Some years ago, visiting the Natural History Museum on London’s Cromwell Road in South Kensington, I encountered (in a manner of speaking) an old friend. He was Fred Selous, a hero of my Central African boyhood, killed by a German sniper in East Africa in 1917.
Frederick Courteney Selous (pronounced ‘Sill-oo’) was the ultimate 19th century great white hunter. On good terms with Cecil Rhodes and Theodore Roosevelt, he is believed to have been the inspiration behind Rider Haggard’s fictional hero, Alan Quatermain. In spite of family hopes that he might become a doctor, he decided at the age of ten to be “a hunter in Africa”. He demonstrated this at an early age by sleeping on the floor beside his prep school dormitory bed. His older brother, with similar interests in natural history, became a noted ornithologist.
Selous came to South Africa in 1871, at the age of 19, travelling north from the Cape up the old hunters’ road to Matabeleland. There he visited Lobengula and was given leave to hunt anywhere in the king’s territory. His later writings show that he learned a great deal from Boer Jan Viljoen of Zeerust, who made annual excursions into the interior to hunt elephant.
Six years later, Selous had gained a reputation in Southern Africa as one of the most successful ivory hunters of the day. He gathered tusks, as well as zoological and botanical specimens, on an almost industrial scale. By 1881, after ten years of excursions in Southern Africa, he observed that every year elephants were becoming scarcer and wilder south of the Zambesi.
In two decades, he travelled all over present Zimbabwe and further afield into Zambia and Tanzania. Tanzania’s Selous Game Reserve, of some 50 thousand square kilometres and a World Heritage site since 1982, remains a monument to his travels. In 1976 it had the largest elephant population in the world. This is now reduced through poaching by almost 90%. In the same region survive a handful of Selous’ descendants of mixed race.
It is hardly surprising that Cecil Rhodes hired Selous to guide his land-grabbing Pioneer Column into Central Africa in 1890. Selous participated in the Matabele Wars of 1893 and 1896 and wrote a book entitled Sunshine and Storm in Rhodesia. He married the young daughter of an English clergyman and took her to his newly-acquired farm at Essexvale, outside Bulawayo. In 1909 he accompanied former U.S. president Theodore Roosevelt in an African safari which took them from what was then called British East Africa north to the Congo and into Egypt.
London’s Natural History Museum acknowledges more than five thousand donations from Selous in a named collection. The taxidermists Rowland Wards credited him with having shot more record-sized elephant, rhino and other African animals than any other hunter. Two European rifle manufacturers named special guns after him. In 1893, the Royal Geographical Society awarded him their Founder’s medal for twenty years of exploration and surveys in ‘South Africa’. Fred Selous had become what we now term an iconic figure.
A studio portrait of young Selous with his Boer 4 bore elephant gun and African spear, 1870s
World war 1
At the outbreak of the First World War, Selous, aged 64, returned to the colours. He was appointed captain in a battalion of the Royal Fusiliers, called the Frontiersmen, sent to block any German advance into British territory in East Africa. A year later he was awarded the D.S.O. for exemplary service. Early in January 1917, while viewing enemy movement through his binoculars, he was shot in the head and died. His comrades remembered that, on many evenings in camp, he would venture out with a butterfly net to collect specimens.
A 21st century reader, however, needs to view Selous’ career in perspective. As acknowledged by his informed contemporaries, he made a huge contribution to the sum of human knowledge. But the process of gathering that knowledge involved hunting and killing in remote central Africa. It required a large entourage of retainers, all of whom had to be fed daily for the entire expedition. I, on the other hand, live in the era of CITES. But I can, in my own home, access up-to-date scientific information at the touch of a computer key. And, to supply my daily needs, there is a supermarket down the road. It is all too easy for me to make unfair judgements on a contemporary of my great-grandparents.
If you ever visit the Museum of Natural History in London, you will see (as I did) a large representation of Frederick Selous dominating the central staircase. It was erected in 1922. The world and our view of Africa have changed a great deal in the intervening years.
About the author
Robin taught History for many years at Kearsney College. Since 2004 Jean and he have lived in a hillside complex at Waterfall, daily enjoying the quiet, the views and the wildlife. Robin is also a regular contributor of historical articles to a number of magazines.