One for the Road,
The subject came up, as subjects will, around a table at the shooting club. One of the denizens wondered aloud who might be considered the greatest hunter in history. We’d been talking about Africa, so I presumed he meant Africa.
“Selous?” he asked. “Bell? Harry Selby, maybe?”
This is a question for which there is no right answer. And anyway, what exactly are we talking about? The greatest professional hunter? The greatest hunting guide? The greatest ivory poacher? Who shot the most lions?
A few years ago in Alaska, a guide was telling me about a character he’d met. He was an enormously fat fellow, but also enormously wealthy, having grown fat in both senses on the proceeds of a chain of restaurants. It was this man’s goal, I was told, to be known as the greatest sheep hunter in history. To that end, he kept a bunch of outfitters on retainer, watching out for big sheep. When they found one they’d call him, hoist him up the mountain somehow, and he would pop the ram.
It seemed to me then, and it seems now, that such bizarre behavior would qualify you for many labels, but “greatest sheep hunter” is not one of them.
It has generally been acknowledged that Frederick Courteney Selous would be on anyone’s short list as the greatest of African hunters, but so would Sir Samuel Baker. These were men who roamed on their own, explored territory previously unseen, and were independent and self-sufficient to the point of folly. They killed for meat, but they also killed for specimens to take back to museums, to show the strange and heretofore unknown (by Europeans, at least) mammals, birds, and reptiles they encountered in their explorations.
Much of the exploration of Africa took place during the Victorian era, and if the Victorians had one dominant trait, it was an absolute passion for learning. By extension, this also meant reading. In an age before radio, television, and the highly dubious benefits of the Internet, the best source of information was books. At the same time, many of the men who ventured forth to open up unknown lands and extend the Empire were well-educated sons of prominent families. Naturally, having spent years in the wilderness, many returned home to write about their experiences. The years between 1850 and 1914 saw a flood of books on Africa and African hunting, with writers ranging from men who had made one hesitant safari to some who had spent their lives in the African bush.
It’s no coincidence that the names most commonly raised when the question of “the greatest” rears its ugly head are men who wrote books about themselves and their experiences. Sir Samuel Baker was a prolific writer, and a good one; he published ten books in his lifetime. Selous wrote a similar number, while Walter Dalrymple Maitland Bell wrote three. Bell, Baker, and Selous titles have become classics of African hunting literature, and some of their individual experiences are recounted third- or fourth-hand by people who know little else about them. One should add, in haste, that Baker, Selous, and Bell were the real thing and, if anything, their books understated their accomplishments.
Conversely, there were many great hunters who never wrote a word for public consumption, and their names are almost lost to history. William Cotton Oswell was one. Oswell was an early hunter in southern Africa who was one of the great gentlemen of his time, respected to the point of reverence by his peers. He accompanied David Livingstone on his legendary trek across the Kalahari to “discover” Lake Ngami; in fact, Oswell partly financed the expedition, was its main source of food through hunting, and most of the credit for finding Lake Ngami, and coincidentally discovering the southern sitatunga, should go to him. Instead, Livingstone — a man whose ego was easily as great as his undoubted virtues — took the credit, and Oswell allowed him to do so. When Livingstone’s body was returned to England in 1874 for interment at Westminster Abbey, Oswell was one of the pallbearers.
Oswell’s name undoubtedly belongs on the same list as Baker and Selous, yet most people, including most hunters, have never heard of him. But never mind who might or might not be the greatest of African hunters; why would we want to try to name one? What does it matter whether Bell was somehow more notable than Baker, or vice versa? Or if FC Selous out-ranked, on some artificial scale, John “Pondoro” Taylor?
There are no firm criteria for measuring anyone’s hunting accomplishments unlike, for example, baseball. Baseball is the most minutely recorded game, in terms of individual statistics, that the world has ever seen. In theory, at least, it should be simple to add up the numbers and name the greatest baseball player in history. Yet no one has been able to do that without provoking endless argument.
The closest we come to such statistics are the record books of big game, and occasionally someone suggests adding up the number of entries some guy has in Rowland Ward or the Safari Club record book, or counting how many number-one heads he has to his credit. Since neither Rowland Ward nor SCI are either compulsory or comprehensive, this suggestion is pretty weak. Many people treasure their entries in “the book” and religiously submit every post-puberty mammal they deck, but since record-book entries are voluntary, and methods of measurement and divisions of species variable and arbitrary, such entries prove absolutely nothing one way or the other.
It would seem to me that the only people qualified to even have an opinion on this are professional hunters themselves, and by that I mean hunting guides, game wardens, ivory hunters and the like. Probably the man who has researched all of this more carefully than anyone is Brian Herne, himself a professional hunter and author (Uganda Safaris and White Hunters.) As far as I can tell, even in the latter, he does not offer an opinion as to who was “the greatest.” Possibly, he didn’t want to make enemies; more likely, he couldn’t really say. Or, and maybe most probably, he just didn’t want to get into endless, pointless arguments.
After his first safari in 1951, Robert Ruark seemed bent on establishing Harry Selby as the best white hunter (the term then in use) of his generation, and one of the best of all time. He was certainly one of the best then practising the trade, but a dozen others were equally good, if not better in some ways. Ernest Hemingway felt the same way about Philip Percival, but he also admired Bror Blixen. It’s natural to hero-worship your first PH, but as you get to know others, the waters get somewhat murky. That happened with both Hemingway and Ruark.
Another way of looking at this question is to ask, of all the great African hunters in history, who would you most like to go on safari with?
Having thought about that, long and hard, here’s my answer: Put me on a boat down the Nile with Florence von Sass, the second wife of Sir Samuel Baker. Lean a Rigby rising-bite against my deck chair, put a tall gin and tonic in my hand, and I don’t care if I shoot anything. In fact, let me go out on a limb: Purely on the basis of his having been married to such a woman, I’d give the title to Sir Samuel. Florence von Sass was a woman to stop the heart.