Port Elizabeth of Yore: The Dog as Hunter and Companion

The exact date of the introduction of canis familiaris to Port Elizabeth will never be known with certainty but by 1847 regulations were promulgated requiring all dogs to be registered at a charge of 1s per annum. 

Treatment of domestic animals was often appalling but by mid-nineteenth century, voluntary organisations such as the SPCA had been established to combat this ill-treatment. Amongst the gentry or squirearchy, the hunting dog was an indispensable part of the hunting activities especially during the Easter Hunt at Wycombe Vale. 

Main picture: Howard Mapplebeck with his canine companion

Controls introduced

Apart from levying a fee for every dog in the town, the first promulgation relating to the control of dogs in the town, also mandated that “every dog found in the public streets without a collar, and not been so registered, shall be destroyed from time to time.”  While this solution may appear to be callous, in present day South Africa, over one million pets are euthanised annually in spite of the best endeavours of all animal welfare organisations. In 1851, strays were granted a twenty-four hour stay of execution to enable delinquent dog owners time to bail out their pets at cost. From 1855, this was raised to 5s per capita and after 1864, the municipality reserved the right to sell rather than destroy its more valuable strays. The annual licence fee was later doubled to 2s 6d not for the noble reason of discouraging the indigent from owning dogs on the assumption that they were unable to afford their upkeep, but rather as a measure to check the proliferation of the town’s dog population. As an additional deterrent against unlicensed dogs, the minimum penalty was raised to 10s in 1861. The Dog Licence conferred the same freedom of movement within the town on its canine middle class as enjoyed by its owners.

Up until 1880, the licence regulations were only sporadically enforced as instead of focusing on the legal status of the town’s 500 dogs, the Council’s primary concern was the eradication of stray pigs, goats and horses from the public thoroughfares. Instead of misgivings about the spray dogs in the town, the fear of strays was displaced to the countryside as the underclass, as well as wild dogs, were held accountable as they menaced the game which the wealthier urban hunter now believed was his right. Whereas the dogs of the underclass were afforded legal protection, wild dogs were shot out of hand as vermin. In terms of the elite’s world view, the only dogs permitted in the countryside were those of these urban gentlemen hunters.

Let the hunt begin

By the mid 1860s, the Settler elite, none more so than the Merchants, were reportedly “addicted to field sports.”  To further promote and regulate their activities, they founded the Easter Hunt Club in 1865 and established a new tradition when they inaugurated an annual Easter Hunt at the end of the open season in the Colony. Initially these hunts were organised close to home at the Mines, Bushy Park and at Ceuton. The construction of the railway line to Grahamstown in the 1870s opened up the hinterland to their guns. The club seized the opportunity and relocated the hunt to Wycombe Vale in the Alexandria District from 1870.

The intrepid band of ten to fifteen “guns” departed from Port Elizabeth every Good Friday by rail with special wagons for dogs and horses, breakfasted at Sandflats and reached their destination, Coltman’s farm, on horseback by afternoon. Free from the modern distractions of “telegrams and mails,” they settled down to a week of eliminating all the wildlife in the area all in the name of their beloved sport. Divided into two teams under the captaincy of the club’s founders, Holland and Pettit, the guns beat the kloofs and plaats of Wycome Vale for antelope for the team bag and the elusive bush buck ram.

The Beaters during the Easter Hunt at Wycombe Vale in 1884

A carnival of slaughter

What did dogs have to do with this style of hunting. Quite simply, they were integral to it. The “guns” or hunters assembled their own packs of the mongrel “boer dog” variety from the estates en route. These Boer dogs were an admixture of bloodhounds, staghounds, greyhounds, bulldogs, terriers, mastiffs, pointers and occasionally foxhounds. Generally, the best ones were found in the vicinity of military posts. These mongrels were superior to the traditional British hunting dog in that they would return immediately to the beat of a gong or the shouts of a beater while the English hound would charge endlessly onwards requiring the guns to spend an inordinate amount of time gathering the pack together again, instead of spending their time hunting.

In this co-operative endeavour, the beaters, usually a score of Khoikhoi and Xhosas, together with their own mongrel followers, and the hunters formed a team. Under the direction of the estate manager, this motley collection of beaters and mongrel dogs would drive the game from the bush into the ambuscades of the waiting hunters. Then the carnage would commence.

The Easter Hunt at Wycombe Vale in 1888

A cacophony of sound erupts with gongs sounding, foghorns blowing, sheep-bells ringing and beaters whooping and yelling. The dogs would be wild with excitement and expectation. They drive the terrified buck into the killing zone. With bloodlust at fever pitch, the orgy of killing commences. The hunters fire at despondent animals fleeing the melee. Beaters strike intimidated buck with the round head of their knobkerries shattering ribs and bones while dogs, wild with delirium, rip open the stomachs of prostrate animals begging for escape or mercy.

As the killing subsides, so does the sound. The dogs weave around the dead and dying animals wagging tags as if acclaiming their victory and expectantly waiting for a pat or a morsel of their well-earned cache of fresh red meat. Caught in this frenzy of killing are the collateral damage of warfare: monkeys, hyenas and even the occasional porcupine. None of these will count towards the tally and will be discarded, left as booty for the beaters.

After a good day’s hunting

For one fleeting moment would the elite and the underclass meet in a brief co-operative endeavour each Easter in the countryside around Port Elizabeth. For one moment in time, would the crème de la crème of Port Elizabeth acknowledge a grudging admiration for the hunting prowess of the beaters. In a flash, the traditional animosity between elite sportsman and unabashed poacher would resurface; the hunter distinguishing himself by the pedigree of human and canine participants and abstemious consumption of the game. Each, beater and hunter, would once again coalesce into their own group once again, each an alien to the other, only again to emerge in union the following Easter.

Beaters were routinely suspected of secreting bush buck wounded by the guns in addition to smaller animals that they killed with their kerries.

Economic downturn and irrational fears

Experience over eons should have taught humankind that recession is the precursor to irrational fears often directed at others in the form of xenophobia. So it was in the Eastern Cape when there was a sharp downturn in the pastoral economy after 1875. The culprit conjured up by the public was the vagrant and his companion, the wild variant of canis familiaris, causing immense damage and harm to life, property and to game. Parliament always has a solution. It always does. And that solution always involves yet more legislation. In this case it was twin pieces of legislation: The Vagrancy Act of 1879 and the Dog Tax Act of 1884. The latter act empowered Divisional Councils to tax all dogs in their jurisdiction 2s 6d. To further underscore the true intent of this legislation, this Act exempted from taxation “hounds kept bona fide for sporting purposes.” As if these Acts were insufficient, during the following year the Act was strengthened by an amendment which would allow “any proprietor or occupier of land to destroy any dog found trespassing upon the land owned or occupied by such proprietor.”

Hunt at Bushy Park

Predictably much legislation either harbours unintended consequences, is irrelevant to the underlying problem or does not address the core issue. In this case, the PE Divisional Council was quick to impose the 5s tax but never enforced its collection as was unpopular even among settler dog owner. There the tax was to languish in limbo, unimplemented.

The unintended consequence of the Fencing Act of 1883 which compelled neighbours to share the cost of boundary fencing, facilitated the rapid enclosure of the Eastern Cape countryside. After its immediate adoption by the Divisional Councils surrounding Port Elizabeth, by the mid-1880s the Easter Hunt in Wycombe Vale had been transformed into a risky affair with riders liable to be dehorsed by a steel wire fence impeding their progress.

The South African Kennel Club

In the early years of the town, dogs which possessed some utilitarian value were favoured. In this regard, the most prominent role that they played was as hunting dogs with the most prestigious such event being the almost week-long hunt at Wycome Vale by the Easter Hunt Club. This was no more than a carnival of slaughter in which hundreds of animals were killed in an orgy of death.

Committee of the South African Kennel Club 1883 & 1893

However, as dogs were increasing acquired for their aesthetic of breeding rather than their utilitarian value, members of the Easter Hunt Club founded the South African Kennel Club [SAKC] in Port Elizabeth in February 1883, imitating the British model. The club defined its intended audience through an annual subscription of £1 1s and garnered no fewer than 158 members among Port Elizabeth’s middle class within just a few months. This cash infusion and fraternal ties with the PE Agricultural Society enabled the SAKC to mount the colony’s first dog show as part of the town’s annual agricultural show in March 1883 in a purpose-built shed in the show yard. The response exceeded all expectations, attracting more than 200 entries and 900 visitors in the two weekdays that it was open and the more than £300 invested by the Club in buildings and prizes was amply recouped by the windfall from entrance fees, gate money and catalogue, ensuring that the dog show became a permanent imperium in imperio in the town’s annual agricultural show.

The Agricultural Show

A founding member of the SAKC, William Armstrong, put up a £5 5s prize for the best “bush dog”, which was awarded to a “half-breed Foxhound” in accordance with the prevailing consensus among the town’s hunting squirearchy. The decision was rudely and publicly rejected by another competitor

At the risk of being hoist by their own petard, the SAKC quietly dropped the “bush dog” category from future shows and relied upon committeeman Howard Mappleback who had “considerable experience in such Shows in England” to save them from any future embarrassment caused by unwittingly putting their backveld mongrel preferences on public display.

Changing standards

The show was unwittingly at the forefront of the change in attitude to pure-bred imported dogs. By awarding lucrative money prizes annually at its show, the SAKC rewarded the adherence to British breed standards which Howard Mappleback would have been most conversant with. It was claimed that by 1886, the standard had improved to such an extent that “there were no curs or mongrels to be seen.” Five years later, it was asserted that “canine specimens that were deemed good enough several years ago to receive the highest award of merit, would not now, in the majority of cases, have the slightest chance of receiving the honours of the show.” This improvement had been achieved through large-scale importation and by 1891 with none more so than the progeny of the English champions being imported.

The demand for thoroughbred dogs was insatiable but it was confined to the “sporting dog” category. This fuelled an explosive growth in sport hunting. In the wake of the Game Law reform, the issuance of annual hunting licences mushroomed from 1,000 in 1886 to 3,300 five years later and 4,700 by 1896. Port Elizabeth became the epicentre of both the thoroughbred dog and sport hunting crazes among the colony’s urban middle classes as indicated by the concomitant steep rises in dog and hunting licences issued in the town from the early 1890s.

The vulgarisation of the sport through its popularisation of dog-keeping and sport hunting undermined the hegemony of the old merchant squirearchy and their progeny: the Easter Hunt Club and the SAKN. The battue style shoots where beaters drove of game towards the hunters was way beyond the means of the faux sports hunters of the middle classes. None could afford the elaborate and costly adventures on the extensive country estates like the merchant squirearchy could. Instead they were epitomised, as Sittert states, by “two hunters taking the train to Blue Cliff in 1899 with their guns and two terriers nailed up in a paraffin crate to avoid paying the fare for the dogs.” Instead of teams of beaters flushing out the game in the direction of the hunters, these middle-class wannabe hunters would slake their hunting thirst on a staple of winged and small game that their dogs could flush out on the Town’s Common.

These middle class hunters also embodied a new ethos, unlike the wilful slaughter of countless game by the merchant hunter, their watchword was conservation. By the mid-1880s, the SAKC had reached its zenith enjoying the patronage of the Governor and attracting entrants colony-wide.  By the end of the decade, it was a vastly different situation. The SAKC was in disarray. A rival club had been founded in Cape Town and more importantly, it had lost the legitimacy of the local sporting fraternity. By 1890 the show was cancelled and by 1892 the Club itself was drifting aimlessly.

At the heart of disenchantment, were the divergent views of the hunting squirearchy and the town sportsmen who notions of canine improvement based on race as opposed to the utilitarian preferences of their hunting brethren. Popular legitimacy and civic pride was restored by the expedient of promoting the founding squires to the position of honorary vice-presidents and the election of town sportsmen to the committee in the stead. The tyranny of the elite was forever broken. By 1893, a record field was attracted. Disputes were characterised by aesthetics and not the value of breeding.


Class and Canicide in Little Bess: The 1893 Port Elizabeth Rabies Epidemic by Lance van Sittert




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