Selim Aga.Writing a Mystery Story


I became ‘hooked’ on Africa almost half a century ago while commanding a detachment of African troops during the Mau Mau campaign in Kenya and subsequently got to know Uganda as a student, and Tanzania as a forest explorer in the early 1960s. But it was not until three years ago that I re-engaged with the continent while writing the biography of the nineteenth-century Edinburgh cartographer and explorer Keith Johnston, and discovered that he died tragically in 1879 in the great Selous Game Reserve in Tanzania, which was part of my forest district. What that work also revealed was that so much exploration and development of East and Central Africa was stimulated by the revulsion of the British public against the slave trade – from pathfinding to missionary endeavour and commercial enterprise.

Looking up a report by Johnston in the Geographical Magazine of 1875, my eye caught, in an adjacent column, a letter from the renowned – and notorious – African explorer, Captain Richard Burton, concerning a Sudanese slave, Selim Aga. When he mentioned that Selim had been purchased by a Scot in Alexandria and brought back to Scotland for his education, I could not resist reading further – and an obsession was born.

Selim had written for an earlier edition of the same journal ‘My Parentage and Early Career as a Slave’ describing the circumstances of his birth, probably around 1829, in the district of Taquali in central Sudan, his early boyhood as ‘lord-in-waiting’ to the children of the prince who ruled the district, his capture by Arab slavers and his wanderings down the Nile in captivity. The article was in faultless English and Burton in his letter refuted the suggestion that it had been written by a European, referring to his personal experience of Selim as Burton’s much valued servant in West Africa in the 1860s. (Subsequently, I discovered another version of this article which showed that he had written it towards the end of his time in Scotland in 1846 when probably still a late teenager.)

Given that Selim, by his own account, was only eight years of age when he was captured while herding his father’s goats, his description of his homeland in the Nuba Mountains would seem to show an extraordinary memory for detail. However my own recent research on his journey over 2000 miles down the Nile indicates the veracity of this, from the accuracy of his route and the accounts of other travellers at the time. His acquisition by Robert Thurburn, wealthy merchant and British Consul in Alexandria, filled him with terror – Arab slavers had effectively spread the rumour that infidel Europeans fattened up their purchases for later consumption! He records however the great kindnesses of Robert in Alexandria and his brother John’s family at Peterculter where he stayed for the next ten years.

Burton had said that Selim had received his education at ‘Murtho’ in Aberdeenshire – but no gazetteer of the time revealed its whereabouts. Remembering that Burton claimed that as a result of his stay in Scotland, Selim learned a strongly accented ‘Scotch’, I practised my recollection of the local dialect (from my student days at Aberdeen) and came up with ‘Murtle’ – or something like it. When I discovered that the owner of the grand house of Murtle on the banks of the Dee at Peterculter was John Thurburn, another door was opened. Burton had described Thurburn as an ‘old friend’ – by a curious co-incidence, he had been befriended by the Thurburn family in Alexandria prior to his dangerous journey (disguised as a Muslim pilgrim) to the holy city of Mecca.

Nothing is known of Selim after his departure from Scotland around 1846, but it appears he joined the expedition of another Scot, William Baikie on his second, ill-fated 1857 expedition up the Niger. In 1861 he became Burton’s factotum, accompanying him on many expeditions to the west coast, particularly to the Cameroon Mountains and to the cataracts of the Congo, remaining with him till 1865. (Selim must have been one of the very few who had travelled up the three great rivers of Africa – the Nile, the Congo, and the Niger). Apparently Selim wandered the world subsequently, although pining for a cottage in Scotland where he would have accounted himself ‘Passing rich on forty pounds a year’.

Burton gives a detailed physical description of Selim, one of the few Africans whom he admired. In his narrative of his expedition in the Cameroons, he praises Selim’s character and abilities; apparently he was honest, civil, unpresuming, could cook, doctor, carry out carpentry and gardening, shoot and stuff birds, and was competent in taking meteorological records, and generally ‘took all the trouble of life off my hands’. Burton forecast that in future Selim ‘will be useful in cutting a path for the European pioneer through Outer Asia and Central Africa’. According to Burton, Selim was killed in the Grebo War in Liberia in 1875.

The attempt to follow Selim’s tracks has involved researching the history and geography of nineteenth-century Sudan and the Nile, the politics and intrigues of the British entrepreneurs in Mohammed Ali’s Egypt, rural life around a ‘big hoose’ in Aberdeenshire, and the exploration of West Africa, not to mention Captain Burton’s hunt for a live gorilla – all grist to the mill of a writer who first cast a casual sideways glance at a famous name in African exploration in a journal of the last century.

There are a number of narratives of slaves from the west coast of Africa and their subsequent experiences in the West Indies or the southern states of America – but this record in his own words by a young slave from Muslim North Africa may well be unique. However, apart from a reference to him in the first census of 1841 (where he was designated as a servant at Murtle House), the author has found no other reference to Selim in local Scottish archives, or in his time after leaving Burton’s service till his death in 1875, despite perusal of African exploration records and the more obvious sources in Aberdeenshire, where Selim would have been a source of curiosity, to say the least. Is there someone out there who knows more? The mystery story goes on


Following my writing the above, there has been a most interesting – and quite astonishing development. As a shot in the dark I requested information about Selim on a genealogical web site – and was contacted by his great, great, great, granddaughter -living in Kirkintilloch! She herself has done some serious research on the topic; her grandmother was an Aga and she has succeeded in identifying Selim’s son, Alexander, born in the Deeside district, probably illegitimately, to a Jane Hunter who may well have been a servant at Murtle.

Selim Aga: A Slave’s Odyssey by Jams McCarthy. Luath Press HB £16.99. www.luath.co.uk


Journey into Africa:The Life and Death of Keith Johnston, Scottish Cartographer and Explorer (1844-79) by James McCarthy, former Deputy Director (Scotland) Nature Conservancy Council and Board Member, Scottish Natural Heritage. Illustrated in colour. PB ISBN 1-904445-01-2 £35.00

© James McCarthy 2005.