Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Where Was the Secret Service?!

Some of you might remember the political hay certain irresponsible members of the Republican Party made with the cost (which they basically made up) of President Obama’s recent trip to India.  And some of you might not.  But it’s safe to say that amongst the substantial entourage travelling with the President, the Secret Service has a considerable presence.  In fact, former presidents also receive Secret Service Protection, as do some Presidential candidates. 

In 1909, a former President arrived in the Lado Enclave, a region in the northwest of Uganda that was then leased to the Belgian King Leopold.  He was, of course Theodore Roosevelt, who became President when William McKinley was assassinated in 1901 (the event which transformed the Secret Service into the President’s bodyguard).  Roosevelt was in the midst of an enormous safari which took him across great swathes of East Africa and destroyed almost 12,000 animals, most of which were sent to museums in the United States.

Such was the excess and luxury of this safari that it helped to launch East Africa’s tourism industry, which remains a mainstay of the region’s economy. 

A group of men travelling and living in the Lado Enclave, excited at the prospect of meeting the former-President, arranged a reception for him at Koba, and when Roosevelt came ashore, one of their number, John Boyes, was waiting on the bank of the Nile to welcome him. 

But this was no band of English and Belgian gentlemen or official notables who awaited Roosevelt and his small party.  They were notorious outlaws, elephant poachers and gunslingers who worked the ivory trade in the Belgian Congo to the everlasting irritation of Belgian authorities, and with the connivance of British officials who took in revenue from the tax they levied on the ivory the hunters brought into their territories from the Congo (they taxed it again when it was exported!).  Many of these men had ranged far and wide across Eastern Africa pursuing what they called “white gold”, but around the time Roosevelt arrived in the region, many of them had converged on the Lado Enclave.  Their exploits there made those of the men who populated the Wild West of the United States look positively tame.

The Secret Service didn’t begin protecting former presidents until 1965, so Roosevelt had no be-suited men in sunglasses with ear-pieces to guard him as he stepped into the midst of these outlaws.  What if they had held him hostage?  What if, in the course of his journeys across Africa he had run into a horde of dangerous, dirty Occupiers—the kind Newt Gingrich presumably dreams about? 

But Roosevelt had nothing to fear, for these rough-and-ready men were proud to have someone who they thought of as one of their own in their midst. 

Boyes recounted how Roosevelt “raised his glass and gave the toast ‘To the Elephant Poachers of the Lado Enclave’.  As we drank with him one or two of us laughingly protested at his bluntness [a British District Commissioner and an army officer were present], so he gravely amended his toast to, ‘The Gentlemen Adventurers of Central Africa, for’, he added, ‘that is the title by which you would have been known in Queen Elizabeth’s time’”.

Needless to say, the Company of Adventurers were charmed.  The sentiment was reciprocated, for Roosevelt “made for the door [of the tent] on three separate occasions; but each time, after hesitatingly listening to the beginning of some new adventure by one of the boys, he again sat down to hear another page from our every-day life”.

Before he left, Boyes and his friends “urged him to chuck all his political work and come out like the great white man he was, and join us”.  They offered “to put a force under his command to organise the hunting and pioneering business of Central Africa and perhaps make history”.  Thus did Roosevelt turn down the offer to set up a personal Empire around the Great Lakes, although later in life he is supposed to have confided that “no honour ever paid to him had impressed and tempted him like that which he received from the poachers of the Lado Enclave”.

I wonder what his Secret Service detail would do if Bill Clinton started gallivanting around hiring mercenaries?

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Source: John Boyes.  The Company of Adventurers.  London: East Africa Ltd, 1928, 92-3.

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