It is high time Stefan Szolc-Rogoziński was granted his rightful place in Polish history. Bolesław Prus compared him to the great Polish traveler Paweł Edmund Strzelecki, and Sienkiewicz’s opinion was that his journeys recalled the voyages of Julius Verne’s books.
Few people know the history of Stefan Szolc-Rogoziński, the greatest African explorer of the 19th century. He is hardly known in Kalisz, where he was born and grew up, in Poland as a whole or beyond its borders. His dream was to create a Polish village in Africa, with which he wanted to underline the subjectivity of our country on the international arena. This dream was not only brave but also unenforceable because of the reality of the geopolitics of the 19th Century and the difficult situation in Poland following the January Uprising. But Rogoziński‘s work earned him a place among history’s great explorers.
Renowned but forgotten
How did he develop such a fascination for Africa? Maps of 19th Century Africa, showed a blank space between Niger and Congo and it became his life’s mission to find out all he could about the area. At the tender age of 21, Rogoziński organized an expedition with the support of Benedykt Tyszkiewicz, Konstanty Branicki and Filip Sulimierski. And so, on December 13, 1882, his ship, the Łucja Małgorzata, set sail from Le Havre heading for the Cameroonian land. The travellers bought a part of the island of Mondoleh near Victoria city on which in a short period of time their base was established.
Nearly two years of explorations resulted in a long list of discoveries and scientific research but the political situation of that time conspired to ensure that the discoveries of the Polish explorer were to be forgotten. After returning from Cameroon, Rogoziński gave lectures in Poland and abroad. He was admitted to the Royal Geographical Society in London and was a star in Warsaw and Paris social circles. Unfortunately, many adverse coincidences resulted in his premature death at the early age of 35.
In the footsteps of the great explorer
In 2013, about 120 years after his death, Rogoziński’s grave was rediscovered in the municipal cemetery in Bagneux near Paris. Very little remains, not even a headstone or marker. Interestingly, the discovery coincided with the expedition “Cameroon 2014” which started on the New Year’s Eve 2013 and went to Cameroon, Gabon and Equatorial Guinea. Its purpose was to reach places discovered by Polish explorers of the 19th Century.
On 29th January 2016 the next expedition – “Expédition Africaine Rogoziński – Vivat Polonia 2016” sets off, carrying on from the mission of two years before. The expedition will trace Rogoziński’s journey through Cameroon, Nigeria, the Ivory Coast and Liberia and this time will be led by Maciej Klósak.
A phenomenon of Rogoziński
An interesting aspect of the importance of Szolc-Rogoziński is how determinedly patriotic he remained – an attribute which was not commonplace at the time. He eschewed the money and support of international institutions so that his exploration, however risky, would remain Polish, and not Russian, German or Italian.
Rogoziński faced that risk and surely if the outcome of the Berlin Conference of 1884-85 had been different, his mission would have been a Polish success. Rogoziński was a phenomenon among explorers and travelers of the 19th Century for other reasons: he did not invade, murder, did not lead an army and the natives welcomed him as a friend and put their fate in his hands. Szolc-Rogoziński is not simply a historic figure but also an example of a young man – an idealist but also pragmatic, a visionary and a patriot who would inspire a new generation. No need to look afar for good examples when the best are so close to us.