Remarkable People

ID #5187

Frederick Courteney Selous, Explorer and Big Game Hunter, Southern Africa.

Frederick Courteney Selous (1851-1917) was an explorer, soldier, hunter, and conservationist. He was born in 1851 in London of an aristocratic family. His father, Frederick Slous, was Chairman of the London Stock Exchange while his mother, Ann Sherborn, was a poetess. He had three sisters, Florence, Annie, Sybil and a brother Edmund who became a famous ornithologist. At 42 Selous settled in Worplesdon, England, and married 20 year-old Marie Maddy. They had two sons, Frederick and Harold. He also had children by at least 3 African wives.

From a young age, Selous was drawn by stories of explorers and their adventures. While in school, he started collections of bird eggs and butterflies and studied natural history. One account, recalled by his schoolmaster when Selous was ten, relates as follows: “... on going around the dormitories to see that all was in order, I discovered Freddy Selous lying bare on the floor clothed only in his night shirt. On being asked the cause of this curious behaviour, he replied "Well, you see, one day I am going to be a hunter in Africa and I am just hardening myself to sleep on the ground.”

His imagination was fuelled by the literature of African exploration and hunting. After going to South Africa when he was nineteen, he travelled to Matabeleland, which he reached early in 1872 and was granted permission by Lobengula, King of the Ndebele, to shoot game in his dominions.

Thereafter, until 1890, apart for a few brief intervals spent in England, Selous hunted and explored regions north of the Transvaal and south of the Congo Basin, collecting specimens for museums and private collections. His travels added greatly to knowledge of Zimbabwe. Throughout his wanderings he maintained cordial relations with many chiefs and tribes, winning their confidence and esteem, most notably in the case of Lobengula.

In 1890, Selous entered service with the British South Africa Company at the request of Cecil Rhodes and acted as guide to the pioneer expedition to Mashonaland. After taking the column safely to its destination, he went to Manica and concluded arrangements that brought it under British control. Returning to England in December 1892, he was awarded the Founder's Medal of the Royal Geographical Society in recognition of his extensive explorations and surveys, which he summarized in "Twenty Years in Zambesia".

He returned to Africa to take part in the First Matabele War of 1893 and was wounded during the advance on Bulawayo. He returned to England, married, and in 1896 the couple settled on an estate in Essexvale, Matabeleland when the Second Matabele War broke out. He took part in the fighting, serving in the Bulawayo Field Force and published an account entitled “Sunshine and Storm in Rhodesia”. He fought alongside Robert Baden-Powell. In 1909-1910, Selous accompanied US President Teddy Roosevelt on his African safari. Roosevelt wrote of Selous: “Mr. Selous is the last of the big game hunters of Southern Africa -- the last of the mighty hunters whose experience lay in the greatest hunting ground which this world has seen since civilised man has appeared herein”.

In WW1 at age 64 Selous participated in the fighting in German East Africa (Tanzania). He was promoted to Captain in the 25th Battalion, Royal Fusiliers in August 1915. He was awarded the Distinguished Service Order on 26 September 1916. The citation reads as follows: “On 4 January 1917, Selous was fighting a bush-war on the banks of the Rufiji River against German Schutztruppen and outnumbered five-to-one. That morning, during a minor engagement, he raised his head and binoculars to locate the enemy, and was shot and killed instantly by a German sniper”. Shortly afterwards, General von Lettow-Vorbeck, known as "The Lion of Africa", wrote a note apologizing for the "ungentlemanly death" of Selous at the hands of the German Army.

On receipt of the news, Theodore Roosevelt wrote: “He led a singularly adventurous and fascinating life, with just the right alternations between the wilderness and civilization. He helped spread the borders of his people's land. He added much to the sum of human knowledge and interest. He closed his life exactly as such a life ought to be closed, by dying in battle for his country while rendering her valiant and effective service. Who could wish a better life or a better death, or desire to leave a more honourable heritage to his family and his nation?”

He was buried in Selous Game Reserve under a tamarind tree in a modest, flat stone grave with a simple bronze plaque which reads: "CAPTAIN F.C. SELOUS D.S.O., 25TH ROYAL FUSILIERS, KILLED IN ACTION 4.1.17."

Many of his trophies were entered into museums and natural-history collections, most notably the Natural History Museum in London. They have 524 mammals from three continents in their Selous Collection including nineteen African lions. In the last year of his life he was known to carry his butterfly net to collect specimens for the same institution. Overall, he donated more than five thousand plant and animal specimens to the British Museum. This collection was held in the new Natural History Museum in South Kensington. A bust of Selous was unveiled in the Main Hall in 1920 where it still remains. He is mentioned in Rowland Ward’s catalogues, where Selous is ranked in many trophy categories, including rhinoceros, elephant as well as ungulates. He was awarded the Royal Geographical Society's Founders Medal in 1893 "in recognition of twenty years' exploration and surveys in South Africa".

Selous was one of the first conservationists. In leading so many hunting expeditions, Selous noticed how the impact of European hunters was leading to a significant reduction in game in Africa. In 1881 he returned to Britain for a while, saying; “Every year elephants were becoming scarcer and wilder south of the Zambezi, so that it had become impossible to make a living by hunting at all”.

The Selous Game Reserve in southeastern Tanzania was named in his honour in 1922. In 1982 it was designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site due to the diversity of its wildlife and undisturbed nature.

Selous remains a Victorian-period English gentleman. His adventures inspired H. Rider Haggard to create the fictional character, Allan Quatermain.  He is remembered in tales of war, exploration and big game hunting as a blend of gentleman and epic wild man. RSAFCS

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Last update: 2014-03-02 21:39
Author: Alan McIver
Revision: 1.5

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