Thursday, September 2, 2010

To the Ends of the Earth - Part I

     Preface:  This is a true story about a Kansas couple, Martin and Osa Johnson, who married 100 years ago.  When I read  Osa Johnson's book, "I Married Adventure," it came alive on the pages.  I became an immediate fan of Martin and Osa's love for each other and their adventures.  It is a story of travel in a wild and untamed world much different from today.

     I would like to give a special thanks to Conrad Froehlich, director of the Martin and Osa Johnson Safari Museum in Chanute, Kansas, for providing and allowing the use of the photographs from their collection in this two-part story.

Martin and Osa Johnson
photo courtesy of the Martin and Osa Johnson Safari Museum

To the Ends of the Earth - Part I
non-fiction research
by Greg Larson
copyright 2010

     When you think of famous Kansans, who comes to mind?  Dwight Eisenhower?  Amelia Earhart?  Robert Dole?  How about Martin and Osa Johnson?  Most people have never heard of the couple from southeast Kansas, but they became world famous in the 1920’s and ‘30’s, traveling the globe.  They sought out savage head-hunting tribes in the island jungles of south-east Asia, and launched safaris into Africa to film charging rhinos, lion prides, and a myriad of unpredictable wildlife.  Their films were exactly what the American movie-goers craved at a time when the public’s appetite for adventure and worldly images became insatiable.

     Martin thrived on adventures in the most dangerous spots on the globe, at a time when communication and travel were difficult, and when many native tribes had not seen Caucasians or twentieth century technology.  He was fearless when confronting tribal warriors or filming charging herds of wild animals.  Martin pioneered many techniques in wildlife photography and processed much of his film in the wilderness.  He dealt with logistical nightmares associated with transporting specialized equipment on safaris and into the jungles.

Martin Johnson photo of lions
photo courtesy of the Martin and Osa Johnson Safari Museum

     How did Martin and Osa become seasoned world adventurers?  Their early history reveals many ironies that would lead one to believe their hopes and dreams were doomed to failure.  But along with the ironies came many opportunities and lucky breaks, as well as a deep commitment to reach their goals…a commitment that became stronger whenever the situations became tougher.

     Martin, born in 1884, was the son of a jewelry store merchant who moved his family from Rockford, Illinois, to Lincoln Center, Kansas, and finally to Independence, Kansas.  Martin became fascinated with a sideline of Eastman-Kodak film and cameras that his father sold in their store.  At the time, no one could have guessed that Martin would eventually become a close friend to George Eastman, inviting him to spend time at Martin’s African safari camp.

     The young Kansan, bored with high school, dreamed of traveling to see the sights of the world.  The sample photos of Egyptian pyramids and European cities which were included in the Kodak products shipped to the store further fueled Martin’s desire to travel.  He became popular with the other students because he always brought along his camera and pictures to picnics and social events.  He was expelled from high school for distributing some “tricked” photos of the faculty in amusing situations.  Feeling he was an embarrassment to his family, he left home and began to travel on a shoestring budget.  His first destination was Chicago and he eventually traveled to England, taking on odd jobs to pay his way.  He always found his way home, albeit penniless.  But his desire for adventure continued to burn from within, with a passion to seek out the unknown.

     His first opportunity came when he responded to an article by Jack London.  The famous author was planning a seven-year trip around the world with a crew of six, using a custom-made boat built to his specifications.  London placed an ad in a magazine, in search of applicants from across the country.  Martin sent his letter stating why he should join the crew, and London selected him from hundreds of respondents…quite ironic since he was from landlocked Kansas.  He was chosen to be the crew’s cook, though he had little cooking experience.

     The trip aboard Jack London’s boat, the Snark, began in 1907.  It was the opportunity of a lifetime for Martin Johnson, and he made the most of it.  Jack London and his wife Charmian were impressed with Martin’s positive outlook and his interest in helping the crew fix engines, pump bilge water, and navigate the high seas.  He became invaluable as a seaman, and was eventually relieved of his cooking duties.

     The boat was not built for the rigors of the high seas and continually needed repairs.  They miraculously survived the journey from California to Hawaii, and then went on to visit several South Pacific islands, where they sought out the native tribes.  Jack London contracted a mysterious skin disease, and doctors in Australia advised him to return to the U.S.  The experimental sailing adventure aboard the small boat had become a dismal failure in less than two years.

     A lucky break occurred for Martin when he met a French film crew in the Solomon Islands before the trip was abandoned.  They were attempting to film some of the native head-hunter tribes.  After several of the film crew became ill, Martin offered to assist the cameramen.  He became fascinated with the equipment, asked questions and learned as much as he could on the short journey into the jungle.

     After the Jack London voyage, Martin continued to travel around the world, and spent time in Paris, where he purchased a copy of the Solomon Island motion pictures from the French film company.  He returned home to Independence, surprised to find the entire town waiting at the train station, ready to treat him as a hometown hero.

     An enterprising merchant convinced Martin to share his adventures with the public.  He knew the townspeople would gladly pay admission to see the films and listen to Martin’s lectures about his travels.  The merchant funded the construction of a small theatre, dubbed “The Snark.”  Martin quickly learned he had stage fright…it almost doomed his career.  He overcame his fear, and included local singers on the bill to add to the entertainment value.

     Osa Leighty was born in Chanute, Kansas, in 1894.  Her father was a Santa Fe railroad brake man, away from home much of the time.  She had a strict upbringing in the modest family home, and was strongly influenced by her mother and grandmother who taught her not to talk to strangers, another irony for a future world traveler.

     Osa discovered one day that her high school friend, Gail, was scheduled to sing on stage at the Snark theater in Independence which was about 40 miles from Chanute.  Osa traveled with her friends to see Gail perform.  They heartily applauded their friend’s performance, and then Martin Johnson began his lecture and movie.  As the story about the South Pacific head-hunters dragged on, Osa walked out of the theater, disgusted and bored.

     Her friend, Gail, who was already married, became the matchmaker.  She invited Osa for another visit to Independence, and set up a double date with Martin and Osa, even though Martin was nine years older.  Over several weeks, Osa asserted her independent and stubborn nature, acting coy and somewhat hard-to-get.  This didn’t deter Martin from courting her.  On more than one occasion, he traveled to Chanute to visit Osa and her family; he brought candy and was subjected to questions from Osa’s mother, grandmother, and brother.  Martin didn’t give up his interest in Osa; he must have seen the qualities in her that would serve them well if they traveled together.

     During the short courtship, Martin asked Osa to sing at the Snark theater on a weekend when Gail was supposedly ill.  Osa sang with considerable volume and the audience liked her.  The next day, alone in the theater with Osa, Martin asked her to marry him and she accepted.

     Although the courtship seemed strange, the marriage and honeymoon was even stranger.  They married the day after he proposed to her in Independence, Kansas, and left on their wedding day for Kansas City on a short honeymoon.  To elope in 1910 was quite taboo in the Midwest, and it was another irony that the marriage survived even the first week.  Osa started to get homesick and she cried all the way to Kansas City.  They were married again in Missouri to prevent Osa’s father from annulling the Kansas license.  After five days, they returned to Chanute, and Martin faced Osa’s father, who told him that he’d better do a good job of taking care of her.

     After surviving the unusual honeymoon, Osa enjoyed the beginning months of domestic life in Independence.  She cleaned and polished their rental apartment above one of the downtown shops, and dreamt of having a large family and building a house.  Martin shared his dream and desire to save up enough money to travel back to the south-sea islands to find more remote tribes to photograph.

     Osa listened to Martin’s dreams, and realized that she had married a man quite different from most.  With her love and devotion to Martin, she threw her whole-hearted support to his efforts.  Their first obstacle was the fact that the Jack London adventure story was getting old in Independence.  In short order, they sold all of their wedding gifts and possessions, and took their vaudeville act on the road.  Martin lectured and showed his slides and film, and Osa sang a few numbers while wearing a simulated Hawaiian dress.

Martin and Osa on the vaudeville tour
photo courtesy of the Martin and Osa Johnson Safari Museum

     At one point, early in their road-show days, they were tired, out of money, and in Denver at Christmas-time.  They had to pawn the few possessions they had just to pay for a flop-house room and to buy some food.  Most couples in their situation would have given up and gone home.  Although that thought entered their minds, their dogged determination and love for each other shone through the cold, sickness, and loneliness.  Their greatness as a couple was forged through experiences similar to the dark days of Denver.

     During a stint in New York, Martin, with Osa’s prodding, got up enough nerve to seek out and land a national contract with the Orpheum theater group.  With secure bookings for their show, they began to build up some savings for their big dream of traveling overseas.

     After seven long years of working on the vaudeville circuit, they planned out their first overseas trip.  Martin purchased a motion picture camera, two still cameras, a rifle and two revolvers, as well as several thousand feet of film.  In 1917, they packed their trunks, boarded a steamer in San Francisco, and headed for the South Pacific.

     They eventually sailed to the upper New Hebrides islands (currently Vanuatu), where Martin continued to gather information to determine the best location to film.  He was meticulous and emphatic regarding his desire to film true wild and native tribes.  The British authorities tried to convince him to film some of the tribes under their control, but Martin wanted no part in filming docile natives.  After gathering information from the local sailors, he decided the fiercest and wildest tribes lived on the island of Malekula.  A local sailor transported them to a small island adjacent to Malekula, where they stayed with a French priest.  Martin began to establish a plan to travel to Malekula and come face-to-face with the natives and capture their visit on film.

     The merchant ships and the British Government warned Martin and Osa to stay away from Malekula, for they believed it was far too dangerous a place for foreigners, especially women.  The natives were unpredictable.  The tribes on the island were in constant warfare with each other, and they practiced cannibalism.  Communication was difficult, but was possible through the use of a local common language called Bêche-de-Mer.

     Martin was certain that the island of Malekula was the perfect place to obtain images of a real cannibal tribe known as the Big Nambas.  He and Osa convinced three natives familiar with Malekula to be their crew and sail a small boat over to the island.  They beached it as some of the natives began to emerge from the island vegetation.  Osa thought they were the ugliest creatures she had ever seen on the face of the earth.  They appeared unwashed and filthy, and wore bones through their noses, pig’s teeth necklaces and woven breechcloths.

     Martin asked one of the natives to act as a guide and direct them to their leader.  With some trepidation, Martin and Osa started the hike into the jungle, as their three crew members followed behind, carrying the cameras.  After a hike of a couple of miles, they reached a bluff that overlooked the beach where they had landed.  Without warning, they saw tribe members rush onto the path.  They were surrounded by the cannibal tribe of the Big Nambas, and standing before them was the powerful leader, Nagapate, superior-looking in physical prowess and bearing.

Nagapate - Leader of the Big Nambas
photo courtesy of the Martin and Osa Johnson Safari Museum

     The Big Nambas watched their fierce leader curiously inspect the foreign couple that had come to their hilltop village.  The year was 1917, and the wild tribe had seen few people from the outside world.  Nagapate, with his bushy black hair and beard, moved in closer to the couple.  Martin began filming as Osa offered Nagapate some tobacco and trinkets.  The tribal leader grabbed Osa’s arm with his leathery hands.  He rubbed her white skin and then began touching her hair and scalp.  Martin kept the film rolling in his movie camera, taking in the scene of the natives and their leader.  He patiently encouraged Osa to stay calm and offer the leader more tobacco and gifts.

     The tribal boo-boo drums began to beat in the background.  Martin became concerned for his wife, so he shut off the camera, and then stood between Osa and Nagapate.  He yelled to his wife and crew to run to the boat while he occupied the leader, but Nagapate grabbed Osa, and the tribe seized Martin.  Fear overcame Osa as Nagapate gripped her arm.  She screamed and screamed, and then she became woozy and disoriented.


• Johnson, Osa. I Married Adventure. William Morrow and Co., Inc. (1989) (first published by J.B. Lippincott Co. (1940))

• The Martin and Osa Johnson Safari Museum. 111 N. Lincoln Avenue, Chanute, Kansas 66720-1819. Conrad Froehlich, Director.

• The Safari Museum website: story.htm

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