On Distant Shores

NEW YORK, NY -- In Britain, in the latter part of the 19th century, explorers for the first time became objects of popular adulation, as witness the generally rapturous public receptions of such eminences as Richard Burton, Henry M. Stanley and David Livingstone. The great explorations of earlier generations had been variously conducted by naval officers such as Anson and Cook with the support of the Royal Navy; as diplomatic ventures, a good example of which is the Macartney Embassy to China; or (though comparatively infrequently) as the excursions of savants, such as James Bruce’s foray to the source of the Blue Nile. While generally enthusiastically received, many of the accounts were first published in costly folios, and had a limited public audience until they were issued in less expensive octavo editions.

The great wealth that had accrued from Britain’s longtime trade interests in India (which came to a peak in the early years of the nineteenth century, when the Honorable East India Company had a standing army there of over a quarter of a million men) had generated an appreciation at home of the benefits of colonial ambitions. The sporting culture that had emerged in the jungles and hills was, in essence, an outgrowth of the English tradition of hunting small game, but it took on a newly heroic stature when the hunt was for elephant, tiger and wild boar.

Such sport, with its element of risk, was widely looked upon as a healthy training ground (and substitute for) war itself; military adventure and the hunting of big game went hand in hand. The result was a generation of explorers who wedded their fascination with unknown terrain with a love of the hunt, and (not least) an eye to how the regions they explored could be brought under British influence. By the 1820s publishers such as Murray and Bentley were regularly regaling a wide and avid public with accounts of the travels and adventures of these voyagers on the fringes of Empire. As the century wore on their ranks became only more numerous, as new regions beckoned. The Middle and Far East, the Caucasus, even Siberia beckoned. But the destination of greatest allure was unquestionably Africa.

Among all these hunter-travelers, Frederick Courteney Selous (31 December 1851 – 4 January 1917) ranks as a figure emblematic of the strengths and weaknesses of his kind. Allan Quartermain, the hero of H. Rider Haggard’s 1885 novel King Solomon’s Mines, and subsequent works featuring that protagonist, was modeled on Selous, who Haggard admired. The first account of Selous’s adventures, which presumably drew the writer’s attention, appeared in A hunter's wanderings in Africa, being a narrative of nine years spent amongst the game of the far interior of South Africa... published by Richard Bentley in 1881, several years before the first appearance of Haggard’s character (see lot 491). Selous, who in most regards—except occult adventures—out-Quartermained Quartermain, was (as was his fictional counterpart) a professional big game hunter par excellence, a one-time diamond-miner, and an ardent exponent of the idea that the Pax Britannica was a blessing on those upon whom it fell.

Selous had a fortunate, aristocratic upbringing. His father, Frederick Lokes Slous (sic—this was the original spelling of the name), was the Chairman of the London Stock Exchange; his mother, Ann Holgate Sherburn was a poet of some note. He was educated (in part) at Rugby School, and after completed his education in Europe. He had an early brush with death at seventeen, as a survivor of an especially ghastly ice-skating tragedy in Regent’s Park in January of 1867, when about 200 skaters broke through the frozen pond, and 40 perished. Already self-determined and inured to hardship by the rough demands of an English public school education, and perhaps also haunted to some degree by exposure to this disaster, he left for South Africa at the age of nineteen.

From then on, he lived his life as a hunter and explorer, supplying specimens for museums. He traveled extensively in Matabeleland (today, the veldts of Southwestern Zimbabwe), where he had been granted permission to travel by Lobengula, the King of the Northern Ndebele. In general, he seems to have had a benign relationship with the chiefs and tribes among whom he traveled, earning from them an unusual degree of trust and respect.

Meanwhile, the so-called Scramble for Africa, the division of the continent by the great colonial European powers, was well underway. At the time Selous arrived in Africa, perhaps ten percent of Africa was under European control. By the time of his death, almost ninety percent of the continent was claimed. In 1890, Selous joined Cecil Rhodes’ British South Africa Company, and it was at that time that he guided the expedition to Mashonaland depicted in W. Ellerton Fry’s remarkable photographic essay on the occupation of the region by the Mashonaland Pioneer Column (lot 463). The purpose of the Column was the annexation of this territory, which later became part of Southern Rhodesia. Rhodes (and, it goes without saying, Selous), sought to secure the region before other participants in the Scramble did. To some extent, this was done with the acceptance of the Matabele king, who had signed a treaty giving rights of mining and administration to the Company, an act which he sorely regretted (and in which, with justification, he felt he had been tricked and mislead).

The Column was led by Frank Johnson, something of a freebooter and adventurer; it had been previously suggested that to accomplish what was essentially a war would take several thousand men, and a million pounds. Johnson undertook to do it with 250 men, for under a hundred thousand pounds. The inducements for the participants of the column were land grants and mining claims. The Column proceeded from Macloutsie (in what is now Botswana) to Fort Salisbury (now Harare, in Zimbabwe). While this blatant land grab has been described in somewhat roseate terms, it effectively ended the independence of the Shona and Matabele tribes, and also marked the taming of the region, which was subsequently divided into plantations under British ownership, with African workers drawn from the previously independent tribes.

Selous returned to England in late 1892, where he was given the signal (and deserved) honor of the Founder's Medal of the Royal Geographical Society. He would return to Africa in 1893, at the time of the First Matabele War. He then again returned to England, married, and in 1896 settled in land in Matabeleland, returning again to action during the Second Matabele War, where he was a commissioned officer fighting alongside Robert Baden-Powell, the founder of the scouting movement. Finally, during the First World War, at the age of 64 Selous rejoined the ranks of the British Army, rose to the rank of Captain, but ultimately met his death at the hands of a German sniper in a bush campaign in Tanzania in January of 1917.

One of the most eloquent epitaphs was that given his by his friend Theodore Roosevelt:

“He led a singularly adventurous and fascinating life, with just the right alternations between the wilderness and civilization. He helped spread the borders of his people's land. He added much to the sum of human knowledge and interest. He closed his life exactly as such a life ought to be closed, by dying in battle for his country while rendering her valiant and effective service. Who could wish a better life or a better death, or desire to leave a more honourable heritage to his family and his nation?”

While Selous’ courage, gallantry, and his adventuresome spirit seem beyond dispute, his legacy is more flawed,  complex and ambiguous than Roosevelt’s words (written at an earlier and less conflicted time) imply. Rhodesia, which Selous helped Cecil Rhodes found, became a state based on savage oppression, and it ended ultimately in an brutal guerrilla war. Though he himself believed in the principles of conservation (as did Roosevelt) the African wildlife that he hunted for most of his life had already begun a precipitous decline, one that continues to this day.

His name lives on in the Selous Game Reserve, one of Africa’s great resources in the preservation of faunal diversity of game species.


The Library of Arnold "Jake" Johnson: Part I

Auction Wednesday, April 25, 2018 at 10am
Exhibition April 20 - 23

View Property from the Library of Arnold "Jake" Johnson: Part I

VP/Director, Rare Books, Autographs & Photographs
Books & Autographs
View Specialist Profile