Thursday, 2 June 2011

Book Review: The Wanderings of an Elephant Hunter

A while back when I spent what was to be the first of many hilarious weekends with blogger, deerstalker and rifle aficionado, The Bambi Basher.  Amongst other things he considered it essential that I receive a lesson in vintage rifles 101 he showed me around his .275 Rigby-Mauser rifle and mentioned one of it's most famous proponents, the Scottish adventurer and hunter Walter Dalrymple Maitland 'Karamojo' Bell and his numerous african hunts with the 7mm rifle. I'm not an experienced reader of the safari memoir genre, but as usual I was drawn along by The Bambi Basher's enthusiasm, and soon wanted to know more about the story of  'Karamojo Bell' and his adventures on the slopes of Kilimanjaro a hundred or so years ago. I put his long out of print book 'The Wanderings of an Elephant Hunter' on the list and the back burner as other things took precedence. When I was lucky enough to receive a copy of as a birthday present I was intrigued to see how I'd find him and the times he lived in.

Bell is from a different time, when ivory was a common(ish) luxury material and he made a fortune out of the 1,100+ elephants he shot. In one (exceptional) day he tracked and shot nine elephants. He estimated that he had just earned £877 from the ivory the days work brought him. Not a bad wage today - this was in the 1920's!

The style of the day was to try to take as much of the Edwardian world with you as possible.  Eating tinned food brought from home, off tableware from the English midlands, accompanied by fine French wines from Irish crystal glasses. Even having a 'gun-bearer' to carry your rifle, while there's another servant who draws your fold-up bath as you get plastered on 'sun-downers'. More glamping than bushwhacking. As the twentieth century was getting going, this reaches new levels of absurdity with 'motor safari's' becoming fashionable amongst the western elite. Newly rich industrialists positioning themselves as 'sportsman' by shooting wildlife from the safety of the motor car, and their debutante daughters re-branding themselves as fearless 'safari chicks'. Wounded game died unrecovered, and the locals were treated as semi-cognate. 

Then there was Bell. As is usually the case with the people who get truly remarkable results Bell approaches the whole enterprise in a totally different way to his contemporaries. Carrying his own rifle, living entirely on local foods, and importing a pair of Canadian canoes to explore uncharted river courses. While his fellow Europeans stride across the continent with the arrogance of pseudo-gods, Bell and his companions tread a lot lighter, with a mixture of humility and cunning, he's courting the local support he needs as a matter of great urgency. Calling himself by the name the locals have for him Longelly-nyung (Red Man). Seeking to present himself as someone benign, who just happens to be passing through, and if anyone would be good enough to point him in the right direction, as an almost endless source of free food for those that help.  Bell is part adventurer and part psychologist. With balls of steel and an eye to the main chance.

And so we became friends I was not going through the blood-brotherhood business, with it's eating of bits of toasted meat smeared with each others blood, sawing in two living dogs or nonsense of that kind. I took his hand and wrung it hard, and had it explained to him that amongst us that was an extraordinarily potent way of doing it. That seemed to satisfy the old boy, for the act of shaking hands was as strange to him as the act of eating each others blood is to us. 

When an opportunity to defend the underdog (and serve his own interests) presents itself he delights in disrupting the activities of slavers.

A chance to assert ourselves occurred on the first day of our arrival among the Lakkas, for no sooner had the camp been fixed up than our merry band had a Lakka youth caught and bound and heavily guarded . On enquiring into this affair it transpired that this youth had been taken in a previous raid, but had escaped and returned to his country. We had this lad straight away before us, asked him if he   wished to go back to Buba Gida, and, on his saying this was the last thing he desired, at once liberated him. He did not wait to see what else might happen; he bolted. Of course the kings people were furious with us. We, on our part were thoroughly disgusted with Buba Gida for having designed to carry on his dirty work under the cloak of respectability afforded by two Englishmen on a shooting trip...

In short Bell was not as I expected to find him: he wasn't as racist, or apart from the odd incident as keen to enforce his morality on others, most of the time he was the only white dude for miles (not that would have meant anything to the Belgians), he understood that his reputation would be travelling a lot faster than he was, and was even quicker with his wits than he was with his Mauser.

He had of course heard all about our refusing to allow any 'recruiting' of slaves to be carried out and I daresay was furious with us. He remained polite but cold, and we noticed a great falling off in the presents of food, ect., which were demanded by custom. Among other things we were distinctly annoyed to find that we were classed by the king as third-class white men. To Buba Gida there were three classes of european. In the first class were French governors, French administrators and French military officers. For these people sweet Champaign was forthcoming in quantities to suit the individual importance of the visitor. Class two comprised minor French officials, important American or English travellers  scientific expeditions, surveys, ect. ; these got whiskey, while ginger beer was reseved for elephant hunters, clerks, or small commercial people. We were Ginger Beerites.

I've read that 'Wanderings' were originally published as a series of articles in a long defunct Scottish outdoor magazine [Update: it was Country Life which is still published, although with less interesting content] and the book reads as though that's true, its tantalisingly vague in parts, and eludes to a far more amazing set of tales, but is well worth a read if you can face flashing up for the out-of-print price.

The house Bell retired to Upper Corriemoillie, Garve, Rosshire, Scotland

Stay tuned for more about WMD Bell and more of the usual nonsense from yours truly
Your pal
PS if you know any more about Bell, or who W. was drop me a line