Wilfred Thesiger
Wilfred Thesiger; drawing by David Levine

When people or their ideas become the object of cults, it is time to watch out. For cults by their very nature are beyond criticism. The beauty of cult worship lies in its irrationality. Cultists substitute exultation for thought.

Wilfred Thesiger, adventurer, writer, and photographer, has lately become a British cult figure. His autobiography has come in for the highest praise in Britain and is a best seller to boot. I once expressed some doubts about Thesiger to a British admirer of his and got slapped on the wrist: Thesiger is a Great Man, a real traveler, unlike those smart-alecky young writers today who parachute in and out of places; Thesiger really knew the people he wrote about; he lived with them; he loved them. Not for him the effete banter of literary London. He prefers the company of real people, noble people, pure people, like Marsh Arabs, tribal warriors in Kenya, or stern nomads of the Arabian desert.

To be sure, there is much to admire about Wilfred Thesiger. His book on the Marsh Arabs in southern Iraq, with whom he lived for about five years during the 1950s, is a unique document of a vanished way of life. What was left before the slaughter of the Iran–Iraq war surely now is lost forever. Thesiger’s prose survives, however, as well as his excellent black-and-white photographs, which have been beautifully reproduced in Visions of a Nomad, an album that spans much of Thesiger’s traveling life. It is divided into three parts: Africa, meaning Ethiopia, Sudan, and Kenya; the Arab world, consisting of Arabia, Yemen, Morocco, Lebanon, and Iraq; and Asia, mainly Iran, Afghanistan, Pakistan, and India.

In between the pictures of noble gray-beards in Persia, armed Arab youths in Oman, and naked warriors in northern Kenya, we are offered snippets of Thesiger’s likes and dislikes. He hates tourists, cars, airplanes: “Airports represent to me the ultimate abomination, everything that I most detest in our civilization.” He does not care much for Europe, “either its people, its towns or its landscape, and I certainly have no wish to visit America, Australia or New Zealand.”

On the other hand, Thesiger loves “relaxed and graceful tribesmen,” with whom he can share “comradeship”; he has had a “life-long craving for barbaric splendour, for savagery and colour and the throb of drums,…for long-established custom and ritual, from which I would derive later a deep-seated resentment of Western innovations in other lands”; and he loves shooting large numbers of animals.

Apart from the shooting, which he admits is no longer fashionable now that wildlife has been largely depleted, there seems to be nothing especially objectionable about Thesiger’s views. Most of us can sympathize with his distaste for, as he puts it in The Marsh Arabs, “that drab modernity which, in the uniform of second-hand European clothes, was spreading like a blight across the rest of Iraq.” For Iraq read the entire developing world.

Indeed, Thesiger deserves praise for his sympathy for remote peoples, his deep understanding of their ways, and the healthy skepticism toward the White Man’s aims in those places, where the sun never used to set. His tolerance and insatiable curiosity must have been rare among colonials of his generation (Thesiger was a colonial by profession, if not necessarily by inclination). And if Thesiger appears, at times, a bit condescending in his passion for barbaric splendor, well, as Osbert Sitwell once said, “a certain love of the exotic was, perhaps, innate in those of English blood, counterpart indeed, of our proud insularity.”

One can understand why the British have taken Thesiger to their hearts. He is the quintessential English eccentric, forever embarking on impossible adventures in impossible countries, among impossible people; the well-bred aristocrat—his uncle, Lord Chelmsford, was viceroy of India—reveling in excruciating discomfort and horrid food. (I have often wondered about this peculiar taste among upper-class Englishmen—it must be all those cold school baths and tapioca puddings in childhood.) He is like a character from his favorite childhood books, by such authors as John Buchan, with titles like Jock of the Bushveld. He is what English romantics like best: the last of a kind.

There is, as I said, nothing ostensibly wrong with all this. And yet…I still have my doubts. This has to do, I think, with the nature of Thesiger’s romanticism. His empathy with tribal people is fine and good, but his admiration for the noble warrior tends to border on cultishness. His sympathy for browns and blacks is wholly admirable, but his preoccupation with racial purity strikes me as suspect. His tolerance for native customs is to be commended, but his delight in violence, killing, and other more exotic forms of nastiness comes rather close to ghoulishness. About his taste for blood he is at least entirely honest. It was developed early in life. As Thesiger’s father wrote his mother:


Billy goes out shooting every day but does not get much as his only weapons are a tennis bat and empty cartridge case which he hits at the birds. He says he can’t get them flying but if they would only sit for him he is sure he could kill one. His sporting instincts are very strongly developed.

Indeed they are. Billy (Wilfred) was three at the time.

Thesiger offers his hunter’s philosophy in asides, in between descriptions of how he bagged ever more hippos, lions, boars, and whatnot. “I believe that most men have an inborn desire to hunt and kill and that even today this primitive urge has only been eradicated in a small minority of the human race.” Maybe so, but those are not the members of the human race that interest Thesiger. He was happiest when in the company of such “savage, and good-looking people” as the Danakil of Abyssinia, to whom a man’s social standing depended on the number of men he had killed and castrated. He describes in The Marsh Arabs how he charmed even the dourest of tribal friends by offering them his gun. “You can usually get on terms with people by helping them to kill something” is his typical throwaway remark.

Now, it may be that I misunderstand him, that this is an example of the last Great White Hunter’s cynical wit. But I don’t think so. For one thing, Thesiger is not an especially witty writer. For another, he clearly approves of the desire to kill. This is not just confined to animals either. He kills men with equal alacrity. Some of his wartime exploits as a guerrilla in Lybia, paving the way for Montgomery’s victory, make for a chilling read. he would drive up to German canteens: “Inside men were talking, laughing and singing. I fired a long burst into the tent…. During these operations we must have killed and wounded many people, but as I never saw the casualties we inflicted my feelings remained impersonal.”

Well, that was war. Thesiger might be a cold fish, but that is no reason to condemn him. It is when the killing becomes highly personal and is justified by a kind of warrior code that I begin to feel queasy. The Bedu, nomads of the Arabian desert, represent the kind of life and manners Thesiger most admires. He decided to live with them, share their hardships, and above all their comradeship. “I knew I could not match them in physical endurance, but, with my family background, Eton, Oxford, the Sudan Political Service, I did perhaps think I would match them in civilized behaviour.” He admits, though, that even he could not live up to their impossibly high standards.

On the next page we are informed that

inevitably these Bedu had little veneration for human life. In their frequent raids and counter-raids they killed and were killed, and each killing involved the tribe or family in another blood-feud to be settled without mercy—though in no circumstances would they have tortured anyone. I soon acquired the same attitude, and if anyone had killed one of my companions I would unquestionably have sought to avenge him: I have no belief in the “sanctity” of life.

This is where Thesiger’s romanticism, to me, becomes objectionable. To hell with materialist civilization, where men are protected by law and fight out their differences in parliaments; to hell with those “fat little gourmets,” those weak townsmen who choose “that easier life of lesser men”; hurray for the “warrior race,” the “handsome race,” the “savage crew,” the always “happy and cheerful” comrades and their “wild and lawless lives.” What Thesiger admires in his tribal comrades is not simply their colorful customs and friendly disposition, but their worship of physical power. Thesiger is in love with racial macho.

When racial macho dovetails with ideals of racial purity, as it inevitably does in a certain strain of nineteenth-century romanticism, things become truly sinister. Here is Thesiger on the sixteenth-century Muslim invasion of Abyssinia, the country of his birth:

For the first time for more than two thousand years Abyssinia had been invaded, though not conquered, by an alien race. The inhabitants of the country had been decimated, their land ravaged, much of their unique ecclesiastical heritage destroyed; but as a race they had not been mongrelized.

Thesiger’s admiration for this great race, which, despite the best efforts of Bob Geldof, is being ravaged by hunger and war today, knows no bounds. Their former emperor, Haile Selassie, whose reign was not without blemish,1 is described in the worshipful tones of a true believer (the memoirs are dedicated to his memory). Haile Selassie thought he was the Elect of God. His power, in other words, was based on magic. This is not especially unusual. Nor, alas, is it particularly unusual for Western pilgrims to worship such power. But it is the kind of naiveté (let us assume that that is what it is) that lends support to ghastly abuses, famines, and massacres.


His emperor worship aside, Thesiger is not a very emotional writer. Nor is he especially interested in politics—given his love for ancient tribal ways, he probably detests politics, for it smacks of that lesser life of the cities. He does get excited about some major issues, however, and his sympathies are entirely predictable. The treatment meted out by Mussolini’s forces to the Abyssinians, quite rightly, enraged him. He is equally emphatic in his condemnation of the “intolerable rule” of Jews in Israel. “Seldom,” he tells us, “can a greater wrong have been inflicted on an innocent people.” That Palestinians were not the only innocent people who had been wronged is not worth mentioning. There is one passing reference to a lot of “hysterical Tunisian Jews with the Star of David sewn on their clothes.” Why they were hysterical is left up to our imagination. But then the Jews are a mongrelized race, and Israel has built the kind of society Thesiger loathes—all those airplanes, schools, and so on.

Thesiger rather disapproves of schools, at least where his tribal comrades are concerned. Eton, of course, was a very fine thing, for him. But Marsh Arabs, we are told, only learn to be discontented with tribal life. Education spoils them forever, for they are no longer people who “know no world other than their own”—one of Thesiger’s conditions for true comradeship.

What, one wonders, was the real nature of this comradeship? Was it sex? After all, the Middle East was favored as a playground by upper-class homosexuals who felt that the price, in guilt or social disgrace, for sex at home was too high. Thesiger disclaims any interest in sex. It is true that, especially in The Marsh Arabs, he shows great enthusiasm for dancing boys and concern for the private parts of young men; he was a master of circumcision, a service much sought after in the Marshes, which he performed with relish. Still, it is entirely possible that sex per se is indeed of little interest to him. Comradeship comes in many forms. Crusty British warriors, particularly of the Victorian and Edwardian age, often liked the company of young lads (think of Gordon of Khartoum and his school for runaway boys), without actually, as they say, having them.

One thing is clear: Thesiger has little interest in women. They hardly figure in his writing, or pictures, at all. And when they do, it is often in a derogatory way. Mostly they are passing figures in the background. He describes, in a throw-away line, how women were treated by some of his favorite people, the Amhara in Abyssinia: “The slave woman who brought us our food was rewarded with a handful stuffed into her mouth by her master.”

The odd thing about Thesiger’s native comrades is how little they come alive in his prose as people. This is especially true of his memoirs. He tells us that he felt deeply about them, more deeply than about any white men, but confines his descriptions to the splendidness of their racial stock, their capacity to take hardship and pain (a clue, perhaps?), their always cheerful disposition, and so forth. We hear very little about what they were actually like. Maybe the author is being discreet, but a similar discretion, happily, is not applied to fellow English eccentrics.

The extraordinary Lieutenant Colonel Orde Wingate, who helped defeat the Italians in Africa and the Japanese in Burma, is described with a vividness sadly lacking in Thesiger’s sketches of his native friends. Wingate, we learn, would issue orders while brushing his body hair with a toothbrush. Even in the intense African heat Wingate never washed, but he would sometimes “lower his trousers and cool his bottom in the occasional waterholes, from which, incidentally, others would have to drink.”

Thesiger doesn’t mention Karl May, the nineteenth-century German novelist, among his favorite authors. Being English he may not have heard of him, but Thesiger bears an uncanny resemblance to a Karl May hero revered by millions on the European continent: Old Shatterhand. As a child, I used to read about Old Shatterhand’s Wild West adventures in Dutch translation. He seemed a splendid fellow, were it not for the annoying detail that he was German (annoying, that is, for a reader born in the shadow of World War II). Like Thesiger, Old Shatterhand was an eccentric loner who felt comfortable only in the company of his trusted Indian comrade Winnetou. Like Thesiger, he was happy to help his native friend in killing things. And like Thesiger, he saw most white men as corrupters of the noble native soul. Old Shatterhand, also, took a voluptuous pleasure in hardship. And just as Thesiger evokes Eton, Oxford, and his proud family lineage as his tribal colors, Karl May’s readers are left in no doubt that Old Shatterhand’s qualities are good German qualities.

May’s romanticism falls well into what the French called the “malaise allemand.” (His personal malaise took a mystical turn; he invented an imaginary paradise called Dschinnistan, a spiritual Eden without a trace of industry and materialism.) Gordon Craig, in his study of the Germans,2 quotes Nietzsche’s description of this German malaise: “a barbaric and enchanting discharge of ardent and gay colored things from an unrestrained and chaotic soul,…an art of exaggeration, of excitement, of antipathy to anything regulated, monotonous, simple and logical.” In other words, something rather like Thesiger’s barbaric splendor, savagery, color, and throbbing drums. An even more Thesigerian note is struck by the writer Ludwig Tieck: “Human beings must learn to kill each other. That is nobler than falling through destiny…. Honor, fame, etc. are the warrior’s pleasure and life…. The desire for death is the warrior-spirit. Romantic life of the warrior….”

Craig explains the German disease as an essentially bourgeois phenomenon. Romanticism served as an escape from the feeling of political impotence. Hence its decline in the heady run-up to the 1848 bourgeois revolution, and its reemergence after the failure thereof. Ultimately, these German dreams culminated in the nightmare of the Third Reich.

Thesiger’s dreams, though related to the German movement, differ in one important respect. The origins of his romanticism, I believe, are not bourgeois but aristocratic. His remark about family, Eton, and Oxford infusing him with the standards of behavior that might match those of the Bedu people is revealing. As is his observation that Eton taught him a lasting respect for tradition and veneration for the past. There is also his interesting comment that he could never convert to Islam, not because he believed in Christianity but because of his family tradition. Most revealing of all is his relationship with the Druze in Lebanon during World War II. Thesiger was “conscious of their pride as a warrior race…. I saw myself as their leader rather than their commanding officer.” The Romantic Wandervogel becomes a tribal chieftain.

Thesiger is indeed one of the last of his kind, an aristocrat who has seen his Kultur disappear in a world of grubby politicians, vulgar tradesmen, and narrow engineers, in short, the world of those lesser men he so despises. Thesiger has lost his Herrenvolk. The airplane, the tourist, and education for all (those ghastly lesser schools) are symbols of the drab uniformity of the modern world, no doubt, but also of the loss of feudal power, of tribal magic and aristocratic droit du seigneur. Happily for Thesiger, he can still find remnants of that old world among the Herrenvolk of Africa and Arabia. The distance from the playing fields of Eton to the hunting fields of the Samburu or the Danakil is not so great after all.

So by all means let us admire Wilfred Thesiger, his adventurism, his crisp prose, and his photographs. He is a gifted and courageous explorer and a more than competent writer. But we can still stop short of admiring what he stands for.

This Issue

June 30, 1988