Monday, October 30, 2006

Halloween Heroes of the Birding Revolution - Richard Meinertzhagen

I'm sorry, I'm so so sorry. Ripped on drink and drugs, and you certainly need to be. You shouldn't have gone into the woods. You shouldn't have lost the map. With extra spookiness, I present....

Colonel Richard Meinertzhagen DSO, CBE 1878-1967

Born under a blood red moon (probably) into a life of relative opulence at Mottisfont Abbey, Hampshire. The family were so rich they didn’t even notice the servants embezzling £100s in selling poached game. Natural History formed a big part of their life, and with the family connections, combined with trips to Tring and a town house close to the recently opened Natural History Museum in Kensington, the wee Meinertzhagens got to meet pretty much all the movers and shakers of the time. Not that they sat back and let the bigwigs come to them. Dickie and his brother, for example, bought a dead Garganey in Leadenhall market (London), and pretended they didn’t know what it was as a pretext to go to the British Museum and get it ‘identified’ by Bowdler-Sharpe, who them took them on a tour of the bird collection. They also bumped into Gätke (see previous ‘Heroes’ ) on their travels, Seebohm (famous for Petchora slaughter and big bird book), and Dresser (famous for even bigger bird book). Thomas Huxley (evolution pioneer, genius) had a bit of a crush on Dickie’s mum and hung around the house more than was good. The Meinertzhagens called in on Huxley one day, and young Richard got to bounce up and down on Charles Darwin’s knee – he thought Darwin looked a kindly old gent, but smelt of wee. I made that last bit up. Richard also met George Bernard Shaw, Oscar Wilde (not impressed), and Kaiser Wilhelm(!). With prescience that was to characterise his later life, Richard foresaw that war with Germany was in the pipeline.

But first, some very serious schooling.... at Aysgarth school in darkest God-forsaken Yorkshire, where the headmaster personally force-fed the students boiled beef and spotted dick (fnarr fnarr!) and made them run of miles in the freezing dawn rain until they either died or developed the physique and mentality of a public library. Richard at 6’ 5” tall and 4’ wide, opted for the latter. Then to Harrow (crumpets, fagging and thrashing), and finally Göttingen University. Richard wanted to enter a career in birdspotting, but his Dad told him to get a proper job, and in the best traditions of upper class nepotism made him take a position in the family firm. Richard didn’t like it, and ran away to join the army in 1899 (I presume the circus was full). What followed was one of the most incredible (for the intelleckuals, I use that word deliberately) military careers ever recorded. Until the Great War, he soldiered in India, Burma, Kenya, slaughtering restless natives with enthusiasm. No really, he was a nasty piece of work, as he was to admit in later life. He revelled in the savagery of Africa, cracked heads with enthusiasm… and famously finished his Christmas dinner before popping out to shoot a German diplomat. He developed a reputation for brilliance and astuteness.

In 1917, during the Great War, he was posted to the Middle East. Eventually, he got there – his ship, The Transylvania, was torpedoed and sunk. Dickie saw the dash for the lifeboats, decided it wasn’t for him, so purloined a couple of bottles of brandy, walked off the deck of the sinking ship into the Mediterranean, got kicked in the stomach by a horse floundering in the water, and was rescued by some Japanese sailors, smashed but alive, a few hours later. His military career in Egypt, Israel and Arabia was the stuff of legends. He used to hang out with Laurence of Arabia. Brilliant and ruthless, he spied, shot people, got death threats and collected birds. Caught on a plane once with a collapsed pilot, he got the airstrip personnel to spell out instructions for landing the plane in big strips of cloth on the ground. It would have been funnier if they’d spelt out “you’re f*cked”, but they didn’t and he wasn’t. His most famous exploit was inventing and carrying out a plan to pretend to ‘lose’ a haversack containing ‘secret’ military plans behind Turkish lines, convincing the Turks that we weren’t going to attack Beersheba, and then sneakily we did. Onwards to Jerusalem, and the campaign was won. Lloyd George himself got to hear about the brilliant young soldier. In 1918 he managed to be part of the apocryphal team that (allegedly), on the direct and illegal orders of King George, rescued one of the Russian princesses from the Tsar’s captive family in Ekaterinburg, flinging her onto a moving plane and bringing her back to a life on the run in Europe. Ironically, this action, if it ever happened, directly led to the slaughter of the entire remainder of the family. He officially retired from the army in 1925, but his espionage continued - 1929 saw him in Spain, murdering 19 Soviet agents at their hideout at Ronda, an action which got him a lungful of poison gas and the award of the Order of King Charles III. In 1934, he met Hitler. It would be unfair to call Dickie a sympathiser, and in time he came to regret not killing Hitler when he got the chance, but certainly he felt a great empathy with the German people (his stock) and respected the Nazis’ ability to get the trains running on time. No one told him the protocol, so he’s stood there and Hitler approaches and goes ‘Heil Hitler’, which Dickie thought was a bit weird, but he replied in kind ‘Heil Meinertzhagen’. You could have heard a pin drop. In 1940, (age 62) he was at the tiller of one of the fleet of boats ferrying escaping British soldiers from Dunkirk.

So what of the birds? Natural History had taken a back seat in his early army career, but after a series of high profile humiliations and other troubles, he turned back to birds as a kind of occupational therapy, somewhere around 1912/3. But it was when he got to Egypt and the Middle East in 1917 that his birding really took off. He spent the remainder of his life collecting birds, across Asia and Africa, and amassed one of the finest collections of bird skins (specimens), 25,000 in total, beautifully preserved and cared-for, jam-packed with unique and very important records. He genuinely loved it, the tangible result of his life’s work. And there was more than just birds, he did everything, including lice.

He once thought he saw a Monk Seal just off the beach in Egypt, so ran off for his gun and was going to shoot when he realised it wasn’t a Monk Seal, it was his Chief-of-Staff’s wife, a Mrs Waters-Taylor, skinny dipping.She would have looked good mounted, I bet.

The ‘Meinertzhagen Collection’ wasn’t the only love of his life, however – he had two wives, not at the same time. The first, Amorel, married 1911, he never slept with, which also was ironic because just about everyone else did! The second, Anne, was a fantastic ornithologist in her own right, until she accidentally shot herself in the head in 1928 with Richard’s revolver, while they were practising with targets. Not sure how she managed it, as she was very gun-savvy, but the position of the entry wound and the damage done are apparently more consistent with her being shot by someone else, a tall man, for example. Richard was the only other person there, but no inquest was ever held. Still he seemed pretty shaken up, especially when he inherited his wife’s vast estate, but he only got it on condition he never remarried. He spent the rest of his life with his gorgeous pouting 33-years-younger cousin, Theresa Clay, with a secret passage connecting their next-door houses. I bet he was up and down her passage all the time.

With Meinertzhagen’s travels and collecting came publications, and it was through these, there were plenty of them, that he became one of the elder statesmen of British Ornithology. He lacked a scientific education, but he was very clever, and cut through to the heart of many pressing ornithological issues by bringing that second sight that characterised his military career into the bird world. He was, for example, one of the few people who was never convinced by the Cambridgeshire Moustached Warbler records (see Secret Freezers passim). Not that all his work was great – there were problems with it. For example he published personally observed details about the life history and ecology of Razo Larks in spite of never having visited Razo to see them. His two major bird books were Nicoll’s Birds of Egypt (1930) and the magnificent Birds of Arabia (1954). He met Michael Nicoll, assistant director of the zoo at Gaza, during the Palestine campaign, and they struck up a friendship which lasted until Nicoll died in 1925. Actually, Dickie thought Nicoll, and his wife Norrie, were ignorant upper class twits, but they were friends all the same. Meinertzhagen was hardly on the bones of his arse himself, but even he got hacked off with the Nicoll’s opulence and their enormous baggage train and servants that they insisted on hauling around the remote corners of Egypt while out birding. When Michael died, leaving an enormous collection of bird records and illustrations for an unpublished book, Norrie asked Meinertzhagen to finish it off, which he did in some style. Keen Freezer-ites might remember that Michael Nicoll was also one of the suspects in the ‘Hastings Rarities’ scandal – hold that thought for a future edition of ‘Heroes’.

Birds of Arabia (1954) is universally acknowledged to be a great book. While serving in the Middle East, Dickie had come across, and stolen, an unpublished manuscript in the British Legation offices in Jidda, for a book of the same title by a man called Bates, who was fortuitously dead. Meinertzhagen built his own ‘Birds of Arabia’ around this manuscript, which he wrongly assumed to be the only copy (there was another one lurking in the Natural History Museum, which is how we found out what he had done). Meinertzhagen’s book was reviewed in Ibis by a French Canadian, Charles Vaurie, a republican who hated Meinertzhagen and everything he stood for politically. It was like asking George Galloway to review Prince Andrew’s helicopter expenses, and the result was a lukewarm assessment. Dickie blew his top and threatened to leave the BOU. Serious news(!).

So there were problems with his publications… but there were also problems with his collection of bird skins. The care and work he put into maintaining the high standards of his specimens was legendary, but strangely it was also known, during his life, that he could be extraordinarily careless about the labels he tied to them. ‘Quirky’ might be one way to describe it, but he made some crazy mistakes, and relabelled things for no apparent reason, gave birds wrong or misleading data, and hence began the process of devaluing his greatest achievements. And he stole things – birds from other peoples’ collections held in museums around Europe for safe-keeping were purloined for his private use. As early as 1919 he got a 12-month ban from the British Natural History Museum for trying to steal specimens. He got back in, but in 1935 the police were called after he was accused of stealing books from the museum library. Somehow he got away with it and charges were never pressed. In spite of that, he got a pass-key to the museum, where the staff knew what he was up to, but just kept an eye on him best they could. They had their eye on the inheritance… 25000 immaculate bird skins that would one day surely be passed onto the museum. They figured if he was stealing birds, they’d get them back after his death. Then disaster! He fell out with the British Museum after staff refused him permission to beat lice out of the skins (around the time they noticed an asian Greenfinch that Meinertzhagen had been looking at was missing). Meinertzhagen threatened to bequeath his collection to an American museum, where he said the skins would be better looked after. The NHM couldn’t stand the thought of that, and arranged transfer of nearly all his specimens to them in 1954, giving them a room to themselves where Dickie could come and go as he pleased and retained total control over the collection. So the Natural History Museum had got the stolen specimens back, maybe, but what they could not have guessed at the time was that Meinertzhagen had been relabelling and remaking them, giving them new locations and passing them off as his own work. Or maybe they should have guessed. Charles Vaurie had. Phillip Clancey, who had been travelling with Meinertzhagen and skinned stuff for him, also did, though it was not until after Dickie’s death that he voiced his complaints. He noticed that some African birds from the Meinertzhagen collection appeared to have been relabelled with misleading data. He also found that Meinertzhagen had taken one of Bowdler-Sharpe’s Redpolls, renamed it as his own and given it a new locality (in France). Alan Knox pioneered the detective work and with forensic analysis of Redpoll skins in particular was able to prove the point. A bit of harmless mischief perhaps? But real concern when Pamela Rasmussen and Robert Prys-Jones found that Meinertzhagen had stolen one of the few specimens of Forest Owlet from James Davidson’s collection, one of seven shot by Davidson in Maharastra in 1884. Meinertzhagen manipulated and re-fixed it in a new style, given it a new location and date (Mandvi, 300 miles away, 1914). This would have represented a significant range extension for what was then a presumed extinct species, and was a major prize in the Colonel’s collection. Rasmussen and Prys-Jones went on to show that all 14 of Dickie’s unique and most valuable east Indian specimens were stolen and fraudulently labelled, significantly messing up our understanding of the avifauna of the region. More and more frauds are coming to light all the time (most recently, in British Birds – a Meinertzhagen specimen of Gray’s Grasshopper Warbler, supposed to have hit the lighthouse at Ouessant in 1933, was in fact shot by Owston in north-east China in June 1908, and resided at Tring until Dickie stole it). In fact, there’s quite a clear modus operandi here…. Meinertzhagen would find a series of specimens of a species that he liked the look of, take the best individual, maybe crack it about a bit, change its shape, do a bit of work on it so it wasn’t obvious where it had come from, then give it a new data tag with some interesting location, and pass it off as one of his own birds, in his own collection. The scale is incredible – it’s estimated that of the 25000 skins in his collection, maybe as many as 5000 are stolen fakes. It’s clear that Meinertzhagen claims to have collected loads birds in places he simply was not there at the time. It’s bit like some imaginary modern-day fraudulent twitcher claiming to see a rarity somewhere on the same day that he is independently seen to be 100s miles away.

So has Meinertzhagen pissed on his legacy to such an extent that his collection is now totally useless? Probably not. For a start, many of the stolen specimens can be recognised as missing from the original series or collection they came from, and can be ‘repatriated’. Second, there are immensely important skins in the Meinertzhagen collection that appear to be totally genuine – his Afghan Snowfinches (the types – there was nowhere to steal these from) and his Yemeni specimen of Northern Bald Ibis. To be handled with care… but the Meinertzhagen birds are beautifully prepared and it would be a criminal to burn the lot, as has been suggested. You cannot spend 40 years shooting everything that moves without building up an interesting collection; somewhere among the 20000 genuine birds are bound to be some important stuff.

Why did he do it? Prestige? It could be that, but he would have had that anyway. I put it down to arrogance, and to contempt. While Meinertzhagen was extraordinarily generous and kind to his friends, at the same time he didn’t seem to care about honesty in his professional relationships. He loved ruses – to be played out equally on enemies or friends – and was contemptuous of the opinions of others. He KNEW what he was trying to prove, about avifaunas, was true, so felt justified in stealing and relabelling the skins, or inventing data for publications, to prove it. And he let nothing stand in his way… maybe even his second wife.

Meinertzhagen died in 1967, but was virtually bedridden for some time after he bumped into a big dog and broke his hip. For a man who had thrived on the thrill of being alive, the joy of movement, of feeling things, and excitement, it must have been a wretched end. But he probably took some comfort in the trail of wreckage he left behind.

Richard Meinertzhagen DSO CBE. You were one of the elder statesmen of Palearctic birding. A pioneer who was perhaps the last scientific collector, hiding a gun in your walking stick, to mingle in the world of modern day birding. I would have paid good money to have seen Ken Williamson’s face when the Fair Isle birders were back at the Obs debating the identity of a ‘pipit’ in 1952, and you pulled the corpse of a Short-toed Lark out of your pocket – ‘Is that it?’. You were one of the most brilliant soldiers and ornithologists ever produced, not only a double life, but a triple, and quadruple. You were an imperialist enforcer, arrogant and inspired, generous, ruthless, a thief, a real spy, and a liar, occasional bigot, and always a whirlwind. At the moment we don’t know if you did more harm than good. History needs people like you, but I’m not sure why. I therefore decorate you… Halloween Hero of the Birding Revolution, 1st class.

‘… For the future, I shall go my own way, disregarding conventionalities, with hardened morals, ignoring failure and thwarting disappointment, following my own inclinations, regarding the World as one huge plaything made for my amusement, doing good to others where and when I was able but refusing outside effort to make me happy, encouraging companionship but avoiding friendship and ignoring the advice of and, if necessary, even the existence of my family.’
Richard Meinertzhagen, 1917.

‘Meinertzhagen knew no half measures. He was logical, an idealist of the deepest, and so possessed by his convictions that he was willing to harness evil to the chariot of good. He was a strategist, a geographer, and a silent laughing masterful man; who took as blithe a pleasure in deceiving his enemy (or his friend) by some unscrupulous jest, as in spattering the brains of a cornered mob of Germans one by one with his African knob-kerri. His instincts were abetted by an immensely powerful body and a savage brain....’
TE Lawrence, Seven Pillars of Wisdom, 1926.

‘Needless to say he [Meinertzhagen] never rose in the War above the rank of Colonel. I met him during the peace Conference and he struck me as being one of the ablest and most successful brains I had ever met in any army. That was quite sufficient to make him suspect and to hinder his promotion to the higher ranks of the profession.’
David Lloyd George (Memoirs).

‘Meinertzhagen will be remembered as an eminent and outspoken ornithologist of international fame and as one of the best and most colourful intelligence officers the Army ever had’
The Times, obituary, 1967. I actually think that Meinertzhagen wrote this himself. Before he died.

‘I can say upon my oath that Meinertzhagen’s collection contains skins stolen from the Leningrad Museum, the Paris Museum and the American Museum of Natural History, and perhaps other museums but the three I mentioned were verified by me. He also removed labels, and replaced them by others to support his ideas and theories.’ Charles Vaurie, 1974.


Tom McKinney said...

Flippin heck, Doc. That was effing fantastic. I'm well proper spooked in a Halloween kind of way.

Is there any truth that Dicky may have shot Anne because she threatened to expose his ornithological shystering? That's what seems to be implied on Dicky M's Wikipedia entry.

1st class work, Doc!

Harry said...

Hi Doc,
Wow, the horror, the horror! The sheer amorality and even hints of murdering his own wife...I'm sleeping with a crucifix around my neck and a copy of the Collins Guide under the pillow tonight!

Harry said...

From the same Wikipedia entry, the words of the man himself send chills down the spine....

Even now I feel the pain of that moment, when something seemed to leave me, something good; and something evil entered into my soul. Was it God who foresook me, and the devil took his place. But whatever left me has never returned, neither have I been able to entirely cast out the evil which entered me at that moment ... The undeserved beatings and sadistic treatment which were my lot in childhood so upset my mind that much of my present character can be traced to Fonthill.

MGPennington said...

An amazing man. Anyone interested further should read Mark Cocker's biography which, despite being written by a birder, hardly mentions birds - but with a life like his they seem relatively insignificant!

Agree with the reason why he did it as well - arrogance and contempt. He KNEW he was right. In a different field look at Heslop-Harrison's botanical work on Rhum - he planted specimens of planst there to prove his theories because he knew he as right! (Read Karl sabbagh's 'A Rum Affair' for full details).

Amy Rotan said...

5 stars plus.

Martin said...

Is there any truth that Dicky may have shot Anne because she threatened to expose his ornithological shystering?

Pure speculation.... but I can believe she must have known that Dickie was claiming to have shot birds in locations he didn't visit.

Carlton Seamill said...

Dear Martin

What an interesting read!

I am a relative by marriage of the late Dr Phillip Clancey who accompanied Meinertzhagen on expeditions. I wish to write a piece on Wikipedia about Phillip, and should value any contrbutions from yourself or others.

Phillip was Scottish, as you may know, but, for many years, worked in South Africa where he was a leading ornithologist, writer and illustrator.

Keep up the good blog!

With best regards, Avril Rennie

Martin said...

Avril. Thanks for good comments! I've got a fair bit of info on Phillip Clancey. if you send me an email I can pass on what I have.


Carlton Seamill said...


Many thanks! Any info you can send me will be really valuable. However, I can't see your e-mail address. Can you help me here?

Phillip was Curator of the Durban Museum for many years. Do you know if he was involved in the discovery of the Caelocanth? (Spelling?) I'd be very interested to find out!

I haven't had time to work on the Wikipedia article since I was last in touch with you. But I do want to get on with it fairly soon.

Any materal give will be very, very welcome!

Kind regards from Avril

Martin said...

Hi Avril - please seem my 14th March and 16th March postings - lots of information out there!