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Out of Africa Compass | J. H. Steward (1902)

Out of Africa | J. H. Steward Compass

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A rare J. H. Steward Service Pattern prismatic military compass, with the serial number 634, dated 1902. This compass originally belonged to Captain C. E. Palmer, a British officer who served with great distinction in Africa before WW1. It is almost identical to the compass that features in the Oscar winning 1985 film Out of Africa, which starred Meryl Streep and Robert Redford. In the film the compass is given to Karen Blixen (Meryl Streep) by Denys Finch Hatton (Robert Redford). The compass used in Out of Africa was Denys Finch Hatton's actual compass, but it was lost during the making of the film.

The compass card design is quite unusual, originating around the time of the Boer War, and being replaced by Lt-Colonel Verner's designs, such as the Mk V and Mk VI, before the outbreak of WW1. It seems likely that this particular design was manufactured by both J. H. Steward and Francis Barker & Son. A very similar compass, signed by Francis Barker, can be seen at The compass has a mother of pearl card with painted cardinal points, a transit lock, and a manual brake. It comes complete with its original fitted leather case, which is marked 'C. E. P.’ and ‘R.A.’ The compass itself has the name ‘C. E. Palmer, R.A.’ engraved on the base.

Brigadier General Cyril Eustace Palmer C.B., C.M.G., D.S.O. (1875-1939) was educated at Charterhouse and entered the Royal Artillery as a Second Lieutenant in July 1893. Promoted to Captain in 1900, he served with the West African Frontier Force from November 1901 to April 1907. He served in Liberia during 1905 and commanded the Kissi Field Force, with the rank of Major, in the expedition against Chief Kafura in the south and Chief Fassalokoh in the north. These chiefs had been leading raiding parties from French territory in Liberia into British territory to capture slaves. Chief Kafura had also attacked the W.A.F.F. Sierra Leone Battalion outpost at Korumba. Major Palmer’s punitive expedition consisted of 15 officers and 359 other ranks of the Sierra Leone Battalion, asisted by 600 native carriers. The expedition set out in March 1905, lasted three months, and was completely successful. For his part in the campaign, Major Palmer was awarded the D.S.O. Palmer was GSO2 in Sierra Leone from 1908 to 1911. He served with the Egyptian Army from 1912 to 1916, during which time he participated in the Darfur Campaign in the Sudan under General Wingate as Commandant of Artillery and Director of Ordnance. Palmer was promoted to Lt-Colonel in 1915, and to Brigadier General in 1917, serving with the 40th Division on the Western Front. He later became Assistant Inspector of the Egyptian Army, a position he held until 1933. He died in September 1939.


The compass is in very good condition, full working order, and finds North well. There is some minor wear to the case, and most of the original black oxidised finish to the exterior of the brass case has worn away (exactly as seen in the example shown in Out of Africa). The case hinge is not as stiff as it would originally have been, and the lid when opened needs to be held at 90 degrees to take accurate bearings. The leather case is in good condition, with some wear to the flap. Engraved on the base with the name ‘C. E. Palmer, R.A.'

Dimensions : 52mm (diameter, 72mm inc. prism)

Denys Finch Hatton (1887-1931) was an aristocratic big-game hunter and the lover of Baroness Karen Blixen (also known by her pen name, Isak Dinesen), a Danish noblewoman who wrote about him in her autobiographical book Out of Africa, first published in 1937. Finch Hatton met Baroness Blixen at the Muthaiga Club on 5 April 1918. Soon afterwards he was assigned to military service in Egypt. On his return to Kenya after the Armistice he developed a close friendship with Blixen and her Swedish husband, Baron Bror Von Blixen Finecke. He left Africa in 1920 but returned in 1922, investing in a land development company. By this time, Karen Blixen had separated from her husband, and after their divorce in 1925, Finch Hatton moved into her house and began leading safaris for wealthy sportsmen. One of his clients was Edward, Prince of Wales. According to the author Mary Lovell, in 1930 Finch Hatton began a love affair with Beryl Markham, who was working as a race-horse trainer in Nairobi and the surrounding area. Later, she would become known as a pioneer flyer.

On the morning of 14 May 1931, Finch Hatton's Gypsy Moth took off from Voi airport, circled the airport twice, then plunged to the ground and burst into flames. Finch Hatton and his servant Kamau were killed. In accordance with his wishes, Finch Hatton was buried in the Ngong Hills, overlooking nairobi National Park. Later, his brother erected a memorial at the gravesite upon which he placed a simple brass plaque inscribed with Finch Hatton's name, the dates of his birth and death, and an extract from Coleridge's epic poem The Rime of the Ancient Mariner: "He prayeth well, who loveth well both man and bird and beast".

Karen Blixen (1885-1962) was a Danish author who wrote works in Danish and English. She is best known under her pen name Isak Dinesen. She also published works using the aliases Osceola and Pierre Andrézel. Blixen is best known for Out of Africa, an account of her life while living in Kenya. Blixen was considered several times for the Nobel Prize for Literature. In 1918, Karen Blixen met the English big game hunter Denys Finch Hatton. He often travelled back and forth between Africa and England, and visited her occasionally. After her separation from her husband, Blixen and Finch Hatton developed a close friendship, which eventually became a long-term love affair. In a letter to her brother Thomas in 1924, she wrote: "I believe that for all time and eternity I am bound to Denys, to love the ground he walks upon, to be happy beyond words when he is here, and to suffer worse than death many times when he leaves". Finch Hatton used Blixen's farmhouse as a home base between 1926 and 1931. He died in the crash of his Gipsy Moth biplane in May 1931. At the same time, the failure of the coffee plantation as a result of mismanagement, the altitude of the farm, drought, and the falling price of coffee, forced Blixen to abandon her beloved estate. Blixen returned to Denmark in August 1931 to live with her mother and remained in Rungstedlund for the rest of her life.