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The Great Hunters

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Frederick Courteney Selous

As a schoolboy at Rugby, Selous was fired with enthusiasm by the African exploits of David Livingstone. He told his housemaster that he would like to be an explorer. One of several children in a family of French Huguenot descent, he was born in London on 31 December 1851. After some desultory training in medicine, he at last broke free and set sail for Africa in 1871. His decision had been clinched when he read William Baldwin’s published adventures.

Selous landed in Port Elizabeth, went inland to Kimberley, and thence to the Matabele country. He came to be liked and respected by Lobengula, then still new to the Matabele throne. This friendship was later exploited by Cecil Rhodes when Selous assisted him in his Chartered Company schemes. Between 1876 and 1878 Selous penetrated beyond the Zambesi into the Kafue country. Inn 1879 he traveled to the Mashukulumbwe.

Returning to England, he published in 1881 an account of almost a decade of hunting and exploration in A Hunter’s Wanderings in Africa, which provides the selections for this book. This made him as famous as Cumming had been thirty years before. But Selous could not stay away from Africa. He returned to the Cape almost immediately, meaning to be an ostrich farmer. Yet he traveled to Barotseland instead.

Three years after he had been wounded in the Matabele War (1893), Selous wrote about the hostilities in his Sunshine and Storm in Rhodesia. A late marriage in 1894 did something to settle him, though he still left his Surrey home on sporting trips to East Africa or when he could sign up for a war. On one journey his companion was Theodore Roosevelt – a good friend and ex- president of the United States of America.

Like Cornwallis Harris, Selous had the twin interest of zoologist and hunter. He aimed at a painstaking accuracy in his descriptions of animal life, and he bequeathed his collection of trophies to the Natural History Department of the British Museum.

Friends called him the greatest hunter who ever lived – a description which he modestly (and realistically) repudiated. But he could not deny that he was a central figure on the international sporting scene during the last decades of the nineteenth century. Together with Captains Radclyffe and Vanderbyl he founed the Shikari Club, an association of big game hunters who met at the fashionable Savoy Hotel in London. It has been suggested that Rider Haggard used Selous as the inspiration for his famous fictional adventurer, Alan Quartermain.

When World War I broke out, Selous volunteered for active service. He was sent to East Africa with the rank of Captain. Although 65 years old, the vigorous life of a hunter had left him stronger and fitter than many younger men. He was killed in action at the head of his Company near Kissaki, Tanganyika, on the 4th January 1917.