Early life and first trip to Africa
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 a
penal colony at
Rochefort. He died there in 1808 at the age of 46. René's mother, Élizabeth
[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.
In the introduction to his Travels through Central Africa to Timbuctoo Caillié described how as a teenager he had been fascinated by books on travel and exploration:
... and as soon as I could read and write, I was put to learn a trade, to which I soon took a dislike, owing to the reading of voyages and travels, which occupied all my leisure moments. The History of Robinson Crusoe, in particular, inflamed my young imagination : I was impatient to encounter adventures like him; nay, I already felt an ambition to signalize myself by some important discovery springing up in my heart.
Caillié left home at the age of 16 with 60 francs that he had inherited from his grandmother.
[d] He made his way to the port of Rochefort, 50 km from Mauzé-sur-le-Mignon on the
River Charente. There he signed up as a crew member on the Loire, a French naval
storeship that was to accompany the frigate
Méduse and two other vessels on a voyage to reclaim the French colony of
Saint-Louis from the British under the terms of the
1815 Paris Treaties. The four ships left their anchorage near the
Île d'Aix at the mouth of the Charente River in June 1816. The Méduse went ahead of the Loire and was wrecked on the
Bank of Arguin off the coast of present-day Mauritania. A few survivors were picked up by the other vessels. The shipwreck received a large amount of publicity and was the subject of a famous oil painting,
The Raft of the Medusa, by
Théodore Géricault. When the three remaining French ships arrived at Saint-Louis they found that the British governor was not ready to hand over the colony so the ships continued southwards and moored off the island of
Dakar. Caillié spent some months in Dakar, which was then only a village, before returning by ship to Saint-Louis. There he learned that an English expedition led by Major William Gray was preparing to leave from the
Gambia to explore the interior of the continent. Caillié wished to offer his services and set off along the coast with two companions. He intended to cover the 300 km on foot but found the oppressive heat and lack of water exhausting. He abandoned his plan at Dakar and instead obtained a free passage on a merchantman across the Atlantic to
Caillié found employment for six months in Guadeloupe. While there he read
Mungo Park's account of his exploration of the Middle
Niger in present-day Mali. Park had been the first European to reach the Niger River and visit the towns of
Bamako. An account of his first trip had been published in French in 1799. Park made a second expedition beginning in 1805 but was drowned in descending the rapids on the Niger near
Bussa in present-day Nigeria. An account of the second trip had been published in English in 1815.
Caillié returned to
Bordeaux in France and then travelled to Senegal where he arrived at end of 1818. He made a journey into the interior to the pre-colonial state of
Bundu to carry supplies for a British expedition but he fell ill with fever and was obliged to return to France.
In 1824 he returned to Senegal for the third time with the desire to visit the African interior. The Paris-based
Société de Géographie was offering a 10,000-franc reward to the first European to see and return alive from Timbuktu, believing it 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.