|Le Vaillant at Kok's Kraal, Great Fish River, 1781|
Dogs, of course, have hung around with humans for thousands of years. In this country, they are everywhere, beloved as companions by some and vilified by others. They are used as guards, hunters, police, showpieces, scapegoats, and insults ranging from sexist to racist. They are selectively bred, sold for high prices, variably pampered or neglected, and sometimes eaten. There is little conformity to all this within or across cultures or groups.
What of dogs in previous periods in South Africa?
I’ve been noticing that in many landscape or urban paintings of the seventeenth, eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries – paintings of trekkers, or views of early Cape Town or Port Elizabeth – often tucked away in a corner, or tagging along behind a wagon, is an unremarkable and unremarked dog.
It’s usually impossible to distinguish any breed or role in these tiny canine figures. But there they are. One wonders how they were regarded, and by whom, and how they were treated.
I’ve also been reading Ian Glenn’s translation of the Travels into the Interior of Africa via the Cape of Good Hope by the French naturalist François le Vaillant. I am looking for encounters with elephants, but as it happens there are quite a few dogs, too. In 1781 Le Vaillant trekked with three wagons, a number of “Hottentot” retainers, and a train of livestock, from Cape Town along the coast as far as Algoa Bay (Port Elizabeth), and back again by an inland route. He slaughtered thousands of birds and hundreds of mammals in his passion to record and classify South Africa’s fauna for the benefit of imperial knowledge.
And dogs accompanied him. Unless they occasionally rode on the wagons (and there’s no evidence of this in the text), they walked the whole way. A couple of thousand kilometres, if they survived to the end. They served, certainly, as guards, alerting the campers to predators – lions and leopards were common, as were wild canids: hyenas, jackals and wild dog.
They were also used in hunting, flushing prey for le Vaillant, fetching shot birds, and baying larger animals. “The surest way to hunt it [the buffalo],” says le Vaillant, “is to have it harried by several good dogs.” Clearly a certain amount of training, or at least habituation to the process, is involved here, though how that training ever happened is never explained. At another point we find le Vaillant shouting to the dogs “Saa saa saa” in order to excite them to the chase, so this might have been a conventional command. (Oddly, my mother used it to instruct her dogs to chase an intruder, though I don’t know where she got it from.)
On one occasion, le Vaillant claimed (he exaggerated, if not lied, about the whole episode) to have been asked to rid a certain district of a leopard. A pack of dogs is “gathered”, some of whom he identifies as “mastiffs”, who then help flush and bay the leopard. One dog he calls “my bitch”, small but particularly feisty. They kill and skin the “tiger”, and then march home “in triumph, escorted by several dogs whose masters had been the first to disappear.”
So at least a couple of dogs seem to have had a more personal relationship to le Vaillant, as in this passage:
The shots I fired here and there had roused a small antelope. My dog started to chase it and, stopping at a very large bush, it started to bark, circling the bush round and round. I imagined the gazelle had gone in there and rushed up in the hope of killing it. My presence and my voice excited the dog amazingly.
As le Vaillant dives into the bush, he finds himself face to face with a “panther”, which “seemed to herald certain destruction”:
My brave dog’s calm saved me. He kept the beast poised for attack, hesitating between fury and fear. I backed off softly to the edge of the bush, my admirable dog following his master closely, no doubt having resolved to die with him.
That last bit, of course, is dubious, but it shows a certain anthropomorphic empathy, even as he sees the dog as a servant of sorts. Some dogs at least deserved names, with all that that implies about closeness of relationship, of a recognition of individuality. One “favourite” was named “Jager” (hunter); the small bitch was probably “Rosette”, as described in this next incident. In this case, le Vaillant was setting out to explore some forest near present-day Swellendam:
When I was checking on my dogs, I noticed that one was missing. It was, to be exact, a little bitch called Rosette of whom I was especially fond. Her absence puzzled me. This was for me a real loss that diminished my pack for no good reason and deprived me of my favourite who was also very fond of me. I asked my people if anyone had noticed her on the way. One told me he had fed her, but in the morning. After one or two hours of searching, I sent out everyone to call her all around. I had shots fired from guns to show her the way if she could hear them. As none of this succeeded, I took the decision to put one of my Hottentots on horseback and tell him to go back the way we had come and to bring her back, whatever it took.
Four hours had passed when we saw my envoy arrive at a gallop. He carried a chair and a large basket on the arch of the saddle in front of him. Rosette ran in front and jumped on me and almost smothered me with signs of affection. My man told me that he had found her at about two leagues from our halt, sitting in the road next to the chair and the basket which had fallen without our noticing it. I had heard stories of the faithfulness of dogs, of behaviour just as extraordinary as this, but I had never before witnessed it. I admit that the account given by my Hottentot reduced me to tears. I once again stroked this poor animal. This mark of devotion she had just given me made her even dearer to me.
Interesting, given that this happens a quarter of a century before the inauguration of the SPCA in Britain. Yet le Vaillant seems rather surprised by the dog’s behaviour, as if he himself is just learning about the potential of mutual affection.
I’ll end with another remarkable relationship. Many will have heard of le Vaillant’s pet baboon, named Kees. Kees accompanied him for a large part of this trip; he was so sensitive to surrounding events or threats that the dogs came to depend on him to raise an alarm: “The slightest motion of his eyes or nod of his head was the signal for them all to rush at once and they always scampered in the direction Kees was looking.” Even more remarkably:
On our walks, when he [Kees] felt tired, he climbed on the back of one of the dogs, who complied and obligingly carried him for hours on end. Actually only one of the dogs, who was bigger and stronger than the others, should have indulged Kees and his trick, [but] the blighter was marvellous at dodging this chore. ... In truth, Kees had acquired the status of the leader of the pack, possibly through his superior instinct, for, with animals as with men, the shrewd too often get the better of the strong.
Hints of the insights that would be attributed to Darwin half a century later? It will be interesting to explore how dogs make their presence felt in other such eighteenth-century South African accounts.