Osa Johnson loved life! And she craved excitement, sometimes to a disturbing degree for us mortals. Osa and her husband Martin traveled the globe in search of people and animals to photograph. This sounds like a dream life, doesn’t it? Well, it was certainly full of adventure.
Osa and Martin
Osa Leighty was a scrappy teenager (age 16) when she met Martin Johnson in Independence, Missouri. Johnson was already a world traveler at 25, and he was giving a lecture with photos from his trip to the South Seas with JackLondon. There were cannibals in some of the photos, and Osa was horrified, leaving the lecture early because she couldn’t look at “people of such horribleness.” A week later she was introduced to Martin at a wedding, and “I found myself shivering very pleasantly,” she admitted. He asked her to lunch, and she told him about her dislike of cannibals.
They married soon after, and Osa realized she had married an extraordinary man. When she started talking about getting house and settling down, he said he’d go crazy if he had to stay in one place the rest of his life. “We’re going around the world, Osa!” he said. And she replied, ‘Well – all right, dear.” And away they went.
Osa and Martin’s First Big Adventure
Martin’s dream was to photograph cannibals to show people in big cities what they themselves were like half a million years ago. He wanted to find a tribe that was untouched by civilization. They gave lectures, Osa dancing in Hawaiian costume, to get enough money.
In 1917, they went to the South Seas on a small budget, where they had trouble finding an untouched tribe. Finally they learned of a small island called Malekula, part of the New Hebrides chain east of Australia. A French priest had lived on the island for 30 years, making few converts among the 400-member tribe, who were “wild and savage” and “treacherous.” Martin smiled when he heard about this tribe. The priest warned that Osa shouldn’t go, but she became angry, saying, “That’s what I came for and that’s how it’s going to be – the whole way.” “THE WHOLE WAY,” she repeated.
They took five men with them when they landed on the island. A black man stepped out of the jungle pressing his hands dramatically to his stomach. Osa thought he had a stomach ache so she gave him some pills, telling him to take them twice a day. He gulped them all down.
She walked into the dark jungle, Martin behind her taking movies. The natives grabbed them and dragged them away toward their village. They heard a British patrol boat coming into the bay, so Martin shouted, and the chief reluctantly released them. They took off, seeing the British boat leaving, and the natives chased them, and they ran through the jungle with the sounds of drums and shouts of savages behind them. They got to the beach and onto their boat just in time to beat the natives, only to encounter a tropical storm on their way back to the main island.
A few days later they got a letter from the British commissioner warning them not to go to Malekula, because the island “is in a very disturbed condition,” and “I trust you will not take your wife into the danger zone with you.”
They were back in a year with more funds and 25 men armed with repeating rifles and automatic pistols, to create their first major film Among the Cannibal Isles of the South Seas in 1918. On this trip, the natives became fascinated with seeing themselves in the movie.
Traveling the Globe
Osa and Martin continued their adventures, taking photos and making movies all over the globe, especially Africa, where they had many safaris, and to Borneo several times.
Here’s a video they made in 1929: Across the World with Mr and Mrs Johnson
They bought a plane and were on tour in the U.S. in 1937 when their plane crashed in California. Martin died the next day, and Osa was severely injured. She continued to give lectures and write travel books until her death in 1953.
In her most famous book, I Married Adventure, Osa said
‘home was to be a schooner in the South Seas, a raft in Borneo, a tent on safari or a hut in the back Congo, sometimes a dash of Paris, interludes of an apartment on Fifth Avenue – but always a place to be going from.
Malekula today is a tourist attraction, and if you hike through it, you might find some bones and skulls or some Big Mambas performing traditional dances.
Osa Johnson’s Legacy
Osa and Martin’s adventures captured the attention of people all over the world, and her example as a fearless traveler has inspired many. There’s a Safari Museum in Chanute, Kansas (Osa’s birthplace), and two sister museums, in Burkina Faso (a country in West Africa) and Malaysia.
Osa hosted a television adventure series called Osa Johnson’s The Big Game Hunt, starting in 1952. If you go to Disney World, there’s an ongoing exhibit in the Animal Kingdom Lodge with the Johnsons’ photos.
One last bit of interest: The animated film Up has many story elements that are similar to Osa and Martin’s story.
I read I Married Adventure for this post. Osa’s personality shines through, and I loved her gutsy, no-nonsense writing style.