To pick up Tales of the Big Game Hunters is to suffer instant culture shock. The book plunges us into a world in which animals are slaughtered for the ivory, the skins, the racks, and the wonderful dangerous pleasure of the chase and kill. The British imperium is at its height, white supremacy unquestioned by white man, black, or yellow. Paternalism reigns. The white hunter rushes in to save a black village from marauding elephants or to kill a man-eating lion and tiger often at great personal peril. But he takes it as his due that the grateful natives will shower him with food and drink and that the tale of his heroic exploit will become a village legend passed on from father to son. All this tends to jolt late-20th-century sensibilities. But it is the world these people inherited, take it or leave it. I strongly recommend taking it.

Kenneth Kemp has selected 23 spine-tingling stories by a score of legendary great game hunters of the mid- and late 19th century, much of this material long since out of print. Here are such great figures as F.C. Selous, the South African scout who would die at the hand of a German sharpshooter in World War I, Sir Samuel Baker, whose work on the rifle is still acclaimed as seminal, great elephant hunters such as Arthur Henry Neumann and James Sutherland, and a dozen other larger-than-life luminaries from the hunting pantheon.

What is astonishing is how well so many of these men write. There are lyrical passages, quiet meditations, sharply etched descriptions of tangled jungles, steep highlands, cascading waterfalls, open plains, water holes at dusk. There is unbelievable savagery: a man torn into three pieces by an enraged wounded elephant, a herdsman carried off by a man-eating tigress who leaves only “the soles of his feet, the palms of his hands, his head and a few odd bones.” There is humor and uncomplicated male macho exuberance: “It was a thoroughly enjoyable day’s sport,” comments James Sutherland the day that Kom Kom, “the Mighty One,” a rogue elephant, has charged him, knocked him flat, and been distracted from finishing the job only by the shouts of his courageous gunbearers. Sir Samuel Baker, whose last bullet brings an elephant down six feet from where he stands, fairly bursts with good cheer: “This has been a glorious hunt.” (Pass the tiffin, old boy.)

Arthur Neumann makes an elephant’s death live for us—”He fell over with a great crash, fairly bounding up again on his stern, like a ship going down with its bows in the air”—and Neumann has a well-developed sense of the ridiculous. Finding himself unexpectedly within eight feet of the backend of an elephant in heavy brush, he muses that:

There is a curious contrast in the aspect at close quarters presented respectively by the two ends of an elephant, apart from the obvious difference in the moral effect on the hunter according to which extremity is towards him. Viewed from the rear there is a comically clownish, baggy-breeched, knock-kneed look about his drooping hinder parts; while a front view of his majestic head, armed with gleaming tusks and furnished with a far-reaching supple trunk, and set off by the grotesque great ears, outstretched as if to catch any suspicious sound . . . is singularly impressive and awe-inspiring.

F. Vaughan Kirby brings understatement to a high art in describing a lion hunt. “It is absolutely necessary to make yourself comfortable before the lions arrive, as that is the moment when excitement is apt to make you feel uncomfortable. . . . It does not pay to have a boy with you in the scherm [blind]; they will sleep and inevitably snore.” And at the dramatic confrontation with the lion: “His eyes were fixed on mine with a look of concentrated rage. It does not do to hesitate at such a moment.” G.P. Sanderson, who shot tigers from an elephant’s back whenever possible, it being far safer than to hunt on foot, has a useful piece of advice to fellow sportsmen: “Under no temptation should the sportsman’s last shot be fired at a retreating beast”—lest, of course, the beast choose that moment to turn and charge. The great Selous and a group of other elephant hunters come upon a group of sixty or seventy elephants, “a grand sight and one not easily to be forgotten, to see so many of these huge beasts moving slowly and majestically onwards . . . But with but an hour of sunlight left, we could spare but little time for admiration, and so rode towards them, on murderous thoughts intent.” When the carnage was over, 21 elephants lay dead, one man, a native bearer, had died horribly, and several more had been wounded.

These stories concentrate largely on elephant, lion, and tiger hunting, but they also include a hunt for bears in Asia (“Truly Veeranoor is a great place for bears”) and of grizzlies in Kamchatka, where snow slides speed the hunter home to camp; of gorillas in Africa, crocodiles in Asia, wild boars in India, by lance on horseback, and bison on the Great Plains of the American West. The book is tastefully illustrated by contemporary line drawings of the hunts, that are, like the stories, clearly of another era, another world.


[Tales of the Big Game Hunters, Selected and introduced by Kenneth Kemp (New York: St. Martin’s Press) 212 pp., $15.95]