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The crazy ideas of a fact-finding universal genius

Avatar of inke inke - 08. janvier 2019 - Discover Namibia

Sir Francis Galton on a photo probably taken in the 1850s or early 1860s, scanned from Karl Pearson's The Life, Letters, and Labors of Francis Galton.

Kirsten Kraft

Sir Francis Galton! Is this man of historic significance? One should recognise the name though; at least every Namibian and Namibia fan, tour operator, tour guide and publisher of Namibian travel guides should. Galton explored and mapped Damaraland and Ovamboland. The Galton Gate at Etosha National Park is named after him and in 1855 he published ‘The Art of Travel’, which is probably the first handbook of practical advice for travellers.

But that’s not all. Galton was a universal genius, one of the last great gentleman scientists, said to have had an IQ of 200. He proved himself in various disciplines: as a physician, geographer, meteorologist, statistician, anthropologist, psychologist and African explorer. For his exceptional knowledge and achievements, he received the knighthood. 

But first things first: Francis Galton’s father, Samuel Tertius Galton, was a wealthy banker and weapons manufacturer; his mother, Violetta Darwin Galton, was the aunt of the famous naturalist, Charles Robert Darwin (1809-1892).

Francis Galton was born on 16 February 1822, near Birmingham in England. He was the youngest of seven children, and grew up safe and well protected. His sisters quarrelled over who was allowed to care for him and teach him. At the age of one, he could read all capital letters and after 18 months, the whole alphabet. He began reading children’s books at the age of two and a half and could multiply and divide at four. Even some Latin and French vocabulary were not unfamiliar to him. It is said that by the age of six he had moved onto reading adult books, including Shakespeare, and English poetry, for pleasure. A child prodigy, whose school career was no less ingenious. He attended several boarding schools but began skipping classes due to boredom. He then began private tuition. His interests were in science, technical developments and English literature. Galton’s parents, however, hoped that he would study medicine, and at 16, he began with his medical studies. Although he never really identified himself with a doctor's professional career, he nevertheless threw himself into it and accompanied the doctors during home visits and emergencies. He viewed these activities as experiments and tested many types of medicine on himself. 

The death of his father in 1844 left Galton financially wealthy and he realised that he could now indulge in his own interests without financial worries. Galton then caught the travelling bug. In 1845, when he just 23 years old, he set off, sailing the Nile, crossing the Sahara, visiting Jerusalem, Beirut and Damascus.

Map of Damara and Great Namaqualand by Galton & Andersson. (Sam Cohen Bibliothek, Wissenschaftliche Gesellschaft Swakopmund)

He travelled to Southern Africa in 1850, planning to transverse an area virtually unknown to Europeans at that time. With enough money in his pocket, he voyaged to Cape Town where he met with explorer Karl Johan Andersson. Together they sailed to Walvis Bay on 7 August. On board were seven helpers, plenty of supplies, two ox carts, additional wheels and axle replacements, nine mules, two horses and a few dogs.

In scorching heat, they trekked through the desert and came to Otjimbingue. Their onward journey threatened to fail, as the small group entered into a war zone. Caught in the middle of the predatory and murderous clashes between several tribes (Damara, Nama and Orlam), Galton quickly learnt who the chief in charge was, knowing that his expedition would fail if he can’t bring the most influential Kaptein of Orlam, Jonker Afrikaner, to reason. Galton managed to persuade this chief to promise peace until Galton's return to England a year later.

The expedition through Damara and Ovamboland could now continue. During his trip, Galton mapped the area in astonishing detail, a skill which he had taught himself. He not only chartered lakes and mountains, but discreetly measured at a distance, and with the help of his sextant, the body contours of the local people. In parallel, he also observed the behaviour of the large cattle herd on which the expedition was dependent.

Galton's original intention was to explore the area from Damaraland to Ngami Lake (in Botswana, north of the Kalahari). This path had been described by Livingstone as a water-rich terrain. Galton's party was ultimately unable to reach the lake, and contented itself with charting the previously unknown interior regions of Ovamboland in northern Namibia (then South-West Africa), where they came close to the Cunene River but were forced to withdraw short of it. The researcher, however, was satisfied with what they had achieved.

On his return to England, Galton married Louisa Jane Butler, and settled somewhat, but never rested. 

He could not sit still without thinking; for example, he would count the strokes a painter needed to complete his portrait. Galton did not celebrate, he observed; for example, how in a society the sympathies developed between individual invited guests. He even made a beauty map of Britain, based on a secret grading of the local women on a scale from attractive to repulsive. The Galton Board, to demonstrate randomness was invented by him. He was the inventor of scientific meteorology and developed the first weather map. In addition he is also considered, as the father of dactyloscopy, the unique way of identifying an individual by his fingerprint. 

Psychology, science, mathematics, biology, chemistry and physics – all of those subjects fascinated him, but eugenics remained his fundamental interest. He was a prolific writer, authoring close to 340 papers and books during his career, including ’The Art of Travel’, the first travel guide. Sir Francis Galton died on 17 January 1911 at the age of 88 in Haslemere, Surrey.

From the book “The Narrative of an Explorer in Tropical South Africa” by Francis Galton.

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