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The Great Hunters

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A Hunter Remembers | William Cotton Oswell

Writing in his nineties, Oswell reflects upon his first hunting trip to Southern Africa a half-century before. In his descriptions of the rhinoceros a species by which he was once almost killed he shows the blend of sympathy and gentle amusement with which he viewed the animal of veld.  In spite of a long, settled life in his mature years, Oswel could never reconcile himself to civilization. Right to the last he betrays a preference for the wild.

Reduced from 12 st. 2lb. to 12lb.1 by many attacks of Indian fever caught during a shooting excursion in the valley of the Bhavany River, 2 I was sent to the Cape as a last chance by the Madras 3 doctors; indeed, whilst lying in a semi-comatose state, I heard on of them declare that I ought to have been dead a year ago; so all thanks to South Africa, say I! I gained strength by the voyage, and shortly after reaching Cape Town, hearing that a Mr. Murray, had come from Scotland for the purpose of making a shooting expedition to the interior, I determined to join him. The resolve was carried out early in the spring of 1844 (the beginning of the Cape winter); we started out from Grahams Town to Colesberg, buying on the way horses, oxen, dogs, wagons and stores, crossed the Orange River, and set our faces northwards. We were all bitten in those days by Captain afterwards Sir Cornwallis Harris, whose book, published about 1837, was the first to give any notion of the capabilities of South Africa for big game shooting, and Harris excepted we were the first that ever burst into that sunny sea 4 - as sportsmen. Murray was an excellent kind hearted gentleman, rather too old perhaps for an expedition of this kind, as he felt the alternations of the climate very much. I was younger, and though still weak from the effects of fever, the dry air of the uplands daily gave me vigour, and the absolute freedom of the life was delightful to me. Just at first I had to become accustomed to the many little annoyances of missing oxen, strayed horses, etc but when our wagons became our home, and our migratory state our life, all anxious care vanished. Things would be put right somehow; there was no use worrying ourselves; what had been yesterday would be tomorrow.

Without any just cause I thought myself a better sportsman than my companion, and determined to seek my game alone, in the hope that I might be the first to bag a rhinoceros. All day long I followed, with an attendant Hottentot, a trial of one of these animals, neglecting inferior game, but my experience in African woodcraft was small then, and I believe now that the spoor may have been a week old. At last, tired and disgusted with my want of success in not coming up with the object of my search, I shot an antelope, and returned rather earlier than usual to the wagons, which had been ordered to outspan under the range of hills. It was still daylight when I reached them, and there sat my friend Murray, quiet, cool and calm, very calm indeed. He greeted me with a nod and a smile and asked me what I had killed? A buck, I answered. He said nothing but kept on smiling serenely. Presently I noticed a group of Kafirs sitting round their fire. What are they gorging themselves with? I asked my quiet friend. Oh, only some of the rhinoceroses I shot this afternoon.

I noted the plural, the iron entered into my soul, but merely said, Ah! Indeed! in an easy nonchalant way I flattered myself, as if the shooting of a rhinoceroses was a matter of supreme indifference to me in those days, and walked to my own wagon.

Next morning at breakfast my friend offered to show me where the rhinoceroses lived. It was quiet meek now, and ready to be introduced to this entirely imaginary locality. At that time we had not to go far to find, and had hardly left the camp a quarter of an hour, when the leading Kafir pointed out a great ugly beast rubbing itself against a tree eighty yards from us. I was off my pony in a second, determined to get to close quarters as soon as, and if possible sooner than, my companion. We both stalked to within twenty yards without being seen, and knelt down, I with the stump of a small tree before me; we fired together, and while the smoke still hung, I was aware of an angry and exceedingly plain-looking beast making straight at me through it. Luckily he had to come rather uphill to my stump, and his head was a little thrown back, when, within five feet of the muzzle of my gun, he fell, with a shot up his nostril, the powder blackening his already dingy face. This was a borili 5 (or sour-tempered one); as a rule, the only really troublesome fellow of his family. I remember thinking my first introduction promised a stormy acquaintance, and hoping there might be gentler specimens, who rather liked being shot, or at all events did not recent it so violently. I got two or three times into serious trouble with these lumbering creatures; I may mention here however, that success in rhinoceros shooting depends very greatly upon the sportsmans kneeling or squatting. I lost many at first by firing from a standing position. The consequence was, that the ball only penetrated one lung, and with the other untouched the beast runs on for miles, unless of course, the heart happens to be pierced; whereas, fired from a lower level, the ball passes through both lungs, and brings him up in 100 or 200 yards. A rhinoceros very seldom drops to the shot. Of all I killed, but two fell dead in their tracks. Whilst I write I hear that the dear old mahoho 6 is extinct. I am very sorry. He was never, I believe, found north of the Zambesi but between that river and the Molopo, 7 he was formely in great force. Poor old stupid fellow, too quiet as a rule, though, when thoroughly upset (like a good-natured man in a passion) reckless, he was just the very thing for the gunners to try their prentice hand on, and directly the Kafirs got muskets he was bound to go; though, considering the numbers there used to be, I hoped he would have lasted longer. He had no enemies to fear, save man and the hyenas, and the first without fire-arms would have made but little impression on him; for, although sometimes taken in the pitfalls, he was never, so far as I know, killed be spears. The hyena, when hard pressed for food, would occasionally attack the male, who is formed like the boar, and eat into his bowls from behind; but it was a long business, and not any means always successful. The Cape wolf must have been very hard set before he attempted it.

I have seen these long-horned, square-nosed creatures in herds of six and eight, and when in need of a large supply of meat for a tribe, have shot six within a quarter mile, with single balls. They had a curious habit which helped the sportsman, and had no doubt led to their too rapid extinction. If you found four or five together, and wounded one mortally, he would run off with the others until he fell, and then the survivors would make a circular procession round him until the gun was again fired, and another wounded. Off they would go again, halting and repeating the performance when the second fell, and, and so on to the end. The female was an affectionate mother, never deserting her calf, but making it trot before her, until she was mortally wounded, when she seemed to lose her head and shot on in advance, and we then always knew she would not go fifty yards further. Though they were a very meditative inoffensive lot, there was a point at which they drew the line. I once saw Vardon 8 pull a mahohos tail; this however, was taking too great a liberty, and if I had not been near he might have suffered, but as the heavy brute swung round to give chase, a ball at very close quarter stopped him. We have been obliged to drive them from the bush before camping for the night. They apparently mistook the wagons for some huge new beasts, and were very troublesome.

I could never understand the great power and strength of a rhinoceros horn. It is sessile 9 on the bone of the snout, but not part of, or attached to it; apparently it is only kept in its place by the thickness of the skin, and yet, a white rhinoceros threw me and my horse clear up into the air. Of course, the enormous muscles of the neck bore the brunt of the lift, but the horn did not suffer in any way. It is quiet intelligible that the fact of it not being cemented to the bore would render it less liable to fracture at the base, and in itself it is tough enough, though consisting only of agglutinated hair; but I am only wondering that, attached as it does. It is occasionally used in the most determined way by rhinoceros who have mutual differences to adjust. The Kafirs pare it down into hafts for their battle-axes. Of strips of the hide we made horse-whips, as the Egyptians do man-whips of that of the hippopotamus.

These creatures appear to me to be out of time, to have belonged to a former state of things, and to have been forgotten when the change was made. Often have I sat upon a ridge and looked at them as they moved solemnly and clumsily on the plain below, wondering how they still came to be in this world, and it has occurred to me how delightful it would have been to watch the pre-Adamite 10 beasts in the same way, and learn their manners which, I fear, were bad as they came and went, no other man to interfere with the preserves, the world all to yourself and your beastly companions! How they would fight, and wallow, and roar, and how very cunning you would have to be to escape being eaten! I am afraid in my dreams two or three large-bored, hard-hitting guns have figured as desiderate 11: indeed, under such circumstances, I should not see the fun of doing king with a celt 12 for a scepter and half a dozen flint-headed arrows as a standing armament.

The rhinoceros would be even easier of approach than he is were it not for his attendant bird, 13 a black slim-built fellow very like the king crown of India, who, in return I take it for his food, the parasitic insects on the chikuru, 14 watches over his fat friend and warns him of the coming danger by springing up in the air and alighting smartly again with a peck on his back or head. This puts him on the alert, and he does his best, by sniffing and listening, to find out the point from which he is threatened, for his ears are quick and his scent excellent; but, as you are below wind of him, sound and smell travel badly, and his vision is by no means first rate. The natives by a figure transfer the connection between the bird and the beast to themselves, and when they wish to emphasize the great affection they bear you, or the great care they intend to take of you, address you as my rhinoceros an elliptical expression by which they mean to convey that they are your guardian birds. They are not always quite unfailing. Going out from Kolobeng after elephants I had heard of in the neighborhood, I passed an old rain-doctor, whom I knew well, making rain with his pot on the fire, and his herbs and charms on the bubble. Chikuru ami, where are you going? he asked. Too shoot elephants, I replied. I was just making rain, but as you are my chikuru, I put it off till to-morrow. Is it necessary to say I was wet through in half an hour? A fine heavy thunderstorm was brewing whilst he was boiling.

I am sorry now for all the fine old beasts I have killed; but I was young then, there was excitement in the work, I had large numbers of men to feed, and if these are not considered sound excuses for slaughter, the regret is lightened by the knowledge that every animal, save three elephants, was eaten by man, and so put to a good use.

I spent five years in Africa. I was never ill for a single day laid up occasionally after an accident, but that was all. I had the best of companions Murray, Vardon, Livingstone and capital servants, who stuck to me throughout. If I remember right, I never lost anything by theft, and I have had tusks of elephants, shot eighty miles from the waggons, duly delivered. There is a fascination to me in the remembrance of the past in all its connections: the free life, the self-dependence, the boring into what was then a new country; the feeling as you lay under your kaross that you were looking at the stars from a point on the earth whence no other European had ever seen them; the hope that every patch of bush, every little rise, was the only thing between you and some strange sight or scene these are with me still; and were I not a married man with children and grand children, I belive I should head back into Africa again, and end my days in the open air. It is usless to tell me of the advantages of civilization; civilized man runs wild much easier and sooner than the savage becomes tame. I think it is desirable, however, that he should be sufficiently educated, before he doffs his clothes, to enjoy the change by comparison. Take the word of one who tried both states : there are charms in the wild; the ever increasing, never-satisfied needs of the tame my soul cannot away with.


  • 1 Reduced from 12st. 2lb to 7 st. 12lb. This was a weight reduction of 27,24kg
  • 2 The valley of the Bhavany River. The Indian lowlands like the African harboured the malarian mosquito
  • 3 Madras. City on the East coast of the Indian peninsula
  • 4 We were the first that ever burst into the sunny sea. A lighthearted adaption of lines from S. T. Coleridges The Ancient Mariner. We were the first that ever burst Into the silent sea. (pt. ii.)
  • 5 A borili. Probably the black rhinoceros. Oswel is not clear about the zoology of the animal, and thinks that there are three or four kinds to be found in Africa. There are in fact two African species
  • 6 The dear old mahoho. The White rhinoceros. This was in fact thought to be extinct at the time of Oswels writing, but was re-discovered at the end of the 19th century. To-day it is found only in the Zululand National Park and in certain corners of Rhodesia.
  • 7 Molopo. This river has its source close to that of the Limpopo, but flows south westward eventually to join the Orange on the border of the Cape Colony
  • 8 Vardon. Captain Frank Vardon of the 25th Madras Native Infantry
  • 9 Sessile. The horn rests on the skull but is not attached to it, being in fact an outgrowth of the skin
  • 10 The pre-Adaminte beast. Oswels thoughts about the animal world before the existence of man seem to be influenced by the then new 19th century awareness of nature red in tooth and claw
  • 11 Desiderate. Import from Latin. Things required or desired
  • 12 Celt. A stone axe
  • 13 His attendant bird. The bird most frequently performing this service is the Tickbird or cattle Egre (Bubulcus ibis). Also the Oxpecker (Buphagus africanus)
  • 14 Chukuru. The black rhinoceros was known among the Matabele as the Chikuroo, and the the White rhinoceros among the Bechuana as the Chikore.