Friday, October 10, 2008

John Hornby: the Slapdash Explorer

“The finest man I have ever known and one who has made a foundation to build my life upon” – Edgar Christian

Hornby's final resting place
THERE ARE TWO WAYS of looking at Jack Hornby: lovable oddball-adventurer or hare-brained suicidal idiot. Either way, he’s a hard man to dislike. Even by the eccentric standards of British Arctic explorers, Jack’s life – and death – were spectacularly strange.

He was born in Cheshire in 1880, the son of Albert “Monkey” Hornby, a celebrated sportsman who captained England at rugby and cricket and played football for Blackburn Rovers. Like his dad, Jack was a pocket Hercules – short, wiry and strong. And like his old man, he was educated at Harrow. His was a life of pomp and privilege. And at the age of twenty-three, he threw it all in and left Britain in search of adventure.

Jack sailed to Canada and headed straight up into its extreme, frozen north – the so-called Barren Ground or Barrens. And for the next quarter-century, the tough little toff wandered aimlessly up there, embarking on some of the most fantastically ill-equipped and ill-judged expeditions of all time. He was what you might call a slapdash explorer. Unprepared and Unconcerned was his motto; surviving by the skin of his teeth his idea of fun.

The Barrens are brutal: a landscape of icy plains and lakes that stretch flat and treeless for a thousand miles along the Arctic Circle. It has a terrible beauty. Winter lasts nine months; temperatures plunge to glacial depths; snowstorms can kill a man in minutes. Yet the harder things got, the more Jack enjoyed himself. The colder and hungrier he became, the more he felt alive. “Not many men know how to starve properly,” Jack once boasted, “but I think you can be taught.”

He would be gone for months, sometimes years – heading out into the Great Unknown with little more than a rifle, a fishnet and a belly-full of British pluck. He moved around by canoe, dog sledge or on foot, dragging his gear behind him. He built his own shelters. He hunted and trapped his own food. Sometimes he travelled with Indians, sometimes with other whites – but mostly he operated alone.

When he did come in from the cold, his reappearance always caused a stir. His hair would be long and tangled, his beard bushy, his trousers ragged. Jack never washed in the Barrens and didn’t care who knew it. And once he’d stocked up on fresh supplies of tea and bullets, he was always in a tearing hurry to get back to the wilds.

Jack’s grit and stamina became the stuff of legend. They called him the Hermit of the North. He was the lone wolf, the white man who could live off the land like an Indian – even in the frozen sub-Arctic. The Edmonton Journal reported that the eccentric Englishman “could out-run any Indian on the trail, could outlast any Indian in endurance and could out-starve any Indian when there was nothing left but starvation”.

The outbreak of 1914-18 war saw Jack in France, where he fought with honour in the trenches. But within a year of that blood-bath ending he was back in the Barrens and pulling off his oddest feat yet: enduring a bitter winter living alone in an abandoned wolf’s den. He headed out to the wilds alone again the following year – one of the coldest on record – and nearly starved to death as the thermometer sank to minus 62F. The winter of 1924-25 was a similar desperate struggle for survival, this time spent holed up in a freezing cave with another adventurous Englishman, James Critchell-Bullock.

“Rather more than eccentric” was Critchell-Bullock’s verdict on Jack when the skeletal pair finally crawled back to civilization. Joining mad Jack in the Barrens had nearly cost Critchell-Bullock his life. Yet the newcomer found it impossible to dislike his reckless, gutsy little companion. Critchell-Bullock called him “the most lovable creature I ever knew”.

Jack headed to Europe again in 1926 for his famous dad’s funeral. And while he was there he picked up another fan – his young cousin Edgar Christian. Just seventeen and straight out of public school, Edgar was a trusting, ambitious kid in awe of his heroic relative. He was also tall and strong and keen to see the Canadian wilds. So Jack, now forty-five, agreed to take the lad on his next expedition – the trip, he figured, would make a man of him.

Surprisingly, Edgar’s dad, Colonel Wilfred Christian, agreed to let his son go. He wrote wishing the lad every success in his “great adventure” with Jack. “You are out to lay the foundation of your life…” the colonel told Edgar, “all your future depends on how you face the next few years.” No one warned the boy how savage the Barrens can be. And Edgar was too young to know that lovable lunatics like Jack Hornby can be dangerous men to follow.

The cousins sailed to Montreal in April, 1926, and trained it across Canada to the northern city of Edmonton, the stepping off point for expeditions into the Barrens. People they met along the way wondered what Jack thought he was doing taking a teenager with him up to the edge of the Arctic. Some tried to talk him out of it. But Jack waved them away. He was confident that this trip, like all the others, would work out just fine.

In Edmonton, the pair ran into Harold Adlard, a young shop worker from Dorking in Surrey who was also mustard-keen to see the Barrens. Jack had known and liked Harold for years – so on a whim he too was enlisted. It doesn’t seem to have bothered Jack for a moment that both his young companions were “greenhorns”. Neither had any experience of survival in the wilds. Each was putting his young life in Jack’s gnarly hands.

The unlikely trio set out on 25 May, traveling by train for a day and then, when the rail line ended, transferring to a large canoe and taking to the water. They paddled north for more than a thousand miles – along mighty rivers, across enormous lakes, past remote Indian villages and Christian missions, beyond the last isolated cabins and trading posts, then further north still till they crossed the tree-line where the Canadian forest stops suddenly and the flat, naked plains of the Barrens begin.

The going was rough. Progress was slow. The mosquitoes made mincemeat of Edgar. And the three adventurers had to keep dragging their boat out of the water and carrying it overland, together with all their equipment and supplies, around rapids and waterfalls.

The kit, although basic, still weighed about a ton: they had rifles, ammunition, axes, stoves, a tent, tea, blankets and animal traps. But oddly Jack had taken no shotgun, the best weapon for hunting small animals. And the few hardy fur trappers and frontiersmen they met on route noticed something else about Jack’s little party: their supplies of flour and dried meat looked alarmingly thin for a winter in the Barrens.

Jack and the lads traveled slowly north for more than three months. In June, Edgar turned eighteen. In July, they met a Swedish trapper going in the opposite direction – he was the last person they saw on their journey. In August, the trio watched in awe as thousands of caribou (reindeer) thundered past on their annual southward migration. And at the start of September, later than expected, they finally arrived at their destination, a wooded bend on the Thelon River, high up in the Barren Ground.

Jack had passed here the previous year and marked it down as a perfect spot to overwinter. The place was a little miracle: an oasis of trees, grass and flowers in the middle of the bald, rocky Barrens. Jack was convinced they’d find plenty of animals to eat amongst all that foliage – even in coldest months, even when most creatures had moved south or gone to ground. And the icy months would soon be on them. The river was about to freeze making travel impossible. So he ordered a halt and the men made camp.

This was Jack Hornby at his most slapdash. He had previously seen the Thelon “oasis” in high summer - there was no evidence to suggest it’d be teaming with life during winter too. Yet he felt confident that he and his young companions would be okay here. He convinced himself they’d be able to catch fish, trap birds and shoot prime caribou in these woods till spring arrived. He was sure of it. He was positive. And, not for the first time, he was spectacularly wrong.

It took a further two months for Jack, Harold and Edgar to build a log cabin and storehouse, and by the time that work was done they were already hungry. Jack’s imagined herds of caribou never arrived. The men caught next to nothing in the traps they set. And as winter started to bite the river ice got so thick, fishing became a nightmare.

On 14 October, Edgar started a diary. Jack, he notes, had already started to leave the Thelon woods and go out onto the freezing, windswept Barrens to look for caribou. But he shot nothing. Instead the hungry men had to make do with the occasional trapped bird or weasel or scrawny fox. Sometimes they ate mice. And then, at the end of October, the first blizzard of winter arrived, trapping the men in their cabin.

Things got worse in November. The days closed in, the snow underfoot became deep and treacherous. Frostbite threatened if the men spent too long outdoors hunting or chopping firewood. On 27 November, Harold marked his twenty-seventh birthday in subdued style. That same day Jack was forced to dig up an emergency stash of fish that he’d buried in the frozen earth only a few weeks earlier.

Through December the adventurers continued to scrape by on slim pickings: a hare one day, a wolverine another, a trout the next. Some days they caught nothing at all. Two long hunting trips into the Barrens proved fruitless. Harold became dull and silent from hunger – “not quite the ticket”, according to Edgar. And the teenager himself was near-paralyzed by the cold.

Only Jack remained unbowed. The caribou had failed and other smaller animals were thin on the ground - but he remained upbeat. Something would turn up, he was sure of it. There was still some flour and sugar left which would keep them going for a while. And after that, well, Jack figured they would just have to tough it out – his young companions would have to learn how to “starve properly”.

In January the thermometer fell to minus 54F. A three-day blizzard made gathering food impossible. Jack kept his companions going by collecting old bones that lay discarded in the snow outside the cabin, and then smashing and boiling them to make a nutrient-rich grease which he mixed with flour to make a meal of sorts.

At the start of February, a small miracle – Harold shot a scrawny caribou spotted wandering on the Barrens and it gave them enough meat for six days. But by 15 February, things were once again looking grave. More fish and animal scraps were found in the snow and boiled. “Hope to God, we get caribou soon as nothing seems to get in traps…” writes Edgar in his diary, “flour is nearly gone & we are grovelling round for rotten fish.”

It was now so cold Edgar could barely bring himself to step outside. Harold’s face was frostbitten so he too had to stay indoors. But as the lads slowed down, Jack went into overdrive, determined to keep his two greenhorns afloat. He gave them his share of the food scraps they’d scraped from the snow, convinced that he could run on empty. And, despite a frostbitten hand, he took up his rifle almost every day and forced himself to march out onto the frozen plains to look for caribou. Each night he returned empty-handed.

By the middle of March, Edgar was starting to worry about his cousin. Jack’s toughnut behaviour was unsustainable; he was beginning to fail. He “looks very poor”, Edgar notes in his journal, “and must feel it though he will keep a-going”. Jack did keep a-going, until 4 April. On that day he made his last desperate - and once again fruitless - trip out onto his beloved Barrens. But then Jack Hornby’s strength was spent.

All three men were now filthy, soot-covered skeletons. And for the next fortnight, not one of them trapped or shot a single animal. They were surviving solely on ground-up bones, discarded fish guts and boiled animal hides – anything that might bring them a drop of nourishment. Too weak to cut fresh wood, they began dismantling the storehouse they’d worked so hard to build and feeding the logs into their stove to keep warm. Harold was staggering round in a fog, a broken man. Edgar was so weak he could barely stand. And on 9 April, Jack collapsed in agony, pain tearing through his left leg which he’d hurt in a fall and was refusing to heal.

The next morning, Edgar’s diary has Jack “looking very bad… [he] seems to be all in”. And that evening, after six months of near-starvation, Jack finally admitted defeat and set down his will, leaving everything to his young cousin. He also wrote to Edgar’s parents, calling their boy “a perfect companion” and expressing hope for the lad’s safe return. And then, after doggedly clinging to life for another grim week, Jack Hornby, the Hermit of the North, the slapdash explorer, died of hunger at the age of forty-six.

His death knocked Edgar for six. The boy sat stunned as Harold took care of Jack’s bony body, wrapping it in a groundsheet and dragging it outside the cabin. By the next day the plucky teenager had regained his balance. “We are both very weak,” he writes in his diary, “but more cheery and determined to pull through and go out to let the world know of the last days of the finest man I have ever known and one who has made a foundation to build my life upon.” But the teenager was being hopelessly optimistic. Within days Harold too was sinking fast. On 27 April, he suffered a hunger-induced stroke. Five days later, he had another. And by the next evening Harold too was dead, leaving eighteen-year-old Edgar Christian alone in the Barrens.

The boy was now so skinny his “joints seemed to jerk in and out of position instead of smoothly”. He was suffering nose bleeds. Moving around was “a wobbly process”. But it was May - spring was close. The lad knew that soon, any day now, the caribou would come thundering north again in their thousands. If he could hang on till then and shoot one, he’d be able to regain his strength. The caribou migration would save him, just as Jack had predicted. He would escape the Barrens. He would make his cousin proud.

Despite his suffering, Edgar kept up that diary. He records fighting off fevers. He describes moving around like a zombie, his brain sluggish from lack of food. But he never panicked and he never gave up. Every day Edgar waited for the caribou’s return and for spring’s sunshine to once again fill the Thelon oasis with life. And he waited in vain: the sky above him stayed cold and grey, the clump of trees around his cabin remained dead and wintry.

Edgar made his last journal entry on 1 June, 1927. Like Jack before him, he describes feeling “all in” and “weaker than I have ever been in my Life”. Then he pulled out a separate sheet of paper and wrote farewell notes to his parents. “Bye Bye now Love & Thanks for all you have ever done for me,” he tells his dad. “Please don’t blame dear Jack,” he asks his mum. And after stashing his papers safely inside the cabin’s empty stove, he dragged himself onto his bunk, pulled a red blanket up over his hollow face, closed his eyes and waited for sleep to take him.

Just over a year later a party of mining prospectors passed along the Thelon River and discovered Edgar Christian’s body still lying on the bunk. A search of the log cabin turned up the boy’s diary and a few ounces of tea, but no other food. Outside the prospectors found the remains of Harold Adlard and Jack Hornby lying head to toe in the dirt. It was July 1928 now, high summer in the Barrens, and all around them the wooded bend on the Thelon River was teeming with life.

* Thanks for visiting Great British Nutters. I hope you have enjoyed what you've read. I no longer post here but have started a new blog called History Nuts. It's along similar lines but with much shorter posts. Please take a look. You can also follow @historynuts on Twitter or via my Thanks again!

Powell-Williams, Clive, Cold Burial: A Journey into the Wilderness (London, 2001)
Waldron, Malcolm, Snow Man: John Hornby in the Barren Lands (New York, 1997 reprint)
Whalley George, The Legend of John Hornby (London, 1962)

Monday, September 8, 2008

Robert Baden-Powell: Boy’s Own Adventurer

“We are having a very enjoyable game” – RSS Baden-Powell

Cool as a cucumber: Col B-P
ROBERT STEPHENSON SMYTH BADEN-POWELL was small and wiry and had receding red hair– an unlikely looking military hero. But inside he was as tough as teak. And at the bloody Siege of Mafeking the little chap proved himself a giant.

Mafeking was a remote outpost of the Empire in southern Africa, a small, defenceless, tin-roofed town that found itself on the front line of the Boer War in 1899. Within days of the conflict breaking out it was surrounded by the enemy. They’d come expecting a walkover.

The Boers were led by General Cronje, a veteran hard case known as the “old fox”. He had seven thousand troops in his command and an impressive battery of heavy artillery. Colonel Baden-Powell was in charge at Mafeking. He had just two thousand men, most untrained part-timers, plus an ancient cannon that had previously been used as a gatepost. On the face of it, Mafeking didn’t have a hope.

A more rational man might have run up the white flag. But Baden-Powell had orders to hold the town, so that’s precisely what he intended to do. And while he was at it, he planned to have himself a ripping adventure worthy of the pages of the “Boy’s Own Paper”.

Baden-Powell – “BP” to his mates – was a product of the Victorian public school system. Years of cold baths, sound thrashings and sport had made him the man’s man he was. He had no time for chaps he considered “wasters” or fellows inflicted with “girlitis”. Life, for him, was like a football match. Success was about pulling together.

Despite the long odds, BP was convinced that Mafeking had a (slim) chance if it kept its collective chin up and stood united. Team spirit was what it was all about - and fate had cast him in the role of team captain. In the famous words of the Victorian poet Sir Henry Newbolt, it was time to “Play up! play up! and play the game!”.

The Boers began their bombardment at 9am on 16 October, 1899, and the people of Mafeking braced themselves for total destruction. Dozens of missiles came whistling over a defensive ring of barbed wire and hastily dug trenches. Shells ploughed into the market square, sailed clean through flimsy mud buildings, smashed trees and destroyed telegraph poles. The pounding continued for hours.

But Baden-Powell was ahead of the game. Already the town had been honeycombed with underground bomb shelters where people were safe from shrapnel. A dummy fort with dummy soldiers and fake guns had been built to draw fire away from real targets. Hundreds of fake mines – boxes filled with sand – had been laid with great ceremony to discourage an all-out Boer charge. And the result of that first onslaught? Nobody was killed; no one was even injured.

When the dust settled, an enemy messenger came forward and asked Baden-Powell for Mafeking’s surrender - “to avoid further bloodshed”. The colonel gave him a hard look. “Certainly,” he told the man, “but when will the bloodshed begin?” British casualties thus far, he added, were one chicken dead and a donkey wounded. It was one-nil to Baden-Powell.

General Cronje response was predictable: more bombs and bullets. But Mafeking held steady and Baden-Powell refused to be shaken or cowed. After one particularly heavy bombardment, the colonel sent a runner through enemy lines with a note to reassure the outside world that Mafeking was okay. The message was telegraphed throughout the British Empire. “October 21st. All well,” it read, “Four hours’ bombardment. One dog killed.”

As the Boers continued to blaze away, the colonel’s courage and calmness under fire became legendary. “To see BP go whistling down the street… bright and confident is better than a pint of dry champagne,” wrote a newspaper man in Mafeking. Good humour and optimism came off him like heat. Major Alick Godley, thought it “splendid” to see his boss sitting in a chair surrounded by officers “dictating messages as cool as a cucumber” as shells burst around him.

During the day, BP would stand atop a wooden lookout platform above his headquarters, surveying the town’s defences like Admiral Nelson. At night, he’d crawl into no-man’s land on his belly to spy on enemy positions, amazing his men when he came wriggling back towards Mafeking’s trenches at dawn. He never seemed to sleep and he never stopped humming and whistling. He acted like he was invincible.

It was all an act of course. There were times when Baden-Powell’s heart must have been in his boots. He knew better than anyone that if the Boers were bold enough to try an all-out attack they’d crush Mafeking. And the alternative was equally dire: a grim, drawn-out siege. How long could his isolated garrison hold out under the baking African sun before disease, shells and starvation overwhelmed them?

But surrender was out of the question, and there was nothing to be gained from moping around. So BP kept smiling and whistling and looking on the bright side. If this was to be the final curtain, he was determined that he and his Mafeking team would face it with a bow.

Civilians as well as soldiers were holed up in the besieged town – about 7,500 blacks, 1,700 whites, a few Indians and some Chinese. And since it had been agreed with the Boers that there would be no fighting on Sundays, Baden-Powell turned the day of rest into a day of fun. He organised cricket and football matches. There were gymnastic displays. People promenaded around town in their Sunday best as though they were in London’s Hyde Park. Music hall shows and dances went on into the night.

The entertainment sometimes got bizarre. There were competitions to find the “best siege baby”, the best bull, the finest cow. A parade of old carriages was held. And whenever the colonel put on his “world-wide show of singing and dancing and playing the fool” all sorts of wannabes queued up to strut and grin their hour upon the stage.

One bloke turned out to be a decent conjurer. Others sang comic songs or recited poems. But the star of the show was always none other than Baden-Powell himself. The colonel would bring the house down by prancing around in a wig and ladies’ clothing or impersonating a cockney barrow boy. Then he’d wrap up his act by playing “Home, Sweet Home” on the mouth organ and exit to thunderous applause.

It was a far cry from what was happening on weekdays. At the start of the standoff, the Boers had made several attempts to overrun Mafeking’s defensive trenches. But after facing unexpectedly fierce resistance they switched tactics. Commandant Snyman took over from General Cronje. A massive siege gun arrived from Pretoria pulled by sixteen oxen. The Boers dug in and focused on trying to bomb and starve the little town into submission.

No one in Mafeking was safe as hundreds of shells and thousands of bullets rained down. A small boy was mortally wounded when a bomb dropped on him from the sky while he was playing marbles. A woman took a stray bullet in the neck and died instantly while pouring her husband a cup of coffee. The town’s makeshift hospital and cemetery quickly began to fill.

Frontline clashes claimed many more lives. One of the bloodiest incidents came ten weeks into the siege - at dawn on 26 December, 1899. BP ordered a surprise attack on a Boer position known as Game Tree Fort to try to knock out a gun. The assault was a disaster: twenty-six men were killed, twenty-three wounded, and a handful captured. The Boers lost just three soldiers. The day became known in Mafeking as Black Boxing Day.

As the New Year approached and the nineteenth century drew to a close, the future could not have looked grimmer for Baden-Powell and his team of part-time warriors. They remained outgunned and outnumbered. Rumours that British reinforcements were on their way had come to nothing. The enemy kept lobbing shells. And fever, diphtheria and dysentery had started to take a deadly grip on the town.

To make matters worse, Mafeking’s food was running out. By February 1900, the first three deaths from starvation were reported among the poorest black Africans.

Yet Baden-Powell remained chipper. He issued special postage stamps for “the independent republic of Mafeking” with his face on them in place of the queen – everyone thought that a splendid joke. He kept a special list of miraculous escapes that people marvelled at (a guy who got shot in the head was at number one: the bullet passed through his skull, just behind the forehead, and exited without causing any serious damage). And he threw his weight behind the “Mafeking Mail” newspaper (slogan: “Issued Daily, Shells Permitting”).

The Boers had long ago cut Mafeking’s rail and telegraph links. But thanks to brave African runners who risked their necks to slip past the encircling enemy with notes, some communication with the outside world was maintained. On 12 April a telegram arrived for BP from a surprising fan back in Britain – the queen. The message was short and sweet: “I continue watching with confidence and admiration the patient and resolute defence which is so gallantly maintained under your ever resourceful command. Victoria R.I.”

As the siege dragged into its seventh month, the colonel’s unflagging boyishness even seemed to rub off on the Boers. One day an enemy commander sent over a jokey note asking if his men could join in one of the garrison’s Sunday cricket matches. “Sir, I should like nothing better,” was Baden-Powell’s neatly typed reply, “after the match in which we are at present engaged is over. But just now we are having our innings and have so far scored 200 days, not out, against the bowling of Cronje, Snyman, Botha… we are having a very enjoyable game.”

Around this time Baden-Powell also sent an amazingly chirpy telegram to his commander-in-chief, Lord Roberts. “After two hundred days’ siege… the patience of everybody in Mafeking in making the best of things… is a revelation to me,” it reads. “The men… have adapted themselves to their duties with the greatest zeal, readiness, and pluck, and the devotion of the women is remarkable. With such a spirit our organization runs like clockwork, and I have every hope that it will pull us successfully through.”

The men and women who were “making the best of things” and “having a very enjoyable game” were by this stage close to starvation. Horse meat and a rough porridge made from oat husks was the only food. Malnourished horses, BP notes in his diary, were “dying as fast as they can be made into sausages”.

Mafeking’s native Africans raided Boer cattle at night to bring in more meat. A soup kitchen was set up for the poorest and weakest. But a staggering seven hundred blacks still died of hunger and disease during the siege, many of them children. That’s hundreds more than the total killed by shells or in battle, black and white.

By the start of May the situation was dire. About a quarter of Mafeking’s fighting men were now dead or wounded in action. The last scraps of food would be gone within a few weeks. It looked like the game was almost up and Baden-Powell was forced to start thinking about how he might evacuate the town.

But then, finally, some good news. Word reached Mafeking that a British relief force was on its way – two thousand fresh men, artillery and machine guns. The Boers got wind of this too and made a last desperate attempt to storm the stubborn, bullet-riddled town. But again BP’s half-starved men held firm. The British reinforcements fought their way steadily closer, driving the enemy before them.

On 16 May an advance patrol of eight riders reached Mafeking to be greeted by a nonchalant passer-by. “Oh yes, I heard you were knocking about,” was his only comment. But by the time the main relief force marched in the following morning, such battle-hardened stoicism had evaporated. Gaunt faces stared at the rescuers “as though they were angels”, wrote a journalist who arrived that day. “One man tried to speak; then he swore; then he buried his face in his arms and sobbed.”

The siege was over. The game was won. The people of Mafeking had gone two hundred and seventeen days not out against the enemy’s fast bowlers. And the victory was largely down to one remarkable man – their gutsy, unflappable and always cheery team captain, Colonel RSS Baden-Powell.

When the news reached Britain of the relief of Mafeking, the country went nuts. Thousands poured onto the streets of London to celebrate. Baden-Powell became a national hero. The little colonel was quickly promoted to a bigwig major-general.

And of course Baden-Powell’s story doesn’t end there. Within a few years he’d gone on to create the world’s greatest youth movement, the Boy Scouts. The movement’s original ten-point Scout Law has Mafeking written all over it. “A Scout goes about with a smile on and whistling,” reads law number eight. “It cheers him and cheers other people, especially in time of danger.”

* Thanks for visiting Great British Nutters. I hope you have enjoyed what you've read. I no longer post here but have started a new blog called History Nuts. It's along similar lines but with much shorter posts. Please take a look. You can also follow @historynuts on Twitter or via my Thanks again!

Jeal, Tim, Baden-Powell (London, 1989)
Ferguson, Niall, Empire: How Britain Made the Modern World (London, 2003)
Aitken, W Francis, Baden-Powell, The Hero of Mafeking (London, 1900)

Monday, August 11, 2008

Alexander Gordon Laing: Mission to Timbuktu

“I shall show myself to be… a man of enterprise and genius” – Alexander Gordon Laing

Alexander Gordon Laing
THE FIRST EUROPEAN EXPLORER to reach Timbuktu was a dashing young Scotsman called Alexander Gordon Laing. It was a staggering feat, achieved alone against appalling odds. And it was supposed to turn Laing into a star.

Timbuktu was the ultimate prize for adventurers back in the early nineteenth century. The “lost city”, hidden somewhere in Africa’s vast unexplored interior, was believed to be dripping with gold and precious jewels. Finding the place - and putting Britain’s stamp on it before the French did – was something of a national obsession.

Laing was always confident that he would succeed where dozens before him had failed. A tall, tough, handsome bloke with wild curly hair and whopping sideburns, by the mid-1820s he’d already made a bit of a name for himself in West Africa as a brave soldier and adventurer. He had just turned thirty when he set his sights on Timbuktu.

The plan was bold and direct: Laing would sail to the north African port of Tripoli where he would brush up on his Arabic and hire some camels. From there he would head south into the furnace of the Sahara Desert. Then he’d simply keep going, travelling from well to well, oasis to oasis, till he found his city of gold.

And he wasn’t going to stop at Timbuktu. After locating the legendary city, he planned to press on and find the mysterious river Niger. No one had yet mapped that great West African waterway or worked out where it spilled into the sea. Laing, never short of self-confidence, planned to solve that puzzle too. “I shall do more than has ever been done before,” he wrote to his parents, “and shall show myself to be what I have ever considered myself, a man of enterprise and genius.”

Genius or not, it was never going to be easy. The adventurous Scotsman would be heading into the world’s largest and harshest desert without a clear idea of where he was going. The Sahara was home to some of the cruellest and most ruthless bandits on the planet, men who wouldn’t think twice about killing someone for their boots. And if a gang of murderous thieves didn’t get him, malaria, dysentery or some other grim tropical disease almost certainly would.

The history of British exploration in that part of the world didn’t exactly bode well. For decades, young white men with a thirst for glory had been heading into Africa’s hostile interior to try to unlock the mysteries within. Most never came back. Twenty years earlier another Scot, Mungo Park, had disappeared while also trying to trace the Niger to its mouth. Forty-six Europeans set out on that journey with Park; not one of them survived.

Now Laing was going to try something similar, only without the support of a small army of compatriots. But rather than spending time worrying about it, the young soldier of excessive optimism did something no one could have predicted – he fell madly in love. Within days of arriving in Tripoli, his heart was fixed on Emma Warrington, the “delicate, flower-like” daughter of the city’s British Consul. Within weeks, Laing was down on one knee.

Emma’s dad, Hanmer Warrington, was amazed. “Although I am aware that Major Laing is a very gentlemanly, honourable and good man still I must allow a more wild, enthusiastic and romantic attachment never before existed,” he wrote to Laing’s boss in London, the colonial secretary Lord Bathurst. But Emma didn’t care; she was swept away by her handsome suitor. The love-struck couple tied the knot on 14 July, 1825. And just two days later Laing kissed his new bride goodbye, mounted his camel and set off into the Sahara on his death or glory mission.

We’ll never know the full horror of what the adventurous Scot went through on his long, lonely trek across the desert. His private journal was lost and Laing, as we shall see, never got to tell his tale. But several letters he sent back to Tripoli in the hands of messengers do survive. And these speak of a brutal, spirit-crushing journey plagued by hunger, thirst and horrific violence.

Laing left Tripoli with a small group of brave supporters: a Caribbean-born servant called Jack le Bore who’d been with him for years; two African ship’s carpenters named Roger and Harry (they’d come in handy when he reached the Niger); a freed slave called Bongola; and a Jewish interpreter, Abraham Nahun. Outside the city’s gates, they teamed up with Sheikh Babani, a merchant from the desert who promised to guide Laing to Timbuktu in ten weeks.

The intrepid party moved steadily south under the brain-boiling sun, travelling along trade routes that have been used by desert caravans for centuries. Temperatures at midday hit 120F. Their drinking water turned hot and muddy in their goatskin pouches. Food was grim-smelling patties made of dried fish and camel’s milk. They were forced to travel hundreds of miles out of their way to avoid trails stalked by bandits.

It took Laing and his men eight weeks just to get to Ghadames, an oasis town still more than a thousand miles north of Timbuktu. Sick and exhausted, they rested there for nearly two months. When a bunch of love letters arrived from Emma, Laing decided to throw in the towel; it was time to return to his wife. But then the young explorer changed his mind again and resolved to press on after all. A large comet in the sky filled him with confidence. “I regard it as a happy omen,” he wrote, “it beckons me on & binds me to the termination of the Niger and to Timbuktu.”

Four weeks later the Scotsman and his team rolled into In Salah, another desert settlement in present-day Algeria. It was now December, 1825. Laing had been on the road for five months. But at In Salah he faced yet another long delay as the whole town dithered about whether it was safe for him to go on.

The word on the street was that the lawless Tuareg – fierce nomads who lived by plundering trade caravans – were stepping up their attacks in the desert. Dozens of Arab merchants had been sitting tight at In Salah for months, waiting for the threat to pass. Everyone suggested Laing do likewise. Only a madman would strike out into the desert now, they said. Timbuktu would have to wait.

So Laing tried waiting. Christmas came and went, New Year arrived. But the dashing young Scot wasn’t good at hanging around. Pretty soon he’d had enough. He tried to persuade some of the merchants in town to move south with him. When that didn’t work, he announced that he would go it alone.

His fearlessness gave everyone a jolt. Shamed into action by the mad Christian in their midst, the cautious Arab traders finally decided it was time to pack up their gear and move on. On 9 January, Laing left In Salah, not alone but with a caravan of forty-five men and one hundred camels. If he thought he’d found safety in numbers, he couldn’t have been more wrong.

Towards the end of the month, twenty heavily armed strangers appeared out of nowhere and began riding silently alongside the caravan. They wore the blue robes of the Tuareg, their faces veiled with only a slit for the eyes. No one wanted them around – but no one dared tell them to go.

The sinister, uninvited escort accompanied Laing’s caravan through the wilderness to a filthy, mosquito-infested oasis called Wadi Ahnet. And it was there, on either 2 or 3 February 1826, that the plucky Scotsman was betrayed, savagely assaulted and left for dead.

The attack happened at night. The Tuareg waited till Laing was asleep before surrounding his tent and firing off two musket volleys. The Scotsman was hit in the hip. And before he could reach his sword the attackers were on him, hacking at his head and body with their sabres. They kept chopping until Laing stopped moving.

Laing’s servants tried to intervene. Roger the carpenter and Abraham the interpreter were killed. The second chippie, Harry, was wounded in the leg. A camel driver called Hamet was crippled by a cutlass. Laing’s long-time servant Jack le Bore and the ex-slave Bongola saved themselves by fleeing into the surrounding dunes.

After plundering Laing’s tent, the Tuareg rode off on their camels, whooping it up like Apaches on the warpath. None of the other travellers in the caravan was robbed or hurt that night; none lifted a finger to help poor Laing.

Sheikh Babani was behind the bloodshed. Babani, the very man who’d promised to guide Laing through the Sahara in safety, had struck a deal with the Tuarag, agreeing to stand aside while the bandits murdered the explorer. In return, he was to get a share of the Scotsman’s belongings. But Laing spoiled things by refusing to die - despite being left looking like the victim of a shark attack.

His wounds were gruesome in the extreme. He sustained five deep sabre cuts on his right arm which smashed the bones in his wrist, broke three fingers and almost severed the hand. His left arm was also broken and slashed in three places. There was a deep gash on the back of Laing’s neck, another on his left leg - and a musket ball was lodged in his hip. But perhaps the worst damage was about the head: three sabre cuts on the left temple had chipped away bits of bone; another blow had fractured his jawbone; his left ear was split in two and left dangling; his right temple had a gaping wound.

In total, Laing suffered twenty-four injuries in the night attack at Wadi Ahnet, eighteen of them severe. The next morning the Arab merchants in his party left without him. Only his surviving servants stuck around to help. But giving up wasn’t an option now. As soon as he was strong enough, Laing asked his men to lift him onto a camel and strap him into an upright position. Then the bloodied explorer and his bewildered comrades continued their merciless journey across the burning sands.

Somehow Laing rode on in that desperate state for 400 miles, flopping about on top of his camel, sometimes weeping in agony and despair. It was an incredible feat of endurance for such a savagely wounded man. Laing feared he would be disfigured for life. He dreaded his beloved Emma’s reaction to his scars (if, that is, she ever saw him again).

In April he arrived at the oasis town of Azaud, where he was welcomed by an Arab chief called Sheikh Mokhtar. Laing stayed here three months to try to recover. But soon there was a new disaster: a dysentery epidemic. The disease carried off his servants Jack le Bore and Harry the carpenter. Sheikh Mokhtar also succumbed. Laing got sick too, but survived. When Hamet the camel driver turned around and headed for home, Bongola was his only remaining companion.

The horror of it all started to get to Laing and he wrote a weird letter to his father-in-law, Hanmer Warrington, back in Tripoli. He alone was destined to get to Timbuktu, he claimed. “I make no vain glorious assertion when I say that it will never be visited by a Christian man after me!” he boasted. And then, brushing off warnings of more yet danger ahead, he set off on the final leg of his epic journey.

On 13 August, 1826, the battered Scotsman finally approached the city walls of Timbuktu, his “far-famed capital of Central Africa”. A journey he had expected to take a few weeks had lasted three hundred and ninety-nine days. He’d travelled two thousand miles through the most hostile and unforgiving terrain in Africa. He’d faced sandstorms, life-destroying heat, loneliness, hunger, thirst and extreme violence. And the poor bloke must have been gutted - gored by his own stupidity and naivety – when he at last clapped eyes on his legendary “city of gold”.

Timbuktu was once a place of dazzling riches, that’s a fact. In its heyday merchants from across North Africa had descended on its vast markets to trade in gemstones, ivory, gold and human beings. When Timbuktu’s greatest ruler, Mansa Musa, passed through Cairo in 1324 on his way to Mecca he was accompanied by twelve thousand silk-clad slaves and eighty camels laden with gold. Word spread to medieval Europe of Timbuktu’s unimaginable wealth and the city’s reputation was sealed.

But its glory days were long, long gone by the time Laing arrived. He found no palaces studded with gems, no market places heaving with treasures. The Timbuktu that greeted Laing was (and remains) a disappointment: a dusty, grimy, insignificant little place on the southern edge of the Sahara in what is now the Republic of Mali.

To make things worse, Laing also found that he wasn’t welcome. Sultan Bello, the region’s powerful ruler, made it clear he didn’t want uninvited Scotsmen hanging around his manor. Laing stayed in Timbuktu for thirty-five days, spending his time studying old Islamic manuscripts. But on 21 September, 1826, he wrote to Emma’s dad saying Timbuktu had become “exceedingly unsafe” and it was time to move on. That letter is the last anyone ever heard of Alexander Gordon Laing.

We know the young soldier did leave Timbuktu as planned. Fearing Sultan Bello, he abandoned his idea of finding the river Niger and instead joined a caravan of Arabs heading to Morocco. Laing travelled north with them for two days. Then he was betrayed for a second time and butchered by a man who was supposed to acting as his guide and protector.

The killer was an apparently friendly sheikh who had offered to escort the Christian explorer through the desert. His name was Ahmadu Labeida. And there are two versions of how he despatched poor Laing.

According to the first, the explorer had gone on ahead and was resting in the shade of a tree with his two servants, Bongola and an unnamed Arab boy. Labeida and three accomplices suddenly rode up and began threatening him. Labeida demanded Laing become a Muslim. The Scotsman refused. There was a fierce stand-off. Then two of the gang grabbed Laing’s arms, Labeida drove a spear into his chest – and the fourth guy cut off his head.

The attackers also murdered the Arab lad. Then they’re said to have divided Laing’s money, burnt his papers out of fear they contained magic, and abandoned the two bodies at the foot of the tree.

This story was relayed to a French army officer in Timbuktu nearly a century after the event. It was told by an old man in his eighties who claimed to be Labeida’s nephew. According to the oldster, his uncle had often boasted of how he slaughtered the “Christian infidel”. It was a dramatic story and one that would have gone down well at a time when Europeans were carving up Africa into colonies. But it’s all a bit over the top - and almost certainly untrue.

A more likely but less colourful version comes from Laing’s surviving servant, Bongola, who turned up at Tripoli two years after the explorer’s death. Bongola testified that Labeida’s gang struck at night, stabbing Laing and the Arab boy to death as they lay sleeping. Bongola was wounded in the struggle but escaped. In the morning he found his master’s body – it had been decapitated and was covered in deep sabre cuts.

The news of Laing’s grisly death broke Emma’s heart and destroyed her health. She tried to regain her balance by remarrying and moving to Italy, but nothing could stop the slide. Emma Gordon Laing died of consumption in Pisa in October 1829, aged twenty-eight – just four years after kissing her intrepid husband goodbye and watching him ride off into the African desert in search of his city of gold.

* Thanks for visiting Great British Nutters. I hope you have enjoyed what you've read. I no longer post here but have started a new blog called History Nuts. It's along similar lines but with much shorter posts. Please take a look. You can also follow @historynuts on Twitter or via my Thanks again!

Bovill, Edward William, Missions to Niger: the Letters of Major Alexander Gordon Laing, 1824-26 (London, 1964)
Kryza, Frank T, The Race for Timbuktu: In Search of Africa’s City of Gold (New York, 2006)

Thursday, July 24, 2008

Lady Hester Stanhope: Kooky Desert Queen

“I have nothing to fear… I am the sun, the stars, the pearl, the lion, the light from heaven” – Lady Hester

Lady Hester Stanhope
THEY DON’T COME much madder than Lady Hester Lucy Stanhope. They don’t come much braver either.

In an age when most upper-crust women couldn’t fart without a chaperone, Lady Hester was charging around the Middle East on an Arab stallion, dressed as a bloke. She went where she wanted and did as she pleased. Her ladyship was a law unto herself.

Hester was born into money, the daughter of an eccentric earl and niece of a prime minister. In her twenties she lived at Downing Street, acting as a smart young hostess for her bachelor uncle, William Pitt the Younger. She hobnobbed with statesmen and hung out with royalty. When Pitt died in 1806, she was rewarded with a tidy little pension of £1,200 a year – she was set up for life.

But by 1810, she’d had enough of polite society. She was single and bored. At thirty-three, marriage seemed unlikely. So Hester sailed to the Mediterranean with a vague plan to travel. Three decades later she still hadn’t come home.

First stop was Gibraltar, where, scandalously, she found herself a toy boy – a handsome rich kid twelve years her junior called Michael Bruce. Hester wasn’t beautiful, but she was tall and elegant and had blazing blue eyes. Bruce was dazzled by her wit and reputation; she found his good looks and fat wallet hard to resist. The lovers sailed on together to Malta, Greece and Constantinople (Istanbul).

In the Ottoman capital Hester joined the crowds at public beheadings, a popular entertainment of the day. At one she was presented with the severed head on a silver plate. The grisly gift left her unruffled - but she thought it a shame it was being passed around “like a pineapple”.

With nothing better to do, Hester and Bruce pushed on to Cairo, surviving a shipwreck on the way in which all luggage was lost. Her ladyship replaced her stiff English dresses with an exotic new outfit – men’s boots, baggy trousers, waistcoat, turban and sword. From that day on, she dressed as a man.

And from Cairo, she rode eastwards, becoming one of the first Europeans – often the very first – to travel in the deserts of Syria and the Lebanon.

The Arabs didn’t know what had hit them. The sight of a tall, pale-skinned English lady in pantaloons and turban riding at the head of a caravan of camels was, to say the least, unusual. Some thought she was a princess, others a prince. “She was neither man nor woman, but a being apart,” says her biographer Joan Haslip.

A succession of blood-thirsty sheikhs and brigands asked to meet this strange mannish woman - characters like Emir Beshyr, who would later distinguish himself by castrating a rebel leader’s three sons, burning out their eyes, and cutting away their tongues. Hester faced them all with a fearless charm, impressing each with her guts and her horsemanship. “All Syria is in astonishment at my courage and my success,” she declared. Modesty was never her strong point.

Somewhere along the way she abandoned side-saddle and began riding her horse astride like a man (unthinkable in Britain at the time). Arab servants and bodyguards were added to her plucky entourage of lover-boy Bruce, an English maid and a private doctor, Charles Meryon. And there was one more big change: Hester began shaving her head like a Muslim man, apparently to make her turban fit more comfortably.

In August 1812, her ladyship rode through the gates of Damascus – unveiled. It was her bravest and maddest act yet. The Syrian capital was devout and fanatical. Women covered up and Christians kept their heads down. The sight of a white female in fancy dress was enough to cause a riot.

Hester’s appearance was at first greeted with a stunned silence. People gawked in disbelief. But then, bizarrely, they started to cheer, spreading coffee around her horse in a gesture of respect. The bazaar rose as she passed. A rumour spread that English royalty was in town. Before long, Hester herself was starting to believe it.

The following year she pushed things still further, plunging into the Syrian Desert to visit the ruins of Palmyra. No white woman had ever seen the ancient city, once ruled by a fiery warrior queen called Zenobia. And with good reason - it was a week’s ride from Damascus across a wasteland controlled by dangerous Bedouin tribes.

Fearless Hester threw herself at the mercy of the feared tribesmen, riding out to their desert camp alone to demand safe passage. And she got. In March 1813, she arrived at Palmyra dressed in the robes of an Arab nomad, trailed by dozens of servants and camels and surrounded by seventy Bedouin bodyguards holding lances tipped with ostrich feathers.

The people of Palmyra went berserk on seeing her. Horsemen charged her caravan in a mock attack. Arab women danced and sang. Crowds mobbed her. A beautiful girl placed a wreath of palms on her head.

“I have been crowned Queen of the Desert …” Hester wrote, getting carried away with herself, “I have nothing to fear… I am the sun, the stars, the pearl, the lion, the light from heaven.” She had become, in her overheated mind at least, the new Zenobia.

After Palmyra, things started to get really weird. Plague brought panic to Syria. Michael Bruce returned to England. Hester nearly died from a violent fever which may have permanently damaged her brain. And the woman of action began to gradually transform into a kooky, mystical hermit.

In 1814 – four years after leaving home – Hester settled in the foothills of Mount Lebanon, hiring a small convent called Mar Elias. She took up smoking a bubbly nargileh water pipe. She began studying alchemy and astrology. She became fascinated by prophets and prophecy.

A madman in London had once told her she was destined to go to Jerusalem and lead the chosen people. Now, for the first time, Hester started to believe it. She became convinced she had a sacred calling. Had she not been crowned at Palmyra? Was she not the “Queen of the Desert”?

She started acting like a medieval monarch, feeding and clothing every beggar and outcast that came to her door. She splashed cash on every sheikh and prince who called on her to pay their respects, borrowing heavily to do so. The whole Middle East seemed to be falling under her spell. She had become a woman of power and influence – a woman to be feared.

When a European traveller was murdered in the mountains, Queen Hester called for revenge – and got it. On her orders, local troops burned and pillaged fifty villages. Three hundred men were killed and their women dragged away in chains to be sold as slaves. A wild-eyed Hester rode triumphantly through the razed villages to inspect the carnage.

In 1817, a foal was born at Mar Elias with a strange deformity – a sharply curved spine. Hester declared it a miracle. A peculiar old prophecy had foretold that a horse “born saddled” would one day carry the Mahdi – an Islamic messiah figure – into Jerusalem in triumph. To her ladyship’s eye, the foal’s twisted back resembled the curve of a Turkish saddle. It had been “born saddled”. It was the sacred horse.

The deformed animal was named Layla and kept plumped and pampered and ready for the big day. It was joined by a second mare – Lulu – a milk-white beauty which Hester intended to ride alongside the Mahdi as his bride. When a crazy-haired French prophet showed up out of the blue one day, he was solemnly appointed carer to the holy horses.

And it gets weirder. In 1820, the loopy Frenchman’s son – Captain Lousteneau - turned up looking for his mad dad. Hester (forty-four now) checked her horoscope, discovered that the dashing young soldier was her perfect love match – and immediately bagged him as toy boy number two.

When Captain Lousteneau died of a fever and food poisoning just a few months later, he was buried with great ceremony in the garden. And when Hester left Mar Elias the following year, she dug up his bones and re-interred him in a tomb at her new home – a ruined monastery further up into the mountains, at a place called Djoun.

Hester lived out the rest of her days at Djoun, a strange hill-top fortress with twisting corridors, secret passages and scented gardens. Vultures swooped overhead, jackals howled outside the gates. Her only neighbours were the local peasants who looked on her as a kind of queen-cum-prophetess.

Civil war broke out in Lebanon in the mid-1820s and desperate refugees poured up the mountain path seeking her protection. Queen Hester took them all in – feeding and clothing hundreds. The one-woman relief effort nearly bankrupted her. She borrowed yet more money (at enormous interest). She never sent anyone away.

In 1825, Hester got news that her brother James had killed himself in England. It was a turning point: from that day on she never stepped outside her front door again. She spent her time sitting cross-legged on the floor, smoking her water pipe or gazing at the night sky. Her temper – always fiery – became volcanic. Her eccentricities increased. All her screws seemed to have worked their way loose.

Lady Hester may have been doing drugs. A thorn apple tree in the ruins of Djoun suggests there might have been something stronger than tobacco in her pipe. Thorn apple – aka “crazy tea” - produces a hallucinogenic drug that was used by eastern mystics.

Or she might just have been nuts. Hester now divided her week between lucky and unlucky days, the latter spent exclusively in her room. Thirty cats roamed freely through the house, her staff forbidden from touching them. If anyone was caught riding one of her horses, her ladyship had the animal shot.

She was alone now apart from a handful of servants, a guard of fierce Albanian soldiers, and a young slave girl who slept on a large cushion beside her bed. Her English maid had died, Dr Meryon had gone home. The few European visitors who came to see her were left baffled by her bizarre ramblings on religion and magic and Layla and Lulu, her holy horses.

The English traveller Alexander Kinglake dropped by in 1835 and was struck by Hester’s enormous turban, skinny body and face “of the most astonishing whiteness”. Between sucks on her water pipe, she told him she no longer read books or newspapers “but trusted alone to the stars for her sublime knowledge”. Goat and sheep’s milk, she added, was her only food.

Her ladyship’s debts were now mountainous and out of control. Her creditors were pressing for repayment of their loans. Her once magnificent home had started to crumble around her. Her health was on the slide.

Dr Meryon returned to Djoun in 1837 and was shocked by how far his old boss had sunk: now in her sixties, her teeth were gone; her eyesight was going; her back was bent and her bones poked through paper-thin skin. She was also coughing up blood – a sign of TB. Hester lay on a bed covered in pipe burns in a room strewn with rubbish. “Such dust!, such confusion!, such cobwebs!” wrote the doctor.

The crisis came in 1838 when the British government cut off Hester’s “lifelong” pension to placate one of her exasperated moneylenders. The decision left her destitute. She’d hit rock bottom. The niece of Prime Minister Pitt the Younger had become a national embarrassment.

Mad old Hester wrote directly to Queen Victoria in protest - one queen to another. “I shall not allow the pension… to be stopped by force: I shall resign it,” she told the monarch. While she was at it, she renounced her British citizenship. Then she sent away her servants, bricked up the entrance to her home, and vowed to remain inside “as if I were in a tomb, till my character has been done justice to”.

Hester lived out her remaining months walled up inside her half-ruined fortress, alone and sick and surrounded by cats. There was no “justice”. No one came to help.

When a friend wrote urging her to return to England, Hester’s reply bristled with all her old fearlessness. “I cannot, will never, go there but in chains…” she told Lord Hardwicke. “Do not be unhappy about my future fate... I have no reproaches to make of myself but that I went rather too far.”

A British official arrived at Djoun a few weeks later and found Hester’s body. It lay unattended and was starting to smell.

* Thanks for visiting Great British Nutters. I hope you have enjoyed what you've read. I no longer post here but have started a new blog called History Nuts. It's along similar lines but with much shorter posts. Please take a look. You can also follow @historynuts on Twitter or via my Thanks again!

Gibb, Lorna, Lady Hester: Queen of the East (London, 2005)
Haslip, Joan, Lady Hester Stanhope: the Unconventional Life of the Queen of the Desert (London, 1934)
Childs, Virginia, Lady Hester Stanhope: Queen of the Desert (London, 1990)
Kinglake, Alexander, Eothen, or Traces of Travel Brought Home from the East (London, 1844)
Russell, Mary, The Blessings of a Good Thick Skirt: Women Travellers and Their World (London, 1986)
Robinson, Jane, Wayward Women: A Guide to Women Travellers (Oxford, 1990)

Tuesday, May 13, 2008

Edward John Eyre: the Man Who Found Nothing

“The frightful, the appalling truth now burst upon me, that I was alone in this desert…”– E J Eyre

Eyre and Wylie going through hell
IT’S EASY TO UNDERSTAND why a smart young bloke like Edward John Eyre would want to explore Australia two centuries ago. No white man had yet ventured across the vast, mysterious island-continent. Who knew what secrets it held, what treasures lay hidden within?

Why he continued exploring once he’d seen the stark reality, however, is another matter. Eyre learned quickly what Aborigines have known for millennia: the Aussie outback can be a dead zone. He found nothing but emptiness and desolation on his travels. He endured pulverising heat and near-starvation. Yet this stubborn, dogged man was incapable of abandoning an expedition. Defeat wasn’t an option.

Edward John Eyre grew up in a vicarage, the son of a Yorkshire parson. He sailed to Sydney in 1833 as a gangly youth of seventeen. Within a couple of years he was a tough bushman, baked hard by the Australian sun.

He worked as one of the new “overlanders” who drove sheep and cattle into unknown parts of the colony. Their job was to clear trails and find fresh grazing grounds. Eyre was among the first to bring stock overland from Sydney to the new settlement at Melbourne. In 1837 he went one better and drove three hundred cattle all the way to Adelaide in South Australia, a marathon trek that took more than six months.

It was all a far cry from tea-time at the vicarage. Overlanders spent months in the wilderness, surviving on bush tucker and pushing ever deeper into the blank spots on the Australian map. Cockatoos screeched overhead, kangaroos and emus darted about, flies buzzed at their ears and eyes and mouth.

They were the original bushwhackers, often hacking their way through the dense scrub with heavy axes and machetes. Water was always scarce. Temperatures soared. And there was the constant danger of being speared like a cocktail sausage.

Aborigines didn’t always take kindly to strange white blokes appearing from nowhere with great flocks of sheep that drained their precious waterholes. In the early days, the native Australians tried waving their spears and looking fierce to scare off the intruders. When the whites responded with bullets, Aborigines learned to chuck the spears first and ask questions later.

One of Eyre’s men was attacked while bringing in some cattle. The poor guy, an American called Berry, walked back into camp one day with a twelve-foot javelin sticking out of his back. The weapon had gone up under a shoulder-blade and penetrated to just below his chin. It was vibrating torturously with every step he made.

Bush surgery was the only hope and Eyre didn’t hesitate. First he cut the spear off at the wounded man’s back. Then he got to work on trying to extract the embedded part, the barbed tip and stump, as swiftly as possible – and without anaesthetic.

“Putting two or three men to hold him I made a good large opening in the front of the neck with my penknife…” Eyre writes in his journal, “then pushing the neck back upon [the tip of the spear] until the point protruded I caught hold of it firmly with a pair of pincers.” Eyre yanked hard at the pincers. Another man pushed the spear from behind. And between them they pulled the weapon out through the front of Berry’s throat.

The American, Eyre notes, endured the operation “without a murmur”. And, incredibly, he was back at work in a fortnight. That’s how tough those pioneering bushmen were.

Eyre might have made a fortune if he’d stuck to driving stock. There was good money in it and he could have got himself a farm, found himself a wife, settled down to a comfortable life raising sheep or cattle. But the vicar’s son was incapable of staying put. By 1839 he’d quit overlanding and turned instead to all-out exploring. And two years later he’d pulled off one of the most amazing journeys in history – the first east-west crossing of Australia.

Eyre didn’t set out to walk across the Red Continent. And he certainly didn’t plan to do it on starvation rations with just an Aborigine lad for company. When he left Adelaide in the summer of 1840 he headed north, not west. His original goal was to be the first man to reach the centre of Oz.

He began with five other white blokes and two Aborigine lads. They took thirteen horses, forty sheep to eat on route and several months’ supplies piled onto two wagons. The expedition had public money behind it and cheering crowds gathered to wave the men off. Eyre was given a Union Jack to plant at the heart of Australia. Then the expedition rolled out of town, heading into two thousand miles of mystery.

The going was rougher than expected, and then it got worse. Eyre found no grasslands, no rivers, no fresh water at all – nothing but thousands of acres of thirsty country. After two month’s hard slog he reached Lake Torrens, a massive salt lake flanked by swamplands one way and parched sand-hills the other. There was no way forward for carts or horses. The route north was blocked.

Eyre climbed a mountain and looked down on the desolate landscape stretching as far as he could see. “Cheerless… indeed was the prospect before us,” he notes in his journal. He named the peak Mount Hopeless. Then he turned his back on the centre of Australia.

A more sensible man would have headed home after that. Progress was impossible. What was to be gained from exploring dead swamps, salt lakes and stony desert? But Eyre felt he owed his cheering supporters in Adelaide more than Mount Hopeless. So instead of going home, he changed tack. He decided to try to force his way overland to the new British colony of Western Australia.

It was November now, the start of the Australian summer. As his men hacked their way through the dense, tough scrub that blocked their path westward, they found not a single spring or stream. The hot winds pelted sand painfully into their faces. Three horses collapsed and died in their tracks. One man fell to the ground, crushed by the heat.

Three times the party hurled themselves at the barrier of tangled bush in their path; three times they stuttered to a halt. Trying to get wagons and thirsty men and animals across this burning land was clearly mad. But Eyre just wouldn’t give up. He refused to surrender. Instead he came up with a new plan: he’d ditch the carts, send most of his team back - and try to make a dash for it with a smaller, fast-moving party.

He kept just four men with him – three Aborigine lads called Joey, Yarry and Wylie, and John Baxter, his faithful sidekick who’d worked with him for years. Baxter was given the chance to bail out if he wanted. It was death or glory time, Eyre told him – they’d either succeed or “perish in the attempt”. He chose to stay with his stubborn boss. It was the worst decision he ever made.

The five men stocked up on flour, tea and sugar rations from a ship at Fowler’s Bay, a few hundreds miles west along the coast from Adelaide. They piled the gear on packhorses, not wagons. They kept six sheep for meat. And on 25 February 1841 the small band or adventurers fixed their eyes west once more – and strode back into the fiery hell.

Swarms of large, grey horse flies – known as kangaroo flies in Oz – stung their hands and faces. Ants tormented them at night. They were soon desperately short of water. Hot winds continually blew sand and grit into their mouths and eyes.

But by travelling light the five tough bushwhackers moved more quickly. Within a week they’d covered a hundred miles and reached an open area of sand hills called Yeer Kumban Kauwe. They found Aborigine waterholes among the dunes. They rested, ate a sheep. Then they marched onwards – up onto the vast and terrifying Nullarbor Plain.

Take down an atlas, turn to Australia and have a look for the Nullarbor. You can’t miss it. It’s an enormous desert just above that huge curved bay on the south coast known as the Great Australian Bight. They say exploring one thousand miles in Australia is equal to ten thousand miles anywhere else in the world. Make that twenty thousand around the Bight.

The Nullarbor is dead flat and bone dry. There are no trees for shade, no mountains, no hills – nothing at all apart from endless waterless horizons, the odd bit of scrub and wombat holes. It’s a vast limestone plateau running all the way to Western Australia. Where it reaches the coastline it ends abruptly in three-hundred foot cliffs that tower over shark-filled seas. Eyre and Baxter were the first white men to step onto the Nullarbor – and they knew next to nothing about the place.

Eyre, Baxter, Joey, Yarry and Wylie marched day and night across the burning plateau, just behind those dramatic cliffs. The heat was ferocious, water nowhere to be found, thirst a constant torture. Eyre got so exhausted he dozed as he walked. By 10 March the animals had gone four days without a drop. If they didn’t find a waterhole soon, the packhorses would perish. And if the horses died, the men knew they would quickly follow.

But for Eyre there was no turning back. And on the fifth day, his unshakable belief was rewarded – the parched travellers found some more Aborigine wells at a small palm-less oasis called Eucla. They rested here a week, tried to rally their strength. Then they got on the move again. Albany – the closest town in Western Australia – was still an eight-hundred mile walk away.

Another week went by. They found no water, no grass, no nothing. The horses got so weak Eyre had to throw away all the expedition’s spare clothes, medicines and ammunition to lighten their loads. The desperate explorers were reduced to pulling up scrub and sucking moisture from its roots, an old Aborigine survival trick. On 28 March the animals had walked for five days without a drink. The next evening the men squeezed the last drops from their canteens.

At dawn on 30 March, Eyre and the Aborigine lads used sponges to collect heavy dew that had collected on the leaves of desert shrubs – they got just enough for a pot of tea. But as the men broke camp that day, they knew they could be facing death from thirst. The Nullarbor Plain stretched before them as far as they could see – miles of barren country lying dead flat beneath a shimmering heat haze. It was one hundred and fifty miles back to the last waterhole.

But on they marched, the lion-hearted Eyre driving the party forward. And again their prayers were answered – the hard limestone plateau suddenly dipped down to an area of white sand dunes by the sea, a potential place to open a well. Picking a likely looking hollow, the men dug. Six feet down they found water. Eyre tasted it. Then he tasted it again in disbelief. Salvation: the water was fresh.

That spot is now called Eyre’s Sandpatch, and the nutter it’s named after spent nearly a month here with his men and animals. They did their best to recoup and recover. Attempts were made to go back and retrieve some of the gear that had been slung away - two exhausted packhorses died doing that. A third horse was so weak it was killed and eaten.

Thirst now gave way to hunger. Their stocks of flour were dwindling fast. The men tried living off the land, hunting wallabies, catching fish and roasting plant roots. Eyre shot an eagle; one of the lads speared a stingray. The two white men’s stomachs rebelled and both got badly sick.

On top of the hunger, the weakened travellers faced a new torture – the cold. Winter was approaching. Days were still volcanically hot but the desert nights had become freezing. And they had to be endured without coats or warm clothing.

Soon even tough old Baxter had had enough. He tried to persuade Eyre to turn back – no chance. Joey and Wylie voted with their feet and deserted, disappearing for forty-eight hours. But on 25 April, the lads returned, half-starved and wholly sorry. And two days later all five men were once again walking side by side towards Albany, still more than six hundred miles away.

The new-found unity didn’t last long. Just three nights later, Eyre was watching over the horses when he heard a gunshot and saw Wylie running towards him in terror. Rushing back to camp he found the expedition’s supplies strewn around and Baxter lying in a pool of blood. He’d been shot in the chest.

Either Joey or Yarry had done it – probably because Baxter had caught them stealing meat. Now both lads were missing along with most of the food and water and all but one of the firearms. Eyre watched Baxter die without a word. Then he stood on guard till sunrise, his gun over his arm, wondering if the murderers would return for him and the rest of the supplies.

It must have been a long night. With most of the food gone, Eyre was now facing starvation. He’d last seen water three days ago and had no idea when he’d find more. His only companion was an Aborigine boy who had already deserted him once. And his oldest friend in Australia was lying dead at his feet.

“The frightful, the appalling truth now burst upon me, that I was alone in this desert…” Eyre writes. “The horrors of my situation glared upon me in such startling reality as for an instant almost to paralyze the mind.”

The next morning Eyre found he couldn’t bury his friend – the ground was solid rock for miles in every direction. So he wrapped Baxter in a blanket and left him where he’d fallen. Then he rallied his strength, saddled up what little food and water remained and resumed his gruelling walk across no-man’s land.

Wylie came too. And for the next month the pair trudged on together into the burning wind and merciless sun, their jaded horses staggering along beside them, barely alive. It was seven days before they found their first waterhole. Heat and exhaustion threatened to overwhelm them like a drug. Eyre had to fight the urge to surrender – to lie down and, in his words, “let the glass of life glide away to its last sand”.

There’s a famous old engraving showing the Englishman and the Aborigine plodding along during those terrible four weeks. Wylie is shirtless, hunched and carrying a small pale of water. A bearded Eyre places a fatherly hand on the boy’s bony shoulder. Both figures are gaunt and in rags. They look like Robinson Crusoe and Man Friday, only skinnier.

But little flashes of luck kept them alive. They found waterholes at crucial moments. They shot a kangaroo which Wylie stripped to the bone, eating not only its meat but its entrails, paunch and, after singeing off the hair, even its skin. They lad also roasted witchety grubs and scoffed a penguin he found dead on the shore. Another dying horse was slaughtered and shared.

The landscape started to improve, slightly. In mid-May they reached an area of rough grass where their surviving packhorses grazed. At the end of the month they came upon pools in the rocky ground – the first water that they hadn’t had to dig for in seven hundred miles. And then, on 2 June, a miracle: looking out to sea, they spotted a ship.

Eyre could barely believe it. The vessel - a French whaler – was anchored just offshore. The ragged wanderers got its attention by yelling, waving their tattered shirts above their heads and jumping around on the cliffs like maniacs. And soon they were aboard, enjoying what Eyre describes as “a change in our circumstances so great, so sudden, and so unexpected, that it seemed more like a dream than a reality”.

The Mississippi was under the command of an Englishman, Captain Rossiter. And Rossiter proved to be a lifesaver. For nearly a fortnight he looked after the piteously weak travellers, feeding them, sheltering them and giving them new clothes.

Another explorer might have counted his blessings and stayed on the Mississippi till it sailed back to civilisation. Not Eyre. After just twelve days’ rest, he and Wylie set off again on foot. They still had three hundred miles to walk.

And then, bizarrely, it started lashing down. Winter was upon them. It rained day and night, turning the hard-baked land into a giant puddle. The two wanderers were permanently soaked, permanently cold; their teeth chattered so hard they could barely speak. Unable to sleep in wet clothes, they quickly became exhausted. They’d survived thirst and starvation – now they feared dying of pneumonia.

But their appalling trial was coming near the end. Wylie had grown up in Western Australia and he knew his home turf when he saw it. The hoof-marks of a horse told them other humans were nearby. They waded chest-high across a swollen river – their final obstacle. Then they splashed onwards more quickly, ankle-deep in water.

The next day they met an Aborigine man. He instantly recognised Wylie, who’d been given up for dead by his tribe, and an impromptu knees-up ensued. Then the two shattered travellers found themselves on a hill overlooking a tiny, rain-sodden town, the first human settlement they’d seen in more than four months: Albany, Western Australia.

Four months and one thousand miles: Eyre and Wylie had just walked across Australia. They’d discovered nothing of promise on the way – nothing but heat and suffering and disappointment. But through sheer dogged determination and a stubborn refusal to admit defeat, they’d made it. They were alive. And Edward John Eyre – veteran overlander and twenty-five-year-old hard man of the Australian bush – quietly began to weep.

Two decades after Eyre and Wylie’s epic walk, Robert O’Hara Burke and William John Wills attempted to match the feat by crossing the continent from south to north. The explorers left Melbourne with dozens of camels and horses and enough food to last two years. They pulled it off, reaching the Gulf of Carpentaria in the north on 9 February, 1861. But both men starved to death on the return journey.

* Thanks for visiting Great British Nutters. I hope you have enjoyed what you've read. I no longer post here but have started a new blog called History Nuts. It's along similar lines but with much shorter posts. Please take a look. You can also follow @historynuts on Twitter or via my Thanks again!

Dutton, Geoffrey, Edward John Eyre: the Hero as Murderer (Sydney, 1967)
Hogg, Gary, Overlanders (London, 1961)
Fitzpatrick, Kathleen, Australian Explorers (London, 1958)
Uren, Malcolm and Stephens, Robert, Waterless Horizons (Melbourne, 1945)
Kerr, Colin and Margaret, Australian Explorers (Adelaide, Sydney, Melbourne, Brisbane, Perth, 1978)

Monday, April 7, 2008

Mary Kingsley: Friend of Cannibals

“Being human, she must have feared some things, but one never arrived at what they were”
– Rudyard Kipling

Mary Kingsley in jungle dress
IT’S HARD TO IMAGINE a more unlikely looking explorer than Mary Henrietta Kingsley. Forget pith helmets and safari jackets, the redoubtable Miss Kingsley trooped across Africa dressed like she was off to a Victorian tea party.

Appearances were important, even in the sweltering jungle. It was her firm opinion that a lady had “no right to go about in Africa in things you would be ashamed to be seen in at home”. So she dressed in the tropics as she did in London – impeccably.

Her tall, slim frame was always covered from neck to toe by a prim cotton blouse, black shawl and long, black woollen skirt. She wore a corset. And her fair hair was always pinned back and covered by a neat black bonnet tied under her chin with a bow. Feminists suggested Mary try wearing men’s trousers, a more practical alternative in the African rainforest. “I would rather,” she said, “[have] perished on a public scaffold.”

Mary Kingsley was born in 1862 in Islington, north London, just four days after the shotgun wedding of her parents. Her dad was a doctor, her mum a cockney servant. Within a month of the marriage, Dr Kingsley had left the country for the first of many long journeys overseas. Mary would see little of him growing up.

Hers was a lonely, imprisoned upbringing. While Dr Kingsley roamed the world, Mrs Kingsley sank into chronic ill-health and depression. Mary was expected to play the role of dutiful daughter, nursing her mum round the clock, rarely going outside. While still very young, she took charge of running the household. “I knew nothing of play and such things,” she later wrote.

She was a bright girl, Mary, but was given no formal education. The only thing her mum seems to have taught her was how to talk cockney. All her life, Mary would drop her hs like an East End flower girl – a habit that always amazed her middle-class peers.

But when she wasn’t helping her mum, Mary educated herself. She spent hours in her absent dad’s library lost in his books. She studied physics, chemistry, biology and maths. She learned Latin and German. She even taught herself how to fix the plumbing in her home by subscribing to a trade magazine.

Then in 1891, the wandering Dr Kingsley returned after picking up rheumatic fever on his travels. Within months, he was dead. His invalid wife, who’d had a stroke, followed him to the grave a few weeks later. Mary’s grey, slavish existence was suddenly over. She was twenty-nine and, for the first time in her life, she was free.

Perhaps it’s not surprising that she should want to cut loose. But what the newly liberated Miss Kingsley did next was so bizarre, so unimaginable for a Victorian lady, so out of keeping with her life up to that point, it’s barely believable - she went to West Africa to study tropical fish and cannibals.

Women simply didn’t go it alone in Africa back then - and certainly not in malaria-ridden West Africa, the White Man’s Grave. A few brave married ladies ventured out, the wives of missionaries and colonial officials. But single female explorers were not only unheard of, they were unthinkable.

Mary made two long African journeys – in 1893 and 1895 - roaming up and down the West Coast and pushing deep into the rainforests of the interior. Unlike so many male explorers of her time, she travelled light with only a handful of hired Africans for company. There was no army of porters, no arsenal of rifles, no tin bath, not even a tent.

She made her way without any fuss by trading tobacco, cloth and gin. She hacked her own way through the bush with a machete and she paddled her own canoe. People downed tools and stared in astonishment as she marched unheralded into their remote villages, pale-faced, straight-backed, formally dressed in black. Children fled in terror. Africa had never seen anything like her.

Before she left Britain, a friend recommended a West African phrase book. This cheery language guide opened with the exclamation, “Help, I’m drowning!”. There was also, “Get up you lazy scamps!”. And it included the memorable question, “Why has this man not been buried?” to which the answer was, “It is fetish [magic] that has killed him, and he must lie here exposed… until only the bones remain.”

Mary didn’t bother with it. Nor did she take a hot water bottle sent to her by another well-meaning but clearly bemused acquaintance. Instead she stuffed her waterproof bag with blankets, boots, a bowie knife, a revolver, anti-malarial medicine and an old book of Latin poetry. She also found room for one little luxury: tea. Then she made out her will, headed to Liverpool and joined a cargo ship bound for Africa.

Ominously, shipping agents refused to sell Mary a return ticket (so few people came back from West Africa in those days it wasn’t considered worth it). The only two other women on board both got off at the Canary Islands. Baffled male passengers thought Mary was a mad missionary with a death wish. But for her, it all made perfect sense. She’d been reading about Africa – its exotic people, its strange animals – for years. Arriving in Angola in August 1893 felt like coming home.

The intrepid Miss Kingsley didn’t do anything too suicidal on that first African journey. This was something of a trial run, the first, she hoped, of many such voyages. But it was still a thousand times more adventurous than anything attempted by other white travellers of her day.

She spent six months moving north through Congo, Cameroon and Nigeria. She lived with local people in their thatched huts, eating the African “chop” of palm oil stew, smashed snails, plantain and yam. She spent hours “puddling about” swamps in dugout canoes, catching rare fish and insects which she pickled in jars and brought back to the British Museum. And she had endless scrapes and narrow escapes – “knockabout farces before King Death” she liked to call them.

One night Mary was woken by a savage growling outside her hut and emerged to see a black leopard attacking a dog a few yards off. The sensible option would have been to retreat back inside, pulling the hut door firmly behind her. Instead Mary went to the rescue with a chair, hurling it at the deadly cat.

The counterattack worked; the dog broke free. But now the leopard turned on her, crouching to spring, its eyes “green balls of fire”. Mary picked up an earthen water jug and chucked it with all her strength at the wild animal. Bull’s-eye! The jug exploded like a shell on the cat’s head. “This discouraged the creature,” she writes to a friend. And the startled beast fled back into the darkness all around.

More knockabout farces followed on Mary’s second African adventure in 1895. This time she really went for it, pushing deep into the bush, going boldly where no white man – and certainly no white woman – had gone before. She was there a year. She ran into gorillas, scorpions and poisonous snakes, some of which she ate for lunch. She saw a man savaged to death by another leopard. When dozy hippos blocked her path Mary used her umbrella to prod them out of the way.

The hairiest moment came when a crocodile clambered onto the back of her canoe and, in her words, “endeavoured to improve our acquaintance”. Mary shuffled to the front of the unsteady little dugout, took aim, and gave the monster an almighty whack on the snout with her paddle. It did the trick. The reptile retreated. And Mary brushed off the incident: at just eight feet long, she says, the animal was “only a pushing young creature who had not learnt manners”.

But it was Africa’s people, not animals, who really excited her. She was fascinated by local rituals and customs. She was enthralled by African witchcraft and magic, what she called “fetish”. And above all she was drawn to the Fang, a fierce tribe who lived in the forest and were renowned for their cannibal feasts.

Despite the Fang’s spine-chilling reputation for dining on passers-by, Mary had her heart set on meeting them. So she took a steamboat as far as it was possible to go up the Ogooue River, deep into Fang territory in what was then the French Congo. And from there she continued alone on foot and by canoe, pickling interesting fish as she went and getting to know the locals.

They didn’t eat her of course. Far from it. The Fang proved a surprisingly friendly bunch. Instead of putting her in the pot, they showed her the best way to cook snake. She taught them a few English phrases, enjoying hearing them say “Dear me, now” and “Who’d have thought it?”. A dozen white ladies’ blouses were traded for ivory and rubber. And all in all, the prim Victorian spinster found her cannibal hosts a bright lot “full of fire, temper, intelligence and go”.

Mary’s adventures in Fang country continued with a brutal trek across the dangerous, slimy swamplands to the north of the Ogooue River. No European had ever set foot here before. It was what Mary liked to call a “choice spot”. She took four Fang “gentlemen” and six other African guys with her. And pretty soon the lot of them were, in a very literal sense, up to their necks in shit.

The worst stretch of swamp took more than two hours to cross. Plucky old Mary plunged in and waded through without fuss, the filthy, stinking water coming up to her chin. When she finally clambered out at the other side her exposed hands and neck were completely covered in leeches. She nearly fainted from loss of blood.

Another time she was walking through the forest when she stepped on a camouflaged animal trap. Its cover of leaves and branches gave way beneath her. She plunged fifteen foot into a pit. And she landed, in a most unladylike heap, on a bed of spikes. “It is at these times you realised the blessing of a good thick skirt,” she writes. “Had I paid heed to the advice of many people in England… and adopted masculine garments, I should have been spiked to the bone, and done for.”

Mary was lucky. “Save for a good many bruises,” she continues, “here I was with the fullness of my skirt tucked under me, sitting on nine ebony spikes some twelve inches long, in comparative comfort, howling lustily to be hauled out.” Her African companions gathered at the rim of the hole and peered down. “You kill?” asked one. “Not much,” responded Mary. They pulled her out with a bush rope and the party marched resolutely onwards.

Just a few minutes later, however, one of her men – a quiet chap she nicknamed Silence - also disappeared through the forest floor into another spiked animal pit. Silence was less fortunate than his boss. He survived. But since he didn’t have the benefit of a good thick skirt, he emerged, Mary reports, “a good deal frayed at the edges”. His wounds had to be bound up with large jungle leaves.

One night the eleven exhausted travellers arrived at a Fang village called Efoua. Mary was given a hut to sleep in and she crashed out as once, fully dressed and still wearing her wet boots. But a few hours later she was woken by a gruesome smell. It had, she says, “an unmistakable organic origin”. And it was coming from an odd collection of bags hanging from the roof.

She pulled the biggest one down, untied it and carefully poured its contents into her hat. No wonder things were wiffy. Mary found herself staring at a human hand, three big toes, four eyes, two ears and other bits and bobs that clearly belonged underground. “The hand was fresh,” says Mary, “the others only so so and shrivelled.” Not wishing to pry further, she popped the human parts back in the bag, carefully re-fastened it, and stepped outside for spot of fresh air.

After leaving the Fang, Mary returned to the coast and rounded off her epic adventure by climbing Mount Cameroon. She was, she says, “the third Englishman” to scale the 13,760-foot peak (the first was Sir Richard Burton). She was also the first white woman to do it (perhaps the first woman full-stop, white or black). And she reached the wind-battered, rain-soaked summit completely alone, her five male companions having abandoned the tough climb halfway up.

News quickly spread of the mountain-climbing, fish-collecting, cannibal-studying spinster. And by the time Mary got back to Liverpool in November 1895 she was already an unlikely celebrity. For the next three years she would travel up and down the country, lecturing to thousands. She wrote two rollicking bestsellers, modestly titled “Travels in West Africa” and “West African Studies”. And she waded into controversy with the same guts and gusto that she had marched through fetid swamps.

She accused Christian missionaries of trying to “murder” African culture. She attacked do-gooders who would ban booze exports to Africa. She defended the African man’s right to have more than one wife. And she took regular pot-shots at ignorant Brits who saw black people as savages in need of salvation.

“I do not believe the African to be brutal or degraded or cruel,” Mary writes in a letter to the Spectator magazine. “I know from wide experience… that he is… by no means the drunken idiot his so-called friends, the Protestant missionaries are anxious… to make him out.” The Spectator called her views “cynical”.*

When Mary wasn’t off lecturing round the country she kept her small London flat heated at tropical temperatures. She filled it with African souvenirs: wooden masks, ivory carvings, musical instruments. She spent all her free time planning her next big trip, her next chance to “skylark and enjoy myself in Africa”. The so-called Dark Continent had put light and joy and hope back into her lonely life; she couldn’t wait to get back there.

But this story ends on an unhappy note. When the Boer War broke out Mary volunteered as a nurse and sailed not to her beloved West Africa but to war-ravaged South Africa. She was posted to an overcrowded prisoner of war hospital on the Cape. And she endured two terrible months there, a time of misery and horror and death.

Mary had more than a hundred Boer prisoners under her care, farm boys mostly; young men brought in with festering bayonet and bullet wounds and appalling blast injuries. Typhoid fever was rife. Bugs and lice were everywhere. Mary would see five or six men die on the wards every shift. “Killing work,” is how she describes it.

In the evenings she would call on her friend Rudyard Kipling who lived nearby. The poet listened to her speak about her work with calm dignity and admired her bravery. “Being human,” he said “she must have feared some things, but one never arrived at what they were.” Then one morning in late May 1900 Mary woke in pain and knew that she too had the fever.

It didn’t take long. On 1 June a doctor confirmed the worst. By the following day it was clear Mary was in a losing battle. And that afternoon, before delirium took hold, this fearless and funny young woman did a curious thing: she asked her colleagues to withdraw from her room and allow her to face death as she had faced life, alone.

Mary Kingsley died in the early hours of 3 June, aged thirty-seven. She was buried at sea, her final wish. Enemy Boers were among those who paid their respects as soldiers carried her casket onto a torpedo boat. The vessel steamed out into the Atlantic. And Mary’s body was lowered overboard a few miles off the coast of her beloved Africa.

And that would have been that were it not for one final twist in the tale of the magnificent Miss Kingsley, a last little joke that would certainly have made her smile: instead of sinking like a stone, her coffin floated. It popped back up to the ocean’s surface and sat bobbing about cheerily on the waves. No one, it seems, had thought to weight it.

Mourners on the deck of the torpedo boat watched in disbelief as Mary’s mortal remains floated gently away on the sea current. “Dear me,” you can imagine her saying, “what a knockabout farce.” Then a lifeboat rushed out to catch the runaway coffin, a sailor hooked a spare anchor to its brass fittings, and the wooden box with Mary inside (still no doubt impeccably dressed) was sent hurtling to the ocean floor.

* Footnote: It wasn’t just Africa that got contrary Mary fired up. She disapproved of bicycles, disliked London’s omnibuses, and was against votes for women because “women are unfit for Parliament and Parliament is unfit for them”.

* Thanks for visiting Great British Nutters. I hope you have enjoyed what you've read. I no longer post here but have started a new blog called History Nuts. It's along similar lines but with much shorter posts. Please take a look. You can also follow @historynuts on Twitter or via my Thanks again!

Frank, Katherine, A Voyager Out: The Life of Mary Kingsley (London, 2005)
Simpson, Helen, A Woman Among Wild Men (London, 1938)
Kingsley, Mary, The Congo and the Cameroons (extracts from Travels in West Africa) (London, 2007)
Russell, Mary, The Blessings of a Good Thick Skirt: Women Travellers and Their World (London, 1986)
Robinson, Jane, Wayward Women: A Guide to Women Travellers (Oxford, 1990)
Robinson, Jane, Unsuitable for Ladies: An Anthology of Women Travellers (Oxford 1994)