Jump to Navigation

Martin and Osa Johnson Barong


Adventurers and cinematographers Martin and Osa Johnson collected this barong in the South Seas.

Osa Leighty was unimpressed by the young photographer who took her brother's portrait. She was more concerned that her three-year-old brother sit still. It was hot, and she wanted to get home. The photographer, Martin Johnson, had traveled from Independence to Chanute to sell photographs at a penny a piece. Their chance meeting marked the beginning of an adventurous partnership that made Kansas history.

Martin Johnson spent the next several years traveling with Jack London and taking photographs in exotic places in the South Pacific. When he returned to Kansas in 1909 he traveled to Chanute to lecture and show his slides at an evening performance. The girl who was hired to provide musical entertainment for that performance was a friend of Osa's, and arranged a formal introduction between the two.

Osa was still not impressed. Martin was conceited and his photos of cannibals were horrible. Nonetheless, 16-year-old Osa was drawn to Martin, 10 years her senior. They dated for three weeks and got married on a whim. To avoid having the marriage annulled by her father, Martin and Osa traveled to Kansas City, Missouri, for a second wedding.

An Adventurous Partnership

During the 27 years they were married, Osa and Martin traveled around the world photographing wild animals and native peoples in the South Sea islands, Borneo, and Africa. Martin stayed behind the camera while Osa kept watch. Once, as Martin was photographing a herd of rhinoceroses, one of the animals caught wind of them and charged directly at Martin. 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.

Martin & Osa Johnson with native people in BorneoOsa coordinated their trips, arranging for transportation of thousands of dollars of photographic equipment and supplies. On one African safari, Osa supervised the 235 porters who carried their supplies over swamplands where vehicles could not pass. Following each trip, Osa and Martin would return to the United States to lecture, show their movies and tell of their travels. The Johnsons prided themselves on the natural accuracy of their movies. Rarely was the action staged and usually it was unpredictable. Osa and Martin never had children, but Osa was rarely seen without one of her pet monkeys riding on her shoulder. Osa recorded her life story in the book I Married Adventure.

Osa was a pioneer who insisted that she stand as Martin's equal. In 1932 the Johnsons learned to fly at the airfield in Osa's hometown of Chanute. With pilot's licenses in hand, they purchased two airplanes and set off for Africa. Piloting "The Spirit of Africa," Osa flew over the savannas to photograph the wildlife from the air; Martin piloted "Osa's Ark." They were the first pilots to fly over Mount Kenya, and the first to film Mts. Kilimanjaro and Kenya. Later, they took one aircraft to Borneo and flew over the interior of the island, photographing wildlife and native peoples.

Together, Osa and Martin made eight feature movies, shot thousands of photographs, published nine books, and traveled thousands of miles presenting lectures and showing their films.

In 1937, following a two-year trip to Borneo, the Johnsons were once more lecturing around the U.S. Traveling from Salt Lake City to California, the commercial plane on which they were traveling crashed during a thunderstorm. Martin died from his injuries. Osa, though badly injured, continued their planned tour by lecturing from a wheelchair.

Following Martin's death, Osa continued lecturing, writing, and producing motion pictures. Osa was planning a return visit to East Africa when she suffered a heart attack and died in New York City in 1953. Osa and Martin are buried in Chanute. The Martin and Osa Johnson Safari Museum in Chanute now holds many of their photographs and personal memorabilia.

Osa acquired this barong, a Moro jungle knife, on her first trip to Borneo with Martin. The knife has a silver-banded grip and a carved ivory pommel. Osa gave the knife to her parents, natives of Chanute, Kansas. Shortly after Osa's death it was donated to the Kansas Museum of History through the Woman's Kansas Day Club.

Listen to the Barong podcast  Play Audio Tour

Entry: Martin and Osa Johnson Barong

Author: Kansas Historical Society

Author information: The Kansas Historical Society is a state agency charged with actively safeguarding and sharing the state's history.

Date Created: November 1997

Date Modified: December 2014

The author of this article is solely responsible for its content.