Behind The Heads: Natural History, Empire and The Abel Chapman Collection. Part 1.

By Dan Gordon, Keeper of Biology, Great North Museum: Hancock

A rack of game trophies from the Chapman collection in the Great North Museum: Hancock resource centre.

In the museum’s basement is a room filled with heads. Row after row of them stare out from metal racks, glassy eyed and bristling with every kind of horn and antler. Visitors to this room are sometimes awestruck at the breadth of species on display. The Kudu, its head crowned by spiralling horns like giant corkscrews. A tiny Klipspringer with horns like shiny black thorns. The huge Eland, its vast head armed with massive horns like tank shells. A parliament of Africa’s fantastic beasts, all in this small storeroom. These are hunting trophies from the Abel Chapman collection. When he died in 1929 they were taken down from the walls of his Northumberland home, and gifted to the museum.

In light of the current conversation about museums and colonialism, and the insightful work of Lowe and Das on the subject of Natural History collections in this context, I thought I’d try to learn more about the history of the Great North Museum: Hancock’s African collections, and my attention was caught on the horns of Chapman’s trophies. The more I’ve learned about their story, the more I’ve come to feel that trophy heads, some of the most recognisable Natural History objects, are great examples of the way that colonialism has both helped to shape naturalism, museum collections and even our ideas about wildlife conservation.

The story of our collection begins in 1851 when Abel Chapman was born into a wealthy Sunderland brewing family. Educated at the elite Rugby School, he joined the family firm as a young man and embarked on a successful business career. Chapman was intelligent and adventurous, making expeditions to places like Canada, Scandinavia and the Arctic. In detailed notebooks filled with deft pencil sketches he documented the things he heard, saw and shot, and used these to write a whole series of books. He built a reputation as a ‘hunter naturalist’ passionate about combining field sports with game preservation, and as well as amassing a horde of trophies, he became an influential figure in the emerging field of wildlife conservation.

An undated photograph of Abel Chapman hunting Hyena in British East Africa with two game trackers; Elmi Hasan and an unknown man.

Hunting in Europe’s wild places was one thing, but there was a greater prize — the fabled game of Africa. When he retired, Abel Chapman packed his trunk, and headed off on Safari, recording his trips in a number of books, including Savage Sudan and On Safari: Big Game hunting in East Africa. His books and notebooks provide a fantastic record of his thoughts about Africa at a time of great political change.

His first hunting trip, to Southern Africa in 1899, came just before the outbreak of the second Boer War. His choice of destination, Transvaal, was perhaps not surprising. This had been the destination of Sir William Cornwallis-Harris, who in his 1838 ‘Narrative of an expedition into southern Africa’ had become perhaps the very first of the writers in the Hunter Naturalist tradition that Chapman sought so hard to emulate.

By Chapman’s time the Transvaal was far from the hunter’s Eden that Cornwallis-Harris had explored. It had become a contested corner of the Empire where Boers — Dutch speaking white colonists — now sought self-government. Following their first conflict with the British in the 1880s it remained, just, under British control. As Chapman roamed through this uneasy peace, he encountered a land where game laws were poor and largely unenforced. Illegal hunting raged and the area was just emerging from a terrible Rinderpest epidemic, reducing many to poverty and reliance on the diminishing game for food.

Cattle dead from Rinderpest, South Africa 1896 (Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=13338947)

Used to recreational field sports and the strict game laws of England, the settlers’ mercantile attitude to wild game, and their crude and desperate hunting left Chapman appalled. In typically racialised language he describes them as ‘a merciless Boetian race’¹ riding down game on horseback and firing indiscriminately into the herds of antelope. The fact that they did so with the same breechloading Westley-Richards rifles they’d raised against British soldiers was yet another affront to a passionate imperialist like Chapman. These people did have one saving grace in his eyes, though — they did not allow ‘aboriginal natives’² to possess firearms.

As in so many parts of the world, the introduction of guns to Southern Africa had far reaching implications. In Transvaal, one unexpected consequence was that it had enabled indigenous hunters to earn a living. Local people had been employed as porters and guides by European visitors as far back as the first recorded accounts in the early 19th century. Now, however, their traditional knowledge and hunting skills allowed them to become important figures assisting white commercial hunters, for example in the ivory trade.

An illustration from an 1881 edition of the Illustrated London News. Titled ‘The Boers’ Method of Fighting,’ it shows a Boer man firing a Wesley-Richards breechloading rifle. (https://www.iln.org.uk/iln_years/year/1881.htm)

Many Boers who had left the British-administered Cape Colony in the decades prior to Chapman’s visit did so partly due to the abolition of slavery in 1833, so it’s perhaps not so surprising, then, that laws around game and firearms often seemed aimed at preventing these communities from enriching themselves through a wildlife resource the settlers wished to control. Despite ample evidence to the contrary, by the time of Chapman’s visit, indigenous Africans were often blamed for the vanishing game, and were targets of what enforcement there was.³ He certainly seems to have approved.

Elite hunters like Chapman had the ear of Imperial administrators in Britain, and to them this state of affairs was intolerable. To treat game as a means to an end, an economic resource, was anathema to them. A ‘precious inheritance of the Empire’⁴ in the words of Frederick Courtenay Selous (then President of The Society for the Preservation of the Wild Fauna of the Empire) was being squandered by people who simply didn’t know how to behave, and attempts must be made to preserve it. It was to some degree a self-righteous wildlife protection ethos, tied up with sentimental ideas of sportsmanship, a quality that Chapman believed was central to Britishness and to game preservation. It drew on a tradition of exclusionary laws that determined who was, and was not, the right sort of person to hunt.

The racist thinking that emerges from Chapman’s writing, in relation to both indigenous people and non-British settlers was implicit in this. Proposals for hunting laws, game preserves and protected areas deliberately excluded local communities. They were to be administered by British officials, hand-picked by the Imperial class.

They envisioned places for the kind of hunting that led to the trophies hanging in our store room; objects that would have been baffling to indigenous people and settler communities for whom skins could be clothes, and horns used as tools.⁵ Heads might be boiled, or simply discarded, not mounted on the wall.

Although British rule didn’t last long enough in Transvaal to see these laws take hold, looking at his subsequent visits to Africa, it’s interesting to speculate about the way that this 1899 visit influenced Chapman. The writing on his next trip, to a very different part of Africa, sheds more light on his thinking about its wildlife, and the nature of the Empire’s efforts to preserve it.

Click here to read Part 2.

References

  1. Abel Chapman; On safari : Big Game hunting in British East Africa. Page 295.
  2. Abel Chapman; On safari : Big Game hunting in British East Africa. Page 2.
  3. Jane Carruthers; The Kruger National Park — A Social and Political History. Page 31.
  4. Jane Carruthers; The Kruger National Park — A Social and Political History. Page 29.
  5. Jane Carruthers; The Kruger National Park — A Social and Political History. Page 14.

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