Francis Galton, (1822–1911) was an English polymath, geographer, meteorologist and much else. We are mainly interested here in his 1850 expedition to Namibia. For the rest – and there is a lot of it! – refer to the sources at the bottom. Grandson of Erasmus Darwin and cousin and contemporary of Charles Darwin, Galton is best known as the founder of eugenics, but his interests and subsequent contributions as Victorian traveler and scientist were myriad. The most important and lasting part of Galton’s work was his realisation that science (biology as much as physics) needs mathematics rather than words. Like Darwin, he set out to become a doctor but his curiosity led him further afield—in Galton’s case, to Africa. He was elected as a Fellow of the Royal Geographical Society in 1853, a Fellow of the Royal Society in 1860, and was knighted in 1909.
He attended King’s College in London to study medicine, but became frustrated and discontented with his studies when he was confronted with his first cadaver, much like cousin Charles Darwin, and in 1840, went to study the Mathematical Tripos at Trinity College, Cambridge. After suffering through three years of studying, he obtained a BA and was awarded an MA, but a nervous breakdown terminated his further studies. In February 1844 his father died and left him and his siblings a large inheritance. Now independently wealthy, he became a charming social snob who never had to work a day in his long life to earn a living. He stopped studying and became a gentleman of leisure, though he might have disputed my terminology! He became an athlete, a sportsman (hunter) and then decided to travel.
Galton’s first trip was as a student from Germany through Eastern Europe to Constantinople. He rafted down the Danube and swam naked across the harbour in Trieste in order to avoid the hassle of quarantine procedures. In 1845 he went to Egypt and traveled up the Nile to Khartoum in the Sudan, and from there to Beirut, Damascus and down the Jordan.
In 1850 he joined the Royal Geographical Society, and decided to not just travel, but now to do some serious ‘exploring.’ Over the next two years he planned and mounted an expedition into then little-known South West Africa, now Namibia.
Between April 1850 and January 1852 Galton explored and charted ‘Damaraland’ and ‘Ovampoland’ in South West Africa, financing the expedition himself. In Cape Town he was warned by Sir Harry Smith about the “fierce Boers” that he might encounter in the interior, so he sailed to Walvis Bay and started his explorations from there instead. He was accompanied by Charles Andersson, who would stay on in the region to seek his fortune. The original intention had been to penetrate from Damaraland to Lake Ngami, which had recently been described by Livingstone and promised an abundance of well-watered territory in the interior. Galton’s party was ultimately unable to reach the lake, and contented itself with charting the previously unknown interior regions of Ovampoland in northern South-West Africa, where they came close to the Cunene river but were ultimately forced to withdraw short of it.
Once again at leisure back in England, he wrote a book entitled Narrative of an explorer in tropical South Africa (1853). This book was very well written and illustrated with numerous colour plates produced from the sketches made by the artist that accompanied Galton. The book proved to be a huge success. He then went on to pursue his many theories, some genius, some rather nutty. He himself proposed a connection between genius and insanity based on his own experience:
Men who leave their mark on the world are very often those who, being gifted and full of nervous power, are at the same time haunted and driven by a dominant idea, and are therefore within a measurable distance of insanity. – Karl Pearson, ‘The Life, Letters and Labours of Francis Galton,’
This from the introduction to his book on his South West African journeys by anthropologist & historian GT Bettany: Mr. Francis Galton, the third son of Samuel Tertius Galton, a banker in Birmingham, in whose family the love of statistical accuracy was very remarkable; and of Violetta, eldest daughter of the celebrated Dr. Erasmus Darwin, author of ‘Zoonomia’, ‘The Botanic Garden’, etc, was born on February 16th 1822, and educated at King Edward’s School, Birmingham, where he gained no great admiration for ‘the unhappy system of education that has hitherto prevailed, by which boys acquire a very imperfect knowledge of the structure of two dead languages, and none at all of the structure of the living world.’
In 1855 he also wrote a wonderful book on The Art of Travel in which he advised future travelers on things he had learnt from experience and the experience of others.