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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
The Englishman then set out on his own trip, with the avowed object of collecting one good black-maned lion, and Roosevelt saw him later, at the end of July in Nairobi, when Selous was on his way back to Surrey. He’d had no luck at all with lions. But Roosevelt continued his triumphant way, shooting practically everything that moved and collecting so much that the museum respectfully but firmly refused to put it all on view. Fifty specimens only , said the authorities, were what they had room for.
The Roosevelt expedition wound to the close of its African stage, and when Sclous was once more in England the letters began again. From Cairo the ex-President reported on final triumphs: “March 26, 1910:…I thought of you when I got those giant elands, for I knew you would like them. Kermit…also killed two bongo. We got a fine series of white rhinoceras…The two men in London whom at all hazards I intend to see and to visit are Buxton and yourself.…I have any amount to tell you.”
On September 11, 1911, a long letter commiserates with Selous on two points. While on another safari, Selous has had an operation, and Roosevelt quotes him as saying that he “healed up like a dog or a savage.” But fate has dealt him other blows that hurt more. The officials of the Sudan have snubbed him by refusing to furnish transport and other amenities, and they seem to have been sticky about his killing game as well, demanding that he first procure licenses. It is evidently the first time Selous has been so affronted, and Roosevelt is indignant on his behalf.
Poor Selous must have written in a very depressed vein, for Roosevelt continues for several pages to exhort, encourage, and build up his friend’s ego. “Without any flattery, your position among hunters is entirely unique,” he writes. Selous is making another African trip with McMillan (“He is a trump!” said Roosevelt) and has said he won’t take any more risks hunting lion as he doesn’t think his eyes are very good. Roosevelt scouts this pessimistic remark, and scolds Selous for being too reckless generally. “I know you will not pay any heed to this advice…but, my dear fellow, at your age and with your past…I honestly do not think you ought to take these risks unless there is some point in doing so.” But a moment later, he adds: You say you are too old for such a trip as that with McMillan. Nonsense 1 It is precisely the kind of trip which you ought to take. Why, I, who am far less hardy and fit, would like nothing better than to be along with you and McMillan on that trip. But you ought not to take such a trip as that you took on the Bahr-el-Ghazal. It would have meant nothing to you thirty years ago; it would mean nothing to Kermit now; but you are nearly sixty years old, and though I suppose there is no other man of sixty who is physically as fit as you, still it is idle to suppose that you can now do what you did when you were in the twenties. Of course I never was physically fit in the sense that you were, but still I was a man of fair hardihood, and able to hold my own reasonably well in my younger days; but when I went to Africa I realized perfectly well, although I was only fifty, that I was no longer fit to do the things I had done, and I deliberately set myself to the work of supplying the place of the prowess I had lost by making use of all that the years had brought in the way of gain to offset it. That is, I exercised what I think I can truthfully say was much intelligence and foresight in planning the trip.…
My own physical limitations at the moment come chiefly from a perfectly commonplace but exasperating ailment, rheumatism. It not only cripples me a good deal, so that I am unable to climb on or off a horse with any speed, but it also prevents my keeping in condition. I cannot take long walks and therefore cannot keep in shape; but I am sufficiently fortunate to have a great many interests, and I am afraid sufficiently lazy also thoroughly to enjoy being at home; and I shall be entirely happy if I never leave Sagamore again for any length of time.
The “great many interests” included Roosevelt’s latest plunge back into the political world. He did not speak of these activities more specifically to Selous, no doubt because he had discovered that the Englishman knew nothing of and cared less for American politics. But at the time he was very busy indeed staging a theatrical comeback, definitely breaking with his erstwhile protégé, President Taft, and splitting off from the Republican party itself to head a new group, the Progressive party, composed largely of restive ex-Republicans who shared his dissatisfactions. Only one more letter to Selous seems to have been written in the following eleven months, until we find an undated note, obviously sent off soon after the gaudiest incident in the whole saga of Theodore Roosevelt.