Yesterday I was looking at the window display of a shop specialising in vintage cameras and equipment, and was surprised to see this book among all of the camera-related items, which included vintage movie, cine and still cameras, as well as photographs, postcards and photographic accessories.
I used to collect books from the 19th century on big game hunting, and recognised it as a classic, written by the renowned explorer, hunter and adventurer Sir Samuel White Baker. The price was more than reasonable, and I bought it.
It’s a beautiful book, and is the second edition, published in 1891. (The first edition of 1890 comprised two volumes). It was originally presented in 1900 by A. D. Denning, then headmaster of Rugeley Grammar School, to A. D. Denning, presumably for excellence in nepotism.
But that’s just the covers; it’s the content which is truly remarkable by today’s standards. In the Preface, Baker makes a distinction between the “true sportsman” (himself, obviously) who “…studies nature with keen enjoyment and shoots his game with judgment and forbearance upon the principles of fair-play” and “The gunner…his one idea is to use his gun, his love is slaughter…to swell the long account which is his boast and pride”. This brings to mind scandals involving game farms and hunting ranches of recent years. Whatever your opinion of big game hunting (and public opinion has changed hugely over the 125 years since the book was written) Baker wasn’t driven around in a truck and presented with a target: he learned about his quarry, tracked it on foot, and repeatedly put his life on the line.
The remainder of the book consists of a chapter on firearms suitable for game hunting, followed by twenty five chapters, each devoted to the hunting of a specific animal, and a Conclusion.
It’s that first chapter on firearms, however, which, for me, provides the most revealing clues about the man himself: he was obviously a man of significant wealth, because he had rifles made for him by top gunmakers; he was intelligent and inventive, because many of these rifles were made to his design, and flew in the face of accepted design limitations; and he was evidently of above-average physique, because he routinely carried and used heavy rifles which fired huge bullets powered by massive powder charges. A high-quality twelve bore shotgun of his day weighed less than 7 pounds; he recommended for elephant hunting a 22-pound rifle with a 36 inch barrel, firing a half-pound shell containing a half ounce bursting charge of gunpowder, propelled by 16 drams (1 ounce) of powder. By way of comparison, the standard twelve bore charge was 1 1/8 ounces of lead shot, propelled by 3 drams of gunpowder.
This advice seems rather ill-considered, bearing in mind that his own largest rifle, christened “Baby”, weighed 20 pounds, and fired a half-pound shell propelled by only(!) 10 drams of gunpowder. The recoil of this gun, according to Baker in another of his books, “…was so terrific, that I was spun round like a weathercock in a hurricane”. To recommend a similar gun carrying a powder charge weighing half as much again, when Baker, who was of great physique and had had extensive experience using powerful rifles, admitted dreading firing his own rifle, seems curious, to say the least.
That notwithstanding, Baker as a man was almost a caricature of the Victorian adventurer: his exploits included rescuing a 15-year-old girl, who became his lover and then his second wife, from a white slave auction in Bulgaria; taking her on an expedition in an attempt to find the source of the Nile; leading a mission to the southern Nile to suppress the slave trade, again accompanied by his wife; being appointed Governor-General of Equatoria; and winning great renown as a hunter.
Makes today’s “celebrities” seem pretty feeble, doesn’t it?