The Gateway to the Sahara by Charles Wellington Furlong is an account of his travels across the Tripolitan Sahara in 1904. Furlong was an explorer, writer and artist, and the first American to travel through this desert region. His book, published five years later in 1909 was not considered a scholarly work, but a lighthearted account of what has been described as “a jovial romp across the Sahara”.

Tripoli was the “most native” of the Barbary capitals at the time of his visit, before the advent of modern communications, the “peaceful penetration” of the region, and subsequent Italian military invasion and occupation, but also one the main caravan routes into the Sahara.

Clean streets and minarets: Tripoli in her freedom. The end of the great caravan route from Sudan as it enters Tripoli, 1904. Photograph by Furlong.

At first glance this book appears to be a sympathetic account of what Furlong describes as “the white burnoosed city” which had, at the time, escaped the international “grabbage of Europe”. He praised the inhabitants’ appearance and manner, and contrasts them to the tribes of the Northen European kingdoms:

Whatever their station in life, the Arabs of today are worthy sons of their forbears, who forced kings of Europe to tremble for their thrones and caused her scholars to bow in reverence to a culture and learning at that time unknown to the barbarians of the North.

He describes one scene in which a lowly shop keeper squatting in the shade of his shop front, raises to greet a richly dressed Moor. Each places their right hand on their heart, lips, and forehead, conveying through this greeting, as the author interprets, “thou hast a place in my heart, on my lips, and thou art always in my thoughts”. Had the two Arabs exchanges their garments Furlong suggests, neither would have lost their “superb dignity”, for either could well have “graced the divan of a Bashaw”.

The colour and luminosity of the city’s inhabitants, their homes, mosques, and markets is all the casual European observers sees, according to Furlong; for others, the atmosphere and sights have a far reaching symbolism: “the all pervading influence of Islam.”

By the creed of Islam all lines are drawn, all distinctions made. Upon the traditions of Mohammed and the interpretations of the Koran the Arab orders his manner of life in polity, ethics, and science, and “Allah hath said it” is the fatalistic standard of his daily life.

Turkish Tripoli is a city steeped in the spirit of Islam, “indifferent and insensible to the changes of the outer world”, but also on the cusp of European occupation. While writing sympathetically of the Arabs and their culture, Furlong questions fairly early on how long this culture can withstand the impending destruction by the Christian, commercial forces of Europe:

How long before the primitive customs of this people will give way before the progression of some Christian power, and the picture of an ancient patriarchal life be tarnished with the cheap veneer of a commercial vanguard, may be answered any morning by the cable news of daily paper. The great dynamic forces of modern civilisation cause events to march with astounding swiftness. Tripoli, in Barbary, is already in the eye of Europe; tomorrow the Tripoli of today may have vanished.

In the second chapter, ‘Town Scenes and Incidents’, the author describes the ‘country Arab’ tradition of converting one’s earnings into silver ornaments which are then “deposited on the persons of their wives”. Furlong observed how Arab women loaded with this silver, hauled water from wells as their husbands directed the irrigation of his fields. In this same chapter, he reports on the poor crop of 1900, and how $72500 worth of silver, “so dear to the womankind of the peasantry” was broken up and exported to Europe. He reports on Turkish Imperial taxation, which includes a poll and property tax, and a tithe on agricultural produce, and averaged $540000 annually between 1894 and 1904. He reports also that the average annual value of trade from Tripoli between 1874 and 1904 was $3850000. What started as an Orientalist explorer’s relatively favorable impression of Tripoli and her inhabitants, begins to read as a report on the economic potential of a region ripe for European conquest.

Furlong dedicates three chapters on three principle industries in Tripoli: sponge gathering, esparto picking, and the trans-Saharan caravan trade. In 1904, out of total exports of about $2000000, he reports that sponges accounted for $350000, esparto grass for $630000; and goods from the trans-Saharan caravan trade for $314000.

The sponges being hauled overboard. Painting by Furlong.
Weighing the esparto grass at Suk al Halfa, Tripoli. The first shipload of esparto was sent to England in 1868. Almost 17000 tones of esparto was exported to England from Tripoli alone in 1901, contributing to a quarter of the city’s total exports that year. Furlong cites the introduction of wood pulp from North America and Norway as a major cause of decreased demand for esparto in England, and predicted that the esparto trade would soon be obsolete. Painting by Furlong.
The principle caravan routes of North Africa in 1904.
Rows of shops by the market gate in Tripoli, 1904. Of the market scenes the author writes: “Here one is transported into an Old Testament land, to a people who still cling with childish tenacity to the picturesque and crude customs of ages past”. Photograph by Furlong.

Furlong ends the account of his travels by outlining “virtuous” Europe’s changing methods of exploiting the continent, suggesting that changing times preclude her from continuing to steal Africans from Africa; instead she will proceed to steal Africa from Africans:

There is every reason to believe that it will be a Christian European power which will open for the Tripolitan that sesame which will arouse him from his inertia and usher him into fields where he will take new heart and courage; and Tripoli will be reclaimed from the Desert, not so much through the reconstruction of the cofferdam of the Roman as by modern agency, the artesian well.

Virtuous Europe no longer steals Africans from Africa. Her civilisation, honesty, and humanitarianism have frowned upon that; so now she reverses the order of things and steals Africa from the Africans.

The author claims that Tripoli’s agricultural resources barely kept her inhabitants from starvation, claiming that inertia, unbearable Turkish taxation, drought, and insecure caravan routes compromised her trade and decreased her exports. To bring commercial prosperity, and encourage both native and foreign trade interests, he envisaged that an “indifferent” Turkey will be replaced by the modern, destructive Europe.

The final page.