Wilfred Thesiger Profiled in “The Article”

Biographer Jeffrey Meyers has written a profile of pre-eminent British travel writer Wilfred Thesiger. This is posted in the online literary journal The Article. Meyers begins by recalling his 1979 interview of Thesiger in the latter’s London apartment. He notes Thesiger’s birth in Addis Ababa, education at Eton and Oxford and early life of wandering in pursuit of exotic people and cultures:

His travel writing was not an occasional interlude from ordinary life, but a continuous record from the inside of lost and disappearing cultures. He believed other races were entitled to their own moral standards and disliked missionaries who disrupted ancestral customs. …

The early chapters of the article cover Thesiger’s admiration of Lawrence of Arabia and books about Arabian lands and peoples. Given his experience of early life in Abyssinia and admiration for its culture and leader Haile Selassie, Thesiger was bound to come up against Waugh’s satirical writings about that country. Meyers provides a fairly comprehensive description of Thesiger’s and Waugh’s different points of view:

…In 1930 he attended the coronation of his father’s old friend, Emperor Haile Selassie, to whom he was fiercely loyal. In Addis Ababa he met Evelyn Waugh, who later enraged him by mocking the Abyssinians in Black Mischief and praising the Italian invasion of their country. He condemned Waugh’s superficiality and foppish dress, and disliked him on sight: “He struck me as flaccid and petulant.” Waugh wanted to join Thesiger’s expedition to a fierce tribe, but he adamantly refused his request and menacingly remarked: “Had he come, I suspect only one of us would have returned.”

Thesiger dedicated his autobiography “To the memory of His late Imperial Majesty Haile Selassie” and his portrayal of Selassie was completely opposed to Waugh’s. He praised the Emperor’s “sensitive and finely moulded face,” his dignity and kindness, “his inflexible will, his intense patience, his courage, his horror of cruelty, his dedication to his country and his deep religious faith”. Waugh claimed that Selassie had “fled precipitately”; Thesiger showed that Selassie had commanded his army against the Italians at Qoram. He was forced to admit that as Selassie “acquired power he became increasingly autocratic”. […]

Thesiger forcefully contradicted Waugh’s biased views of the hopelessly unequal war against the Italians, of General Rodolfo Graziani, of the barbaric methods of the invaders and — in defiance of the Geneva Convention — their horrific use of poison gas. He described the “bitter fighting, largely swords, spears and shields against rifles, bayonets and hand grenades, that lasted until nightfall.” In a striking sentence he noted, “to meet a modern army, the Abyssinians lacked everything but courage.” […]

After 425 deacons and monks were shot in Debra Lebanos, which Evelyn Waugh had visited in 1930, the furious Thesiger quoted Waugh’s justification of the Italian terror and extermination. Waugh declared that the Italian “civilising mission” was “attended by a spread of order and decency, education and medicine, in a disgraceful place.” Thesiger was also outraged by Waugh’s attempt to cover up the use of mustard gas, a toxic chemical that burned exposed skin and lungs and formed large blisters oozing yellow pus. The soft tissue of the eyes were especially vulnerable. In his New Year Letter (1940), WH Auden wrote of “The Abyssinian, blistered, blind.” Thesiger vividly concluded that “anyone who was splashed with the fluid or who breathed its fumes writhed and screamed in agony.”

At least one of Waugh’s biographers mentions Thesiger’s critical attitude toward Waugh’s views of Abyssinia. This is Selina Hastings who also interviewed Thesiger for her book (Hastings, p. 236). Whether Waugh himself commented on his encounters with Thesiger is not known to me, nor do Hastings and Meyers mention any. Thanks to reader Milena Borden for sending a link.

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