The first ever recorded sighting and bagging of a sable antelope is described in an article which I found in an old book by Peter Capstick. He copied this remarkable experience from an 1830s book written by William Cornwallis Harris himself. Harris was a British army officer who undertook several hunting trips into the interior of South Africa.

William Cornwallis Harris unquestionably influenced more sportsmen than any other over the fifty years following the publication of his book, first published in 1838.
Harris started his Indian military career as a sixteen-year-old second lieutenant of Engineers and, as a captain after thirteen years of service, was ordered to the Cape Colony for two years to recover from continued attacks of severe malaria. A gifted artist, he left us not only ethereal views of the land and game of the time, but also drew the only known and surviving portrait of Mzilikazi, the extraordinary Matabele king who figured so prominently in the war and peace of the region. A dedicated naturalist, he provided invaluable museum specimens, crowned by the rarest of all, a completely new species of large antelope.
Three years after he wrote his book ‒ the version published in Bombay, called Narrative of an Expedition into Southern Africa, and the more popular version reissued in London the following year, 1839, as The Wild Sports of Southern Africa ‒ Harris led a mission from the Government of Bombay to the Ethiopian king,

Sähela Selassie of Shoa. The success of this mission resulted in his being gazetted major and knighted. This last trip resulted in another book, The Highlands of Aethiopia, and closely coincided with the publication of a volume of lithographs of his paintings of Southern African wildlife, which is today considered one of the rarest and most valuable of all Africana. Harris died of fever near Poona, India, on October 9, 1848. He was only thirty-nine years old.
Harris’s recollections of his trip by ox-wagon north from the Cape Colony in 1836-7 represent the first book on African big-game hunting, and is particularly notable as his reasons for hunting were sporting, not commercial. So it might be argued that he was the first person to go on safari and leave a record – although he as likely as not had never even heard the word – despite the fact that many British officers must have done considerable hunting, at least near Cape Town, over the thirty years that troops had been garrisoned there.
Although some of his fellow officers and relative contemporaries were mostly interested in how frequently and how quickly they could kill game, Harris was much more than just another cap-popper. Actually, his scientific interest in specimens was about equal to his joy in the sport of obtaining them – certainly, the Zoological Society of London was the richer for his trips.
The sable antelope, Hippotragus niger, was long known as the Harrisbuck, and that such a scimitar-horned, anthracite-hued beauty does not still carry the name of its discoverer, is a loss. How the first sable was killed, is one of the best early safari tales, so let’s set off to the remote Cashan Mountains and try to see it through Harris’s eyes:
It is the afternoon of December 13, 1836, pleasantly cool for the rainy season, in what is now the Magaliesberg mountain range in the North West Province of South Africa. Captain Harris is with a party of Hottentots, following a wounded elephant on horseback. One of his frequent falls has bashed up his favourite 10-bore percussion rifle, and he is carrying a cumbersome, thundering great flintlock obtained from the soon-to-be famous missionary, the Reverend Robert Moffat, at Kuruman. It is a cannon, firing a quarter-pound hardened lead ball, persuaded rather violently along by fifteen drams of coarse black powder. As Harris pounds rhythmically over a dried vlei, or marshy area, he notices a small herd of oddly dark antelope about a half-mile off in a parallel valley. Reining in, he looks them over with his pocket telescope – the shock of realising that they are completely new to science shivers through him! Instantly, he forgets the elephant among the jeers and jibes of the Hottentots, who figure that anybody who trades an elephant for an “ugly buck” like whatever those animals are, must have been out in the sun too long. Spurs flashing, Harris rushes his horse toward them.

After a hammering run, the officer is among the weird, dark antelope – two looming bulls and nine paler, buff-coloured cows. Reining in his horse, Harris leaps from the saddle only fifty yards away, and sees the herd slow, then stop, staring curiously back at the strange white man. The iridescent purple-black skins of the loop-horned bulls gleam like wet ebony in the summer sun.
Harris takes a shooting breath, lines up the rough flintlock at the biggest male and squeezes the trigger. The smooth bore slips its hammer like a bear trap, the flint throwing a shower of sparks into the pan. Nothing. Misfire. A bull stamps a forefoot as Harris wipes the grime from his smeared forehead and re-cocks the big gun, centring the coarse bead of the front sight on the black chest once more. Snap! Clash! Flash! Silence. The antelope, now alarmed, begin to canter off, while the furious Harris lines up yet another misfire. Then they are gone …
Harris, his frustration more than he can contain, howls a curse, throws the perfidious gun on the rocky ground and remounts, to dash back to camp where he will try to repair his own weapon.
It takes two hours before his own double-barrelled, 10-bore rifle can be patched up and the hunter, on a fresh horse, is back where he last saw the strange, dark antelope. Still, as hard as the Hottentot trackers work, the sun is gone before he catches another glimpse of the animals. Furious, and despairing of finding them again, Harris rides back to camp for the night.
Dawn is still a coy blush somewhere over the light bushveld and feathery trees of the Cashans when Harris leaves camp and is back on the cold trail of the mysterious antelope. His frustration has turned to an obsession to collect one of the unknown, exotic creatures. For a whole searing, sweat-soaked day he and a tracker ride without a glimpse of the elusive wraiths, the black guillotine of darkness leaving them to sleep on the faint spoor, exhausted and “with only tea and biltong to eat”. The third day, they are again gone long before first light, cold tea and more biltong lumped like acid and harness leather in their stomachs.
The sun is high and ferocious in a sailcloth sky before the Hottentot hauls up at the edge of a series of low, broken ridges scattered with rocky hills. At the feet of their horses they find a scattering of compact dung pellets, near the heart-shaped hoof marks. Fresh. Harris changes the percussion caps of his rifle to be sure the dew has not affected them, eases the hammers down and removes the sling. Tethering their mounts, the Englishman and the Hottentot crab over the burning, saw-edged rocks to the lip of the emerald ravine, the officer’s blood pounding in his temples with excitement. Will they be there?

Through the shield of brush, Harris catches a flicker of movement and the dull gleam of arched horns where the antelope are resting in the heat at the end of the tangled draw. ‘
Slowly he inches up the 10-bore, the sight settling on the chest of the big bull. PHUTTDOOM! The double fires, the hunter is up and racing to see beyond the billowing bloom of white powder smoke. Score! The near hind leg of the bull has caught the big ball. Immediately, Harris touches off the second barrel, seeing and hearing the ball thump home into the animal’s chest. There is no point in trying to reload as the antelope stream by. Harris watches them run out of the draw, past his hiding place, the big bull galloping well despite his wounds. The Englishman’s hands are shaking as he reloads powder, linen-wrapped ball, ram, re-cap. As the mutter of dust-muffled hooves dies away, the dry slither of the ramrod sliding into its housing under the barrels blends with Harris’s call for the horses.
Harris and the Hottentot follow the splashes of blood easily for a full mile along a dry watercourse, with no indication of the wounded bull slowing down. And then, there he is, standing at bay, about one hundred yards off, the hind leg having given out. Harris is off his horse in a single movement, raising the rifle for the final shot. As he glances at his priming, a rumble of fear runs through his bowels as he hears a squeal and a series of low, angry grunts mixed with the clatter of hooves. The bull is charging!
Harris targets the chest and touches off the first barrel – the quarter-pound shot-put of lead knocking the black male down with a hollow thump as the big ball strikes. To Harris’s growing fright, the bull scrambles back onto his feet, the grunts of anger now a steady rumble of low, determined fury. Thoroughly scared, Harris slaps the wobbling foresight on the chest again and fires the last barrel. Whock! The bull falls and once more starts to rise to kill the man.
Spilling powder, Harris manages to get a charge down one barrel, followed by a hasty ball. Still fumbling with the percussion cap, he realises that it is not necessary. Halfway to his knees, the jet-black bull staggers, hooks his long horns twice and shudders as death overtakes him.
Captain William Cornwallis Harris realises he is the first man ever to take a sable antelope – in the opinion of many, the noblest, fiercest and most handsome of his kin on the African continent. Kudu bulls are delicately beautiful, oryx are savage and stark. But the sable? The sable is a man’s trophy!
I’ve often wondered if Cornwallis Harris’s bagging the first sable – or Harrisbuck – just might have been the grandest experience anybody ever had on safari. ASM