Frederick Courteney Selous is widely regarded as the greatest African hunter of all time. Could you query his shade in Valhalla, he would not agree. Selous, who wrote numerous book as about his hunting adventures, making him world-famous and the boon companion of such luminaries as Theodore Roosevelt, knew the truly magnificent hunters of 19th Southern Africa: The Boers. That hardy tribe of frontiersmen of Dutch and French Huguenot descent roamed the back country from the moment the first Dutch settlement was made at the Cape of Good Hope in the 17th Century. Pragmatic in the extreme, their lack of interest in recording their exploits means that most of them are largely lost to history.
“The majority of them simply came and went, some not leaving even their names, others creating a sufficient a stir to be just remembered in Ndebele traditions, even if they have been forgotten by their fellows.”
— T.V. Bulpin, To The Banks Of The Zambezi
Sports Afield magazine ran a nice tribute to the Boer Hunters in the March/April issue, and it seemed a worthy endeavor to offer a similar tip of the broad-brimmed hat. The early Boer hunters — like Christiaen Janssen, who was cited in 1659 as being the best elephant hunter in the Cape — had balls like church bell clappers. They were hunting elephants and lions and other dangerous game from horseback with single-shot flintlock smoothbore muskets.
Holy blackpowder smoke!
Through the 18th Century, the hunters wandered the backcountry, pushing further and further into the Xhosa lands of the Eastern Cape, and north into territory that would eventually become the Boer Republics of the Transvaal and the Orange Free State.
In the early 18th Century, Jacobus Botha travelled with his family in ox carts, and would set up a substantial camp in a district and hunt elephants there as long as the population held out. He grew rich on shot ivory. Some hunting expeditions were huge, involving whole communities of hunters. The operations resembled the Long Hunting enterprises of the Appalachian backcountry — individual and family or kin-group expeditions, not corporate endeavors like the trapping expeditions of the North American Fur Trade.
Some of the hunters, like the North American Mountain Men, went native, marrying into local chiefdoms. None of them more spectacularly than Coenraad de Buys. Everything about de Buys was larger than life. He was nearly seven feet tall, charismatic, rebellious, difficult — fond of cattle raiding, elephant hunting, and Xhosa women.
Buys had mixed relations with the Xhosa. In 1793, his cattle rustling and concubine-stealing sparked a war in which highly-provoked Xhosa raiders burned him out and stole all of his cattle. He turned to gun-running to make a living.
But with some Xhosa he had excellent relations. He married the mother of one young and powerful Xhosa chieftain named Ngqika, and lived in Ngqika’s royal homestead beyond the Fish River, which was the frontier line of the Eastern Cape in the late 18th Century. There he served as an advisor and translator — and gun-runner.
British officials put a price on his head because he was a threat to bring the Xhosa in on the side of various Boer rebels on the turbulent turn-of -the-century frontier.
When Ngqika’s fortunes plummeted and he lost a major battle with a Xhosa rival, de Buys decamped with multiple wives, concubines and mixed-blood children to the Limpopo River to the north, where he continued to hunt elephant. It is said that he sired 315 children and a community known as Buys Basters (Bastaards, Bastards) grew in the far northern Transvaal. The Buysvolk, living in the area of Buysdorp, are a recognized ethnic group in South Africa today.
Believe me, we’ll see more of Coenraad de Buys on Frontier Partisans…
The Boers were early adopters of the percussion ignition system in the first decades of the 19th Century. The new technology made their horseback hunting “easier” because it is less cumbersome to cap a gun than to prime the pan of a flintlock and the cap is less prone to being dislodged than loose priming. With the percussion lock came the development massive “Roer” elephant gun — a 16-pound 4-bore behemoth that fired a quarter-pound lead ball with awesome punch. Most Roers were smoothbores — again for ease of loading — though some had two-groove rifling to stabilize the ball.
The Roer wasn’t a long-range gun — it was big medicine for elephant up close and personal in the brush.
In 1838, Boer frontiersmen bolted the Cape in the Great Trek, seeking to get as far away as possible from British rule. They established themselves north of the Orange River and in the Transvaal, where families farmed and men hunted and raised (and raided for) cattle. There were many severe conflicts with the Zulu and with the Matabele (Ndbele).
The Trekboers continued to hunt avidly through the middle of the 19th Century and some of the greatest hunters also became military and political leaders of the young republics. The hunting could be dangerous — not merely the inherent risks of hunting large, dangerous game in rough country, but because of tensions with the native peoples.
Stephanus Erasmus returned to his hunting camp in the Transvaal to find two of his sons and all the rest of his hunting companions slaughtered by the assegais of raiding Matabele. he would seek his revenge in battles with that warrior people, who were eventually pushed north of the Limpopo into what is now Zimbabwe.
Despite bloodshed between the peoples, the Boer hunters and the great Ndbele conqueror Mzilikazi came to an understanding. In the 1860s, Mzilikazi began granting permission for hunters to enter his domains. One of these was the fiddle-footed eccentric Johannes Lodewikus Lee, son oaf a Royal Navy Captain who had settled in the Cape Colony and married into the prominent Boer family of Paul Kruger.
After serving in several of the multitude of Cape Frontier Wars, Lee wandered northward in 1862 and entered Mzilikazi’s domain. The Ndbele emperor took a shine to Lee and offered him a farmstead to be staked off based on the distance Lee could ride in four directions for an hour-and-a-quarter each way. Lee sent away to the Cape for the finest horse he could buy and galloped off a massive chunk of land — much to the chagrin of the Ndbele headmen who supervised the land grant.
He built a strange, rambling fortified house of stone, which became known as Lee’s Castle and was a wayfarer’s station in the wild country of the north. Lee spent most of his time hunting and left his wife to raise their eight children. She died giving birth to her ninth, alone, and Lee took up with a much younger woman, with whom he had still more children. Then he ran off for a while with still another woman. When he returned to Wife No. 2, she ran off with another man. Sexual mores on the frontier were as rough-and-ready as everything else.
Lee eventually returned to the Transvaal and settled down, wealthy from the proceeds of his ivory hunting, and redeemed himself by giving lots of money to the local church.
Jan Viljoen was probably the most famous Boer hunter of his day. He was the first to get permission from Mzilikazi to hunt in Mashonaland. He frequently hunted with another legend of the veld, Petrus Jacobs, whom Selous considered the most widely experienced and successful hunter of them all. Both men shot and traded their way to fortunes in ivory.
Wealth doesn’t really seem to haver been the main object for the Boer hunters of the era, though. They were addicted to the way of life — wandering the wild country, with families often in tow, and many times finding sexual release and companionship with native or mixed-race women. They were jealous of their freedom and brooked little regulation, even though some of them at least understood that their own profligacy was threatening the game upon which their cherished ay of life depended.
“The lives these wanderers lived… engrossed them as though they were participating in an endless sport whose hazards, excitement, vigorous actions, successes and failures, could often become an obsession fatal to themselves as well as to the countless thousands of wild animals which they destroyed with such wanton abandon.”
— T.V. Bulpin, To The Banks Of The Zambezi