Henry de Monfreid

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Henry de Monfreid (14 November 1879 in Leucate – 13 December 1974) was a French adventurer and author. Born in Leucate, Aude, France, he was the son of artist painter Georges-Daniel de Monfreid and knew Paul Gauguin as a child.

"I have lived a rich, restless, magnificent life", Monfreid declared a few days before dying in 1974 at the age of 95.

Monfreid was one of those individuals who only find their true focus in life when they stumble across it on their travels. For Monfreid it was to be the Red Sea and the Horn of Africa coast from Tanzania to Aden, Yemen, the Arabian Peninsula and Suez, treacherous routes that he tirelessly sailed in his various expeditions as adventurer, smuggler and gunrunner (during which he said he more than once escaped the Royal Navy coast-guards cutters).

Monfreid's Altair, cutting through the Bab-el-Mandeb straight waters on a fair monsoon day, might have looked like this dhow ...


In 1911, following the tracks of Arthur Rimbaud, Monfreid went to Djibouti, then a French colony, in order to trade coffee. He built a dhow for himself and used it to traverse the Red Sea. He lived many adventures, eventually prospered, bought a house near the shore in Obock cove (very useful to have signal lights hung on the terrace to warn him if the French coast-guard's cutter was waiting for him...), and had a big dhow, the Altair ( "Soaring Eagle ) , built up by a local shipyard. Between 1912 and 1940 he ran guns through the area, dove for pearls & sea slug[disambiguation needed]s, and smuggled hashish ( and even morphine he bought in a German famous laboratory) into Egypt, earning several stays in prison in the process. Monfreid always denied having taken part in the slave trade from Africa to Arabia.

He converted to Islam during this period, which included undergoing a circumcision and taking a Muslim name: "Abd-el-Haï" ("Slave of The Living One").

During the 1930s, Monfreid was persuaded by Joseph Kessel to write about his adventures, and the stories became bestsellers.

A small dhow now used for beach-promenade. Monfreid wrote that he was glad once to have Muslim ladies en route for the hajj crouching on his deck, on the Red Sea between Obock and Jeddah: the officers of the Aden Royal Navy cutter did not dare to offend against "haram", and gave up stopping and examining his boat, which was loaded with forbidden wares.

During World War II, Monfreid, who was now more than sixty years old, was captured by the British and deported to Kenya as he had served the Italians and his wife, born Armgart Freudenfeld, was daughter to the former German governor of Alsace-Lorraine.

After the war Monfreid retired to a mansion in a small village of "la France profonde", in Ingrandes ("département" of the Indre), France. There he played piano, wrote, painted, and quietly raised in his garden a plantation of opium poppies, and took the habit of using the local grocer's scales to weigh his crop and divide it into daily portions. The grocer's did not heed, since Monfreid's household were good customers, and Monfreid himself bought huge amounts of honey, which he took to drive off the costive effects of opium. Eventually Monfreid was given away to the local "gendarmerie" (field-police station), but he escaped prosecution  : at that time opium was used only by unconventional artists (like his friend Jean Cocteau) - and besides, Monfreid boasts in his books about his ability to manipulate and dispirit by words of mouth prying law enforcers... .

Monfreid settled down to a life of writing, turning out around 70 books over the next 30 years—an astonishing number, to rival any of the great writers. Only a handful of his books have been translated into English and are difficult to find. An interesting side-light to that somewhat narcissistic huge work is the book written by his daughter Gisèle de Monfreid: her book "Mes secrets de la Mer Rouge" describes what life could be near such an egotistic and overpowering personality, addicted to action, in such an hostile world as the Horn of Africa .

During barren periods, when writing was not bringing in enough money, Monfreid relied upon mortgaging the family collection of Gauguin paintings. Only after his death were these discovered to be fake.


Monfreid was far from a calculating merchant. Indeed, he affirmed himself to be "sick and disgusted with businessmen... who ruin with impunity the poor innocents who believe in the value of justice, honesty, integrity and conscience." Yet there was nothing more he feared than "to be obliged to accept the slavery of some dreary job and become a domestic animal." His business dealings were little more than a means for Monfreid to follow his star through the African skies and seas. He fully acknowledged his naïvete in the realm of business and trusted most in his intuition and Providence to sustain him on his precarious course.

Above all, Monfreid loved to be engaged in struggle with the elements: while navigating his way through tempests at sea, his life and the lives of his crew hanging by a thread, existence itself became something pure and precious. He longed only to be with "the sea, the wind, the virgin sand of the desert, the infinity of far-off skies in which wheel the numberless hosts of the skies... and the dream that I became one with them." The works of humanity held little sway for him compared to the majesty of nature itself. The desert taught him about the futility of ambition and when he finally beheld the Pyramids he couldn't wait to leave: "The only thing that one might possibly admire is the stupendous effort it took to build them, and this admiration demands the mentality of a German tourist."


As indicated, few of Monfreid's works have been translated into English. He is probably best known in the English-speaking world for the following two books:

Hashish: A Smuggler's Tale and
Secrets of the Red Sea, a book about gunrunning.
His books include
  • Les secrets de la mer Rouge (1931)
  • Aventures de mer (Grasset, 1932)
  • La croisière du hachich (Grasset, 1933)
  • Vers les terres hostiles de l'Éthiopie (Grasset, 1933)
  • La poursuite du Kaïpan (Grasset, 1934)
  • Le naufrage de la Marietta (Grasset, 1934)
  • Le drame éthiopien (Grasset, 1935)
  • Le lépreux (Grasset, 1935)
  • Les derniers jours de l'Arabie Heureuse (N.R.F, 1935)
  • Les guerriers de l'Ogaden (N.R.F, 1936)
  • Le masque d'or (Grasset, 1936)
  • L'avion noir (Grasset, 1936)
  • Le Roi des abeilles (Gallimard)
  • Le Trésor du pélerin (Gallimard, 1938)
  • Charras (Editions du Pavois, 1947)
  • Du Harrar au Kenya (Grasset, 1949)
  • L'homme sorti de la mer (Grasset, 1951)
  • Ménélik tel qu’il fut (Grasset, 1954)
  • Sous le masque Mau-Mau (Grasset, 1956)
  • Mon aventure à l'île des Forbans (Grasset, 1958)
  • Le Radeau de la Méduse : comment fut sauvé Djibouti, (Grasset, 1958)
  • Les Lionnes d'or d'Ethiopie (Laffont, 1964)
  • Le Feu de Saint-Elme (Laffont, 1973)
  • Journal de bord (Arthaud, 1984)
  • Lettres d'Abyssinie (Flammarion, 1999)
  • Lettres de la mer Rouge (Flammarion, 2000)
by Monfreid's daughter, Gisèle  
Mes secrets de la Mer rouge, 1982, Editions France-Empire

« Henry de Monfreid chante la mer », 33rpm, PolyGram distribution, PY 899, Henry de Monfreidsings sings sea shanties, and plays piano

In popular culture[edit]

In The Adventures of Tintin comic Cigars of the Pharaoh, the hero and his dog are cast adrift in sarcophagi in the Red Sea. They are then picked up by a passing sailing ship captained by a man who turns out to be a gunrunner. The captain was based on de Monfreid.[1]


  1. ^ Michael Farr, Tintin: The Complete Companion, John Murray, 2001.

External links[edit]