My history hero: Frederick Courteney Selous (1851-1917)

Chosen by author Wilber Smith

Frederick Courteney Selous (1851-1917). (Alamy)

This article was first published in the February 2012 issue of BBC History Magazine 

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Frederick Courteney Selous was an explorer, hunter, naturalist, and soldier, famous for his exploits in Africa. He acted as a guide to a pioneer expedition, at Cecil Rhodes’ request, and was later awarded the Founder’s Medal by the Royal Geographical Society in recognition of his exploration and surveys. Selous went on to take part in the First Matabale War (1893) and the First World War, participating in the fighting in East Africa, where he was shot dead by a German sniper. His adventures inspired the fictional Rider Haggard hero, Allan Quatermain.

When did you first hear about Frederick Selous?

I first heard about him from my father and grandfather who were great admirers of his – and his writings were the first books I read. He was my teenage hero because he’d done all the things I dreamt of doing at that age.

What kind of person was he?

Those who knew him, such as the US president Teddy Roosevelt (another great adventurer), described him as the epitome of the Victorian gentleman. But he was much more than that: an explorer, hunter and soldier.

He was also strikingly handsome, robustly built and a man of great charm who excelled in all the manly sports and enterprises. Very much a man of his time, he had a deep belief in the empire, believing it a force for good in the world. But at the same time his views on Africa were wise and thoughtful. He was a ‘liberal’ who saw no distinction in ‘colour’, and had three Matabele concubines, all of whom gave him sons.

What made him a hero?

He was a man who knew exactly what he wanted to get out of life. At school he was caught by a master sleeping under his bed rather than on it. When asked what he was doing he said: “I’m training to be an elephant hunter in Africa and am toughening myself up.”

At the same time, he wasn’t just someone who shot game for pleasure, he was fascinated by nature, collected bird eggs, and was a keen conservationist. He was a man of action, intelligence and words.

What was his finest hour?

In a way, it has to be the manner of his death. After initially being rejected on the grounds of his age [he was in his 60s], the army realised it couldn’t do without him, so he joined up and took the fight to the Germans in Africa during the First World War. He was stealthily creeping forward when he was shot in the head by a German sniper and died instantly. His gun-bearer was so incensed that he ran forward to enemy lines, grabbed the sniper and killed him. That’s the kind of loyalty he inspired in those around him.

Is there anything you don’t admire about him?

As far as I’m concerned, he was the perfect man for his age. He was a moderate drinker and abstemious in what he ate. His only addictions were tea and tobacco. He liked life, conversation and books – he was a cultured man, a well-rounded man.

Can you see any parallels between Selous’ life and your own?

Well, he was a Capricornian, as I am, and he died on 4 January, within days of my own birth. I too am a conservationist and hunter, in a very modest way. We’re also both children of Africa – although I was born there, and he wasn’t.

If you could meet Selous what would you ask him?

I’d just sit down and listen to him talk – because he knew Africa as if it was his birthplace. He was a great raconteur and had a quiet and hypnotic way of speaking. And I know he’d be able to tell me all sorts of things about the continent that I didn’t know.

Wilbur Smith was talking to York Membery

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Wilbur Smith is a Zambian-born novelist who has written more than 30 books and sold over 100m copies worldwide. His latest novel, Those in Peril, is published in paperback by Macmillan