Henry de Monfreid a French Adventurer
Henry de Monfreid (14 November 1879, Leucate - 13 December 1974) was a French adventurer and author. Born in Leucate, Aude, France, he was the son of artist Georges-Daniel de Monfreid and knew Paul Gauguin as a child.
"I have lived a rich, restless, magnificent life," Monfreid declared a few days before dying in 1974 at the age of 95.
Monfreid was one of those individuals who only find their true focus in life when they stumble across it on their travels. For Monfreid it was to be the African coast from Tanzania to Suez, treacherous routes that he tirelessly sailed in his various expeditions as adventurer, smuggler and gun runner.
In 1911 Monfreid went to Djibouti, then a French colony, in order to trade coffee. He built a boat for himself and used it to traverse the Red Sea. Between 1912 and 1940 he ran guns through the area, dove for pearls & sea slugs, and smuggled hashish into Egypt, earning several stays in prison in the process. He converted to Islam during this period. During the 1930s, Monfreid was persuaded by Joseph Kessel to write about his adventures, and the stories became bestsellers.
During World War II Monfreid served the Italians until he was captured by the British, who deported him to Kenya. After the war he retired to France where he quietly raised a plantation of opium poppies until he was discovered, narrowly escaping prosecution. He settled down to a life of writing, turning out around 70 books over the next 30 years—an astonishing number, to rival any of the great writers. Only a handful of his books have been translated into English and are difficult to find.
During barren periods, when writing was not bringing in enough money, Monfreid relied upon mortgaging the family collection of Gauguin paintings. Only after his death were these discovered to be fake.
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 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 naïvete in the realm of business and trusted most in his intuition and Providence to sustain him on his precarious course.
Above all, Monfreid loved to be engaged in struggle with the elements: while navigating his way through tempests at sea, his life and the lives of his crew hanging by 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 infinity 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."
As indicated, few of Monfreid's works have been translated into English. He is probably best known in the English-speaking world for the following two books:
Hashish: A Smuggler's Tale and
Secrets of the Red Sea, a book about gun running.