The Restless Life of Harry de Windt
Posted 7 January, 2011 13:04 by Karla Baker
On the 23 October 1903, Bartholomew printed 2,040 sheets of maps destined for publication in the latest work by Harry de Windt. Harry de who? I hear you ask. Well, one of the best things about the Printing Record is that the maps it contains can reveal interesting but often forgotten stories of people, places and events, and Harry de Windt is no exception.
Harry de Windt was born in Paris in 1856, his full name being Harry Willes Darell de Windt. He occupied the higher echelons of French society, growing up in a villa that his mother had inherited from the Vicomte de Rastignac, his father was English. By the age of fourteen both of his parents had died and due to the Franco-Prussian war, which was ravaging France, he was sent to school in England. It was not long before the restlessness, which would come to characterise his life, came to the fore. His sister had married Sir Charles Vyner de Windt Brooke (1874–1963), the last Raja of Sarawak, and at the age of 16 Harry set sail to join the party as aide de camp to the Raja.
He returned to England with the intention of taking up a military career. However, his education had been somewhat eccentric, leaving him with little chance of gaining a commission. He was not a good scholar, describing his preference for wearing loud check suits, gambling, drinking and smoking over studying. He turned his attentions to horse racing for a while, before finally settling upon a career devoted to his first loves of travel and adventure.
He largely travelled as a correspondent for assorted newspapers, undertaking his first trip in 1887 from Peking to France. He followed this with trips from Russia to India, extensive travels in Siberia and a journey across eastern Europe which formed the basis of his somewhat defamatorily entitled work Through Savage Europe. Arguably however, his most famous and ambitious journey was the overland route from New York to Paris.
His first attempt almost ended in disaster after he encountered difficulties in the Bering Strait. He underestimated local knowledge and attempted the crossing from America to Asia on foot, disregarding warnings about the inconsistent nature of the ice. He would have died were it not for the timely intervention of a passing whaling ship, although he later recalled this rescue with faint praise, condemning the ship for the smell of boiling blubber.
However, his spirit was indomitable and in 1901/02 he once again attempted the journey. He travelled in the opposite direction, from Paris to New York, and was successful. In the preface to the subsequent book of the journey (for which Bartholomew produced these maps) he cites two reasons for the trip, the first being to ascertain the feasibility of constructing a railway along the route, the second and more likely reason, simply that it had never been done before.
He was an enigmatic man, described as handsome, and possessed of a strong will. His travel books capture all of the excitement of travel in the hostile and little-charted territories that he chose to explore. They also paint interesting anthropological pictures of the peoples that he encountered, perhaps most famously his descriptions of the Tchukthis of the Siberian Arctic. His modest autobiography My Restless Life is a more sombre and pragmatic reflection of his life achievements. He died in a nursing home in Bournemouth in 1933 aged 77, predeceasing his much younger, third wife, the actress Elaine Inescourt.