The hunter who became a naturalist

A century ago, US president Theodore Roosevelt's year-long African hunting safari was coming to an end. Accompanying Roosevelt on that trip was big game hunter Frederick Selous, who as Denis Judd explains, helped to put animal protection on the agenda

British soldier, explorer and big game hunter Frederick Selous, pictured in 1914. (Photo by Topical Press Agency/Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

This article was first published in the March 2010 issue of BBC History Magazine

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America’s 26th president, Theodore Roosevelt, was a politician and statesman who seemed larger than life. His swashbuckling style, his love of sport and outdoor activities, his earlier ‘Rough Rider’ military exploits, and his capacity to grab the headlines made him immensely popular with the mass electorate and the newly emerging mass newspaper readership – especially within the English-speaking world. Yet toward the end of his second term as president, in 1908, he declined to run for the White House again, and more or less handed the next election to his close friend William Howard Taft.

Not that ‘Teddy’ Roosevelt proposed to slip quietly into the shadows of history. As soon as his successor had been inaugurated, he set off for Africa in order to hunt big game and to acquire specimens for the Smithsonian Institute. Cynics suggested that the trip was undertaken not merely to give Taft a free hand, but to promote the ex-president’s manly image in a new and exotic environment.

Landing at Mombasa in April 1909, accompanied by his son Kermit, Roosevelt set off on safari, leading over 200 porters and guides through what was then British East Africa, entering the Belgian Congo and following the Nile north to Khartoum in the Sudan.

Big game killer

One of the Roosevelts’ companions was Frederick Selous. British, but of French Huguenot origins, Selous had a reputation for killing big game. That Roosevelt saw Selous as the archetypal hunter is clear: “Mr Selous is the last of the big game hunters of southern Africa; the last of the mighty hunters whose experience lay in the greatest hunting ground which this world has seen since civilised man has appeared.”

Roosevelt left various accounts of his hunting exploits, and as one reads them it is possible to see how many of his contemporaries must have been thrilled by the descriptions of tracking, confrontation and bloody death – death that is, for the animals, and a few dramatic maulings for the occasional unfortunate accompanying ‘native warrior’. No wonder that more and more rich Britons and Americans were attracted to this costly form of outdoor theatre, an activity that would reward them with the respect of their peers, and also adorn their mansions with the heads of magnificent beasts.

Frederick Selous, however, was far more complex than many of his contemporary trophy-seekers, despite having hunted in Bavaria, Transylvania, Scotland, Sardinia, Norway, Turkey, Persia, the United States and Canada. Even as a ten-year-old at public school in England he had expressed a precocious ambition to be a hunter, once telling a housemaster who chided him for sleeping on the floorboards of his dormitory: “Well, you see, one day I am going to be a hunter in Africa and I am just hardening myself to sleep on the ground.” He had arrived in southern Africa as a young man of 19, fervently interested in the natural world, exploration, local cultures and, almost as an afterthought, the extension of British rule.

Selous was passionate about the natural world, local cultures and exploration

Having acted as a guide in Cecil Rhodes’ pioneering advance north across the Limpopo river, in 1893 Selous was awarded the Founder’s Medal of the Royal Geographical Society for his explorations in and scientific reports from ‘Zambesia’, which is essentially modern Zimbabwe.

Having helped found the Shikar Club, a big game hunters’ association that met regularly and in luxurious surroundings in London’s Savoy hotel, Selous had also acquired the reputation as an inventive and skilled rifleman, or ‘shot’. In particular he was admired during his early ivory hunting career for having killed an astonishing 78 elephants from 1874–76 with a huge 13-pound muzzle-loading gun that fired a quarter pound bullet. Later, however, Selous favoured the new, slimmer, single shot rifles, like the .450 Nitro Express.

However, well before Selous chose to accompany Roosevelt on his 1909 safari, he was beginning to have grave doubts as to the wisdom of allowing the unlimited killing of African game. This had probably originated in self-interest as when, in 1881, he gave the view that every year elephants were “becoming scarcer and wilder south of the Zambezi” and that it was becoming “impossible to make a living by hunting at all”. He had good reason to feel concern. During the late Victorian and early Edwardian ages, many big game hunters went to Africa to collect trophies, savour the open-air life and perhaps to find fame and fortune. Certainly there was a stream of books published during these years, containing vivid accounts, with photographs, of hunting exploits in Africa, and beyond.

Despite Selous’ continuing predilection for hunting, however, he also became much more seriously concerned about the need to preserve a sustainable balance in the world of nature, the necessity of recognising new species and the task of ensuring that organisations like the Natural History Museum in South Kensington had the best possible collections. It has been estimated that he donated over 5,000 plant and animal specimens to this museum. Nor is there evidence, especially in his later years, that he killed game simply to chalk up an impressive tally rather than to advance knowledge.

He was, in fact, a ‘hunter-naturalist’ rather than simply a big game hunter. This far more creative identity was recognised in various ways, apart from the award of the Founder’s Medal. For example, both a species of mongoose and a sub-species of antelope were named after him. More significant perhaps was the naming after him of the Selous Game Reserve in south-east Tanzania, recently designated a World Heritage Site in recognition of the diversity of its wildlife but also as a tribute to the safe haven it provides.

Selous was admired for killing an astonishing 78 elephants between 1874 and 1876

Selous remained a committed collector of wildlife specimens right up to his death in action in German East Africa in 1917, fighting the enemy by day and catching insects in his butterfly net in the evenings.

It was an irony that Selous was shot in the territory that now contains the wildlife park named after him, a huge nature reserve that sought to preserve life over death. Yet his demise had a neat symmetry in that, in 1896 under German colonial rule, the German governor had already declared an area roughly the same as today’s Selous Game Reserve to be free of hunting and dedicated to natural preservation. The German authorities went on to enact a number of Wildlife Conservation Laws for their African possessions and to promote various policies aimed at sustaining the balance of nature.

So Selous was not a lone pioneer in this benevolent process, though his fame made him one of its most powerful advocates. Indeed the Roosevelt expedition of 1909 may also have marked a modest turn in the tide, with the idea of the ‘safari’ – with its subsequent implications of exploration, travel and observation, as well as hunting – setting a different tone to that of an unbridled slaughter of wildlife.

Teddy Roosevelt wrote on hearing of Selous’ death: “He led a singularly adventurous and fascinating life, with just the right alternatives between the wilderness and civilisation… He added much to the sum of human knowledge and interest… Who could wish for a better life or a better death, or desire to leave a more honourable heritage for his family and his nation?”

Professor Denis Judd is the author of many books on British imperialism, including Empire: the British Imperial Experience from 1765 to the Present (2001 paperback).

A brief history of safari

The term originates from the Arabic word safar, which roughly means ‘to make a journey’. The actual word safari is a Swahili synonym of the Arabic. The earliest recorded safaris were lengthy trading journeys undertaken by Arab merchants buying and selling merchandise and slaves. But later, Africans also went on such trips, as did European traders and slavers.

European-led safaris became more elaborate and complex during the 20th century, especially when hunting gave way, at least in part, to the study of nature, scientific enquiry and even to the need to conserve increasingly vulnerable species.

Frederick Selous 1851–1917

Selous became a world famous explorer, hunter, military man and latterly conservationist. His extraordinary adventures and achievements inspired Rider Haggard to create the cool and competent character Allan Quatermain – a towering figure and a man at the centre of things in the novel King Solomon’s Mines, in the eponymous Allan Quatermain, and in several of his other books of southern African adventure fiction. It has been suggested that Quatermain was later the inspiration for the hugely popular film character Indiana Jones.

The real Selous was no less remarkable, achieving an extraordinary fame as big game hunter, man of action, a key ally of Cecil Rhodes in the conquest of both Southern and Northern Rhodesia and a naturalist. He was also a First World War hero, receiving the Distinguished Service Order in 1916, the year before his death in action at the advanced age of 65. An elite detachment of the military forces of Southern Rhodesia were named the Selous Scouts.

His private life was a complicated affair. He married a British clergyman’s daughter in 1894 and had two sons with her. Yet he also went through a form of marriage with at least three African women, fathering a number of children for whom he seems to have cared enough to educate, but whom he never officially recognised.

The 1909 safari

Theodore Roosevelt’s 1909 safari was a very grand affair, which took him away from America for over a year. Despite the professed and apparently worthy aim of collecting specimens in the interest of the advance of natural science and for the instruction of a curious public, what Roosevelt in effect did was to shoot them dead first. Between them, he and Kermit killed over 500 animals, including, among the big game, 17 lions, 20 rhinoceroses and 11 elephants. One photograph shows the proud father and son sitting atop a huge, magnificent but slaughtered buffalo.

Roosevelt’s accounts reveal what it was all about: “The rhino saw me and jumped to his feet with the agility of a polo pony. As he rose I put in the right barrel, the bullet going through both lungs. At the same time he wheeled, the blood spouting from his nostrils, and carried straight on… I struck him with my left hand barrel, the bullet piercing his heart… The great bull rhino, still head towards us, dropped just 13 paces from where we stood. This was a wicked charge, for the rhino meant mischief”.

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Note the alleged ‘wickedness’ of the rhinoceros, a sin justifying his killing, and a projection not too far removed from the depiction of countless indigenous people as untamed barbarians badly in need of the imposition of firm but fair imperial rule and the full panoply of the European-based ‘civilising mission’.