Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Harris, William Cornwallis

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HARRIS, Sir WILLIAM CORNWALLIS (1807–1848), major H.E.I.C. Bombay engineers, and African traveller, son of James Harris of Wittersham, Kent, was baptised on 2 April 1807. Robert Harris (1809–1865) [q. v.] was a younger brother. After preparation at a military college Harris was appointed to the Bombay establishment (engineers) in 1823. His commissions were dated, second lieutenant 18 Dec. 1823, lieutenant 1 May 1824, captain 8 Aug. 1834, and major 16 Aug. 1843. He was appointed assistant-superintending engineer at Bombay 9 Sept. 1825, executive engineer at Candeish in November 1825, and at Deesa in October 1830. In 1836 Harris was invalided to the Cape for two years by a medical board. South Africa at that time was attracting some notice, owing to the recent exodus of the Dutch colonists, and their early conflicts with the Zulu hordes of Dingaan. On the voyage to the Cape, Harris, who from a very early age had, his friends said, ‘been afflicted with shooting-madness,’ made the acquaintance of Richard Williamson, of the Bombay civil establishment, a noted shikary, and the two arranged an expedition into the interior in quest of big game. After conferring with Dr. Andrew Smith, the African naturalist, then just returned from up-country, Harris and his friend started by ox-wagon from Algoa Bay, by way of Somerset and the Orange River, meeting with large game in districts long since cleared, and travelled in a north-easterly direction until they reached the kraals of the famous Matabele chief Moselikatze. That potentate proved friendly, and permitted the travellers to return to the colony by a new and previously closed route. Their absence from India etended from March 1835 to December 1837. On his return to India Harris was appointed executive engineer at Belgaum in January 1838, and field engineer to the Scinde force in December of the same year. In December 1840 he was made superintending engineer to the southern provinces, and in September 1841 was sent in charge of a mission to open up relations with the ancient Christian kingdom of Shoa (Shwa) in the highlands of Abyssinia. He returned to England bearing a commercial treaty with that state, and was knighted for his services (London Gazette, 7 June 1844). Harris was executive engineer at Dharwar Dion in 1846, and at Poona in February 1847, and on 5 Feb. 1848 was appointed superintending engineer, northern provinces. He died of lingering fever at Surwur, near Poona, 9 Oct. 1848.

Harris appears to have communicated an account of his travels in South Africa to the Royal Geographical Society, London, and the Geographical Society of Bombay. A further account, entitled ‘Narrative of an Expedition in South Africa, from the Cape of Good Hope to the Tropic of Capricorn in the years 1836–1837,’ was published at Bombay in 1838. Under the title ‘Wild Sports in South Africa, being a Narrative,’ &c., the same work appeared in London in 1841, and in subsequent editions. Harris, who was an excellent artist, also published ‘Portraits of the Game Animals of Southern Africa, drawn from Life in their Natural Haunts,’ reproduced on stone by F. Howard, London, 1840, folio; and ‘Highlands of Ethiopia, a Narrative of a Mission to the Kingdom of Shoa,’ London, 1844, 8vo, of which several editions have appeared. The following papers are entered under his name in the Royal Society's ‘Catalogue of Scientific Papers:’ ‘Description of a New Species of Antelope’ (Aigocerus niger), Zoological Society's ‘Transactions,’ 1842, ii. 213–16, and ‘Proceedings,’ 1838, vi. 1–3; ‘Account of the Trees producing Myrrh and Frankincense,’ Linnean Society's ‘Proceedings,’ 1849, i. 181–3, Froriep Notizen, 1844, vol. xxx. cols. 182–4.

[Information supplied by the India Office; Harris's works; Roy. Soc. Cat. Scientific Papers; Asiatic Journal, vol. xxviii. In the announcement of Harris's death in the Times, 24 Nov. 1848, his age is wrongly stated as thirty-nine.]

H. M. C.