J. Frederick Elton, British African explorer, was the son of Lieutenant-Colonel Robarts William Elton of the Bengal Army and his wife Ashley Elton. He did military service in the Bengal army and from 1860 in China, where he reached the rank of Captain. In 1866 he joined the French army in Mexico and the next year published With the French in Mexico (London, 1867), an account of European intervention in that country during the eighteen-sixties. He came to Natal in 1868 and started travelling. In 1870 he undertook a long journey from the Tati gold district (near the border between Botswana and Zimbabwe), through Matabeleland to the mouth of the Limpopo River. His "Journal of an exploration of the Limpopo River", with an excellent map, was published in the Journal of the Royal Geographical Society (Vol. 42, pp. 1-49) in 1872. The paper contained information on the people and fauna of Matabeleland and made Elton the second person (after Karl Mauch* in 1871) to report the gneisses of the Limpopo Metamorphic Province.
Elton was appointed as a government agent on the Zulu frontier in 1872 and published Special reports upon the goldfields at Marabastad and upon the Transvaal Republic (Durban, 1872). In due course he became a member of the Legislative Council of Natal. He was sent on a mission to the Governor-General of Mozambique and the Sultan of Zanzibar to negotiate the laying of a telegraph cable from 'Adan in Yemen, and also performed other diplomatic duties. Sir Bartle Frere, Governor of the Cape Colony and British High Commissioner in southern Africa, appointed him as a political agent and Vice-Consul in Zanzibar. He undertook a journey in German East Africa (now Tanzania), through the coastal region from Dar Es Salaam south to Kilwa Kisiwani, an account of which was published, with a map, in the Journal of the Royal Geographical Society. In 1875 he became British Consul in Mozambique and undertook expeditions all over East Africa in an attempt to suppress the slave trade. He travelled to Lake Malawi in July 1877, but died on his travels a few months later. Elton was a man of remarkable energy and perseverance. He was a good artist and made sketches of the scenery and people encountered during his travels. The diaries kept during his last years were published in London after his death under the title Travels and researches among the lakes and mountains of eastern and central Africa (1879).