Sir Wilfred Thesiger
1944 portrait by Anthony Devas
Wilfred Patrick Thesiger
3 June 1910
Addis Ababa, Ethiopia
|Died||24 August 2003 (aged 93)|
|Alma mater||Magdalen College, Oxford|
|Known for||Exploration, Writing, Photography|
The Marsh Arabs
|Years of service||1940–1943|
|Unit||Sudan Defence Force|
Special Air Service
|Battles/wars||Second World War|
Sir Wilfred Patrick Thesiger KBE, DSO, FRAS, FRSL, FRGS (3 June 1910 – 24 August 2003), also known by his Arabic name Mubarak bin London (Arabic: مُبَارَك بِن لَنْدَن, the blessed one of London) was a British military officer, explorer, and writer.
Thesiger's travel books include Arabian Sands (1959), on his foot and camel crossing of the Empty Quarter of the Arabian Peninsula, and The Marsh Arabs (1964), on his time living in the marshes of Iraq with the Marsh Arabs. He donated his collection of 38,000 travel photographs to the Pitt Rivers Museum, Oxford.
Thesiger was born in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. He was the son of Wilfred Gilbert Thesiger, a British consul-general and minister to Addis Ababa from 1909 to 1919, and his wife Kathleen Mary Vigors. Thesiger's grandfather was Frederic Lord Chelmsford. Frederic Viscount Chelmsford, future Viceroy of India, was an uncle, and the actor Ernest Thesiger was a cousin.
Thesiger was educated at St Aubyn's School in Rottingdean, Sussex, followed by Eton College and then Magdalen College, Oxford, where he took a Third in History. Between 1930 and 1933, Thesiger represented Oxford at boxing and later (in 1933) became captain of the Oxford boxing team. He was awarded a boxing Blue for each of the four years that he was at Oxford. Whilst at Oxford, Thesiger was also elected Treasurer of the Oxford University Exploration Club (1931–32).
In 1930 Thesiger returned to Africa, having received a personal invitation from Emperor Haile Selassie to attend his coronation. He returned again in 1933 as the leader of an expedition, funded in part by the Royal Geographical Society, to explore the course of the Awash River. During this expedition, he became one of the first Europeans to enter the Aussa Sultanate and visit Lake Abbe.
Second World War
At the outbreak of war, Thesiger joined the Sudan Defence Force, helping to organise the Abyssinian resistance to the occupying Italians. He was awarded the DSO for capturing Agibar and its garrison of 2,500 Italian soldiers.
He later served with the Special Operations Executive in Syria and the Special Air Service during the North African Campaign, attaining the rank of Major. From 1943 to 1945 he acted as political adviser to Crown Prince Asfa Wossen of Ethiopia.
After the Second World War, Thesiger travelled across Arabia, lived for some years in the marshes of Iraq, and then travelled in Iran, Kurdistan, French West Africa and Pakistan. He lived for many years in northern Kenya.
He is remembered for his Arabian expeditions. In 1945, an entomologist, O.B. Lean, acting on behalf of the Middle East Anti Locust Unit (MEALU), hired Thesiger to search for locust breeding grounds in southern Arabia. This led to two crossings of the great Arabian desert, the Rub' al Khali or Empty Quarter, and travels in inner Oman. He rode camels in the company of Bedu guides through remote areas that were potentially dangerous on account of tribal tensions and the opposition of local rulers to the presence of foreigners.
Thesiger's first crossing began in October 1946 when, with his Bedouin companions, he left Salalah in the Dhofar province of Oman and travelled to the Mughshin Oasis. From there, he entered the sands but there was dissent among his party, some of whom were unwilling to travel any farther. Thesiger continued with four members, two from the Rashid and two from the Bait Kathir tribes. He reached the Liwa Oasis in the Emirate of Abu Dhabi in mid-December, visited the town of Abu Dhabi, then crossed into Oman, heading back towards Salalah via Dhofar and ending his journey at Salalah on 23 February 1947.
His second crossing began in December 1947, at Manwakh well in Yemen. The king of Saudi Arabia did not agree to Thesiger entering his territory, and imprisoned Thesiger and his party when they arrived at Sulayil. Soon released, they travelled to the Liwa Oasis and then to Abu Dhabi town, arriving on 14 March 1948. In April, Thesiger visited the Buraimi Oasis, for which the Iraq Petroleum Company (IPC) held an oil concession, which it operated through an associate company, Petroleum Development Oman. Dick Bird, the company's representative, was concerned by Thesiger's attitude towards oil exploration. Thesiger disapproved of the company’s activities, believing that the discovery of oil would destroy the Bedouin way of life. However, the need to finance his expeditions led the explorer to accept funding from the oil company in exchange for providing information garnered from his travels.
Thesiger returned to England in the 1990s and was knighted in 1995.
He is known for two travel books: Arabian Sands (1959), which recounts his travels in the Empty Quarter of Arabia between 1945 and 1950 and describes the vanishing way of life of the Bedu; and The Marsh Arabs (1964), which is an account of the Madan, the indigenous people of the marshlands of southern Iraq. The latter journey is also covered by his travelling companion, Gavin Maxwell, in A Reed Shaken by the Wind – a Journey through the Unexplored Marshlands of Iraq (Longman, 1957; new edition by Eland in 2003).
- Master of Arts, MA, Oxon
- Third Class Star of Ethiopia 1930
- Companion of the Distinguished Service Order, DSO 1941
- Founder's Medal, Royal Geographical Society, RGS 1948
- Lawrence of Arabia Medal, Royal Society for Asian Affairs,1955
- Livingstone Medal, Royal Scottish Geographical Society, RSGS 1962
- W. H. Heinemann Award 1964
- Royal Society of Literature, RSL 1965
- Burton Memorial Medal, Royal Asiatic Society, RAS 1966
- Honorary DLitt, Leicester 1967
- Commander of the Order of the British Empire, CBE 1968
- Fellow Royal Society of Literature, FRSL 1982
- Honorary Fellow British Academy, FBA 1982
- Honorary DLitt, University of Bath, 1992
- Knight Commander of the Order of the British Empire, KBE 1995
- A Journey Through the Tihama, the 'Asir, and the Hijaz Mountains
- Arabian Sands (1959)
- The Marsh Arabs (1964)
- The Last Nomad (1979)
- The Life of My Choice (1987)
- Visions of a Nomad (1987)
- My Kenya Days Harper Collins, 1994; ISBN 0-00-255268-X
- The Danakil Diary: Journeys through Abyssinia, 1930–34 Hammersmith, 1996, ISBN 0-00-638775-6. Contains the diaries he wrote in 1930 when he attended Haille Selassie's coronation, and in 1933–1935 when he explored the Awash valley and encountered the Afar people. Interspersed with letters he wrote to his mother during that period.
- Among the Mountains: Travels Through Asia Harper Collins, (1998); ISBN 0-00-255898-X. This account presents edited portions of journal entries written during trips to remote mountain areas of Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Kurdistan between 1952 and 1965, as well as numerous black-and-white photographs that he took at the time. There is little detail since the book is based on his diary entries. For a better account, read The Life of My Choice.
- Crossing the Sands Motivate Pub Ltd (2000) 176 pp; ISBN 1-86063-028-6. About his journeys in the Empty Quarter and the Arabian Peninsula during the late forties, with photographs.
- My Life and Travels (anthology)
- A Vanished World
Thesiger's reputation in England was built on his travels, writings and military service. Those who met him found him traditional and old fashioned. Among the Arabian people, his reputation was based on their personal knowledge of him as an adventurer. Salim bin Ghabaisha described him, fifty years after their travels together, as "loyal, generous, and afraid of nothing".
In popular culture
In 2008, Majid Abdulrazak (a film director from the United Arab Emirates) produced a film version of Arabian Sands which was self-funded and employed actors from the UAE and Oman in most of the major roles.
In Eric Newby's A Short Walk in the Hindu Kush, the closing pages recount Newby and his companion meeting Thesiger. Newby was suffering from dysentery, extreme fatigue and other ailments. The final sentence of the book is of Thesiger's watching them inflate their air beds saying "God, you must be a couple of pansies."
- Asher 2003
- Byrnes, Sholto (12 July 2010). "Wilfred Thesiger in Africa, by Christopher Morton and Philip N Grover". New Statesman. Retrieved 13 August 2013.
- Langham, Eric; Goaman-Dodson, Toby; Rogers, Lyn (2008). Mubarak Bin London: Wilfred Thesiger and the Freedom of the Desert. Abu Dhabi: United Arab Emirates Authority for Culture and Heritage. Retrieved 13 August 2013.
- "No. 35396". The London Gazette (Supplement). 26 December 1941. p. 7333.
- Thesiger, Wilfred (1987). The Life of My Choice. Collins. ISBN 9780002161947.
- Morton, Michael Q. (December 2013), "Thesiger and the Oilmen", Journal of the Petroleum History Institute, 14: 125–39
- Thesiger, Wilfred (1977). Arabian Sands. London: Allen Lane. ISBN 0713910488. 0713910488.
- "Honorary Graduates 1989 to present". bath.ac.uk. University of Bath. Retrieved 18 February 2012.
- Stewart, Rory (2007). Arabian Sands (Introduction). London: Penguin Classics. p. xv. ISBN 9780141442075.
- "Dubai International Film Festival | Films 2008 - Rimal Arabia (Arabian Sands)". Dubai International Film Festival.
- Writer, Shalaka Paradkar, Freelance (4 July 2008). "Majid Abdulrazak's dream film". GulfNews.
- "A Life of My Choice".
- Asher, Michael (1994). Thesiger. New York: Viking Press. ISBN 978-0-670837694.
- Asher, Michael (23 August 2003). "Obituary: Sir Wilfred Thesiger". The Guardian. Guardian Media Group plc. Retrieved 15 January 2013.
- Glancy, Jonathan (29 June 2002). "The Profile: Wilfred Thesiger 'Wild at Heart' ". The Guardian. Guardian Media Group plc. Retrieved 15 January 2013.
- Maitland, Alexander (2004). Thesiger: A Life in Pictures. London: HarperCollins. ISBN 978-0-002572248.
- Maitland, Alexander (2006). Wilfred Thesiger: The Life of the Great Explorer. London: HarperPress. ISBN 978-0-002556088.
- Thesiger, Wilfred (1987a). The Life of My Choice. London: Collins. ISBN 978-0-002161947.
- Thesiger, Wilfred (1987b). Visions of a Nomad. London: Collins. ISBN 978-0-002177290.
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Photographs by Thesiger
- Collection of Thesiger's photography in Pitt Rivers Museum, Source: Journey biographies | Thesiger's Journeys in Arabia - Hejaz, Saudi Arabia, 1946
Obituaries and Profiles (mostly August 2003)
- Daily Telegraph obituary
- Review of maitland's official biography discusses various aspects of the explorer's life and characters.
- BBC obituary (26 August 2003) contains errors such as Wilfred being the youngest son, which he was not.
- Profile by Jonathan Glancy in The Guardian
- Eric Newby's recollections of Thesiger
- Frank Gardner (journalist), the BBC's Security Correspondent, recalls personal memories of the great explorer including inspiring Gardner to learn Arabic.