Osa Johnson (1894-1953)

Jemima Wilkinson
Martin and Osa Johnson Safari Museum.

Osa Johnson and her husband, Martin, were pioneering explorers, photographers, filmmakers and authors, who documented the lives of the indigenous people and wildlife of the South Seas Islands, Borneo, and East and Central Africa.  Their films serve as a record of these cultures and a wilderness that no longer exist today.

Osa Leighty was born in Chanute, Kansas on March 14, 1894. On May, 15 1910, at the age of sixteen, she married Martin Johnson of Independence, Kansas.  Martin had recently returned from an excursion to the South Seas with Jack London, who became famous for his wilderness novels, and  was touring the country presenting travelogues of  the trip;  Osa joined the tour after she and Martin married.  It soon became apparent to Osa that her new husband was always going to want a life of adventure, and she was determined to stand as his equal and share it with him.  After several years of traveling around the country, they scraped together enough money for an expedition to the South Seas, where they intended to film the natives in their natural state, not influenced by outside cultures.

Their first expedition left from San Francisco on June 5, 1917 to the island of Malekula in the South Pacific island chain called New Hebrides, where the Big Nambas were considered as savage a group of headhunters and cannibals as existed anywhere on earth.  Once on Malekula, they ascended through steep, thick jungle with a crew of eight natives, a small amount of film equipment and a handful of goods for trade.  They soon found the Big Nambas, and while Osa tried to interest their chief, Nagapate, in their goods, Martin rolled the camera.  It became clear that Nagapate was more interested in Osa than in the goods she was offering, and the crew made a hasty retreat, scrambling down the steep path with the natives in quick pursuit.  Fortunately, they were rescued by a British patrol boat.  The resulting film, Among the Cannibals of the South Pacific, was released the next summer in 1918 to much acclaim.

Far from being scared off by the hardships and danger of their first adventure, Osa embraced this way of life.  Whether it was rubbing down with kerosene oil to fight the ever-present mosquitoes, burning off leaches that doubled their size sucking her blood, or dealing with two-inch cockroaches crawling across her while she slept, Osa accepted these challenges as part of the adventure.  The following year, in April of 1919, they returned to the South Seas and North Borneo for their next film, Jungle Adventures, which was released in 1921.  Martin and Osa were the first to film these South Pacific Islanders, and the resulting films are considered important historic and ethnographic documents of Pacific Island Cultures in the early years of the Twentieth Century.

After the success of these films, Osa and Martin decided to try capturing the wildlife of Africa.  Over the next several years, from 1921 to 1933, they recorded an unmatched photographic record of Africa; its people and its wildlife.  These were among the earliest documentary films ever made in Africa, including the first sound movie made entirely in Africa, Congorilla, which opened in 1932.  While Martin did the filming, developing, and editing, Osa was responsible for feeding the crew.  She fished and hunted.  When they put down roots in an area, she immediately planted a garden to supplement their diet.  She was responsible for planning the expeditions, getting the supplies and help needed, and making all the travel arrangements..  All of this required good managerial skills, as well as linguistic abilities and the discernment to judge which native men would be trustworthy guides.  

Osa was an expert with a gun, calmly standing by to protect the crew from danger while Martin filmed with his hand-crank camera.  On one occasion, as Martin was photographing a herd of rhinoceroses, one of the animals charged directly at him. With her trademark calmness, Osa raised her rifle, shot, and killed the charging rhino.  Martin never missed a second of the action, capturing the dramatic moment on film.

Along with her husband, Osa got a pilot’s license in 1932, and they acquired two airplanes.  Not only did they record the first aerial photos of African wildlife, they were also the first pilots to fly over Mt. Kenya, and the first pilots to film Mts. Kilimanjaro and Kenya.

Martin died of injuries resulting from a plane crash in Burbank, California in 1937.  Osa survived the crash and continued to produce films and write books about their adventures.  Her book, I Married Adventure, published in 1940, was listed in Best books of the Decade, 1936-1945 and was the top seller in its genre in 1940.  When the US entered World War II the next year, the US military chose Johnson to write a book aimed at soldiers in the South Pacific.  Published by Editions for the Armed Services in 1944, she titled it Four Years in Paradise.  In 1951, her first best-selling book was translated into French.

Osa died in New York City on January 7, 1953 at the age of 58. Together, from 1917 to 1937, Martin and Osa made eight feature movies, published nine books, and shot thousands of still photographs.  In addition to their expeditions, they traveled thousands of miles presenting lectures and showing their films.  As well as being a commercial success, they were also commissioned to make motion pictures for the American Museum of Natural History, some of which are preserved on videotape there.

About his wife, Martin said, “she had all the qualities that go to make an ideal traveling companion for an explorer – pluck, endurance, cheerfulness under discomfort.”  To Osa, that was the highest of compliments.

In 1927, The Scientific American said, “The animal films and ‘stills’ by Mr. Martin Johnson have never been surpassed. It would hardly be fair not to mention Mrs. Martin Johnson in the same paragraph, for she handles a gun as fearlessly, and a camera almost as skillfully as her husband.”  Some of Osa Johnson’s photographs recently were put on display in the Animal Kingdom Lodge (Jambo House) of Florida’s Disney World.


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