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The Great Hunters

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William Cotton Oswell

A man of sympathetic, generous nature, Oswell was born on 27th April 1818 to a family with strong connexions in the East India Company. He was educated at Rugby and prepared for service in India. In 1837 he left England to become a Collector in the Madras Presidency. In India he soon acquired a reputation as a linguist and an elephant hunter. Repeated attacks of fever caused him to be invalided out to the Cape in 1844.

Here he met Mungo Murray, a Scottish sportsman, and traveled with him into the interior. On this trip, Oswell first met David Livingstone, who was then an obscure missionary working at Mabotsa. This was the start of a lifelong friendship.

In 1849 an expedition Oswell, Murray and Livingstone crossed the Kalahari Desert to reach Lake Ngami. Oswell was its organizer and financial backer. For this discovery he was awarded the medal of the Paris Geographical Society. When, in later years, his more famous companion began to receive total credit for his exploit, Oswell accepted the fact philosophically.

Oswell was with Livingstone again in 1851 when the Zambesi was first sighted. Family affairs took him back to England in 1853, and soon after he volunteered for active service in the Crimean War. In 1855-6 he explored in North and South America. At the age of 42 he married and settled down in Groombridge, Kent, to the life of a country gentleman. In this new lifestyle, so markedly different to what had gone before he was to continue for 50 years, bringing up five children.

Oswell did not publish any travels. Bur shortly before his death in 1893 he was prevailed upon by friends to write some reminiscences for Clive Phillipp-Wolleys Big Game Shooting.

Thus in old age (rather like Izaak Walton, author of The Compleat Angler, whose gentle lucid style he sometimes echoes) he found himself with a new hobby.

Although Oswell was one of the earliest in the field of South African discovery, his name was not world wide, owing to his extreme modesty, wrote Sir Samuel Baker himself a hunter and explorer. He invariably strove to obtain the closest quarters with elephants, and other game. To this system he owed his great success. At the same time, the personal risk was much increased.