About G. A. Henty
In the Robinson Self-Teaching Home School Curriculum , we teach history almost exclusively by means of autobiographies written by famous people who made history. This helps assure accuracy and captures the student's interest as he re-experiences the thoughts and efforts made by those who have shaped our world. For many of the great periods of human history, however, appropriate autobiographies do not exist. Also, the famous figures themselves often do not write about the ordinary ways of life of their times - since their readers already knew those things and were interested primarily in their special contributions.
Writing during the great period of the British Empire about a century ago, G. A. Henty was a very careful student of history - and a personal participant in some of the important events of his time. He studied not only the great happenings themselves, but also the ways of life of the different sorts of people caught up in those events.
In a Henty book, a young person is swept up in some great event and becomes a significant participant. By participating in the event through the eyes of the young hero, the reader learns about people and customs in all strata of the societies involved.
Moreover, when this skilled writer of adventure stories and outstanding historical scholar links his hero's adventures to the most exciting times in human history, the resulting tale strongly holds the reader's attention.
G.A. Henty - An Active Life
Many of the incidents described in his books were drawn from his own experiences as a war correspondent — of long, dreary marches performed on foot or in the saddle, through the wilds of Asia, or the tropical forests and swamps of Africa; of encounters with savage warriors in the hill fastnesses of Abyssinia or the African bush; or of days passed amidst the confusion and terrors of the streets of Paris during the Commune. The roll of the drum, the shrill piping of the fife, the call to arms, the regular tramp of marching feet, the volleying of musketry or the booming of guns, the yells of savages or the shouts of victory - this was the stirring kind of music which accompanied the making of such books as Henty wrote. He rose up from his sickbed to go to school, and as a Westminster boy he learnt to be a man. Beaten in his first fight, he resolved to be victorious in all future battles; he learnt to box, he learnt to row (the choice of sports then lay between cricket and boating - every boy had to follow one or the other), and not merely to row, but to handle a sailing boat as well.
When he left Westminster for Cambridge, Henty felt himself to be a man. He was certainly very manly — not afraid of work, and as fond of sport as any Cambridge man could wish to be. He could box, wrestle, row, and defend himself with the foils against any adversary. He was also a great walker, covering fifty miles in a day with ease. Here, then, was just the sort of spirit which would take fire when any peril or disaster threatened his country.
At the beginning of 1855 England was entering upon the second period of the Crimean War; the news of the sufferings and privations of our troops during the winter, as the result of mismanagement, had aroused deep indignation, and people here were saying, ‘This must never occur again,’ and not only saying it, but taking active steps to ensure the future comfort and well-being of the soldiers. Numbers of young men were offering themselves as recruits in various departments of the service, and amongst these was young Henty, who had a burning desire to be of use in some capacity in the field. His offer to serve in the Commissariat Department (it was called the Purveyors’ Department in those days) was accepted, and he was sent out with the rank of lieutenant in the army to assist in the arrangement and distribution of stores for the hospitals. His duties were arduous and often dangerous, but he performed them with zeal and energy, working day and night with the rest of the staff to restore order out of chaos. They had in their midst a heroic example, Miss Florence Nightingale, whose ministrations to the sick and wounded were carried out in the face of danger and with a disregard for personal health and safety that won the admiration and love of the whole army.
Henty in his letters home conveys a striking picture of the state of the besieging army before Sebastopol in the spring of 1855; he describes the miserable condition of the huts and tents during the heavy rains which turned the streets of Balaclava into rivers of mud, and rendered the entire camp one vast bog into which men and animals sank kneedeep at every step. If the state of things by day was dreary enough to depress the spirits of the most ardent soldier among them, that of the night was far worse, for to the comfortless conditions caused by rain and mud was added the constant expectation of an attack upon the trenches. The night was never too dark or the rain too heavy for a sortie by the Russians, who, advancing under cover of the blackness, would burst with wild yells upon the men who held the foremost trenches. In the darkness and confusion it was difficult to distinguish friend from foe. In the end the Russians were always repulsed, leaving many wounded and dead in our trenches, but, in spite of these losses, the night sorties were often renewed.
Henty’s stay in the Crimea was short, for he was invalided home in June 1855, but before this event he had secured an engagement with a London newspaper (the Morning Advertiser) to contribute letters from time to time describing the most interesting events of the campaign. This was the beginning of his career as a war correspondent.
In 1866 he was sent out to Italy as one of the special correspondents of the Standard, to watch and report upon the operations of the Italian armies in their united struggle against the forces of Austria. Here he met Garibaldi and his volunteers, and witnessed the enthusiastic reception given to the popular general. Here, too, he met with an adventure which might have ended in a tragedy and cut short his career; for in his eagerness to obtain information he ventured too near the frontier lines and was captured as a spy by the Italian Guides, who carried him to their general. Fortunately, Henty had his passports and a letter of recommendation to the Italian armies to show, as well as a stock of patience and firmness with which to meet his accusers, so that in the end he was set free with a caution.
In 1873 Henty was acting as war correspondent for the Standard in the Ashanti War, and took part in the long forest march to Coomassie. Of this march we may give one brief picture, drawn from his own accounts. The tropical sun beat down upon the heads of the force which was threading its way through the jungle. The native path was too narrow to admit of more than a few men going abreast, and when an obstacle was encountered the men had to proceed in single file, or clamber over the trunks of fallen trees. All around them lay the great swamps, steaming under the noontide heat, and through many of these quagmires the column had to pass, with the heavy baggage and guns. Henty was the right man for this work, difficult and trying as it was, for he had seen much service in previous wars in a similar capacity to that which he filled at this time.
Many of the men fell out along the line of march, but Henty, whose courage and resolution were equal to his physical strength, held on to the end. When night fell on this forest march, the men were glad enough to throw themselves down to rest within their tents or huts, but many sought sleep in vain. The stagnant air was laden with the poisonous gas arising from the swampy ground, and consequently all apertures had to be closed; but the insect host”, both flying and creeping, could not be kept out by this means, and their bites and stings made continuous sleep impossible. Again, legions of rats scampered over the sleepers, or gnawed and scratched at the woodwork of the huts.
Henty, describing these horrors in one of his letters, says: ‘I imagine that here were assembled all the elements which make night horrible, with the exception only of indigestion after a heavy supper. Had I been in any other country, I would have moved my rug outside and slept there, but here such a proceeding would have entailed an attack of fever, consequently I had nothing to do but lie still till morning.’ The trying march up-country ended in the battle of Amoaful; but before that climax was reached the British and native forces had to overcome and drive before them the army sent by the king to oppose their progress. In these encounters the Ashantis delivered their onslaughts from the cover of the dense undergrowth, a method of fighting which gave them a decided advantage, and made it extremely difficult for our men to follow up their successes, or to ascertain the points from which the attacks would be made. How that final battle was fought which put the Ashantis to flight and delivered Coomassie into our hands, has been told by Henty in his graphic letters.
Space does not allow of our recounting more of Henty’s adventures as a war correspondent. In later life his favourite pursuit was yachting, and in this he showed himself a born sailor. Only a short time before his death (which took place on his yacht) he was photographed on board the Egret, correcting the proofs of his last book.
There is one thing about Henty’s books which helped to make them popular, and which keeps them still fresh and attractive, and that is the fact that the author always knew what he was talking about. He tells a straightforward tale, with no beating about the bush or seeking after fine words, and no sentiment of a sickly sort. Throughout each book is sounded the same note of manly indifference towards the petty ills as well as the trifling comforts of existence, coupled with unflagging attention to duty (more especially the duty which is national in character) which was the key-note of the author’s own life.
G.A. Henty with Henry Stanley at the newspaper correspondents' quarters in camp at Prah-Su during the Ashantee War (Taken from The Illustrated London News, February 28, 1874)