The post I planned was completely different from the one I have written. While I was putting together one topic, I ran across an interesting fellow named Richard John (‘Dick’) Cuninghame, a Scottish naturalist and African explorer/safari leader who was born in 1871 and died in 1925. He started off in the normal way of his class and time; that is, he attended Eton and then Cambridge. Exactly how he got into the life of a safari leader and explorer I cannot say, but he made a name for himself and became a fellow of both the Zoological Society and Meteorological Society. Here he is looking bemused in Cairo, Egypt in 1902 at the start of his first expedition.
Having made it into the African interior to collect zoological specimens with his friend Douglas McDouall, he promptly came down with a dangerous eye infection. Despite constant pain and complete blindness, he did not turn back. His diary entry for February 27, 1902, reads:
“I had had little sleep before the caravan arrived and on wakening noticed a peculiar gumminess around my right eye… the following day matters became serious and I lost vision in the right eye… After spending hundreds of pounds, and march[ing] hundreds of miles, though gameless, badly watered, and pestilential country, and to have just and only just arrived at the commencement of a really good game country, in a land but imperfectly explored, a combination of circumstances we had eagerly looked forward to for months past. Sitting, however, in the middle of a mountain range and pondering over regrets, in the dark, for by now I had lost the vision in both of my eyes, was of little practical use, so on the abating of the acute pain we decided to endeavour to reach the Nile again.” (From a Bonham’s auction catalog)
Though he was still blind when they embarked on the Nile, he managed to captain the boat anyway. Now that’s determination. Fortunately, his eyesight gradually returned to normal and he was able to continue his explorations. Here he is a few years later, looking a little the worse for wear after a day of trekking.
Eventually, his reputation won him the honor of leading, from April 1909 to March 1910, the Smithsonian-Roosevelt expedition, the famous safari that Teddy Roosevelt took after his second term as president ended. According to Wikipedia, “Their route ran from Mombasa in British East Africa to the Belgian Congo, then to the Nile and along the river to Khartoum. More than 11,000 animals were shot or captured during the trip, Theodore Roosevelt and his son Kermit shot 512 large game alone. The organization on site, namely the selection of the almost 200 porters as well as the askari and the staff for weapons, horses and tents was the responsibility of Cuninghame. On at least one occasion, a hippopotamus attack, Cuninghame is believed to have saved Roosevelt’s life.” People didn’t exercise a lot of restraint in those days, but they did collect a lot of important specimens. As one would expect, TR and Cuninghame got along well. Here’s the intrepid Teddy with a waterbuck.
When WWI broke out, Cuninghame returned to England and tried to enlist only to be turned down on account of his chronic malaria. Not to be put off, he went to France and became an ambulance driver. Eventually, he returned to Africa, where he continued to serve and earned the Military Cross. After the war, he gave up the safari life and retired to his family estate, Hensol House in Scotland.
Called the “baby Balmoral”, the large estate recently sold for over 14 million pounds. I bet it’s cold and drafty inside. Cuninghame and his wife (the sister of his friend Douglas McDouall) never had any children, presumably because he was gone too much and by the time, he settled down it was too late. He died of a brain tumor at the age of 54 but at least he led a full life.
Just when I’m ready to give up on the Internet altogether, I come across some new and interesting story. I guess there is an upside to all the technology, although sometimes it’s hard to see it.
Have a great weekend!