The UK Basenji – A Brief History
The Basenji is a breed of dog like no other. The size of a Fox Terrier, the Basenji has a wrinkled brow, prick ears, pliant skin, short tight curled tail, very short coat and wash themselves like a cat. Basenjis, like animals in the wild, only have seasons once a year and wherever they reside in the world it is usually in Autumn time. They are a hunting dog capable of very high speed who point and flush game, but their most unique features are they are barkless and carry no dog odours, a most useful asset when they are in pursuit of game who do not easily pick up their scent.
An ancient breed, Basenjis made an appearance in civilization at the dawn of history as a palace dog of the Pharaohs of Egypt. They watched the pyramids being built and are pictured in bas-relief and sculptured in stone as far back as 4000 B.C. The Basenji lent their ears to the dog - headed god Anubis. They turned up in Mesopotamia centuries later and the Metropolitan Museum of Art own a bronze statue of a Basenji type dog complete with curled tail and wrinkled forehead which is identified as Babylonian, 1500 B.C.
Ancient empires disappeared and so it seemed had the Basenji but where humans failed the Basenji didn’t and it is attributed, by some historians, that in 1682 the explorer Merolla had rediscovered them in the Congo when he wrote “These dogs, not withstanding their wildness, do no damage to the inhabitants. They are red haired, have small slender bodies, a furrowed brow and their tails turned upon their backs.”
Only as recently as the 19th century were Basenjis rediscovered in their original habitat - the headwaters of both the Nile and the Congo in the heart of Africa. There, they were and still are the hunting dogs of native tribes and so highly valued by the tribesman - such as the Pygmies - often carried great distances through the bush perched around the neck of hunters. Because the Basenji is barkless it is the custom of these tribal hunters to place a wooden bell or rattle around the neck or often the loin of the dog which disturbs the quarry who are then chased by the dogs to the waiting hunters. These hunters, carrying their nets and spears, use the Basenjis in the dense undergrowth which is inaccessible to man, so as to chivvy animals out into prepared paths and traps where they are netted and despatched by spear. The Basenji is held in such high esteem by the tribesman that they are given equal rights with their masters and are more esteemed than a wife, after all a Basenji can flush game and provide food whereas a wife cannot.
In 1869 George Schweinfurth, a German explorer, described dogs of the Niam Niam (pronounced ‘yum-yum’), a tribe who resided between the Congo and the Nile, as “a small breed similar to the wolf dog (spitz) but with short sleek hair. They have ears that are always erect: and a short skinny tail, rather like that of a small piglet, and are usually a bright tan colour with white stripe on the neck.” Schweinfurth purchased a bitch to take back to Germany but when he reached Alexandria unfortunately the bitch jumped to her death from the 2nd storey window of his hotel.
In 1895 attempts were made to bring Basenjis to Britain and they were exhibited at Crufts as “African Bush Dogs or Congo Terriers” but unfortunately these imported dogs died of distemper.
The next attempt to bring the breed to Britain was made by Lady Helen Nutting who, in 1923, imported six Basenjis she had successfully kept for some time in Khartoum. These dogs were in good health and went into quarantine where they were inoculated against distemper. In those days the inoculation was only in it’s experimental stage and all the dogs became ill and died from the after effects of the injections.
In the early thirties Mrs Olivia Burn, of the well known Blean Wire Fox Terriers, made efforts to import Basenjis to these shores. She had some limited success but these early efforts to import were not entirely successful and again resulted in deaths from inoculations. The few Basenjis who did survive at this time were to be no influence on the breed. One such dog, obtained from a Fetish tribal chief, was the dog known as Kiluba who could have had an influence in the Gene pool but met with an untimely death from an ulcer caused by an ingested fish bone. He had been successfully mated to a bitch but unfortunately three weeks after the mating this bitch died of Septicaemia. Olivia Burn reminiscing some years later on this failure said “ I felt then that the Gods of Africa were angry and did not intend that their native breed should ever flourish on foreign soil.” At the time it was even mooted by some of the more imaginative Basenji enthusiasts that this dog of Ancient Egypt was under the spell of the “Mummy’s Curse” which supposedly affected so many of the Carter exploration team after entering into Tutankhamen’s Tomb.
Finally in 1936 Mrs, Burns had the most significant success when her three latest Basenji imports (a dog and two bitches) survived quarantine. The dog was the famous Bongo of Blean who had been mated to one of the bitches Bokoto of Blean and whilst in quarantine she produced a litter. These Basenjis were the foundation for the breed in Britain.
Over the years Olivia Burns had also lobbied to get Basenjis recognised as a breed and the Kennel Club finally agreed to register them under the nomenclature “Basenji” taken from a native word which literally translated means ‘bush thing’ or ’wild thing.’ She exhibited the first such Kennel Club registered ‘Basenjis’ at Crufts in 1937, including Bongo and Bokoto, where they proved to be a sensation - with the national press carrying stories of this “Strange Barkless Dog.” The publicity was such that it required special police to control the huge crowd at the Crufts Basenji benches all very eager to see this African ‘curiosity’ which did not bark.
The next to try his hand at importing the breed was a Major George Richards, M.C. who from 1920 had kept Basenjis, or as he knew them, Zande dogs, as pets in the Sudan. When he returned to England in 1938 he decided to bring a pair back with him, ‘to ensure a supply of his favourite breed,’ these were a black and white dog and a tricolour bitch. Once again bad luck prevailed and the dog died, from Septicaemia, whilst still in Egypt, after being bitten by a Jackal. The tricolour bitch, Nyanabiem, survived quarantine in UK and created much interest in the show ring. Within 2 years disaster struck again and this bitch died from an enlarged spleen. As she had never had puppies this was another loss to the gene pool. Major Richards never lost a yen for Basenjis and had plans for further importations but tragically was killed whilst serving in Libya during World War II.
If Olivia Burns had been the first to successfully establish the breed in the U.K. the breed owed it’s continued expansion to Miss Veronica Tudor-Williams who almost single handed kept the breed going in U.K. during the very difficult years of World War II. It is not an exaggeration to say that Miss Tudor Williams was to become the most important influence in the success of Basenjis not only in the UK but in the U.S.A. as well. She had uniquely registered, with the K.C., a ‘Suffix’ for her dogs and this is the famous “of the Congo.”
Even Veronica Tudor-Williams did not escape the “Mummy’s Curse” and the failed imports which seemed to blight the efforts of the early British Basenji pioneers. In 1938 she too had imported a bitch from Sudan. At the time this bitch was considered to be the best native specimen to arrive in England but died from Rabies - contracted following a bite she had received in Sudan. Undeterred, in 1939 Veronica Tudor-Williams imported a tricolour dog and a bitch from the Sudan-Uganda border. Veronica Tudor-Williams thought the dog Simolo of the Congo was too large and the bitch was not typical, a fact Veronica felt was proved when on her first walk the bitch promptly began prolonged barking at some cows. The bitch was immediately given away to a pet home as being of indefinite breeding. ‘Simolo’ the dog was kept as a useful outcross to the breed but was only ever used at stud once and Veronica said “apart from giving new blood his offspring did not contribute any good points to the breed.”
In 1939 the world’s first Basenji club was founded - this was the Basenji Club of Great Britain.
Mr. and Mrs. Arthur Byron had brought back to England a red and white bitch called “Amantanzig” who they had obtained from the West of Sudan and in 1941 Veronica Tudor-Williams acquired this bitch. At the time Veronica said, “Zig possessed all the characteristics the breed required, all of which she reproduced in her offspring. It is impossible to over estimate the influence she and her puppies have had in Britain and America. If it had not been for her, the breed may have faded out.”
Veronica Tudor-Williams continued to breed during World war II, despite the blitz and rationing. She successfully reared a number of litters. Milk/ baby milk was impossible to get (if you didn’t have a baby) so Veronica had milk powder sent from the USA to help with weaning. Remarkably during the war Veronica also exported Basenjis to USA and Canada and these helped establish the breed in both these countries. It is a measure of Veronica’s determination to progress the breed that she also retained additional Basenjis for herself from those she had bred. Despite rationing in which it was difficult to get meat and a weeks ration of bacon and cheese is what most of us now eat in a single sandwich, somehow her puppies thrived fit and healthy.
After the war Basenji numbers continued to expand and in 1947 the first English Champions were made up, by Veronica Tudor-Williams, these were the red and whites Ch. Fern of the Congo and Ch. Brown trout of the Congo. This was also the year when the first tri colour puppies in the western world were born, one of these, a dog, was to become Ch. Black Magic of the Congo. Another in the litter was Black Idol of the Congo who was exported to New York as the first tricolour in America. Veronica Later bred another tricolour, a bitch, Black Myth of the Congo and she and Black Magic were the foundation stock of tricolours all over the Western world.
In 1947 King Farouk of Egypt (at that time Egypt was still a Monarchy) approached Veronica Tudor Williams with a view to purchasing two Basenjis. After consultation, with Veronica and the King, Farouk’s envoy said the King had now decided to have four puppies. Veronica and Mirrie Cardew her then Kennel Assistant with puppies tucked under their arms later delivered them to the airport where the puppies each had an individual seat for the flight to Egypt. So this dog of the Pharaohs was returning from whence it came, to a ‘Pharaoh’ and in Royal Style.
Incidentally Mirrie Cardew, Veronica’s great help, had founded the now famous St. Erme affix and also recently been married and what more fitting wedding present to give husband Tony than a Basenji of course. Naturally this was one of Veronica’s breeding - Crackertoo of the Congo.
Veronica Tudor Williams still wished to import new native stock to add to the gene pool but over a number of years bad luck continued to thwart her efforts including in early 1952 when “Sueh” a native dog from South Sudan who was ready to fly to England was unfortunately bitten by a rabid dog and had to be shot.
Then in November 1952 the MacGills friends of Veronica who resided in Sudan found a native dog in Tembura (on the borders of Sudan and French Equatorial Africa) and obtained this for exportation. “Fatty” as the dog was called left Sudan and arrived in snowy England some 38 hours later to enter quarantine. The following Spring he had survived jabs, climate and all other dangers, and proudly bearing a new KC registered name of Wau of the Congo was released from quarantine to Veronica. He was to prove a useful stud dog with offspring including amongst others Am. Ch. Wayfarer of the Congo, Am. Ch. Riviana Jollity of the Congo, Am. Ch. Springy of the Congo, Gambol of the Congo, and Widgeon of the Congo.
In 1955 Warner Brothers were to make a film of the American best selling book “Goodbye My Lady” written by James Street. This is the story of a lonely boy and the strange stray dog that doesn’t bark, who the boy befriends, trains, hunts with and experiences many adventures and ultimately a sad parting. The film was to start shooting in August of 1955 and star of the show was a Basenji bitch exported to Hollywood by Veronica Tudor Williams and called My Lady of the Congo. The other star was to be the 13 year old, then famous boy actor, Brandon de Wilde who when filming was completed would get to keep Lady as his own. Other stars were Walter Brennan, Phil Harris and Sidney Poitier. The film was a huge success and Lady lived with and was much loved by Brandon until her death some 10 years later. Brandon himself died in a road accident at age 30.
Veronica Tudor Williams had long nursed a desire to go to South Sudan and bring back native Basenjis herself. In 1959 along with friends, Lieutenant-Colonel John Rybot and Michael Hughes-Halls then a resident of Southern Rhodesia, she set off on an expedition to South Sudan that was to prove a great success and which is described in detail in later editions of Veronica’s own book “Basenjis The Barkless Dogs.” Veronica obtained two native Basenjis on this trip one a dog known as “Tiger” because he was striped (i.e. Brindle) and the other a bitch called “Fula” a red and white.
Both of these native puppies were imported to England but Tiger the brindle dog was to finish up going to Rhodesia with Michael Hughes-Halls. From Veronica’s book we have two different accounts as to why the brindle did not stay in UK - on one page she suggests, that, at the time, any new colour had to have the approval of all Basenji Clubs before being accepted, and because the “committee of the Basenji Owners and Breeders Association of 1959 voiced strong disapproval,” the colour could not be accepted into the standard. On yet another page she says “ I was dieing to have him but I was president of the Basenji Club of Great Britain and all members had agreed not to breed creams or brindles - I felt I must abide by the rules and so I reluctantly said I could not have Tiger.” Whatever the reason Tiger went with Michael Hughes-Halls and later became Rhodesian & South African Ch. Binza of Laughing Brook.
Thus the little bitch Fula was destined to stay with Veronica with a new KC registered name of Fula of the Congo. Arguably she is the single most important native Basenji ever imported and is in the pedigree of most Basenjis throughout the world even to this day. Fula was never shown but just 9 years after her arrival the impact she had on the stability and improvement of the breed was such as to prompt the late Stanley Dangerfield, writing in the Daily Express, to pen the following: “ No dog of any breed has ever made a more dramatic contribution to progress.”
It was to be 1965 before there was a further widening of the UK gene pool when Elspet Ford returned to live in Britain. Elspet had imported Liberian Black and Whites into Zambia (Northern Rhodesia) one of which became the first black and white champion in the world, South African Ch. Taysenji Tahzu. When Elspet returned to the UK Tahzu came with her and was bred to a tri-colour Buckhatch Ballerina. From the resulting litter Elspet retained a black and white dog Taysenji Yoko. Yoko won 2 CC’s for Elspet and was then sold to Mirrie Cardew who handled him to his title. Thus Ch. Tasenji Yoko became the first British black and white champion.
Also in 1965 Jayne Wilson-Stringer of Horsley fame imported a black and white bitch from USA, Black Diamond of Cryon, who before coming to England had been mated to Khajahs Black Fula Challenge. Black Diamond had two puppies in quarantine and these were Sheen and Satin of Horsley. The dog Sheen of Horsley was later mated to Bunty Tress’s red/white Ch. Ridingsgold Fantasia. A resulting black and white dog from this mating was Ridingsgold Sir Buntar of Horsley who was shown with considerable success by Jayne. He was mated to Jayne’s tri-colour Ch. Siren of Horsley and they produced Ch. Sircillitar of Horsley who was the world’s first black and white Bitch Champion.
In 1975 Jack Fleming of the Niangara Basenjis, Doris DeLeeuw and David Corigan travelled to the rain forests of the Sudan to obtain further native dogs to widen the UK gene pool and did in actual fact obtain two bitch puppies from rainforest villages. Arrangements were made for these to be freighted back to England - including the necessary veterinary care and Sudanese Government paperwork. But once again the bad luck that dogged British efforts reared it’s ugly head and the puppies were never transported and unfortunately nobody knows what happened to them.
It was to be seventeen years later before another significant addition to the UK gene pool took place when in 1992 Bunty Bowers of Domewood Fame imported two brindle striped Basenjis into England from the USA. The arrival of these Basenjis created a replay of the old arguments for and against the colour that had caused so much consternation to Veronica Tudor-Williams 33 years earlier. The two Basenjis were half brother and sister and were named Kibushi Bukavu Forest Tiger of Domewood (Tigger), and Sirius Khamsin Hello My Lady of Domewood (Lady). They were close direct descendents from native dogs that had been successfully imported from Zaire into USA in the late 80’s.
The controversy over whether to accept the colour or not continued for the next 7 years but despite this the imported pair had already been bred and brindles produced. Finally in 1999 the KC accepted the brindle colouring into the breed standard. The colour is now well established here and there are brindle champions.
In 2001 a Basenji made another piece of history by winning Best In Show at Crufts - a first time for the breed - this was Paul Singleton’s Ch. Jethard Cidevant. Nowadays it is not uncommon to see Basenjis regularly topping the hound group and acquitting themselves well in the competition for Best In Show.
In September 2011 Helena Lane and Victoria Miller - Antefaa Basenjis - imported into the UK the first Congolese Native Basenji since the early foundation stock. Although born in the USA the young bitch was bred from pure Native stock brought back by Dr Jo Thompson from a conservation area in the Democratic Republic of the Congo where there are no other dogs except the Native Basenjis. The UK import, a red/white named Lukuru Constellation Cassiopeia for Antefaa aka "Cassie" was born on 23/10/2010, sired by Lukuru Amisi (R/W) from Lukuru Na Liboso Mopaya (R/W), and currently resides with Victoria Miller. (The photo of "Cassie" on the right is by courtesy of Sally Wallis).
There have been and still are imported dogs from a variety of countries that have extended and will continue to extend the UK gene pool but this brief UK history has chosen imports that are either pure native stock or very close descendants of pure native stock to illustrate the progress of the British Basenji.