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A Voyage to the Cape of Good Hope, vol. II, ch. XIVEdit

Swedish originalEdit

English translation (1786)Edit

That singular animal, the unicorn, which is usually represented like a horse with a horn in its forehead, has been found delineated by the Snese-Hottentots on the plain surface of a rock somewhere in that country, though in as an uncouth and artless a style, as might naturally be expected from so rude and unpolished a people. Jacob Kok, that great traveler and attentive observer of nature, whom I have had occasion to mention before at page 351, Vol. I. is my only informer on this subject. The Snese-Hottentots told him, that by this sketch they meant to represent an animal, which, in point of resemblance, came nearest to the horses on which he and his company rode, but which at the same time had a horn in its forehead. To the above account they added, that these creatures were rare, extremely swift of foot, furious and dangerous; so that, when they went out after them they did not dare to attack them at close quarters, nor appear before them on the open plains, but were obliged to clamber up some high cliff or rock, and there make a clattering noise; by which means they knew that the beast, being of a curious disposition, would be enticed towards the spot, when they might, without danger, destroy it by means of their poisoned arrows. It should seem, that a rude and barbarous people like the Snese-Hottentots, could not easily feign, and, by the mere force of imagination, represent to themselves such being, and at the same time so circumstantially relate the manner in which they hunted them. Still less credible is it, that these savages should have been able to preserve any remembrance of the occurrences and relations of former times with respect to this animal. Neither is it any wonder, that a sketch of the unicorn should be seen here at one place only. For in general little or nothing is seen in passing though this country, which is only resorted to for the purpose of hunting elephants. Now I have happened to touch upon the subject of the elephant, it is worth while to remark, that even this, the largest of all animals on the face of the globe, which is so common and so much sought after in Africa, and so frequently tamed, and at the same time so much used, and consequently so well known in Asia, has been hitherto, as it were, unknown, and the subject of much dispute with respect to an essential point, I mean the manner of its copulation, as I have related above at page 326, Vol. I. It is therefore not so much to be wondered at, that of an animal less in bulk, and much less common we should know nothing. And though I should object to the testimony given me by my informer, as well as to that of the Snese-Hottentots, on the subject of the unicorn, yet the existence of it should not on that account be looked upon as a fable, notwithstanding that it is not known to these more modern times.

It is but a few years since the mention of the camelopardalis, the tallest when measured at the fore part, of all quadrupeds, has been revived by naturalists; this too has been the case with the gnu. A representation of this remarkable animal, the camelopardalis, seems likewise to have been given us by the ancients; but who, till these our times, even considered it in any other light than that of a fiction, a monster, or, at least, a monstrous medley, existing only in the imagination? When we consider, moreover, that the hippopotamus, which in all probability is a larger animal, though somewhat lower than the elephant, has been hitherto very little known; as likewise that, till the present moment, we have been almost utter strangers even to the rhinoceros bicornis, may we not expect that there will be a time, when the unicorn and all other beasts and insects, animated by the Creator of all things, but unknown to us at present, will be brought out of their holes and hiding-places into the light? The following extract of a letter from M. Pallas, dated 14th of December, 1778, which, on account of the good sense and instruction with which it is replete, I shall take the liberty of inserting in this place, will serve to confirm us in the idea, that the unicorn is a real, and not an imaginary animal.

"Quod monocerotem in interioribuc Africæ partibus etiamnum latere suspicionem moves, id quidem mihi haud inexpectatum; certoque jamdudum persuasusus sum, non ex nihilo apud veteres illam fuisse famam; sed vel casu unicornes antilopas, de quibus in XII. Fasciculo Spicilegiorum dixi, ansam dedisse, vel peculiarem fortè speciem unicornem, nobis hucusque ignotam, antiquitus innotuisse, quando interior Africæ itineratoribus Europæis errant frequentiora. Si non incidisti forsan in locum relationis Ludovici Barthema, ubi Monocerotes duos Meccæ ad templum in theriotrophæo visos, describes: vide illam, quæso, in Vol. I. collection. Ramusii, p. 151. b. Nescio quid hominem excitare potuisset ad fingenda, quæ ibi retulit, quæque non ita malè cohærent."

I have not as yet been able to procure a sight of the Collectiones Ramusii referred to by M. Pallas[1].


  1. The passage in Varthema here referred to is as follows:

    "Da unaltra banda del ditto tempio è una murata nellaquale sta dentro dui unicorni vivi & li se monstrano per cosa grandissima come è certo: Li quali diro come sono facti. El maggior facto como un polledro di trenta mesi & ha uno corno nella fronte el quale corno sie circa tre braccia de longheza. L'altro unicorno sie come serio un polledro de uno anno: & ha un corno longo circa quatro palmi. El colore del dicto animale sie come un cavallo saginato scuro: & ha la testa come un cervo & ha el collo non molto longo con elschuna crina rara & curta che pendeno ad una banda: & ha la gamba sottile & asciuta come un capriolo: el pede suo è un poco fesso davanti & longia è caprina: & ha certi peli dalla banda di dietro veramenti questa mostra de essere un ferocissima & deserto animale. Et questi dui animali furono presentati allo Soldano della Mecha, per la piu bella cosa ch' hoggi se trovi al mondo & per piu ricco thesoro liquali furono mandati da uno Re de Ethiopia: zioe da un Re Moro el quale li fece questo presente per fare parentato con el dicto Soldano de la Mecha."

    "On the other side of the temple there is a court-yard encompassed with high walls, where we saw two unicorns, which were shewn as great rarities, and indeed are fit subjects for admiration. The form of them is as follows. The larger one resembles a foal of two years and a half old, and has a horn in its forehead about three cubits in length. The other unicorn was less, being nearly as big as a foal of a year old, and had a horn about four palms long. The colour of this animal is that of a dark dun horse; its head is like that of a stag, its neck of a moderate length, furnished with some thinly scattered short hairs that hang down on one side: its legs are long and slender like those of a roe; the feet are somewhat cloven in the fore part, and the hoofs are like those of a goat. It has on the back part of its legs a great quantity of hair, a circumstance which gives this animal a fierce appearance; though, in fact, the beast is tame and gentle in its nature. Both the animals were presented to the Sultan of Mecca as very great rarities, and which are to be found in very few parts of the globe, by an Ethiopian King, who sought for the Sultan's friendship."

    The preceding passage is extracted from the original, in the library of the President of the Royal Society. The book itself, the title of which is as follows, Itinerario di Ludovico de Varthema, Bolognese, ne lo Egypto, ne lo Suria, ne la Arabia, &c (Venezia, 1517, 8vo.) is extremely scarce, and does not appear to have been seen either by M. Pallas, Dr. Sparrman, or his German commentator Mr. Forster. The translation of this passage is made from Ramusio, who has modernized the author, or rather re-translated him from a Latin version, which is itself a translation only from the Spanish; so that the Italian original must have been lost for some time.

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