UNICORNS HISTORICALLY IN SOUTH AFRICA

In the 1700s, some of the early explorers beleved unicorns were to be found on the Boschberg - this stemmed from Barrow's account of the cave painting he saw of a one horned animal in a cave in the Bamboesberg, near present day Tarkastad.

 Belief in unicorns was widespread historically; in China the first mention was 2800BC.  Aristotle believed in unicorns, as did Pliny.  Marco Polo C1300 – described the rhino as the unicorn “a passing ugly beast to look upon, and is not in the least like that which our stories tell of as being caught in the lap of a virgin”.

From very early on, the unicorn had found its way onto maps and particularly on the African continent.  The belief in the existence of the unicorn in southern Africa was strengthened by reports from the interior of the Cape of Good Hope of drawings on rocks depicting the unicorn among known South African animals.

There was definitely confusion between the magical and medical beliefs applied to rhinoceros horn, and the age old beliefs about the qualities of unicorn horn.  Charles Thunberg writes that in the region of the Cape the horns of the rhinoceros were kept "not only as rarities but also as useful in diseases and for the purpose of detecting poison. The fine shavings of the horns, taken internally, were supposed to cure convulsions and spasms in children, and it was firmly believed that goblets made of these horns in a turner's lathe would discover a poisonous draught by making the liquor ferment."

The earliest description of a unicorn in the Cape is in Jan Willem de Grevenbroeck’s letter in 1695.  Having relayed what he had heard about the giraffe (which was not seen at the Cape until 1663), he wrote that he had heard from some people that they had seen unicorns similar to a horse in size and shape.

The legend appears in the vicinity of the Tarka Berg near the Bamboesberg. In his Travels into the Interior of Southern Africa published in 1801, John Barrow included a line drawing of the unicorn’s head, very similar to the European concept, but which barrow stated was a facsimile of a drawing found on a rock – sadly the body and legs were concealed by an elephant. I must not forget to tell you that, from what I hear, I am almost persuaded of the existence of the unicorn, ten feet high, the horn of brown ivory, two and a half feet long, twisted and tapering to a point, thick at the root as aman’s arm, and thick as a man’s finger at the end; hoofs and tail like a bullock’s; a black short mane, skin like a horse’s – colour white, watered with black (I have a pair of slippers said to be made of it); very fierce, roots up trees with its horn, and feeds on the boughs; an object of worship to the inhabitants. Barrow offered up to five thousand rix dollars to anyone who found a living specimen; he went on to become a founding member of the Royal Geographical Society.

Martinus Prinslo, of Bruyntjes Hoogte, when on a hunting excursion, saw behind the same mountain several wild horses, entirely different from either the quacha or the zebra

Conraad de Buys, from this area, who had lived among the inhabitants of the remote areas, was quoted as being convinced of the existence of the unicorn.  The governor offered a reward of a new ox wagon with twelve oxen to anybody who brought a live or dead unicorn or its skeleton to the Cape.

W.B.E. PARAVICINI DI CAPELLI 1803 wrote - We looked in vain for rock paintings of Bushmen. All the colonists assure us that among the animals on such paintings they had seen the unicorn, always drawn in the same way. Coenraad de Buys had declared when he spoke to us of this that he had often seen these unicorns. The Governor promised to whomsoever delivered a unicorn, dead or alive, or the skeleton of one, at Cape Town, a reward of a thousand rix dollars and a beautiful, new wagon with a team of twelve of the best oxen.

From They were South Africans re Robert Hart Other expeditions soon followed. The more Hart's company saw of the hinterland, the more unexpected they found it. The wild horses of the mountains wore vivid stripes, and the men still had high hopes of killing a unicorn for scientific Mr Barrow.   

FROM THE EMERGENCE OF IMPARTIALITY Anders Sparrman, a travelling companion of James Cook, initially saw no reason to be overly sceptical when, in South Africa in the 1770’s, he was told by natives that in the expanses of Namibia’s deserts there still lived creatures resembling the European unicorns, and, indeed that the solution to the entire unicorn mythology could be found there. Sparrman never got to see the animal which was described to him, an antelope with a single mighty horn on its forehead, yet as he emphasised in his journal of 1783, he did not want to brush aside the possibility of its existence.

FROM KNOWLEDGE AND COLONIALISM Robert Jacob Gordon rejected the existence of the unicorn. In Europe Sparrman’s opinion was scorned by Prof. Camper, who says that the unicorn is an anatomical impossibility.

In 1811 William Burchell wrote to his mother from Capetown that he hoped to recoup himself for the expenses of his scientific travels, as he had been informed that that a giraffe skin had sold in England for £1 500.  He added; that should he be so fortunate as to discover the unicorn, which was supposed to exist in that part of Africa, he had not the least doubt of making five times that amount.

The story of the unicorn engaged the serious attention of various learned men until quite late in the 1900s.  Scientist Sir Francis Galton who visited South West Africa, wrote in a book published in 1853 – The Bushmen, without any leading question or previous talk upon the subject, mentioned the unicorn.  I cross-questioned them thoroughly, but they persisted in describing a one-horned animal, something like a gemsbok in shape and size, whose horn was in the middle of its forehead, and pointed forwards.  The horn was in shape like a gemsbok’s, but shorter.  They spoke of the animal as though they knew of it, but were not at all familiar with it. It will indeed be strange if, after all, the creature has a real existence.  There are recent travellers in the north of tropical Africa who have heard of it there, and believe in it, and there is surely plenty of room to find something new in the vast belt of terra incognita that lies in this continent.

David Livingstone is said to have been a firm believer, Thomas Baines was not!

In 1860, the Natal public discussed the feasibility of hunting up the unicorn.  These were the pros and the cons which were raised.

The arguments in favour were

  • Sketches of the unicorn are to be found in many caves and on rocks in south Africa, especially in the Cape Colony, together with pictures of other living and known animals, drawn by Bushmen.
  • A Zulu in the service of Mr Osborne, a Natal Colonist, told his employer that he, in company with five other Zulus, had explored the plateau of the Drakensberg proper, where they had come to a swamp of the extent of one day’s travelling, and there and then found six animals of dark brown colour about the size of a blesbok, having a long tail, with a long, straight horn on the head.  They proved to be of a very ferocious nature, as they attacked at once, with the result that his five mates were killed, and he only survived by scaling a rock.
  • A Basuto in the service of Daniel Bezuidenhout of the Bethlehem district, had offered to show his master (for a cow and calf as remuneration) a kind of animal on the Drackensberg which he described as the Zulu had done, adding that it was so fierce as to attack its own shadow.
  • As no white man had ever explored the Drackensberg plateau between the sources of the Tugela and Cornetspruit, where the Zulu to had located the swamp, it is just possible that the unicorn thrives there, prevented by its natural shyness from migrating to lower and less lonesome pastures.

The arguments against were

  • Supposing the animal existed at one time in SA, why has nobody ever found a petrified carcase or even a single bone?
  • None of the black tribes have a name for it in their language.
  • That it is not extinct, like the dodo, mastedon or mammoth which have all left evidence of their existence, but is a mere popular fiction like the satyr and the dragon.
  • That the pictures to be found in KhoiSan caves are unsuccessful profile sketches of rhino.

As the enterprise was not a very costly affair, those in favour might have persevered, and taken shares in the Natal unicorn Company (Ltd.) except for the hostle attitude at the time of the Paramount chief, Moshesh.  The country to be explored, though occupied by a few KhoiSan, was within his domain.  It was not approachable from the Natal side, as passes through the Drakensberg were not known at that time. The gap through the mountains by which the Griqua chief, Adam Kok, managed to enter Griqualand East, was only discovered at a later period. Hence, the only possible road was up the Namagazi (Elands River) and through Weedsie’s Hoek.  From there Basuto guides would have been indispensible, but, considering the unfriendly feeling of their Chief, and the known dread of the tribe of the few Bushmen still on the mountain, the Natalians despaired of ever procuring a specimen.  For these reasons the paln was abandoned.

Whether the company in Natal was ever established has not been ascertained, but speculation about the existence of the unicorn went on in South Africa, even as late as May 1910.