John Hemming (explorer)

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John Hemming
Daily mail sept1961 - Dr. John Hemming.jpg
John Hemming c. 1961
Born (1935-01-05) 5 January 1935 (age 82)
Vancouver, British Columbia
Occupation Explorer
Awards Order of St Michael and St George

John Henry Hemming CMG (born 5 January 1935) is a Canadian explorer and author, expert on Incas and indigenous peoples of the Amazon basin.

Early life and education[edit]

Hemming was born in Vancouver because his Canadian father, Henry Harold Hemming OBE, MC,[1] had been through the trenches in the First World War, saw the Second coming, and wanted him to be born in North America. So he sent John's mother, Alice Hemming OBE, a well-known journalist,[2] on a cruise through the Panama Canal that ended in British Columbia. John and his sister Louisa were brought back to London when he was two months old. Though a proud Canadian he has not been there since 1967. He was educated in the United Kingdom at Eton College, in Canada at McGill University, and read history at Magdalen College, Oxford.


In 1961, with fellow Oxford graduates Richard Mason and Kit Lambert (who later managed The Who), he was part of the Iriri River Expedition into unexplored country in central Brazil. The Brazilian mapping agency, IBGE, sent a 3-man survey team to help map these unknown forests and rivers and gave the Expedition permission to name features it found. Sadly, after four months, an unknown indigenous people found the group's trail, laid an ambush, and killed Richard Mason with arrows and clubs. Mason was the last Englishman ever to be killed by an uncontacted tribe. His body was carried out and buried in the British cemetery in Rio de Janeiro.[3] The tribe was contacted in 1973, and was called Panará: Hemming visited them in 1998 and wrote about this in The Times.[4]

His first book, The Conquest of the Incas, was published in 1970; one reviewer believed that it was by a famous historian using a pseudonym, so high was the level of scholarship.[citation needed] (Hemming at the time was only an M.A.; he later received a D.Litt doctorate from Oxford as well as honorary doctorates from the University of Warwick and the University of Stirling.) This book went on to win the Robert Pitman Literary Prize and the Christopher Award in New York. Hemming has since travelled to every part of Peru, is chairman of the Anglo-Peruvian Society,[5] and in 2007 was awarded Peru's highest civil decoration, the Grand Cross of the Order of Merit.[6] He has also written, with the American photographer Edward Ranney, an account of Inca architecture of Peru, Monuments of the Incas, reissued in a revised edition in 2010.

His experience on the Iriri River expedition led to a heightened interest in Brazilian Indians. Between 1971 and 1972 he visited 45 tribes throughout Brazil – four of them (Surui, Parakana, Asurini and Galera Nambikwara) at the time that Brazilian teams made the first-ever face-to-face contact.[7] Over the following 26 years he completed a three-volume history of the indigenous peoples of Amazonia: Red Gold (1978), which covers the period 1500–1760; Amazon Frontier (1985), covering the period 1760–1910; and Die If You Must (2004), which describes their plight during the 20th century. In recognition of this and his other work in Brazil Hemming was awarded the Order of the Southern Cross by the Brazilian government in 1998.[8]

In 1975, John Hemming became director and secretary of the Royal Geographical Society, a post he held until 1996. The society changed substantially during those 21 years: Its membership more than doubled, finances went from deficits to surplus and lectures expanded from about 20 per year to involve 450 speakers in a series of Monday-night events in London and at branch offices. Expedition training was introduced with the successful Expedition Advisory Centre (run by Nigel Winser and Shane Winser), the Victorian premises beside Hyde Park were restored, and academic geographers of the Institute of British Geographers merged back into the society. Research flourished through a series of projects in Wahiba Sands (Oman), Mount Mulu (Sarawak), Karakoram (Pakistan), Kimberley (Australia), Kora National Park (Kenya), Mkomazi (Tanzania) and Badia desert (Jordan) – of which Hemming was co-chairman from 1992–2004. He personally led the Maracá Rainforest Project in Brazil (1987–88) which, with 200 scientists and scientific technicians, became the largest research project in Amazonia organised by any European country – in partnership with Brazilian researchers from INPA (Amazon Research Institute) and SEMA environment agency. In 1990 Hemming was awarded the RGS's Gold Medal in recognition of his work on the Maracá project.

In 1977 Hemming also was one of the founding members of South American Explorers, a nonprofit travel, scientific and educational organization. Based in Lima, Peru, initially, it has since moved its headquarters to Ithaca, New York, and has established offices in Cuzco, Quito, Ecuador and Buenos Aires, Argentina.

John Hemming is currently Chairman of the Amazon Charitable Trust, a trustee of the John Ellerman Foundation,[9] Earthwatch,[10] Lepra, The Hakluyt Society, The Gilchrist Educational Trust,[11] The Rainforest Foundation, and The Global Diversity Foundation.[12] He is also on the advisory board of charity Cool Earth, one of the founders of Survival International and for 10 years served on the board of the British Council.

Aside from his involvement in exploration and Latin America, since 1963 he has worked for the Hemming Group Ltd, setting up and running one of the UK's foremost exhibition-organising companies, Brintex Ltd, before taking over as joint chairman of this family business which also organises trade exhibitions and conferences and publishes titles including Municipal Journal and Surveyor.[13]

In April 2008 his book, Tree of Rivers: The Story of the Amazon, was published by Thames and Hudson. Described by Alexander Cockburn in the Sunday Times as a "manly epic,"[14] and by Hugh Thomson in the Daily Telegraph as a book that "will stand as the definitive single-volume work on the subject."[15]

Personal life[edit]

In 1979, John Hemming married Susan Babington Smith, daughter of Michael Babington Smith and granddaughter of Sir Henry Babington Smith. She is the great-granddaughter of the 9th Earl of Elgin on her father's side and great-great-granddaughter of the 4th Earl of Clanwilliam on her mother's side. They have two children: Beatrice (born 1981) and writer Henry Hemming.[1]



  1. ^ a b Mosley, Charles, ed. (2003). Burke's Peerage, Baronetage & Knighthood (107 ed.). Burke’s Peerage & Gentry. p. 798. ISBN 0-9711966-2-1. 
  2. ^ Biography at The Women's Library:National Life Story Collection: Fawcett Collection
  3. ^ "Obituary of Richard Mason", by John Hemming, The Geographical Journal, Vol. 127, No. 4 (Dec. 1961), pp. 565–566
  4. ^ The Times Magazine, 2 January 1999
  5. ^ "The Anglo-Peruvian Society". 
  6. ^ "Login". 
  7. ^ Tribes of the Amazon Basin: Report for the Aborigines Protection Society by Edwin Brooks, René Fuerst, John Hemming, Francis Huxley (1972)
  8. ^ Canada Gazette, Vol. 132, No. 26, 27 June 1998
  9. ^ "John Ellerman Foundation". 
  10. ^ "Earthwatch: About Us". 
  11. ^ "Register Home Page". 
  12. ^ "Board of Trustees". The Global Diversity Foundation. Retrieved 19 October 2012. 
  13. ^ "Website for Hemming Group Ltd". The Hemming Group Ltd. Retrieved 19 October 2012. 
  14. ^ Alexander Cockburn, The Sunday Times, 13 April 2008
  15. ^ Hugh Thomson, The Daily Telegraph, 16 April 2008

External links[edit]