Two summers back, in 2013, I bought on a whim three books from a small italian publisher.
I was intrigued by the titles, and by the short bio of the author.
The author was Henry de Monfreid.
The three books I bought as a bundle for a few euro are the unlikely translations of de Monfreid’s first three books – Les secrets de la mer Rouge (1931), Aventures de mer (1932), La croisière du hachich (1933).
Henry de Monfreid was, by his own admission, a pirate, a drug smuggler, an adventurer and a gunrunner.
Or, as his French Wikipedia page simply states, un commerçant – a man of business.
But it gets better than that.
Born in 1879, De Monfreid was supposed to become a railway engineer, but he defaulted a few tests and had to fall back to work as a motorboat mechanic. Later he had a number of strange jobs – including milk quality controller for Maggi and chicken breeder.
Finally, in 1911, he got a post in Africa for a French company – provided he would pay his own fare to the new workplace.
Once in Africa, everything changed.
De Monfreid converted to Islam, got himself a small boat, a dhow, and in 1913 started his adventuring along the coast of the Red Sea; he did cover a number of almost-official roles as explorer and bandit-hunter (at least according to his memoirs) but the bulk of his trade was smuggling pearls, arms, hashish and morphine and (possibly, though he always denied it), as a slave trader – a fact that landed him in jail a number of times, landing him on the wrong side of both the British and French authorities.
he was also knows as The Sea Wolf and as Abd el Haii (his post-conversion Arab name).
Maybe because of his strained relations with British and French authorities, when Ethiopia was conquered by the Italians in 1935, De Monfreid happily joined the Italian forces, taking part in a number of aerial surveys.
When the British captured him, he was deported in Kenya.
Back in France after the war, the now well-over-sixty former pirate set up his own opium plantation – thus demonstrating that there is no such a thing as a former pirate.
When he was denounced and arrested, he managed to avoid imprisonment – but if it was for his age, for the marginality of his crime (there was not a huge number of opium fiends in 1950s France) or for his ability to influence the law with the brilliancy of his rhetoric, as he himself claimed, it’s not known.
He also boasted a vast collection of Gauguin paintings – as his father had been a famous painter and a friend of Paul Gauguin.
The paintings were his special bankroll – and in lean times he mortgaged them regularly to get a few bucks.
De Monfreit was a respected painter and photographer in his own right.
Henry de Monfreid’s literary output is staggering – both in the fields of fiction and non fiction.
He also recorded a collection of sea shanties, and was featured as a character in a volume of the adventures of Tintin. A TV series was made of his exploits, in the 1960s.
He died in 1974, at the age of 95.
After his death it was found out that all his Gauguin paintings were fake.
29 July 2015 at 11:28
First time I heard about him, it was on an article old magazine about hemp: Cannabis (Nautilus edition). I think I’ll try to retrieve the article: interesting chartacter. I didn’t remember (or know) about his Islam conversion, it sounds a lot like a 20th century Sinan Capudan Pascià (Scipione Cicala according to F. De André)
29 July 2015 at 11:35
De Monfreid was pretty popular for brief moments through the 20th century, and later was forgotten everywhere but in France. He sometimes reappears in alternative lifestyle magazines or art/literary reviews.
The Italian books are still available – if you can find them – while in English most of his translated works are out of print.