Hashish smuggler, gunrunner and world traveller.
‘I have lived a rich, restless, magnificent life.’ Henry de Monfreid declared a few days before dying in 1974 at the age of 95. How many of us could honestly say that?
It was no idle boast either as he crammed into a lifetime enough experiences for two or three incarnations. Born in France, 1879, he was one of those individuals who only find the true stage of their lives when they stumble across it on their travels. For Monfreid it was to be the African coast from Tanzania up to Suez, treacherous routes that he tirelessly sailed in his various expeditions as adventurer, smuggler and gun runner.
Between 1912 and 1940 he ran guns through the Red Sea, dove for pearls and sea slugs and smuggled hashish into Egypt. However, Monfreid was far from a calculating merchant. Indeed he affirmed himself to be “..sick and disgusted with businessmen …who ruin with impunity the poor innocents who believe in the value of justice, honesty, integrity and conscience.”
Yet as there was nothing more he feared than “to be obliged to accept the slavery of some dreary job and become a domestic animal”. His business dealings were little more than a means for Monfreid to follow his star through the African skies and seas. He fully acknowledged his naivete in the realm of business and trusted most to his intuition and Providence to sustain him on his precarious course.
Above all Monfreid loved to be engaged in struggle with the elements; navigating his way through tempests at sea, the lives of himself and his crew hanging from a thread, existence itself became something pure and precious. He longed only to be with “the sea, the wind, the virgin sand of the desert, the infity of far-off skies in which wheel the numberless hosts of the skies… and the dream that I became one with them.”
The works of humanity held little sway for him compared to the majesty of nature itself. The desert taught him about the futility of ambition and when he finally beheld the Pyramids he couldn’t wait to leave:
“The only thing that one might possibly admire is the stupendous effort it took to build them, and this admiration demands the mentality of a German tourist.”
After the second world war he retired to France where he quietly raised a plantation of opium poppies until its discovery and he narrowly escaped prosecution. He settled down to a life of writing and turned out around 70 books over the next 30 years – an astonishing feat to rival any of the great writers. Sadly, only a handful of his books have been translated into English and are difficult to find.
When writing didn’t always pay he relied upon mortgaging the family collection of Gaugin paintings. Only after his death were they discovered to be fakes.