- Historic Sites
“my Dear Selous…”
A long-buried series of letters to an African game hunter reveals T. R. as half thinker, half boy scout
April 1963 | Volume 14, Issue 3
Neither friend nor enemy ever called Theodore Roosevelt an introvert. Throughout his life he not only talked a good deal but wrote a great many letters, largely about himself. Most of his correspondence was with people who shared his occupational interest in politics, but there was an outstanding exception, Frederick Courteney Selous, with whom Roosevelt exchanged letters for twenty years. Selous lived in England and had no’ connection with the diplomatic world to account for his presence in Roosevelt’s circle. The letters from Roosevelt to Selous now in the National Archives in Salisbury, Southern Rhodesia, show that to the American this particular Englishman represented something set apart. He was the central figure in Theodore’s other world, the dream world of the small boy who never quite disappeared as long as the adult and aging Roosevelt was alive.
When Roosevelt was a child his physique was poor and his eyes were already troubling him (later he lost the sight of one eye completely); but in the meantime he engaged in a successful struggle to overcome these disabilities. He built himself up through discipline and exercise. He boxed. He did his best to live the “strenuous life.” A New Yorker by birth, he adopted the West as his own and went in for horses and guns in the western style. He went ranching in the Dakota Territory and hunting wherever and whenever he could, always with plenty of extra spectacles ready for emergency. In 1898 he made history by resigning his post of Assistant Secretary of the Navy to enlist and serve in the Spanish-American War, and had a wonderful time at San Juan Hill.
It is no wonder that to this self-made he-man, Selous shone like a star. Theodore had the anti-British complex characteristic of most Americans of his day, but in his estimation Selous had lived down the double disability of being English and London-born by going to the southern regions of Africa as a professional big-game hunter at the age of twenty. Seven years older than Roosevelt, he had made a name for himself before the American youth was out of his teens.
Selous was already a keen naturalist and a good shot before he left England. In Africa he soon became a leader, if not a legend, among the brotherhood then slaughtering elephant, giraffe, antelope, lion, and rhinoceros so enthusiastically that many of the surviving fauna, led by the sagacious elephant, deserted the central African plains altogether and took to the hills. Some of the figures of daily bags recorded by Selous make one wonder how anyone could have profited by such a waste of wildlife all at one time: the elephants provided ivory, but what is a man, even when he heads a large, hungry safari party, to do with eleven or twelve dead giraffes? Yet he had the reputation for holding off from needless killing, and Roosevelt, in any case, was the last person in the world to feel squeamish about bloodletting.
Two items that added piquancy to the Selous legend were these: he usually went out shooting clad in shorts, holding that trousers hampered a man, and he was rumored to be the original of Sir Henry Rider Haggard’s character, Allan Quatermain, in King Solomon’s Mines .
After the desertion of the great elephant herds Selous found his occupation gone and took on a different sort of duty for the British imperialist leader Cecil Rhodes. In 1890, he guided Rhodes’ band of “Pioneers” north from the settled regions of South Africa to where they settled in the future Rhodesia, and was also useful as gobetween for the Pioneers with native chiefs who viewed this incursion of the white man with distrust. Selous’ last attempt to make a place for himself in Africa, as a farmer in Rhodesia, did not succeed, and he decided to go home and live in England. Fortunately the books he wrote on his experiences were popular, so he had enough money to go on. With his wife he moved into a house in Worplesdon, Surrey, intending to write a bit and lecture a bit and thus make out.
About this time, in 1897, Selous’ correspondence with Roosevelt began, while the latter was still Assistant Secretary of the Navy. It flourished. “Selous’ intimacy with the President was of that charming character which unfortunately we now only associate with early Victorian days,” wrote Selous’ biographer, John G. Millais. “They wrote real letters to one another of that heart-to-heart nature which only two men absorbed in similar tastes, and actuated by a similar intellectual outlook, can send as tributes of mind to mind.”
It was becoming apparent at this time that the green peace of Surrey did not satisfy Selous. His foot was itching. When he began writing to Roosevelt, the North American wildlife authorities had just decreed that the territory south of Yellowstone Park was overstocked and that three or four wapiti were expendable, so Selous went over to have a try at them, as well as to shoot moose and caribou in Canada. The first letter in the Roosevelt series indicates that the men were already in touch through a mutual friend named Edward North Buxton.
Washington November 30, 1897
Dear Mr. Selous: