Sahara explorer – An Irishman’s Diary on Oscar MacCarthy
Oscar MacCarthy spent 14 years as a desert vagabond, travelling the Maghreb extensively and surveying its landscape
Oscar MacCarthy, geographer, desert explorer, archaeologist and authority on the Sahara, is almost completely unknown in Europe, not least in the country of his father, Jack MacCarthy, who had left Cork to enlist in the Napoleonic army.
Oscar was born in the weeks following Napoleon’s last defeat and final abdication, in the summer of 1815.
He served an informal apprenticeship, collecting data and statistics for his father’s geographical publications. But by the age of 25, Oscar had become a name in his own right, winning three medals, much acclaim and a prize of 1,000 francs for two regional statistical studies he produced on Brazil and Württemberg, respectively.
Although kept busy researching and publishing in Paris, he elected to leave the city in the tumultuous year of 1848, and proceeded to the recently acquired French colony of Algeria, then largely unmapped and unexplored by the French. While his mind was active and strong, his body was not. He was described as “delicate and frail in appearance” and thus spent his first two years in Algeria steeling himself for what was to come. He learned Arabic and Berber, and sought to transform his body, rendering it, in his own words, “impenetrable, insensitive and as hard wearing as cow-leather”.
He must have been successful, as MacCarthy spent the next 14 years as a desert vagabond, travelling the Maghreb extensively, surveying its landscape and publishing his findings.
He travelled by horse, carrying a few scientific instruments, notebooks and clothed in rags, living by the Arab proverb which he was wont to quote: “A thousand horsemen cannot strip a naked man”.
He obtained permission to enter Timbuktu, an invitation which he planned to honour, by traversing the desert from north to south. However, in 1859, he called off his proposed expedition as the dangers he foresaw were too great.
In 1863, the footloose explorer settled in Algiers, where he continued to write, publish and produce maps of the desert. He was a committed imperialist who believed it was in France’s best interests to maintain its colony. He drew maps of proposed railway links across the desert, and his own work was in turn used by French proponents of rail systems in north Africa.
It was once claimed that MacCarthy knew more about north Africa than anyone else alive. It was fitting, then, that he was appointed librarian of the Algiers Library and Museum in 1869. It was here that he was able to combine his considerable worldly experiences with his scholarly background. He was sought out by doctors, soldiers, adventures, entrepreneurs – anyone who wished to learn more about the desert. With a flowing beard and tight hair, he was described as “brown as a white man can become, as thin as a man in good health can be, he can now affront fatigue, sun and time itself: he looks as though he has never been young, and no one will ever see him age or even be able to guess how old he is. Always fit, dry, alert, and a tireless walker”.
One of the many curious callers who sought out MacCarthy’s encyclopaedic knowledge of the Sahara was Charles de Foucauld. While preparing for his epic trek around Morocco, MacCarthy acted as Foucauld’s tutor. Foucauld’s account of his journey, Reconnaisance de Maroc, published to great acclaim, was dedicated to his old teacher. It is for this relationship that MacCarthy is best remembered.
Foucauld became captivated by the Sahara; its mystique, its great emptiness and its silence. A romantic at heart, he had been a womaniser and glutton until he came to the desert.
Originally he had been seduced by the hybrid Islam practiced by the Berbers whom he observed in the Sahara, but later returned to the Catholicism of his youth.
He founded his own order, surpassing even the Trappists in its austerity, and lived a hermetical existence in the desert until he was murdered in 1916.
Today, Foucauld is well remembered in his native France, and was beatified by Pope Benedict in 2005.
The same cannot be said for Oscar MacCarthy, the French geographer born of an Irish father.
He died in Algeria in 1894.