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Thesiger, Sir Wilfred (1910-2003)  
page: 1  2  

Thesiger's black-and-white photographs are now increasingly valued for their unadorned simplicity, as they wistfully chronicle peoples and lifestyles that have almost completely vanished.

Thesiger's Opinions

Thesiger often made disarming statements, many of which convey distinctly , as well as , interests. For example, he went out of his way to see Nuba wrestlers and the dancing boys of Marshland Iraq, and to photograph naked Turkana boys in Kenya. Commenting on the Nuer people of southern Sudan, he observed that Nuer young men went naked and dyed their hair gold with cow's urine, which, he averred, only added to their beauty.

Thesiger's strong opinions are well-documented. He rated the Bedouins, with their gentleman's code of hospitality, most highly of all. He scorned women, once declaring that the wife of a friend should be shot for interrupting their conversation.

His ideas about the British Empire were rigidly conservative. Although he himself was ostracized by British expatriates for sharing meals and beds with Sudanese and Arab natives, he nevertheless saw the British as the most responsible of colonizers. He reluctantly acknowledged that the French Foreign Legion in North Africa did not segregate the Africans from the Europeans.

While Thesiger detested the trappings of modernity, cars, and televisions, his favorite film was Luchino Visconti's Death in Venice, which he saw twice.

Not at all squeamish about blood as he was about spiders, he became a competent amateur doctor, performing ritual circumcisions on numerous young men who queued to go under his knife.

Thesiger as Cult Figure

Ian Buruma has described Thesiger as "an inverted sensualist," suggesting that his romantic notions of suffering amid an exclusively male comradeship originated from an extreme form of voluptuous pleasure in pain. He places the explorer within a tradition that includes T.E. Lawrence, and, more recently, Bruce Chatwin.

Thesiger has become a genuine cult figure. His quiet austerity, somehow fearless and kind, able to kill, yet both lacking in ethnocentrism and falling prey to it, has captured the imagination of many readers. His absolute rejection of modernity has increasingly made him a hero, adding to his reputation as the last of the authentic travellers and a true champion of pre-industrial man.

He ended his days laden with honors. He won medals from several learned societies, including the founder's medal of the Royal Geographic Society. He was awarded honorary fellowships from Magdalen College, Oxford and the British Academy, as well as an honorary doctorate from Leicester University. In 1968, he was made a Companion of the British Empire; and in 1995 he was knighted.

Thesiger spent his final years living with Lawi, who became his foster son, and various Samburu warrior neighbors in Kenya, lamenting the passing of his days of "barbaric splendour" and the purer desert life with the wonderful comradeship he experienced among Bedouins.

The explorer and writer died on August 24, 2003, somewhat ironically in suburban Surrey.

Desmond Ariel

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Asher, Michael. "Sir Wilfred Thesiger." The Guardian (August 27, 2003):,11617,1030132,00.html

_____. Wilfred Thesiger: A Biography. London: Viking, 1994.

Buruma, Ian. New York Review of Books (June 30, 1988).


    Citation Information
    Author: Ariel, Desmond  
    Entry Title: Thesiger, Sir Wilfred  
    General Editor: Claude J. Summers  
    Publication Name: glbtq: An Encyclopedia of Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual,
Transgender, and Queer Culture
    Publication Date: 2006  
    Date Last Updated January 20, 2006  
    Web Address  
    Publisher glbtq, Inc.
1130 West Adams
Chicago, IL   60607
    Today's Date  
    Encyclopedia Copyright: © 2002-2006, glbtq, Inc.  
    Entry Copyright © 2006, glbtq, Inc.  


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