The Mighty Nimrod

A Life of Frederick Courteney Selous, African Hunter and Adventurer 1851-1917

by Stephen Taylor, Collins, 1989, H/b, 312pp, b/w photos.

Before this book appeared in 1989, only one biography of F.C. Selous had ever been published - "The Life of F.C. Selous", written by his close friend, J.G. Millais, shortly after the hunter was killed. Taylor's book has the advantage of having been written at a greater distance from the man and the events of his time, and benefits from a wider range of sources and research possibilities.

 In his preface Taylor points out one area in which his research has led him to disagree with other chroniclers of the period covering Selous's life:

Where I believe this book revises the record substantially is in the question of Selous's part in the activities of Cecil John Rhodes. In histories of the period, Selous is identified as the man of action who carried out the orders of Rhodes, the visionary, in the opening up of Central Africa. The general view has been that in the Mashonaland expedition, Selous was simply the guide who led the way, Buffalo Bill style, for the settlers. The archival evidence shows Selous's part to have been a good deal more important than this. It demonstrates that he was an instigator of British expansion in his own right, that he acted as a restraint on Rhodes when he was considering wild schemes to attack the warrior nation of the Matabele, and that he provided focus, depth and direction to Rhodes's vague notions about northward expansion...
The title of the book, "Mighty Nimrod", refers to a nickname given to Selous by the popular press in the early days of his career as a hunter. As a schoolboy Selous's character and physical prowess provided an augur of things to come - he was an adventurous boy, muscular and had a healthy disregard for rules and regulations. He distinguished himself at rugby and was the best swimmer in the school. The trait that was to stand him in good stead throughout his later life, however, was his ability to keep his nerve during a crisis.

 While at school he developed a passion for the countryside and its creatures and kept a rifle hidden at a local farm near the school, taking it with him on forays to collect specimens, narrowly avoiding serious clashes with gamekeepers on several occasions.

 In an attempt to cure him of his obsession with nature, Selous was at length sent to the Continent to continue his schooling, but his father's efforts were wasted once selous discovered the great forests of Prussia! His all- consuming desire to go hunting in Africa was strengthened and in 1871 his father finally gave in. Selous left for the Dark Continent.

 He studied the writings of Baldwin and Cumming, and set off on the first of his many expeditions. It was an anti-climax - he shot a hare and a few small antelope... He persevered, however, and a year after his arrival in Africa Selous had covered over 1200 miles and reached the royal kraal of the Matabele nation, a nation moreover whose history up to that point had been "etched in blood". Here he met Lobengula, king of the Matabele, and a man who was to play an important role in his life, granting him privileges and hunting rights in his land that no other white man enjoyed. Ultimately, however, they were to become enemies.

 Selous now embarked on his career as an elephant hunter, just in time to witness the end of its heyday in Southern Africa:

Selous was the last of a line, a link between the old breed of hunters, whose heavy beards and weather-beaten countenances gave them a resemblance to biblical patriarchs, and who were dead-shots with their lumbering muzzle-loaders, and a more polished generation of men who hunted with breech-loading rifles.
At Lobengula's kraal Selous met up with one of his heroes, Jan Viljoen, an Afrikaner hunter who, although not as well known as Finaughty or Hartley, was a more effective hunter than either, having grown up in the Boer tradition with a rifle in his hands. Viljoen treated the young Selous well and the long discussions they held on Britain's treatment of the Boers were to make a lasting impression on Selous. In later years, when the Boer War broke out, Selous, despite his strong feelings of patriotism, was to oppose "those who, under cover of the plea that they are only desirous of righting wrongs of the British Uitlanders, really wish, at any cost, to do away with the independence of the Transvaal Republic." He rejected the jingoism that swamped England in the first months of the war, and made many enemies by predicting that the war would last a lot longer than most people thought and would in the end mean the loss of South Africa as a British possession, in much the same way as the American colonies were lost. His judgment was to prove sounder than that of most of his contemporaries.

 If his views on the politics of the era were to make him a controversial figure, none were in doubt about his abilities as a hunter. His first hunting season, completed before he was 21, netted him 450 pounds of ivory and a profit of about £300. He hunted on foot, wearing only a hat, shirt and shoes, and picked his targets carefully, not killing indiscriminately but choosing the animals with the best tusks. He rapidly became a fine shot and his adventures rivalled those of his boyhood heroes. There were hard times as well, however, and his expeditions in the period 1877-1879 were failures and left him facing financial ruin.

 Selous also wrote a series of books on his exploits, the first being "A Hunter's Wanderings in Africa", which became a bestseller, but also earned Selous the displeasure of animal welfare campaigners who accused him of "wholesale senseless slaughter". Selous's answer to this was to point out that every animal he had ever shot had been eaten, and that "we had the satisfaction of knowing that the slaughter would bring more joy to the hearts of these poor but voracious heathen, than all the tracts and Bibles ever published for their benefit."

 Selous's final break with Lobengula came about during an expedition into Matabeleland with a number of companions in 1887. Although the full details of what occurred are uncertain, it appears that Selous's party did not confine itself to hunting, but went prospecting for gold as well, arousing Lobengula's anger. The king ordered that the Africans accompanying the hunting party be killed, and shortly afterwards Mashonaland was closed to whites.

 Taylor describes in detail Selous's connection with Cecil Rhodes and the period 1889 - the year in which they began to work together - to 1896, when, the Matabele and Mashona uprisings having been put down, Selous decided to leave Africa for good. Selous's book about this period - "Sunshine and Storm in Rhodesia" - is now a collector's item, even in the reprint editions! Taylor sums up Selous's role as follows: During these years he had a hand, often a crucial one, in all the major historical events which took place. More than any other man he plotted the course of British occupation. His influence on policy was considerable, and generally for the good, especially in the way he sought to prevent confrontation between black and white. Crucially, he stopped Rhodes from launching a pre-emptive strike against Lobengula. When the conduct of many other white men became marked by rapacity and unscrupulousness, Selous stood out for fair play. He had no part in the reckless corruption which spread through the chartered company, and which found its ultimate expression in the Jameson Raid. In the end he fell out completely with the chartered crowd.The last 2 chapters of the book describe Selous's discovery of East Africa as a new area for exploring and hunting. He made several trips there, including one in 1909 with Theodore Roosevelt with whom he had corresponded for years and who had become a good friend.

 When World War I broke out Selous tried to enlist but was turned down because of his age - 63!

 The prowess of the German guerrilla-warfare expert, von Lettow-Vorbeck, in East Africa, however, soon changed the minds of the recruiters in the War Office. Outnumbered 8 to 1 in the beginning of the war, the German commander soon made life miserable for the Commonwealth troops in Africa, eventually tying down 370,000 troops with a force of only 15,000 men! He was the only German commander to remain undefeated until the end of the war. After an initial British defeat, Selous was accepted into a "Legion of Frontiersmen" for service in East Africa.

 With the constitution of a man half his age, Selous soon earned the respect of the troops for his endurance and bushcraft. In 1916 he was awarded the DSO for "conspicuous gallantry". Selous fretted at the long periods of inactivity during the war and passed the time by giving lectures on his hunting days to his troops. Not only the Germans, but sickness as well, was meanwhile taking a terrible toll of the Commonwealth forces.

 Then, on New Year's Day, 1917, during an advance, Selous and his men came upon a German force and began to pursue them, when a sniper wounded Selous first in the side and then in the head. He died immediately. A grave was dug for him in the bush and the news spread rapidly among friend and foe alike:

A legend had formed around Selous's name in East Africa. He was the most celebrated casualty of the campaign and men who had never met him now joined in paying tribute. Among them was von Lettow, who wrote that Selous 'was well known among the Germans, on account of his charming manner and exciting stories'. It seemed apposite that this simple but noble man had ended a rich full life by dying in combat.
Taylor ends his last chapter with the same quote that Millais used in the first biography of Selous, the eloquent lines from R.L. Stevenson's "Requiem":

Here he lies where he longed to be...
The hunter home from the hill.

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