S2A3 Biographical Database of Southern African Science

Farini, Mr Gilarmi Antonio (geography, plant collection)

Born: 1839, Lockport, New York, United States of America.
Died: 17 January 1929, Port Hope, Ontario, Canada.

Gilarmi (or Guilermo) Antonio Farini was the stage name of Leonard Hunt, a showman, tightrope walker, author, painter, inventor and traveller. He grew up in Canada, became part owner of some cattle ranches in Ontario and elsewhere in North America and acquired skill as a cowboy. In 1864 he became the second person to cross the Niagara Falls on a tightrope, assisted by his adopted son Lulu, and around that time assumed his new name. In 1883 Farini sent his secretary, W.A. Healey, to South Africa to recruit Bushmen. An exhibition of their way of life was staged at Coney Island and thereafter at Westminster in 1884. Healey described his expedition to the Kalahari to collect the Bushmen in a pamphlet, Farini's African pygmies, or dwarf earthmen.

Farini, who was an able writer, artist and naturalist, decided to visit the Kalahari himself, perhaps to search for diamonds but also to look at the possibility of cattle ranching there. He was accompanied by Lulu, who was a portrait painter and photographer. They arrived in Cape Town on the Roslin Castle on 30 January 1885 and after a stay of a few months set out on 2 June. From the railway terminus at Hope Town they travelled by waggon via Kimberley and Griquatown, across the Molopo River and through the central Kalahari to Lake Ngami. They found the desert green and grassy after a good rainy season. Returning southwards to the settlement of Mier (near Rietfontein) they turned eastwards to the Nossob River, followed it northwards for a few days and then struck out eastwards again into the sands to hunt. They eventually returned to Upington via Augrabies Falls.

Farini left South Africa around the end of July that year. He had collected many butterflies and other insects, as well as plants and seeds during his journey. Most of the plants were donated to the Royal Botanical Gardens at Kew, though some of his grasses went to the Botanical Gardens in Berlin. He delivered a paper in German describing his travels, which was published in the Verhandlungen der Gesellschaft für Erdkunde zu Berlin in 1885. A similar paper in English, "A recent journey in the Kalahari", was read before the Royal Geographical Society in March 1886 and published in its Proceedings (1886, Vol. 8, pp. 437-453). His book, Through the Kalahari Desert: a narrative of a journey with gun, camara, and note-book to Lake N'gami and back (London, 1886) appeared the same year, with simultaneous editions in German and French. It included good descriptions of the diamond fields at Kimberley and of the Augrabies Falls, while descriptions of the flora, fauna and geology encountered are contained in appendices. There is also a description of what Farini thought were the ruins of a former city in the desert, somewhere north-east of the Nossob River. As a result of his flamboyant nature this account was thought to be merely a tall tale by most, but later it engendered much interest and led to at least 25 expeditions in search of the so-called "lost city". No recognisable ruins were ever found. His description may have been inspired by an unusual dolerite formation near Mier.

Farini did more travelling in his later life. He also retained an interest in botany, publishing How to grow begonias (London, 1897, 135p). In 1886 he married Anna Mueller, daughter of an aide-de-camp to Kaiser Wilhelm I and an accomplished concert pianist. During World War I (1914-1918) they were interned in Germany and acted as translators of war events published in German newspapers. Farini was also an inventor, particularly of theatrical equipment, improvements to steam engines, and can-packing machines. From around 1890 he also invested in mining companies. Finally he was a painter and sculptor, whose works were exhibited, with those of others, in Toronto in 1908.

List of sources:
Dictionary of South African biography, Vol. 3, 1977.

Farini collection, 1829-1964. http://invention.si.edu/farini-collection-1829-1964-predominant-1862-1931 Retrieved on 26 October 2016.

Green, L.G. To the river's end (pp. 28-35). Cape Town: Howard B. Timmins, 1948.

Gunn, M. & Codd, L.E. Botanical exploration of southern Africa. Cape Town: Balkema, 1981.

Mendelssohn, S. South African bibliography. London, 1910.

National Union Catalogue, pre-1956 imprints. London: Mansell, 1968-1980.

Royal Society of London. Catalogue of scientific papers [1800-1900]. London: Royal Society, 1867-1925.

South African bibliography to the year 1925. London: Mansell, 1979.

Standard encyclopaedia of southern Africa. Cape Town: Nasou, 1971.

Compiled by: C. Plug