For many people, there is no African animal more iconic that the magnificent sable antelope (hippotragus niger) with its long curved horns and the striking combination of colours that earned it the Afrikaans name swartwitpens – “ black-white belly” . It featured in the story of Jock of the Bushveld. It was the national animal of Southern Rhodesia. And of course, in our own time, the sable’s profile has been incorporated in the WESSA logo.
But did you know that this splendid creature was at one time known as a Harrisbuck? It was under this prosaic and utilitarian label that it burst on to the zoological scene in Britain: all because of a young Indian army engineer on a spell of sick-leave. He visited South Africa at an important time in the history of the region and went on in the next three years to publish three books illustrated by his own whimsical paintings. They provide a valuable perspective of conditions in the region about the time of the Trek.
William Cornwallis Harris, born in 1807 during the Napoleonic wars, attended a military academy from the age of fourteen. His second name hints at a military background. It may however have been a sign of wishful thinking on the part of his father. In any event, at the end of 1823, young William joined the Indian army as a second lieutenant in the Bombay Establishment. Having been promoted to captain, he was sent to Cape Town in 1836 to recover from a bout of fever. Accompanying him was an Indian, Nasserwanjee, who was perhaps his personal servant.
On board ship. Harris arranged with another passenger, William Richardson, a member of the Bombay civil service, to go on a hunting expedition in the African interior. At Cape Town Harris met Dr Andrew Smith, subject of an earlier essay in this series, who had just returned from the north. Smith gave him valuable advice and guidance in planning his journey.
A hunting expedition
Harris sailed to Algoa Bay and then moved inland to Grahamstown. There he was able to learn more from ivory traders who regularly travelled north. In the town, he bought wagons and assembled a party of retainers for the expedition. He then advanced, in October 1836, along the already well-established hunters’ road which took him across the Orange river to Kuruman, base of the missionary Robert Moffat. Moffat recruited a party of local Griquas to accompany Harris. The missionary had become a respected friend of Mzilikazi Khumalo, who controlled the region north of the Vaal. Harris moved on to the Magaliesberg, where he first saw a sable antelope. He sent a description and a specimen to the Zoological Society in London, which helps to explain the ‘Harrisbuck’ label referred to above. Like many of his contemporaries, Harris hunted on a ruthless scale, as avid a killer as he was an enthusiastic artist.
While his entourage was in the Magaliesberg, the first trek parties were heading north across the Vaal. The Trichardt group managed to cross the border undetected by Matabele patrols but the Liebenberg and the Erasmus treks were both attacked and destroyed. As a result, trekker leader Hendrik Potgieter resolved to make a stand south of the frontier. When Harris arrived at the Matabele capital, he saw wagons captured in the first clashes. He was well received by Mzilikazi, who gave him permission to hunt in his territory. A week later, news came of the Boer victory at Vegkop, and on 1 November, 1836, Harris’s party encountered a mauled Matabele unit returning from the battle.
The time had come, however, for Harris and his companions to return to the coast. Early in 1837 they travelled back along the hunters’ road and eventually sailed for India. In 1843 he was promoted to major and later led a British diplomatic mission to Ethiopia. In 1844 he was knighted for his services and died of fever in 1848 aged just forty- one. But the books he had published preserved a picture of southern Africa as it had been for countless generations, although it was already under threat.
Narrative of an Expedition into Southern Africa (1838)
Wild Sports of Southern Africa (1839)
Portraits of Game and Wild Animals of Southern Africa (1840)
About the author
Robin taught History for many years at Kearsney College. Since 2004 Jean and he have lived in a hillside complex at Waterfall, daily enjoying the quiet, the views and the wildlife. Robin is also a regular contributor of historical articles to a number of magazines.