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Samuel White Baker

I accepted an invitation to shoot a savage old bull hippopotamus

Samuel White Baker wrote The Nile Tributaries of Abyssinia, and the Sword Hunters of the Hamran Arabs (London: Macmillan and Co., 1867) after exploring the Ethiopian souces of the Nile. In the first quotation he describes hunting with a rifle.

This afternoon [November 7, 1861], accompanied by my wife, I accepted an invitation to shoot a savage old bull hippopotamus that had been sufficiently impertinent to chase several of the natives. He lived in a deep and broad portion of the river, about two miles distant. We accordingly rode to the spot, and found the old hippo at home. The river was about 250 yards wide at this place, in an acute bend that had formed a deep pool. In the centre of this was a mud bank, just below the surface; upon this shallow bed the hippo was reposing. Upon perceiving us he was exceedingly saucy, snorting at my party, and behaving himself in a most absurd manner, by shaking his head and leaping half-way out of the water. This plunging demonstration was intended to frighten us. I had previously given Bacheet a pistol, and had ordered him to follow on the opposite bank from the ford at Wat el Negur. I now hallooed to him to fire several shots at the hippo, in order to drive him, if possible, towards me, as I lay in ambush behind a rock in the bed of the river. Bacheet descended the almost perpendicular bank to the water's edge, and after having chaffed the hippo considerably, he fired a shot with the pistol, which was far more dangerous to us on the opposite side than to the animal. The hippo, who was a wicked solitary old bull, accustomed to have his own way, returned the insult by charging towards Bacheet with a tremendous snorting, that sent him scrambling up the steep bank in a panic, amidst a roar of laughter from the people on my side concealed in the bushes. In this peal of merriment I thought I could distinguish a voice closely resembling that of my wife. However, Bacheet, who had always longed to be brought face to face with some foe worthy of his steel, had bolted, and he now stood safe in his elevated position on the top of the bank, thirty feet above the river, and fired the second barrel in bold defiance at the hippopotamus.

As the hippo had gained confidence, I showed myself above the rock, and called to him, according to Arab custom, 'Hasinth! Hasinth!'* He, thinking no doubt that he might as well hunt me away, gave a loud snort, sank, and quickly reappeared about a hundred yards from me; but nearer than this he positively refused to approach. I therefore called to Bacheet to shout from the other side to attract his attention, and as he turned his head, I took a steady shot behind the ear with the little Fletcher rifle. This happened to be one of those fortunate shots that consoles you for many misses, and the saucy old hippo turned upon his back and rolled about in tremendous struggles, lashing the still and deep pool into waves, until he at length disappeared. We knew that he was settled; thus my people started off towards the village, and in a marvellousiy short time a frantic crowd of Arabs arrived with camels, ropes, axes, knives, and everything necessary for an onslaught upon the hippo, who, up to this time, had not appeared upon the surface. In about an hour and a half from the time he received the bullet, we discovered his carcase floating about two hundred yards lower down the river. Several heads of large crocodiles appeared and vanished suddenly within a few feet of the floating carcase, therefore the Arabs considered it prudent to wait until the stream should strand the body upon the pebbly shallows about half a mile below the pool. Upon arrival at that point, there was a general rush, and the excited crowd secured the hippo by many ropes, and hauled it to the shore. It was a very fine bull, as the skin without the head measured twelve feet three inches. I had two haunches kept for the sheik, and a large quantity of fat, which is highly and deservedly prized by the Arabs, as it is the most delicate of any animal. Those portions secured, with a reserve of meat for ourselves, the usual disgusting scene of violence commenced, the crowd falling upon the carcase like maddened hyaenas.
* Hasinth is the Arabic for hippopotamus.
(Chapter X ; A Few Notes at Ehetilla)

Other African gastronomical excerpts

Samuel White Baker

The harpoon for hippopotamus and crocodile hunting is a piece of soft steel about eleven inches long

This excerpt from Baker describes the traditional African hunting method.

[23d of December] The harpoon for hippopotamus and crocodile hunting is a piece of soft steel about eleven inches long, with a narrow blade or point of about three-quarters of an inch in width, and a single but powerful barb. To this short, and apparently insignificant weapon, a strong rope is secured, about twenty feet in length, at the extremity of which is a buoy or float as large as a child's head formed of an extremely light wood called ambatch (Anemone mirabilis), that is about half the specific gravity of cork. The extreme end of the short harpoon is fixed in the point of a bamboo about ten feet long, around which the rope is twisted, while the buoy end is carried in the left hand.

The old Abou Do being resolved upon work, had divested himself of his tope or toga before starting, according to the general custom of the aggageers [elephant hunters], who usually wear a simple piece of leather wound round the loins when hunting, but, I believe in respect for our party, they had provided themselves with a garment resembling bathing drawers, such as are worn in France, Germany, and other civilized countries; but the old Abou Do, like the English, had resisted any such innovation, and he accordingly appeared with nothing on but his harpoon; and a more superb old Neptune I never beheld. He carried this weapon in his hand, as the trident with which the old sea-god ruled the monsters of the deep; and as the tall Arab patriarch of threescore years and ten, with his long grey locks flowing over his brawny shoulders, stepped as lightly as a goat from rock to rock along the rough margin of the river, I followed him in admiration.


After walking about two miles, we noticed a herd of hippopotami in a pool below a rapid: this was surrounded by rocks, except upon one side, where the rush of water had thrown up a bank of pebbles and sand. Our old Neptune did not condescend to bestow the slightest attention when I pointed out these animals; they were too wide awake; but he immediately quitted the river's bed, and we followed him quietly behind the fringe of bushes upon the border, from which we carefully examined the water. About half a mile below this spot, as we clambered over the intervening rocks through a gorge which formed a powerful rapid, I observed, in a small pool just below the rapid, an immense head of a hippopotamus close to a perpendicular rock that formed a wall to the river, about six feet above the surface. I pointed out the hippo to old Abou Do, who had not seen it. At once the gravity of the old Arab disappeared, and the energy of the hunter was exhibited as he motioned us to remain, while he ran nimbly behind the thick screen of bushes for about a hundred and fifty yards below the spot where the hippo was unconsciously basking, with his ugly head above the surface. Plunging into the rapid torrent, the veteran hunter was carried some distance down the stream, but breasting the powerful current, he landed upon the rocks on the opposite side, and retiring to some distance from the river, he quickly advanced towards the spot beneath which the hippopotamus was lying. I had a fine view of the scene, as I was lying concealed exactly opposite the hippo, who had disappeared beneath the water. Abou Do now stealthily approached the ledge of rock beneath which he had expected to see the head of the animal; his long sinewy arm was raised, with the harpoon ready to strike, as he carefully advanced. At length he reached the edge of the perpendicular rock; the hippo had vanished, but, far from exhibiting surprise, the old Arab remained standing on the sharp ledge, unchanged in attitude. No figure of bronze could have been more rigid than that of the old river-king, as he stood erect upon the rock with the left foot advanced, and the harpoon poised in his ready right hand above his head, while in the left he held the loose coils of rope attached to the ambatch buoy. For about three minutes he stood like a statue, gazing intently into the clear and deep water beneath his feet. I watched eagerly for the reappearance of the hippo; the surface of the water was still barren, when suddenly the right arm of the statue descended like lightning, and the harpoon shot perpendicularly into the pool with the speed of an arrow. What river-fiend answered to the summons? In an instant an enormous pair of open jaws appeared, followed by the ungainly head and form of the furious hippopotamus, who, springing half out of the water, lashed the river into foam, and, disdaining the concealment of the deep pool, he charged straight up the violent rapids. With extraordinary power he breasted the descending stream; gaining a footing in the rapids, about five feet deep, he ploughed his way against the broken waves, sending them in showers of spray upon all sides, and upon gaining broader shallows he tore along through the water, with the buoyant float hopping behind him along the surface, until he landed from the river, started at full gallop along the dry shingly bed, and at length disappeared in the thorny nabbuk jungle.

I never could have imagined that so unwieldy an animal could have exhibited such speed; no man would have had a chance of escape, and it was fortunate for our old Neptune that he was secure upon the high ledge of rock, for if he had been in the path of the infuriated beast, there would have been an end of Abou Do. The old man plunged into the deep pool just quitted by the hippo, and landed upon our side; while in the enthusiasm of the moment I waved my cap above my head, and gave him a British cheer as he reached the shore. His usually stern features relaxed into a grim smile of delight: this was one of those moments when the gratified pride of the hunter rewards him for any risks. I congratulated him upon his dexterity: but much remained to be done. I proposed to cross the river, and to follow upon the tracks of the hippopotamus, as I imagined that the buoy and rope would catch in the thick jungle, and that we should find him entangled in the bush; but the old hunter gently laid his hand upon my arm, and pointed up the bed of the river, explaining that the hippo would certainly return to the water after a short interval.

In a few minutes later, at a distance of nearly half a mile, we observed the hippo emerge from the jungle, and descend at full trot to the bed of the river, making direct for the first rocky pool in which we had noticed the herd of hippopotami. Accompanied by the old howarti (hippo hunter), we walked quickly towards the spot: he explained to me that I must shoot the harpooned hippo, as we should not be able to secure him in the usual method by ropes, as nearly all our men were absent from camp, disposing of the dead elephants.

Upon reaching the pool, which was about a hundred and thirty yards in diameter, we were immediately greeted by the hippo, who snorted and roared as we approached, but quickly dived, and the buoyant float ran along the surface, directing his course in the same manner as the cork of a trimmer with a pike upon the hook. Several times he appeared, but, as he invariably faced us, I could not obtain a favourable shot; I therefore sent the old hunter round the pool, and he, swimming the river, advanced to the opposite side, and attracted the attention of the hippo who immediately turned towards him. This afforded me a good chance, and I fired a steady shot behind the ear, at about seventy yards, with a single-barrelled rifle. As usual with hippopotami, whether dead or alive, he disappeared beneath the water at the shot. The crack of the ball and the absence of any splash from the bullet told me that he was hit; the ambatch float remained perfectly stationary upon the surface. I watched it for some minutes--it never moved; several heads of hippopotami appeared and vanished in different directions, but the float was still; it marked the spot where the grand old bull lay dead beneath.

I shot another hippo, that I thought must be likewise dead; and, taking the time by my watch, I retired to the shade of a tree with Hassan, while Hadji Ali and the old hunter returned to camp for assistance in men and knives, &c.

In a little more than an hour and a half, two objects like the backs of turtles appeared above the surface: these were the flanks of the two hippos. A short time afterwards the men arrived, and, regardless of crocodiles, they swam towards the bodies. One was towed directly to the shore by the rope attached to the harpoon, the other was secured by a long line, and dragged to the bank of clean pebbles.

I measured the bull that was harpooned; it was fourteen feet two inches from the upper lip to the extremity of the tail; the head was three feet one inch from the front of the ear to the edge of the lip in a straight line. The harpoon was sticking in the nape of the neck, having penetrated about two and a half inches beneath the hide; this is about an inch and three-quarters thick upon the back of the neck of a bull hippopotamus. It was a magnificent specimen, with the largest tusks I have ever seen; the skull is now in my hall in England.

Although the hippopotamus is generally harmless, the solitary old bulls are sometimes extremely vicious, especially when in the water. I have frequently known them charge a boat, and I have myself narrowly escaped being upset in a canoe by the attack of one of these creatures, without the slightest provocation. The females are extremely shy and harmless, and they are most affectionate mothers: the only instances that I have known of the female attacking a man, have been those in which her calf had been stolen. To the Arabs they are extremely valuable, yielding, in addition to a large quantity of excellent flesh, about two hundred pounds of fat, and a hide that will produce about two hundred coorbatches, or camel whips. I have never shot these useful creatures to waste; every morsel of the flesh has been stored either by the natives or for our own use; and whenever we have had a good supply of antelope or giraffe meat, I have avoided firing a shot at the hippo. Elephant flesh is exceedingly strong and disagreeable, partaking highly of the peculiar smell of the animal. We had now a good supply of meat from the two hippopotami, which delighted our people. The old Abou Do claimed the bull that he had harpooned as his own private property, and he took the greatest pains in dividing the hide longitudinally, in strips of the width of three fingers, which he cut with great dexterity.

. . . Not wishing to destroy the remaining hippopotami that were still within the pool, I left my men and old Abou Do busily engaged in arranging the meat, and I walked quietly homeward.

(CHAPTER XII ; Old Neptune Joins the Party)

Robert Hamill Nassau

The same hunter . . . had just killed a half-grown female hippopotamus

From a dozen years later, comes this tale of hippo hunting written by Robert Nassau, who was a missionary in Gabon; from My Ogowe: Being a Narrative of Daily Incidents During Sixteen Years in Equatorial West Africa (The Neale Publishing Company, New York, 1914). Note the hunter's reverence toward the hunted.

Starting on Monday, November 30 [1874], by my own canoe and crew ... I made the run down the Ajumba branch to Lake Azingo in one day. The chief Anege was expecting me, and was helpful. The same hunter, who had killed a manatee on my previous visit, had just killed a half-grown female hippopotamus. The cutting up was to be with certain superstitious ceremonies, which I was permitted to witness the next day. The hunter, a young man, thrust a stalk of canna ("Indian shot") wet with water from a from a pot of "medicine," in front of the animal's nose, as it lay on its back. Then, he rubbed red chalk in a line from the tail down the raphe to the lips. Then, sitting on the jaws, with a series of slaps (as if in a patting way) he talked to the spirits of the animal's life, asking them not to be angry with him, nor to upset his canoe, or in any way make it difficult to obtain another animal when next he should go hunting, etc., etc. His mother, standing by, also addressed the animal, begging it not to avenge itself by permitting other beasts to hurt her son; and, like the Hebrew damsels for Jeptha's daughter, bemoaning that the animal could never become a mother, etc., etc. Then the young man, with paddle in one hand and harpoon in the other, mounted the body at the tail, and walked over the belly to the nose, singing as he walked. Then he cut off small slices of the skin from the nose, each knee and the naval, and put them in his fetish-bag. Then he stabbed the swollen body, and applying his mouth to the wound, inhaled the fetid gas. Then, others assisted him in disemboweling. After the viscera had all been removed, he threw the contents of the pot of "medicine" into the cavity, and stooping there himself, he threw the dirty bloody water over his shoulders, singing all the while. Then he bailed out the mixture with his hands, all the time praying the spirits of the animal to help him if his canoe should upset, etc., etc. When the body had been almost all cut up, he took the Canaan-stalk from the mouth, and, with some leaves and pieces of the skin, went aside by himself, and cut the stalk in small pieces, blowing a blessing on them, and talking to them, in an undertone, words that I did not understand.
(IV -- Overland to the Coast -- December, 1874)

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