Mali is a huge country in West Africa that was well within the French sphere of influence during the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, so we haven’t really invaded it much. However, Britons have had some dramatic times there.
And you’ll have heard of one of its major cities, Timbuktu. The town grew rich on trans-Saharan trade and in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries it became a sort of African El Dorado for Europeans, a legendary but unlocated golden city full of wealth. Consequently we set out to find it.
In 1805, a Scot named Mungo Park led an expedition including thirty soldiers and assorted officers along the Niger River towards Timbuktu, deep into what is now Mali. He had already been into the region back in 1796, when he had reached the Niger at Segou and followed its course until he ran out of supplies.
His 1805 expedition was both more successful, in the sense that he got a lot further, and less successful, in the sense that he (and lots of others) died. After resting for two months at Sansanding, in present-day Mali, he pressed on. Though his journals eventually made it home, dispatched by Park before his death, Park himself never did, and an investigation to find out what happened to him and his fellow men found only Park’s munitions belt. In 1824, a French geographical society offered a reward of 10,000 francs for the first non-Muslim to reach Timbuktu and return safely to tell about it. Another Scotsman, Gordon Laing, made it to Timbuktu in 1826, but didn’t have much time to celebrate since he ended up being killed there. As a result it was a Frenchman who finally picked up the ten grand in 1828 and set the scene for French, rather than British, expansion into the area.
Later, we had a chance to add a chunk of Mali to the British Empire, but we turned it down. In the late nineteenth century, Samori Ture created an empire that incorporated quite a bit of Mali. In January 1885, as part of his attempts to resist the French, he offered to put the empire under British protection, but we decided not to pick a quarrel with the French about the area. The country came under Vichy French control during the Second World War and only switched sides after the Allied invasion of Algeria in 1942. Consequently, the only Brits arriving in Timbuktu in that period were prisoners. John Turnbull Graham and William Souter from the SS Allende are buried in war graves there.