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MAJOR ALEXANDER GORDON LAING.
In addition to our feelings of deep regret for the death of this enterprising traveller, it is painful to reflect, that all attempts hitherto made to penetrate central Africa, visit Timbuctoo, and transmit to Europe some authentic information respecting that celebrated city, have been invariably defeated by some fatal disaster." Listening to the clanking of the chains which bind Africa in European setters, we need not, indeed, wonder that her swarthy inhabitants should view all strangers with jealousy, and suspect every foreigner who intrudes into their dominions of some sinister design; and more particularly that they should detest white men, and hear the name of Christian with abhorrence. . . . . . . . . . . . . . Major Laing was the eldest son of Mr. William Laing, A. M., and was born at Edinburgh the 27th of December, 1794. His father, one of the most popular classical teachers of his day, having for many years had an academy in the New Town of Edinburgh, young Laing received nearly the whole of his education under the paternal roof; indeed, all that valuable portion of his learning which went to prepare him for the university he received directly from his father. Under such guardianship, and possessing, as he did, a quick intuitive perception, together with an ardent desire for the acquirement of classical knowledge, it might naturally be expected that he would make rapid progress in his academical studies, and accordingly, at the early age of thirteen, he entered the Alma Mater of his native city. Here those rays of
• Except, perhaps, in the case of M. Caillé. WOL., XIV, Z
learning, which had been concentrating in the tyro, began to beam forth from the youthful alumnus, and that in so marked a manner, that the late respected professor of humanity, Mr. Christison, perceiving his taste for literature, frequently took occasion to point to this youth, in the public class, as one whose example it would be for the benefit of all his fellowstudents to imitate, though few might aspire to rival him.
With the view to habituate him to communicate that knowledge. to others which he so eagerly acquired himself, Master Laing went, in his fifteenth year, to fill, for a time, the situation of assistant to Mr. Bruce, an eminent teacher in Newcastle-upon-Tyne; whence he returned to Edinburgh six months after, and entered upon a similar duty under his father, for which it will be seen he was in no small degree qualified, having been trained to tuition in a manner from his infancy.
At this period the habits and prospects of the embryo traveller had apparently assumed a settled and determinate form. Not that he had as yet taken any decisive or irretrievable step from which he might not recede without incurring the charge of fickleness — not that he was bound to pursue that precise path to which he had hitherto looked forward; but nothing appeared to be farther from his intention than the active, bustling, and adventurous life of a soldier, or the still more hazardous and arduous employment of a professional traveller in the unexplored regions of inhospitable Africa, amid the hordes of its selfish, treacherous, and uncivilised natives. Placed as he then was with the prospect, upon his father's retirement (an event which occurred a few years afterwards), of succeeding to his establishment and profession, which, though no doubt abundantly laborious, was calculated to yield a comfortable and respectable maintenance, he had thus every inducement to follow it out; or, with his predilection for study, if he did relinquish that pursuit, he was more likely to become a candidate for fame in the peaceful paths of science, than in the field where glory grows. The forlorn hope of African discovery was not then, perhaps, even dreamed of, much less contemplated.
Circumstances, however, occurred, which unsettled all his preconceived plans, and aroused in him that spirit of enterprise and adventure which characterised his after-life. It was his fate to emerge into the world at a time when the profession of arms was every where blended with that of the civilian; at a time when it was considered that every man in Britain was in duty bound to bear a sword or a firelock, and to know how to use it; and it may be safely said, that nowhere was that feeling more generally acted upon, or that duty better understood, than in Edinburgh, the birth-place of Alexander Gordon Laing. During that rage of martial fever, which few men and fewer youths escaped, Master Laing, having attained his seventeenth year, was, like most of his acquaintance, not invulnerable to its attack; he was, in 1810, appointed an Ensign in the Prince of Wales' Edinburgh Volunteers — a corps which certainly had nothing fascinating about it, though it afforded the occasional opportunity of sporting a military uniform, and of displaying a stand of colours. This regiment was originally armed with pikes; and although it was afterwards provided with muskets, the men continued to be vulgarly, and rather ironically, denominated the pikemen.
It is well known that this introduction of Major Laing to martial life is not an isolated or solitary case: thousands who have since fought and bled in their country's cause, commenced their career as volunteers; for not only was the British army provided with officers, but the ranks of the regulars were in like manner supplied from that fruitful source. Captivated with the slight foretaste of military service which the volunteer system afforded him, the object of this memoir "would be a soldier," and would be nothing else: he could no longer submit to the restraints, or go through the monotonous routine, of school discipline; he, in fact, now regarded teaching with the most sovereign contempt, and finally gave it up at the termination of the second year, the latter of which was doubtless spent in a struggle between duty and inclination, as it was anxiously desired by his parents and relations that he should not change his profession.
Being thus bent upon the military service, he, in the year 1811, went out to Barbadoes, where his uncle, Colonel, afterwards General, Gabriel Gordon then was, and with whom he remained a short time till he obtained an ensigncy in the York light infantry, which regiment he immediately joined at Antigua; and in two years thereafter he was promoted to a lieutenancy in the same corps, which he held until the regiment was reduced, and Lieutenant Laing was then placed upon the half-pay. Having no relish for inactive life, he exchanged, as speedily as the business could be negotiated, into the second West India regiment, which he joined at Jamaica. While there, he had to undertake the duties of deputy quarter-master-general, the exertions of which department induced a liver complaint; and in order to re-establish his health, the medical gentlemen recommended a sea voyage. He accordingly sailed to Honduras, by which his complaint was considerably relieved; but the governor, Colonel Arthur, finding him an active and intelligent officer, appointed him to the office of fort-major, and would not suffer him to return to Jamaica, but had him attached to another division of his regiment, then in Honduras, where he remained until a return of his complaint forced him to come home, his frame being so much debilitated that he was unable to walk, and it became necessary to carry him on shipboard.
The effects of this attack made a serious impression on his constitution, and in consequence he remained for nearly eighteen months with his friends in Scotland. During this time, however, one-half of the second West India regiment, that to which he was attached, was reduced, and he was again placed upon half-pay. In the autumn of 1819 he returned to London, and having been sent for by the late Sir Henry Torrens, then colonel of his regiment, was familiarly complimented by him on his former services, immediately appointed lieutenant and adjutant, and proceeded to Sierra Leone.
Early in January 1822, Lieutenant Laing was sent by the late governor, Sir Charles M'Carthy, on an embassy to Knmbia and the Mandingo country, to ascertain the political state of those districts, the disposition of the inhabitants to trade, and their sentiments in regard to the abolition of the slave trade. Having executed that mission to the complete satisfaction of the governor, and some alarm having arisen as to the fate of Sannassee, a chief in amity with our government, who had been taken prisoner by Yarradee, a war man of the king of Soolima, Lieutenant and Adjutant Laing, — though his health, which had suffered from the effects of his former journey, was yet only in a state of convalescence, — was appointed to undertake a second embassy for the purpose of procuring Sannassee's release from captivity. On arriving at the camp of the Soolima army, he was informed that the unfortunate Sannassee had been set at liberty after his town had been burnt, and that his life had been spared only from the fear of offending the British governor.
While upon the second mission, he had observed that many men who accompanied the Soolima army possessed considerable quantities of gold; and having learned that ivory abounded in Soolima, he suggested to the governor the advantages to the colony of opening an intercourse with these people, remarking that such an attempt would not be attended with much hazard or expense, and that a great object would be attained by the knowledge of many countries to the eastward of the colony, which, like that of the Soolimas, was known only by name. This suggestion was submitted to the council, who approved the undertaking, and left it to the judgment of the traveller to pursue his own route. He was now as much a volunteer traveller as before he had been a volunteer officer; nay, more so, being in fact allowed to prosecute his own enterprise in his own way. This third mission, upon which he set out from Sierra Leone on the 16th of April, 1822, led him to penetrate through a far more extensive tract of country than before, much of it previously unexplored, but which is particularly described, together with the inhabitants,