Adams was born at Etawah, in British India as it was then, on 3 February 1906, but educated at boarding school in England. Aged 18, he went to Kenya, to work on his father’s coffee plantation, but this did not suit him, and he tried various other occupations, gold prospector, goat trader, safari hunter, before joining Kenya’s game department in 1938, where he became the senior game warden of the Northern Frontier District. In 1944, he married Joy, after she had divorced from her second husband, Peter Bally. She had several miscarriages, but the couple never had any children.
Towards the end of the 1940s, Joy began painting the natives of Kenya. During several years of travel, and visiting more than 50 tribes, she produced 700 pictures many now held by Nairobi National Museum. In early 1956, George was sent to track down a man-eating lion that had been terrorising villages. His party startled a lioness in the deep bush, and he was forced to shoot her. He brought her three lion cubs back home with him, two of which were later sent to a zoo. However, he and Joy kept the third one - naming her Elsa.
Elsa remained with the Adamsons for three years before they decided to re-integrate her into the wild, something that had never been attempted before. She survived only a couple of years, dying from tick fever in 1961. However, by then, George had retired as game warden, preferring to focus on working with lions (still in the Meru National Park), and Joy had founded the Elsa Conservation Trust. They were also famous. A year earlier, a young David Attenborough from the BBC had interviewed them, and the book, Born Free, had been published. Born Free, written by Joy partly from diaries kept by George, was a publishing phenomenon, selling millions around the world (not least to friends of my parents, Bill and Sean, who bought it in May 1960 to give to me as a present for my eighth birthday! I still have it.) Two sequels followed, and a very successful film, starring Bill Travers and Virginia McKenna (husband and wife in real life).
In 1968, one of George’s lions mauled the son of a warden, and George was obliged to leave the Park. The only place where the government would allow him to continue his wildlife rehabilitation programme was in Kora, an isolated and almost uninhabited region of desert 400 km north of Nairobi. There he rented 1,300 sq km and set up operations with his younger brother Terence and native assistants. Joy had no wish to move to Kora, which only added to long-standing tensions between her and George, and which led to their separation. Joy travelled the world promoting wildlife conservation, showing films and setting up Elsa clubs, but was murdered by an irate employee in 1980. The same year, Terence Adamson was mauled by a lion, and the Kenyan government stopped any further cubs entering George’s rehabilitation programme.
In 1984, Travers and McKenna set up the Born Free Foundation; and in 1986 George published his autobiography My Pride and Joy. Two years later, the Kenyan government reinstated his programme, with three orphan cubs to rehabilitate into the wild. But, in 1989, George and two of his assistants, in Kora, went to the aid of some tourists and were murdered by Somali poachers. Further information about George is available at Wikipedia, PBS, Father of Lions, VayuLila.com, and Destination Magazine.
As Joy acknowledged in her books - Born Free, Living Free and Forever Free - her husband’s records were the source of much of the detail. As far as I know, George’s diaries have never been published in their own right, however, Adrian House used them extensively in his biography: The Great Safari - The Lives of George and Joy Adamson (Harvill, 1993).
In his introduction, House says: ‘The written sources on which this book is based are primarily those left by George and Joy themselves. The most remarkable of these are George’s diaries, kept night after night for more than sixty years [. . .]
When I first read the most intimate passages in the diaries and letters I felt uneasy about using them. However, I then realized George and Joy had deliberately preserved them in the full knowledge that their activities aroused curiosity throughout the world and that they might die at any moment. I have therefore quoted them because they throw critical light on a number of mysteries. [. . .]
It has often been necessary to abridge passages from letters, diaries, reports and books, but to avoid distraction I have not indicated omissions with the customary eclipses.’
Here are several extracts from George’s diaries as reproduced by House in his biography.
1 January 1943
‘While we were walking along Bally was some way behind, Joy suddenly caught me by the hand and said she loved me. I was flabbergasted and felt very embarrassed.’
2 January 1943
‘Went along the river bank with Joy and called a croc. She radiated sex and I only just managed to keep a hold on myself.’
6 January 1943
‘In the evening we had drinks, while I went into the bush Joy filled up my glass with neat brandy. I pretended not to notice and drank it down. When we were going to bed our eyes met. If Bally had not been there we would have slept together.’
12 January 1943
‘Joy asked me whether, if we got married, she would spoil my life - I said she could make it and I believe she could.’
13 January 1943
‘Yesterday at our midday halt, Joy and myself were sitting on the ground next each other skinning a Vulturine guinea fowl. Presently we touched and it was like an electric current through me. It would be a very dirty trick to take advantage of the situation.’
14 January 1943
‘Went out for walk with Joy and she told me that Bally is impotent, pretty tragic. During the night I heard Joy crying. I’d like to help her - Bally seems a very decent fellow, but at the same time he is a bit of an “old woman” and I can quite understand a woman like Joy wanting a man with red blood in his veins.’
15 January 1943
‘The Ballys and Hales started back for Garissa by lorry. Sorry the Bs have gone, they were good company on the safari. She is an exceptionally good walker and does not mind hardship and would make a wonderful companion for a man like myself. As they drove off her eyes literally looked into my soul.’
18 March 1943
‘She wants to get a divorce and to marry me; she has discussed it with Peter and he wants it. I do not know whether I want to marry her; I do not want to behave like a cad, least of all hurt her. I am single, past my youth and I want to have a wife some day - why not risk it? It will be something positive if I make her happy.
Well I “burnt my boats” and now I am in honour bound to marry her. I think it will not be difficult to fall in love with her.’
24 April 1943
‘I do love Joy, in fact I am frantically in love with her. This has been the most wonderful experience of my life. Joy means everything in the world to me and I now long for the time when we are married.’
26 April 1943
‘I realised today that Joy has doubts about our marriage being a success. My God - is she another Juliette? No, it can’t be, she is in a very nervous state over the divorce and it is understandable.’
29 April 1943
‘She still loves Peter and I am terribly afraid that she may go back to him before the divorce is through.’
24 June 1943
‘In the course of the afternoon Joy turned up in a hired lorry. Very upset and wanted to dash off to Nairobi, appearing at the divorce case in court and telling the judge that the whole thing was “collusion” with the idea of getting the proceedings stopped and saving me! She said she had decided she did not want to marry me or anyone again.’
15 February 1957
‘Joy went up the beach with Elsa. About 6.30 pm. I was feeling definitely queer in the head. I imagined Elsa attacking Joy. Suddenly a terrible fear gripped me that I was going mad. I had the sense to call Herbert who was lying on his bed. I told him that I might do anything - anything! Asked him to stay with me and not leave me for a moment - told him to remove all guns, knives, everything with which I could injure myself or another.
I knew I was sinking into darkness, I went through the most terrifying mental anguish, I cried for help, I wanted something to clutch on to like a drowning man. Herbert held my hands which were ice cold and he urged me not to give in. I felt myself going colder and colder - I started to cry out for Joy because I knew that I was going into the limbo of insanity or death. At length I heard Joy come up from the beach. It was like the sound of a faint voice at the end of a mile-long corridor. I urged her to hurry because there was so little time left. She came and at once I felt a great relief as if a great burden had been suddenly lifted from my head.
All the time the cold kept creeping relentlessly up and up, up from my feet, up to my knees, and it grew ever faster and faster until, like the bursting of a dam, it flooded over me and I knew I was dying.
The last feeling I can remember was of immeasurable peace.’
4 July 1958
‘Joy had the foolish idea of trying to drag Elsa by the chain into the car! When it didn’t work, Joy behaved like a lunatic. I went off to shoot meat, got a kongoni. Finally, after much abuse and ill temper from Joy, Elsa came along and without demur jumped into the car.’