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.