The First Safari Book: Cornwallis Harris’s “Wild Sports of Southern Africa”

Hunter riding a herd ob blesbok

William Cornwallis Harris (1807-1847), in his own words, was “taxed by the facetious with shooting madness,”. Having served for 13 years as an officer of the East Indian Company, he received a two-year leave to improve his health in the beneficial climate of the Cape of Good Hope.

Many officers of the East Indian Company were passionate hunters, and dedicated some of the time of their leaves to what was then called “sport”. But Harris went beyond the usual: in 1836 he and a friend equipped a wagon and set out northwards. Their goal was to reach areas not previously explored by Europeans, where they hoped to find large quantities of undisturbed game, and the reality more than matched up their expectation. Realizing the uniqueness of his experience, Harris recorded it by word and drawing. In 1839 he published “The Wild Sports of Southern Africa; being the narrative of a hunting expedition from the Cape of Good Hope through the territories of the Chief Moselekatse to the Tropic of Capricorn” This is considered to be the first true safari book.

Many a page in the “Wild Sports of Southern Africa” may seem appaling for modern readers, both for the blatant racism and for hunting practices described. However, it is a document of an epoch, and inspired many later hunters and explorers. Here we reproduce an abstract from it.

Eland, zebra, and other african plains game

The list of large animals killed during the campaign now exceeded four hundred head of various sorts and sizes. Of these the minimum height at the shoulder had been three feet, and not a few measured ten and twelve. Within the last few days I had obtained several superb specimens, especially of the koodoo and bastard gemsbok; and excepting some of the smaller antelopes, which only occur in parts of the country that we were subsequently to visit, my collection of horns and exuviae had by this time extended itself to every known species of game quadruped in Southern Africa. But a still prouder trophy than all was yet in abeyance, and before leaving this hunters’ Elysium, my researches were to be crowned by a truly splendid addition to her catalogue of Mammalia.

My double-barrelled rifle having again suffered in a fall with my horse, I took the field on the 13th December with a heavy weapon constructed upon the primitive principle of flint and steel, which, as a pis-aller, I had obtained from Mr.Moffat whilst at the Kuruman. (I ought before to have explained to my brother sportsmen, that my having undertaken a campaign of so extensive a nature against the wild beasts of the African wilderness, equipped with no more than one double-barrelled detonating rifle, was the effect of an unfortunate contre-temps. Three new rifles had been commissioned nearly two years before, but thanks to the sluggish agent employed they were dispatched by a ship which sailed into the harbour of Bombay as I was in the act of sailing out of it.)

Our party were in full pursuit of a wounded elephant, when a herd of unusually dark-looking antelopes attracted observation in an adjacent valley. Reconnoitring them through a pocket telescope from the acclivity on which we stood, I at once exclaimed that they were perfectly new to science, and having announced my determination of pursuing them, if requisite, to the world’s end, I dashed down the slope, followed by the derision of the Hottentots, for my unsportsmanlike attention to an ” ugly buck,” one specimen of which, however, I assured them I would rather have possessed than all the elephants in Africa!


In an instant I was in the middle of the herd, which was then crossing the valley—nine chesnut-coloured does leading, and two magnificent coal-black bucks — all with scimitar-shaped horns—bringing up the rear. Hastily dismounting, I was delighted to observe them stand for a few seconds within fifty yards, and stare at me with amazement. In vain was it, however, that I pulled the trigger of my rifle; three several times the heavy machinery of the lock descended with alarming vehemence, but no report followed the concussion; and the herd having in the meantime ascended a steep hill, I fairly rode my horse to a stand in the attempt to overtake them.

Cursing my hard fortune, as I dashed the hateful weapon to the ground, I hastened to the camp, to repair my broken rifle , armed with which, and mounted on a fresh steed, I returned with my companion to the spot where, having taken up the foot-marks, we followed them, with unwearied perseverance, among the hills, during the whole of that and the following day, without attaining even a glimpse of the objects of our quest.

At noon of the third day, however, peeping cautiously over a bank, our laudable assiduity was rewarded by the gratifying’ sight of the two bucks grazing by themselves, unconscious of our approach, in a stony valley. Having disposed our forces, after a moment’s consultation, so as to intercept the game from a tangled labyrinth of ravines, the attack was made. The hind leg of the handsomer of the two was dangling in an instant, and in another he was sprawling on the earth. Quickly recovering himself, however, he led me more than a mile over the sharp stones ere he was brought to bay, when twice charging gallantly he was at length overthrown and slain.

Sable antelope

It were vain to attempt a description of the sensations I experienced, when thus, after three days of toilsome tracking, and feverish anxiety, unalleviated by any incident that could inspire the smallest hope of ultimate success, I at length found myself in actual possession of so brilliant an addition to the riches of natural history. The prize evidently belonged to the Aigocerine group, and was equal in stature to a large galloway. The horns, which were flat, and upvards of three feet in length, swept gracefully over the back in the form of a crescent. A bushy black mane extended from the lively chesnut-coloured ears, to the middle of the back; the tail was long and tufted, and the glossy jet-black hue of the greater portion of the body contrasted beautifully with a snow-white face and belly.

We thought we could never have looked at, or admired it sufficiently; my companion observing, after a long pause, “that the sable antelope would doubtless become the admiration of the world.”

Click here to download the works of William Cornwallis Harris.

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