Open main menu

Popular Science Monthly/Volume 56/December 1899/Sketch of Frederick C. Selous

< Popular Science Monthly‎ | Volume 56‎ | December 1899

PSM V56 D0154 Frederick C Selus.png


THE description of Selous, in Men and Women of the Time, as "explorer, naturalist, and sportsman," is suggestive of the manner in which his career has been developed and his fame has grown. Beginning his active life as a mere hunter of big game in the wilds of South Africa, and known at first only as a sportsman, he has become recognized as one of the leading, most intelligent, and most efficient explorers of his time, and is accepted as the most eminent authority respecting what relates to the large and important region of Mashonaland.

Frederick Courtenay Selous was born in London, the son of a father of Huguenot extraction and of a mother who, descended from the Bruces of Clackmannan, could count Robert Bruce among her ancestors, and was also related to Bruce, the Abyssinian traveler. He was taught at Bruce Castle, Tottenham, and then went to school at Rugby, where he distinguished himself by his activity, which was displayed in his high spirits and love of violent mischief and by his personal courage to such an extent that his schoolfellows wittily nicknamed him "Zealous."

Leaving Rugby when sixteen or seventeen years old, he spent two years in Switzerland and Germany, studying at Neufchâtel and Wiesbaden. His hardy activity seems to have been as marked in Germany as at Rugby, for it is recorded of him that he attracted some notice in the papers by jumping into the Rhine in winter after a wild duck which he had shot. He was not dressed for a swim, and, his great coat and top boots becoming filled with water, he had much difficulty in getting to shore with his game. His determination to achieve a career in South Africa by hunting and collecting specimens was apparently reached while he was still a youth, and at nineteen years of age he sailed from England, to land at Algoa Bay in 1871. Hunting was his object, as is substantially confessed in the title of his first book, A Hunter's Wanderings in Africa. The book won instant recognition as a story of sport and a hunter's prowess, and was regarded in that light by the critics and the general public. The Royal Geographical Society, however, perceived other qualities in the story he had to tell, and gave him successively honorable mention, the Cuthbert Peake grant, and, in 1883, the Founder's Gold Medal, the highest honor it had to bestow.

Among the earliest testimonials paid by this society to the value, as yet not generally appreciated, of Selous's work was that given by Lord Aberdare, president, in his anniversary address, delivered in May, 1881, to the services rendered to geography in the regions west of Lake Nyassa by Mr. Selous, who had "hitherto been known as a mighty hunter of large game. . . . This gentleman, we learn, in 1878 penetrated for one hundred and fifty miles the unknown country north of the Zambezi, in the direction of Lake Bangweolo. He has since crossed in various directions the Matabele country south of the Zambezi, discovering two new rivers and. defining the course of others which had previously been laid down from vague information." Selous's Notes on the Chobi, it appears, had already been published by the Geographical Society.

Mr. Selous has spent most of his time since he began his African wanderings in 1871, except for occasional visits to England, in traveling and hunting over that part of the African continent with which his name as an explorer is associated. In 1877 he and some companions penetrated into Matabeleland to hunt elephants. Relating the story of his wanderings in an address to the Royal Geographical Society in 1893, he described his experiences with fever and ague, the attacks of which began in Griqualand in 1872, but came on only when he halted anywhere a few days. North of the Zambezi he made several journeys among the Balongas, and spent a wretched rainy season, almost without equipment, on the Manica tablel-and, of the luxuriant vegetation of which, with sweet-smelling flowers after the rains, he gave a glowing description in his address. Interesting observations wore made on some of the northern rivers. The curious phenomena of the steady rise of the waters of the Chobi and Machabi—an outlet of the Okavango—was observed from the first week in June till the last week in September, when the flood began to recede.

From 1882 the journeys acquired additional geographical importance, and Mr. Selous proceeded to rectify the maps of Mashonaland made by earlier travelers, taking constant compass bearings, sketching the courses of rivers, and fixing the positions of tributaries. The value of this work was made manifest in a magnificent large scale map of the country.

This map, which was published in 1895, was intended, first and chiefly, to illustrate the work done by Mr. Selous while in the service of the South African Company; and, secondly, to embody, as far as possible, the knowledge possessed of the entire region extending from Fort Salisbury to the northward as far as the Zambezi, and to the eastward as far as the lower Pungwe. Mr. Selous's manuscript originals, deposited in the map room of the Royal Geographical Society, comprise a compass survey, showing the routes during a year's employment in the service of the British South African Company, September 1, 1890, to September, 1891, on a scale of 1 : 255,000; a sketch map, showing the route of the Manika Mission from Fort Charter to Umtassa's and thence to the camp near Mount Wedza, and also the routes taken by Mr. Selous from the camp near Mount Wedza to Makoni's, Mangwendi's, Maranka's, and back to Makoni's, on a scale of 1 : 255,000; a sketch of routes from Umtali to Mapanda (Pungwe) and back, in 1891, on the same scale; a sketch of Mashonaland, showing tribal boundaries, on the same scale; a rough survey map of the countries ruled over by the Makorikori chiefs, for which a mineral concession had been granted to the Selous Exploration Syndicate, on a scale of 1 : 210,000; and about thirty sheets of manuscript maps and rounds of angles, utilized in the compilation of the first four maps of this list.

Although Mr. Selous did not determine latitudes or longitudes, his long-distance compass bearings enabled him to lay down a network of triangles connecting Fort Salisbury with Masikesi. These triangles included Fort Charter, Sengedza, and Mavanka's in the south. Mount Mtemwa in the north, and Mount Dombo in the east; and it turns out that the distance between Fort Salisbury and Masikesi, as resulting from this triangulation, differs to the extent of only about a mile from that obtained by careful astronomical observations made at the two terminal points. The greater part of Mr. Selous's compass bearings were taken during the rainy season, when the air was very clear and landmarks could be seen at great distances. Mr Selous's determinations of altitude were not so accurate, and those obtained with the aneroid were characterized by himself as "of little value."

During all of his twenty years' wanderings Mr. Selous represented in his address to the Royal Geographical Society, with the exception of a treacherous night attack made upon his camp by the Mashuku-Sumbwe, led by a few hostile Marotse, in 1888, he had never had any serious trouble with the natives. He had gone among many tribes who had never previously seen a white man, and was always in their power, as he seldom had more than from five to ten native servants, none of whom were ever armed. Mr. Selous's pioneer work began in 1889, when he conducted a gold-prospecting company through eastern Mashonaland. The journey took the party to the Portuguese settlements on the Zambezi, where those people were found to have a full appreciation of the richness of the gold region.

The British South Africa Company, or "Chartered Company," as it is sometimes called, was incorporated about the same time (October, 1889), with power to occupy and possess the large domains that constitute what is now called Rhodesia. The return of Mr. Selous to the Cape of Good Hope with the report of what he had observed had the effect of determining the company to speed its operations so as to anticipate the Portuguese. Mr. Selous entered the service of the company, and, although he was not yet an explorer in the scientific sense, the accurate memory of his early wanderings over the region enabled him to guide successfully the pioneer expedition that took possession of Mashonaland.

One of the sensational incidents of this campaign was the refusal of Lobengula to allow the pioneer force to use the road that led through Buluwayo, his capital, the only existing wagon road from the British frontier to the Mashonaland plateau. A new road was cut, under the guidance and superintendence of Mr. Selous, through four hundred and sixty miles of wilderness, the whole work being accomplished in two months and a half.

Among the chiefs who submitted to the British occupation after the seizure of Gonvola was Moloko, ruler of the country north of Manica, who made a treaty with Mr. Selous. After two years spent in various operations for opening up the country and securing treaties with the native chiefs, Mr. Selous returned to England in December, 1892, and put the narrative of his adventures to press, but was called back in August, 1893, returning at very short notice, on account of the threatening attitude of the Matabele chief Lobengula and the consequent risk of interruption in the development of the country. The tribes had risen against the assumption of the company to claim as a territorial cession what they had regarded as simply a grant of mining and exploiting privileges. Mr. Selous engaged actively in the campaign, in which he is credited with having fought with great gallantry by the side of the colonists, and was wounded while protecting some negroes who had been surprised by the enemy.

Returning again to Mashonaland, he reached there in time to witness a second outbreak of the natives, vexed by the triple plague of locusts, rinderpest, and the stringent regulations of the Chartered Company's government with respect to cattle. His own cattle were stolen, and he headed a company of volunteers that went out to cheek the insurgents and protect the people who were still on their farms.

The fruits, in acquisition to geographical knowledge, of Mr. Selous's adventures and explorations are to be found, mingled with much about sporting and exciting incident, in his books: A Hunter's Wanderings in South Africa, already mentioned; Travel and Adventure in Southeast Africa (1893); Sunshine and Storm in Rhodesia (1896); and in lectures to the Geographical Society and periodical contributions concerning Mashonaland.

These books abound in observations on natural history, often constituting real contributions of new facts or new demonstrations to the science, usually occurring incidentally in the narrative of adventure, but sometimes given in more formal shape. The author avows that his conclusions respecting animals are drawn from personal experience of the beasts, and are not influenced in any way by the stories of old hunters, Dutch or native. Among these notices are original observations on the giraffe and its habits, notes on buffaloes and their disposition, and remarks on variations in the types of South African lions. Of this animal, while some authors would make three species, the author believes there is only one. "As out of fifty male lion skins," he says, "scarcely two will be found exactly alike in the color and length of the mane, I think it would be as reasonable to suppose there are twenty species as three." So in Notes upon South African Rhinoceroses, a paper read before the Zoölogical Society of London in June, 1881, and reprinted in this volume, Mr. Selous gives his reasons for affirming that there are only two species of rhinoceros in South or in all Africa—the square-mouthed or white Rhinoceros simus and the prehensile-lipped or black Rhinoceros bicornis—while the supposed Rhinoceros keitloa, or blue rhinoceros of the Boers, is merely a variety of the bicornis, the distinction between the two being based only on differences in the relative length of the horns. Another paper from the Proceedings of the Zoölogical Society, reprinted here, is Notes on the South Central African Antelopes, embodying again only the results of the author's own observations. In this paper twenty-two species are described by their scientific, native, Dutch, and English names, and their characteristics, habits, appearance, and distinctions are indicated.

In the preface to his Travel and Adventure in Southeast Africa Mr. Selous tells how he had determined, in 1881, upon visiting the ostrich farm of his friend Frank Mandy, to settle down in Africa for a quiet life. Then he went home and spent a few months in England. Visiting the Natural History Department of the British Museum, he was shown by Dr. Gunther and his associate how old and dilapidated some of the specimens were, and how many noble forms were not represented at all. He took note of what he ought to get should he visit the interior of Africa again. Next we find him in South Africa, not quiet on a farm as he had intended to be, but in the wilderness, where he spent six years (1882-'87) engaged principally in collecting specimens "of the magnificent fauna which once abounded throughout the land," but many forms of which were now becoming scarce and some were verging on extinction. He shot and preserved a great many fine specimens of the larger antelopes, some of which may be seen in the New Natural History Museum at South Kensington, while others are in the collection of the South African Museum at Cape Town. Besides the stories of specimen hunting and adventures with the lions that are always to be found where game is abundant, the volume contains much matter of more general interest, such as notes of personal experiences among the Boers; accounts of two expeditions sent against the Batauweni by Lobengula; the devastations committed by the Matabele in Mashonaland; valuable notes on the Bushmen or Masarwas; accounts of journeys beyond the Zambezi to the countries of the Machukulumbwi and Barotsi tribes; and a review of the past history and present condition of Mashonaland. We find here also a notice of the caves of Sinola, with a subterranean lake in the principal cave having water marked by a deep-blue color like that of the blue grotto of Capri, an account of which was published by Mr. Selous in the Proceedings of the Geographical Society of London for May, 1888. An account of Mr. Selous's Twenty Years in Zambezia was published in the Geographical Journal in 1893.

Mr. Selous has done more than any other man to bring Mashonaland into notice, and is credited, together with Cecil Rhodes, with having contributed most to the creation of Rhodesia. The first comprehensive account of Mashonaland was given by him in the Fortnightly Review for May, 1889, when he described the country as a land of perennial streams in which thirst is an unknown quantity; with its high plateau, standing at an elevation of from four thousand to forty-six hundred feet and forming a very important watershed, endowed with a network of important streams, the springs supplying which, welling out from the highest parts of the downs, were capable of being applied to the irrigation of an enormous area, and having a salubrious climate, the continuous southwest wind giving cool breezes in summer and cold ones in winter. The high plateaus were further of much ethnological interest, in that they gave shelter to the very few remnants of the peaceful Mashonas who had escaped extermination at the hands of the Matabele.