Lake Ngami/Chapter 41

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The Bayeye harpoon the Hippopotamus.—The Harpoon described.—How the Chase of the Hippopotamus is conducted by the Bayeye.—How it was conducted by the ancient Egyptians.—The Spear used by them.—Ferocity of the Hippopotamus.—Killed by Guns.—Frightful Accident.—The Downfall.

On the Teoge, and other rivers to the northward of Ngami, the natives are accustomed to harpoon the hippopotamus in a somewhat similar manner as that practiced with the whale. I will endeavor to describe the process, which, singularly enough, has never, to my knowledge, been done by any traveler.

The harpoon (of iron) A, is, as seen in the following diagram, short and strong, and provided with a single barb, B. The shaft, or handle, C C, consists of a stout pole, from ten to twelve feet in length, by three or four inches in thickness. At the inner end of the shaft, C C, is a socket for the reception of the harpoon, A, which is farther secured to the shaft (at about one third from the socket) by a number of small cords, E E.[1] These cords, when the animal is struck, and a strain consequently comes upon them, relax, so as to allow the harpoon to slip out of the socket, though, of course, it still remains attached to the shaft. To the other extremity of the handle is fixed the harpoon-line, F, which is strong, and of considerable length, and to the end of this a "float" or "buoy," G.

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From the weight of the shaft the harpoon is seldom or never hurled at the hippopotamus, but is held by the harpooner, who drives it either vertically or obliquely into the body of the animal.

Sometimes the chase is conducted with canoes alone; at others in connection with a "reed-raft," similarly constructed to that recently described. We will suppose the latter plan is adopted. At the appointed time the men assemble at the rendezvous, and after every thing has been duly arranged, and the canoes needed for the prosecution of the hunt drawn up on the raft, the latter is pushed from the shore, and afterward abandoned entirely to the stream, which propels the unwieldy mass gently and noiselessly forward.

Hippopotami are not found in all parts of the river, but only in certain localities. On approaching their favorite haunts, the natives keep a very sharp look-out for the animals, whose presence is often known by their snorts and grunts, while splashing and blowing in the water, or (should there be no interruption to the view) by the ripple on the surface, long before they are actually seen.

As soon as the position of the hippopotami is ascertained, one or more of the most skillful and intrepid of the hunters stand prepared with the harpoons, while the rest make ready to launch the canoes, should the attack prove successful. The bustle and noise caused by these preparations gradually subside. Conversation is carried on in a whisper, and every one is on the qui vive. The snorting and plunging become every moment more distinct; but a bend in the stream still hides the animals from view. The angle being passed, several dark objects are seen floating listlessly on the water, looking more like the crests of sunken rocks than living creatures. Ever and anon, one or other of the shapeless masses is submerged, but soon again makes its appearance on the surface. On, on glides the raft with its sable crew, who are now worked up to the highest state of excitement. At last the raft is in the midst of the herd, who appear quite unconscious of danger. Presently one of the animals is in immediate contact with the raft. Now is the critical moment. The foremost harpooner raises himself to his full height to give

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the greater force to the blow, and the next instant the fatal iron descends with unerring accuracy in the body of the hippopotamus.

The wounded animal plunges violently and dives to the bottom, but all his efforts to escape are unavailing. The line or the shaft of the harpoon may break, but the cruel barb once imbedded in the flesh, the weapon (owing to the thickness and toughness of the beast's hide) can not be withdrawn.

As soon as the hippopotamus is struck, one or more of the men launch a canoe from off the raft, and hasten to the shore with the harpoon-line, and take a "round turn" with it about a tree or bunch of reeds, so that the animal may either be "brought up" at once, or, should there be too great a strain on the line, "played" (to liken small things to great) in the same manner as the salmon by the fisherman. But if time should not admit of the line being passed around a tree, or the like, both line and "buoy" are thrown into the water, and the animal goes wheresoever he chooses.

The rest of the canoes are now all launched from off the raft, and chase is given to the poor brute, who, so soon as he comes to the surface to breathe, is saluted with a shower of light javelins, of which the following wood-cut is a sample. Again he descends, his track deeply crimsoned with gore. Presently, and perhaps at some little distance, he once more appears on the surface, when, as before, missiles of all kinds are hurled at his devoted head.

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When thus beset, the infuriated beast not unfrequently turns upon his assailants, and, either with his formidable tusks, or with a blow from his enormous head, staves in or capsizes the canoes. At times, indeed, not satisfied with wreaking his vengeance on the craft, he will attack one or other of the crew, and, with a single grasp of his horrid jaws, either terribly mutilates the poor fellow, or, it may be, cuts his body fairly in two!

The chase often lasts a considerable time. So long as the line and the harpoon hold, the animal can not escape, because the "buoy" always marks his whereabout. At length, from loss of blood or exhaustion, Behemoth succumbs to his pursuers.

It is a remarkable fact that almost the same method of securing the hippopotamus as that just described was adopted by the ancient Egyptians.[2]

"The hippopotamus," says Diodorus, "is chased by many persons, each armed with iron javelins. As soon as it makes its appearance at the surface of the water, they surround it with boats, and, closing in on all sides, they wound it with blades furnished with iron barbs, and having hempen ropes fastened to them, in order that, when wounded, it may be let out until its strength fails it from loss of blood."

The many drawings relating to the chase, &c., of the hippopotamus to be found on the sculptures and monuments of Thebes would seem to prove that the ancient Egyptians greatly delighted in this kind of sport. One of these representations is shown on the following page, and has been borrowed from that valuable work, "The Manners and Customs of the Ancient Egyptians," by Sir Gardner Wilkinson, who thus explains the very interesting illustration.

"The chasseur is here in the act of throwing the spear at the hippopotamus, which he has already wounded with three other blades, indicated by the ropes he holds in his left hand; and having pulled the animal toward the surface of the water, an attendant endeavors to throw a noose over its head as he strikes it for the fourth time. Behind him is his son holding a fresh spear in readiness; and in order that there should be no question about the ropes belonging to the blades, the fourth is seen to extend from his hand to the shaft of the

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spear he is throwing. The upupa, heron, and other birds are frightened from the rushes as the boat approaches; and the fish, with a young hippopotamus, seen at the bottom of the water, are intended to show the communication of the fenny lake with the Nile."

"The spear they used on these occasions was evidently of a different construction from that intended for ordinary purposes, and was furnished, as Diodorus observes, with a rope for letting out the wounded animal, in the same manner as practiced by the modern Ethiopians;[3] there was

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sometimes another line fastened to the shaft, and passing over a notch at its upper end, which was probably intended to give the weapon a great impetus, as well as to retain the shaft when it left the blade. The rope attached to the blade was wound upon a reel, generally carried by some of the attendants. It was of very simple construction, consisting of a half ring of metal, by which it was held, and a bar turning on it, on which the line or string was wound."

Again: "This weapon," alluding to the harpoon, "consisted of a broad, flat blade, furnished with a deep tooth or barb at the side, having a strong rope of considerable length attached to its upper end, and running over the notched summit of a wooden shaft, which was inserted into the head or blade like a common javelin. It was thrown in the same manner, but, on striking, the shaft fell, and the iron head alone remained in the body of the animal, which, on receiving a wound, plunged into deep water, the rope having been immediately let out. When fatigued by exertion, the hippopotamus was dragged to the boat, from which it again plunged, and the same was repeated till it became perfectly exhausted, frequently receiving additional wounds, and being entangled by other nooses, which the attendants held in readiness as it was brought within their reach."

To return: If the hippopotamus hunt, as just described by me, was conducted altogether from the reed-raft, one's personal safety would be little, or not at all, endangered; for, on account of the great size, buoyancy, and elasticity of the raft, the animal, however wickedly inclined, could neither "board" nor capsize it. But when one pursues him in a canoe—though far the most exciting way—the peril, as shown, is considerable. One morning, when descending the Teoge, we met a party of hippopotami hunters, one of whose canoes had been upset by one of those animals, whereby the life of a man was sacrificed. Indeed, similar mishaps are of constant occurrence on that river.

Our own safety, moreover, was considerably jeopardized by a hippopotamus. One afternoon, about an hour before sunset, I sent a canoe, with several men, in advance, to look out for a bivouac for the night, and to collect fuel. They were scarcely out of sight when an immense hippopotamus, with its calf, rushed out from among the reeds, where she had been concealed, and, passing under our raft, almost immediately afterward made her appearance on the surface of the water. Upon seeing this, I lost no time in firing, but, though to all appearance mortally wounded, we lost sight of her at the time. A few minutes afterward, however, on coming to a bend of the river, we fell in with the canoe that had been sent on, bottom uppermost, and found, to our great consternation, that the wounded beast, in going down the stream, had caught sight of the canoe, and, instantly attacking it, had, with one blow of her head, capsized it. The men saved themselves by swimming, but all the loose articles were either lost or spoiled by the water. Fortunately for me, however, I had taken the advice of the Bayeye to remove the most valuable of my things, such as books, instruments, &c., to the raft previous to the canoe leaving.

Innumerable instances, showing the ferocity of the hippopotamus, are on record. "Lieutenant Vidal," says Captain Owen, in his Narrative of Voyages, and when speaking of the River Temby, "had just commenced ascending this stream in his boat, when suddenly a violent shock was felt from underneath, and in another moment a monstrous hippopotamus reared itself up from the water, and, in a most ferocious and menacing attitude, rushed, open-mouthed, at the boat, and, with one grasp of its tremendous jaws, seized and tore seven planks from her side; the creature disappeared for a few seconds, and then rose again, apparently intending to renew the attack, but was fortunately deterred by the contents of a musket discharged in its face. The boat rapidly filled, but, as she was not more than an oar's length from the shore, the crew succeeded in reaching it before she sank. The keel, in all probability, touched the back of the animal, which, irritating him, occasioned the furious attack; and had he got his upper jaw above the gunwale, the whole broadside must have been torn out. The force of the shock from beneath, previously to the attack, was so violent that her stern was almost lifted out of the water, when the midshipman steering was thrown overboard, but, fortunately, rescued before the irritated animal could seize him."

In justice, however, to the poor hippopotamus, who, in these parts, has already earned for itself a sufficiently bad name for ferocity, one must not attribute the whole of the casualties that occur on the Teoge to willful attacks on the part of the animal; for, owing to the narrowness of the stream, it doubtless, at times, happens that, on coming to the surface to breathe, it accidentally encounters a canoe, and in its fright, or, it may be, in playful frolic, upsets it.

The colonists, and others who are possessed of guns, most commonly shoot the animal from the shore; and this is not a matter of any great difficulty, for when it comes to the surface, either to breathe or for amusement, "a single shot through, or under the ear," as Captain Harris truly says, "is fatal to the Behemoth." If there are several "gunners," and they station themselves on the opposite sides of the pool where the hippopotami are congregated (in which case the animals, when rising to the surface, invariably come within range of one or other of the party), great slaughter may be committed.

Should the hippopotamus be killed outright, it usually sinks, but in about half a day reappears at the surface; and, in order eventually to secure the carcass, it is only necessary to keep a sharp look-out in the stream below.

Shooting the hippopotamus from the shore is attended with but little danger. Accidents, however, do at times occur.

"A native," says Mr. Moffat, "with his boy, went to the river to hunt sea-cows. Seeing one at a short distance below an island, the man passed through a narrow stream to get nearer to the object of his pursuit. He fired, but missed, when the animal immediately made for the island. The man, seeing his danger, ran to cross to the opposite bank of the river; but, before reaching it, the sea-cow seized him, and literally severed his body in two with his monstrous jaws.

Various devices are resorted to by the natives of Southern Africa to destroy the hippopotamus. At times he is
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entrapped in pitfalls; but the most ingenious plan, and which will be readily understood by the preceding wood-cut, is by means of the downfall, which the natives would seem to practice with considerable success.

A is Behemoth; B, a downfall, consisting of a log of wood; C C, stones attached to the downfall to increase its weight; D, the harpoon affixed to the lower end of the downfall; E, a tree, or, in lieu of it, an artificial support of about twenty-five feet in height; F F, a line attached to the downfall, which, after having been passed over a branch of the tree or artificial support, crosses horizontally the pathway that the hippopotamus is in the habit of frequenting during his nocturnal rambles. When the animal (which, from the shortness of his legs, lifts his feet but little from the ground) comes in contact with the line, secured on either side of the path by a small peg, it at once snaps, or is disengaged by means of a trigger. The liberated downfall instantly descends, and the harpoon is driven deep into the back of the beast, who, wounded and bloody, rushes with pain and fury to the nearest water, where he shortly dies. His death is sometimes hastened by the iron being poisoned.

  1. The object of having the connecting line to consist of a number of small cords instead of a single stout one is to reduce the chance of its being severed by the teeth of the hippopotamus.
  2. In some parts of ancient Egypt the hippopotamus was worshiped. It is also said to have been a representation of Typho (in connection with the crocodile) and Mars. According to Plutarch, it "was reckoned among the animals emblematic of the Evil Being."
  3. Sir Gardner Wilkinson informs us further that the inhabitants at Sennaar still follow up the practice of their ancestors, and, like them, prefer chasing it in the river to an open attack on shore.