HENRI DE MONFRIED: Cruising the Red Sea With Style and Purpose

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De Monfried steering

One thing that never ceases to amaze me is that the literature of the sea is nearly as vast as the sea itself. It seems there are always new landfalls to make. Here for example we have yet another fascinating character I never dreamed existed. Henri de Monfried, son of a minor French artist who associated with Gauguin, was a devotee of sailing since childhood and as an adult roamed the Red Sea in various native craft before, during, and after World War I. He supported himself trying to cultivate pearls and by fishing for them, but mostly he smuggled guns and drugs (never slaves, he insisted) and also more mundane cargo and had fantastic adventures doing it. He wrote many books describing these and kept right on having adventures after he finally retired home to France, raising opium in his dotage (for his own use, he insisted) and counterfeiting Gauguins.

De Monfried’s first book, appropriately titled Pearls, Arms and Hashish (Coward McCann, 1930), which I’ve just finished reading, wasn’t actually written by him. Rather it was written, in English, by an American journalist who studied in France, Ida Treat, in an “as told to” first-person voice. It is well researched (Treat had full access to de Monfried and his logs and also sailed with him for a time) and is certainly a rousing read. Treat did a great job of creating an authentic voice for de Monfried, as is evident in his/her explication of his fundamental attraction to the sea:

In all the dark hours of my life, I have turned to the sea; not for consolation, but as one turns to the rich wilderness after the parsimony of cities. It has never failed me. All that the land denied–treasure, high adventure, hope; crises that enrich the soul–it has given me, prodigal as nature itself.

Words we all can relate to!

In one sense de Monfried was very much of a type–the refined European who loses himself in a foreign culture, seems to spurn his own culture, and “goes native” in some godforsaken place. The ultimate model here, of course, operating in more or less the same theater, and at around the same time, was T.E. Lawrence, who gained much notoriety as Lawrence of Arabia.

Compared to de Monfried, however, Lawrence was a piker. De Monfried truly did seem to prefer life with his native crews aboard his native vessels and had as little to do as possible with the European ex-pats who polluted the shore. His defining moment in this regard came in the midst of a vicious gale in the Strait of Bab el Mandeb (or the Gate of Tears), when he swore to his trusted mate Abdi that he would convert to Islam if he and the crew survived. Like John Newton, the English slaver who found religion and wrote the famous hymn Amazing Grace after surviving a storm at sea, de Monfried was as good as his word. As soon as the gale passed he found a shrine on shore and made his vow. He learned all the prayers, bowed toward Mecca with his crew, and had his weenie whacked (i.e., was circumcised) at the earliest opportunity.

The story of my “miraculous” conversion was told on both shores of the Red Sea, and from that day I was known to Arab, Somali and Dankali, as Abd el Hai, the “slave of the Life Giving.”

Going ashore

Abd el Hai goes ashore

Abdi

Abdi, the loyal mate

What seems most remarkable about de Monfried was his audacity and ingenuity. Much of the time, as he freely confessed, he had no idea what he was doing. Often he merely bluffed his way through crises and negotiations. Buying his first load of hashish in Greece, for example, knowing exactly nothing about the substance, he goes stone-faced and remains silent when the goods are first displayed to him. The wholesaler he’s dealing with soon breaks down and admits this is grossly inferior product and immediately produces his best, offering it at a discount price to make amends.

De Monfried’s incredible talent for improvisation was most apparent during his first run as an arms smuggler. The story is incredible. Having temporarily buried his load of Belgian rifles on a deserted island for safekeeping, de Monfried spies an Arab turtle-fishing vessel leaving the island as he approaches to recover his treasure. He immediately intuits that the crew must have discovered and dug up his rifles. A dramatic chase under sail through unmarked reefs ensues. Abd el Hai finally stops his quarry by loading his double-barreled shotgun with chain and blasting it through the Arabs’ mainsail.

The Arabs acquiesce in sportsmanlike manner, returning the stolen arms as soon as Abd el Hai comes alongside. Departing the scene, however, our hero soon spies a government vessel that now starts chasing him. Darting for cover into a nearby bay where he is temporarily out of sight, Abd el Hai quickly sinks his vessel and its waterproofed cargo and successfully evades detection. As soon as the danger is past, he triumphantly refloats his boat and continues on his way.

Anchoring

Preparing to anchor

Interestingly, Abd el Hai’s biggest problems with authority arose during the war, with the British, who of course were supposed to be allied with the French, but were jealous of their prerogatives on the Arabian peninsula. De Monfried was detained a few times, unjustly, but in gentlemanly circumstances. He also heard derogatory things from his Arab partners on the coast about a certain notorious English colonel.

“There is one Inglis who travels about the country, and promises money and guns to any one who will fight the Turks,” one sheikh explains.

The sheikh was obviously referring to Lawrence, but de Monfried makes a point of not mentioning the British hero by his given name, nor by the scandalous one that the Arabs called him. He does impart that the Arabs were happily selling off weapons they obtained from Lawrence as soon as they received them.

Altair

Altair, de Monfried’s last trading vessel. He built her himself. The first two “dream boats” he built did not fare so well. The British, who referred to de Monfried as “the Sea Wolf,” commandeered the first as soon as it was launched. The second was wrecked

 

This all is but a small sample of what’s on offer in this entertaining book. It is hard to say that de Monfried was an admirable character, but he certainly was a compelling one.

As he, through Treat, wrote of himself:

I have made no secret of my life during the past years. To-day I do not attempt to explain nor excuse, to call this black or white. For eighteen years I followed the sea, took what it offered. It has brought me shipwreck and success, sorrow, danger, and unutterable happiness. For eighteen years of my life, I lived completely.

Meanwhile, I think I’m going to have to start searching for some of the supposedly 60 books that de Monfried himself wrote about his life after Treat’s book first came out.

A daunting task indeed.

While I’m looking you can check out this cool viddy of de Monfried and company I found on YouTube:

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