Emil Holub: Intrepid Czech traveller who pioneered Africa exploration

Emil Holub, perhaps the best-known Czech explorer, was born in the Pardubice Region in 1847. His birthplace of Holice boasts the only museum in Czechia dedicated to Holub, who made vast contributions to public understanding of Africa in the latter half of the 19th century.

Photo: Czech National Library,  CC0 1.0 DEED

Emil Holub is to the Czechs what David Livingstone was to the British. He was born in the small town of Holice in the Pardubice Region and like Livingstone, he studied medicine and travelled to Africa to explore its previously unexplored regions. A museum dedicated to his life and career, called the African Museum of Doctor Emil Holub, was built in his hometown. Jitka Koudelková is in charge of it:

“Emil Holub was born here in October 1847 to the family of a local doctor, František Holub. The Holub family lived in the town for 10 years and little Emil attended the local school. He was a very friendly boy and a good student.

“Even though the Holub family eventually moved away, he put down such deep roots here that the people of Holice supported his trip to Africa. They didn’t support him just financially, they also provided him with good shoes, because this was a shoemaking village.

“Later, the locals also supported his widow, Rosa Holubová. And in the end, Holice also fulfilled Emil Holub’s last wish and built a museum here, the only one dedicated to him.”

African Museum of Doctor Emil Holub | Photo: Lukáš Peška,  Czech Radio

The young Emil eventually moved to Prague to study medicine, and it was there that he met some of the leading figures of the Czech National Revival. Among them was Vojtěch Náprstek, a wealthy patriot, ethnographer and patron, who helped Holub to raise money and fulfil his travelling dreams.

He embarked on his first trip to what is now South Africa full of youthful enthusiasm. Although he didn’t have much funding and didn’t speak any foreign language properly, he opened a medical practice near the newly established town of Kimberley. Over the next seven years, he organised three expeditions from there.

Photo: Czech National Library,  CC0 1.0 DEED

“During that seven-year period he went successively around the Kalahari Desert all the way to the Zambezi River. He sent his friend Vojtěch Náprstek some 30,000 items that he collected, including samples of fauna and flora, but also ethnographic and geological items. During the first five years or so, Náprstek used these donations to create exhibitions thanks to which Czechs got to know the personality of Emil Holub.”

During his first three expeditions, Holub explored not only the eastern edge of the Kalahari Desert, but also the Limpopo and Zambezi river basins, and made the first detailed map of the Victoria Falls area. He was only the second white man after David Livingstone to visit the place. Jitka Koudelková again:

“He came back as a renowned traveller and a researcher. Besides putting together the huge collection of various items, he was also sending articles to newspapers and magazines. These are all things that he gradually became known for.”

African Museum of Doctor Emil Holub | Photo: Tereza Brázdová,  Czech Radio

Upon his return to his home country, Emil Holub found himself in a much better position to attract sponsors for future adventures. Nevertheless, he had certain conditions that he refused to compromise, even though it would have probably brought him considerable benefits, says Mrs. Koudelková:

“The 1880s were the heyday of colonisation. Many European rulers wanted to use the experience of these travellers to expand into different territories, whether it was Africa or South America.

“King Leopold of Belgium offered Holub a large sum of money to work for him, but Holub had a motto according to which he would only serve science and his country, so he refused this sum, and continued to raise money to finance his journey.”

Victoria Falls on the Zambezi River. Illustration from the first edition of Emil Holub's travelogue Seven Years in Southern Africa  (1880-81) | Photo: Czech National Library,  CC BY 1.0 DEED

At around the same time, Emil Holub got acquainted with the son of Emperor Franz Joseph, Prince Rudolph, who was an avid traveller himself, and the two struck up a friendship.

As a result, Emperor Franz Joseph provided Holub with a considerable sum of his personal funds. In turn, Holub organised his second expedition under the banner of the Austro-Hungarian monarchy.

This time, however, the seven-member expedition, which included Holub’s young wife Rosa, ran into all sorts of troubles and Holub wasn’t able to carry out all his ambitious plans, says Mrs Koudelková:

“The second expedition ran into serious problems and Emil Holub had to end it prematurely after only three and a half years. Three of his assistants died during the journey and Holub himself also nearly escaped death.

Photo: Africké muzeum Dr. Emila Holuba

“However, he still made the best of the shortcomings and brought back a huge amount of material. He became the first white man to cross the Zambezi River into the territory of a then unknown tribe, which was very aggressive.

“Holub lost all his belongings and, along with his wife and the two other members of the expedition, barely managed to save his own life.”

Holub met his wife Rosa, who was 16 years younger, in Vienna. She was an adventurous woman who had a lot understanding and support for her husband, says Mrs. Koudelková:

“Unlike other girls in Vienna, Rosa grew up as a tomboy and preferred to spend time with her younger brothers, shooting and riding horses rather than attending tea parties.

“She was also good at languages and was able to quickly learn African languages and dialects. And, being young and attractive, she was able to negotiate with the officials more efficiently, not only with the customs officials, but also with the chiefs of the tribes.

“She wasn’t just a good wife, she supported the whole crew in difficult times. She would cook for them, repair their clothes and treat their wounds. She eventually learned to prep small animals, so she proved herself useful in many ways.”

In 1891 Emil Holub opened the largest ethnographic exhibition in Vienna | Photo: Africké muzeum Dr. Emila Holuba

Although he did not succeed in fulfilling his original goal, which was to cross Africa from the south to the north all the way to Cairo, Emil Holub collected a huge amount of valuable ethnographic and natural history material as well as knowledge of the region. He put that to use in two spectacular exhibitions in Vienna and Prague.

“Emil Holub put together an unforgettable exhibition, recreating South Africa in Central Europe. It contained some 13,000 exhibits, including 34 sculptures of the native people. A year later the exhibition was transported from Vienna to Prague. It filled 72 carriages which were pulled by four trains.

“The exhibition was installed in the Trade Fair Palace in Holešovice. Holub wanted as many people as possible to see it, so he set a very small entrance fee. It attracted 700,000 visitors, but Holub didn’t make a profit and had to finance it himself. He had to pay off that debt until the end of his life.”

Jitka Koudelková | Photo: Post Bellum

What was more disappointing for Emil Holub was that the Prague scientific and intellectual establishment of the time didn’t show great interest in his collections. The Czech National Museum, led at the time by Antonín Frič, refused Holub's offer of his collection of African artefacts as a whole. As a result, Holub gave out his collection to different museums all over Europe:

“The Americans were very interested in his collection but he didn't want to sell it as a whole. Also, he wanted the collection to remain in Central Europe. Today, parts of the exhibition can be seen in Munich, Vienna, and London. Some parts of the collection ended in Dresden, Budapest and St. Petersburg and a few were left in Prague.”

The disillusioned Emil Holub spent the rest of his time lecturing about his travels, among other places in the United States. Malaria and other tropical diseases he had suffered in Africa had a negative impact on his health. As his condition deteriorated, he mostly stayed in Vienna, where his wife Rosa cared for him until his death in 1902.

His native town of Holice continued to support his wife throughout the hardships of the two world wars, sending her food and helping her acquire Czechoslovak citizenship, which allowed her to receive a small widow’s pension. She spent the end of her life in Vienna and in her last will, she bequeathed her husband’s belongings to his hometown.

The first memorial hall dedicated to Emil Holub was established in the Holice rectory in 1956. Ten years later the Emil Holub Memorial was opened; it was renamed the African Museum of Doctor Emil Holub in 2012.

African Museum of Doctor Emil Holub | Photo: Radio Prague International
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