a Savama base.

Offers of help flooded in from all over the world. An American Timbuktu Renaissance Action Group was founded to revive Mali through its cultural heritage, and it included a deal with Google. There were even plans for an eighty-million dollar university.

In 2014 Haidara received the German Africa prize for his efforts. The German foreign minister said 95 per cent of manuscripts were saved.

Not everyone caught the Timbuktu fever. In 2015 a group of Africanists met at Birmingham University. Among the historians was Bruce Hall, an assistant professor, who had known Diakite, Haidara and Hunwick since 1999 when as a PhD student he worked on manuscripts in Timbuktu. He could read the texts that filled Islamic libraries.

When he read Diakite’s call for funds he felt frustration. The sums Savama wanted, the secrecy and mystic terms in which the manuscripts were being described had been a red flag to Hall who sent a sceptical response to Diakite which went to African studies departments around the world.

Hall said Diakite had mischaracterised the nature of the documents. She had claimed they were encyclopaedic and secular in nature, but 98 per cent were written in literary Arabic and, apart from a few letters and contracts, the majority were Islamic religious texts, not objects of deep respect.

Hall continued with his theme in Birmingham, now using the fraud word openly. Since the Ahmad Baba’s establishment millions of dollars had be given to people with manuscripts, whose number had been inflated to attract further funding. Money for Timbuktu depended on fraud, misrepresentation of materials and amount of materials, according to Hall.

For him 300 000 was the best guess for Arabic manuscripts in Northern Mali. Even Haidara had put the figure at 101 820. If counted, the number might reach 30 000 items, the majority of owners having s few hundred, many only single-page letters. Haidara said even a post-it note scribbled could be called a manuscript. Timbuktu contacts said many manuscript collections had remained there, some moved to Bamako to support claims of large numbers evacuated. International media resulted in a huge injection of Western money into Savama.

Rescued manuscripts was at best misleading, said Hall, and at worst dishonest and fraudulent. A professor said how Timbuktu’s numbers had been inflated – from “lies” or “nothing”. Many unanswered questions arose. Haidara had no eye witnesses, and library and other employees would say nothing.

Other accounts often disagreed with Haidara’s or Diakite’s, and they disagreed with each other.

The academics asked how great the jihadists’ threat was when collections were hidden. Haidara had used a rumoured ceremonial book burning and made this part of his grant request to the Dutch. The unimpeachable grand imam who had led negotiations with the jihadists said they did not threaten. On several occasions the jihadists had promised to protect them, and the police had not objected to their being shipped out.

Mayor Cissie said that all documents had been torched but this was corrected much later. The loss of 4 203 documents from Ahmad Baba was not believed. They had probably been stolen and the fire was a cover-up. No one seemed to know or care what the manuscripts were.

The academics also queried the manuscripts’ contents. Access was controlled so claims could not be verified. A study by a South African academic was most damning, claiming some of the original notes for the Tarikh al-fattash had been forged.

Everything about private evacuations was in doubt and author Charlie English approached Dutch diplomats, three of whom had witnessed hundreds of metal boxes (lockers) arriving in Bamako. They had raised money for the evacuations and were astonished by the accusations. About 150 000 manuscripts were there. There were thousands of others in 800-1 000 containers, making a total of 2 100 to 2 300 containers. They were opened and manuscripts were inside. It was assumed that competition resulted in envy.

Bamako were attacked again in 2015, 20 people were shot and 170 hostages taken. Terrorists had reasserted themselves and the country was in a state of emergency.

Haidara agreed to meet author, Charlie English, but brushed aside details. They discussed the entire narrative. They talked past the Ahmad Baba evacuation to private libraries. They confronted many discrepancies and Haidara avoided corrections. The numbers of manuscripts were also questioned by Haidara’s colleagues. If 377 491 private manuscripts needed 2 500 lockers to move them, why did the Ahmad Baba’s Institute’s 24 000 manuscripts need only 36 lockers? Haidara said it was because they were different sizes. He said he had moved only 17 of the 35 private libraries.

Other manuscript owners said three major libraries had been moved after liberation to make up the numbers. English wondered, after finding the number of libraries reduced, how as much as 95 percent evacuation had been achieved. Haidara said people claimed that different numbers had been moved.

Finally, Haidara took the author on a tour of safe houses. They came to a room filled with tens of hundreds of lockers, some closed with a single padlock, others with two locks. They travelled through the city to other libraries One had a printed card saying the library had 7 610 manuscripts and another had 6 450 manuscripts.

The author wondered if the numbers could all really add up to those claimed. Governments which had contributed millions of euros funding hadn’t done a count.

He asked Haidara to open double-locked boxes. One had a key in it and he opened that to reveal manuscripts.

At the last location were 140 more lockers and Haidara refused to open the double-locked ones. English said everyone needed evidence of the evacuations but Haidara said they belonged to Mali. People even put words into the mouth of the Prophet.

Haidara gripped English’s hand and they left the building like that. English wondered if this was a request for forgiveness. Clemency?

English, having interviewed people for hundreds of hours, says the book is an account of interpretations of Timbuktu’s past. Its story is in perpetual motion.

From its earliest days Timbuktu or Tombouctou, Tenbuck or Tombut – was a mix of information, credulity and European greed for gold. It lay on travel routes and exaggerated reports were given. When Laing struggled to the town in 1826, Europeans had already been fantasizing about it for five centuries.

Descriptions from him and others are varied and confusing, true and exaggerated. A mass of ill-looking houses helped correct the misconception. Dubois’s excitement 70 years later at the history of a culture founded by the ancient Egyptians, and having a university, dazzled and he inflated it. Barth mistakenly read the Tarikh alsudan as history when it proved to be an imaginative reworking of past events.

Citizens also played a part in Timbuktu’s creation of a pure and undefiled, blessed city.

This century’s story of manuscript evacuation by librarians fits into the tradition. A modern-day folktale built around a little truth proved irresistible. Documents were saved by braving the jihadists’ punishments, but the operation grew into something larger than it was. The West mistook the Timbuktu chronicles as first-rate history but second-rate literature when the reverse was true.

Misreading has drawn the world to this remote town. Author Charlie English sees the story as myths and corrections laid on top of each other.

He emailed allegations about exaggeration and numbers which appear in the book to Abdel Kader Haidara and the American woman Stephanie Diakite.

Haidara said he knew nothing of the allegations and the American declined to comment.

Bruce Hall maintained that aspects of the Savama story were a “huge fraud”.


Charlie English

About the Author

Charlie English is the former head of international news at the Guardian and author of The Snow Tourist.


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