The latest addition to the popular Travelers’ Tales Classics series, Trader Horn is one man’s account of his wild youth as an ivory trader in Central Africa. Stories of thrills and danger abound, as do wild beasts, serpents, and savages. The book was a best-seller in 1927 and was also released as an MGM major motion picture. Follow Trader Horn as he journeys into jungles teaming with buffalo, gorillas, and man-eating leopards, frees slaves, meets Cecil Rhodes (founder of Rhodesia) and liberates a princess from captivity.
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.”
On arriving at the impondis of the Okelleys, I could soon see that great havoc had occurred on account of marauding elephants and gorillas, besides other animals. One rascal paid them nocturnal visits and was supposed to be the most dangerous of all the animal visitors. The native hunters then told me that the next unwelcome customer was a very large old gorilla who was likewise greatly to be feared, as he had already charged a party of men who had followed him to his home about two hours distant and had been heard giving voice and truming* at dawn. He was somewhere in the vicinity of a grove at the foot of a small rocky rise on the opposite side of the creek, which ran through the grove. They thought there would be a good chance of getting him that morning and we wound our way along the creek to the place mentioned.
I was told to take a stand beside an old fallen tree as he generally passed that spot if disturbed. If he came their way they would surely have him for the damage he had done to their plantations. I took the stand with my faithful head boy and from where we were we could see the Okelley, four in number, lying prone in the bush at the edge of the clearing. We waited for some time but could see or hear no sound indicating his whereabouts. I was just about to give up the gorilla chase and try my luck at spooring the rascal elephant when the sound of a rolling stone reached us from over the creek. Once in a while we could get a glimpse of his head and shoulders, as he showed up above the round large boulders. Presently he rolled over one of these large stones and he was busily engaged breakfasting on the large insects which were under the rocks. Having satisfied himself with this kind of titbit he peered around and, thinking the coast was clear, he walked cautiously towards an old peanut clearing, and as he came up within about 20 yards of where the native hunters were concealed he seemed to suddenly hear something out of the way.
The Okelleys now fired on him, but instead of scampering away as he was only slightly wounded, he made a bound on them using his arms. One man and gun he sent fully ten feet high in the air and played havoc with the others, scattering them with a snap of his arms while one of them gaining his feet was knocked sideways again. He used his knuckles and long arms (I never saw him bite) so quickly that one could scarcely see which was gorilla and which was man in the mix up, as he played skittles with them, he seemed to knock them before him. Contrary to what I had expected he never used his teeth, although their bite is terrible and said by natives also to be poisonous. I never have seen a man brave enough to stand and let him seize a gun before firing, as I heard the hunters say was done by the Ivilis of the Angani. He then came bounding towards us and seemed to have sighted us. I fired low under the chin and Renchoro followed suit. He rolled over and over stretching and lay dead at the other side of the old fallen tree. He was very large, and although I have hunted them for years, he was by far the biggest I ever saw alive.
I now hastened to where the hunters lay stretched out. The first fellow we met was laid 20 yards from the others, and as we tried to rear him up so as to give him a brandy from my hunting flask, he came to, but must have been dazed as he broke away and began to run on all fours in fright; we shouted to him to stop and he took his tot like a good man, and when he had completely recovered from his shock, his memory returned. We examined him but only discovered a bruise on his right thigh, and he also had a few corners knocked off him, which must have been done when he was knocked amongst the small bushes. I commenced to pour brandy on these wounds but he resented this waste and laughingly said it would do him more good to drink it as it was fine medicine, so I gave him another wet. The next man was badly wounded by a hit upwards along the ribs and had also a long wound from above his knee cap, and he was bleeding profusely and was unconscious.
I sent the one who had now recovered back for help and he returned with a dozen men and women, and likewise the Chief, native doctor, and old Iwolo also made his appearance with his medicine bag and two bottles of rum. They washed the wound, and during the medical operation the badly wounded one opened his eyes and was soon able to take a drink of brandy; the other two had already recovered and could stand erect, and although they were wounded and bruised badly, their native doctor laughingly declared them to be all right. We sat down in a ring while Renchoro explained the whole to-do amidst great laughter, and he gave a great description and mimicked the antics of both gorilla and men as the men went spinning one way and their guns the other and when he saw the first one spring above the ground he felt like running himself. We now looked at the dead gorilla who the chief said had grown so big and wide on the food he stole from his plantations, that he was the largest he had ever seen.
I returned to the village with the Chief, who promised to have the animal brought in at once and buried over a large antheap so that I could call for his remains on my return from the upriver country. At the village I enjoyed a hearty meal and sat and talked away the time with the old Ogo (native for chief). The gorilla arrived, but unfortunately was disemboweled and cut in two halves. As this was done it was useless to say anything. They had done this as he was too heavy to carry otherwise. He was duly buried and was a grand specimen and fetched a good price in England in spite of the fact that his spine had been badly hacked by an axe and several bones broken.
Late in the afternoon we received news of the rogue elephant who was heading towards us, as he had been frightened by a bank of Osheba hunters who had crossed over from the north bank of the Ogowe at a point about twelve miles north. He had been seen entering a grove about 5 miles away where they said he would spend the night and could easily be followed from there by his large tracks as he was very heavy. The evening was spent in spinning yarns about the Oshebas, who the old Chief assured me were not like the M’pangwes and only eat men of their own tribe who are conquered in war, and he assured me they had killed and eaten many of the tribe. There are groves and places where these maneaters generally eat their poor victims, and as I afterwards saw many of these and the crosses to which they tied their victims, I was forced to believe his statement, although I never saw this gruesome sight for myself. However I saw a M’pangwe being tried for murdering his father-in-law, whom he had eaten, and was found guilty and punished with death.
I was awakened before daylight and had trackers following the rascal elephant, which we found in the edge of a grove of illundas (trees bearing nuts). As still-hunting is the only method of hunting elephants attended by much success, we separated into three parties and advanced cautiously in file, following in the wake of the trackers. A couple of rifle shots by the party to the left of me rang out, followed by heavy rustle of underbrush. We had all lain low, and as he came along at express speed he charged past us at close range but gave us no chance of shooting, as the underbrush was high and we only had passing glimpses of his huge body.
After he had passed us, on came the trackers following the blood spoor, which was heavy. We followed him, although we had great difficulty in seeing him as we still kept file for speed’s sake. Presently he circled, having sighted a crowd of men and women who were following us with their baskets ready for elephant meat, as he was considered a sure capture. On his return he rattled through the bush to the right of us still going strong but we had lost the tracker, who eventually appeared, telling us that the elephant was badly wounded as his strides were shortening and he would no doubt make for the river crossing. We followed on quickly and this time kept the tracker well in sight as he ran doubled up. He was an experienced tracker and hunter and could pick up the spoor like a hound.
As the underbrush became more open we could travel faster but my luck was out as I knocked down a small wood-hornets nest which was hanging from the branch of a tree. I was knocked clean out of the hunt as I was badly stung over the face, neck, and back and was forced to fight a battle royal with my hat. I was not alone in the battle and as I ran and hit them off I could see two of my boys fighting boldly as these flying pests took vengeance on their naked bodies. The rest of the hunters vanished laughing. The pain of these pests of the forest was intense. We left the hunt and made for a small stream, and after plastering up our stings with soft blue clay and mud, we sat down and drank copiously from my flask, waiting for our pains to pass.
Alfred Aloysius Horn was born in 1854, and as a teenager sailed from the U.K. to Africa where he died in1927. In between he lived a varied and colorful life. Amongst his many pursuits:
- Ivory trader in Central Africa, journeying into jungles teaming with buffalo, gorillas, and man-eating leopards
- Big game hunter – elephants, lions, and leopards
- Gold and copper prospector
- Scotland Yard Detective
- Liberator of an Isorga princess
- Distiller of prickly pear brandy
- Admiral of a cannibal river fleet
- First white man initiated into the Egbo
- Mine-sweeperHe became acquainted with Ulysses S. Grant and Cecil Rhodes, founder of Rhodesia. Later in life, he turned to simpler things and became a gridiron peddler and dealer in literary novelties.