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The Great Hunters

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James Chapman | Great South African Big Game Hunter

Chapman was the greatest of South African pioneers of his period, owing to his wide range of interest and his powers of observation, which were the equal of Livingstones.

This is E.C. Tablers estimate of a man who devoted almost the whole of his adult life to exploratory and hunting journeys.

Chapman was South African born in Cape Town on 27th December 1831- of an English immigrant father and an Afrikaans mother.  After a brief education and a stint of clerical work in Natal, he trekked inland and set up as a storekeeper in Potchefstroom. The largely unexplored interior soon beckoned, and from 1849 he began his pioneering. In 1853 he came within 113 km. of the Victoria Falls, almost discovering them before Dr. Livingstone. He journeyed to the north of present day Botswana and explored the upper reaches of the Zambesi.

A tolerant and unprejudiced man, he found that he was able to get on with the Bushman hunters of the semi desert interior. He traveled in their company for weeks at a stretch, and obtained great assistance from them an unusual achievement among travelers of the time.

In 1860 Chapman and his party made a land journey westward to Walvis Bay. He became on of the first white men to try settling in South West Africa. Two ambitions still left him restless; to cross the whole of Africa from west to east by land, and to prove the navigability of the Zambesi from below the Victoria Falls to its mouth. From 1861 to 1863 he carried out this two pronged project on which he was joined by the artist and explorer, Thomas Baines. Chapman got only as far as Sinanamis Town to the east of the Falls. But the trip gave him an opportunity for hunting and for photography (with which he had considerable success under most trying conditions).

Although inclined to understate his own achievements, Chapman was accomplished both as hunter and scholar. The Cape Governor, Sir George Grey, so valued his talents that he commissioned him to capture live animals and to compile vocabularies of African languages. Chapman kept diaries throughout his journeys, but his Travels in the Interior of South Africa appeared only in 1868, shortly before his death.

Chapmans attempt to open the Zambesi ruined his health through fever and exhausted his finances. After some years spent in retirement with his family, he died in 1872, just forty one years old.