Jottings From An Explorer's Notebook
The Empire Club of Canada Addresses (Toronto, Canada), 20 Feb 1936, p. 253-264
Hoffman, Captain Carl Von, Speaker
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Item Type
An explanation of the Explorers' Club as an association, an educational institute, recognized by the Government, which only men who have done things in the field of exploration may join. Some history of the Club, the membership, and medals awarded. Some words on the advance of modern behaviour through the world, speaking as an anthropologist. Primitive men as the present representatives of our ancestors. A closer look at a modern country such as Japan today. Effects of the automobile on civilization. The speaker's close associations with primitive men with whom he has lived in Africa. Showing the audience that the negro is a human being. A look at the white man's efforts to make a Christian of the native, told through an illustrative anecdote. Clearing up some misconceptions about Africans. The speaker proceeds to inform the audience through personal anecdotes and events, about the life of the African native.
Date of Original
20 Feb 1936
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Full Text
Thursday, February 20th, 1936

PRESIDENT: Yesterday, when I had an opportunity to talk with our guest speaker, I assumed that adventure and romance were associated with the life and the life work of an explorer. Captain von Hoffman, on the other hand, assures me that work such as he carries on is of too serious a character to leave anything to chance and adventure comes through leaving things to chance. Looking over the life of Captain von Hoffman I am inclined to think it has been rather equally divided between adventure and romance. He was born in Russia and at the age of fourteen years he ran away from home to join the Russian Army in the Russo-Japanese War. He was, apparently, even at that age, quite a factor in that war for he was noted for gallantry and was presented with the Order of St. George. Shortly after that he came to America and in the United States became a newspaper correspondent just previous to the Great War and he was in Mexico during the disturbing times down there. When the War broke out he returned to Russia and acted in, the Intelligence Force of the Russian Army until the United States came into the war, when he transferred to the forces of the United States Army and in 1918 he went over to Siberia and fought with the Russian White Army.

Captain von Hoffman has carried on explorations in very many parts of the world. He has spent approximately fifteen years in Africa studying the customs of the primitive races in that continent. He is recognized as an anthropologist and has completed what is probably one of the outstanding accounts ever brought out of Africa and Asia, dealing with the mental, physical and spiritual aspects of those primitive races.

Captain von Hoffman is Chairman of the Speakers Committee of the Explorers' Club, an organization which does not include in its membership any arm chair explorers. They are all noted men, both today and those who have gone on, who are members of that group. I name such men as Captain Scott of Antarctic fame, Sir Hubert Wilkins, Admiral Byrd, Lindbergh and our own Captain Bartlett and Stevenson.

Captain von Hoffman will speak on "Jottings From an Explorer's Notebook." (Applause.)

CAPTAIN VON HOFFMAN: Mr. Chairman, Honoured Guests, Members of The Empire Club: This is indeed a privilege to speak to you. I did not prepare a particular address. I thought, since I have been given this great privilege, of addressing you on a subject, "Jottings from an Explorer's Notebook." I have made quite a few jottings. I may first speak of our Club, the Explorers' Club, perhaps you all know the name really is a misnomer and it is an association„ an educational institute, recognized by the Government, which only men who have 'done things in the field of exploration may join. We also have a few associate members but the active members must be explorers who have done work in the different departments of science. We have a medal which we present for outstanding work and the last medal was presented to Mr. Bertram Thomas for work done in the Arabian Desert. He, of course, 'is a Britisher. We have had also such men as Captain Scott and Shackleton who were well beloved by us. In our Club rooms you find a wall dedicated to the immortals, as we call them. Their pictures and their names and their records hang there and all we who do work hope that come day when we go beyond, we may have the honour of having our pictures on that wall.

There are many Englishmen, many Norwegian's and there are people of practically all nationalities who have been recognized for exploratory work. Naturally, like all explorers, we don't recognize a man's nationality so much as the man he is. Those of you who have been out in the open know what a great human friendship exploring of the wilderness creates in a man toward men. This is where you can find if a man is genuine, if he really is the person you have known in the city. We must realize that in the city we are continually in touch with other people. No matter, even if we live with the individual every moment of our life, there is something else that makes our eyes wander. We are continually moving about in contact with other people and in spite of being associated with one person, he doesn't tax us with his individuality, with his mind, as much as he would in a lonesome place where all his idiosyncrasies become known to us and ours to him, where every little bit of motion that he makes might irritate us or might leave us placid. That is how we begin to know men.

That reminds me, I have in my studies of human beings even applied that to our own modern world, as far as women are concerned. We take a young lady and we court her. After we marry her we wonder that she finds herself unhappy with the man she has married. In this modern age she saw the man, she went out with him, they were continually together, but they were just going to dances, out riding, seeing things and very little did they realize that they weren't learning to know each other. And that is exactly what can take place on the veld. After you find yourselves alone you find disappointment and therefore it is well to know whore you go out exploring with just as well as whom you marry.

I am going to take your time for a moment, if I may, on the advance of modern, I may say, our modern behaviour through the world. I maintain as an anthropologist that time is short. We want those who are interested in our work to help us because within another twenty years, and that is a liberal time, there won't be anything left that we may study of primitive men. Remember that the primitive men or what we call the savages, are the present representatives of our ancestors. They are those who still give us a page for that human history of the descent of man, and unless we have time to go before aeroplanes, modern ships and automobiles encroach upon these primitive people, we will lose our valuable pages. We also must recognize that even; the inroad of civilization has brought to these people diseases which have destroyed entire groups of primitive men. We have our illnesses, our diseases to which we have become immune. We can survive them, they cannot, and you know many of them have been destroyed by just that contact. Now, we must work if this is of any value. Some people say, "What do we care what the other fellow, the savage, lives like?" Oh, we care a lot. Those are irreparable records, and records that we can never get, once they are gone. Every day as we sit here they change.

Let us, for instance, take even such a modern country as Japan. Let us look at Japan today. I lived in Japan and studied the Japanese. Their customs are fading. You can go to Tokio and you can't tell Tokio from Toronto, except that you see a few Japanese and what we are coming to right now is that the only difference between people in different countries will be not the country, but the language. That is all, because our behaviour becomes the same. Even the Japanese, the Oriental, who used to be so polite, who bowed at everything, who in fact was ashamed or afraid to smile because it might offend you. This reminds me of when a Japanese boy came in. He giggled a little bit and held his hand in front of his mouth and I said, "Yes, yes, what is it?" and he said, "I want to ask you if I may have a day off. Ha, ha."

I said, "What are you laughing at?" "Honoured Sir, my father died," and he smiled. That gives you an idea. Of course we don't realize why he does that. He doesn't want to burden you with his sorrow. Therefore, he pretends to smile.

Now, take the same man who has been taught from generations to be a polite individual. Japan is the most hospitable country in the world; take the same man and get him in an automobile, what does he do? As soon as he gets in the car, every mannerism is gone, he will crowd you off the road just as much as a New Yorker will or anybody else. So, you see what the car has done. The machine has made of us the rudest people in the world. If we were to walk on the street as we drive we would probably get into a fight every minute of the day.

I have spent most of my time, of my life, when I could, with primitive people. My closest associations with primitive men have been in Africa. I am going to take the negro with whom I have lived. I am not trying to show you that you are lesser or he is lesser as an individual or a human being, but I am going to show you that he is a human being. I will give you actual facts, rather than generalities.

Let us take our efforts to make a Christian of the native. I am going to take you to a place in Northern Rhodesia. It is in this part of Africa that the Lala tribe lives. That is a race of the Bantus which predominate in South Africa. Here, I found my cook boy, Kosamu, who was very friendly. He was my right hand man, anything I wanted he would do, Kosamu said to me one day, "I have talked to the missionaries and they want to make a Christian out of me and I like it." He said, "I am going to become a Christian." I said, "That is excellent, Kosamu." He said, "Here is something I want to ask.

They told me I could be baptized." "Sambashiad" he called it. "I have to be dipped in water, but I must first get rid of my wives. I have three wives. Now these wives cost me four cows. I have just recently bought a new wife. She is very nice. Now, I can't make up my mind which wife to keep - the others I am going to send back." I said, "I can't help you Kosamu. Can't you decide which wife you would like to keep?" He said, "Well, the elder women not so good to look at any more, but they have the knowledge. They can, make very good food. They can cook, they can make beds, they know how to patch the roof of the house, they know how to plough. This young one doesn't know anything practically yet and not very good in cooking." I said, "You can't get me into this, Kosamu. I am not going to decide what wife you should keep. You decide for youself." He stood there a while and then he said, "Well, I guess I will cook myself." Then he went out and asked for a day off and I gave him the day off. He disappeared and went to the village. He came to his mothers-in-law. He had two. He wanted to sell his two wives back to the mothers-in-law. That was all right. You see they have a matriarchal form, of government, practically. The woman is the owner of the child, naturally the child is her own and the mother-in-law is the one that brings up the child, and the father has practically nothing to say about the child. That is all right. He wanted to get rid of the two wives and all he was interested in was to get something back for the four cows that he had paid twenty years ago for his wives. That was all right. He came there. He was not permitted to look his mothers in-law in the face. When you get married you must never look your mother-in-law in the face. I think it' is really a good custom, because they always have to talk into space. They can't talk to you. So, we find Kosamu sitting in front and his two mothers-in-law in the rear. They say if a son-in-law looks his mother-in-law in the face she splits in half, so if he sees her coming down the road, she or he will hide, so they won't see each other. No matter what you say, they won't take any chance.

Kosamu said, "I have come to trade my wives back." They said, "Yes, that is very nice." "Now, what are you going to give me for her?" They thought awhile, "Well, you had them a long time." "Well, how much you give me?" They finally decided they would give four chickens for each of the wives. That was the exchange. He came back to me and he said, "I can't become a Christian.

I can't afford it." The cost was too much. (Laughter.) Now, I am going to try another little thing on you gentlemen. Many of you have read books and have heard of the great mysteries of the African drums. I always revolt when I hear the hoaxes that are perpetrated on people, intelligent people. Of course, they have no way of checking up, but you hear people come out of Africa who, perhaps, have spent a little while there and they tell about the mysterious war drums„ how the drums sent signals ahead of time and word to the people that the white men were coming and the natives cleared out of their villages. That is all very well, this kind of signal, but in the first place they attribute to these people a code. They can't even read or write. So they give them a signal code. That can't be because there is no such thing as 'dots and dashes with primitive men who can't spell. The true version of it is that these men who hammer on the signal drums, which are about four feet long and two feet high, are supposed to produce a noise that sounds like their language. That is what they argue, the people who tell you they heard these drums. Now, that is all very well, but they are sending messages across Africa, they say. The funny part of it is that the man who lives in this part of the veldt is of one tribe, and can't speak the language of the other tribe. How can he read his messages?

There is still another silly thing. They even say you can hear these drums. I recently read a book where the man says you can hear the signal drums for ten miles. Now, Gentlemen, if you shoot a gun, could you hear it ten miles away? It takes a pretty good gun or cannon to sound ten miles away and it is very unlikely with a little gun. That is what you are given to believe. Africa hasn't got that. There is a little drum and they can pound out certain words. They have pre-concerted signals about danger. They have a word if they are in need or to call, but not languages, not so they can converse with each other or insult each other by calling each other names across the boundary.

I happened to be in Africa in 1924. I took, as a guide, an expedition across from Cairo to Capetown. When we began our journey, the conditions were rather troublesome. They had killed the Sirdar, Sir Lee Stack, at Cairo, and the Egyptians were on the go up the Nile to start trouble. I was one of the white men Sir Geoffrey Archer, who became the Governor-General of the Sudan, permitted to come across from the capital of Sudan, Kharteum, to the town Lord Kitchener captured, Omdurman. He permitted me to cross the Nile at the time the sheiks and all the rest were coming down to swear allegiance to the British Flag. I happened to be one of the foreigners who had the privilege of going there. It was rather a ticklish time. The Governor himself would not allow his wife to cross. There were machine guns and arms in readiness because they 'didn't know whether the men were actually going to sign allegiance.

There where the White Nile begins I met Captain Fergusson. Captain Fergusson was the Native Com- missioner up as far as the Dinka tribes, and he controlled the whole Nile section. Every year in the month of February, the early part of it, the Commissioner goes down and collects the head tax from the natives. He came to the Nuer tribes who are on the Nile, at a place called Hilet-Nuer. When he got there he found that the natives instead of being friendly were all sitting around and he noticed that there was some feeling that things were not right. He went to the Chief and said, "Have you collected the taxes?" The Chief answered, "I have collected them but I am not going to give them to you. If you want taxes, you go and get them." The result was the natives began to run for their spears but Captain Fergusson managed to get on the ship and get back. At that time I was coming along the Nile and ran into a steamer going up the Nile, carrying two machine gun platoons, one in command of Captain Chudlow Roberts, and the other in charge of a Bimbasha, or Major, Robertson. These two men were sent up the Nile to see what they could do. They took me along on the boat. I had to promise I wouldn't take any pictures which I was willing to do as long as I could see what was happening. One disembarked to the north of the Nuer territory, and the other one went south and disembarked on the Nile front. There they found a high plateau, so they placed their machine guns and waited. While we were coming up we could see the natives' fires. We could hear the natives singing and the fires were burning rather high. When we got there we could see the cattle were lying exhausted on the ground. They cut the jugular vein of the cattle and drink o f the fresh blood to give them courage and make them wild. This is the first sign when the native goes bad, as we saw they had done. The chief or the king of the tribe was not only a king but he was a witch and that makes him a trouble maker in itself. He rules by two powers. He rules by his power as a king and as a witch. Because of magic forces they fear him so he can instil any ideas into these primitive people. He told them that the white men would come and not to fear the white men because he could neutralize the effect of the white man's fire stick, meaning the gun. In effect, he would turn the bullets into clay. That was brought back by the Ashkaries who went up to the natives and talked with them.

So, `Bimbasha' Robertson conceived an idea. He said, "We have to make this man believe actually in his own witchcraft. That is the only way we can destroy him." From our cigarettes we took off the tin foil and made clay bullets. Then we took out the lead bullets from the real shells and moulded them into the shells-when they were ready they looked like lead bullets and we told the men to drop a few on the ground where the natives were going to find them. They would see a shiny bullet and we knew what the consequences would be. They did find it and they ran to the Chief and the Chief picked it up as soon as he got hold of it and of course it was mud and it crumpled. "There," he said, so he believed in his own magic.

The men stood up for a while and as soon as they were convinced the bullets were mud, he led a charge against Robinson's group and of course was met with a charge of machine gun fire that killed, I think, about 300 of them. The rest cleared into the veldt. The white man's punishment is by confiscating their wealth, that is the cattle. They have thousands of cattle. So the government took the big herds of cattle and put them on their barges and took them north again. That was the beginning and the end of the first uprising where the witch actually believed in his own magic; he was killed himself in this uprising.

We thought perhaps, this was the end of it but in 1927 I was coming down the Nile and too late-I didn't see my friend, Fergusson any more. He became very friendly with the younger generation of the tribe who began, to take on the white man's ideas. He tried to dispel all the witchcraft and the control of the witch 'doctors over the men. He tried to give them ideas and break up the witch ridden group of human beings. So his ideas became really very interesting to the tribes. He used to come down and sit around with them. They would sit on the ground in the circle in front of a fire and listen to him. He could speak their language thoroughly and the were very friendly to him. The old men who were losing their power said, "This is not so good. This man is taking away all our power, all our craft, because by our witchcraft we held position and the people paid us. Now, we are losing all that."

They got a hold of one man and told him to throw a spear at Fergusson. If Fergusson's medicine was so strong and powerful, it would protect him and, naturally, they would say, the man is mad, and they would kill the young native boy who threw the spear. If he killed him, naturally, there would be no fear because he had no power anyway.

Now, if we make one mistake sometimes and we can't correct it fast enough, we pay with our life. As Fergusson sat there a spear came through the air and landed beside him. Instead of letting it go and laughing it off, he became enraged and grabbed the spear and threw it back and missed his assailant. When they saw that he also missed, they killed him. Fergusson had done very fine work, particularly as an army officer. He did fine work and he wrote several brochures. I have some of the legends and the stories and fairy tales, as we may call them, that Fergusson wrote of these primitive people, which give you as you read them an idea of the background and the customs of the forefathers of these men, stories that can always be deciphered. He did fine work. Work that is really a monument to him and a great contribution to science, but he paid with his life. Of course, the Nuers paid for it later on. The authorities sent planes over and bombed them and burned their villages. I haven't been up there since 1927. They are probably gathering back again. So, you see, there is a little adventure you can't avoid even as an explorer. There are interesting little happenings in our life of course, there are many things that are strange in Africa, but one thing I know, you can travel through British Africa, you can travel through that great continent, you can enjoy in that great country the friendship of men you come in contact with. You know you will get all assistance; you won't be looked upon as a spy. You won't be treated with suspicion. When you go into any of the other countries as a scientist, particularly when you have a military title, they think you couldn't come for any other purpose than spying. In Portugese Africa, if you came in and tried to do any work the officials are crooked, they try to steal from you, try to get graft. In other countries, in Belgian Congo, the little officials are overzealous. They try to do everything to annoy you, to get every bit they can as duty and everything else. They are not the congenial fellows one meets in South Africa. The native Commissioner, who lives in a population with perhaps twenty whites, when you arrive will meet you with a glad hand. You bring out your phonograph with your jazz records, and his wife comes out to see that you come to dinner - you might have a bottle of Scotchand you will have the grandest time. I always long to get back to my good old friends in British South Africa.. I thank you. (Applause.)

PRESIDENT BRACE. After hearing Captain von Hoffman, I can't help but feel that next to being an explorer such as he is, being an arm chair explorer for the course of half an hour is a real treat. I am sure I am expressing the appreciation of all present when I say to Captain von Hoffman that we are pleased indeed to have him here, we have enjoyed very much 'indeed this very interesting address. (Applause.)

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Jottings From An Explorer's Notebook

An explanation of the Explorers' Club as an association, an educational institute, recognized by the Government, which only men who have done things in the field of exploration may join. Some history of the Club, the membership, and medals awarded. Some words on the advance of modern behaviour through the world, speaking as an anthropologist. Primitive men as the present representatives of our ancestors. A closer look at a modern country such as Japan today. Effects of the automobile on civilization. The speaker's close associations with primitive men with whom he has lived in Africa. Showing the audience that the negro is a human being. A look at the white man's efforts to make a Christian of the native, told through an illustrative anecdote. Clearing up some misconceptions about Africans. The speaker proceeds to inform the audience through personal anecdotes and events, about the life of the African native.