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The Great Hunters

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Sir William Cornwalls Harris | Great Hunter Writer & Artist

Few men could have packed more adventure into a comparatively short life than William Harris. He also had the double talents of writer and artist. Born in Wittersham, Kent, in 1807, he was educated at a military college and went at the age of 16 to India as a Second Lieutenant in the East India Company’s Engineers. He remained there for the next thirteen years, using his leisure for hunting and the sketching of animals. By 1934 he had been promoted to Captain.

Attacks of fever resulted in his being sent to the Cape for two years to regain his strength. With a civil servant friend from India, he resolved to penetrate into the African bushveld far beyond the borders of the colony. Their trip was made in 1836-7 and took them through unexplored country as far as the residence of the Matabele chief, Moselekatse. This was situated in what today is called the North-West Transvaal. News of a great Inland Lake, which lay six weeks’ journey to the north, provided a temptation to trek further, but fear of overstaying his furlough forved Harris reluctantly to return. It was left to William Cotton Oswell and Dr. Livingstone to reach Lake Ngami in 1849.

Harris’s account of his dealings with Moselekatse afford fascinating reading. The quick intelligence, cupidity and suspiciousness of the king, who was then in conflict with the voortrekkers, are graphically described. It is in fact the only known authentic pen picture of that ruler. Harris obtained reluctant permission to return to the Colony via a little known south-eastern route. Here he had some fine elephant, rhinoceros and buffalo hunting.

On his return to India, Harris published his Narrative of an Expedition into Southern African soon afterwards re-issued in London as The Wild Sports Southern Africa (1939). The standard Encyclopaedia of Southern Africa describes this as the first book by a big-game hunter in Africa. These extracts are taken from it. Harris was no mere carcas-seeker. He has a lively naturalists interest’s in the animals which he saw and made accurate drawings of them which were later published. He discovered the rare Sable antelope, sending a description and specimen of it to the Zoological Society of London. His literary style is elegant – at times perhaps a little too formal for modern taste. He is well read, and frequently quotes from the poets or his classical knowledge to give polish to a description. At his best he shows power of imagination and lively dry sense of humour. His prose is clearly moulded on 18th Century and Regency models.

In 1841-3 Harris led a mission from the Government of Bombay to Sahela Slassie, King of Shoa in Abyssinia. He was gazetted Major and knighted upon its successful outcome. His narrative of the mission, The Highlands of Aethiopia, and a volume of lithographs were published in England. Harris returned again to India where he finally succumbed to fever near Poona (Bombay Presidency) on 9th October 1848.