Behind The Heads: Natural History, Empire and The Abel Chapman Collection. Part 2.
By Dan Gordon, Keeper of Biology, Great North Museum: Hancock
Abel Chapman’s time in Southern Africa was only the first of many visits to the continent. His next trip, in 1904, was to a very different place — British East Africa. This was a colonial protectorate roughly equivalent to today’s Republic of Kenya. It had grown out of land leased by the British East Africa Company but was now firmly under British Imperial control.
The Uganda railway, a huge feat of engineering, had been completed just three years before Chapman’s visit. This now allowed trains to travel the 800km (500 miles) between Mombasa on the east coast and the African Great Lakes. The British now had the means to extend their influence right across East Africa, disrupting the slave routes and simultaneously opening up the land to the missionaries, settlers, tourists and game hunters that were now pouring in. It was in this rapidly changing environment that Chapman strove to find the longed for wilderness that had eluded him in Transvaal, and test his skills as a sportsman, before that land too vanished under the settler’s plough.
Achieving this was complicated. His books detail the time and expense of arranging a Safari in Mombasa; a huge team of more than 40 men and boys. Particularly important were expert game trackers. Chapman recruited a man called Elmi Hasan, originally from Somalia. This wasn’t unusual, in fact men from right across Africa had moved here to work for wealthy hunters. They hefted the sacks of food, guns, and crates of ammunition up to the railhead, and out into the bush, in search of the game.
In Chapman’s books, these Safaris couldn’t be more different to the luxury trips of today. There were long journeys in the intense heat, the threat of attack by leopards, and even swarms of angry bees. But Chapman never seems bothered by hardship. There’s beauty in his writing too — the colour and music of this vanished world; jewel-coloured birds shining in the trees and the cries of lions in the night.
He spends much time discussing the practicalities of the hunt, and his role in it seemed surprisingly limited. After breakfast each day he hiked out from the camp with the trackers. When they’d found an animal that would make a good trophy, he selected a weapon from the gun bearer who carried his firearms, much as a caddy carts around a golfer’s clubs. He stalked and shot the target, then his assistants ran out to the animal, and, making sure it was dead, quickly skinned and butchered the carcass.
The extraordinary diversity of Africa’s wildlife is apparent from the inventory of animals that fell to Chapman’s guns, including those sought after beasts that had already vanished from the south. Here in the East, by this time subject to restrictive game laws, he had perhaps found the hunter’s dream of Africa.
After carrying back his prizes, teams of men worked to clean off the blood and fat and pack them into crates of salt. As the sun went down, Abel relaxed nearby in typically imperial style — with his notebooks and a sundowner — a glass of Champagne.¹
It’s this economy of the hunt that to some extent diminishes my pre-conceived idea of Chapman as a collector. Here, he was first and foremost a highly skilled sportsman with a phalanx of assistants. What I have come to see as ‘specimens’ are in fact a horned scorecard to mark out each victory. Lowe and Das discuss the way the history of science is entwined with colonialism.² The history of field-sports then, must be wound about them both.
People — both Africans and settlers — appear frequently in his writing, and much could be said about the many people he met. The general theme that seems to emerge from these encounters is the way colonial activities in East Africa were displacing communities who were inconvenient to the process of settlement. The nomadic herders leading their cattle through the open plains are objects of fascination to Chapman, but the dispossessed people clustered around colonial outposts are viewed far less favourably. To Chapman, they were the living embodiment of ‘the idle rich’³ — shamelessly loafing about in a land filled with squandered resources. It was a strain of thought still alive and kicking long after Chapman. Doris Lessing, writing 50 years later in her anti-colonial novel The Grass Is Singing, describes her Rhodesian characters’ distain for ‘natives’ who ‘had no idea of the dignity of labour.’⁴
In my reading, Chapman seems to see East Africa as a blank canvas — the future of the Empire, perfect for farming. A world soon to disappear before the sheep and the plough.
The Africans are an inconvenience, people who might usefully work under British direction elsewhere, just as Indian engineers who had been brought to the region to run the newly built railway. Perhaps in those places in Africa he deemed would ‘never be white man’s land.’⁵ While referring to these people as ‘black fellow subjects’ it’s doubtful he believed they deserved equal rights.
A particular incident really seems to illustrate this. On one trip, a porter called Ibrahim fell ill and died. As the Safari was far from any settlement, the others buried him near the camp. But, when the grave was checked later, it had been dug up by animals and nothing of the man’s body remained. Much later when the Safari returned to Mombasa, and Chapman was paying off his workers, he was asked to explain the circumstances of the man’s death, in case any money was owed to Ibrahim’s executors.
Chapman lauds the ‘watchful care’ of British authorities who entertained the notion that ‘African savages’ might have such a thing as executors. On the book’s facing page, a detailed lithograph shows snarling hyenas digging up the man’s body and tearing it apart. This, writes Chapman, was a more practical view of the functionaries dealing with Ibrahim’s estate.⁶ It’s a crass and insensitive passage, and a clear indication that Chapman didn’t regard African lives in the same way as he might his own.
Like most of his contemporaries, Chapman saw Britons as an imperial race, and for nearly all imperialists, the British race was an exclusively white one.⁷ As P. J Marshall writes, the ‘othering’ of people in actual and potential colonies permitted their subjugation,⁸ and in this way we see Chapman’s racism, and through him the racism inherent in the Imperial project.
The trophies obtained, and the men who died carrying them paid for, Chapman’s heads headed off on a long journey by train and steamship from Mombasa to Britain. They came ashore at Tilbury docks, and then went to the Piccadilly workshops of the famous taxidermist Rowland Ward. It was here that teams of workers, many of them women,⁹ transformed the skulls and skins into exquisite craftworks.
When Chapman died in 1929 the walls of his home at Houxty in Northumberland were festooned with their sleek fur and polished horns. Beautiful heads hung between framed pictures as testament to his sporting triumphs.
But looking at the heads today, I see them sitting amongst more troubling images. As we try to decolonise museum collections and broaden our understanding of them, it’s important to confront the complex and often difficult truths about their origin. The question for us at the Great North Museum now is how we might seek to tell this grander story of the Chapman collection. That’s a subject I hope to tackle in a future blog.
In the meantime, however, it’s worth remembering, the next time you see a stuffed head on the wall of a natural history museum, that there’s a whole lot more hidden behind it.
- Oxford Dictionary of National Biography at https://doi.org/10.1093/ref:odnb/64726.
- Das, S., Lowe, M. 2018. Nature Read in Black and White: decolonial approaches to interpreting natural history collections. Journal of Natural Science Collections, Volume 6, pages 4–14.
- Chapman, A. 1851–1929. On Safari Big-Game Hunting in British East Africa with Studies in Bird-Life, page 72.
- Lessing, D. 1950. The Grass Is Singing, page 80.
- Chapman, A. 1921. Savage Sudan; Its Wild Tribes, Big Game And Bird Life, page 304.
- Chapman, A. 1851–1929. On Safari Big-Game Hunting in British East Africa with Studies in Bird-Life, page 149.
- Sanghera, S. 2021. Empireland.
- Marshall, P. J. The Cambridge Illustrated History of the British Empire as quoted in Sanghera, S. Empireland.
- Morris, P. (pers. comm.).