Major Sir Wilfred Patrick Thesiger, CBE, DSO, FRAS, FRGS, also called Mubarak bin London (Arabic for “the blessed one from London”) (3 June 1910 – 24 August 2003) was a British explorer and travel writer.
Thesiger is best known for his travel books Arabian Sands (1959), on his foot and camel crossing of the Empty Quarter of Arabia, and The Marsh Arabs (1964), on his time living in the marshes of Iraq with the Marsh Arabs. He donated his collection of 23,000 travel photographs to the Pitt Rivers Museum, Oxford.
Thesiger was born in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, the son of diplomat Wilfred Gilbert Thesiger, British consul-general and minister to Addis Ababa from 1909 to 1919. Thesiger’s grandfather was Lord Chelmsford. Viscount Chelmsford, future Viceroy of India was an uncle, and the actor Ernest Thesiger was a cousin.
Thesiger was educated at Eton College, Berkshire, followed by Magdalen College at the University of Oxford, where he took a Third in History. Between 1930 and 1933, Thesiger represented Oxford at boxing and later (in 1933) became captain of the Oxford boxing team. He was awarded a boxing Blue for each of the four years that he was at Oxford. Whilst at Oxford, Thesiger was also elected Treasurer of the Oxford University Exploration Club (1931-32).
In 1930, Thesiger returned to Africa, having received a personal invitation from Emperor Haile Selassie to attend his coronation. He returned again in 1933 as the leader of an expedition, funded in part by the Royal Geographical Society, to explore the course of the Awash River. During this expedition, he became the first European to enter the Aussa Sultanate and visit Lake Abbe.
Between 1935 and 1940, Thesiger served with the Sudan Political Service stationed in Darfur and the Upper Nile.
Second World War
At the outbreak of war, Thesiger joined the Sudan Defence Force, helping to organise the Abyssinian resistance to the occupying Italians. He was awarded the DSO for capturing Agibar and its garrison of 2,500 Italian soldiers.
He later served with the Special Operations Executive in Syria and the Special Air Service during the North African Campaign, attaining the rank of Major. From 1943 to 1945 he acted as political adviser to the Abyssinian Crown Prince.
After the Second World War, Thesiger travelled across Arabia, lived for some years in the marshes of Iraq, and then travelled in Iran, Kurdistan, French West Africa and Pakistan. He lived for many years in northern Kenya.
He is best remembered for his Arabian expeditions. In 1945, an entomologist, O.B. Lean, acting on behalf of the Middle East Anti Locust Unit (MEALU), hired Thesiger to search for locust breeding grounds in southern Arabia. This led to two crossings of the great Arabian desert, the Rub al Khali or Empty Quarter, and travels in inner Oman. He rode camels in the company of bedouin guides through remote areas that were potentially dangerous on account of tribal tensions and the opposition of local rulers to the presence of foreigners.
Thesiger’s first crossing began in October 1946 when, with his bedouin companions, he left Salalah in the Dhofar province of Oman and travelled to the Mughshin Oasis. From there, he entered the sands but there was dissent among his party, some of whom were unwilling to travel any farther. Thesiger continued with four members, two from the Rashid and two from the Bait Kathir tribes. He reached the Liwa Oasis in Abu Dhabi in mid December, visited Abu Dhabi town then crossed into Oman, heading back towards Salalah via Dhofar and ending his journey at Salalah on 23 February 1947.
His second crossing began in December 1947, at Manwakh well in Yemen. The king of Saudi Arab did not agree to Thesiger entering his territory, and imprisoned Thesiger and his party when they arrived at Sulayil. Soon released, they travelled to the Liwa Oasis and then to Abu Dhabi town, arriving on 14 March 1948. In April, Thesiger visited the Buraimi Oasis, for which the Iraq Petroleum Company (IPC) held an oil concession, which it operated through an associate company, Petroleum Development Oman. Dick Bird, the company’s representative, was concerned by Thesiger’s attitude towards oil exploration. Thesiger disapproved of the company’s activities, believing that the discovery of oil would destroy the bedouin way of life. However, the need to finance his expeditions led the explorer to accept funding from the oil company in exchange for providing information garnered from his travels.
After all his travels were over, Thesiger returned to England in the 1990s and was knighted in 1995.
He is also known for two travel books: Arabian Sands (1959), which recounts his travels in the Empty Quarter of Arabia between 1945 and 1950 and describes the vanishing way of life of the Bedouins; and The Marsh Arabs (1964), which is an account of the Madan, the indigenous people of the marshlands of southern Iraq. The latter journey is also covered by his travelling companion, Gavin Maxwell, in A Reed Shaken by the Wind – a Journey through the Unexplored Marshlands of Iraq (Longman, 1959).
Thesiger took many photographs during his travels and donated his vast collection of 23,000 negatives to the Pitt Rivers Museum, Oxford. His books were analysed, from a collector’s point of view, in Book and Magazine Collector magazine, No.65, August 1989, and again in 2008, Issue No.295.