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The Great Hunters

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From Killing to Conservation | The Great Hunters by Geoffrey Haresnape

In 2006 Geoffrey Haresnape, now Professor Emeritus at The University of Cape Town looked back to the time he started researching "the Great Hunters" at Oxford University. And for the benefit of this website and online publication of his book he wrote a very interesting reflection on those days together with well written observations on the present and immediate past relevant to conservation in our world.

Introduction 1974 ... "The Great Hunters"

When Geoffrey Haresnape's book "The Great Hunters" was first published in 1974 this is how he introduced the book to its audience.

When Jan van Riebeeck and his party arrived at the Cape in 1652, they found a totally undeveloped country in which wild animals such as the lion, the elephant and the buffalo wandered to the very shores of Table Bay. Curbs were placed upon the hunting activities of the first colonists by the Dutch East India Company, but soon proved hopeless. The southern tip of Africa was a hunter’s paradise. Not only gain and security, but also sport made it inevitable that the free–burghers should live gun in hand. By 1690 Simon van der Stel was complaining to the Here XVII that many of the inhabitants had taken to hunting as a daily occupation. Hippopotami – he observed – had disappeared from round the Peninsula, and colonists had to travel for ten or twelve days into the interior to find them.

Finding it difficult to make a living from the cultivation of wheat and the vine, the burghers moved northward and eastward to graze their cattle and to follow the retreating big game. In the 18th Century, the trekboers as they came to be known, lived wonderfully free nomadic lives. They were isolated and independent, rather like the bushman hunters with whom they sometimes came into conflict on the vast plains of the interior. There must have been few of them whose muzzle-loading roers did not bring the antelope or pachyderms to earth. But these were men of action; few had time or talent to make notes of their adventures, let alone to write books with any literary merit.

It is not until the 19th Century – the era of the sportsman adventurer – that this book really begins. With British interest well–established in North America and India, and expanding in Africa, it was clear to any Englishman with an exploring or hunting cast of mind that there were several wild, exciting frontiers to the Empire. These men were well–educated, often army officers or civil servants who had combined sport with duty in India. Others had been to the Americas. But it was Africa finally with its incomparable fauna and uncharted territories which drew them.

Their motives were threefold. Firstly, they were responding to the challenge of the wild – a challenge which demanded resourcefulness and bravery. With a typical Victorian romanticism, Clive Phillips–Wolley suggests in his Introduction to Big Game Shooting that they were men who “had they lived in Arthur’s time might have been engaged in some quest at Pentecost”. An enthusiasm for new scientific knowledge was equally important. Cornwallis Harris was the first hunter to make painstakingly accurate drawings of the animals which he encountered, and William Oswell spent large sums to extend geographical knowledge of Africa’s interior. Cumming and Selous preserved specimens to be sent to museums in Great Britain. Their urge to throw the light of reason upon whatever was novel or unexplored in the field of nature was characteristic of 19th Century explorers. It was seen most brilliantly in the writings of their great contemporary, Charles Darwin. (A bust of Selous was placed alongside the statue of Darwin in the British Museum – a gesture which certainly overestimated the importance of the hunter’s services to science.) A third motive in many cases was the money which could be earned by sale of ivory.

Another type of man was coming into his own during these decades: South African born, or the sons of families who had made the colonies their permanent home. Chapman, Strubens and Baines were figures of this kind. Their literary talents and skills as pioneers rivalled those of the visitors.

Pushing inland from the Eastern Cape Colony or Natal, these adventures adopted the life of the Afrikaans colonist, living in ox–wagons with parties of Hottentot or African servants to guide and support them. Inevitably, they kept journals, recording their encounters with big game, offering valuable contemporary portraits of Voortrekker hunting parties (of which there were many) and of the great African chiefs, Moselekatse, Lobengula and Sechele. These notes, often made under trying conditions,  were later adapted to be published as travel books for which there was a great demand.

They usually maintained cordial relations with the African tribes through whose territories they passed. This was wise policy since the chiefs were potentates who had the power to grant or to deny access to the game which they sought. The hunter’s attitude to the men whom they engaged for their expeditions was patriarchal, and there is an inevitable amount of complaining about servants in their narratives. Sometimes they formed strong bonds within the 19th Century convention of master and man. Notable examples were the lifelong friendships between William Oswell and John Thomas, and Cumming and Ruyter. In describing Africans they used terms common to the times. One bears in mind the changes in word meanings, and hopes that generally they did not intend the disrespect which now attaches to such names. But one must acknowledge that their attitude was at times slighting or condescending.

The styles vary with the men: writing in the 1830’s Harris is elegant, full of literary allusion, at times a little pretentious. Cumming is more lurid and romantic, but powerful in descriptive passages. Selous is careful and straightforward, combining an accurate account of hunting difficulties with a sympathy for the animals which fell to his rifle. Wolhuter is engagingly frank, and Pohl has effectively conveyed the intimacy of his relationship with the wild. Some of them achieved a prose which is not only entertaining, but which, for clarity, perspective and insight, deserves a place in the literature of South Africa.

 During the 19th Century the amount of big-game dwindled rapidly. It became necessary to travel further and further afield to find it. On an expedition in the 1830’s, Harris had permission from Moselekatse to hunt big-game in his territory (present-day Northern Transvaal). By 1840 the Matabele chief had moved across the Limpopo. A decade later William Oswell and Dr. Livingstone were thrusting northward towards Lake Ngami.

By the 1860’s and 70’s, Baldwin, Selous and many others were hunting freely between the Limpopo and Zambesi Rivers. The area which is to- day called Botswana was also being traversed. Only South West Africa remained virtually untouched by the White adventurer. 

Fire-arms were greatly improved as the decades passed by. The 19th Century inherited the flintlock a muzzle-loading weapon with a cumbersome powder-pan onto which was projected a shower of sparks), but by 1816 the copper percussion cap was available. This contained a “fulminating powder” which ignited when struck by a metal hammer. The cap was at least weatherproof – but it was difficult to adjust on its metal nipple, especially when on a restive horse and confronted by an angry animal. Percussion rifles (or muskets) still required to be loaded with powder and ball forced down the muzzle with a ramrod. As breech-loading rifles came into general use, the element of risk in hunting decreased. Denys Reitz graphically describes the changed situation in his Introduction to Victor Pohl’s Bushveld Adventures (1940).

“ In days gone by, before the era of quick transport, there may have been a fascination in traveling far afield to shoot big game with a flintlock or muzzle-loader. But now, in the days of high velocity firearms, the hunter holds all life in the hollow of his hand, and the shooting of most game is no longer a sport – it is an execution.”

One immediately thinks of the change which has occurred in the hunting of the whale. It is possible to admire those brave sailors depicted in Moby Dick who ventured against it in open boats with only a hand harpoon. But today the lethal grenade harpoons which are fired from large ships and contain a timing device to explode inside the doomed creatures, leave no doubt of the outcome. A courageous hunt has been reduced to big-business and the whale is on the verge of extinction.

Annexations of land by Rhode’s British South Africa Company at the end of the 19th Century closed that territory to the explorer and settled the faith of the remaining big-game. “ Houses stand where we once shot elephant,” Oswell writes regretfully in 1896.

“ The railway train will soon be whistling and screaming through all the hunting fields South of the Zambesi.” After 1900 it was only possible to hunt game in a completely unrestricted way north of that great river, as the accounts of Major Pretorius, Owen Letcher and R.C.F. Maugham show.

Fortunately for the remnant of the animals in the southern sub-continent, people were beginning to think of protection. Lt. Col. Stevenson-Hamilton, with farsighted encouragement from President Paul Kruger, founded his Sabi Game Reserve in 1898. In 1926 this became the now famous Kruger National Park. Other game reserves in South, South-West, East and Central Africa came into being. The uneasy sympathy with which the hunters of the 19th Century sometimes viewed wild animals could now be translated into a practical policy of active conservation.

One is especially grateful for the establishment of such reserves when one thinks of the professional safari which has become popular in modern times. “ It is the difficulty of the chase which gives value to the trophies” declared old-fashioned Phillipps –Wolley. But there have since been many visitors to Africa who have paid large sums so that a confrontation with lion or elephant might be arranged. During this they have only to pull a random trigger before the animal is gunned down by a ring of hired experts. The trophy is duly transported home – the risk is to its purchaser negligible, the prestige at a maximum. In an age of exploitation one turns with relief to those who feel for the creatures of the wild and wish to protect them against man’s aggressive spread. If the danger of this generation is – as many writers suggest – that the natural environment will be overwhelmed by man’s technological creations and their wastes, it becomes vitally important that certain areas of the globe should be set aside to remind him of a world as it once was. It would be a sad irony if man should despair at his own animality when there are no longer animals to remind him of the splendour of creation.

It therefore seems right that the natural successors to the pioneers of the 19th Century should be men who, in spite of their skills as hunters, have tried to understand and to conserve the animals. Victor Pohl’s deep love of wild unspoiled land and its creatures caused him to turn from big game hunting to marksmanship. This love shows in his books. In his Farewell the Little People, he has imaginatively re-created the world of the primitive bushman hunters who lived close to the animals which gave them their livelihood. Wolhuter has used the gamelore which must have been perfected by countless Afrikaner hunting ancestors who had left no memorial, for the protection of animals rather than for killing. Even Major Pretorius. Who had the true hunter’s death-dealing instinct, turned to capturing animals alive for zoos and to making films of wild life.

As the wild animals have dwindled, so have the South African English poets and imaginative writers who have seen then come to appreciate their unique qualities. Pringle was the first of our poets to describe them effectively, but they have since been seen in vivid visual and symbolic terms as the embodiments of life’s mystery and superb power.

Roy Campbell opened this vein with his poems about lion and giraffe or the stampeding buffalo which fill the visionary canvas of The Flaming Terrapin. In The Zebras he evokes the splendid vitality and freedom of wild animals in their unfettered state.

 “ From the darks woods that breathe of fallen showers,

Harnessed with level rays in golden reins,  

The zebras draw the dawn across the plains

Wading knee–deep among the scarlet flowers.

The sunlight, zithering their flanks with fire,

Flashes between the shadows as they pass

Barred with electric tremors through the grass

Like wind along the gold strings of a lyre.


Into the flushed air snorting rosy plumes

That smoulder round their feet in drifting fumes,

With dove-like voices call the distant fillies,

While round the herbs the stallion wheels his flight,

Engine of beauty volted with delight

To roll his mare among the trampled lilies.”


Charles Eglington, Ruth Miller, Sydney Clouts and Douglas Livingstone have been among those who have followed suit. Consider Eglington’s buffalo:


“ In kraals of slanting shade the herd

Moves restively: flared nostrils vent

The cordite fumes of summer, snuff

The dung of slow diminishment.

Old sagas of migration vex

Their torpor with blood memories

Of  boundless grazing, pools and hides,

Fights and strong seasonal increase.”


Or Ruth Miller’s lion on the prowl:


“ The lion, even when full of mud, with burrs

On his belly tangled, his great pads heavy

And cracked, sends such a message on the dry air

As makes all smaller animals wary, their fur

Rising in silken shivers, their horned heads

Up the wind, reading its tragic story.”

Laurens van der Post has achieved in prose a similar imaginative evocation of the wild – its animals and peoples. Books like The Heart of the Hunter and The Lost World of the Kalahari offer a sensitive impressionistic approach which provide valuable  supplementary reading to the generally more factual writing of the men of action represented here. Professor Guy Butler suggests that the hunting narrative “underwent a symbolic transmutation in the writings of Roy Campbell and Laurens van der Post: Africa her animals and primitive peoples symbolizing a world and a consciousness which over- civilized Europe has lost.” (Standard Encyclopaedia of Southern Africa, Vol. 4, pp.339-340.)

It would indeed be a loss if the animals which have inspired such responses should become confined to the restricted environment of a zoo, or be allowed to die out. Perhaps the achievements of George Adamson and his wife, Joy, with their lioness Elsa have the right emphasis for our time. They have shown that a lioness is not merely an impersonal predator, but a being with loves, loyalties and a type of personality of her own.

From one point of view it is possible to be amused by the old- style hunter; to see him, as William Plomer did in The Explorer, as the “romantic subject of the Great White Queen”.

“He never shows emotion, least of all surprise,

Here nothing meets his fat and hopeful eyes

But big game, small game, fur and fin and feather.”

Yet one must admit to the unique flavour of these 19th Century pioneers who went in uncharted places with their twingrooved muzzle-loaders, solar topees and volumes of Byron: men who prized physical courage and who thought of themselves as Nimrods in pursuit of the ferae. It is fortunate that they had the literary and artistic talents to record their exploits and the quality of their world. Otherwise – like the once prolific springbok or the quagga – they too might have a memory which is diminished or even extinct.