What is Frederick Selous's legacy in Africa?
Following Frederick Selous’ January 4, 1917 death from a rifle shot to his head delivered by a German sniper during the Great War, writer J.G. Millais wrote to Theodore Roosevelt, a friend and fellow conservationist and hunter of Selous for the former American president’s comments. Roosevelt’s response, the complete text of which is included in Millais’ biography of Selous, Life of Frederick Courtenay Selous, D.S.O. Capt. 25th Fuliliers, included a passage that describes better than most his dead friend’s legacy:
"It is well for any country to produce men of such a type; and if there are enough of them the nation need fear no decadence. 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?”
Frederick Selous was, as noted, a hunter and conservationist. He was also an explorer of Africa and grew to know that continent well. So committed to Africa had he become, in fact, that the outbreak of war in Europe in 1914 drove him to pursue military service for his country of England while remaining in Africa. Fortunately for Selous, the Great War extended to the European powers’ African colonies, and Selous saw action in East Africa with the 25th (Frontiersmen) Battalion, Royal Fusiliers. His death in what is know Tanzania marked the end of what by all accounts had been a fascinating life characterized by great courage, scientific curiosity, and humanity (excluding the welfare of the animals he hunted, of course). Selous was in his sixties when he enlisted in the British Army to fight against Germany, but his age did not prevent him from displaying extraordinary bravery, which resulted in his being awarded the Distinguished Service Order.
Selous’s legacy in Africa, however, lies in what he did in the years before the Great War. His explorations and notes on his observations, including those included in his correspondence with Roosevelt, draw a picture of an extraordinary individual whose exploits were instrumental in exposing the previously hidden world of sub-Saharan Africa to his countrymen back home. His hunting and exploring expeditions resulted in numerous artifacts for display in museums including Britain’s Natural History Museum and the British Museum, and his finds were not limited to animal artifacts. Selous was just as interested in the flora and fauna of Africa, as he notes in his writings. In addition, his friendship and business relationship with prominent British colonialist Cecil Rhodes helped Rhodes to develop the system of roads and railways he would built throughout British-occupied Africa. In addition to his military decorations, his explorations were recognized with his being awarded the Founder’s Medal of the Royal Geographic Society.
Selous was a prolific writer, and produced important works describing his exploits and observations including A Hunter’s Wanderings in Africa: Being a Narrative of Nine Years Spent Amongst the Game of the Far Interior of South Africa (1881) and Travel and Adventure in South-East Africa: Being the Narrative of the Last Eleven Years Spent by the Author on the Zambesi and its Tributaries (1893). Selous provides vivid portraits of Africa, and his writings deserve to be read today. Particularly interesting in the latter volume are Selous’ comments on the Dutch Boers he encountered in southern Africa. Boar settlers were in a near-perpetual state of conflict with the Boer War of 1899 to 1902 would mark the beginning of the end of British colonial rule in South Africa.