William Winwood Reade Biography

William Winwood Reade (1838 - 1875) was a British historian, explorer, and philosopher. His two best-known books, The Martyrdom of Man (1872) and The Outcast (1875), were included in the Thinker's Library.

Early life

Born in Perthshire, Scotland, in 1838, William Winwood Reade was a "scion of a wealthy landed family". Having failed out of Oxford University and, despite having composed two novels, "failed in any conventional sense as a novelist", Reade decided to take up geographical exploration.

Travels to Africa

Thus, at age 25, using his private funds and with sponsorship from the Royal Geographical Society, he departed for Africa, arriving in Cape Town by paddle steamer in 1862. After several months of observing gorillas and traveling through Angola, Reade returned home and published his first travel account, Savage Africa. Although criticized for its juvenile tone, the book is notable for its anthropological inquiries.

In 1868 Reade secured the patronage of London-based Gold Coast trader Andrew Swanzy to journey to West Africa. After failing to get permission to enter the Ashanti Confederacy, Reade set out north from Freetown to explore the areas past the Solimana capital of Falaba. He was detained in Falaba by the local King Seedwa, who imprisoned him for three months under conditions of extreme physical and very little mental hardship. Legend has it that King Seedwa set four gruelling tasks for Reade each day of his captivity, all of which Reade completed with aplomb. Consequently, Reade's indomitable spirit prevailed and he refused to wilt under the caprices of the King and the heat of the sun.

Though Reade traveled over some unexplored territory, his findings excited little interest among geographers, due mostly to his failure to take accurate measurements of his journey as his sextant and other instruments had been left behind at Port Loko. However, his experiences of West Africa were not entirely lost to science, thanks to his correspondence with Charles Darwin. Darwin subsequently drew on information given by Reade in The Descent of Man (1871). These letters, which discussed subjects such as the expression of emotion and sexual characteristics, are being made available through the Darwin Correspondence Project.

On his return, Reade published his The African Sketch-Book (1873), an account of his travels that also called for greater British involvement in West Africa. Reade returned to Africa in 1873 to serve as a correspondent in the Ashanti War, but died not long after. He was buried in Ipsden churchyard, Oxfordshire, close to the family home.