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Travels in South AfricaEdit

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Early on the morning of the seventh [day], in consequence of one of the party having asserted that some years ago he had met with the drawing of an unicorn in a kloof of the Zuure-berg, we set out upon an excursion across this mountain. Paintings we found, in several places, of a variety of animals, but none which bore the least resemblance to a quadruped with a single horn. Many of the peasantry had frequently assured me that unicorns were commonly found designed among the rest; but non of them as yet had been able to point out to me the drawing of such an animal, though we had visited several caverns in the Bosjesmans country for that purpose.

[...]

On the fifteenth we made another long excursion into the Tarka mountains, near where they unite with the great chain that runs along the upper part of the Kaffer country. Our object was to find among the drawings, made by the Bosjesmans, the representation of an unicorn. One of our party promised to bring us directly to the spot where he knew such a drawing stood. [...]

We still continued our search in the kloofs of the mountains in the hope of meeting with the figure of the unicorn, the peasantry being equally sanguine to convince me of the truth of their assertions as I was to gratify curiosity. We came, at length, to a very high and concealed kloof, at the head of which was a deep cave covered in front by thick shrubbery. One of the party mounted up the steep ascent, and having made his way through the close brushwood, he gave us notice that the sides of the cavern were covered with drawings. After clearing away the bushes to let in the light, and examining the numerous drawings, some of which were tolerably well executed, and others caricatures, part of a figure was discovered that was certainly intended as the representation of a beast with a single horn projecting from the forehead. Of that part of it which distinctly appeared, the following is a fac simile.

John Barrow unicorn drawing

The body and legs had been erased to give place to the figure of an elephant that stood directly before it.

Nothing could be more mortifying than such an accident; but the peasantry, who could form no idea of the consequence I attached to the drawing of such an animal, seemed to enjoy my chagrin. On being told, however, that a thousand, or even five thousand, rixdollars would be given to anyone who would produce an original, they stood gaping with open mouths, and were ready to enlist for an expedition behind the Bambos-berg, where some of them were quite certain the animal was to be found. Imperfect as the figure was, it was sufficient to convince me that the Bosjesmans are in the practice of including, among their representations of animals, that of an unicorn; and it also offered a strong argument for the existence of a living original. Among the several thousand figures of animals that, in the course of the journey, we had met with, none had the appearance of being monstrous, none that could be considered as works of the imagination, "creatures of the brain;" on the contrary, they were generally as faithful representations of nature as the talents of the artist would allow. An instance of this appeared in the cavern we last visited. The back shell of the testudo geometrica was lying on the ground; and the regular figures with which it is marked, and from which it takes its name, had been recently, and very accurately, copied on the side of a smooth rock. It was thought, indeed, from several circumstances, that the savages had slept in the cavern the preceding night.

The unicorn, as it is represented in Europe, is unquestionably a work of fancy; but it does not follow from thence that a quadruped with one horn, growing out of the middle of the forehead, should not exist. The arguments, indeed, that might be offered are much stronger for its existence than the objections are against it. The first idea of such an animal seems to have been taken from Holy Writ; and from the description there given, a representation of the unicorn, very illy conceived, has been assumed as a supporter to regal arms. The animal, to which the writer of the Book of Job, who was no mean natural historian, puts into the mouth of the Almighty a poetical allusion, has been supposed, with great plausibility, to be the one-horned rhinosceros: "Canst thou bind the unicorn with his band in the furrow? or will he harrow the vallies after thee? Wilt thou trust him because his strength is great, or wilt thou leave thy labor to him?" Moses also very probably meant the rhinoceros when he mentions the unicorn as having the strength of God. Aristotle had a very different idea of the animal, to which he gives the name of unicorn, for he describes it as a species of wild ass with solidungulous feet.

The african rhinosceros, having invariably two horns, cannot be supposed as the prototype of the Bosjesmans' paintings of the unicorn. Besides, the former frequently occurs among their productions, and is represented as the thick short-legged figure that it really is, whilst the latter is said by the peasantry to be uniformly met with as a solidungulous animal resembling the horse, with an elegantly shaped body, marked from the shoulders to the flanks with longitudinal stripes or bands. The greatest number of such drawings are said to be met with in the Bambos-berg; and, as the people who make them live on the north side of this great chain of mountains, the original may one day, perhaps, be also found there.

This part of Africa is as yet untrodden ground, none of the peasantry having proceeded beyond the mountains. It may be said perhaps that if such an animal existed, and was known to the natives inhabiting a part of the country not very distant from the borders of the colony, the fact would certainly before this time have been ascertained. This, however, does not follow. Very few of the colonists have crossed the Orange river, or have been higher along its banks than the part where we were under the necessity of turning off to the southward; and the sort of communication that the peasantry have with the Bosjesmans is not of that nature to supply much information respecting the country they inhabit. The mouth of the Orange river is much nearer to the Cape than the plains behind the Kaffer mountains; yet it was but the other day that the existence of the camelopardalis was ascertained near the former place, though no savage nation, but a civilized tribe of Hottentots only, intervened. Certain animals, as well as plants, confine themselves to certain districts of the same country. The animal above mentioned was never known to have passed the Orange river. It would appear also that in Northern Africa it has its limited range; for, since the time of Julius Cæsar, when one was publicly exhibited in Rome, it had been lost to Europe till within the present century. The accounts given of it by ancient writers were looked upon as fabulous. The gnoo is found only in certain parts of Southern Africa; and the blue antelope, (the leucophæa) which confined itself to the banks of one small river in the vicinity of Zwellendam, is now entirely lost to the colony. The springbok, seen in the northern parts in troops of thousands, never made its appearance in any part of the district of Zwellendam.

The Bosjesmans have no knowledge of any doubts concerning the existence of such an animal as the unicorn; nor do they seem to think there is any thing extraordinary that a beast should have one horn only. The colonists take it for granted that such an animal exists beyond the limits of the colony. Father Lobo, in his history of Abyssinia, describes the unicorn as a beautiful horse; but Father Lobo was considered as a person worthy of little credit, because he related things that were new. A modern traveller through the same country, in detailing some of the same circumstances touched upon by the former writer, has met with no better success. The schooled mind is apt to feel a propensity for rejecting every thing new, unless conveyed to it through the channel of demonstrative evidence, which, on all occasions, is not to be obtained; whilst, on the other hand, credulity swallows deception in every flimsy covering. The one is, perhaps, equally liable to shut out truth, as the other is to imbibe falsehood. Nature's wide domain is too varied to be shackled with a syllogism. What nations, what animals, what plants, and other natural productions, may yet be discovered in the unknown parts of the globe, a man, who has studied nature in the closet only, would hardly be supposed presumptuous enough to form a conjecture; yet such is the bias that the reputation of a name begets with the multitude, that the verdict of half a dozen generally decides the question.

Of all the accessible parts of the earth, the interior of Southern Africa is the least known to Europeans. A few paltry establishments of the Portuguese lie widely scattered along the two coasts; and the Dutch have colonized a few hundred miles from the southern angle along the two shores; but neither the one nor the other have supplied any information of the interior. Among the latter, Colonel Gordon was the only man who seemed desirous of extending the knowledge of the southern part of this continent, and his travels were very circumscribed. This gentleman had several occasions to see the drawings of the unicorn made by the savages, a circumstance to prove the existence of such an animal, on which he used to lay great stress. The following particulars, related to me by the persons themselves, may perhaps be considered as not entirely irrelevant to the subject. They shew at least how imperfect is the knowledge of the natural history of parts bordering immediately on the colony of the Cape, and that much yet remains to be discovered to an attentive traveller.

Adrian Van Yarfveld, of Camdeboo in Graaff Reynet, shot an animal a few years, ago at the point of the Bambos-berg, that was entirely unknown to any of the colonists. The description he gave me of it in writing, taken, as he said, from a memorandum made at the time, was as follows:

The figure came nearest to that of the quacha, but of a much larger size, being five feet high and eight feet long; the ground color yellowish, with black stripes; of these were four curved ones on each side of the head, eleven of the same kind between the neck and shoulder; and three broad waved lines running longitudinally from the shoulder to the thigh; mane short and erect; ears six inches long, and striped across; tail like the quacha: on the centre of the forehead was an excrescence of a hard boney substance, covered with hair, and resembling the rudiments of a horn; the length of this with the hair was ten inches.

About the same time, Tjardt Van der Walt, of Olifant's River in Zwellendam, in company with his brother, saw, near the same place, an animal exactly of the shape of a horse, and somewhat larger than the quacha, that had longitudinal black stripes on a light ground; it was grazing among a herd of elands. The two brothers having been some time without food, from their anxiety first to secure an eland, neglected the striped animal, intending afterwards to give chace to it; but his speed was so wonderfully swift, that, bounding towards the mountains, he was presently out of their sight.

Martinus Prinslo of Bruyntjes Hoogté, when on a hunting excursion, saw behind the same mountain several wild horses, entirely different from either the quacha or the zebra, but they were so shy that they never would approach them sufficiently near to make minute distinctions; they appeared to be of a light cinereous color, without stripes. This, however, might be a deception of sight arising from distance, as dark stripes upon a light ground cannot be distinguished very far; they form a shade between the two colors, and the lighter tint is predominant; as the primitive colors disposed in concentric circles on a card, and put in motion, will appear white. The black and buff zebra, even when very near it, and especially if in motion, appears of a dull bluish ash color, like the common ass. It is therefore probable, that the animals described by the three different persons, were of the same species. Vaillant also, who may generally be depended on, when he speaks of animals, mentions his having chaced beyond the Namaaquas, day after day in vain, an Isabella colored zebra. This also, in all probability, was of the same kind as the others.

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