Wilfred Thesiger was born in 1910 and educated at Eton and Magdalen College, Oxford. At the age of twenty-three he made his first expedition in the Danakil country of Abyssinia and two years later he joined the Sudan Political service where he explored the mountains of Tibesti in the Libyan Desert. During the war he served in the Ethiopian, Syrian and Western Desert campaigns with the rank of major. His widely acclaimed travel books Arabian Sands and The Marsh Arabs tell of his two famous sojourns in the Empty Quarter and the Marshes of southern Iraq. In 1994 he published My Kenya Days, which describes the country in which he lived for the previous thirty years with the pastoral Samburu tribe.
He died in August 2003.
Later this month Quartet will publish Ibn Saud: The Desert Warrior and his Legacy. Written by Michael Darlow and Barbara Bray, Ibn Saud is the definitive book on the founder of Saudi Arabia. The cover image was taken by Wilfred Thesiger, and forms part of the Thesiger Collection at the Pitt Rivers Museum in Oxford.
With that in mind, here is an interview with him from my book, Speaking for the Oldie.
Your life has been defined in terms of travelling…where do you now regard as home?
I suppose Maralal, in Kenya. I’ve been in Kenya on and off for over 30 years, and now that I’m older and have stopped travelling seriously, I’ve based myself there.
Presumably you still feel English. How important is your Englishness to you?
All important. I wouldn’t want for a moment to be anything but English and I have a profound admiration for the English. I will also never entertain any running down of the British Empire. When people – whether they be English, or Americans or foreigners – criticise the Empire, they are quite unable to give one instance of brutality or oppression, apart from Amritsar which was General Dyer’s personal error of judgement. That aside, there were no other examples of real oppression, which is an extraordinary tribute to the British.
Probably you feel as at home in Kenya as it is possible for a non-Kenyan to feel. Do you think this dimension of ‘otherness’, so to speak, of the outsider looking in, has made it possible for you to value their way of life in a quite unique way?
I am less involved in Kenya than I was with the Bedu from the Rashid in Southern Arabia, for example, or indeed with the Marsh Arabs. I’m happy in Kenya, I like being with the people, but I have not studied them or done any anthropological work among them. I just live with them.
Your autobiography is called The Life of My Choice. Do you consider it to have been a very privileged life?
I haven’t thought of it in those terms. It’s been exactly what I wanted to do all my life, and if something went wrong at any time, it invariably led on to something better. I don’t think it’s been privileged, because when I travelled with the Bedu in Southern Arabia, in and around the Empty Quarter, it was probably as hard a life as any human beings lived, including even the bushmen. I was determined when I went there that I wanted no concessions; I wanted to live on equal terms with them, face the challenge of the desert as they did. If ever they tried to ease things for me, I tended to react rather badly, and this earned me their respect and their loyalty.
But are you very conscious of the fact that if you hadn’t had private resources this way of life would not have been possible for you?
I never had anything in the way of private resources. My uncle paid for me at Oxford and we were a poorish family until my grandmother died. Then my four brothers and I got about £300 a year. When I joined the Sudan Defence Force they paid me another £400, and since there was nothing to spend it on it accumulated. But it’s never been wealth.
You were born in Abyssinia and your early experiences in Addis Ababa seem to hold the key to your adventures in later life. In your ambition to travel and explore, were you never deflected by the years of traditional public schooling at Eton and then at Oxford?
No. From the start, it was what I was determined to do. The event which had the most profound influence on me was when the Shoan army came back after the big battle of Segale. I still remember in detail the triumphal re-entry of the army into the town: the embroidered hats of the drummers; a man falling off his horse as he charged by; a small boy lifted high on shoulders – he had killed two men, but seemed little older than myself. At that time there was nothing Western or European about Africa; it was at its most barbaric and most colourful, and that made a great impression. In 1917 we spent my father’s leave in India where my uncle, Lord Chelmsford, was viceroy. On our way we stopped off in Aden where the British were fighting the Turks not very far away. We stayed with General Stewart for two or three days, and he took my father and myself – I was perhaps seven at the time – right down to where the fighting was, and I remember we stood watching the shells bursting over the Turkish lines. That was another memorable experience for a young boy.
Then in India there was all the pomp and ceremony of the viceregal court. We stayed with maharajahs, we were taken on a tiger shoot, and so when I came to school in England I rather longed to get back to the adventurous life. Later, in the summer of 1924, Haile Selassie, at that time the Regent Ras Tafari, visited England. He’d been very close to my father who’d helped him a lot during the revolution, and he asked my mother and myself to meet him. We had tea and spoke in French, and he expressed sorrow at my father’s death. As I left the room, I turned to him and told him how I longed to return to his country. He gave me that very sweet, gentle smile of his and said, ‘You will always be very welcome. One day you shall come as my guest.’
Four years later at Oxford, I received a personal invitation from Haile Selassie to attend his coronation. I was to be attached to the royal party, the Duke of Gloucester’s, and that had a profound effect on me. I was the only person who got a private invitation. Haile Selassie had remembered the 14 year old boy and that touched me greatly.
It was always important for you to be more than a spectator in your travels, something which set you apart from other explorers. Was this because you wanted to live the life of the natives as much as possible rather than simply record and observe?
Yes, indeed. When I travelled with the Rashid they had never met a European, they’d never seen a car. For five years I journeyed barefooted because I wanted to be exactly like them. Again, when I was with the Marsh Arabs I wanted to get as near as I could to living as they did. Even in Kenya today, although I don’t take it quite to the same extent, I do live a very primitive life.
How did you manage to bridge the divide, to avoid the master and servant relationship?
There was never any question of that with the Rashid; they would never have accepted it. It was I who was trying to live up to their standards, not only their physical standards, but their pattern of behaviour, something I found much more difficult. Their patience, their endurance, their courage, all these things were extremely hard to aspire to.
Did you come across the colonial attitude in your compatriots, or anything which smacked of superiority?
I was extremely lucky because when I was in the Sudan I was under a very remarkable district commissioner who had travelled and lived with the Arabs there. His overriding consideration, and that of his men, was the welfare of the people they were ruling. There were no British businesses, there were no settlers, just the governing administration. It would have been different in Kenya where the colonists had settled.
Between 1930 and 1940 you did a great deal of hunting big game before there was any threat of extinction. You believed then that men have an inborn desire to hunt and kill – do you still believe that?
Yes, I do. I think it goes even to the extent of killing other men. It’s well submerged in our civilisation but if there is a war then it emerges at once. During the time I was in the Sudan, I suppose I shot far more lion than almost anybody has ever shot – 70 in four years. I never shot a lion with a bait, or out of a car; they were all on foot or ridden down on a horse. I was charged 16 times and knocked down once, and all the time I wondered whether I’d get away with it again. I believed they would kill me in the end, but I had the same sort of urge as those people who ride in the Grand National – they feel they’ll break their necks sooner or later but they can’t stop doing it.
But why did you kill these poor lions?
Poor lions! You wait till you’ve been charged by a lion as I was! Also lion were very numerous and were regarded as vermin by the Sudan government. You were allowed to shoot as many as you liked – there were no restrictions. Besides, if a lion came and raided the encampment and killed one of your cows, it was a matter of honour that you collected the men and together you went out in the morning on horses and rode the lion down. The lion was brought to bay in a patch of thick bush and after making sure it was going to stay, the men went in shoulder to shoulder. They had no shields, just their spears, and inevitably they were charged. Generally while the lion was killing one of them, they killed the lion, but I remember one time when they went out on their own they had seven casualties, four of them fatal.
Do you ever have any moral doubts about your hunting days now?
No, not in that setting. I don’t regret the fact that I hunted. I enjoyed it enormously and I felt it was completely justified. Thank God when I started my hunting there was no question of having a white hunter looking after me with chairs and tents and tables and all that sort of thing. Of course I’m a complete conservationist today, since so many animals are endangered, but that wasn’t the case when I hunted. The last time I ever wanted to kill anything was in the marshes in Iraq where there were a lot of wild pig. I shot a lot of them because they ruined crops and attacked people who were cutting reeds to feed their buffalo. I was always stitching them up.
Your travels in the Empty Quarter with a handful of Bedu companions were amongst the most dangerous you undertook, and yet you regard this period as the supreme years of your life. What made them so wonderful?
Being with the Bedu, observing their qualities. The Bedu were the only society to which I could apply the term ‘noble’. They had a nobility which was almost universal among them. Of course you can say that some of the British were noble – Auchinleck for instance – but you wouldn’t call the British a noble race, at least I certainly wouldn’t. The ordinary man you meet in the street has no nobility about him at all. But the Bedu were different; they were always anxious to excel, to be known as more generous, braver than anybody else.
You say you would have remained with the Bedu indefinitely had political circumstances allowed, and that you came to adopt their attitudes as your own. One such attitude was the absence of veneration for human life. How on earth was someone of your background and breeding able to assimilate?
I can’t say I have this veneration for human life. If somebody had killed the two lads who were with me, and to whom I was particularly attached since they gave me everything they had to give in the way of loyalty and endurance, I would have joined at once in the hunt to find the killer. And I should have been hoping that it was I who killed him.
In your autobiography you write: ‘I have no belief in the sanctity of human life.’ But isn’t that at the basis of what we might call civilised values?
It probably is. But then I don’t think that I have what one might call civilised values.
You have always held Haile Selassie in very great regard, and indeed you helped restore him to power after the Italian occupation of Abyssinia. Was your admiration based largely on your personal knowledge of him?
Yes. He was a man for whom I had an enormous respect. Ever since he was a boy his one aim in life was to assist his country, to look after his countrymen, to improve their lot. On top of that he was a man who had no interest in money – I never heard anybody accuse him of avarice.
Ryszard Kapuscinski, highly regarded as an investigative reporter on social conditions in Africa, portrays Haile Selassie in his book The Emperor as an autocrat who ruled by terror and insisted on absolute loyalty…
That’s absolute balls. This is something I would challenge very strongly. Back in 1932, for instance, there had been an attempted coup by Ras Hailu, the hereditary ruler of Gojjam, who was jealous of Haile Selassie and wanted to reinstate his son-in-law Lij Yasu as Emperor. The plot tailed and Ras Hailu was arrested. Any other ruler would have confirmed the sentence of death passed on him for treason by the high court, but Haile Selassie merely fined him and imprisoned him. Later when Italy invaded Abyssinia Ras Hailu collaborated with the Italians and plotted time and again against Haile Selassie. In every other country in Europe collaborators were imprisoned or executed by their countrymen, many for offences less grave than Ras Hailu’s. But Haile Selassie proclaimed that past offences must be forgiven, and merely sentenced him to house arrest. This is just one example of his humanity. He would do anything to avoid signing a death warrant, and in my opinion there was no question of his wielding power by threats.
Kapuscinski also suggests that the result of his corrupt policies was intolerable privation and misery for his people. Was there any truth in that, do you think?
Let’s get this straight. His government and the people who were working with him were undoubtedly corrupt, as all Africans are, but there’s never been any suggestion of corruption on Haile Selassie’s part. You can check this with the Foreign Office. His dominant passion was the welfare of his country.
I was struck by the extreme dislike you expressed towards Evelyn Waugh who wrote about Haile Selassie’s coronation. Why did he arouse such intense feelings in you?
I’m not quite sure. It was to do with his holding a court of his own and trying to make himself out to be very important. He got very angry with Sir Sidney Barton, the British minister, who hadn’t invited him to lunch. Well, he was only a journalist for the Graphic, why should he have been asked to lunch? I disliked him on sight – the grey suede shoes, the floppy bow tie, the excessive width of trousers.
The situation in Ethiopia must now be a source of great sadness to you, and the reign of Haile Selassie must seem like a Golden Age to many of the inhabitants, perhaps even some of those who plotted against him…
Yes, I’m sure that’s true. After what they had to put up with under Mengistu, with his utter disregard for human suffering, many must now remember their Emperor with the appreciation he deserved.
Do you think most of the current difficulties there are man-made, as opposed to natural disasters like drought?
I believe the droughts themselves are man-made. In the past there were no droughts on the scale that they’ve come now. We hadn’t had them in Kenya, they didn’t have them in the Sudan, and I think they are the result of the mass numbers of cars and factories and modern technology which are causing changes in the climate.
Looking round the parts of the world you explored, it must seem as if you made your travels just in time before the countries were changed out of all recognition, whether it was by revolution or the discovery of oil. Looking back, is your feeling principally one of privilege and pleasure at having been able to do what you did, or is it blighted by regret at the disappearance of various cultures?
Looking back I feel nothing but happiness, but I am distressed by the disappearance of cultures. One of the biggest misfortunes in human history was the invention of the combustion engine, which has led to aeroplanes and tourism on a massive scale. I’ve always hated cars and aeroplanes, and even as a boy I felt that they were going to diminish our world and rob it of all diversity. It was much better when the fastest you could go was on a galloping horse.
How would you advise any young man nowadays with the same ambition and aspirations as you had all those years ago?
I’m constantly meeting people who say they would give anything to be able to do what I did. There are so few places left, but I think that in north-western China there is still some exploring to be done.
You are known to dislike America’s interference in the affairs of other countries. Is interference ever justified, do you think?
Very rarely, and I believe that this is what has caused all the troubles in Africa today. If you take Kenya, for example, independence from British rule was achieved peacefully in 1963 under Jomo Kenyatta. Even when he died the transfer of power was peaceful. Why did the Americans and British not leave well alone? Despite the advice they were getting from two high commissioners who were dead against it, they wanted to impose multi- party government, which could only mean one thing: a return to the worst forms of tribalism. Up to that moment there had hardly been any trouble at all in Kenya; we’d had 30 years of uninterrupted peace, rare in Africa.
How does American influence differ from, say, former British imperialism?
The British interference was well informed. They had a profound knowledge and understanding of Africa, as did the governors in Kenya and elsewhere. I don’t say it wasn’t imperial; it was to some extent, but it varied. Generally speaking, however, if you don’t know what you’re talking about it is better to stay out.
A propos the UN’s censure of human rights in the Middle East, you are reported to have said: ‘Who the hell are they to judge how other countries should behave? Why should America be able to impose its values on the rest of the world?’ Setting aside the obvious fact that different countries have different cultures, shouldn’t there be basic standards of humanity in all societies?
I don’t think you can impose them. For instance, it seems to me that the people the Chinese arrested after Tiananmen Square were threatening the country, and any government would have done the same. The fact that they were detained seems to me perfectly justifiable, provided they weren’t brutally treated or tortured. What would the Americans have said 60 years ago if the British had threatened to break off relations unless the blacks were given the vote? The Americans would have answered – as Moy in Kenya answered – that is an internal affair, and it has nothing to do with you.
But if something is morally wrong, shouldn’t it be morally wrong for all people in all places?
I don’t think you can apply it like that. If other people in other countries do not have our moral standards, I don’t see that you can impose them. Just as it is no good trying to force Christian ethics on a lot of pagans.
You have said you are ‘reconciled’ to the modern world. Is it not more resignation you feel in the face of something unstoppable?
I suppose it is. I deplore all the material manifestations of our civilisation. Radio and television are extremely pernicious. I remember the moment when I heard the Americans were walking about on the moon, I had a feeling of desecration and despair; despair at the deadly technical ingenuity of man.
But as an explorer, wouldn’t you like to know what is beyond our planet?
No. It’s right out of my world. One of the things I liked to think when I went to live with Rashid and others was that nothing in their lives would be altered by my coming. Even though they benefited from maps which I made, I did not want to change these people. When I travelled among the Danokil, they were killing each other and castrating each other, but as far as I was concerned they were perfectly entitled to do so. I shot lion, they killed other human beings, and I didn’t feel, by God, it’s about time somebody took these people over and civilised them. I don’t want to civilise people.
Isn’t it a fact, however regrettable, that many of the African tribes do not want to remain immune to western civilisation?
I think that’s true. The most disruptive thing in the way of destruction of their culture is modern education. In Kenya, for example, a boy is supposed to go to prep school for eight years and then for another four years if he can make it to the secondary school. But even if he spends only three or four years in the school, the last thing he wants to do after that is to go off and herd animals. When I first went to northern Darfur, it was a closed area and nobody was allowed in without a special permit. There were virtually no cars and very few roads. The DC had a car and there were one or two others, but you could travel for two or three months and never see a vehicle. Consequently the world was restricted to the area in which people could walk. Then along came mass education and the facility of getting anywhere you liked in motor cars. In Maralal where I live we have what we call the ‘plastic boys’, who have been to school and don’t want to go back and live with their families. They cluster round the town, trying to sell things to tourists, and their one aim is ultimately to get off to Nairobi. When the British were in Kenya – I admit the population was very much smaller – but there was no unemployment and there were no slums in the towns. With the mass influx to the towns, there are slums everywhere.
When you talk about the disappearance of the nomadic tribes of Africa and the loss of their culture and way of life, how are we to raise our response to a level above and beyond that of nostalgia? Is it available to us on any other level?
No, I don’t think so. Change is inevitable, and although it’s for the worse there’s nothing we can do about it.
Tell me about the family you live with in Kenya.
I first met Lawi when he was about seven years old, during my early days in Kenya. I used to visit a small town called Baragoi where there was a school. The boys used to cluster round the car and talk to me, and there was one in particular I noticed and thought quite remarkable. This was Lawi, and when he was 10 he said that he’d had enough of school and that he wanted to leave and stay with me. That was over 20 years ago and he is as dear to me as my own son. Later we were joined by another two boys and I have built them all houses.
And they regard you as their father?
Yes, in Africa it’s much easier to become part of the family and to feel you belong. In England, however close you are to a family you’ll never be regarded as part of it unless you really are part of it. I might be called ‘Uncle Wilfred’ or something, but I would still be separate. But here I do belong. And if somebody killed Lawi, for instance, my blood feud feelings would return, and I would certainly feel an urge to kill the man who’d killed him.
At the end of your autobiography you say that you have felt the need for human company all your life, and wherever possible have avoided solitude. Why do you think you have found the deepest friendships in races other than your own?
Possibly as a result of my childhood. A psychiatrist would say it’s because I was rejected by my contemporaries when I was a boy. When I went to my prep school I was pitchforked into an alien environment with an extraordinary life already behind me. I had no idea of the conventions that are so rigorously observed by small boys in England, and when they asked me about myself I started telling them about tiger shoots or travelling with camels, I found myself ostracised as the most appalling little liar. I was driven in on myself, and I longed to get back to Abyssinia.
Even now you live a very simple life, rejecting many of the comforts which most people desire or expect. Do you think most people would be happier if they were less materialistic?
Yes, I think possessions are a burden. When I left Kenya the other day I put everything I own into a kitbag and brought it back here. I’ve had no urge for possessions. All the time I was in the desert with the Bedu, I had none at all. The single thing I valued was my camera.
Have you ever regretted not marrying?
No. I’ve had some very close women friends, but I have had very little sexual interest.
Even when you were a young man?
Even then. I did meet a girl when I was about 19 or 20 and I felt that I really could have become very attached to that girl, but then I thought, if I do it will wreck my life. My whole life has been with men and boys – of course I’m not talking sexually now. When I was travelling I didn’t often see a woman. Perhaps if we arrived at a camp there would be some women there, but then we’d be off again into the desert leading an entirely masculine life. Marriage would have crippled me. If I had been married there would have been children whom I would have had to educate at Eton or wherever, and there would have been no money left for me. Also, I spend only three months a year in this country – no wife would have tolerated it.
Do you prefer the company of men?
Yes, because my mind works in their terms. I do have some close women friends. Lady Pamela Egremont for instance, but when it comes to the point, I don’t want to go on safari with them.
I’m sorry to labour the point, but can you imagine yourself being seduced by a woman?
No, I can’t. I would resist it.
You haven’t had much time for orthodox religion. Has there been a religious dimension to your life?
No. I find it very difficult to believe in a God or in an afterlife. I can’t see why we’re any more important than ants. I think man has created God in his own image.
When you die you say you want Lawi to pop you into a hole in the garden without any nonsense. Do you hate the idea of grieving and bereavement?
It isn’t that. I just don’t want a priest mumbling a lot of stuff which I don’t believe over my body. Once I’m dead I’m dead, and I have no regard at all as to what happens to my body. They can put me in the garden and plant a bougainvillaea over me.
I couldn’t help noticing that in your autobiography of 450 pages the death of your father is accorded only three lines and your brother’s death in the war gets only one line. Is this the Englishman’s stiff upper lip, or is there more to it?
When my father died I was just nine years old, and although I was devoted to him, a nine-year-old doesn’t really feel grief in the way one does at a later age. But of course I was desperately upset.
You have been variously described as ‘the greatest of all explorers’, ‘the last of the great explorers’, and so on. Does this recognition give you a great deal of satisfaction and sense of achievement, or is it unimportant in the larger scheme of things?
I think it’s balls. I’ve done what I wanted to do: I’ve lived with the Bedu; I’ve lived with the Marsh Arabs; I’ve travelled in the mountains of the Hindu Kush and Karakorams; in Afghanistan in the uplands west of Kabul I have seen Pathans in their black tents and Hazaras in their villages, a people whose Mongol ancestors had probably been established there by Genghis Khan. I feel very lucky to have done all that, and especially lucky that in the course of these journeys the people who went with me didn’t suffer.
But all this business about ‘the greatest of all explorers’ is not justified. It’s absolute nonsense.