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ART. VI-A Hunter's Life
in South Africa. By R. Gordon London. 1850.
Ir is with great diffidence and many misgivings that we undertake to comment on Mr. Cumming. For one who could not shoot a tom-tit without feeling remorse for the deed, to criticise the work of a mighty hunter is surely an act of no ordinary audacity. The presumption apart, too, we fear, that none but a hunter could do justice to a hunter's book. A blind man may lecture on light and colour; a deaf man may discourse eloquently on music. Memory with these may fill the place of the absent perceptives. But for a man possessing not the sense, which perceives sport in bloodshed and slaughter, to appreciate the beauties of a sporting subject, is a thing impossible. Under such circumstances, it may be suggested that we ought to leave Mr. Cumming to our contemporary of the Sporting Review; and, were it merely a matter of private and personal taste, so indeed we should do. But as the limits of our jurisdiction are coincident with those of the Company's Charter, and thus include Mr. Cumming's hunting grounds in South Africa, the task of reviewing the Lion Killer's work presents itself in the form of a duty.
In preparation for the performance of this duty, we have-as, if rumour speaks truth, critics not always do-diligently and perseveringly perused the two volumes, in which Mr. Cumming has recorded his exploits and experiences. Very hard reading we have found them; not, possibly, from any fault in their matter or style, but from our misfortune in being destitute of the power to perceive their beauties. An acquaintance, largely endowed with this faculty, makes his boast that he galloped through them with scarcely a check in a (to us) incredibly small number of hours.
We would not have it supposed, however, that we have plodded wearily from Dan to Beersheba, from dedication to "finis," and found all barren. Perhaps no book, not absolutely and thoroughly immoral, can be read through entirely without profit; and it would be marvellous indeed, if a work, detailing the five years' experiences of an educated man in an imperfectly explored country, and among strange varieties of the human and brute creation, left no trace of pleasant recollection, or useful knowledge on the reader's mind. We trust, that we shall be able to filter from the blood-stained and sordid "rivulets of type," in which Mr. Cumming's exploits are reflected, a refreshing draught, now
and then, for those who accompany us through the desert, which we have ventured to explore.
But to reach the oasis, we must dare the arid waste. Ere we can sit down to enjoy those scanty draughts of refreshing knowledge, which await us in the distance, we must hasten over the most disagreeable part of our journey. To drop metaphor, we will, in the first place, declare what we object to in Mr. Cumming and his book, and then get from them, and say for them, all the good we can. To come to the worst at once then, we think that Mr. Cumming-to use the words of Sir Charles Napier-" would have better consulted his own respectability," had he left much of the book unwritten, and many of the deeds recorded therein undone. Not that we think a man forfeits his respectability by becoming a sportsman, or by owning himself one. We believe he may be that, without ceasing to be a gentleman. Indeed, as we are credibly informed, he cannot be a perfect sportsman, unless he is a gentleman. But though the union of the two characters is thus practicable, it surely is not good, that they should be so blended together, as that the more graceful and delicate should be lost in the ruder and harder. The fine gold of the gentleman should gild the less precious metal of the sportsman, and not be melted up with it, and lost in the grosser mass. Sorry should we be to say, that so good a shot as Mr. Cumming is other than a gentleman. Our complaint against him is, that he too often disguises the character under the savage habits of desert life. Possessed of at least an average amount of intellect and education, boasting aristocratic connections, and placed, as we may assume, above the temptation of pecuniary necessity, he abandons an honourable profession, for which we should suppose him peculiarly fitted. He turns his back on civilized life, and assimilates himself, as nearly as possible, to the savages, his associates. Sordidly and grotesquely clad, grossly fed, ill-housed, to the detriment, as he tells us, of his health, he banishes himself for five years to the wilds of South Africa, for the purpose of indulging the three amiable propensities-combativeness, destructiveness, and acquisitiveness! Can we be blamed if we fail to recognise the graceful high-minded British gentleman in the un-kempt cateran breakfasting on "coffee and rhinoceros," besmeared with the blood of the noble and beautiful animals, whom he has wantonly and uselessly slaughtered, or employing his Scottish shrewdness in outwitting (we fear we might say cheating) the brutish bipeds of the wild? Here is little in common with the well-appointed English sportsmen, seeking healthful relaxation and excitement on the moor, in stubble, or in cover, or with
the bold hunter of Bengal, taking the field like a gentleman against the boar or the tiger. These devote their brief and probably well-earned seasons of leisure to the temperate gratification of those propensities, which find pleasure in the sports of the field. Mr Cumming, impelled at once by a fierce lust of blood and the desire of gain, mis-spends a lustrum in wholesale slaughter. We say not that Mr. Cumming's employments were more cruel than those of more orthodox sportsmen, or that to shoot a hare is less barbarous than to shoot an elephant, though we do find some difficulty in reconciling ourselves to the contrary belief. It is to the quantity, rather than to the quality, of Mr. Cumming's slaughters that we object. His heartless indiscriminate massacres seem to us atrocions; and he has taken care that nothing of their repulsive effect shall be lost in the narrative. He is usually very particular in telling us bow his victims died.
To begin at the beginning. Mr. Gordon Cumming thus introduces himself in the introduction of his book :
The early portion of my life was spent in the county of Moray, where a love of natural history and of sport early engendered themselves, and became stronger and more deeply rooted with my years. Salmon-fishing and roe-stalking were my favourite amusements; and, during these early wanderings by wood and stream, the strong love of sport and admiration of Nature in her wildest and most attractive forms became with me an allabsorbing feeling, and my greatest possible enjoyment was to pass whole days and many a summer night in solitude, where, undisturbed, I might contemplate the silent grandeur of the forest, and the ever-varying beauty of the scenes around. Long before I proceeded to Eton, I took pride in the goodly array of hunting trophies, which hung around my room.
The "admiration of Nature" and "love of natural history" are but very feebly developed in the book, which is declared to be almost a literal transcript from a journal, written while the impressions of "any thing worthy of attention" were yet fresh in the hunter's memory. With rare exceptions, and unless when recorded rather by the sportsman than the naturalist, Mr. Cumming's observations on natural history refer chiefly to the size of horns and tusks-the "trophies" of his achievements; and we must confess that, save for some brief hints as to the character of the climate and the country, in which and over which he followed the game, we close his volumes, as ignorant of the face which nature displayed to him, as when we first opened them. As we have already said, however, it is almost impossible for a book on such a subject to be entirely barren; and we trust to be able to shew our readers that Mr. Cumming's is no exception to the general rule.
Mr. Cumming came out to India in 1839, as an officer of the
LION HUNTING IN SOUTH AFRICA.
4th Madras Cavalry; and on his way, he obtained at the Cape a foretaste of those savage delights, which he was afterwards so largely to enjoy. In this country he laid the foundation of "collection of specimens of natural history, which has since swelled to gigantic proportions, and, under the name of the South African Museum, is to be seen at the Chinese Gallery in London." The climate of India did not agree with him; so he retired from the service and returned home. There he resumed his old habits and took to deer-stalking; but growing weary of hunting in a country, where the game was strictly preserved, and where the continual presence of keepers and foresters took away half the charm of the chase, and longing once more for the freedom of nature and the life of the wild hunter-so far preferable to that of the mere sportsman-he resolved to visit the rolling prairies and rocky mountains of the far west, where his nature would find congenial sport with the bison, the wapiti, and the elk." Prompted by such laudable aspirations, he obtained a commission in the Royal Veteran Newfoundland Companies; but, finding that he should have little chance of playing the Nimrod, while attached to this corps, he exchanged into the Cape Rifles, and in 1843 found himself once more on the borders of that country, in which he was so peculiarly to distinguish himself.
He was again however disappointed in his expectations of combining the wild pleasures of the sportsman with the formal routine of military duty: and," there being at that time no prospect of fighting," he made up his mind to sell out of the army, and to penetrate into the interior, farther than the foot of civilized man had yet trodden-" to vast regions," says he, " which would afford abundant food for the gratification of the passion of my youth, the collecting of hunting trophies and objects. of interest in science and natural history." Elsewhere he admits a (6 secondary consideration," that of his "real interest"the "rendering his expedition profitable" by the collection of ivory, &c. for sale. This "secondary consideration" would not of course do for a preface; though it peeps out rather too often, we think, in the course of the narrative.
Accordingly Mr. Cumming sold out of the army, and for five years waged relentless war with the brute tribes of the interior wilds. Yet within those five years, he might have found many opportunities of at once gratifying his ruling propensities and of winning military honours, as did his former comrades, engaged in a fierce struggle with the Kafirs far in his rear. Within those five years, British soldiers had fought and conquered at Gwalior, on the Sutlej, in the Punjab: and Mr. Cumming,
who could move about from corps to corps, from country to country, at his will, might with them, in the honourable path of duty, have won a renown far more enviable than any that his hunting exploits or their history can secure for him.
Passing over Mr. Cumming's account of his plans and preparations, his equipage and outfit, which those specially interested therein will seek in the work itself, we come upon him, as he is depicted in the vignette title-page, shock-haired, bearded, bare armed, bare legged, kilted and brogued, with shouldered rifle, tramping at the head of a long train of waggons, bullocks, horses, and Hottentots. Graham's Town is far behind him. He has accomplished in safety the "fearful descent of De Bruin's Poort," or pass. He has crossed the last obstructing fold of the Great Fish River. He is approaching the scene of his future triumphs. Let him describe what he saw and felt on the occasion:
Having directed my men to proceed to the next farm along the banks of the Brak River, I rode forth with Cobus, and held a northerly course across the flats. I soon perceived herds of springbok in every direction, which, on my following at a hard gallop, continued to join one another until the whole plain seemed alive with them. Upon our crossing a sort of ridge on the plain, I beheld the whole country, as far as my eye could reach, actually white with springboks, with here and there a herd of black guoos, or wildebeest, prancing and capering in every direction, whirling and lashing their white tails, as they started off in long files on our approach. Having pursued them for many hours, and fired about a dozen shots at these, and the springboks, at distances of from four to six hundred yards, and only wounded one, which I lost, I turned my horse's head for camp. The evening set in dark and lowering, with rattling thunder and vivid flashes of lightning on the surrounding hills. I accordingly rode hard for my waggon, which I just reached in time to escape a deluge of rain, which lasted all night. The Brak River came down a red foaming torrent, but fell very rapidly in the morning. This river is called Brak from the flavour of its waters, which, excepting in the rainy season, are barely palatable. My day's sport, although unsuc cessful, was most exciting. I did not feel much mortified at my want of success, for I was well aware that recklessly jagging after the game, in the manner in which I had been doing, although highly exhilarating, was not the way to fill the bag. Delight at beholding so much noble game in countless herds on their native plains was uppermost in my mind, and I felt that at last I had reached the borders of those glorious hunting-lands, the accounts of which had been my chief inducements to visit this remote and desolate corner of the globe; and I rejoiced that I had not allowed the advice of my acquaintances to influence my movements.
As I rode along, in the intense and maddening excitement of the chase, I felt a glad feeling of unrestrained freedom, which was common to me during my career in Africa, and which I had seldom so fully experienced; and, notwithstanding the many thorns which surrounded my roses during the many days and nights of toil and hardship, which I afterwards encountered, I shall ever refer to those times as by far the brightest and happiest of my life.