Henryk Sienkiewicz – the traveller

Writing about exotic expeditions, Henryk Sienkiewicz drew not only from his imagination but also from his own experience, and he travelled a great deal. Before he became famous as a writer, Sienkiewicz used to work as a reporter. One of the newspapers he collaborated with sent him to North America for two years. Later he visited parts of Europe, and when he finally returned to Poland, he often went on both short and long trips. Finally, he left for Africa, where he spent four months. According to current research, Sienkiewicz had letters of recommendation (expressing very positive opinions about him) from VIPs, which he could show to local officers. He was very keen on participating in hunts (in which he resembled Staś), yet these plans of the writer were thwarted by health problems. In Africa he contracted malaria, hence the precision in the description of Nel’s illness.

Sienkiewicz met Europeans living in Africa; their number included a German who had served under General Gordon, so favourably presented in the novel. The writer refused to participate in a German military expedition against the locals as “they have never hurt” him, and therefore he was not going to attack them. Nonetheless, he maintained friendly relations with representatives of states colonising Africa. Although he dreamt of Poland regaining independence, as Polish territory was then under the partitions of three neighbouring powers, he perceived no similarities between the situation of his homeland and that of African states occupied by Europeans. This finds an echo in his In Desert and Wilderness. Sienkiewicz offers a positive assessment of the participation of Mr Tarkowski in the January Uprising, yet he describes the participants of Mahdist War (who also fought for independence) as evil and cruel savages.

The writer published his accounts from the travels as Letters from Africa. The novel In Desert and Wilderness was published much later and also inspired by other experiences of Sienkiewicz, e.g. the figure of Nel was modelled on his friend Wanda Ulanowska. The plot resembles Sienkiewicz’s previous novels for adults. A theme recurring in them is the love between the main protagonists, who are parted by enemies and find each other only after plenty of complications. Although in the story about the young protagonists there is no description of romantic feelings, there is kidnapping by the enemies and plenty of adventures, and later the adult Staś and Nel marry. Another characteristic trait in Sienkiewicz’s literature is the inclusion of important historical events, providing the background to the plot; in this case this is Mahdist War.