In A Certain Curve of Horn, veteran journalist John Frederick Walker tells the story of one of the most revered and endangered of the regal beasts of Africa: the giant sable antelope of Angola, a majestic, coal-black quadruped with breathtaking curved horns over five feet long. It is an enthralling and tragic tale of exploration and adventure, politics and war, the brutal realities of life in Africa today and the bitter choices of conflicting conservation strategies.
A Certain Curve of Horn traces the sable’s emergence as a highly sought-after natural history prize before the First World War, and follows its struggle to survive in a war zone fought over by the troops of half a dozen nations, and its transformation into a political symbol and conservation icon. As he follows the trail of this mysterious animal, Walker interweaves the stories of the adventurers, scientists, and warriors who have come under the thrall of the beast, and how their actions would shape the fate of the giant sable antelope and the history of the war-torn nation that is its only home.
“A Certain Curve of Horn deserves to be ranked with Peter Matthiessen’s classic, The Snow Leopard.” —The Philadelphia Inquirer
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Tracks in Shadow
I came across the book that started it all on a boyhood bibilographic expedition in the old municipal library in Fort Lauderdale, Florida. Treading carefully on its creaking wooden floors, I followed the Dewey decimal system around the dim and sagging stacks to 799.27 and the Dark Continent. All that warm summer I had been absorbing tales of true adventure by Carl Akeley, W. D. M. Bell, Jim Corbett, Colonel Patterson, Frank ("Bring 'em Back Alive") Buck, and scores of other authors, and when I spotted the promising title, Hunting in Africa East and West, written in 1925 by the Curtis brothers, I took it off the shelf.
The black-and-white photographs in the book were the first pictures of the giant sable I had seen, and they shocked me. In one, the head of a just shot bull lies at the feet of Richard Curtis's young wife, Anita. Dressed in a long skirt and loose blouse and shyly — perhaps unhappily; the expression is hard to read — looking out from under the brim of her pith helmet, she holds the horn tips timidly in her hands. The fresh, wet cape of skin trailing from the animal's neck is draped on the ground like a bloody muleta. Several curious Africans peer over her shoulders like a silent native chorus. Later I learned that safari photographs are often contrived, staged, or faked. But even as a boy I knew instinctively that the camera had caught an exact, candid moment in the unsettled mix of emotions on her face. The same raw rub of reality was apparent in the photograph captioned "My giant sable head and Thomas, my gunbearer." It was Richard Curtis's trophy again, this time turned in splendid profile by the smiling African's firm grasp of the horns, the bowed head of the animal with its unseeing long-lashed eyes an expressionless mask. I stared at the pictures for a very long time. The layers of fused meanings — the comingling of conquest and defeat, beauty and blood — compacted into those two photographs took me years to even begin to understand. As I boy I could not take in the conflicting messages of the hunt, only the sublimity of the animal slain.
I felt something strangely confirmed by its profile. The sensation was the kind you have when you turn around a piece of a puzzle and feel it click into the mental space of a half-recognized shape — in this case, the archetype of nobility in the bestiary of my imagination. What I understood as a boy staring at those black-and-white overly contrasted photographs in Curtis's hunting memoir was that the animal looked exactly the way it ought to look. It was perfect — a creature almost heraldic in its stateliness, more like a proud beast from legend than one of this earth.
I know now that the magnetism of this antelope — the almost gravitational pull — emanates largely from the incomparable geometry of the bull's horns, which are as mathematically proportioned as the interior of a chambered nautilus. To follow their perfect sweep is to treat the eye to a visual Doppler effect of ring after closely set ring rising from the skull, expanding in precise increments along the great arched shaft before they fade smoothly into conical, rapier points in perfect diminuendo. Animal to animal, there are subtle variations among these crescent curves that open out to straightened tips. But the shape always has a tension, an aching flex like a drawn bow at the precise moment of release.
The impression these photographs made awakened in me the inchoate desire to seek out the animal. So did the text, and one passage in particular left me wanting to know more:
It was only just before the last great war that its origin was discovered by H. F. Varian, an English engineer engaged in building the new railroad inland from Lobito Bay in Angola to the Katanga copper mines. Between the Cuanza and Loando Rivers in Angola,Varian found a new species of antelope with immensely finer horns than the common sable and a somewhat different face-marking. This was the giant sable antelope ...
Who was Varian? And what did a railroad have to do with the discovery of the giant sable? These and other questions that occurred to me competed with all the others that had crowded into my young mind. I had to wait until much later for the answers.
By then I realized how strange it was that this great beast had remained so long undiscovered by Europeans. The explanation of that puzzle, like all the others, had to be prized out from the story of how Angola was colonized.
AS AFRICAN COLONIZERS, the Portuguese have often been described as the first to come and the last to go; it's not precisely true, but true enough. By the mid-1400s, the Portuguese had begun to venture down the Atlantic coast to seriously explore and exploit sub-Saharan Africa. Although Arab traders had established trading posts as far south as Zanzibar on the East African coast by the tenth century, and in the 1420s Chinese vessels had established contactsthere as well, neither the Arabs nor the Ming Court followed up their early forays. As a result, fifteenth-century maps of southern Africa were hardly more complete than they had been a millennium before: the coastal outline became vague south of the Canary Islands on the Atlantic coast, and the Comoro Islands on the east.
But the cartography of Africa began to change in 1434, when Prince Henry ("the Navigator") of Portugal, fired by dreams of tapping directly the sources of the West African gold long coveted by Europe, commissioned a caravel and its crew to sail past Cape Bojador, some one hundred miles south of the Canary Islands, at that time the farthest point south European ships had reached on the Atlantic coast of Africa. Soon after that tentative trip, other Portuguese explorers, sustained by an amalgam of iron faith and sheer greed, were traveling farther down the coast in their armed, maneuverable little ships, braving the stormy Atlantic and the terrors said to lurk in its depths. In doublet and hose, round-helmeted and armed with sword and spike and arquebus, silhouetted against their billowing, red-crossed sails, they played their part daringly, landing in (and claiming) the small coastal enclave of Guinea-Bissau in 1446 and thereafter returning from Africa with handsome profits in the form of gold and ivory and captive heathens that could be ransomed.
By Prince Henry's death in 1460 the Portuguese had reached Sierra Leone, and the goal of greater riches lured them farther south. In 1482 the Crown gave Diogo Cão the command of two ships to explore beyond Cape Santa Caterina — today's Gabon. Each of Cão's vessels carried a massive six-foot-high padrão, a stone cross to be planted at each expedition's most important landfalls. Their inscriptions read:
In the year 6681 of the world, and in that of 1482 since the birth of our Lord Jesus Christ, the most serene, most excellent and potent prince, King John II of Portugal did order this land to be discovered and these to be set up by Diogo Cão, an esquire of his household.
The next year, 1483, was half over before Cão, sailing down a humid equatorial coast of endless green swamps and steaming curtain walls of mangrove trees, and later past high red cliffs glowing in the setting sun, reached something worthy of marking with a padrão — the yawning mouth of a river so vast that its foaming waters freshened the sea a hundred miles from the coast. We know it now as the Congo River, in the upper northwest corner of modern-day Angola. Cão sailed on another six hundred miles down the continent, past the mouth of the Cuanza, to plant a second cross south of today's Benguela in Angola, in the mistaken belief he had reached the southernmost tip of Africa.
That error would be corrected in 1488, when Bartholomeu Dias rounded the Cape of Good Hope. This potential new route to the Indian Ocean was successfully tested by Vasco da Gama's voyage to India a decade later. These expeditions gave Portugal a toehold in East Africa that later led to control over a significant swath of the coastline. Eventually they secured a colony there, Mozambique, to match, at more southerly latitudes, their western enclave in Angola, as if hoping to cinch in the lower continent from opposite coasts. The Spanish, French, Dutch, and British followed, in different degrees, with their own explorations. The landmass of Africa drawn on maps began to approximate the geographical form we now find familiar. But it would take another four centuries to fill in the outline.
Angola is thought to have had four million inhabitants when the Portuguese arrived. The original inhabitants of the country were the San, or "Bushmen," and the Khoi. They were hunters and gatherers, but there is evidence of large, sedentary fishing communities along the Congo River as far back as the Late Stone Age (6000 B.C.E.). Starting in the first century C.E., an influx of Bantu-speaking peoples from the north and east brought the use of iron, agriculture, and animal husbandry with them; these migrations reached their peak in the 1400s, just prior to the arrival of the Portuguese. By that time the patchwork of ethnolinguistic regions that remains today was largely in place. It included the Kongo-speaking inhabitants of the lower Congo, the Mbundu of the middle Cuanza, and the Ovimbundu of the central plateau (still the largest ethnic group in Angola today), as well as numerous other peoples. Although the village was by far the most important social and economic unit, larger political structures — chiefdoms and kingdoms — had developed in the precolonial era.
The first Portuguese landings and initial contacts were no more than shallow, coastal penetrations; tiny slivers in the side of a sleeping giant, sufficient for small-scale bartering for spices and gold and the occasional raiding party. But soon enough these intrusions began to fester: the Portuguese started slaving, acting as ferrymen for Africans in the trade, taking captives from point of sale to point of purchase along what came to be known as the Slave Coast. They quickly discovered their own uses for them. The Portuguese needed labor to work their sugar, cotton, and cocoa plantations on Madeira, the Cape Verde Islands, São Tomé and Príncipe, and not long after, Brazil. Other European countries also required a huge labor force for their growing New World plantings of cotton and sugar, and all found sufficient reasons to justify the trade in human lives.
This is the dark heart of the historical matter, the beginning of a crushing oppression of the native populace that continued, in one grisly form or another, until Angolan independence in 1975, after which this disregard for human life would be revisited on the divided nation like a curse, in the form of unending civil war. As contemporary accounts make clear, it wasn't that the Portuguese colonizers failed to notice the cries and lamentations and agonies of their captives. The chronicler Gomes Eannes de Azurara said of the human cargo he saw at Lagos in 1444, "What heart could be so hard as not to be pierced with piteous feeling to see that company?" A modern sensibility might conclude that the sufferings of the natives simply didn't matter enough to stop the lucrative practice. Azurara saw it differently; he felt reassured these same souls would receive knowledge of the faith, as well as bread, wine, and clothes, instead of living their lives in "bestial sloth." Whether cloaked in such a rationale or not, over the next three centuries the slave trade became not merely an element of world trade, but a key component of it. Grafted on to indigenous slaving practices — various forms of slave-keeping were commonplace in tribal cultures and the Arabs had maintained a flourishing slave trade across Africa for centuries — the scale of the European commerce in human lives grew enormously. Historians reckon some ten to twelve million people were exported from Africa to the Americas.
Luanda became Africa's greatest slave port. A great marble throne, the Bishop's Chair, stood on its wharves for the use of the prelate officiating at the wholesale baptisms given the wretched souls as they were being led aboard the slave ships. Captives departing from minor ports undoubtedly missed this parting sacrament, but all alike would be introduced to Christianity through the dignity of labor on overseas plantations. Because four million slaves passed through the ports of Angola before Portugal formally ended the trade there at the close of the nineteenth century, and roughly the same amount are thought to have died on forced marches from the interior to the coast, Angola must have lost eight million people.
Colonization was grindingly slow, but inexorable, as the fate of the Kongo kingdom demonstrates. By the time the Portuguese arrived, the realm covered one-eighth of present-day northern Angola, large enough to be divided into six provinces, each ruled by a subchief. The inhabitants worked iron and copper, wove palm cloth, and raised chickens, pigs, sheep, and cattle. At first, contacts with the Portuguese seemed mutually beneficial; by the 1490s, they had brought priests, artisans, even printers to the Kongolese court, and had taken a number of young Kongolese nobles to Lisbon for education. They were happy to provide technology, religious instruction, and military assistance in exchange for ivory, copper, and, most profitable of all, slaves.
But the Portuguese traders, officials, and missionaries soon sided with various factions in the Kongo kingdom to promote their own ends, which revolved primarily around increasing the slave trade. The Kongolese had traditionally used war hostages as slaves, but in many cases integrated them — as subclasses — into society. The Portuguese, however, simply shipped off their captives en masse to foreign lands and were always hungry for more.
The Kongolese king, Mbemba Nzinga, who had become a devout Christian convert and ruled as Dom Afonso I after gaining the throne in 1506, became alarmed. He began to write two successive kings of Portugal a total of twenty-four letters, the first known African commentary on the effects of European contact. In 1512 King Manuel I of Portugal responded with some instructions to the Portuguese community, but what might have been the beginning of a policy of enlightened alliance was flatly ignored by the local traders. By 1526 Afonso was petitioning the monarch:
So great, Sir, is the corruption and licentiousness that our country is being completely depopulated ... That is why we beg of Your Highness to help and assist us in this matter, commanding your factors that they should not send here either merchants or wares, because it is our will that in these Kingdoms there should not be any trade of slaves nor outlet for them.
Afonso's pleas had no practical effect whatsoever. Even the priests Afonso had invited took up buying and selling slaves. As historian James Duffy put it,Afonso's "greatest flaw was a naive refusal to believe that some Portuguese were able to betray the virtuous principles he had been taught to hold." By 1568 the kingdom had split into warring factions, helped along by scheming Portuguese and invading tribes.
The collapse of the Kongo kingdom marks a turning point for the inhabitants of Angola. It would all be downhill from then on, with brief pauses marking the odd successful resistance against the colonizers. But Portuguese domination, slow as it was, proved inevitable. Luanda, Angola's capital, was founded in 1576, and by 1617, when Benguela was established, Portugal had control of the coast of Angola. The Cuanza River offered easy access from the Atlantic, and fertile valleys inland held the promise of riches, particularly new sources of slaves. At first, slave-trading with the Portuguese enhanced the power of the kingdoms of the interior, because slaves could be exchanged for firearms that could be used to subjugate their neighbors. Later, tribal power waned as the tribes' religious and cultural bases were steadily undermined. This pattern of collaboration followed by native resistance and European conquest seesawed throughout the history of the colonial period. Although open to the contacts which eventually proved their undoing, few of the peoples that the Portuguese encountered were easily subjugated. Some tribes, in fact, weren't brought under "control" until the early twentieth century.
Portuguese expansion was resisted by other Europeans as well as indigenous peoples. In 1641, the Dutch, who had been also active in the coastal slave trade, took over Luanda and formed alliances among the African kingdoms, until the port was retaken in 1648. This episode made it obvious that Portugal's grip on her colony was tenuous, and it would remain so for centuries. By the end of the eighteenth century neither the settlers nor the administrators had effective control of the territory, and even had to compete with the British and French for the slave trade. Only sixteen churches existed in the country, hardly enough to provide evidence of one of the main justifications for colonization, that of a religious mission.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "A Certain Curve of Horn"
Copyright © 2011 John Frederick Walker.
Excerpted by permission of Grove Atlantic, Inc..
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Table of Contents
1. Tracks IN Shadow,
2. Varian's Giant,
3. "The Finest Horns in the World",
4. Enter The Biologist,
5. Caught in the War Zone,
6. A Conflict of Crusaders,
7. The Hunter's Bargain,
8. Waiting for Angola,
9. Luanda & Quicama,
10. Flight of Antelopes,
11. Expedition to Malange,