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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
Roosevelt wrote a foreword, as requested, to a book by Selous, and sent it on May 25, 1907, with “two or three photographs taken of me jumping my young horse Roswell the other day. I finally took him over a stiff brush hurdle five feet seven inches high, but no photograph was taken of this.” If in the foreword there is rather a lot about Theodore Roosevelt and Theodore Roosevelt’s hunting experiences, the publisher could not possibly have minded: it was not every English writer who could boast of getting a foreword from the President of the United States.
The date is significant in Roosevelt’s career. In earlier days when he seemed to have all the time in the world ahead of him, he had made a public statement to the effect that he did not approve of any man’s holding the presidential office for more than two terms. Worse, he had said that he would not seek office at the end of his second term, if there was to be a second term. Now the end was approaching, and he would have to step down with a good grace, but Theodore Roosevelt could not really look forward to retirement, however often and loudly he said he did. On March 20, 1908, the fatal election year, he wrote to Selous, Now, can you give me some advice? A year hence I shall stop being President, and while I can not be certain of what I shall do, it may be that I can afford to devote a year to a trip in Africa, trying to get into a really good game country. How would it do for me to try to go in somewhere from Zanzibar and come out down the Nile, or vice versa? What time ought I to go?…Is there anyone I could write to about an outfit? Is there anyone who could give me an idea of how much the trip would cost; and, finally, could you tell me whether there are people to whom I could write to ask about engaging porters, or whatever it is I would travel with?
Naturally Selous immediately offered to arrange everything for the great safari, and the President gladly accepted the offer. Many letters passed between the friends, bearing full plans and changes in plans, lists and discussions about equipment and personnel.
“Now, as to the outfit, I must trust to your judgment,” Roosevelt wrote on June 25, 1908. “The white men to be provided for are my son Kermit and myself. I should wish to travel so as to be comfortable, for when I go out there I shall be a man of fifty who for ten years has led a very engrossing sedentary life, and who is no longer fit to endure hardships…” The writer didn’t really mean all that, however; in the same paragraph he suggested equipment of Spartan frugality, and he had to be lured away from his first concept little by little. “I hate a helmet, and if it would not do to wear my ordinary felt hat I should like to have some of the double terai hats…” In the end he had the lot, helmet included. He sent old single boots of Kermit’s and his own to serve as models for an English outfitter to copy in the style Selous recommended, and later asked for his old one back. Evidently it was not only a longing to see East Africa that drew him away from America: “What I should like to do is to leave the United States early in April. My term as President stops on the 4th of March…as one of my chief objects in making the trip is to be out of the United States for the year or year and a quarter immediately succeeding the installation of my successor, I would not want to leave later than the middle of April.”
The trip was taking shape: Selous advised him to start out from Mombasa in what was then British East Africa; their mutual acquaintance in England, Edward Buxton, had a friend with a “big ranch near Nairobi,” Sir Alfred Pease of Yorkshire, with whom Roosevelt could stay for a while, as “there is plenty of game, including lions, right around him.…” Roosevelt answered that he could “if necessary spend six months in British, and if necessary in German, East Africa, which, from what you and Buxton say, would enable me to get out of the regions too thickly infested with tourists and to find really good hunting grounds.…I suppose I should leave Cairo about April ist.…I think I shall arrange to make the trip on behalf of the American National Museum [ i.e. , the Smithsonian Institution], so that I can take with me a couple of professional field taxidermists…” In fact, the Smithsonian did underwrite this part of the expedition.
Two letters later, on August 19, Roosevelt wrote, “I don’t know whether in London they have Boston baked beans, canned peaches and canned tomatoes. A few cans of these…would be excellent…You spoke of a special camp chair of yours with a mosquito net, which I am not sure is put down” ( i.e. , on the list Selous made out). “Is a hair mattress better than a rubber mattress? I don’t see why we want two folding tables and two sets of folding chairs.” One passage is of particular interest: “I have cut out most of the wine and whisky supplies, as you will see. I do not believe in drinking while on a trip of this kind, and I would wish to take only the minimum amount of whisky and champagne which would be necessary in the event of sickness. Surely one case of twenty-four pints, or even twelve pints, of champagne ought to be enough, and I cannot imagine our needing more than three bottles of whisky…”
The idea of this tiny ration of liquor for a trip planned to last a year must have given Selous a severe shock. His list had provided for twelve cases of twelve bottles of whisky each, two cases of twelve bottles Port Wine, and two cases of twenty-four pints Champagne, not to mention Syphons, Soda Tabloids, and Lemonade Crystals.