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The Golden Age of African Safaris
By Brian Herne
Henry Holt and Company Copyright © 1999 Brian Herne
All rights reserved.
THE FIRST WHITE HUNTERS
In the late nineteenth century the deserts of north Somaliland, or the Land of Punt, as it was sometimes called, ran from the Gulf of Aden to the Horn of Africa, then south to the Juba and Tana rivers where they spilled into the Indian Ocean. It was truly terra incognita, the land of devil dervishes, dust storms, and, it was said, fiendish beasts. Fierce Somali clans roamed this unmapped territory of heat, thirst, and sudden death. Despite such formidable obstacles superb hunting could be had east of Suez, just a few miles into the interior from the sultry port of Berbera. Somaliland's northern coast lay along the direct sea route between England and its Indian empire, thereby making it accessible to a handful of intrepid Victorian adventurers.
Early foreign hunters drawn by the Land of Punt's inexorable romance, mystique, and danger included British army officers stationed in India. Almost all of these amateur hunters set out with the object of bagging a lion. Some were successful, but the lions in many cases kept the score fairly even, mauling or killing many of these daring souls. Hunting was, of course, a long cherished tradition during the Victorian and Edwardian eras in England, just as it was on the European continent and in the United States.
Although the term "white hunter" actually had its beginnings in British East Africa after the turn of the twentieth century, big game hunting was already popular in other parts of the "Dark Continent," notably in South Africa, where amateur and meat hunters, as well as a few ivory hunters, had been active long before Somaliland and East Africa came into vogue. In South Africa the exploits of adventurers such as Gordon Roualeyn Cumming, William Cornwallis Harris, and Charles Baldwin, to name just a few of that era's prolific South African nimrods, were the stuff of legends. These men were after meat mostly; some were hide or tusk hunters, but all proved capable of remarkable feats of endurance, regardless of quarry. In Cumming's book, The Lion Hunter of South Africa, for example, there is a sketch of Cumming swimming in the water alongside a giant hippopotamus, armed with nothing but a sheath knife. His intentions are clear — he is attempting to dispatch the "sea horse," or at least secure it by cutting hand-hold slots in the unfortunate hippo's hide. He titles the sketch, "Waltz with a Hippo."
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CORNWALLIS HARRIS was a magnificent painter and a fearless hunter who cut the trails of countless "ferocious beasts." Charles Baldwin wrote a memorable account of his own stirring exploits in the pursuit of big game circa 1852–1860. These South African hunters all remained amateur hunters, not white hunters, who were professionals.
In German East Africa, Carl Georg Schillings, a hunter and a gifted naturalist, had made a series of safaris to the German colony beginning in 1896. Schillings was also an innovative photographer who took great risks to secure some of the earliest pictures of African game. He once stalked to within fifteen yards of a mud wallow to photograph two rhino. Another time he was charged by an agitated herd of elephant and had to shoot his way out of the fix. He experimented with flashlight photographs, having mixed his own flash powder at no little risk. Under the most primitive conditions Schillings developed his massive photographic plates, experimented with some of the earliest telephoto lenses, and explored most of the north-central part of the colony. He took particular interest in the country around Kilimanjaro, and some of his best wildlife photographs were shot across the border in British East around the soda lake at Amboseli. Schillings's pictures of lions taken at night with his infamous flash powder are classics to this day. He was also a fine ornithologist and made a great collection of birds, many of them hitherto unknown. His handsome two-volume book, With Flashlight and Rifle, was first published in Berlin and translated into English in 1906. The books were received with great acclaim in Europe and aroused an unprecedented interest in the German colony.
Around 1900 there were fair numbers of white settlers, mostly farmers living in the Rhodesias, who occasionally took friends out for a spot of shooting. Such hunts were normally casual, disorganized affairs. "Shooting" was still the operative word, rather than "hunting."
One of the best pioneer Rhodesia-based hunters was the immensely experienced Marcus Daly, who was sufficiently opportunistic to be regarded as both a professional white hunter and an ivory hunter. He began his career as a game trapper near the Zambezi River catching animals to stock Cecil Rhodes's Kenilworth Zoo in England. Daly roamed across Africa, taking paying clients when he could get them, hunting ivory for himself when he could not. He was an accomplished hunter who had a reputation for physical ferocity. Marcus Daly was known to have a habit of sending bullets whistling dangerously close to the feet of uninvited guests to his camp, particularly government officials, whom he loathed on sight. Daly hunted for a while in British East as well as other African countries, and he was friendly with early Nairobi white hunters Bill Judd and Tom Murray Smith, who was later to become president of the East African Professional Hunter's Association.
Some competitive resentment naturally arose between professional hunters operating in different areas. Marcus Daly, for one, must have resented the special aura that attached itself exclusively to the hunters of East Africa, for he wrote, "The term white hunter is a purely Nairobi manufacture and was never heard of in Rhodesia where all the best hunters are found."
Whether Marcus Daly liked it or not, the white hunters of Nairobi were a breed apart. Lionized by Ernest Hemingway and Robert Ruark, it was the white hunters of British and German East Africa who came to be portrayed on movie screens around the world.
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MODERN DAY authorities hold divergent views on the subject of just who should be accorded the title of Africa's first white hunter. There is equal uncertainty about precisely who first coined the term, but what is certain is that the term "white hunter" has been in common use in East Africa since the turn of the century.
Emily Host and colonial historians accord the honor of first white hunter to either R. J. Cunninghame or Bill Judd. White hunter Donald Ker emphatically states it was Alan Black. J. A. Hunter maintained that it was the Hill cousins. It could even be argued that one of the first white hunters was in fact no stiff-upper-lipped Victorian, but a Texan with the grand name of Peregrine (Peary to his clients) Herne. In the 1840s Herne (no relation to the author) roamed the wilderness of the American West, making a living hunting and trapping. At the trading station called Brown's Hole on the Green River, upstream from the Colorado, Herne's path crossed that of an English sportsman, a gentleman of fortune named Robert Barrill. The two men became fast friends, and Barrill proposed that as an "experienced hunter" Peregrine Herne should accompany him to various parts of the world. As Herne wrote, "If I would accompany him on his travels and hunting expeditions, he would take care that I was well provided in every respect." Herne gladly accepted, and may actually have been the first white hunter from that era to have been paid for his services, which included hunting in Africa. In any event Herne's "guiding" activities closely resembled those of this century's first white hunters.
By several reliable accounts it was the chance meeting of hunter Alan Black and a reckless amateur hunter known as "D," the fiery Lord Delamere, that led to the term "white hunter." Delamere had employed the youthful Alan Black to help out on one of his Somaliland safaris in the late 1890s. When Delamere settled in British East Africa he purchased very large acreages of ranching country. At the time he employed a Somali hunter to shoot meat for his employees, and he also hired Alan Black as a hunter. To differentiate between the two hunters, as well as on account of Black's surname, the Somali hunter was referred to as "the black hunter," while Alan Black was always called "the white hunter," and from this difference, or so the story goes, "white hunter" came into common usage.
"Black was, therefore," according to veteran hunter Donald Ker, of Ker and Downey Safaris, Nairobi, "the first white man to operate in a professional capacity taking out hunting parties for a living." And, Ker adds, "Black was one of the best that ever lived."
Alan Black settled in British East Africa for good in 1903, although he continued to travel overseas during monsoon rainy seasons when he could not hunt. An original "Sportsman's Game License," costing 750 rupees, was issued to Black by the East Africa Protectorate government in June 1906, but that was certainly not his first game license.
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IT IS SAFE to say that about half a dozen men started in the safari business at about the same time. Kenya writer Emily Host states, "It seems likely that R. J. Cunninghame and Bill Judd, who came to East Africa in 1899, and George Outram and Leslie Tarlton, who followed in 1903, were among the first to take up professional hunting." Host gives the date of Cunninghame's arrival in British East Africa as 1899, but others believe it was late 1901 or early 1902.
Richard John Cunninghame, known as R.J. (and to the Africans as Masharubu), was a Scot, born on July 4, 1871. After attending Cambridge he was briefly a whaler in the Arctic, a hunter and naturalist in Lapland, a meat hunter in Mozambique, and a transport rider in South Africa, before arriving in British East Africa.
Whether Cunninghame was the first of the professionals or not, it is generally conceded he was probably the leading white hunter of his day. At a slim six foot two, he was whipcord tough and came to epitomize the finest qualities sought by visiting sportsmen eager to hunt dangerous big game in company with an expert. Among his more famous clients were President Theodore Roosevelt, his son Kermit, and author and amateur hunter Frederick Courtney Selous (on Roosevelt's 1909 safari), and the American novelist Stewart Edward White.
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IN 1906 CUNNINGHAME was the white hunter selected by American photographer Carl Akeley to lead an elephant and buffalo hunt in the Aberdare Mountains of British East Africa. Akeley, who had previously been mauled by a leopard in Somaliland, was a worldwide traveler and frequent visitor to Africa. A recent encounter on Mount Kenya had left him somewhat apprehensive of elephant. On that occasion Akeley and his party were spooring a small herd of bull elephant that they hoped to photograph. He and his tracker had paused to check cartridges for the gun that he carried for protection when a solo elephant suddenly charged them in an unprovoked attack. The elephant hit Akeley with its trunk, breaking his nose and splitting his cheek open to the teeth. The beast got Akeley down on his back between its tusks, and then tried to crush him with its massive forehead. Akeley passed out, at which point the elephant unaccountably lost interest in him, possibly assuming its victim was already dead.
After that Akeley did not wish to take unnecessary chances, and for his expedition on behalf of the Field Museum of Chicago, he took the precaution of signing up R. J. Cunninghame. Akeley's confidence was well placed, for Cunninghame displayed his usual cool skill when working among elephant at close range. The successful safari ended with the two parting with mutual admiration. Cunninghame refused any payment from Akeley, on the grounds that the trip had been a scientific endeavor. "Coming from a Scotchman it was quite unexpected," Akeley wrote, "but it was typical of Cunninghame's generosity and indicative of his interest in scientific work."
Cunninghame's most celebrated safari was with Teddy Roosevelt, in 1909–1910. The story persists that on the toss of a coin by Nairobi safari outfitter Leslie Tarlton, Cunninghame was chosen to lead the safari rather than fellow white hunter Bill Judd, who lost the toss. In reality Cunninghame had been selected to lead the safari well in advance of Roosevelt's arrival. Judd was, however, invited to join the safari for a while to hunt with Roosevelt and Cunninghame. Of Cunninghame, Roosevelt declared, "I doubt if Mr. Cunninghame's equal in handling such expeditions as ours exists. He combines the qualities of a first-class explorer, guide, field naturalist, and safari manager."
R. J. Cunninghame was not afraid to speak up to denounce the establishment for injustices to native African workers during the early days of the colonial British East Africa Protectorate. At one vociferous meeting in Nairobi, Cunninghame quietly put in a word for amelioration of laborers' conditions. He spoke movingly of improper food supplies and advocated that conditions promised to the natives should be carried out.
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RANKED ALONGSIDE Cunninghame, Black, and Judd as one of the top white hunters of his day was Arthur Cecil Hoey, an Englishman born at Wimbledon in 1883. On his first solo journey in 1904 he walked over a thousand miles of country surrounding Mount Elgon and the little -known Cherangani Mountains. Hoey then trekked across the vast plateau known as the Uasin Gishu as far as the Nzoia River. Although a handful of hunters, including the great ivory hunter Karamoja Bell, had traversed the Uasin Gishu ahead of young Hoey, it would be Hoey who would for some years thereafter claim it as his special turf. In his day, none knew it better.
When Arthur Hoey first arrived on what became known simply as "The Plateau" he was surprised to find it empty of human habitation. An ancient people called the Sirikwa had dwelt there once and left traces of circular stone dwellings, but none had taken their place. It was only when Hoey reached the Nandi hills to the north of the Uasin Gishu plain that he encountered any occupied settlements.
Out on the golden short-grassed plains Hoey found massed herds of game. Elephant were plentiful and many carried heavy ivory. Hoey once shot three elephant in half an hour, the best of which had record-class tusks weighing 131 pounds each, and another with tusks weighing 128 pounds. The Uasin Gishu plateau was the best big game region Hoey had yet seen in Africa.
Arthur was so taken by this part of western Kenya that he decided to settle there permanently. In order to reach the land that he wanted for himself, Hoey had to construct a bridge across the Nzoia River, a landmark that became known thereafter as Hoey's Bridge. A band of African hunting tribesmen known as the Cherangani D'robo inhabited the mountains of that name close by where Hoey began to farm. Hoey greatly admired the hunting skills of the D'robo, and he was the first white man to live among them.
While Hoey had been befriended by the Cherangani D'robo, he considered another neighborhood tribe, the Nandi people, to be the bravest hunters of all. He often employed the Nandi as gunbearers and trackers on his safaris. Their steadfast courage was often demonstrated during their own lion hunts. A group of near naked and chanting Nandi spearmen led by their veterans wearing war paint and lion mane headdresses would surround a lion, and when the infuriated beast charged the circle of men one would kneel holding his buffalo hide shield before him, his spear at the ready, and then at the last moment he would take the lion's charge on his shield, and thrust deeply with his spear. At that moment his comrades would move in swiftly and pepper the lion with spears. The Nandi hunters often suffered casualties during these hunts, and maulings and deaths were not uncommon.
Excerpted from White Hunters by Brian Herne. Copyright © 1999 Brian Herne. Excerpted by permission of Henry Holt and Company.
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