This captivating book, full of unlikely adventures, was originally published in the United States in 1927. It was generally excoriated by critics worldwide and for reasons contemporary readers may find to be entirely beside the point. Was the book awash in racial stereotyping, ecological pillage, and abiding chauvinism of the masculine variety? Surely, but the critics of the day were troubled by other matters: the prose, they declared, did not seem sufficiently grounded in reality. In point of fact, reliable researchers have been able to situate many of the locations, and confirm (more or less) most of the stories told by the man whose pen name was Trader Horn.
Born in England in 1861, Aloysius Smith was expelled from a Catholic boarding school—in the English fashion he refers to the school as “college.”—at the age of seventeen. He shipped off to West Africa, and worked for a British trading company, exchanging trade goods for ivory or rubber. Aloysius, called Wish, canoed and charted various rivers, fought mini-wars with his “boys,” killed when he had to, and admired some of the “natives”: people he felt were “almost as intelligent as us.”
It was an eventful life. Smith returned to England for a time, where he worked as a reporter and then a policeman. Somehow he fell in with Buffalo Bill Cody and appeared in the famous Wild West show. He lived for a time in Mexico, Australia, and Madagascar. The present volume is about Smith’s early adventures in West Africa.
For those who prefer to knock back their armchair adventure in large Indiana Jones-sized drafts, Trader Horn will deliver. It takes some time, but the reader will watch a man exchanging real jewels for fake ones in a shadowed temple of…well, a temple of doom. A maiden is imprisoned, or perhaps not. A rescue is attempted. An evil witch doctor dies in an act of cunning treachery.
These are the kind of tales (and attitudes) one might read about in Kipling, had that author concentrated on Africa. But Aloysius Smith was no Rudyard Kipling. Indeed, he first stumbles out of the doss house and onto the literary scene in 1925: a little old man with long white beard selling gridirons door to door in Johannesburg, South Africa.
The American reader will want to know that a “doss house” is London slang for a homeless shelter and that a “dosser” is a homeless individual of the type once called a bum or a tramp. Put it this way: in his later years, Aloysius Smith enjoyed an intemperate fondness for alcohol. The doss house was the Salvation Army Center in Johannesburg, and a gridiron is the grill one places over an open fire, though the appliance in this case, I think, was probably used to heat bread.
So, an old bum comes to the door selling toasters. He’s got a gift of gab, this charming old reprobate, and his prospective customer is the nationally noted novelist, Ethelreda Lewis. Ah, but all that is in the story you are about to read, and perhaps the most beguiling part at that.
The foreword was written by John Galsworthy, who was one of the great literary lights of the day and the winner of the 1932 Nobel Prize for Literature. Some critics feel that Galsworthy’s imprimatur sealed the book’s success, but if one reads the end-of-chapter conversations between Smith and Lewis, it is the homeless man who continually advises the novelist about what Americans want in a book. He was right. Americans bought Trader Horn by the bushel. It was the number four non-fiction bestseller in 1927 and number three in 1928.
Wish Smith—this arrogant old stumblebum—also advised Etheleda Lewis on how to put together action sequences so their collaboration would be salable to the movies. And, in 1931, the film Trader Horn—the first non-documentary ever shot in Africa—was released. It was nominated for an Academy Award.
The old bum knew what he was talking about, and though his attitudes are those of a Victorian colonist (probably because he was a Victorian colonist) there are odd contemplative sections—sparely placed and almost hidden—where one may watch in a kind of hope-filled awe as Wish Smith seems to struggle toward the light. He never makes it, but one wants to feel that he came close in his heart.
The man, whatever his faults, told a fine tale. He was, it seems, consumed by his travel lust: what he called his “gift for roaming.” Wish Smith died in England, a relatively wealthy man, and his last words are almost too perfect: “Where’s me bloody passport? I’m off to Africa.”
About Tim Cahill:
Tim Cahill is the author of seven books, mostly travel related, including Jaguars Ripped My Flesh, Pecked to Death by Ducks, Pass the Butterworms, and Dolphins. He describes his travel writing as “remote journeys, oddly rendered.” Reviewers have been overwhelmingly kind, though some have accused him of having a sense of humor. Cahill is also the co-author of the Academy Award nominated IMAX film, The Living Sea, as well as the films Everest and Dolphins. He lives in Montana.