Grove Press
Grove Press
Grove Press

A Certain Curve of Horn

The Hundred-Year Quest for the Giant Sable Antelope of Angola

by John Frederick Walker

“Walker writes with insight and compassion. . . . A Certain Curve of Horn deserves to be ranked with Peter Mathiessen’s classic, The Snow Leopard. It underscores the sanctity of all life, a lesson as important for humanity’s survival as for the giant sable antelope’s.” –The Philadelphia Inquirer

  • Imprint Grove Paperback
  • Page Count 496
  • Publication Date February 20, 2004
  • ISBN-13 978-0-8021-4068-5
  • Dimensions 6" x 9"
  • US List Price $17.00

About The Book

A compelling story of exploration and adventure, politics and war, told through the quest for one of the most purely majestic of Africa’s animals, caught amid the upheavals and brutal savagery of Angola’s wars

The great animals of Africa have long been under siege–once routinely slaughtered as trophies by big-game hunters, their habitats are now slowly being choked off by the relentless encroachment of human development, and increasingly the efforts to preserve them are hostage to the warfare that ravages the continent. In A Certain Curve of Horn, veteran journalist John Frederick Walker tells the story of one of the most revered and endangered of these regal beasts: the giant sable antelope of Angola, a majestic, coal-black quadruped with breathtaking curved horns over five feet long. It is an enthralling and tragic tale of exploration and adventure, politics and war, the brutal realities of life in Africa today and the bitter choices of conflicting conservation strategies.

A Certain Curve of Horn traces the sable’s emergence as a highly sought-after natural history prize before the First World War, and follows its struggle to survive in a war zone fought over by the troops of a half-dozen nations, and its transformation into a political symbol and conservation icon. As he follows the trail of this mysterious animal, Walker interweaves the stories of the adventurers, scientists, and warriors who have come under the thrall of the beast, and how their actions would shape the course of the history of the giant sable antelope and the history of the war-torn nation that is its home.

Culminating with a heart-pounding voyage into the heart of rebel-held Angola in search of the first scientific confirmation of the animal’s existence in decades, A Certain Curve of Horn is a thrilling blend of history, natural science, and adventure–and a fascinating look into the world of a magnificent beast that has haunted the imaginations of hunters and naturalists around the globe for generations.

The paperback edition includes a new Epilogue by the author


“Walker writes with insight and compassion. . . . His intriguing conclusion is that the Songo and Lwimbi people of Angola have so venerated the giant sable antelope that concerted efforts were made to keep it alive, even in the midst of war. . . . A Certain Curve of Horn deserves to be ranked with Peter Mathiessen’s classic, The Snow Leopard. It underscores the sanctity of all life, a lesson as important for humanity’s survival as for the giant sable antelope’s.” –Ed Voves, The Philadelphia Inquirer

“One of a writer’s hardest tasks is introducing his readers to a distant country few of them have ever seen and to a culture they have scarcely heard of. Walker succeeds in bringing the southwestern African country of Angola to wretched life in A Certain Curve of Horn. . . . Walker brings to life a time now largely past, when rich hunters roamed the world looking for trophies . . . . Walker’s tale of troubled Angola and its noble beast is worth a look.” –Anthony Day, The Los Angeles Times

“A story of war, politics, conservation and the giant sable’s prospects.” –Dan Barber, The Dallas Morning News

“Part Angolan history, part natural science, part analysis of the United States’ sorry role in the conflict, and part adventure tale.” –Mark Azzara, The Sunday Republican

“Walker weaves an intriguing tale of Angolan history. . .while hoping to realize a boyhood dream of viewing a giant sable. . . . History, science, and adventure are joined in a most readable fashion.” –Joanne Ashton, Book Review

“Like an Indiana Jones adventure, exotic locales, tangled politics, ethical quandaries and the occasional comic twist [jazz] up John Frederick Walker’s quest for the giant sable antelope.” –Anita Srikameswaran, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

A Certain Curve of Horn is the best nature-related book I have read for a long time. It is the gripping tale of one of Africa’s most symbolic and noblest animals, caught up in Angola’s long spiral of violence. Walker fuses colonial and contemporary history with his own thrilling adventures into the African bush, to deliver a book that encapsulates like no other, nature’s struggle in the face of man’s destructive ways.” –Tarquin Hall, author of To the Elephant Graveyard

“In relating, with elegant and incisive prose, the moving saga of this glorious animal and the barbaric human landscape it now inhabits, John Frederick Walker informs, enlightens and entrances. He deserves all congratulations for a very singular achievement. This is my favorite kind of book.” –Simon Winchester, author of The Professor and the Madman and The Map that Changed the World

“A Certain Curve of the Horn takes us on a quest for the grandest antelope of them all. But does it still exist? The search for answers leads us into a world of colonists, slaves, explorers, revolutionaries and CIA provocateurs. At its heart is the quintessential story of colonized Africa.” –Tim Flannery

“It is, in essence, an adventure story, one that embraces many of the themes and conflicts of modern Africa: its politics and poverty, its war-torn history, its search for balancing wildlife conservation with the needs of an exploding population. At the book’s center stands the giant sable, a magnificent animal that has fired the imaginations of naturalists and big-game hunters for decades.” –Wildlife Conservation

“[Walker] embarks on a fascinating quest for this almost mythical creature whose very existence has become a symbol of the conservation movement.” –Smoke

A Certain Curve of Horn presents a compelling overview of the adversities faced by species in the wild (and by those who seek to protect them), as seen through the history of one endangered–and endearing–animal. Part adventure, part history, part politics, part biology, the book is informative and readable. And it makes one simultaneously long for a glimpse of the beautiful giant sables and hope that they will be kept from human view as much as possible.” –Jane Eklund, Monadnock Ledger

“Fascinating. . . . A riveting account of [Walker’s] research and travels, recalls Peter Matthiessen’s tale of a similar search for the snow leopard in the frigid Himalayas. But where Matthiessen struggled against inner ghosts, Walker mainly does battle with bureaucratic bungling and Third World corruption, making his book more a chronicle of the politics of conservation.” –Laurence A. Marchall, Natural History

“Walker casts a wide and authoritative net in a story that is part rich history of Southern Africa, part natural history of the giant sable, and part journalistic first-person adventure tale. He masterfully brings to life the many colorful characters involved in determining the fate of the giant sable and clearly portrays the conservation challenge faced by an isolated and beleaguered population in danger of being wiped out before it is fully known.” –J.E. Grinnell, Choice

“Walker is not the only one bewitched by giant sables. Their archetypal magnetism has for centuries worked its mystery on native peoples, explorers, hunters, game ranchers, biologists, conservationists, zoo and museum curators, and soldiers of both fortune and war.” –Communiqu”

“[Walker] weaves a surprisingly fascinating story around one animal, involving colonialism, revolution, biology, and politics, both within the scientific process and the government of an unstable nation, resulting in an epic story that is hard to put down.” –Nancy Bent, Booklist

“[Walker] does an excellent job of weaving the biology and natural history of the antelope with the social and political history of Angola. . . . A highly readable account. . . . [and] a detailed portrait.” –Library Journal


One: Tracks in Shadow

I came across the book that started it all on a boyhood bibilographic expedition in the old municipal library in Fort Lauderdale, Florida. Treading carefully on its creaking wooden floors, I followed the Dewey decimal system around the dim and sagging stacks to 799.27 and the Dark Continent. All that warm summer I had been absorbing tales of true adventure by Carl Akeley, W. D. M. Bell, Jim Corbett, Colonel Patterson, Frank (“Bring “em Back Alive”) Buck, and scores of other authors, and when I spotted the promising title, Hunting in Africa East and West, written in 1925 by the Curtis brothers, I took it off the shelf.

The black-and-white photographs in the book were the first pictures of the giant sable I had seen, and they shocked me. In one, the head of a just shot bull lies at the feet of Richard Curtis’s young wife, Anita.

Dressed in a long skirt and loose blouse and shyly–perhaps unhappily; the expression is hard to read–looking out from under the brim of her pith helmet, she holds the horn tips timidly in her hands. The fresh, wet cape of skin trailing from the animal’s neck is draped on the ground like a bloody muleta. Several curious Africans peer over her shoulders like a silent native chorus. Later I learned that safari photographs are often contrived, staged, or faked. But even as a boy I knew instinctively that the camera had caught an exact, candid moment in the unsettled mix of emotions on her face. The same raw rub of reality was apparent in the photograph captioned ‘my giant sable head and Thomas, my gunbearer.” It was Richard Curtis’s trophy again, this time turned in splendid profile by the smiling African’s firm grasp of the horns, the bowed head of the animal with its unseeing long-lashed eyes an expressionless mask. I stared at the pictures for a very long time. The layers of fused meanings–the comingling of conquest and defeat, beauty and blood–compacted into those two photographs took me years to even begin to understand. As I boy I could not take in the conflicting messages of the hunt, only the sublimity of the animal slain.

I felt something strangely confirmed by its profile. The sensation was the kind you have when you turn around a piece of a puzzle and feel it click into the mental space of a half-recognized shape–in this case, the archetype of nobility in the bestiary of my imagination. What I understood as a boy staring at those black-and-white overly contrasted photographs in Curtis’s hunting memoir was that the animal looked exactly the way it ought to look. It was perfect–a creature almost heraldic in its stateliness, more like a proud beast from legend than one of this earth.

I know now that the magnetism of this antelope–the almost gravitational pull–emanates largely from the incomparable geometry of the bull’s horns, which are as mathematically proportioned as the interior of a chambered nautilus. To follow their perfect sweep is to treat the eye to a visual Doppler effect of ring after closely set ring rising from the skull, expanding in precise increments along the great arched shaft before they fade smoothly into conical, rapier points in perfect diminuendo. Animal to animal, there are subtle variations among these crescent curves that open out to straightened tips. But the shape always has a tension, an aching flex like a drawn bow at the precise moment of release.

The impression these photographs made awakened in me the inchoate desire to seek out the animal. So did the text, and one passage in particular left me wanting to know more:

It was only just before the last great war that its origin was discovered by H. F. Varian, an English engineer engaged in building the new railroad inland from Lobito Bay in Angola to the Katanga copper mines. Between the Cuanza and Loando Rivers in Angola, Varian found a new species of antelope with immensely finer horns than the common sable and a somewhat different face-marking. This was the giant sable antelope . . .

Who was Varian? And what did a railroad have to do with the discovery of the giant sable? These and other questions that occurred to me competed with all the others that had crowded into my young mind. I had to wait until much later for the answers.

By then I realized how strange it was that this great beast had remained so long undiscovered by Europeans. The explanation of that puzzle, like all the others, had to be prized out from the story of how Angola was colonized.

As african colonizers, the Portuguese have often been described as the first to come and the last to go; it’s not precisely true, but true enough. By the mid-1400s, the Portuguese had begun to venture down the Atlantic coast to seriously explore and exploit sub-Saharan Africa. Although Arab traders had established trading posts as far south as Zanzibar on the East African coast by the tenth century, and in the 1420s Chinese vessels had established contacts there as well, neither the Arabs nor the Ming Court followed up their early forays. As a result, fifteenth-century maps of southern Africa were hardly more complete than they had been a millennium before: the coastal outline became vague south of the Canary Islands on the Atlantic coast, and the Comoro Islands on the east.

But the cartography of Africa began to change in 1434, when Prince Henry (“the Navigator”) of Portugal, fired by dreams of tapping directly the sources of the West African gold long coveted by Europe, commissioned a caravel and its crew to sail past Cape Bojador, some one hundred miles south of the Canary Islands, at that time the farthest point south European ships had reached on the Atlantic coast of Africa. Soon after that tentative trip, other Portuguese explorers, sustained by an amalgam of iron faith and sheer greed, were traveling farther down the coast in their armed, maneuverable little ships, braving the stormy Atlantic and the terrors said to lurk in its depths. In doublet and hose, round-helmeted and armed with sword and spike and arquebus, silhouetted against their billowing, red-crossed sails, they played their part daringly, landing in (and claiming) the small coastal enclave of Guinea-Bissau in 1446 and there­after returning from Africa with handsome profits in the form of gold and ivory and captive heathens that could be ransomed.

By Prince Henry’s death in 1460 the Portuguese had reached Sierra Leone, and the goal of greater riches lured them farther south. In 1482 the Crown gave Diogo C”o the command of two ships to explore beyond Cape Santa Caterina–today’s Gabon. Each of C”o’s vessels carried a massive six-foot-high padr”o, a stone cross to be planted at each expedition’s most important landfalls. Their inscriptions read:

In the year 6681 of the world, and in that of 1482 since the birth of our Lord Jesus Christ, the most serene, most excellent and potent prince, King John II of Portugal did order this land to be discovered and these to be set up by Diogo C”o, an esquire of his household.

The next year, 1483, was half over before C”o, sailing down a humid equatorial coast of endless green swamps and steaming curtain walls of mangrove trees, and later past high red cliffs glowing in the setting sun, reached something worthy of marking with a padr”o–the yawning mouth of a river so vast that its foaming waters freshened the sea a hundred miles from the coast. We know it now as the Congo River, in the upper northwest corner of modern-day Angola. C”o sailed on another six hundred miles down the continent, past the mouth of the Cuanza, to plant a second cross south of today’s Benguela in Angola, in the mistaken belief he had reached the southernmost tip of Africa.

That error would be corrected in 1488, when Bartholomeu Dias rounded the Cape of Good Hope. This potential new route to the Indian Ocean was successfully tested by Vasco da Gama’s voyage to India a decade later. These expeditions gave Portugal a toehold in East Africa that later led to control over a significant swath of the coastline. Eventually they secured a colony there, Mozambique, to match, at more southerly latitudes, their western enclave in Angola, as if hoping to cinch in the lower continent from opposite coasts. The Spanish, French, Dutch, and British followed, in different degrees, with their own explorations. The landmass of Africa drawn on maps began to approximate the geographical form we now find familiar. But it would take another four centuries to fill in the outline.

Angola is thought to have had four million inhabitants when the Portuguese arrived. The original inhabitants of the country were the San, or “Bushmen,” and the Khoi. They were hunters and gatherers, but there is evidence of large, sedentary fishing communities along the Congo River as far back as the Late Stone Age (6000 b.c.e.). Starting in the first century c.e., an influx of Bantu-speaking peoples from the north and east brought the use of iron, agriculture, and animal husbandry with them; these migrations reached their peak in the 1400s, just prior to the arrival of the Portuguese. By that time the patchwork of ethnolinguistic regions that remains today was largely in place. It included the Kongo-speaking inhabitants of the lower Congo, the Mbundu of the middle Cuanza, and the Ovimbundu of the central plateau (still the largest ethnic group in Angola today), as well as numerous other peoples. Although the village was by far the most important social and economic unit, larger political structures–chiefdoms and kingdoms–had developed in the precolonial era.

The first Portuguese landings and initial contacts were no more than shallow, coastal penetrations; tiny slivers in the side of a sleeping giant, sufficient for small-scale bartering for spices and gold and the occasional raiding party. But soon enough these intrusions began to fester: the Portuguese started slaving, acting as ferrymen for Africans in the trade, taking captives from point of sale to point of purchase along what came to be known as the Slave Coast. They quickly discovered their own uses for them. The Portuguese needed labor to work their sugar, cotton, and cocoa plantations on Madeira, the Cape Verde Islands, s’o Tom” and Pr”ncipe, and not long after, Brazil. Other European countries also required a huge ­labor force for their growing New World plantings of cotton and sugar, and all found sufficient reasons to justify the trade in human lives.

This is the dark heart of the historical matter, the beginning of a crushing oppression of the native populace that continued, in one grisly form or another, until Angolan independence in 1975, after which this disregard for human life would be revisited on the divided nation like a curse, in the form of unending civil war. As contemporary accounts make clear, it wasn’t that the Portuguese colonizers failed to notice the cries and lamentations and agonies of their captives. The chronicler Gomes Eannes de Azurara said of the human cargo he saw at Lagos in 1444, “What heart could be so hard as not to be pierced with piteous feeling to see that company?” A modern sensibility might conclude that the sufferings of the natives simply didn’t matter enough to stop the lucrative practice. Azurara saw it differently; he felt reassured these same souls would receive knowledge of the faith, as well as bread, wine, and clothes, instead of living their lives in “bestial sloth.” Whether cloaked in such a rationale or not, over the next three centuries the slave trade became not merely an element of world trade, but a key component of it. Grafted on to indigenous slaving practices–various forms of slave-keeping were commonplace in tribal cultures and the Arabs had maintained a flourishing slave trade across Africa for centuries–the scale of the European commerce in human lives grew enormously. Historians reckon some ten to twelve million people were exported from Africa to the Americas.

Luanda became Africa’s greatest slave port. A great marble throne, the Bishop’s Chair, stood on its wharves for the use of the prelate officiating at the wholesale baptisms given the wretched souls as they were being led aboard the slave ships. Captives departing from minor ports undoubtedly missed this parting sacrament, but all alike would be introduced to Christianity through the dignity of labor on overseas plantations. Because four million slaves passed through the ports of Angola before Portugal formally ended the trade there at the close of the nineteenth century, and roughly the same amount are thought to have died on forced marches from the interior to the coast, Angola must have lost eight million people.

Colonization was grindingly slow, but inexorable, as the fate of the Kongo kingdom demonstrates. By the time the Portuguese arrived, the realm covered one-eighth of present-day northern Angola, large enough to be divided into six provinces, each ruled by a subchief. The inhabitants worked iron and copper, wove palm cloth, and raised chickens, pigs, sheep, and cattle. At first, contacts with the Portuguese seemed mutually beneficial; by the 1490s, they had brought priests, artisans, even printers to the Kongolese court, and had taken a number of young Kongolese nobles to Lisbon for education. They were happy to provide technology, religious instruction, and military assistance in exchange for ivory, copper, and, most profitable of all, slaves.

But the Portuguese traders, officials, and missionaries soon sided with various factions in the Kongo kingdom to promote their own ends, which revolved primarily around increasing the slave trade. The Kongolese had traditionally used war hostages as slaves, but in many cases integrated them–as subclasses–into society. The Portuguese, however, simply shipped off their captives en masse to foreign lands and were always hungry for more.

The Kongolese king, Mbemba Nzinga, who had become a devout Christian convert and ruled as Dom Afonso I after gaining the throne in 1506, became alarmed. He began to write two successive kings of Portugal a total of twenty-four letters, the first known African commentary on the effects of European contact. In 1512 King Manuel I of Portugal responded with some instructions to the Portuguese community, but what might have been the beginning of a policy of enlightened alliance was flatly ignored by the local traders. By 1526 Afonso was petitioning the monarch:

So great, Sir, is the corruption and licentiousness that our country is being completely depopulated . . . That is why we beg of Your Highness to help and assist us in this matter, commanding your factors that they should not send here either merchants or wares, because it is our will that in these Kingdoms there should not be any trade of slaves nor outlet for them.

Afonso’s pleas had no practical effect whatsoever. Even the priests Afonso had invited took up buying and selling slaves. As historian James Duffy put it, Afonso’s “greatest flaw was a naive refusal to believe that some Portuguese were able to betray the virtuous principles he had been taught to hold.” By 1568 the kingdom had split into warring factions, helped along by scheming Portuguese and invading tribes.

The collapse of the Kongo kingdom marks a turning point for the inhabitants of Angola. It would all be downhill from then on, with brief pauses marking the odd successful resistance against the colonizers. But Portuguese domination, slow as it was, proved inevitable. Luanda, Angola’s capital, was founded in 1576, and by 1617, when Benguela was established, Portugal had control of the coast of Angola. The Cuanza River offered easy access from the Atlantic, and fertile valleys inland held the promise of riches, particularly new sources of slaves. At first, slave-trading with the Portuguese enhanced the power of the kingdoms of the interior, because slaves could be exchanged for firearms that could be used to subjugate their neighbors. Later, tribal power waned as the tribes’ religious and cultural bases were steadily undermined. This pattern of collaboration followed by native resistance and European conquest seesawed throughout the history of the colonial period. Although open to the contacts which eventually proved their undoing, few of the peoples that the Portuguese encountered were easily subjugated. Some tribes, in fact, weren’t brought under “control” until the early twentieth century.

Portuguese expansion was resisted by other Europeans as well as indigenous peoples. In 1641, the Dutch, who had been also active in the coastal slave trade, took over Luanda and formed alliances among the African kingdoms, until the port was retaken in 1648. This episode made it obvious that Portugal’s grip on her colony was tenuous, and it would remain so for centuries. By the end of the eighteenth century neither the settlers nor the administrators had effective control of the territory, and even had to compete with the British and French for the slave trade. Only sixteen churches existed in the country, hardly enough to provide evidence of one of the main justifications for colonization, that of a religious mission.

There were distinct reasons for this state of affairs. Portugal made a practice of colonizing with convicts, often recruiting ships’ crews from their own dungeons. In fact, right up to 1925, most of the Portuguese in Angola were exiled convicts–degredados. Tropical diseases such as malaria took such a toll that almost no Portuguese would willingly emigrate there, forcing the Crown to use assorted murderers, rapists, and thieves to fill posts in the military or commercial arenas. Not surprisingly, most of these types found the slave trade more congenial than farming or practicing an honest skill. Contemporary observers found that even Luanda’s elite “were all slave dealers, who would not shrink from the commission of any crime, if it tended to promote their interests.” According to an 1846 survey, there were 1,830 Europeans (whites) in the entire colony–Luanda had 1,466 men and 135 women; Benguela had 38 men and one woman. Two years later the population in Benguela was halved by disease. Lopes de Lima, who supplied the grim statistics, explained that

Living in that country is a continual battle with disease and death: white men have contracted the incessant habit of always walking on the street with their hand on their wrist to observe their pulse, and when they see each other the usual question is–has the fever gone . . .

By the mid-nineteenth century only the ports of Luanda, Benguela, some settlements along the Cuanza, and less than a dozen forts in the interior were under direct Portuguese control. But the reach of the slave trade extended Portuguese influence much farther, although it would take until the end of the 1800s to penetrate the more populated areas of the central plateau.

Portugal occasionally alleviated the paucity of European women by sending out quotas of orphaned girls to wed the settlers, but impatient colonos simply engaged in interracial cohabitation. This gave rise to a mesti”o class that eventually constituted an important, though never large segment of the colony’s population, largely accepted by white settlers and sharing their outlook. Some Portuguese historians point to such liaisons with African women as proof of Portuguese racial tolerance in their colonies. But as another historian, Gerald Bender, put it, “To assume that the readiness of Portuguese and other European men to mate with non-white women was indicative of European egalitarian attitudes, rather than lust, is a gross distortion of reality.” But the broader ideology of “Lusotropicalism” –the doctrine that the absence of Portuguese ­racism resulted in “racially egalitarian legislation and human interaction” in their tropical colonies–was regularly trotted out in justification of Portugal’s policies in Angola until it abandoned the colony in 1975.

Because the Portuguese Crown looked to Angola for quick profits and slaves for Brazil, which was seen as a more promising colony, it was never motivated to develop the more systematic rule found in British or French colonies. Early efforts on the part of reform-minded colonial governors to diversify the one-crop economy faltered until the late 1800s; Angolans themselves were a more valuable harvest than anything that could be raised there–even after slave traffic formally ended. Although the conscience-stricken British had abolished the slave trade in 1807 and slavery in their empire in 1834, and the Portuguese, under the leadership of the reform-minded Prime Minister s’ da Bandeira, had followed suit with the decree of 1836 banning slave traffic, this was easily circumvented and had little practical effect on the lives of Angola’s inhabitants. Later, by 1856, when the global importance of the slave trade began to wane, Portuguese settlers introduced a novel way to extract additional worth from the natives: a hut tax, which simply encouraged them to move outside areas under direct Portuguese control. Even the compromise decree of 1858, which provided that all Africans then held in slavery would be freed in twenty years, had been violently resisted by Portuguese traders and settlers, who feared that their very way of life would disappear.

h. f. varian didn’t ‘discover” the giant sable. It had been known and apparently revered by the Songo and Lwimbi peoples who shared its territory. But why hadn’t the existence of this magnificent quadruped been noted previously by Europeans? There are several reasons. One was that the giant sable covered its own tracks, as it were, by leaving prints that would have certainly been mistaken for the more familiar sable’s (for the only thing more “giant” about the giant sable is its horns) or confused with the similar spoor of its stocky, short-horned cousin, the roan. Europeans who first came across its trail in the highland plateau might simply have assumed that the familiar sable, whose range extends into southeastern Angola, in fact occurred farther north as well, never suspecting there might be a shadow beast that left a common sable’s impress.

But there is nothing “common” about any sable antelope. Never numerous, these splendid animals are found scattered throughout the southern savanna from East Africa and Mozambique across to the southern Congo Basin. Seeing sable antelopes for the first time is always a special experience; for William Cornwallis Harris, the first European to do so, it was extraordinary. Many explorers had encountered Africa’s unmatched array of wildlife before, but Harris was one of the first to come to the continent expressly for that purpose. Early explorers largely regarded Africa as a treasure chest to be cracked open and plundered. But it wasn’t just the gold and slaves and ivory, or even the diamonds, rubber, oil, coffee, and copper to come that glittered; Africa also held out the possibility of making a great discovery, perhaps solving some vexed geographical puzzle (the source of rivers, the location of lost cities, the mystery of snowcapped mountains on the equator) or single-handedly extending the tree of taxonomy (who knew what startling specimens, unknown to science, remained uncollected?). Harris’s determination to collect representative specimens from the African bush netted him the supreme prize, the discovery of a new species–the sable antelope.

Born in 1807, Harris left England at the age of sixteen to serve as a second lieutenant in the military engineers of the East India Company. As a boy he harbored the ambition to become the greatest hunter in the world, and he was able to hone his field skills in the Indian subcontinent. A keen amateur artist, he did as much sketching as shooting of wildlife. Sent to the Cape Colony in 1836 to recover from an Indian fever, young Captain Harris was able to fulfill his long-held dream of hunting in Africa by turning his convalescence into a five-month expedition, accompanied by William Richardson, a fellow ship passenger and sportsman he persuaded to join him. Harris arrived with his teapot, tent, artist’s materials, and a barrel of gunpowder. Determined to “bring back correct delineations’ of the wildlife of southern Africa as well as trophies, he boasted, “I never moved without drawing materials in my hunting-cap, and during brief cessations from hostilities, found ample employment for the pencil instead of the rifle.” His hair-raising adventures into the interior, encounters with Hottentots and renegade Zulus, pursuits of giraffe, elephant, and scores of other species and the like are recounted in his 1838 The Wild Sports of Southern Africa, illustrated with his handsomely detailed, stylized drawings.

Months into their expedition, the two adventurers had bagged and catalogued over four hundred animals between them, and were passing through the “picturesque” Cashan Mountains (not far west of modern-day Pretoria) when Harris, in pursuit of a wounded elephant, ‘spotted a herd of unusually dark-looking antelopes’ in an adjacent valley. Checking with his pocket telescope, he saw “that they were perfectly new to science; and having announced my determination of pursuing them, if requisite, to the world’s end, I dashed down the slope.” Dismounting to observe them at fifty yards, he counted nine chestnut-colored ‘does’ and “two magnificent coal-black bucks–all with scimeter[sic]-shaped horns.” They stared back at him. His rifle failed to fire, forcing him to return to camp for another weapon, cursing his misfortune. Three days of tracking followed before he was able to shoot the larger male, which although wounded led Harris ‘more than a mile over the sharp stones ere he was brought to bay, when twice charging gallantly, he was at length overthrown and slain.”

Harris was overjoyed. He wrote, “It were vain to attempt a description of the sensations I experienced, when thus, after three days of toilsome tracking, and feverish activity, unalleviated by any incident that could inspire the smallest hope of ultimate success, I at length found myself in actual possession of so brilliant an addition to the riches of natural history.” Entranced by the graceful curve of the yard-long crescent horns, the contrast of the glossy jet black coat and the snow white belly and face markings, he made dozens of measurements and a careful drawing. “We thought we could never have looked at, or admired it sufficiently; my companion observing, after a long pause, “that the sable antelope would doubtless become the admiration of the world.”” Determined to preserve his prize, he carefully skinned it and returned to camp. It was December 15, 1836.

The next day, Harris turned his safari homeward. Despite attacks by Bushmen, and the loss of over seventy oxen, he was able to arrive with his specimens intact–two perfect heads of every major quadruped in southern Africa, including that of the sable, which he had slept with in his cot for safekeeping on the journey back. He had it preserved in Cape Town by a French naturalist, and eventually sent it to the British Museum. Harris called his discovery “the Sable Antelope,” sable being the heraldic color black, but for generations after, the animal would be known as the “Harris buck.”

That an even grander race of sable antelopes existed elsewhere in Africa remained a secret. Of course, there were Portuguese who ventured into Angola’s interior highlands. Beyond the line of Portuguese forts, “traders and freebooters and priests and campaigners had gone to dwell or preach or fight in distant African communities, sometimes to return and sometimes not.” But they never got wind of the beast. Among the tales they might have returned with, there was nothing concerning the animal that they would later call the palanca preta gigante.

explorers came to Africa for a raft of reasons: to do God’s work and bring his word to benighted savages; to promote commerce and amass a personal fortune; to make a fresh start by settling new lands, whether they were already occupied or not; to have adventures and experiences that would test one’s character, resolve, and strength of purpose; to fight the inner ‘softness’ that was considered the pernicious side effect of ninteenth-century progress; to give in to dark impulses and “go native”; and hundreds more. Many explorers, perhaps most, are more important for what they set in motion–the opening of trade, the jockeying for geopolitical advantage, the colonizing of wildlife itself–than what they accomplished. Yet what they did was amazing enough.

Their chronicles, once the great adventure reading of their day, now stand on little-visited shelves of older libraries. But the maps bound within these volumes of exploration confirm just how tantalizingly close some of these early travelers came to the lands of the giant sable. Put tracings of the routes of Angola’s great explorers over each other, and the effect is like looking through layers of wavy glass; proportions and distances vary, names change, villages disappear and settlements shift, mountains move, rivers slither about. Only much later will the geographic features become as fixed as they are on modern maps. Wagon routes eventually became roads, fords turned into bridges, provincial limits were drawn, airports appeared. But the 1850s maps of Angola are poorly drawn, except for the Atlantic coastline; even the extent of the country is indistinct, because spheres of influence had not yet solidified into colonial boundaries. Over the next few years a trio of famed explorers, Dr. Livingstone, Lieutenant Cameron, and Serpa Pinto, would traverse Angola. What they would see–and didn’t see–in that land, what they learned there and what they set in motion, would all shape the fate of the colony and the giant sable that lives at its heart.

The missionary impulse brought one famed explorer surprisingly close to the great antelope. In late 1853 Dr. David Livingstone, the Scottish medical missionary, left Linyanti (in the Caprivi Strip of today’s Namibia) to ascend the Zambezi with twenty-seven African bearers, food supplies, articles of trade, navigational instruments, weapons, and a magic lantern to show biblical scenes. Livingstone traveled over a thousand miles by boat and ox-back to cross Angola, battling malaria and a host of other ills, but never failing to record detailed observations on the surrounding flora and fauna, down to the variety of grasses and minutiae of insect behavior, and of course, people and their customs. He made a special study of the physiognomy of various tribes and “became so familiar with the dark color as to forget it in viewing the countenance.” One might say that Livingstone looked at matters of race through a spiritual lens; he did not view what he saw as the superiority of the white race as something innate, but the result of Christian education–a gift he hoped European powers would confer on black Africans as well.

Upon reaching the settlement of Cassagne to the west of the Kwango River in Angola, Livingstone’s men were told by the inhabitants that white men were cannibals and he was taking them to the coast to sell them for food. They were reassured only when he told them he would continue alone if they doubted his good intentions. The party pushed on. “We spend Sunday, the 30th of April, at Nigo, close to the ford of Quize as it crosses our path to fall into the Coanza,” Livingstone wrote. “The country becomes more open, but is still abundantly fertile, with a thick crop of grass between two and three feet high. It is also well wooded and watered.” He was approaching Malange, skirting the top of today’s Cangandala Park, the northern haunt of giant sable, but the great observer was barely conscious of his surroundings, much less primed to make a new discovery. “It would have afforded me pleasure to have cultivated a more intimate acquaintance with the inhabitants of this part of the country,” he wrote, “but the vertigo produced by frequent fevers made it as much as I could do to stick on the ox and crawl along in misery.”

Clinging to swaying Sinbad, his independent-minded mount, he finally reached the Atlantic a month later, on May 31, 1854. Livingstone spent three months recuperating in Luanda, which he noted “is now in a state of decay.” He was fed, clothed, and even f”ted by the Portuguese he encountered, and commented favorably on their lack of color consciousness. He had mixed feelings about Portuguese rule, but found cause for hope in progress. Reluctant to abandon his men so far from their homeland, he spurned the offer of passage home on an English cruiser and instead undertook the arduous return trip, largely retracing his route, but coming no closer to the giant sable.

Livingstone would go on to fame as the European discoverer of Mosi Oa Tunya (“the smoke that thunders’), cataracts on the Zambezi he would name Victoria Falls, and, in 1856, would reach Quelimane on the coast of Mozambique, becoming the first European to cross the African continent–although by the end of that journey he was so exhausted he had to be carried in a litter. Fifteen years later he was “found” in a weakened state on the shores of Lake Tanganyika by the self-promoting soldier of fortune, Henry Morgan Stanley (‘dr. Livingstone, I presume?” was his famously fatuous greeting). Livingstone refused to give up his search for the source of the Nile, even when he hardly had the strength to wind his watch, and finally succumbed in Zambia in 1873 after nearly thirty years of arduous exploration. His faithful men found him dead, kneeling at the foot of his bed. He may have lost his health, family, and hopes for the rapid salvation of the continent, but his feats of exploration, and more importantly, his crusading efforts to bring the benefits of civilization to Africa, would have far-reaching effects. Livingstone’s chilling descriptions of encounters with long, shuffling caravans of slaves in chains or yoked to sticks and whipped when they fell behind deeply affected the readers of his books. His conviction that only a European presence in Africa could bring about the final suppression of the shameful practice of slaving meant, of course, the opening of free trade. As he put it, “No permanent elevation of a people can be effected without commerce.” Civilization, he was certain, would come with the Christianity that would follow that commerce.

The impact and influence of Livingstone’s Missionary Travels (1857) and Narrative of an Expedition to the Zambezi and Its Tributaries (1866) was enormous. These works were among the first in a series of texts written by explorers and adventurers who took their inspiration directly from their predecessors’ writings. The contemporary Portuguese reaction to Livingstone’s works was less admiring than that of the British. Livingstone, they argued, had not been the first to travel extensively in their lands, nor was he the first to cross the continent–not if you included an earlier expedition of two pombeiros (native traders), Pedro Jo’o Baptista and Amaro Jos’. More importantly, if, despite Lisbon’s strict decrees, slavery was still widespread in its territories, as Livingstone reported, well, that was the reality of life in Africa. It would not be the last time Portugal would have to defend its colonial policies.

There were other explorers of note who came close to the lands of the giant sable–but by southerly routes. The first to do so was twenty-eight-year-old Lt. Verney Lovett Cameron, the leader of a search party sent out by the Royal Geographical Society to look for Livingstone, who had not been heard from for over a year. In September of 1873, having marched in from the Indian Ocean to Tabora on the way to Lake Tanganyika, he learned the crushing news that Livingstone had already died. His devoted African followers had refused to abandon his body, and after burying his heart, bore his corpse along with his papers and instruments across the whole of modern-day Tanzania, to Zanzibar. Meeting up with the sad cortege, Cameron gave them supplies, and borrowed several of the doctor’s navigational instruments. He then set off to finish the great man’s goal of exploring the Lualaba, whose headwaters Livingstone thought might be near the greatest geographical unknown of Africa, the source of the Nile. Cameron failed: the Lualaba turned out to be the mighty Congo, not the Nile.

But in so doing Cameron became the first European to cross the southern continent from east to west. By 1874 he had gone directly west into the Congo Basin, and reached Nyangwe on the Lualaba. Slave traders there suspected that he wanted to open the river as a route for his own slaving, and refused to let him buy or hire canoes to explore farther downriver, forcing him to take an overland detour to the southwest–and Angola.

By September of 1875, Cameron and his porters were approaching the Cuanza River, skirting the southern border of the giant sable territory. Although Cameron was in close contact with the local inhabitants and made careful notes on all he observed, there is not a hint of the giant sable’s existence in his writings. Several days later, after trading sufficient cloth to the local ferrymen, Cameron’s party crossed the wide Cuanza on rickety native canoes and his rubber boat on October 2, 1875. Heading west, he met up with several caravans, but had little luck in trading. “I had to sell my shirts in order to keep us from actual starvation,” he admitted. He soon learned that the inhabitants of every village he would pass from then on were “overwhelmed” with cloth and were interested solely in gunpowder or aguardente (spirits)–of which he had neither. Rain, hunger, and sickness took their toll on the expedition and brought it to a halt. Cameron decided to jettison everything but instruments, journals, books, and a half-eaten chicken to risk a forced march to the coast, 126 miles away.

Trying to keep up appearances for his men, Cameron clambered over boulders and hacked through tangled woods, stumbling past bleached human skeletons, some still linked in the clogs and neck forks that told the story of their deaths on some forgotten slave march to the coast. Reaching the top of a steep and rocky ridge, he saw a distant line on the sky, and recognized the ocean. He endured a day of “crawling over rocks and staggering through pools, waist-deep, dammed up in hollows since the last rains and now slimy and stagnant” before staggering down the final slope toward the seacoast town of Catumbela next to Benguela, exhausted but joyfully swinging his rifle round his head.

Cameron found his way back to England to write Across Africa (1877). Toward the conclusion of his narrative, he reflects on the great task of civilizing the Dark Continent, and wonders why British steamers can’t be “carrying the overglut of our manufactured goods to the naked African, and receiving from him in exchange those choicest gifts of nature by which he is surrounded, and of the value of which he is at present ignorant? The Portuguese hold the keys of the land route from Loanda and Benguela and keep out foreign capital and enterprise, and are morally accomplices of slave traders and kidnappers.” His opinions joined others in influencing British policy in the following decades, when the European powers began to divide the spoils of Africa with gusto, and much of the track of his trans-Africa crossing would become an established trade route.

Two years later, in 1877, another explorer brushed up against the giant sable’s domain, again by the southern route, but from the opposite direction. Major Alexandre Serpa Pinto, a Portuguese army officer, sailed to Luanda with two navy officers, Hermenigildo Capello and Roberto Ivens, on an expedition sponsored by the Geographical Society of Lisbon. After falling out with his companions, Serpa Pinto set out on his own, traversing southern Africa from Benguela to the Indian Ocean, “for the sole purpose of labouring,” he explains, “in the great task of survey of the unknown continent.” Like every serious explorer, Serpa Pinto tried to think of everything in the way of supplies needed to cross the continent, including a ‘mackintosh boat purchased in London,” a barrel of aguardente, fifty pounds of gunpowder, and various scientific instruments, including a French sextant, German compasses, and English chronometers. For company and comfort, he took a goat, a chattering parrot, and two bottles of 1815 port, one of which, to his intense dismay, was broken when the young African porter entrusted with carrying them stumbled and fell.

Serpa Pinto confesses in his How I Crossed Africa (1881) that he alternated between “boundless faith” in the work of his expedition and ‘shudders of pain and alarm” at his probable fate. He warns his readers that they can only imagine how circumstances in these savage lands conspire to test the moral code of civilized travelers. When he writes, “I would beg my censors to ponder for a moment on my position, accompanied as I was by a mere handful of men, in a country where everything was hostile, climate and inhabitants included,” we are primed for his admission a few pages later that he insisted a ne”er-do-well Portuguese be given fifty lashes for unexplained villainies.

Serpa Pinto supplemented the record of his own experiences with what he heard in his travels, passing on much useful advice for anyone who might follow in his steps, including details on the culinary preferences of the people of the Bi” Plateau. “They are not positively cannibals,” he cautions, “but they do from time to time indulge in a mouthful or two of a roasted neighbor.” Although what the major discovered often confirmed his prejudices, he was determined to document his journey properly. Crossing the highlands of Angola, he analyzed the shapes of anthills, and identified every hoofed creature he encountered by its Latin name. He diagrammed the manner in which the Ganguella, Lwimbe, and Loena people shaped their incisors, and commented on their hairstyles, headdress, and clothing, or more precisely, lack of it.

In early June, 1878, seven months after leaving Benguela, Serpa Pinto reached the left bank of the wide but shallow Cuanza as it curved through a vast, marshy, grass- and reed-choked plain nearly two miles across, “enclosed on either side by gentle green slopes clothed with trees.” Over fifty yards from bank to bank, but no more than six feet deep, its remarkably clear water ran gently over a bed of fine white sand. He took a sighting: at twelve degrees, thirty-five minutes of latitude; he was roughly forty miles south of the prime habitat of the giant sable antelope. Five days later he crossed the river in his mackintosh boat and four borrowed canoes, and pushed on to the “picturesque” landscapes of the country east of the Cuanza–lofty, wooded hills, splendid trees, impassable underbrush. He found the climate ‘magnificent”; in fact, the nights were very cold. Despite his antislavery views, he openly advocated conquest of natives not yet under direct rule–a foretaste of Portuguese policy to come. He pointed out that because the land was “inhabited by a people easily subjected, it is in the very best condition for rapid development.”

Later that month, Serpa Pinto left camp early one morning “to seek for game northward, where the country was covered with dense forest.” After a walk of eight miles, he came to the Cuime River, a tributary of the Cuanza, just below its cataract. It had been a fatiguing day afield, but he’d had “good sport” and seen for himself the river that the natives said was navigable from the cataract west to the Cuanza. He turned back, and did not reach camp until night. It was the closest he would come to the southernmost range of the giant sable. Serpa Pinto’s journey across Africa eventually ended at the Indian Ocean at Durban, an extraordinary achievement which made him famous in Europe and a hero in Portugal.

There were other explorers who passed close to the haunts of the unknown sable. Serpa Pinto’s erstwhile companions, Capello and Ivens, made a more painstaking but less spectacular expedition across Angola, from Benguela through the northeastern lands of the colony back to Luanda. Their route actually cut across the lower end of the giant sable country in 1878. The two were aware of the impressively horned “harrisbuck,” the common sable antelope that the Portuguese called the palanca preta vulgar. But even though they made the obligatory crossing of the Cuanza on native dugouts and went on to travel through the lands of the Lwimbe and Songo, noting their appearance and customs–right down to the design of the fish traps the natives set in the rivers–they reported nothing of the existence of a greater palanca.

The tribes had kept their silence.

Copyright ” 2002 by John Frederick Walker. Reprinted with permission from Grove Atlantic, Inc. All rights reserved.

Author Q&A

1. Your book, A CERTAIN CURVE OF HORN, illuminates the fate of many of the great animals of Africa by telling the story of the giant sable antelope of Angola. Why did this antelope with sweeping horns gain almost mythical status among tribal peoples, adventurers, scientists and hunters?

For the same reason it captured my imagination when I first saw a photo of it: it looks like a walking emblem. The incomparable geometry of its horns gives it a proud, stately profile that attracts myths and meanings like a magnet. To the local tribes it is a sacred animal, to the Angolans as a whole it is a symbol of defiance and national pride. For early explorers it was a kind of grail beast and for hunters it became the ultimate trophy. Today biologists see it as a flagship species endangered by habitat loss and poaching and a test of our ability to respect the natural world. If we can’t ensure the survival of such a magnificent creature, what will we ever care enough about to save?

2. The giant sable antelope – and many other animals in Angola – face extinction as a result of political strife, poaching and habitat loss in a unique ecosystem. What role did the civil war play in the survival of the giant sable antelope, and since the war has ended, has the threat to the antelope also vanished?

Bizarrely enough, the war helped preserve the creature by turning its habitat into a war zone, a no-man’s land. But what really saved it was its symbolic power to both warring sides. To the government, it’s the national animal, featured on its money and stamps and the tail fins of its airline. Even the Angolan soccer team is named for it. On the rebel side, the giant sable was a vital symbol of the resistance and revered by the rural population.

Although some 90% of Angola’s large animals ended up in the cookpots of both troops, or were shot for target practice, the giant sable was off-limits. On the rebel side, shooting one would be punished by death. Sadly, the animal may not survive the post-war peace, unless the government reasserts control over its national parks and wildlife reserves. Habitat loss, and even poaching, are now closing in on Africa’s most beautiful antelope.

3. How does one begin to champion the preservation of a species – specifically in Angola?

It is difficult enough to work for species survival in a poor African country in peacetime. It is almost impossible to do it during wartime. But I met some extraordinary individuals who wanted to ensure that there was something left of Angola’s once rich wildlife heritage when peace finally came, and if it were not for their efforts, which ranged from elephant airlifts to behind-the-scenes diplomacy, Angola’s wildlife would be even more devastated than it is now. Fortunately, every species that was nearly wiped out in the civil war can be restocked from populations elsewhere in Africa, except for the giant sable, which is why it is vital to ensure that it endures, not just for those who care about African wildlife, but for the Angolan people.

4. You wrote about the bitter choices of conservation. What are those choices?

We are fast becoming a world in which there are only islands of nature left, even in Africa. Even in an area the size of South Africa’s Kruger National Park, which is as big as the whole of New Jersey, it is difficult to maintain an ideal balance of animal and plant species. Kruger, for example has too many elephants, which are rapidly denuding it of vegetation and endangering other animal populations. Moving elephants is wildly expensive, and often impractical. There are only so many needed by other African parks or international zoos. Culling – reducing the herds by shooting – is a dreadful choice, but is sometimes the only one, unless you’re willing to “let nature take its course” and allow a park become a desert and its animal populations crash.

5. You pointed out that you sometimes questioned your focus on an animal in the middle of a nation so desperate for humanitarian aid. Are these separate issues and how do you reconcile the dilemma?

Whenever I met humanitarian aid workers who’d come to Angola to try and do whatever they could to care for a war-ravaged, disease-ridden population, I wondered if my concern about a mere antelope was misplaced. But the Angolans I met didn’t see it that way. They were desperate for food, for medicine, for jobs, education and all the rest, but they also wanted to know that there was something left of their country’s once rich wildlife. They wanted to know their great national animal, the giant sable antelope, had been a survivor too, despite a civil war that lasted almost three decades. That made me realize that what I could do for the Angolans was to tell the story of how the fate of an endangered antelope was entwined with the tragedy of their country’s history, and hopefully bring attention not just to a rare species, but to a nation’s plight.