This essay about a legendary safari tracker is included in my new book The Modern Salonnière, which is available on Amazon. The 34 other essays in the book feature similar literary adventures and essays about traveling with intention.
British Society on Safari
Two men are chatting, the legs of their folding campaign chairs sunk in sere grasses. A leather box sits at their feet, spilling from it a tea service replete with silver spoons. They are the epitome of British society in the African Bush during the 1920s, their pith helmets and khakis the veritable uniform on this wild continent when bits and pieces of it were being divvied up by a handful of European countries. These are not mere mortals having tea: the duo is the Prince of Wales, who would become King Edward VIII for less than a year, and the aristocratic British tracker Denys Finch Hatton, who took the infamous royal playboy on two lavish safaris in East Africa.
During his time on the continent, the Prince would chronicle his experiences using a series of 8mm film cameras, his footage among the greatest legacies in home-movie history considering it contributed to a push for change in animal rights on the Serengeti. Shooting with a camera rather than a rifle was a notion Denys had given the Prince, the idea inspired by a wealthy American manufacturing tycoon named Frederick Patterson, whom Denys had taken on safari for the sole purpose of recording the experience on film.
The change in perspective would eventually motivate the Prince and Denys to lobby for legislation that safaris on the Serengeti be limited to photographic ones. A documentary titled Edward VIII: The Lion King, which contains footage captured by the Prince, shadows him from his landing in Mombasa for the first safari with Denys to the end of a second safari, both of which took him through many of the significant hunting grounds within the British East African colonies.
The 1928 safari, which begins in Kenya, takes him through Nairobi and into Uganda. From here, he was slated to make his way back down to Tanganyika territory (or modern-day Tanzania) but his father’s poor health forced him to return to London before he could make that leg of the trip. During his time in the bush, the Prince was in excellent hands with Denys, as the legendary hunter had been in Kenya for nearly 20 years by the time he led the Prince on his first safari.
The documentary is so informative because many of the storytellers in it are biographers who’ve written about Edward VIII or Denys, and each was able to bring new insight to the story. There is a consensus among them that the way of life in Africa at the time was such a good fit for these two men because it was a relaxed version of British society in the field. Denys, the son of an earl, and the Prince shared the opinion that the English upper classes led claustrophobic lives in the UK so the pace and casual lifestyle in the bush was more to their liking. Denys had known for two decades what a heady experience it was to call his own shots in Africa, something the Prince would find alluring enough to entice him to return.
They could be exactly who they wanted to be and do exactly what they wanted to do in Africa, which, in hindsight, foreshadows the Prince’s itch for freedom that influenced him to reject his role as the King of England. He did so, of course, for his relationship with the American socialite Wallis Simpson after only 326 days as the British monarch. During the second safari with Denys, the Prince brought along his mistress, Thelma Furness, who would be the one to introduce him to Simpson—a meeting that would alter the history of a nation.
Though a prince flaunting convention was nothing new, a member of the royal family being determined to have a positive impact on wildlife conservation in Africa at that time was. The Prince’s determination was a bit ironic given his original plan was to bring home big-game trophies. During the 1920s, a successful safari meant bagging the big five—an elephant, a rhino, a Cape buffalo, a lion, and a leopard. To put the time-frame into perspective, the Prince’s first trip took place eleven years after Theodore Roosevelt cut a wide swath across the continent during a nine-month rampage that claimed the lives of over 11,000 animals—a jaunt that would cost well over $25 million in the early 21st century.
The expense was so exorbitant because these personalities were accustomed to a high level of pomp and circumstance—the campaign furniture and other accoutrements they transported into the bush allowed them to maintain a slightly more relaxed formality than they enjoyed at home, though achieving it was not cheap. It is the knock-down furniture, as it was also called, that inspired me to delve into this particular era on this particular continent—the search for stories about how the camps would have come together sending me on a summer-long reading jag during which I devoured the Prince’s memoirs and a number of biographies about these adventuresome men.
The more I read, the more I realized Denys, while being the ultimate marksman, was also a host with great style; or, more pointedly, I suppose, the 1920s bush version of an upscale event planner. This was quite surprising considering that my knowledge of him before, from the film Out of Africa, limited him to a man’s-man of the hunt. My favorite biography of Denys is Sara Wheeler’s Too Close to the Sun, not only for the vibrancy with which she told his story but also for her lyrical style of writing.
She proclaims his was “an ordinary story of big guns and small planes” but her narrative is far from mundane, as it paints an extraordinary picture that moves “from the smoky orange lights of the Café Royal to the geometry of the desert hills in the Northern Frontier District.” She adds, “[His story] is infused alternately with the whiff of cordite, of elephant spoor, and of a bucket of eau de cologne tipped over onto the linoleum of an Eton schoolroom.” Reading about Denys’s background as an aristocrat helped me see how he developed as a man of style, and why he was able to create safari camps that were oases of luxury.
Under the tents he set up, the trail of which would form a meandering pattern of dots on the African map, canvas bars held the finest libations, classical music drifted across the landscape during the evening meal, and livelier tunes crackled from phonographs during nightcaps. The documentary has extraordinary footage of this sumptuousness: tables are set with crystal and china; ice-making machines have been transported into the bush; and the camp staff iron the linens for the tables and the beds! The globetrotters drank chilled champagne from crystal goblets during picnics and ate four-course meals dished from silver service.
Producers of events on par with Denys’ lugged pianos, transported libraries of classical and jazz music, and brought along other niceties to add to the sensuousness of the experiences. One of the quirkiest moments in the documentary shows the Prince filming a group of Maasai tribesmen quizzically listening to the strains of Mozart wafting from a phonograph. Though all of this materialism paints quite a lavish picture, the duo’s desire to protect animals was real, particularly when it came to the practice of shooting from moving vehicles—a new fad that offended the marksmen among the hunters because it required little skill and gave unfair advantage to the humans. After his first safari was cut short and he was forced to return to England to fulfill his royal duties, the Prince gave a rousing speech against the practice to the East African Dinner Club in London on June 27, 1929.
The documentarians note this was “the first crack in the door that swung open to ignite change.” The speech was followed by an article penned by Denys, which appeared inLondon’s daily newspaper The Times the next day. Both condemned the unseemliness of the unsportsmanlike conduct of shooting from vehicles. Before long, the matter was being debated in the House of Lords, and even the Archbishop of Canterbury had something to say about it. As the documentary states, “The Prince and Denys had won the first round.” They would go on to win others, and the Prince’s footage would be instrumental in the fight—an impact that would last well beyond his lifetime.
Lucky for him, the Prince’s memoir proves he had a fabulous time doing so: “I enjoyed this open-air life of hard exercise, so much so that I found it difficult to believe that anyone would ever voluntarily choose to return to civilization.” Denys loved life in the African bush just as strongly: “The deep joy with which Denys responded to nature took him close to the mystery of it all, and gave him a gratifying awareness of the human need to reach out to the transcendental,” Wheeler wrote. It is interesting to note that in his memoir A King’s Story, the Prince, writing as the Duke of Windsor by the time he penned it, never mentions Denys by name.
“I decided to satisfy my recurrent wanderlust with an extended shooting expedition to East Africa,” he wrote, referencing an unnamed guide just once in the narrative. The Duke chronicles each of his safaris, such as this jaunt to Tanganyika led by Denys: “Because I and my party would have to travel light, we shipped most of our clothes to South Africa. Stripped down to ‘bush shirts’ and shorts, we made our way south in a small convoy of station wagons and light lorries.” This is the trip during which Thelma Furness had joined him. Karen Blixen, the author of the novel Out of Africa and Denys’ mistress at the time, was also along for the ride.
Even when the Duke of Windsor’s remembrances reference his passion for filming, which Denys inspired, the tracker’s name is nowhere to be seen: “The new year of 1930 found my father’s health so restored that I was able to plan another trip to East Africa. This time I was lured back not to shoot big game with a rifle but with a motion-picture camera, my new hobby…I had decided that for me a living record on film of my expeditions would be a more satisfying, and certainly less cumbersome, souvenir.”
Considering how history only remembers what is recorded, it’s fortunate that so much of the footage shot by the Prince includes not only the breathtaking wildlife and powerful landscapes, but also the other players in this sweeping story—each of whom he chose to ignore in the story he left to posterity.
The Camera Becomes King on Safari © Saxon Henry, all rights reserved. Saxon is an author, poet and strategist whose books include The Modern Salonnière, Anywhere But Here, Stranded on the Road to Promise and Four Florida Moderns.