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From Sailor to Professional Hunter by John Northcote

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From Sailor to Professional Hunter: John H. Northcote.  Limited Edition, signed and numbered.  394 pages, black & white photographs, maps. Not Indexed. Trophy Room Books, Box 3041, Agoura, CA 91301.  Copyright, 1997

John Northcote writes the story of his life—from war time sailor in Briton’s Royal Navy, to a farmer in Kenya, and his evolution into a leading PH of the second Safari Golden Age—the post war years of World War Two.  This age came to a dramatic end when the southward march of Marxist revolutions altered Africa’s political landscape.  Northcote’s memoir, a 400 page tome, provides an intimate look into the world of the professional hunter of these years and the book is worth reading if for no other reason than the stories about the men and women, who were the era’s characters.

Northcote has written what I believe is an essential history of this second golden age.  I base this position in part on my research that contributed to my thesis, Peter H. Capstick And The Tradition of The Hemingway Hero of The Genre of Outdoor Literature. (To my knowledge this is presently the only critical study of Capstick’s work and I would be very interested in learning of any other Capstick studies.  I encourage any reader who is aware of a study to contact me by email using the email address at the end of this review.). Additionally ongoing studies of our genre, especially the philosophy and history of outdoor literature, continue to provide me with a wider perspective of outdoor texts and I have discovered that some of the work published in the past thirty years is far more important than either the author or publisher may be aware.  From Sailor To Professional Hunter is just such a work and is deserving of a much more detailed investigation!  The characters who march across the pages often provide intimate and always informative records of the people and events of Africa’s Second Safari Golden Age.

The History

Northcote begins his narrative with childhood recollections of his father, one of England’s top marksmen, and a member of England’s 1924 Olympic shooting team. From his father and uncles Northcote inherited a love of the shooting sports that guided his life.  He was also influenced, as were many youngsters between the World Wars, by the adventure novels popular at that time.  He also had a sense of adventure that ultimately contributed to him and some friends blowing up a rusting WWI field piece.  After this incident Northcote found himself on a cadet training ship.  This was the springboard to his wartime naval service, the first phase of his life of adventure.

When the Axis powers were finally defeated Northcote married his wartime sweetheart, Betty Taylor.  Within a year he left the Royal Navy and with his wife and with other members of their families, joined the immigration to Kenya where lands were being opened for settlement.  He soon went on his first safari and from then on he was able to combine his love of hunting with farming, although early on the reader can sense Northcote’s developing conflicts with political authority.  When the government decided to reallocate many of the farms to the indigenous population he and many other farmers were forced to sell their farms back to the government for a fraction of their true worth—a bitter pill that shaped much of his attitude toward government officials.

A second life changing event was the untimely loss of his wife.  She was obviously a pillar of his world and the two events left him rudderless until the offer of a job as a professional hunter with the newly formed Uganda Wildlife Development, Ltd., a “hunting company.”  Northcote soon carved himself a new home in Uganda and as the UWD grew, annually booking more safari clients, Northcote’s stature as PH grew as well.  John Northcote also become a participant-observer of a second historical age.

The Two Golden Ages

The Oxford educated writer Bartle Bull, author of Safari: A Chronicle of Adventure (The Penguin Group, London, England, © 1988), described the years between the World Wars (1919-39) as the vintage years of the African safari. 

New clients and new settlers soon brought new energy, the clients prepared to buy lavish adventure, the settlers hungry to build a new life. . . .  Clients came to expect not merely trophies, but high times, an African extension of the privileged life that entertained them, or bored them, in Biarritz and St Moritz, in the West End and Newport. . . .  Like polo and yachting, safaris combined excitement with luxury (pg. 223).

Throughout those years, even in the Great Depression, the African safari was one of the adventures that beckoned to the wealthy and was the dream of many in the working class.  When World War II’s submarine warfare halted commercial international passenger service by air and sea the first Safari Golden Age came to an abrupt end.  Bull explains the opening of the second Safari Golden Age in chapter 9 of Safari, writing about Kenya between the Second World War and Kenya’s 1977 hunting ban, the safari business enjoyed a second boom.  Old and new clients come out, game was still plentiful, and eighty-eight vast shooting blocks covered three quarters of the country [Kenya] and could be rented for moderate fees.  In 1967 1,000 Kenya shilling (then £50) entitled the licensee to show sixteen species of non-dangerous game.

For perhaps £5,000 ($15,000) two shooting clients in the late 1960s could take a three-week Kenya safari.

Responsible government management and licensed hunting kept the lid on poaching.  It was a time of high professional standards and top trophies.  The code of the gentleman hunter was law.  Shooting was outlawed within 200 yards of a safari vehicle.  The game itself had to be 500 yards from the vehicle (pg. 295-6).

This is the period of history when John Northcote immigrated to Kenya and took up farming, mixing his passion for hunting with his day-to-day life as a farmer.  It seems inevitable that Northcote, whether pushed by personal tragedy or increasingly left wing politics of his adopted country, should find himself working as a professional hunter.  His book is focused on the hunting in countries other than Kenya (after his departure), thus his narrative offers a wide range of supporting evidence for the post-World War II period, and perhaps another paragraph from Bull’s book explains the changes that caught up Northcote.

But there were changes after the war.  Everything seemed more intense, less carefree, a little more commercial, a little less romantic.  There were fewer European clients, more Americans, all with less time than the old days [First Golden Age].  Thousands of Africans, after service in the war, took a different view of colonial relationships.  Ambition crept into the African attitude.  Kenya’s whites were less confident of the future.  Authority was suspect, and one could not so easily take one’s staff for granted, although life in camp was less changed than life in town (pg 297).

The world had changed and though Bartle Bull was not writing about Northcote, much of what Bull writes is echoed in Northcote’s text.  Many of the hunters Northcote writes about are Americans and they range from the famous to the not-so-famous.  Interestingly there is a slow, nearly steady increase of hunters from the working class, though Northcote never truly identifies them as such.   As Northcote writes his text, the hunting, hunters, and even the ethics of the hunters, undergo a nearly imperceptible change.  Some of the changes are easily recognized as the pattern of the business itself changed.  In “Uganda, Part One” there is a whisper of the days of the first Golden age; near the end of the chapter he writes about one safari in 1963 on which he was the PH for Ken Foree, the widely known outdoor editor of the Dallas Morning News.  Every day of the safari Foree wrote a daily dispatch and after packaging the story with the film shot that day, story and film was sent back to Kampula and then on to Dallas for publication.  This news dispatch connection, reminiscent of safaris of the “Twenties” is suddenly set in contrast to tradition by an indication that “something” is changing.  In the same section Northcote writes about the Uganda Development Corporation’s decision, in the same year as the Foree safari, that the UWD must employ native African professional hunters, an event that became a near disaster; out of 32,000 applicants 16 were selected for training and of the 16 only one completed the program, and the native PH proved himself so adept at leadership that he went on to become a park supervisor.  This event, however, is a harbinger of change, confirming Bartle Bull’s text.

My Reading

Often, when I read a book, I make notes in the margins, underline important passages and use Post-it™ page markers to indicate passages I may want to reference in my research.  By the time I finished Northcote’s book it had more than fifty page markers.  This alone is an indicator that this book is an important reference work.  (The lone drawback as a reference works is this book is not indexed, an affliction of inattention that bedevils many outdoor narrative books.)  Of particular interest is the gradual shift in relationships between the professional hunters.  In Bull’s description of the first golden age, there is a genteel spirit between the professional hunters, and though it is present in the early stages of Northcote’s narrative it evaporates by the middle of the text. 

In Northcote’s narrative there is the constant wariness of authority, a gradual disintegration of traditional ethos and the separation between the safari world and the politics of Africa.  At first, in reading “Uganda Part One,” there is a sense the safari business is separated from Africa’s other problems.  Northcote writes early in his book, while still a farmer, about the problems of the Mau Mau uprising and he hints at the emerging changes.

Step-by-step Northcote records the changes that were occurring and their effects on the African safari business, so that by the mid-to-late 1980s and into the early 90s even the most casual reader can sense the author’s frustration.  “When we were unable to bait for leopard in Botswana, it became almost impossible get one for my clients.  I checked around in Rhodesia and found that Chipimbi ranch in the low veldt near Chiredzi had the best record” (pg. 381).  Changes were impacting every aspect of his hunting business.  Just as Bull wrote, the safaris Northcote writes about in the final chapter of his book are shorter, the clients more narrowly focused and often their demands nearly impossible.  Finally, as if to drive the point home that everything had changed Northcote relates the story of his last professional adventure—a photographic safari that becomes, for him, a personal nightmare.  Perhaps it is a final proof that nothing will ever be the same and in his final paragraph Northcote writes an unknowing contradiction.  “My nephew Roger Hissey (Mike Hissey’s son) asked me to take him on a buffalo hunt in August, 1997.  If it comes off it will be my last safari” [Underline emphasis, mine]. The safari, for all intents and purposes, has changed into a hunt.

I am not sure what date future historians and the literary critics in the outdoor literature genre will select as the end of the Second Safari Golden Age, for my money it is the infamous 9/11.

Northcote’s book predates that attack on America but his closing sentence is its own warning that change has come; all that the age needed was an event to mark its passing.

Galen L. Geer is a former United States Marine Drill Instructor and Vietnam veteran. A professional outdoor hunting, shooting and gun writer, he published 2000 magazine articles. He has been a contributing editor to Soldier of Fortune magazine for thirty years and is the author of seven books.

I do not doubt that Africa will maintain its siren song in the hearts of most hunters and there will always be men and women willing and able to make the trip from their homes to Africa and a new dimension of their lives.  The new generation of super passenger planes will  deliver this generation of hunters to Africa and they will bring with them their vision of the ethics that defined hunters of the golden eras.  The new generation will hear the siren song in the pages of historical narratives such as From Sailor To Professional Hunter.  From that generation I hope a new John Northcote will emerge and inspire an unborn generation to hear that same song and each epoch of our civilization will also produce another Safari Golden Age, different yet connected, just as Northcote’s age is connected to the first.

Readers may contact the author at: ggeerauthor@yahoo.com and visit his blog, The Thinking Hunter at http://galengeer.blogspot.com .


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