THE MAN WHO REALLY WAS. . . TARZAN
by Thomas Llewellan Jones ~ Illustrated by Richard Budelis
Man's Adventure Magazine ~ March 1959
The incredible, but true saga of William Mildin who lived for 15 years as ape-man and jungle king!
From the Ken Fuchs Collection
Did you ever grab hold of a treeborne rope, give yourself a mighty swing, drop down 20 or 30 feet away, right in front of where your kid sister was playing, pummel yourself on the chest, letting out a ululating howl to announce: "Me Tarzan, you Jane," an act of bravura which brought your mother on the run to restore semblance of peace and quiet to the neighborhood?
You did? Good. So did I and a million other young 'uns in the past 30 years or so. And like countless other boys and young adults, we were 100% fans of Edgar Rice Burroughs' fabulous hero, Tarzan of the Apes. We followed him through innumerable adventures with his horde of friendly anthropoid apes, his indomitable side-kick, the elephant, and the other assorted denizens of the jungle; he wreaked his fury on the endless chain of villains who were attempting to interfere with normal jungle fun and games.
Tarzan, as Mr. Burroughs portrayed him, was a young English nobleman, a certain Lord Greystoke, who was lost in the jungle as an infant and grew up among the apes. As he appeared in print, there was no doubt in anyone's mind that he was a fictional character -- a literary invention -- pure and simple.
There never was a Lord "Greystoke." That particular name was made up; pulled right out of the air.
But the actual character, the person on whom the entire series was based, did live. There really was a man, an English nobleman, who, shipwrecked on the jungle coast of Africa, was cared for by the apes, grew up with them and eventually survived a thousand adventures before returning to London to assume his rightful title and position. The man was William Charles Mildin, 14th Earl of Streatham. For 15 years, between 1868 and 1883 his life was the prototype of Tarzan.
Although many of the details were unknown at the time, the broad outlines of his story were fully known to the public. The "London Times" published several articles on the noble Earl. And more romanticized versions of his adventures appeared in several of the English illustrated papers and magazines of the late 19th century.
Edgar Rice Burroughs had ample opportunity to study these stories before creating his own character. And the similarities between Lord Streatham's sojourn in Africa and Tarzan's, are too many to be merely coincidental. All this came to light rather recently. For the existence of a 50-year-old story in the files of old newspapers was not even noticed when the first Tarzan novels appeared.
It wasn't until late 1957, some 74 years after the event, that the spotlight was first thrown on the entire affair. It came about almost accidentally. And since that time, the family solicitors of the Mildins have made every effort to hush the story up.
There was no hint of the unusual when lord Edwin George Mildin, the 15th Earl, died in September 1937. His Lordship had no heirs and so it was not considered surprising when the huge family estate was bequeathed largely to charity.
There was a proviso in the testament requiring that all family papers be kept secret, under lock and key, 20 years following the Earl's death. But that was normal too. Many people prefer to keep the details of family history quiet until all living participants have passed away. It avoids a lot of unpleasantness.
To a solicitor, the commands of a client are ironclad. And so, right after the Earl of Streatham had died, a formal notice appeared among the day's legal advertisements, advising all interested parties that the papers of the Mildin family would be unsealed.
The ad attracted the scant attention that usually follows any legal notice. For at the appointed hour there were present in the offices -- Mr. Edmund Bennet, the solicitor who handled the case, and two clerks of his office. No one else showed up.
The boxes and chests containing the memorabilia lay on a broad table. At precisely 11 AM, Mr. Bennet picked up the certified copy of the will, read the applicable paragraph, asked formally if there were any objections to carrying out the proviso. Naturally, since no outsider was present, there were none. Forthwith, the seals were broken and the boxes opened.
Most of the material was typical of that collected by old English families. There were account books and records dating back to the time of Henry the VIIIth. Stacked neatly in their containers were yellowing, crumbling letters from kings, queens, dukes and earls.
"The old boy had some very distant relatives," one of the partners shrugged. "We might as well ask them if they want this stuff -- if not, we'll just turn it all over to some museum. There's really nothing startling here. . ."
The office staff began packing all the papers back into the boxes when one of the clerks, who had b been rummaging through a brassbound chest, let out a sudden whoop of amazement.
"Good Lord!" the clerk exclaimed. "Look at this!"
He thrust forward a thick packet of papers that looked as though they made up a manuscript of some sort. Hand-printed neatly on the cover page was the following:
"An account of the incredible adventures of Lord William Charles Mildin, the 14th Earl of Streatham, who lived for nearly 15 years among the apes and animals of the African jungle.
Astounded, the law clerks took the manuscript and began reading through it. They were still at the job more than three hours later -- for the manuscript consisted of more than 1,500 pages of fine, tiny-charactered handwriting.
"By God!" Henry Randolph, the senior partner of the firm, muttered. "I remember now -- there was some story about Lord Edwin's father. I heard something strange and weird -- years ago -- when I was only a child. . ."
The story that then unfolded was odder than odd -- stranger than strange -- and proved once again that truth can often put fiction to shame.
"I was only eleven," wrote Lord Mildin, the father of the Earl of Streatham who died in 1937, "when, in a boyish fit of anger and pique, I ran away from home and obtained a berth as cabin boy aboard the four-masted sailing vessel, Antilla, bound for African ports-of-call and the Cape of Good Hope. . ."
Lord William described the voyage from England and down the African Coast in great and meticulous detail. Then, he told of a violent storm which caught the Antilla in the Gulf of Guinea -- a storm which, raging for over 72 hours, wrecked the vessel.
"When the wind subsided, I discovered, I was the only survivor. I was alone in the gulf waters clinging to a piece of wreckage. Fortunately I was being borne toward shore --"
At this point, Bennet sent for old shipping records. Yes, the account checked through -- at least that far. The four-masted sailing vessel Antilla had, indeed, sailed from Bristol, England in 1868 -- and, according to Lloyd's Register was lost, "with all hands" off the African coast in October, 1868!
The document the solicitors held in their hands then told of how young William Mildin was washed ashore at a point probably about midway between what is now Pointe-Noire and Libreville in French Equatorial Africa.
The area was largely uninhabited when the child castaway dragged himself upon the beach. The thick, interlaced jungle came down to within 30 yards of the water's edge -- and the boy lay there on the sand, exhausted and terrified.
"I dared not search for natives, for I had always heard that they were savages -- headhunters and cannibals," he wrote. "Instead, I waited until I had regained some strength and went directly into the jungle in the hopes of there finding food and water -- "
It was on his very first foray into the jungle that William stumbled upon a colony of apes. Evidently the primates had never seen a white human before. Instead of running from him, they drew closer, chattering excitedly and with great interest.
"For some strange reason, I was not afraid of these strange creatures," he goes on. "They were hideous to look upon but nonetheless seemed gentle and harmless."
Their initial surprise subsiding, the apes offered the castaway nuts, grubs and roots to eat, thrusting the food at him with their long grotesque arms and hands. Starved, the youngster smiled gratefully, took the food and ate it.
"I was terribly ill afterwards and the apes appeared to understand this. Once ancient female hunched her way over to me and cradled me in her arms."
Lord William was, in fact, "adopted" by the apes. After he had recovered from his immersion, they led him to a clearing where they lived.
"I was unusually strong and agile for my age," he wrote. "Without too much difficulty, I gathered branches and saplings and managed to make myself a crude treehouse --"
He also obtained a knife, spear and bow and arrows by raiding a native village about two or three miles inland. The possession of these crude weapons made him feel more safe and secure, he declares. And, credibly enough, they also served to give him new stature and even power among the apes.
With these weapons he obtained food of his own choice, hunting by moonlight.
The boy never gave up hope of rescue. He went often to the beach and scanned the horizon for passing ships. He did this for nearly eight months, by his own reckoning, without result.
Then in 1869, as can be verified by checking detailed histories of Africa (that of Edwin Pearsall and Marion Donamy for one), the tribes of Western French Equatorial Africa began a three-year-long, savage war of annihilation against each other. The jungle swarmed with blood hungry groups of warring natives.
"My ape 'friends' and I were forced to remain fugitives during that entire time," he writes. "I knew that I did not dare show myself in the jungle whenever any of the rampaging blacks were nearby. They would have killed me instantly."
He stayed with the apes. They accepted him and allowed him to live among them. No, William Mildin did not "learn the language of the apes" -- as did the fictional Tarzan several decades later in the books of Edgar Rice Burroughs. He did, however, manage to establish a primitive form of communication with the animals.
"After a time, I did pick up a number of basic, guttural sounds which meant specific things to the great beasts. There was even one sound that I eventually learned was a call or signal especially for me. It can hardly be rendered in English, but the nearest rendition would be: "Okhugh.' This was my signal -- or, if you prefer, my 'name' among the apes."
The great apes marvelled at the way their human ward hunted, that he ate meat -- and above all that he could build fires. These apparently supernatural, flickering blazes they feared greatly at first, but then accepted and finally began to enjoy for their warmth.
"I built the fires with flint and steel I had stolen from a native village," Lord William admits. "The brutes came to look upon me, not as a leader -- for I could not match their feats of strength and endurance -- but as a sort of mute but well-intentioned and helpful counsellor. I found new and easy ways to root under rotten logs for grubs and could dig for roots more easily with a sharp-tipped stick than they could with their anthropoid hands.
"When one of their number was injured -- accidentally or in a quarrel, of which the apes had many -- I would wash the wound and do what I could to ease the pain, using cool moss or some wet mud. The beasts were numbly, almost pathetically grateful for these services and would make happy sounds, point to me and dance up and down in approving joy . . ."
Bright, resourceful, industrious, William Mildin learned to make his own bows and arrows. Living in the open, with senses made keen by the purity of his natural life, he was able to pick up the faintest animal spoor and track his prey for miles through the jungle.
When the internecine conflict among the blacks finally subsided in 1872, he was almost 15, a lean muscular youth who dressed himself in animal skins and roamed through the jungle as confidently as if he were strolling through Piccadilly.
"It was then that I entered a period during which I gave up all hope of rescue," he relates. "I resigned myself to remaining in Africa. I had no way of knowing how or where I could go to make contact with whites. I was aware of the enormous size of the African continent and the vast distances involved. Truth to tell, I even exaggerated the distances in my own mind so that I probably tripled or quadrupled them. . ."
In 1874, he encountered his first human being face-to-face in more than six years. He approached a native village with the intention of raiding it, but was surprised in the act by a group of warriors.
"To my astonishment, they were friendly and made me welcome," Lord William wrote. "I stayed with them for that day and then went back to the jungle laden with gifts. I returned to the village about a month later and remained there for nearly five years."
The story he tells is astonishing. He remained with the blacks and lived as one of them, marrying, as was the custom of the tribe, five of their women and begetting children by four of them.
"To my sorrow, the headman, N'dunda, informed me that my barren wife would have to be killed by the elders of the tribe, in accordance with the time-honored tradition of their people," Lord William reveals.
The woman, he says, was speared to death as penalty for her sterility in a wild, ritual murder.
"In the meantime, while I lived with the tribe, I often visited with the apes who had saved my life and befriended me. They often came close to the village and announced their presence by calling and bellowing. As soon as I knew the language of my adopted tribe well enough, I told the elders the entire story. They saw some supernatural significance in it and decreed that henceforth no member of the tribe could kill an ape, save in self-defense."
In 1880, 12 years after the shipwreck, another internecine war began between the native tribes. William fought with "his" people and his nimble, European brain, invented tactics which enabled them to score decisive victories against their enemies.
"I taught them how to make quiet, surprise attacks instead of rushing through the undergrowth announcing their onslaught by shouting and screaming," he states. "I showed them how to feint and make diversionary attacks. . ."
He tired of the fighting, however. While accompanying the tribal warriors on a campaign several score miles to the north of the village, he decided to desert them. Soon thereafter, he made his way alone to a point some 250 miles further northeast.
There he encountered a tribe which spoke a dialect somewhat similar to the one he had already learned. Inquiring if these natives had seen any other whites and receiving a negative reply, he decided to stay with them.
"It was a repetition of my former experience. This tribe, the Lunugalas, was even friendlier and more hospitable than the first one. I 'married' again -- but this time I had only two wives, both handsome, strapping young virgins with coffee-colored skins and high, firm breasts. In a year, both were pregnant."
It was in 1884 that he finally learned of a trading post operated by white men in the Chari River, which feeds into Lake Chad.
"Hearing that there were whites in the vicinity, I did not wait one moment more than necessary. I left my wives and children and struck off toward the North. After a 22-day march, I finally reached the trading post, which was located 50 miles south of Fort Lamy."
To his amazement, William discovered on arriving there that he could hardly remember any English! The trading post was manned by Frenchmen, who stared incredulously at the apparently tongue-tied, stammering young man who seemed to know no language of his own and whose skin was burned to a deep cocoa-brown.
Eventually, he managed to make himself understood after a fashion., After three months of delay, he was returned to British control in the coastal Anglo-Egyptian Sudan, from whence he took passage to England. That, however, was in 1885 -- the year that several thousand whites and General Gordon were massacred at Khartoum in the Sudan.
Lord Mildin's arrival in Great Britain and the amazing, confirmed stories that accompanied him, were buried under a mass of fervent, imperial patriotism. When a war is in progress, individual stories take a back seat. And it is suspected that the vast bulk of people paid no attention.
Some years later, when the popular magazines began to relate the tales, the very strict English laws of libel prevented them from too closely identifying the nobleman, or even mentioning the more bizarre details. It was only with his death, in 1919, that such restrictions were removed. By that time, nobody cared.
At any rate, Lord Mildin discovered on his return that his father had died some years before. In the interim he had succeeded to the title and family fortune.
Henry Randolph, Edmund Bennet's legal partner remembered the rest of the Mildin family story as he read the manuscript in his office in September, 1957. Lord William had settled down on his ancestral estates, married a young girl of good -- though untitled -- family and had one son, Edwin George, born in 1889.
Lord William himself died in 1919. His son never married, living quite alone until his death in 1937.
Less than half a dozen people have had the opportunity of reading these diaries, including the two solicitors and the office staff. For a few weeks later, after consulting with the charitable organizations who were the Earl of Streatham's heirs, a solid wall of silence intervened between the office and the public.
So many new legal questions were involved as to threaten even the enormous size of the Mildin fortune.
For example, under British law, a significant portion of the Streatham property was entailed. That means that it must, of necessity, pass to the next direct male heir. If children existed, Earl Streatham had no right ot will his property away, even to charity, because under the law it was not his.
In his own handwriting Lord William had admitted to marrying at least six native women. He had fathered several children by them. These children, and their offspring, might well and properly be considered his legitimate and legal heirs. Possibly one of them, rather than Lord Edwin, should be the recognized 15th Earl.
Publication and attestation of the diaries would be a direct invitation to one of the most exhaustive and expensive series of lawsuits in British history.
And so, there the matter lies. Independent inquiry to French authorities has unearthed confirmation of Lord William's story that he went to the trading post near Fort Lamy. French Army files for 1884 contain a report from the Fort Lamy commander to that effect.
French authorities in the area where Lord William Mildin was washed ashore also confirm the existence of a "white-man-who-lived-with-the-apes" legend there. They also report many obviously part-white natives who could be Lord William's descendants.
Well, there can no longer be any doubt that there was a Tarzan. But how Edgar Rice Burroughs heard of him -- and whether or not he based his "Lord Greystoke" on the model of Lord William Mildin -- well, that's a good question. Suppose you decide.
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