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“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
A hiatus follows. By the time the story is taken up again Roosevelt has become governor of New York. Selous is suffering a temporary eclipse in popularity in England—for in the days immediately preceding the outbreak of the Boer War he wrote to the press in defense of the Boers. His early days in South Africa have left him with a sympathy for the Dutch of the Boer Republics, who had long resisted the domination of the British Empire and who had seen their land overrun by the Englishspeaking foreigners they disdainfully referred to as “outlanders.” Thus he has been compelled by his conscience to speak his mind, but the war began before the letter appeared in print, and he has been bitterly assailed for siding with the enemy. Sympathizing with his plight, Roosevelt wrote a long letter on the subject of the South African conflict that was perhaps more interesting for its views on American history.
My dear Mr. Selous:—
I appreciate very deeply the trouble you have taken in writing to me; although in a way your letter has made me feel very melancholy.…
I had been inclined to look at the war as analogous to the struggles which put the Americans in possession of Texas, New Mexico and California…In Texas the Americans first went in to settle and become citizens, making an Outlander population. This Outlander population then rose, and was helped by raids from the United States, which in point of morality did not differ in the least from the Jameson raid ∗—although there was back of it no capitalist intrigue, but simply a love of adventure and a feeling of arrogant and domineering race superiority. The Americans at last succeeded in wresting Texas from the Mexicans and making it an independent republic. This republic tried to conquer New Mexico but failed. Then we annexed it, made its quarrels our own, and did conquer both New Mexico and California. From the standpoint of right and wrong, it is impossible to justify the American action in these cases, and in the case of Texas there was the dark blot of slavery which rested upon the victors; for they turned Texas from a free province into a slave republic. Nevertheless, it was of course ultimately to the great advantage of civilization that the AngloAmerican should supplant the Indo-Spaniard. It has been ultimately to the advantage of the Indo-Spaniard himself—or at any rate to the advantage of the best men in his ranks. In my regiment which was raised in the South-west I had forty or fifty men of part Indian blood and perhaps half as many of part Spanish blood, and among my captains was one of the former and one of the latter—both being as good Americans in every sense of the word as were to be found in our ranks.
∗ In 1895, Leander Starr Jameson and 600 men from the British Cape Colony made a raid on the Boer Republic of the Transvaal. Their intention was to support a projected uprising by English settlers, most of whom had migrated to the Transvaal when gold was discovered there in the 90’s. In an incident which helped to precipitate the Boer War, the uprising failed to come off, and Jameson and his party were captured.
If the two races (Dutch and English) are not to be riven asunder by too intense antagonism, surely they ought to amalgamate in South Africa as they have done here in North America, where I and all my fellows of Dutch blood are now mixed with and are indistinguishable from our fellow Americans, not only of English, but of German, Scandinavian and other ancestry.…
Concluding the letter on a personal note, Roosevelt asks, “Is there any chance of your coming over here again? Won’t you be my guest if you do come? I am so anxious to see you.”
On November 23, 1900, Roosevelt was looking back on a year that saw him installed in a new and higher post, though he doesn’t mention it until he has congratulated Selous on his latest book and chatted some more about the decline of the West since the old days when he hunted there.
I had a pretty lively campaign in running for the Vice Presidency. The office itself is to me distasteful, but I was glad to have the chance of doing efficient work against what I regarded as a most dangerous and un-American party movement [ i.e. , William Jennings Bryan and his Populist-led Democrats]. For the last six years I have worked very hard, but it has all been sedentary. Even the interlude of the Santiago campaign though it contained some tough fighting and trench digging and lying out in the open at night, really had no marching or wearing fatigue about it. In consequence I have grown both fat and stiff and I could no more do the work you did in the snow on the mountains after those wapiti than I could fly.
After this comes the great change. In 1901, McKinley was assassinated, and Roosevelt, as Vice President, took his place; three years later he was elected President in his own right. No letters pertaining to this period are in the series until we come to December 7, 1905, when Roosevelt replies to what must have been a bread-andbutter letter from Selous, written after their first, longawaited meeting that fall: “Now, my dear sir, if you enjoyed your visit to the White House half as much as we enjoyed having you, I am more than content.”