Obituary: Sir Wilfred Thesiger
The great soldier, explorer and travel writer who may have met Paddy in Egypt.
First published in the Telegraph 26 August 2003
Sir Wilfred Thesiger, who died on Sunday aged 93, was the quintessential English explorer, and the last and greatest of that small band of travellers who sought out the secrets of the desert in the years before Arabia was transformed forever by the oil beneath her sands.
Thesiger’s reputation was established by two epic journeys he made in the 1940s across the Rub ‘al Khali, or Empty Quarter, the most forbidding, least known and least penetrated region of Arabia.
His motive for crossing it was not primarily to reap glory for himself, but to share the hardship of the life of the Bedu and to earn their comradeship. He was not in thrall to the desert itself but, like T E Lawrence, to his admiration of those who lived there: “The harder the life,” ran his credo, “the finer the person.”
The Empty Quarter is the largest sand desert in the world. It covers 250,000 square miles and contains ranges of dunes 100 miles long and 1,000ft high. At noon, the temperature of the surface of the sand reaches 80C.
The first European to traverse this fearsome waste had been Bertram Thomas in 1932, later followed by St John Philby, the father of Kim. But both these had travelled as well-supplied Westerners; Philby had even carried with him a wireless to listen to Test matches. Thesiger’s achievement was to make longer journeys than either, dressed like the Arab tribesmen with whom he rode and rationed to their daily pint of water and handful of dates.
It was a spare, almost monastic way of life, and one in which Thesiger found a near-spiritual contentment. “In the desert,” he wrote, “I found a freedom unattainable in civilisation; a life unhampered by possessions.”
Ostensibly in Arabia to search for the breeding grounds of locusts, Thesiger made his first crossing of the Empty Quarter – a circular journey by camel of some 1,500 miles – in 1946, becoming in the process the first European to see the fabled quicksands of Umm al Sammim. His second expedition, two years later, took him even further through the desert and, in constant peril from hostile Bedu, was still more dangerous.
It was also the most fulfilling experience of Thesiger’s life, albeit a humbling one; for though he withstood the physical hardship, he felt that he rarely matched the standards of behaviour the Bedu expected of themselves.
In the 1950s, as Arabia began to change, he took to the mountains, travelling in remote parts of Kurdistan, the Karakoram and later Afghanistan.
There, on the banks of the Panjshir, he and Eric Newby had the most celebrated meeting between travellers since that of Livingstone and Stanley, with Thesiger (presented in Newby’s account as the hardened professional to his own inept amateur) deriding the attempts of Newby and his companion to blow up their rubber mattress: “God,” he scoffed, “you must be a couple of pansies.”
Thesiger had made his new base, however, in the marshes of Iraq, where he lived for eight years in the 1950s, travelling by canoe and giving basic medical assistance to its inhabitants; he also became expert at circumcision.
His time there, recounted in The Marsh Arabs (1964), together with his precise yet emotionally charged account of his desert journeys, Arabian Sands (1959), gained him a new reputation in late middle age as a writer, albeit one influenced by the romanticised prose of Lawrence and Doughty.
In these books and in his partial autobiography, The Life of My Choice (1987), Thesiger set out his belief that Western civilisation was a corrupting force which had robbed the world of its diversity and stripped the primitive peoples he so admired of their finer traits. It was a floodtide from which he had spent his life trying to escape.
To many he appeared simply an arch-conservative, and critics pointed to the fact that, though Thesiger was horrified by the changes modernity had wrought on the Arab world, the Bedu themselves had not hesitated to swap their camels for cars, a harsh life for one of comfort.
Yet with the passing of time, many others came to share his distaste for the by-products of progress and, with the arrival of such concepts as eco-tourism, Thesiger’s traditionalist concerns now perversely seemed very contemporary.
Paradoxically, one modern invention gave Thesiger an edge over predecessors such as Richard Burton and Wilfrid Scawen Blunt – the camera. Thesiger taught himself to become an excellent photographer and perhaps his most enduring legacy will prove to be his vast photographic record (willed to the Pitt-Rivers Museum in Oxford) of ancient races and ways of life since extinguished within a generation.
His great fortune was to see them just before they were lost from sight; his tragedy that the ones he cared for most have vanished forever.
Wilfred Patrick Thesiger was born on June 3 1910 within the mud walls of the British Legation in Addis Ababa, Abyssinia. His father, a younger son of the 2nd Lord Chelmsford – commander of the force destroyed by the Zulus at Isandhlwana – was Consul-General and Minister at the court of Emperor Menelik.
Billy, as Wilfred was known in his young days, spent his first seven years in Abyssinia, absorbing a spectacle of savage splendour that bred in him his lifelong craving for adventure. At two, he saw the arrival at the British Legation of Crown Prince Lij Yasu’s 1,000-strong war band, resplendent in their scarlet cloaks trimmed with lions’ manes.
At six, he witnessed the victory parade of Ras Tafari, who had triumphed over Lij Yasu in a civil war – wave after wave of glinting spear points and captives in chains. The next year, he went tiger-shooting in India with his uncle, the Viceroy.
Such outlandish tales did not endear him to his fellow pupils at the prep school in England to which he was sent at eight, and Thesiger, already a dominant character who did not take rejection well, retreated within himself. A further blow was the sudden death of his father.
He enjoyed himself more at Eton, which proved another formative influence. Its spartan regime hardened him further and the ancient school also confirmed in him his love of the past. He afterwards retained great affection for the place and had latterly judged its annual travel writing prize, named for him.
Indeed, the simple room in the nursing home near Purley, Surrey, in which he was to live for the last few years of his life appeared almost a re-creation of his Eton study: a single tartan blanket on the bed; a shelf of books by Conrad and Buchan; a drawing of the school presented to him by the pupils.
In 1929 Thesiger went up to Magdalen College, Oxford, to read History, but he enjoyed greater success as a sportsman, winning a Blue at boxing from 1930 to 1933 and captaining the university team in his last year.
He spent his summer vacations working on tramp steamers and fishing trawlers, but the high point of his time at Oxford came in the winter of 1930 when he was invited to Addis Ababa to attend the coronation of Haile Selassie (the former Ras Tafari), who remembered the help afforded by Thesiger’s father during the civil war.
While in Ethiopia, Thesiger took the opportunity to plan his first expedition, a journey north into the Danakil country to search for the destination of the Awash river. This he carried out in 1933, although the Danakil had a murderous reputation for treachery and accounted a warrior’s standing by the number of men he had killed and castrated. The success of Thesiger’s enterprise began, at the age of 23, to make his reputation as an explorer and helped win him a place in the Sudan Political Service.
He served in the Sudan from 1935 to 1940, although he was too unconventional to make a success of it as a career and spent his last years there as a freelance District Officer. He used much of his time to travel as far afield as Chad, and relished the opportunities for hunting lion, which preyed on village cattle. He bagged more than 70, and raised two cubs himself. Thesiger, though, was not a sentimental man, and subsequently shot both the cubs. He did this in the belief that, having been tame, they would grow up to become man-eaters.
On the outbreak of war, Thesiger was assigned to the Sudan Defence Force, and later, under the command of Orde Wingate, helped organise the Abyssinian resistance to the occupying Italians. In May 1941 Thesiger led a flying column which marched 50 miles in a day through sweltering heat to harry a much larger retreating force at Wagidi. Having accomplished this, Thesiger went on to force the surrender of 2,000 Italian troops and the fort at Agibar. His leadership in this action was recognised by the award of the DSO.
Having been recruited by David Stirling, Thesiger later served briefly in the Western Desert with the SAS, but then saw out the rest of the war in some frustration as political adviser to the Abyssinian Crown Prince.
In March 1945 he resigned this post, and while waiting for an aeroplane back to London, was invited to dinner with O B Lean, head of the Middle East Anti-Locust Unit. Lean was looking to employ somebody to investigate locust sites in the Arabian desert; Thesiger had accepted the job before the meal was over.
After leaving Iraq, from 1968 onwards Thesiger lived for much of the year in northern Kenya, with the pastoral Samburu and Turkana peoples, although he dwelt apart from them and, unlike in Arabia, retained his English identity. In reference to this, and to his outsized ears and jutting nose, the tribes called him sangalai, “The Old Bull Elephant Who Walks By Himself”.
Occasionally, Thesiger returned to the flat he kept in Chelsea; but England was an unfamiliar country to him, and he hoped to see out his years in Kenya, with his corpse being left on the hill for the jackals. But after the death of the two Kenyan men whom he had treated as sons, he reluctantly returned to England for good in the mid-1990s, living out his days at the retirement home in Surrey, where he coped valiantly with the effects of Parkinson’s Disease.
He continued to write, publishing several more books, again well illustrated with his own photographs. These included My Kenya Days (1994), Among the Mountains: travels in Asia (1998) and A Vanished World (2001).
Wilfred Thesiger was a Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature and holder of the Founder’s Medal of the Royal Geographical Society, of the Lawrence of Arabia Medal of the Royal Central Asian Society, of the Livingstone Medal of the Royal Scottish Geographical Society and of the Burton Memorial Medal of the Royal Asiatic Society.
He was appointed CBE in 1968 and KBE in 1995. At the coronation of Haile Selassie in 1930, he was awarded the Star of Ethiopia, Third Class.
He never married.