Nearly 110 years ago, on 20th December 1907, a group of RSGS delegates stepped inside the Council Chambers in Glasgow and prepared to greet an important visitor to the city. The object of their attention was both a celebrated explorer and a member of the Royal House of Savoy: 34-year-old Prince Luigi Amedeo, Duke of the Abruzzi.
A friend of King Edward VII, the Duke had an appetite for adventure that took him to some of the most inhospitable places on Earth. In 1897 he led the first ascent of Mount St Elias, an 18,000-foot peak on the border between Alaska and Yukon, which is the second highest mountain in both the US and Canada.
“At last, after untold disappointments, a little after 11 o’clock, a sharp ice-pinnacle soared above us, and to the right of it and somewhat higher, the ample curve of a snow-dome. For some minutes past no-one had spoken a word. Suddenly we all exclaimed: ‘The summit!’” (‘The Ascent of Mount St Elias’ by Filippo de Filippi)
On the descent, as they approached the Malaspina Glacier, some of the party noticed an optical illusion known as the “Silent City”. A chain of distant hills suggested the outlines of spires, minarets, belfries and “fantastic cathedrals”. This curious spectacle lasted for a whole afternoon, until dusk fell and a full moon bathed the snow slopes in silver light.
The ‘Silent City’ was first observed by 19th century pioneers and prospectors, and was said by some to be the mirage of a real city in Russia, many hundreds of miles to the west. Nine years before the Duke’s visit to Alaska, the story had inspired one particular photographer named Dick Willoughby to capture – or create – an image which he claimed to be a true representation of the phenomenon. Unfortunately, after it was published in several reputable newspapers, this image was found to be a hoax. Willoughby’s ‘Silent City’ seems to have been an early example of PhotoShopping, based on a very smoky black-and-white photograph of a Bristol suburb.
The ascent of Mount St Elias was just the first of the Duke of Abruzzi’s geographical achievements. In 1899 he organised an Arctic expedition with the aim of being the first man to reach the North Pole. The Stella Polare overwintered in Franz Joseph Land and a small party – excluding the Duke himself, who had lost two fingers to frostbite – achieved a new ‘furthest north’ of 86°34’, beating Fridtjof Nansen’s record of 1895. In 1906 he led an ambitious expedition to the Ruwenzori mountains of Uganda, scaling no fewer than 16 summits, and in 1909 he made an attempt on K2 and the neighbouring peak of Chogolisa, setting a world altitude record of approximately 24,600 feet (7,500 metres).
In December 1907, on his official visit to Scotland, the Duke sailed up the Clyde on the Italian battleship Regina Elena. His RSGS visitors, led by the Chairman of the Glasgow branch, Dr Paul Rottenburg, presented him with an illuminated address expressing their admiration of the eminent work achieved “at so early an age in the service of geographical exploration” and trusting that he would long be spared in order to continue his work with unabated enthusiasm. Afterwards, the Duke was entertained at a formal luncheon for over 300 guests.
The Duke’s later life was distinguished by service in the Italian navy, and in 1920 he founded an agricultural colony, the “Village of the Duke of Abruzzi”, in Italian Somaliland (present-day Somalia). Here he encouraged new farming methods for the production of sugar, bananas and cotton, and financed water supplies, roads, schools, hospitals and churches. He eventually married a Somali woman, Faduma Ali.
The Duke was a worldwide celebrity, but beneath his polished demeanour lay a broken heart: as a young man, his family had refused to grant him permission to marry an American woman, Katherine Elkins, who appears to have been the love of his life. He died in Jowhar, Somalia, on 18th March 1933.
Written by RSGS Writer-in-Residence, Jo Woolf.
‘The Ascent of Mount St Elias’ by Filippo de Filippi (1900) ‘Proceedings of the Royal Scottish Geographical Society’, Scottish Geographical Magazine, 24:2
Willoughby’s photograph of the “Silent City” from Popular Science Monthly, Vol.51.