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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
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:
Your letter made me quite melancholy—first, to think I wasn’t to see you after all; and, next, to realize so vividly how almost the last real hunting grounds in America have gone. Thirteen years ago I had splendid sport on the Big Horn Mountains which you crossed. Six years ago I saw elk in bands of one and two hundred on Buffalo Fork; and met but one hunting expedition while I was out. A very few more years will do away with all the really wild hunting, at least so far as bear and elk are concerned, in the Rocky Mountains and the West generally; one of the last places will be the Olympic peninsula of Oregon, where there is a very peculiar elk, a different species, quite as big in body, but with smaller horns which are more like those of the European red-deer, and with a black head. Goat, sheep and bear will for a long time abound in British Columbia and Alaska.
Well, I am glad you enjoyed yourself anyhow, and that you did get a sufficient number of fair heads—wapiti, prongbuck, blacktail and whitetail. Of course I am very sorry that you didn’t get a good sheep and a bear or two.…
Do tell Mrs. Selous how sorry I am to miss her, as well as you. I feel rather melancholy to think that my own four small boys will practically see no hunting on this side at all, and indeed no hunting anywhere unless they have the adventurous temper that will make them start out into wild regions to find their fortunes. I wasjust in time to see the last of the real wilderness life and real wilderness hunting. How I wish I could have been with you this year! but, as I wrote you before, during the last three seasons I have been able to get out West but once, and then only for a fortnight on my ranch, where I shot a few antelope for meat.
You ought to read Hough’s Story of the Cowboy and Van Dyke’s Still Hunter .…
Now, to answer your question about ranching; and of course you are at liberty to quote me.
I know a good deal of ranching in western North Dakota, eastern Montana, and northeastern Wyoming. My ranch is in the Bad Lands of the Little Missouri, a good cattle country, with shelter, traversed by a river, into which run here and there perennial streams. It is a dry country, but not in any sense a desert. Year in and year out we have found it took about 25 acres to support a steer or cow.…
Roosevelt abandoned the impersonal approach not long after, in a letter dated January 17, 1898, when after the customary chat on sport and nature-writing he continued, “I am very much interested in my work here, and I have a wife and six children, so I couldn’t travel all over the world anyhow; but now and then I do very sincerely envy you…It doesn’t seem to me that there can be a much happier life than one spent going through the waste places, in all parts of the world, after big game.”
In Roosevelt’s next, written on February 3, he speaks again of personal matters in a passage that might have been written by one of his small sons: “For the last three or four days we have had cold weather, and a good deal of snow, for Washington, and I have been practicing with skis in consequence on some of the neighboring hills. It’s great fun.”
Evidently Selous let down the bars in his turn and divulged personal news of his own, for in a letter dated February 15, between the ordinary passages on books and shooting, Roosevelt comments,
I am delighted to hear that Mrs. Selous expects to have a child, and I congratulate you both with all my heart. After all, there is nothing that in any way comes up to home and wife and children, in spite of the penalty one has to pay for having given hostages to fortune. I know just exactly how you feel about the “two hearts.” Having a wife and six children, of whom I am very fond, I have found it more and more difficult to get away. For the last eight years, indeed, my hunting trips have merely been short outings. I am of course very much interested with my work here; but I cannot say how I long at times for the great rolling prairies of sun-dried yellow grass, where the antelope stand and gaze, or wheel and circle; for the splintered cottonwoods on the bank of some shrunken river, with the wagon drawn up under them, and the ponies feeding round about; for the great pine forests where the bull elk challenge, and the packtrain threads its way through the fallen timber. I long also for the other wilderness which I have never seen, and never shall see, except through your books, and the books of two or three men like you, who are now dead. It may be that some time I can break away from this sedentary life for a hunt somewhere; and of all things possible to me I should like to take this hunt among the big bears of Alaska, and try to work out their specific relationship. But I don’t know whether I shall ever get the chance; and of course this sedentary life gradually does away with one’s powers: though I can walk and shoot a little yet. Politics is a rather engrossing pursuit, and unfortunately with us it is acute in the fall, at the very time of the best hunting…
I am glad you like to chat with me even by letter. Ever since reading your first booik I have always wanted to meet you. I hope I may have better luck next year than I had this.
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.”
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.
Roosevelt was reluctant to engage a white manager for the party. He had met people who had taken trips in Africa and said they had got on perfectly well without this luxury, and the President saw himself in a romantic role as boss of his own caravan. He said he would feel like “a Cook’s tourist” if he had such a guide, but Selous did not agree, and neither did Buxton, Sir Alfred Pease, or any of the other experts who by this time were in on the act. After a short struggle Roosevelt submitted to the counsel of experience.
Accompanying the letter of August 19 are the lists he mentions, one of them in his own hand; the other, obviously sent by Selous and amended by the President, makes fascinating reading. Roosevelt has changed “i tin Salt” to “2 tin Salt,” adding in brackets, “I like plenty of salt.” Pepper and mustard are struck out. In the list for individual loads, Cocoa is changed to Coffee, and Pâté de foie gras , as well as sets of “3 course French lunches,” are sacrificed in favor of cans of Boston baked beans. Imperial French Plums gave way to canned peaches, and mixed pickles to canned tomatoes. Roosevelt wanted ginger snaps instead of German Rusks, and even instead of Ginger Nuts. He wrote after “i lb. tin Marrowfat,” “What is Marrowfat? Can’t we have Boston Baked Beans instead?” Marmalade was dropped in favor of strawberry jam; Curried Prawns disappeared altogether; a tin of mushrooms got changed into more canned peaches, and “i bottle Mixed Spice” was translated to canned tomatoes. Roosevelt didn’t want Patna Rice or Mixed Sweets, but he approved of Selous’ “1 lb. tin Eating Chocolate,” only altering it to “2 lb. tin sweet Eating Chocolate.” The he-man took out the Bottle of Almonds and Raisins for canned tomatoes, and put in more canned peaches in the place of “i lb. tin Preserved Ginger.” The pound tin of Plum Pudding, almost certainly supplied by Selous against Christmas in the field, was removed in favor of yet more canned tomatoes. Nothing took the place of the deleted Mashed Turnips, at which one can scarcely wonder, but we find more canned tomatoes using space originally set aside for Quaker Oats. Sago? Capers? Roosevelt didn’t ask what they were, though he probably wondered; he just took them out and put in Boston baked beans, and moved in more beans in substitute for asparagus.
This does not mean that the President took his friend’s efforts cavalierly. On the contrary, his letters are full of expressions of appreciation and gratitude, and he speaks several times of his plans for trips after he has left Africa, when he intends to visit England and hopes to see Selous. “I do hope that you will be there and that I shall see you. I would feel as tho the salt had gone out of the trip if you were not there,” he wrote on September 12, 1908. The postscript to a letter dated the twenty-fifth of the same month shows that he is still anxious about his status if he engages a white hunter, though he has nearly fixed on a man named Judd for the job.
Would Judd thoroly understand that I would not want him to do any hunting, and that of course I should have to be boss in the ultimate decision as to where the caravan went or what it did? In other words I should want him to take charge of the caravan and be the guide, but not to do the hunting with me save in exceptional cases. I do not want to do any game butchering, but what shooting is done must be done by Kermit and myself.
So far this is typewritten; in addition he has written with his pen, “I fairly dream of the trip. It seems too good to be true. I never expected to be again in a good game country; and never at all in such a game country as East Africa must be; I long to see the wild herds, and to be in the wilderness.”
The Selous papers include a concentration of letters written about this date from Pease, Buxton, and others, all addressed to Selous and all dealing with aspects of the exciting future during which a United States President will go on safari in East Africa. Several facts emerge from them. The white hunter engaged by Roosevelt is Cunninghame, not Judd. Both men are considered good, but Selous rather prefers Cunninghame, and a warm recommendation of him from Carl Ethan Akeley of the Field Museum in Chicago settles the matter. Then there is Mr. McMillan from St. Louis, who now divides his time between a residence in London and a farm near Nairobi: he would like to entertain Mr. Roosevelt at his Nairobi place. Roosevelt must decline with thanks because he is committed to Pease, but a new possibility appears: Selous too is contemplating a safari in East Africa, and though it will be a comparatively short affair of two months, couldn’t he arrange to go out at the same time as the Roosevelt party? The President suggests it. The Roosevelts are to transship at Naples, where Selous could join them. It develops that McMillan would be delighted to put up the Englishman, since he can’t have Roosevelt, and so it is settled.
A mid all this bustle is one sour note—Selous and Buxton quarrel. Selous thinks Buxton is interfering and being too officious during such important preparations. Buxton hastens to apologize. It is no wonder if tempers are growing short, for tension rises, and every letter from the President seems longer and more repetitious. He, too, is restive, though never bad-tempered, at the increasing cost of operations. Simultaneously Cunninghame, now signed, sealed, and delivered, writes to Selous expressing grave doubts of his ability to handle the caravan all by himself, for it now comprises not only the Roosevelts but the extra scientists and taxidermists who are coming along. Cunninghame wants another white man to keep an eye on camp management while he is out escorting the guns.
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.”
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.
On October 14, 1912, he had just come out of a Milwaukee hotel on his way to address a Progressive meeting during his campaign in opposition to the Democratic presidential nominee, Woodrow Wilson, when he was shot in the chest by a man who felt an inordinately fervent distaste for third terms for U.S. Presidents. Refusing medical aid, Roosevelt went to the meeting as planned, and gave his speech as planned. It was a magnificent example of boneheaded courage; there was nothing particularly crucial about the speech, and there was every reason to suppose him dying of his wound, but Roosevelt was living up to his ideals, behaving like the hero he wanted to be. Indeed, at that moment he became that hero. As it happened, the wound was not fatal; it was not even particularly dangerous, but the wounded man had no way of knowing that. Hearing the news in due course, Selous naturally telegraphed or wrote with all speed and received the following reply: My dear Selous, I could not help being a little amused by your statement that my “magnificent behaviour, splendid pluck and great constitutional strength have made a great impression.” Come, come, old elephant hunter and lion hunter! Down at the bottom of your heart you must have a better perspective of my behavior after being shot. Modern civilisation, indeed I suppose all civilisation, is rather soft; and I suppose the average political orator, or indeed the average sedentary broker or banker or business man or professional man, especially if elderly, is much overcome by being shot or meeting with some other similar accident, and feels very sorry for himself and thinks he has met with an unparalleled misfortune; but the average soldier or sailor in a campaign or battle, even the average miner or deep-sea fisherman or fireman or policeman, and of course the average hunter of dangerous game, would treat both my accident and my behavior after the accident as entirely matter of course. It was nothing like as nerve-shattering as your experience with the elephant that nearly got you or as your experience with more than one lion and more than one buffalo. The injury itself was not as serious as your injury the time that the old four bore gun was loaded twice over by mistake; and as other injuries you received in the hunting field.
After that emotional interlude the watchword, clearly, was “As you were.”
Less than a week before the election—which he lost to Woodrow Wilson—Roosevelt found time to write about matters totally unrelated to politics.
Oyster Bay, November 1st, 1912
My dear Selous:
I have just received your letter of October aoth and value it. I do earnestly hope that you will be able to get a good bull giant eland for the Kensington Museum…I very much wish that you could arrange to stop off between steamers and devote two or three weeks to an investigation of the white-withered lechwee. I think there is something curious about the adult pellage of the male…
December 3rd 1912
By George! that was rather a squeak with the buffalo…
The next fall Roosevelt went on a trip to Brazil and Argentina, but if he wrote to Selous from South America the letters are not in the Archives. Travelling down an unexplored jungle stream ominously named the River of Doubt, he hurt his leg and fell so ill that at one point he tried to persuade Kermit and the rest of the party to carry on and leave him to die. They naturally refused and brought him out by the river.
Shaken in health, Roosevelt returned to the United States in May, 1914, a little less than three months before the start of World War I. With his admiration of military efficiency and the superman concept generally, Roosevelt at first entertained pro-German sympathies. But Roosevelt’s friendship with Selous did not suffer, and soon he changed his mind about Germany. He opposed Wilson’s policies with mounting rancor, and longed to see the United States join the scrimmage. Selous was making valiant efforts in England to organize a troop of tough old-time hunters like himself, on the order of Roosevelt’s Rough Riders in the past: his distinguished friend approved of and supported the project in his letters, but it came to nothing. The British War Office, inundated with applications from elderly fire-eaters, rejected Selous along with the rest.
“I sincerely regret that your body of frontiersmen could not be mounted and sent to the front,” wrote Roosevelt on November 14, 1914. “I thoroughly approve of not sending ordinary volunteers to the front, until they have been carefully drilled. But I also feel very strongly that the ordinary General, even though a good General, does not realize the possibilities of men, such as your frontiersmen, or men such as those I commanded in Cuba, or of men such as were the Boers.…I should give a good deal to try the experimentl”
There was more of the same on December 4:
My dear Selous:
Thanks for your letter. I am rather saddened by it. I know how anxious you are to be at the front. Personally I do not believe in these ironclad rules.…I have a great admiration and respect for the Germans. I wish to heavens that this country would wake up to the hideous damage, moral and physical, caused by the deification of mere industrialism, of softness, and of self-indulgence.…If I must choose between a policy of blood and iron and one of milk and water —especially of skimmed milk and dishwater—why I am for the policy of blood and iron.…But my admiration for the Germans does not blind me to the fact that for the last fifty years their development along die lines of policy advocated by Frederick the Great and Bismarck and so enthusiastically championed by Carlyle has resulted in their becoming a very grave menace to every nation with which they are brought in contact.…I wish I were in the war myself!
Of Roosevelt’s political attacks on the “pro-pacifist” Wilson, nothing explicit is said in his letters to Selous, nor does he seem to have told the embattled lion, caged up in Surrey, that he was putting up a similar struggle on his side of the Atlantic to get into the fight. In January, 1915, he seized eagerly on an army friend’s suggestion that he raise a division, and when the friend said he doubted if President Wilson would be inclined to favor such a project, considering the enmity shown him by Roosevelt, the Colonel (as he now preferred to be called) replied, “I am going to see Mr. Wilson and tell him that if he will give me this commission and authority to organize and take this division to France, I will give him my promise never to oppose him politically in any way whatsoever.” Three months later, on April 2, 1915, he had the bittersweet task of congratulating Selous for managing to get into the war in roundabout fashion, by taking ship for East Africa and joining up there: I have received your letter of February 23 and send this to Nairobi. I am exceedingly glad you have gone to British East Africa. I am sorry to say that very reluctantly I have come to the same conclusion that you have about the purposes and conduct of Germany.…I am very sorry that it did not happen that my term as President occurred while this war was on…I do not believe in neutrality between right and wrong; and I am very sorry that the United States is not in the struggle. If there were a war, my four boys would go, although I suppose that the two younger ones would have to go as enlisted men; and I should ask permission to raise a division of nine regiments of the same type as the regiment I commanded in Cuba.…
The final letter of the series, addressed to “Lieut. F. C. Selous”—who had found a berth in the 25th Royal Fusiliers—is dated August 20, 1915, from Oyster Bay.
Your letter of July nth has just come. I congratulate you with all my heart. It is simply first class to have you a fighting officer in the fighting line, leading your men in the very work that you are particularly and peculiarly fitted to do. I was wholly unable to understand Lord Kitchener refusing you a commission.…The Germans have used Von Hindenburg, who was away over the legal age limit for Generals; and he has been their best General.…I send you herewith two articles I have just written in reference to what I regard as the frightful misconduct of my own country.…If you come through all right and if, in the event of war, I come through all right, I shall look forward eagerly to seeing you when the war is over…
Selous was killed on January 4, 1917, in his sixtysixth year, in an action in East Africa, having won the D.S.O. before he died. But his old friend Roosevelt had still a short course to run. Part of Roosevelt’s wish was fulfilled that year when America entered the war, but he was never permitted to raise the division he so longed to command. After the youngest Roosevelt boy, Quentin, was killed in battle in 1918, people noticed that Theodore was aging noticeably. Roosevelt died of a stroke on January 6, 1919. He was in bed; his boots were off; it is to be hoped that he didn’t realize what was happening to him. He would have been bitterly ashamed.