Centenary Blog Sir Frederick Courteney Selous DSO 31st Dec 1851 – 4th Jan 1917 ….Part 1

philblogOn the 4th January we celebrate the life of an extraordinary man whom died fighting in the service of his country just a few kilometres from our beloved Beho Beho and whose simple grave still stands there today.

F.C. Selous, by all accounts was an athletic man with striking blues eyes, a man whose presence dominated the room. He came to be known in his time as a great explorer, adventurer, naturalist, one of the first conservationists and, late on in life, a soldier. The books he wrote surrounding his exploits inspired people across the western world. He was what we might now call a “great white hunter” and he also represents what we would see as the classic English country gent of the late 1800s.

In order to give justice to the life of such a great man, I shall split this blog into 2 parts, the second of which we shall post on the anniversary of his death.

The name Selous dates back to 1600s Jersey, when an Englishman, Philip Slow married a Jersey girl and in their son’s name, on the birth certificate Slow was transliterated (because Jersey was francophone at the time) into Selous.

Fredrick Courteney Selous was born into a well off family; his father was, for a period, the chairman of the London Stock Exchange.  He attended the English private school of Rugby, but he was not the most academic of students and never graduated. Sent then to Switzerland and Germany by his father to complete his schooling, he was inspired by the works of Dr David Livingstone and more interested in exploring the wilds of the continent, hunting and collecting. He later had to flee Prussia to escape imprisonment after knocking a game warden unconscious who caught him stealing buzzard eggs for his collection.

Following this his father relented to his son’s childhood dream to become a hunter in Africa and so in 1871 Frederick landed in what is now Port Elizabeth in South Africa with £400 in his pocket.

He quickly made his way north to Matabeleland (now part of Zimbabwe) and presented himself at the court of the Matabele king, Lobengula, requesting permission to hunt big game in his kingdom. Lobengula laughed at Selous, being just a 21 year old boy. The King told him to go where ever he wished, most likely thinking he would never see Selous again.

The following 7 years were spent in high adventure and hunting, notably for elephant, with which Selous met initial success. However towards the end of this period, he had a bad run, encountering very few elephants, suffering disease, swiftly dwindling funds and nearly being trampled by an elephant cow fuelling his decision to return to England in 1880. It should be noted here that these were different times and that although it would be easy to see Selous’s hunting of elephant in a negative light due to the state of elephant numbers today (mostly due to illegal poaching and habitat loss), Selous actually hunted rather few elephant compared to his contemporaries and it is believed that this is because he was one of the first of his generation to voice the opinion that the hunting of elephant at those levels was unsustainable to the overall population.

Selous used this interlude to write a book about his adventures – A Hunter’s wanderings in Africa, published in 1881. The book was a big hit and sold out 3 separate editions. This was just the first of Selous’ many literary works based on his African escapades. The epic nature of his adventures captured the imagination of many, both in the UK and USA. Today you would have to part with a good few hundred pounds to get yourself a 1st edition of one of his books.

As we all know though Africa gets into your blood and Selous was soon back in Africa and back at the Lebengula’s court. This time he wished to engage in African exploration and to collect and hunt specimens for the British Natural History Museum. Selous collected in his lifetime over 5000 plant and animal specimens, including 524 mammals from 3 continents, greatly adding to the understanding of natural history at the time….To be continued.


I used numerous sources in the research of this blog but chief amongst them was the wonderful book Wild Heart of Africa: The Selous Game Reserve in Tanzania. Featuring numerous authors and edited by Rolf D. Boldus




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