Sir Wilfred Patrick Thesiger

views updated

Sir Wilfred Patrick Thesiger


British Explorer

Wilfred Patrick Thesiger was born in Abyssinia (present day Ethiopia) in 1910. His father was the British Minister in Addis Ababa, the capital city. The young Thesiger grew up among conditions of political turmoil. Murder and robbery were not uncommon in and around Addis Ababa, and as a child he witnessed many public floggings and hangings. For recreation he went on hunting trips with his father and brothers, and in 1918 he and his family took a short trip to India. By 1919, when he and his family moved to England, he had developed a taste for travel and adventure.

In England, Thesiger was educated in good schools. But, after their years in exotic Ethiopia, he and his brothers had difficulty adjusting to the relatively uneventful life of an English student. While at Oxford University, he was invited to return to Ethiopia to attend the coronation of the Emperor Haile Selassie. This brief trip convinced him that life in England was not for him. He returned to Oxford to finish his education, but went immediately back to Africa following his graduation.

In 1934 he began his life-long career of exploration. For six years he traveled and explored in eastern Africa. Then from 1940-44 he fought with British forces in northern Africa during the Second World War. As a member of the British Special Air Service he participated in a number of successful raids on German forces, killing and wounding an unknown number of enemy soldiers. From 1944-45 he was an advisor to the Crown Prince of Ethiopia. From 1945-50 he explored the southern deserts of the Arabian peninsula, living with the Bedu people in the region known as the "Empty Quarter." He was the first European to thoroughly explore that area. His book Arabian Sands, which recounts his time in the "Empty Quarter," is considered a classic account of exploration and adventure. From 1950-58 he lived with the marsh Arabs in southern Iraq, during which time he also traveled to Pakistan and Afghanistan. In 1958 he returned once more to Ethiopia and explored the central African regions in and around Kenya. In 1968 he decided to remain in that area. He lived in Kenya until 1994, when his health began to fail. He subsequently returned to England to live in a London retirement home.

Thesiger has been recognized for the numerous scientific contributions that came from his years of exploration. He expanded our knowledge of geography, ethnography, anthropology, and botany in the lands in which he traveled. Many consider him to be the last of the great explorers. Thesiger regretted, however, that his explorations helped to open many previously unknown lands and their peoples to disruptive modern technologies. The invention of automobiles, Thesiger claimed, was "the greatest disaster in human history" because it ruined the lifestyles of the nomadic peoples he had befriended and loved. These lifestyles, forged under harsh conditions and built upon strong commitments of honor and respect, were greatly disrupted by the technologies brought in from Europe and America. For this reason Thesiger long opposed global technological diffusion. Believing that modern military technology, especially nuclear weapons, could destroy all human life within the next 100 years, Thesiger was an outspoken opponent of technology as a means towards a better civilization. He preferred the simpler ways of the nomadic peoples with which he spent so many years of his life.

Thesiger has published numerous books about his travels. For his years of exploration and his many contributions to scientific knowledge, he was knighted by the British government in 1995.