This letter appears to have been written by Roualeyn Gordon-Cumming, a Scottish hunter and traveler, to his publisher, John Murray III. Gordon-Cumming spent five years from 1844 to 1849 in what could be the longest safari ever undertaken, travelling in the Northern Cape, Botswana, the Limpopo Valley and the former Transvaal.  His book, Five Years of a Hunter’s Life in the Far Interior of South Africa was first published by John Murray in 1850 and proved very popular for several years, briefly exceeding Charles Dickens’s sales.  Gordon-Cumming knew Livingstone, who was the only missionary he could turn for help and, often, guides.  While Livingstone supported Cumming’s book, Cumming’s activities brought him considerable trouble.

Poste Restante, Inverness.

19 May 1849.


My Dear Murray



I wish to thank you for your courteous reception of me and my manuscript at 50 Albermarle Street last month, soon after my return from South Africa.  I have had some time to think over the questions you asked me then, on which were the two most dangerous experiences I had.  I agree my answers would be useful in creating interest in the book, especially for reviewers.


While I have often been exposed to death wittingly, as in several very close encounters with lions, elephants and rhinoceroses, none comes close to two experiences, when I did not even realise my men and I were in danger.  The first, which I describe in this letter, concerns being stalked by a man-eating lion at night.  The second, described in the second letter, is when a far smaller but equally dangerous enemy, the Tsetse fly, nearly caused the end of our expedition.  Only Dr Livingstone’s timely assistance rescued us from a lonely death in the wilds of Africa.

As both experiences are described more fully in the manuscript, I will omit some details in these letters. 


Let me begin with the appalling tragedy of 29 August 1847.  I had recently decided to turn homeward, for two reasons.  Men we met had spoken of Moselekatze, then residing not far ahead of us, as someone who would most unquestionably murder me and my men, and seize all my property.  I was also warned that I would lose all my cattle from a fly called “Tsetse” in the country ahead.   Would I had found out more about this fly then!


On the 29th we arrived at a small village of Bakalahari, who told me elephants were abundant on the opposite side of the Limpopo  river.  I accordingly resolved to halt there and hunt, and drew my wagons up on the bank of this river, within thirty yards of the water, and about one hundred yards from the village. 


Having outspanned, we at once set about making a kraal for the cattle from thorn trees.  Since my recent   loss from lions of two of my best horses on the first of this month, my cattle were, at night, secured by a strong kraal, which enclosed my two wagons, with the horses being made fast to a trek-tow [touw] stretched between the hind wheels of the wagons.


I worked till near sundown with Hendrick, my first wagon driver – I cut down the trees [thorn trees if available] with my axe, and he dragged them to form the kraal.   When this work was nearly finished, I turned my attention to making a pot of barley broth for supper, and lighted a fire between the wagons and the water, close to the river bank, under a dense grove of shady trees, making no kraal around our sitting place for the evening, as I did not then think it would be necessary. 


The men, without any reason, made their fire about fifty yards from mine.  As was their custom, they were satisfied with the shelter of a large dense bush behind them.  The evening passed cheerfully.  Soon after dark, we heard elephants breaking tree branches in the forest across the river, and once or twice I walked away into the darkness and stood some distance from the fire to listen to them. 


At the time, I did not realise how dangerous this was, and that a man-eating lion was nearby, watching our movements carefully.  About three hours after the sun went down, I called my men to come and fetch their coffee and supper, which was ready for them at my fire.  After supper three of them, John Stofolus, Hendrick and Ruyter, returned to their own fireside and lay down. 


A few minutes later, an ox walked out the gate of the kraal to the back of it.  Hendrick got up and drove it back inside the kraal, and then went back to the fireside to lie down.  Hendrick and Ruyter lay on one side of the fire under one blanket, and John Stofolus lay on the other. 


I was then taking some barley broth, and the night was dark and windy.  The fire was very small as wood was scarce, most have being burned by the Bakalahari in their fires. 


Suddenly, the appalling and angry roaring of a blood-thirsty lion burst upon my ear within a few yards of us, followed by the men shrieking.  Again and again, the roaring was repeated.  We heard John and Ruyter shriek “The lion!  The lion!”, and for a few moments we thought the lion was merely chasing one of the dogs around the kraal. 


But then John Stofolus rushed to us, almost speechless with fear and terror, his eyes bulging in their sockets, and shrieked out, “The lion! The lion!  He dragged Hendrick away from the fire beside me.  I hit him on the head with a burning branch, but he would not let go.  Hendrick is dead!  Oh God! Hendrick is dead!  Let us take fire and seek him!”


The rest of my people then rushed about, shrieking and yelling as if they were mad.  I was immediately angry, and told them if they did not stand still and keep quiet the lion – or lions- would catch more of us.  I ordered the dogs to be made loose, and all available wood placed on the fire. 


I then shouted Hendrick’s name, but all was still.  I told my men Hendrick was dead, and that even a regiment of soldiers could not help him now.  I released the dogs, and brought everyone inside the kraal to the fire, and closed the entrance as best we could. 


My people, terrified, sat round the fire holding their guns till day broke, expecting the lion to return and jump into our midst at any moment. 


Outside, the dogs soon found the lion, who lay within forty yards of us all night.  They kept up a continual barking until day dawned.  Occasionally, the lion would spring up and chase the dogs toward the kraal.  He had dragged poor Hendrick into a little hollow just behind the thick bush where the men had made their fire and settled down to sleep, and there he stayed all night, crunching his victim’s bones and ignoring our presence. 


We later realised that the lion had seen Hendrick leave the fire and drive the ox back into the kraal.  He had scarcely lain down when the brute sprung on him, biting him on the breast and shoulder, all the while feeling for his neck.  Once the lion had found Hendrick’s neck, he then dragged him behind the bush into the darkness. 


As the lion lay on poor Hendrick, he faintly cried “Help me, help me!  Oh God, men, help me!”  After this, the fearful beast seized his neck and then all was still, except that his comrades heard the bones of his neck cracking beneath the teeth of the lion.   


The next morning, just as day began to dawn, we heard the lion dragging something up the river side under cover of the bank.  We drove the cattle out of the kraal, and then proceeded to inspect the scene of the night’s awful tragedy. 


In the hollow behind the bush, where the lion had lay consuming his prey, we found one leg of the unfortunate Hendrick, bitten off below the knee, with the shoe still on the foot.  The grass and bushes were all stained with his blood, and fragments of his pea-coat lay around [A pea coat was an outer coat, generally made from navy-coloured heavy wool].


Poor Hendrick!  I knew the fragments of that old coat, and had often seen them hanging in dense bush where elephant had charged after my unfortunate after-rider [after-rider being the man riding after Gordon-Cumming, often carrying an extra gun.  Gordon-Cumming, and sometimes Hendrick, were often chased by elephants and other wild animals].  Hendrick was by far the best man I had about my wagons, of a most cheerful disposition, a first-rate wagon driver, fearless in the field, willing and obliging; his loss to us all was very serious.


In the manuscript, I then describe how I caught the lion the next day, and killed him with two shots.


I trust this account will [be] of interest to possible readers.  While next account is less frightening, it still shows the dangers of Tsetse fly to travelers.


Yours faithfully


Roualeyn Gordon-Cumming