This week, just as the House of Commons in London plunged ever deeper into the Brexit abyss, a beautiful hardback book revealed itself in the second-hand section of Chapters bookshop in Dublin. It was a glorious and timely coincidence.
The book was more than 120 years old and was rooted in those years when the British Empire was at the zenith of its power.
The book is James Greenwood’s Wild Sports of the World and a badge pinned inside its cover told the story of its origins. It recorded that on April 5, 1896, the president of the local Young Men’s Christian Association (YMCA), Henry Whitwell, presented it as a prize at a meeting in Birmingham.
The prize was given to one C I Clarke to mark his regularity of appearance at YMCA meetings over the previous half-year.
The stories of Clarke and Whitwell have disappeared from history — but the book that passed between them survives in mint condition. Its author, James Greenwood, was one of the great pioneering investigative journalists of the Victorian Age.
For example, he dressed as a ‘tramp’ and was admitted to a London workhouse in the 1860s. The piece he wrote — ‘A Night in the Workhouse — was a raw, unsanitised account of what he encountered.
And it caused a sensation.
There is something of a dispute over whether, as a writer, Greenwood was genuinely concerned about the lives of the people he wrote about, or whether he was so driven by the pursuit of fame that he exploited some and exaggerated about others.
That is the kind of dispute that has swirled around the lives of many journalists ever since.
Either way, Greenwood was acknowledged as an important writer and his works were published and republished.
Greenwood’s Wild Sports of the World was a different kind of book to his previous undercover work, however. Indeed, it is an extraordinary book.
And it could only have been written at the highpoint of British imperialism. It is soaked in the rhetoric of Empire and is just about the last period of time in history in which somebody could write about ‘sports’ of the world as constituting only the hunt of big game.
To set up his book, Greenwood makes the claim that the “secret of the vast successes” of the Empire had its source in adventure: “It is simply an historical fact that England was born of adventure.”
He continued by writing of his hope that “for the world’s sake, as well as our own” this spirit of adventure will live for many more years.
Naturally, the idea of “colonisation” was a good thing for Greenwood, with its “subjugation of territory and the supplanting of less useful races.”
More than anything else, the book is a plea for “manliness and pluck” — the sort of “manliness and pluck” that was supposed to underpin the whole notion of the British empire of sport from soccer to rugby, and from cricket to polo.
And, in setting out a purpose of his book, Greenwood rests it on his hope that “the excitement to be found in its pages cannot fail to stimulate the more wholesome, more generous, more manly instincts of those into whose hands it is destined to fall”.
It’s not clear if C I Clarke read the book with which he was presented and was moved to pursue a life of “manliness”. Nor is it clear that he was moved by it to travel around the world to pursue the sports that are set out.
But if he were so moved, he would have killed an awful lot of animals.
For example, the first chapters tell stories of how Englishmen have hunted to death great numbers of elephants, lions, pumas, gorillas, rhinos, tigers, hippos, leopards, panthers, jaguars, buffalos and kangaroos (to name but a few).
The book has the illusion of being somewhat educational — there are guidelines on the physical constitution of each of the animals, and on their natural habitats, before discourse on the actual hunt is considered.
And in this discourse, first-hand testimony of those who have undertaken the hunting is given an airing. Sometimes this testimony comes from English explorers, other times it comes from “savage hunters”. Where would a book set at the high point of British imperialism be without reference to local “savages”?
The descriptions of how people hunted are filled with detail. For example, down in Africa, live ostriches were hunted for feathers by locals who disguised themselves in the skin of a dead ostrich and stalked about the plain imitating their walk. In other parts, they were hunted by Arabs on horseback or were caught in traps. For their part, the method most favoured by imperialists was to wait by watering holes for the ostriches to appear. As they drank the water, slowly and deliberately, taking great big gulps, they were shot with high-powered rifles.
And then there is the story of Major Gordon and the mighty giraffe family he encountered while out hunting game: “Having brought down one of them with a musket-ball, the Major approached, and stroked the animal’s forehead, and otherwise caressed it, when so far from exhibiting resentment or anger, the poor brute gently closed its eyes as though grateful for the caress.”
But even someone as lacking in self-awareness as Major Gordon could not deny the downside to this particular death: “When its throat was cut, preparatory to taking off the skin, the giraffe, while struggling in the last agonies, struck the ground convulsively with its feet with immense force, as it looked reproachfully on its assailant with its eyes fast glazing with the film of death.”
Not that this brought any pause for reflection in the book. In the next sentence, we are off with William Harris to kill more giraffes, this time in central Africa. Seeing some 32 giraffes feasting on leaves in a flowering mimosa grove, William “knew they were mine”. Sitting in his horse, he loaded and fired, and loaded and fired, continuing to shoot even as his target shuffled and stumbled into death. The dying giraffe was “mute, dignified and majestic”, it had “tears trickling from the lashes of his dark humid eyes” as William described “broadside after broadside was poured into his brawny front.” And then came death.
For William it was the finest trophy he ever won and the dying breath of the giraffe brought absolute joy: “Never shall I forget the intoxicating excitement of that moment!”
The great myth of the British Empire was the supposed nobility of its civilising mission. This mission was soaked in the images of Christianity and in the so-called manliness of its sports. As justifications go, it was utterly warped and self-serving and plainly false.
Sometimes it takes the image of a dying giraffe, its life taken by a hail of bullets fired from a bloodthirsty English colonial, to remember the hubris of those who celebrate the culture of an Empire that took from the world as it wished.
Paul Rouse is associate professor of history at University College Dublin.