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MS 433

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MS 433


Wilfred P. Thesiger archive



Administrative / Biographical history

Thesiger, Wilfred P. (1910–2003)

Wilfred Thesiger was an English explorer and travel writer whose best known works were 'Arabian Sands' (1959) and 'The Marsh Arabs' (1964).

He was born was born on 3 June 1910 in Addis Ababa, Abyssinia (Ethiopia), the eldest of four sons of Captain Wilfred Gilbert Thesiger (1871–1920), British consul-general and minister-plenipotentiary in Addis Ababa, and his wife, Kathleen Mary (1880–1973). His grandfather was Frederic Augustus Thesiger, second Baron Chelmsford.

His early upbringing in Addis Ababa gave his a taste of adventure, which would impact on his later life. His family returned to England in 1919 when he was sent to St Aubyn's preparatory school, Rottingdean, Sussex (1919–23). Afterwards he was educated at Eton College (1923–8) before going to Magdalen College, Oxford (1929–33) to read Modern History, where he achieved a third.

When his father died in 1920, Thesiger's mother became the most prominent and influential figure in his life, shown by the detailed letters he would write to her as he travelled. She remarried in October 1931 to Reginald Basil Astley, a 69-year-old widower, who died in 1942.

On leaving Oxford he explored the Awash through hostile Danakil (or Afar) country to its end in Lake Abhebad becoming the first European to traverse the forbidden sultanate of Aussa in north-east Abyssinia. During this time he collected 872 birds, including 192 species and three new subspecies, from the Danakil region; his report, ‘Birds from Danakil, Abyssinia’, was published in The Ibis in October 1935.

In 1935 Thesiger joined the Sudan political service as an assistant district commissioner in northern Darfur from 1935 to 1937, and then the western Nuer district until 1939. During the Second World War he was part of the Sudan Defence Force and was awarded a DSO on 30 December 1941 for capturing Agibar fort and its garrison of 2500 Italian troops. From 1943 he acted as political adviser to the Abyssinian Crown Prince.

After the war he was employed by Owen Bevan Lean of the Middle East Anti-Locust Unit to investigate possible locust outbreak centres in Arabia. Travelling to this area had been an ambition of Thesiger as a great deal of it remained unexplored. His first crossing was a 2000 miles journey between 1946-7, during which he met Salim bin Kabina, and Salim bin Ghabaisha, who accompanied him during his years in Arabia. He crossed the Empty Quarter again in 1947–8, before travelling to Oman in 1949 and 1950 and Iraqi Kurdistan, in 1950.

Later that year he visited the marshes of southern Iraq. From then until 1958, except for 1957, he spent several months every year with the Marsh Arabs, sharing the communal life of the villages and travelling by canoe throughout the marshes. To escape the hot, humid marsh summers, he travelled among the mountains of western Asia and Morocco: Chitral in 1952; Hunza in 1953; the Hazarajat, Afghanistan, in 1954; the High Atlas, Morocco, in 1955; and, in 1956, Nuristan. He spent the winter of 1957 in Copenhagen, writing Arabian Sands (published 1959). In 1959 he trekked with donkeys across southern Ethiopia to the Kenyan border. The following year, he travelled in northern Ethiopia.

In 1960, accompanied by Frank Steele, Thesiger journeyed with camels from Kula Mawe near Isiolo, to Lake Rudolf and Marsabit in the northern frontier district of Kenya. For the next three years he travelled with camels or donkeys in northern Kenya and northern Tanzania. A second book, The Marsh Arabs, published in 1964, confirmed Thesiger's reputation as a writer and a photographer.

Also in 1964 Thesiger crossed the Alborz Mountains in Iran, and afterwards joined Bakhtiari nomads on their annual migration through the mountains of Zagros. That same year, in October and November, he crossed the Dasht-i-Lut (Desert of Lot) to Yazd. From June to September 1965 he travelled again through Nuristan and in Badakhshan, where he photographed Kandari nomads and their flocks coming down from Lake Shiva. In October 1965 he tramped from Tafileh, following the Wadi Arabah, to Petra in Transjordan.

Thesiger served in 1966–7 with the royalists during the civil war in Yemen. From 1968 to 1976 he spent much of the year travelling in northern Kenya. After a six-month voyage round the Indonesian islands in 1977 with the writer Gavin Young, he returned to northern Kenya where he and his Samburu protegé Lawi Leboyare built themselves a cedar-wood house near the small township of Maralal. For the next sixteen years, for about nine months every year, Thesiger lived in one or other of the houses he had built for his Samburu adoptive ‘families’. In September and October 1983 he made his last long journey, using animal transport, when he travelled for six weeks with ponies or yaks across Ladakh.

'Desert, Marsh and Mountain' was published in 1979, and was followed by his autobiography, 'The Life of My Choice', published in 1987, the same year as 'Visions of a Nomad', a work devoted to his photography.

Further published work included:

'My Kenya Days', a postscript to his autobiography (1994)
'The Danakil Diary', an edited version of Thesiger's original record of his 1933–4 Danakil expedition, illustrated with some of his earliest travel photographs (1996)
'Among the Mountains', a second postscript to his autobiography (1998)
'Crossing the Sands', an illustrated edition of Arabian Sands with a reduced text (1999)
'A Vanished World' (2001)

In October 1994 Thesiger left Kenya and returned to live permanently in England. He died on 24 August 2003.

He was awarded the founder's gold medal of the Royal Geographical Society in 1948; the Burton memorial medal of the Royal Asiatic Society in 1966; fellowship of the Royal Society of Literature in 1965; honorary fellowship of the British Academy and of Magdalen College, Oxford, in 1982; honorary degrees from Leicester and Bath universities (1967 and 1992); a CBE in 1968; and a KBE in 1995.

[Adapted from A. Maitland 'Wilfred Thesiger' (Oxford Dictionary of National Biography)]



Extent & medium

Nine series
53 boxes and 8 bound volumes

Content description

The contents of the archive can be broadly split into his travel paper; his literary works and his personal and family papers. In addition the collection contains related items, added by later custodians due to their relevance to Thesiger's papers.

By the time of his death Thesiger was widely considered to be among the greatest of twentieth-century explorers, writers and photographers. He documented the peoples and ways of life which by the time of his death had changed or vanished altogether. These papers include correspondence and diaries and reflect the relationships he forged among tribes in remote, seldom visited areas, and the way he captured for posterity fast disappearing ways of life.

The letters he wrote throughout his life to his mother is a significant series, which covers his life from when the family returned to England, through until his last published work in 2001. The collection also includes family papers relating to his father’s diplomatic work, which was a significant influence on Thesiger’s life.

The literary papers include manuscripts and typescripts of his books. When taken together they offer a very personal reflection on his life and expeditions and well and his working practices.

While his photographic merits are referred to within the archive the negatives are not held as part of this collection.


The papers were created and kept by Wilfred P. Thesiger during his life. They were temporarily in the care of Alexander Maitland while he was writing the official biography of Thesiger and were passed directly to Eton College Library after the book was completed. In addition, research papers that have drawn on the archive have been added to the collection by custodians of the archive, and this has been represented in a separate sub-fonds.

Associated material

In 1993 and 1997 Thesiger loaned collections of his photographs and travel artefacts to the Pitt Rivers Museum in Oxford (after his death the collection was accepted by the government in lieu of inheritance tax, to be held permanently at the museum).

Finding aids

A handlist is held by the College Library

Publication note

The first anthology of his writing, ‘My Life and Travels’, was published in 2002
‘A Life in Pictures’ in 2004
‘Wilfred Thesiger: the Life of the Great Explorer’, an authorized biography by Alexander Maitland (2006)
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