I'm always astonished at how few people have ever heard of Ewart Grogan. His trek equaled anything other world-famous explorers like Henry Stanley and Richard Burton ever pulled off. Yet, after his return in 1900 and the burst of publicity that followed, Groan faded quickly from the public eye, and died virtually unknown.
More than anything, he just didn't seek fame like other explorers, who in a way were the rock stars of their time. Grogan seemed content to be a big fish in the small pond of colonial Kenya, where he and his wife Gertrude spent most of the rest of their lives.
When it comes to attention-seeking — or not — it's interesting to compare Grogan to Winston Churchill. The two men were remarkably similar in background, ability, and temperament — both gifted, iconoclastic, ambitious, unpredictable and larger than life — but their lives took very different paths.
Churchill was born just two weeks after Grogan in 1874. He was just as independent and defiant as Grogan early on, and he also served as a soldier in his 20s. Churchill came from a more aristocratic family, but he also had to work harder than Grogan did. He had to overcome a speech impediment and didn't shine so brightly in school; it took him three tries to pass the entrance exam to the Royal Military College at Sandhurst.
While Grogan and Sharp were marching toward Lake Nyasa in September 1898, Churchill rode with the 21st Lancers at the Battle of Omdurman in the Sudan, one of the last and most famous cavalry charges of the British Army. Churchill wrote about his experiences in The River War, published while Grogan was still suffering in the Sudd himself.
Every bit as eloquent as Grogan — and more prolific by an order of magnitude — Churchill worked as a war correspondent for the Morning Post during the Second Boer War, during which he was taken prisoner and escaped. In 1907, Churchill descended the White Nile from the northern end of Lake Albert to Cairo, covering much the same ground Grogan had less than a decade ago. By then, the Nile was clear of vegetation and much safer. "Ten or eleven years ago this journey which I was now able to make so easily, so prosperously, so comfortably, would have been utterly impossible," Churchill wrote.
That same year brought Grogan's "Nairobi incident," in which he was jailed for a month for publicly beating two servants, after they allegedly insulted his sister. Churchill, then Under-Secretary of State for the Colonies, condemned Grogan's actions in Parliament. Yet the following year he invested money in Grogan's sawmill venture in the Kenya highlands.
Who knows how Churchill and Grogan would have gotten along had they ever inhabited the same social sphere? My guess is no room would have been big enough to hold two such outsize personalities. They died within three years of each other, one the most famous Brit of his time, the other nearly forgotten.