"Indeed, a minimum of life, an unchaining from all coarser desires, an independence in the middle of all kinds of outer nuisance; a bit of Cynicism, perhaps a bit of ‘tub’."
Friedrich Nietzsche

30 Nov 2013

A Philosophy of Tramping—Trader Horn

A re-edited version of the original post is now published in Chapter 4 of
Published by Feral House February 2020


Trader Horn, alias Zambezi Jack, and several other monickers, was born Alfred Aloysius (Wish) Smith in Preston, Lancashire, England on 21st June (Saint Aloysius day in the calendar of Catholic saints) 1861. It was his editor and literary collaborator who chose the pen name Horn, allegedly to protect the reputation of his family. In the same way, Horn disguised the names of many of the 'characters' in his books, often with the same character being given several different names; although perhaps this was as much from Horn's own confusion than any deliberate attempt to confuse his readers.

Horn does not quite fit the mould of the other tramp writers who make up this philosophy, even though they, like him, were very much individuals. True, he did have a spell riding the rails around America and, had he not been 'discovered' in his sixties by the novelist Ethelreda Lewis, would likely have starved to death in a Johannesburg dosshouse. For most of his life Horn seems to have chosen employment as his primary existence over vagabondage, even if such employment included piracy, hostage taking and highway robbery—as well as a spell as a police officer! Horn was an adventurer rather than a tramp, but it was his inveterate wanderlust and contradictory view of the world that makes his inclusion in this philosophy indispensable.

Most of the content of this post is drawn from Horn's three published works:

Trader Horn: A Young Man's Outstanding Adventures in Equatorial Africa (1927)
Harold the Webbed or The Young Vykings (1928)
Trader Horn in Madagascar: The Waters of Africa (1929)

However, in order to try and establish a more complete chronicle of Horn's life and adventures, I am indebted to Tim Couzens for his exceptional and comprehensive piece of detective work, Tramp Royal: The True Story of Trader Horn. Couzens retraced many of Horn's steps in search of his remarkable story, speaking to descendants of Horn as well as getting access to many original letters and documents that reveal information not deducible from the enigma that is Horn's published works. And so because it is not within the scope of this blog to repeat the detailed account of Horn's life, already superbly documented by Couzens, I suggest my reader obtains a copy of that work if they wish to more fully acquaint themselves with the life and times of this extraordinary character.

Trader Horn would yet have been just another unknown tramp and adventurer had he not, in the spring of 1925 at the age of 64 (although looking and claiming to be considerably older), arrived at number 26 Loch Avenue in the Johannesburg suburb of Parktown, peddling handmade kitchen implements. At first, the novelist Ethelreda Lewis was not sure what to make of her uninvited visitor, but a natural curiosity combined with a shared interest in Viking history, soon turned into a remarkable literary partnership that within only two years would make Trader Horn an international celebrity. As with fellow tramp writer, W.H. Davies, who received for his first book the patronage and a preface from George Bernard Shaw, Horn's success was partly attributable to the attention and a foreword for his first book from the (later Nobel Prize winning) novelist John Galsworthy:

'This is a gorgeous book, more full of sheer stingo than any you are likely to come across ... These untutored memories of youth adventuring long ago in a wild place, recorded with an untutored pen in a Johannesburg dos-house, are like gold ore of the "so-called golden City," as Alfred Aloysius Horn would call it, except indeed that the proportion of gold in them is so very much greater.'

At first Lewis was perplexed by Horn's repetitious and digressive ramblings, primarily of his adventures in what is now Gabon in former French Equatorial Africa. Horn was only seventeen years old when he signed up as a rubber and ivory trader with the company Hatton & Cookson, yet by the time he left Gabon only four years later he was, in addition to being a formidable trader, also an accomplished sailor, navigator, diplomat and military strategist. The disjointed accounts of these early adventures, as told to Lewis in their first few meetings, are centred around the Ogowe (Ogooué) river and include repeated references to friendships with cannibals and a white goddess, not to mention encounters with gorillas, elephants and French colonialists, the latter of whom Horn clearly despised. A full description of these early adventures makes up the latter part of this post. But firstly I will deal with Horn's literary style and later 'fictional' writings.


Trader Horn's School Days

Horn was enrolled at St. Edwards College, Liverpool, at the age of eleven, which according to Couzens, 'had buccaneering origins of which Aloysius could only have approved.' Horn described sailing as being in his veins—although again we have to suspend disbelief as his Grandfather's surname was Smith not Horn:

'My great-uncle Bill, him that had landed in Jamaica and was the last of the privateers, and my grandfather John Horn, started the firm Hamlin, Horn and Hamlin. Know it? Aye, the world knows it. All, me uncles and cousins I've ever had are in it, same as they were in the Alabama syndicate. My uncle Richard was killed in the fight off Galveston.'

There are other references to pirate relatives throughout Horn's conversations with Lewis, but as they match up at best very loosely, we must question Horn's veracity or memory of his actual ancestry, or embrace them as fantasy:

'There was me greatuncle Dick that was the last of the buccaneers and had a house in M Road, Hyde Park. Property in Savannah [Georgia, USA]. ... And there was me greatuncle Horn. Stone blind. Always siting in a little chair by the fire.'

And then again later:

'An old-style viking, me greatuncle Ralph. He asked his father for two ships to go privateering, but his father said no, one'd be enough if properly rigged for warfare.'


Just turned seventeen, and with the consent of his parents, Horn signed an apprenticeship with the Liverpool firm Hatton and Cookson to work for that company in equatorial West Africa's ivory and rubber trade at an annual starting salary of forty pounds plus free board and passage on the SS Angola.

Trader Horn in Africa


The secret of Horn's success was a combination of his skills as a sailor and navigator, his courage in the face of adversity, and, most importantly, the sophistication of a natural diplomat based on an understanding and respect for the local inhabitants:

'Always had that modus operandi about me that I could follow the edicts of my surroundings. Is man the only animal that can do without the protective colouring offered by a sensible Nature?'

This ability to absorb alien cultures and embrace their way of living, marked Horn out from most of the other colonialists he came into contact with. Although retaining some romantic notions about the country of his birth, Horn shared the general attributes of the true tramp and cosmopolite: those who carry their home with them, comfortably adapt to whatever natural environment they find themselves in, but most importantly, are able to adopt the customs of any culture that suits their purpose. In Horn's case, this included several occasions where he availed himself of the services of witch-doctors (including for gunshot and spear wounds) rather than Western medicine; a fact that also probably explains how Horn survived the often perilous environment of equatorial West Africa (The White Man's Grave) when so many of his contemporaries did not.


The Ogowe River

I will now provide a summary of the terrain Horn had now entered in his own words from Chapter 1 of his first book:

'The Ogowe River empties into the Atlantic Ocean one day's sail south of the equator, and from this river came the most valuable cargoes of ivory, as much as 50,000 pounds weight being shipped in one season. The elephants are mostly hunted by the M'pangwes, Fans, and Ashiwa who speak the same language. These tribes inhabit the North bank of the Ogowe river nearly to its source and are all cannibals. I lived among them for many years, but for safety sandbanks and islands were the only safe camping grounds. Boys were supplied by the firm I represented ... and we were all well supplied with rifles ... Always kept handy in case of surprise attack, and we were frequently called on to defend ourselves in this uncivilised country. These cannibals are by far the finest type of all Negroes I ever met, are good hunters, fine workers, and have no slaves. They are also very moral and I never knew a cannibal woman who was not more than faithful to her husband and children."  

Horn does not say whether the men were also faithful to their wives, but he does describe many friendships he had with these people, on occasions to whom he also owed his life. But, as we shall see, Horn also took lives. Life was certainly cheaper on the Ogowe river and it's tributaries than his Catholic upbringing in Lancashire had prepared him for. He describes, for instance, his shock at witnessing for the first time the practice of throwing an old woman, who had outlived her usefulness, into the rapids to be drowned or eaten by crocodiles:

'... it takes a pretty strong prayer to shut out matricide. Not but what they'd have to get permission from the priests at the Josh [Joss] House to do way with 'em. Then they'd gather a few friends together and chuck somebody's old mother or granny into the river, at an age when in Lancashire she'd be just right for a shawl and a good cup o' tea.'

But Horn soon became used to the ways of the people with whom he now lived and was completely captivated with the exoticism of the natural environment around him.


Trader Horn and the White Goddess

The first task Horn was given in his new job, was to survey the Ogowe for one hundred miles further up river, but not until he had taken soundings near the river's mouth to establish the safest channels for vessels to navigate. It was while engaged with this work that the most fanciful part of Horn's tale emerged; that part of Horn's early adventures central to the later Hollywood movie of the book, and which below I have abbreviated as much as I could without compromising Horn's literary embroidery. Horn was invited by Chief Isagi to visit his temple and be initiated into a ceremony Horn calls the Egbo:

'On entering the temple, which had an ornamentation of human skulls ... I was confronted by a row of masked objects hideous to behold. I was then seated bareheaded on a small seat composed of leopard skins. There were two objects the chief called my attention to, one was a square piece of crystal, the other was peg-top shaped and pointed at one end. He told me to place my hand on these objects, and that one represented fire (the red one) and the other water. ... I came to the conclusion it was a ruby of great value. After this there was a great vociferation from the building, supposed to come from the spirits behind. ... Now everything in the temple began to sparkle and placing his hand on my head, which I bowed low, he announced in a loud voice the entrance of Izaga. ... The chief then ordered me to stand up and approach the centre mask. ... There stood the God that Never Dies, the most beautiful white woman I had ever seen. Her eyes were wide and had a kind of affectionate look. Although I thought there was pity in them they had a magnetic effect on me. ... Her head was auburn and was plaited in circles and pressed onto her temples. Two ringlets ornamented with gold and green tassels fell down on each side of her shoulders, whilst high up on her forehead the hair formed a diamond-shaped coronet. A short leopard-skin kilt ornamented with snakeskin and dainty fur sandals with black straps formed the rest of the dress of this Izaga.'

Extravagant as this tale at first appears, it is grounded in a surprising degree of fact.


Battles with River Pirates

Horn's personal friendship with Isagi and Nina was not to protect the company's cargoes from attacks of piracy from this same tribe. On his way back up river, Horn was able to impress the ships new captain with his skills both as a pilot and military leader when the Pioneer came under attack from 20 of Isagi's war canoes. The Pioneer's crew were able to drive Isagi's warriors off and escape upstream. The second part of Horn's mission was to explore the Ogowe's large tributary, the Ngouniė, upstream from the Company's factory to the Samba Falls and beyond. The principal trade of the Akele tribe of the region, named by Horn the 'Okellys', was rubber, although they continued to capture and trade in slaves also. Later Horn would be involved in a battle between the 'Okellys' (their chief Iwolo had also been befriended by Horn) and another tribe he calls the 'Oshebas'. Horn describes how they were guarding the carcasses and ivory of a rogue elephant tracked and killed by the Okellys, when they found themselves under attack from the Oshebas in full war paint and 'armed with rifles, crossbows and spears.' With the help of Horn and his own fighters, the attack was repelled and the meat and tusks brought safely to the Okellys' town. But, as I will relate later, Horn was to nearly lose his life in another battle with the Oshebas. Beyond the falls was the territory of the Ivilli people to whose king it was customary to pay a toll of one-sixth the value of goods being taken from the region—although Horn also won favours with the old man by supplying him with whiskey. It was also at the Samba Falls that Horn witnessed the drowning of the old woman.


Trader Horn's Meeting with Pierre de Brazza


Horn's Venture as an Independent Trader and Final River Battle



An interesting postscript to Horn's adventures on the Ogowe River, is testimony of Nobel Peace Prize winner Albert Schweitzer. By a strange coincidence, after completing his medical degree, Schweitzer arrived in Lambaréné in 1912 to set up a hospital near the site of Hatton and Cookson's factory on the Ogowe river. Being a German in a French colony during the First World War, Schweitzer was put under surveillance and in 1917 sent to an internment camp in France. Although freed soon after, he did not return to Lambaréné until 1925. As Couzens observes, Schweitzer became intrigued by Horn's first volume after it's publication in 1927 just as he was moving the site of his hospital to the spot formally occupied by Hatton and Cookson: 'So in those (earlier) years, Trader Horn was at home on the spot now occupied by my hospital.' Fascinated by the Trader Horn story, Schweitzer conducted his own research from interviews with those on the river who still had memories of Horn. Couzens' transcripts of Schweitzer's memoirs add to the authenticity of Horn's story and further illuminate the animosity between Horn and his boss:

'Whereas the memory of the chief, Mr Sinclair, still lives in the land, there are but few old people who can remember his subordinate of that time. What they still remember is that he was very young, that he wanted to trade according to his own ideas and on his own account and was therefore constantly at variance with Mr Sinclair ... Apart from trifling discrepancies, Trader Horn's description of the country and it's inhabitants is accurate.'  

Trader Horn PART 2

Horn’s Return to England and Further Adventures


To America with Buffalo Bill's Wild West Show


Trader Horn's Return to Africa


Horn’s further Adventures in Eastern, Southern and Central Africa


Trader Horn's Return to America and Hobo Culture


Trader Horn's Second Return to Africa and Ignominy


Trader Horn, Writer and Celebrity


Trader Horn's Round the World Tour and Final Journey




  1. Thank you for the information. I've just started to read his 1927 book. I wondered if he was real person.

  2. Trader Horn was my cousin, 4x removed. Its fascinating discovering this amazing character in my family tree. His family were devoutly Catholic, but had more than one rogue in it.

  3. I am Robert Smith, Sheffield, England. An ostrich egg arrived at my grandads house ( George Smith)in Sheffield in the early 1915- 20 time. " It came from our relation in Africa/ Trader Horn". Ive never found the connection. We are a catholic family. Robert

    1. Thanks Robert, what was the connection you never found? And what is your relationship to Steve (above) if any, and how are you related to Trader Horn? I'd really like to speak with you so please use the contact form below if you feel like contacting me directly. Thanks, Ian

  4. Wonderful account keeping the wonder of Wish alive, Ian, thank you! I am a big fan of the old rascal, and of Tim Couzens (was truly sad when he died suddenly). I thought I had written to you years ago? Maybe not. Just in case, you don't have it (I'm sure you do:

  5. Thank you so much for this fascinating insight into Trader Horn. I am writing my mother's biography and she bought this book in August 1936. Very interesting that she grew up in Lancashire where he originated!