295pp., plus five additional letters totaling pp., altogether more than 38,000 words. Composed mostly on small octavo sheets. Some wear to edges of initial and final few leaves, slightly affecting text. Light, even tanning. Written in a consistent, legible script. Overall very good Item #319545
An extensive and outstanding manuscript account of travel and exploration in southern Africa during late 1883 and early 1884 by Abraham Anscher, a Polish Jewish immigrant to Chicago. The manuscript is composed in the form of a letter addressed to Edith Delia Rogalski, but really comprises a travelogue or diary, with entries written from September 1883 to mid-January 1884. Five additional letters accompany this account, addressed to Edith's later husband, Israel Jackson Roe; her parents, Samuel and Sarah Rogalski; and her brother Benny.
Anscher's descriptions of his experiences in Africa cover a wide variety of topics including big game hunting; interactions with local indigenous peoples and their rulers; encounters with white missionaries, traders, and other hunters; ethnographic, botanical, geological, and zoological observations, and much more. His account is by turns dramatic and amusing, interspersed with personal recollections of family and home, cultural and religious notes (his addressee was also a Polish-speaking Jewish immigrant to Chicago), and reminiscences of earlier adventures in Colorado, Utah, the California gold fields, and elsewhere.
Little can be readily discerned of the details of Anscher's biography beyond the pages of this manuscript. He was born in Mariampol, then a part of Poland and today in Lithuania, but clearly came to the United States at an early age and was well-educated. He was an adventurer at heart, and spent several years in the West, perhaps in the U.S. Army for part of this time and partly as a solo fortune seeker. At some point during the mid- to late-1870s, he decided to take his adventuring talents to South Africa in order to satisfy his own wanderlust and to create a business of organizing guided African exploration and hunting. The stakes of his chosen profession are mentioned several times throughout his narrative, such as when a party member dies of an unspecified illness ("My lot is a very hard one just now, and my position as promoter and chief adventurer is anything but enviable"). From the additional letters present, it is apparent that the young Ms. Rogalski was a former love interest of Anscher who spurned his affections and became engaged to a mutual friend. Indeed, a letter here addressed to the fiancé offers an apology for the presumption of writing to Edith in such a lengthy and cordial manner; at one time all of the individuals addressed by Anscher were a part of the same immigrant community in Chicago.
This absorbing account follows a lengthy excursion organized and led by Anscher across the Transvaal, through Bechuanaland, Matabeleland, and beyond to a settlement he calls Tatti (probably Francistown, on the Tati River), traveling through parts of modern-day South Africa and Botswana. They contain many details of great interest, and his vignettes are well-written and dramatically delivered. An immense boa constrictor drops out of the treetops, strangling a springbok before his eyes. He finds a five-year-old girl with a broken leg, the only survivor of a village massacre; he sets her leg, nurses her for a month, and eventually conveys her to a missionary station. A young zebra joins the traveling party, incurring the jealousy of the team's dogs. A large lizard is trained to sleep in a tent, but only after his teeth are removed for safety.
His missive begins in medias res, with his party already underway in South Africa near the Orange River in what he calls the "Tarka bush," during mid-September 1883. Anscher decides, having missed his last opportunity to send mail, "Now, to put myself on guard against mischance, and not be like the traditional foolish virgins who did not keep their lamps properly trimmed...to have a so-called running letter always open and ready," for his recipient. The group first traveled northeast near and along the Orange, allowing Anscher to wax discursive concerning the river's wildlife:
"The wanderings of the river sometimes flowed through immense chasms, over hung with stupendous precipices, and then like a translucent lake, with beautiful towering mimosas and willows reflected from its bosom and a rich variety of fine plumage, though without a song; wild geese, ducks, snipes, flamingoes, in perfect security feeding on the banks beneath the green shade, or basking in the sun's rays on the verdant islands, far from the fowler's snare. The swallows, also, mounting aloft, or skimming the surface of the mirror of the stream; while the ravens, with their hoarse note, might be seen seeking their daily food among the watery tribe, or cawing on the bending tops of the weeping willows."
The party leaves the river, and skirts the southern edge of the Kalahari to reach Lattakoo, modern-day Dithakong, a traditional departure point for excursions deeper into the interior of Africa during the 19th century. Thence they headed north again, stopping often to hunt for food and sport:
"When on the Kama plains I went one night, accompanied by Tytler and Winsloe and one native, to a pool of water about two miles from camp.... We did not wait more than about half an hour when we heard loud lapping at the water. The natives told me, 'Ronimala [?]' (be silent) 'There is a lion...." Our next visitors were two buffaloes, but we did not fire lest we attract the attention of the lions. Next came three giraffes, and one we knocked over on the spot, and wounded another, but who got away.... I have seen plenty of game in my time. I saw and hunted antelope and elk on the Laramie plains, and in the [Meek?] Mountains, in America before the Union Pacific RR was built. I saw quite enough of buffalo in the Smokey Hills and Montana, as well as south of the Green Horn Mountains between California and Arizona, but such a variety of game (big game) and in such number as I saw some years ago in the Transvaal & Swaziland and hereabouts now, I never saw anywhere."
As the excursion proceeds further into the interior, their encounters with native tribes increases, and Anscher observes them keenly and reports with a detailed, if somewhat jaded, 19th-century eye:
"The town of Kalabeg [?] is already in the Matabele country.... Of course, they have no religion of any kind, for there is no such thing as natural religion. Men acquire knowledge, good or bad, from instruction of men with more fertile brains. This holds good all the world over. The rainmakers here hold the position of prophets and divines of the so-called civilized countries. These rainmakers, who are also the doctors and sextons, have great influence over the minds of the people, and are held in great estimation by them, superior to that of their king, who is likewise compelled to yield to the dictates of this personage, the rainmaker.... Nothing can exceed the freaks of fancy and the adroitness with which the rainmaker can awe the public mind, and lead thousands captive at his will. Each tribe has one or more of them, and they generally come from other countries, for a prophet is seldom honored in his own country."
Arriving in Shoshong, in what is now central Botswana, Anscher meets some missionaries, and witnesses a tribal gathering, which leads him to remember the religious theories of a familial acquaintance back home:
"Was present at a Pitsoh or native congress this forenoon, held by the natives about some tribe affairs. About 12,000 natives present and wound up the proceedings with a war dance.... As these tribes are considered by some religious enthusiasts to be of the lost tribes of Israel (not your own, but ours), and as your uncle once spoke to me about them while at Chicago, I would therefore request you to kindly tell him to disabuse his mind on this point and that the only peg whereon the so-called lost tribe maniacs hang their argument in favor of their hobby is that the natives practice a certain custom which history attributes to our father Abraham. But this ceremony takes place instead of at the age of 7 days old, when they are about fourteen years old, and even when older. But they have no tradition as to why it is done. If this simple custom entitles them to be call Jews, why, for my part, they are quite welcome to the honor. But this is about all there is to build the theory on."
Despite his occasionally sarcastic and somewhat disparaging demeanor toward the natives he encounters, Anchser seems overall to have a decent connection with them at a personal level and to understand a basic sense of shared humanity. In one particularly poignant episode, Anscher meets a mother and father who have walked 300 miles to ransom their two teenaged sons enslaved by a local chief:
"Neither the man's looks nor ornaments excited the smallest emotion in the bosom of the chief, and when he was solicited by one who felt something of a father's love to pity the old man who had walked so far and brought his all to purchase his own children, he at last replied with a sneer that one of the boys died last year and for the other he wants an ox at least. 'But I have not even a goat,' pleaded the old man, 'the Matabele have taken all I had and destroyed my hut.' A sigh, it was a heavy sigh, burst from his bosom, one dead and the other not permitted to see anymore. The chief walked off while the man sat leaning his head on the palm of his hand, and his eye fixed on the ground, apparently lost to everything but his grief. On taking up his trinkets to retire, I told him to keep up a good heart, that I would try to get him his boy. He started at the sound of my voice, kneeled before me and laid down his trinket saying, 'take all this, but get me back my boy.' I got him his boy for a colored blanket and 1 lb. of tobacco."
When sad and homesick, Anscher recalls his time in Chicago and in the West, but it is often insufficient comfort. After departing Shoshong for Tatti, Anscher must leave his group to "pioneer" a trail to the settlement:
"On the evening of my first day's journey I had to off-saddle (a term used here) on a waterless plain, picketed my horse and went to bed minus my supper or dinner.... I awoke suddenly by something touching me on my forehead like the cold nose of a dog, but I could see nothing in the dark except my horse who was laying down, poor fellow. After this occurrence I could sleep no longer. My head was hot, my lips parched and had no taste even for a cigarette. I daresay some of you have experienced waiting for a train early in the morning in some out of the way small RR station, where moments appear like days. Well, waiting there is not a patch to lying in the dark in Africa's solitude, waiting for daylight to come.... I tried to divert my mind and think of anything but water but I could not do it! I tried to cool myself by thinking of Chicago in the month of Feb., but that only led me to snow and from snow to water. One may as well try Ovid's 'Remedia Amoris' to cure him from hankering after the girl he loves, as to try Chicago in my case as a remedy when thirsty."
The difficulties of obtaining food and water, establishing safe camp, and finding routes through minimally charted territory evident in this final passage are an ever-present theme of the expedition, but Anscher eventually guided his group to their destination, where they intended to stay for a month or two before heading further north to Victoria Falls on the Zambezi River. The final entries describe life at the settlement, and how a Portuguese colonial explorer and administrator, Alexandre de Serpo Pinto, whom they met in camp, would be entrusted with the present manuscript as he traveled to Namaqualand on the west coast of Africa, in the hopes that it would eventually find its way aboard a ship bound for America. Pinto was a fascinating figure in his own right -- he explored the interior of Africa for Portugal in the 1860s and 1870s, and after this meeting with our author became the Portuguese Consul in Zanzibar.
Anscher's trail goes somewhat cold after January 1884, when he relinquished control of this massive "running letter." An additional fragment of a later letter to Edith Rogalski included here, forwarded via a mining acquaintance in Kimberly, contains a few tantalizing details of his onward expedition, including an attack on their party near Victoria Falls by a group of slavers led by "an American Negro." He was also working on a journal, and taking photographs, which are mentioned several times throughout this account, but the survival of this other material, as well as the ultimate conclusion of this expedition, are not known. A wonderful, unpublished account of African exploration by a seemingly unlikely and apparently otherwise unknown American character.
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