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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
And Selous must also prepare for his own venture, not that such a veteran would make heavy weather of that.
Washington December 26, 1908
Three cheers! I am simply overjoyed that you are going out. It is just the last touch to make everything perfect. But you must leave me one lion somewhere!…I count upon seeing you on April 5th at Naples. It makes all the difference in the world to me that you are going, and I simply must get to McMillan’s during part of the time that you are there.…I have written Sir Alfred Pease that I shall leave Mombasa just as soon as I can after reaching there; go straight to Nairobi, stay there as short a time as possible, and then go direct to his ranch. I particularly wish to avoid going on any hunting trip immediately around Nairobi or in the neighborhood of the railroad, for that would be to invite reporters and photographers to accompany me, and in short it would mean just what I am most anxious to avoid.
Do let me repeat how delighted I am that you are to be with me on the steamer, and I do hope we will now and then meet during the time you are in British East Africa.…
Caspar Whitney of Collier’s Weekly wrote to Selous as soon as he heard that the friends planned to meet, ordering an article “of about 3000 words, on how to hunt the big game which the President will very likely come into contact with. I don’t want this article only because the President happens to be going shooting, but the fact that the President is going, of course, gives a popular interest.” He wanted one or two striking photographs to go with it and would pay $100. Roosevelt reported to Selous on February 4, 1909, that he was “up to my ears finishing my work as president and am having no easy job of it.” On the side, however, he took time out to make some journalistic arrangements of his own. Collier’s offered him $100,000 for a series of articles, but he judged it more suitable and dignified for an ex-President to write for Scribner’s Magazine instead, and signed a contract with that publication for a $50,000 series. This part of the project stirred up criticism among his stuffier acquaintances, but in justice it should have been remembered that Roosevelt was already a professional writer. Indeed, he was to join the magazine The Outlook when he came back after his trip.
He wrote to Selous on February 7, 1909, to say that he had just cabled Cunninghame, authorizing him to get the other white hunter, and he added, “I am up to my ears in work and am ending my Presidency with all kinds of fighting.…I look forward to seeing you on April 5th.”
Whatever letters Roosevelt may have written to Selous during the following year are not in the collection; in any case there could have been little occasion for them. The men met at the beginning of the trip, and after that Roosevelt was too busy travelling, hunting, convalescing from a brief illness, and wrapping everything up for Scribner’s to carry on voluminous letter-writing. It is through the Scribner’s articles, which reappeared in 1910 as a book, African Game Trails , that we keep track. The Roosevelts, father and son, sailed from the States on March 23, 1909, and met Selous aboard ship, according to plan, at Naples. The safaris were not combined, and Roosevelt Senior explains this: Selous, “a veteran whose first hunting in Africa was nearly forty years ago, cared only for exceptional trophies of a very few animals, while we, on the other hand, desired specimens of both sexes of all the species of big game that Kermit and I could shoot, as well as complete series of all the smaller mammals…”
He wrote in addition, warmly:
No other hunter alive has had the experience of Selous; and, so far as I now recall, no hunter of anything like his experience has ever also possessed his gift of penetrating observation joined to his power of vivid and accurate narration. He has killed scores of lion and rhinoceros and hundreds of elephant and buffalo; and these four animals are the most dangerous of the world’s big game, when hunted as they are hunted in Africa: to hear him tell of what he has seen and done is no less interesting to a naturalist than to a hunter. There were on the ship many men who loved wild nature, and who were keen hunters of big game; and almost every day, as we steamed over the hot, smooth waters of the Red Sea and the Indian Ocean, we would gather on deck around Selous and listen to tales of those strange adventures that only come to the man who lived long the lonely life of the wilderness.
It is hard to visualize Theodore Roosevelt as a listener and not a speaker, night after night, but since it was Selous who was talking, it might have been just as he says. Arrived in British East Africa, however, the men went their separate ways, Roosevelt and Kermit to Pease’s estate and Selous to McMillan’s for the first portion of both safaris. They got together at least once, according to Roosevelt’s book, when the McMillans and their guest rode over to Sir Alfred’s for lunch. “This…was after I had shot my first lions, and I was much pleased to be able to show Selous the trophies.”