Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Laing, Alexander Gordon

LAING, ALEXANDER GORDON (1793–1826), African traveller, born 27 Dec. 1793, was eldest son of William Laing, A.M., of Edinburgh, by his wife, the daughter of William Gordon of Glasgow Academy, writer of an English translation of Livy and of various educational books. William Laing, a very popular private teacher in his day, opened the first classical academy in Edinburgh. There Alexander was taught until the age of thirteen, when he entered Edinburgh University. At fifteen he was an assistant-master in Bruce's classical academy at Newcastle-on-Tyne, but afterwards went back to Edinburgh to help his father. In 1810 he was made an ensign in the Prince of Wales's regiment of loyal Edinburgh volunteers, and in 1811 he went out to Barbadoes. His mother's brother, Colonel (afterwards General) Gabriel Gordon (cf. Gent. Mag. 1855), who was deputy quartermaster-general there, employed him as an extra clerk in his office, and in that capacity he came under the notice of General Sir George Beckwith [q. v.] On 11 March 1813 he was appointed ensign in the York light infantry, a corps, composed chiefly of foreigners, formed for West India service. He became lieutenant 28 Dec. 1815, and served with the corps in Antigua. When it was disbanded at the peace he effected, after a brief interval on half-pay, an exchange into the 2nd West India regiment in Jamaica, and was employed there as deputy assistant quartermaster-general. To cure a violent attack of liver complaint he subsequently sailed to Honduras, where the governor, Colonel (afterwards Sir) George Arthur [q. v.], employed Laing as fort-major; but ill-health soon drove him home, and a reduction in the strength of his regiment placed him on half-pay from 25 Dec. 1818. In 1820 he was brought back into the 2nd West India regiment as lieutenant and adjutant, and on 3 April 1822 was promoted to a company in the royal African corps, to which (and not to the 2nd West India, as stated by Chambers) he belonged at the time of his death.

Early in 1822 Sir Charles MacCarthy, the governor of Sierra Leone, where Laing was serving with his corps, despatched him into the Kambian and Mandingo countries to ascertain the disposition of the natives regarding trade, and their sentiments respecting the abolition of the slave-trade. After staying at Kambia long enough to fulfil his instructions, he crossed the Scarcies to Melacourie, on the Melageah, and afterwards tried to reconcile Amara, the Mandingo king, described as ‘a crafty Mohammedan,’ with the rival chief Sannassee of Melacourie. To attain this object permanently, Laing, after his return to Sierra Leone, undertook a second journey, and for six days was without shelter by day or night. On 16 April 1822 he began a journey through the Timmannee and Kooranko countries to Falaba, the capital of Soolima, where he had learned that abundance of gold and ivory was to be found. He was well received, and remained some months. He ascertained the source of the Rokell, and was within three days of the supposed source of the Niger, which he was not allowed to visit. In October 1823 he was ordered to join his corps on the Gold Coast, in consequence of the menacing attitude of the Ashantees. He organised and commanded a large native force on the frontier during the greater part of 1823, in the course of which he frequently engaged and defeated the Ashantees. His success secured the allegiance of all the Fantee tribes, and he compelled the king of Ajucamon to put his troops under British control. When the Ashantees carried off a British sergeant, Laing offered to proceed on a mission to Coomassie to rescue him; but Sir Charles MacCarthy considered the enterprise too perilous (cf. Ann. Reg. 1824, pp. 124–36). After the fall of MacCarthy in action with the Ashantees, 21 Jan. 1824, Colonel Chisholm, on whom the chief command devolved, sent Laing home to report the position of affairs to Henry, third lord Bathurst [q. v.], then colonial secretary. While at home he began to prepare for the press his journals, subsequently published under the title, ‘Travels in Timmannee, Kooranko, and Soolima, Countries of Western Africa,’ London, 1825.

Late in 1824 Laing received instructions from Lord Bathurst to undertake an expedition, by way of Tripoli and Timbuctoo, to ascertain the source and course of the Niger. Full of enthusiasm, he left England 5 Feb. 1825. He proceeded to Tripoli by way of Malta, where he was treated with marked attention by the governor, the Marquis of Hastings. At Tripoli he contracted a close friendship with the British consul, Mr. Warrington, whose daughter, Emma Maria Warrington, he married 14 July 1825. Two days later he set out for Timbuctoo, in company with Babani, a sheikh of good repute, who undertook his safe conduct thither in ten weeks' time. The ordinary route was deemed unsafe, and, after a tedious and roundabout journey of a thousand miles through part of Fezzan, the travellers reached Ghadamis on 13 Sept. Laing was well received. Although many of his instruments had been damaged, and the stock of his only rifle had been broken by a charging elephant, he hopefully left Ghadamis 27 Oct., and on 3 Dec. 1825 reached Ensala, a town on the eastern frontier of the province of Tuat, belonging to the Tuaric, where he repaid a kindly reception by rendering medical aid to the sick. On 10 Jan. 1826 he quitted Ensala, and a fortnight later entered the flat, sandy, cheerless desert of Tenezaroff. Of his subsequent movements there is no detailed information. According to letters received by his father-in-law, and dated 10 May and 1 July 1826, after suffering from fever, he and his party were attacked and plundered by the Tuaric, and he was severely wounded. The sheikh Babani, who was dead at the time, was not in Laing's opinion wholly blameless. Laing was then the sole survivor of his party. According to another letter, his last, dated Timbuctoo (Timbuctù) 21 Sept. 1826, Laing reached that city on 18 Aug. 1826 (which entitled him to the 3,000l. offered by a society in London to the first European arriving there). The city answered all his expectations, except as regarded size. His position was very unsafe, owing to the hostility of Bello, chief of the Foulahs of Massina, who had dispossessed the Tuaric. He proposed leaving the city in three days' time. From information afterwards collected from various sources, it appeared that Laing left Timbuctoo at the time intended, and was surprised and murdered by Arabs in his bivouac on the night of 26 Sept. 1826. Facts, which were established at Tripoli in 1829 to the entire satisfaction of the British, Dutch, Danish, Swedish, and Sardinian consuls there, showed that the sheikh Babani, who was sent with Laing from Tripoli, was under the secret direction of Hassunah d'Ghies, son of the prime minister of the bashaw of Tripoli; that it was by d'Ghies's direction that the actual murderer, the ferocious Bourabouschi, was appointed to be Laing's guide on the return journey from Timbuctoo; that Laing's papers, forming a packet fourteen inches long and seven inches thick, were placed in d'Ghies's hands shortly after the murder, and that the packet was known to be secreted in Tripoli in August 1828. It was also alleged that the documents were given by d'Ghies to the French consul, Baron de Rosseau, who was in correspondence with the conspirators during the greater part of Laing's journey. Mohammed, brother of Hassunah d'Ghies, gave most of this information. A summary of the evidence is given in the ‘Quarterly Review,’ March 1830 (No. lxxxiv.). No further explanation has appeared. The Geographical Society of Paris presented to Mrs. Laing a gold medal in recognition of her late husband's services to science.

[The most authentic memoir of Laing is that in Chambers's Eminent Scotsmen, vol. ii., with a portrait from a painting in the possession of the family. A few corrections have been made here from war office sources. See also Thomas Nelson's Memoirs of Oudney, Clapperton, and Laing, 1830; Quarterly Review, 1830, No. lxxxiv.; Dict. Universelle, under ‘De Caillé’ and ‘Laing, Alexander Gordon;’ and Johnston's Dict. of Geogr., under ‘Niger’ and ‘Timbuctoo.’ The only notices of Laing in the Journals of the Roy. Geogr. Soc. London, are in vol. ii. p. i. viii. 298, xxii. 191.]

H. M. C.