This week I’d like to highlight a section of the Library collection that really surprised me. Recently, I’ve been working with the big game hunting books. I’m not a hunter and I don’t come from a hunting family. While I have no problem with the sport in general, the idea of trophy hunting is disagreeable to me. As such I began work on the big game books with trepidation. I expected to encounter long lists of trophies taken or photos of white men posing with their foot on the corpse of a lion or elephant. While there is a fair bit of this sort of thing, there is also a great deal more to be discovered if one takes the time to read more closely.
The books that caught my attention were originally published between 1850 and 1950 and are accounts of expeditions, not simply butcher’s bills of the local fauna. First things first, these books can in no way be considered politically correct. In addition to the sometimes graphic descriptions of hunting scenes, there are also some comments and attitudes about anyone non-white or non-Christian that many modern day readers would find objectionable. However, if you try to view the writing through the lens of what was considered acceptable behavior in the late 19th or early 20th century, an extremely interesting account of travel and exploration emerges.
In addition to being skilled hunters, these men, and sometimes women, were also geographers, naturalists, anthropologists, and writers. They journeyed throughout Africa, India, Asia, and North America in a time when travel was still a challenge in and of itself. And as they trekked, they analyzed and described the behavior of the local animals, sometimes collecting specimens for museums. They recorded the topography of their routes, and they interacted with the indigenous populations.
Returning home, they published their experiences, recounting not only the hunting, but also the traveling, and their impressions of the lands and people that they encountered. These accounts allowed the armchair adventurer of the time to experience exotic locales without risking the dangers of injury or disease, and they allow modern day readers to experience a world that in a very real sense no longer exists.
In Two Dianas in Alaska (1909), Agnes Herbert recounts her shooting trip to Alaska with her cousin Cecily. The account begins with a description of their trip from New York City to Butte City, Montana.
While it is interesting to read about the traveling conditions in the United States at that time, what is even more entertaining is her charming and engaging tone. It reads like a letter from a good friend, with comical remarks, and candid comments.
Edouard Foa’s book, After Big Game in Central Africa (1899), describes his experiences during a three year expedition in Africa from 1894 to 1897. In it he carefully describes the behavior of many African game animals and includes frank advice for operating in that environment. For example, when encountering rainy conditions while hunting or marching in the bush, he removes his clothing, places it in a waterproof bag, and walks about in a loincloth, shoes, and hat. “Not that I can say I have a very elegant appearance in this dress, but I have found it is the most practicable during the rainy season. Immediately the rain stops the skin dries, and you have not the inconvenience of keeping on your wet clothes, which brings on fever and rheumatism” (p. 51).
A Sporting Trip through Abyssinia (1902), by P. H. G. Powell-Cotton includes a wonderful appendix that meticulously lists the food, equipment, armaments and munitions, and personnel required for a successful journey.
Although a prolific hunter, he also furnishes a great deal of information on the local culture, politics, and sites of interest. The subtitle of his books says it all, “A Narrative of a Nine Months’ Journey from the Plains of the Hawash to the Snows of Simien, with a Description of the Game, from Elephant to Ibex, and Notes on the Manners and Customs of the Natives.” Here he gives us a photo of the resting place of the true Arc of the Covenant.
Many of the library’s big game volumes are reprints of much earlier works and include forewords that provide a useful historical and biographical context for the book. By being mindful of this context, modern readers can still enjoy these intriguing books despite the fact that they have not aged particularly well.
Erica Libhart has served as the Mars Librarian at the National Sporting Library & Museum (NSLM) since early 2016. The focus of her position is collection services, working to increase accessibility to NSLM’s collection of books, periodicals, and archival materials. The NSLM collections span over 350 years of the history of equestrian sport, as well as fly fishing, wing shooting, and other field sports. Have a question? Contact Erica by e-mail