In an age when vacuous, self-absorbed celebrities attract millions of followers on social media accounts flashing boobs, Botox and brunch – often all in the same posting – the world aches for men like Frederick Courteney Selous.
Selous pre-dated the cyber world, born as he was on New Year’s Eve 1851, yet Selous trod a path through life that would leave the screen obsessed millennials agog in slack-jawed disbelief. Selous was a celebrity of his age, a big game hunter, explorer, and conservationist. His real-life adventures were the inspiration behind Allan Quatemain, the protagonist of H. Rider Haggard’s epic 1887 novel, King Solomon’s mines and its subsequent sequels; books which brought the vast, unexplored expanse and exotic romance of the African continent into the popular imagination.
Aged nineteen, Selous found himself in Cape Town with a back pack and a gun. His parents had long hoped for him to become a Doctor, meet a girl and settle in the home counties but the young Frederick had a taste for the wild. The wilderness called. He travelled north, away from the verdant Cape and up across the savage, arid inland until he reached Matabeleland where he bumped into our man, King Lobengula, who granted the young Englishman permission to hunt game at will. So he did. He spent the next few years knocking over elephants and collecting all sorts of specimens for museums and private collections. He would wander. Gander about, loose in the African way of life. He’d come across tribes, many of whom had never seen a white man, yet he would win their confidence, charm their chiefs and flavour no part of their dinner. He was able, through his escapades, to make valuable contributions to ethnology, a branch of anthropology that compares and analyses the characteristics of different people.
Selous trespassed, poached, and brawled his way across the vast plains. Yet he returned to Europe often. On one trip to Prussia, he walloped a Prussian game warden in the chops when stealing buzzard eggs for his collection. He shot chamois in the Alps. But it was in Africa where he made his name, favouring the lethal sounding, four bore black powder muzzleloader for hunting elephant. This was akin to a small cannon, which he would wield with aplomb, on the back of horse. In two years he notched up seventy eight kills, which would put him up there with Christian Ronaldo in terms of getting bang for buck.
Yet Selous was not just a killer. He was a conservationist too. Which all told, remains something of a contradiction. Yet Selous lived in a time of discovery, before Google had shrunk the world, sucking the mystique out of foreign lands. Many of his victims still stand, motionless in museums, galleries and private libraries; stuffed with shredded cardboard and be-fixed with startled black, beady eyes. Often claws and teeth at full spittle.
At the Natural History Museum, there is even a Selous collection. An assortment of five hundred and twenty four mammals that he popped between the eyes. The collection includes nineteen African lions. Hands up. Who has shot nineteen African lions? Only Kim Jong Un has a press man who might attempt to match such a feat. Selous also donated over five thousand plants and animal specimens to the British Museum. He donated so many, in 1920 they put a bronze bust of him in reception, a bust which still stands to this day. And if all that wasn’t enough, the British zoologist William de Winton named a new species of carnivora – basically a meat eating organism – paracynictis selousi, latterly known as the Selous mongoose. A swamp dwelling antelope – the Sitatunga – also bears his name.
Today, with many of his former foe in decline, they can – somewhat ironically given the way he treated them – find safety and solace in the Selous Game Reserve; seventeen thousand square miles of rugged bush in south eastern Tanzania. Land so rugged and so rich in nature that in 1982 it was designated a World Heritage Site by UNESCO, the Paris based subsidiary of the UN manned with the task of making sure there is something left of the planet for all our grandchildren.
As a man, Selous was described as exceptional. Excelling in all sports. Firing musket balls on bare horseback suggested he could tame a mare for Aintree before breakfast, but to the African locals he was the best white runner they had ever seen. Granted he was the only white runner they had ever seen, that said, still, given the Africans dominate distance running today, any accolade has got to be a good one. He sported a double Terai grey sloutch hat, khaki knickerbockers with no puttees and drank nothing but tea. Quite some hero.
On 4th January 1917 Selous was fighting the Schutztruppen – the Colonial troops of the German Empire – on the banks of the Rufiji River. Sneaking forward during a minor skirmish, he popped his head up to have a scout through the binoculars and he himself was drilled between the eyes by a zero-eyed Jerry-ite. He was killed instantly. The US statesman-cum-explorer, Theodore Roosevelt, who had hunted with Selous wrote:
“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?”
Frederick Courteney Selous. A proper man.