Sir Samuel White Baker (1821-1893) had a passion for exploration and big game hunting. Among the “great white hunters” of the latter half of the 19th century and early 20th, Baker ranks with F. C. Selous, Major G. H. Anderson, and Jim Sutherland.
The Rifle and Hound in Ceylon is Baker’s first book, and it takes us on a series of hunts in Ceylon (now Sri Lanka) from 1845 to 1853. There is a lot of good technical detail on guns, loads, and hunting techniques in the mid-19th century, and plenty of action, too, as in Baker’s first elephant hunt:
I fired at that instant; but in a twinkling of an eye I was flying through the air like a ball from a bat. At the moment of firing. I had jumped to the left, but he struck me with his tusk in full charge upon my right thigh, and hurled me eight or ten paces from him. …he beat the grass about with his trunk, and commenced a strict search for me. …
More than most such tales, it gives us an insight into the character of these hunters. Some modern readers may cringe (or even cry) at some of the hunting scenes, but it would be a mistake to dismiss Baker – or most of the great white hunters – as callous killers. These men were the ecologists of their day.
Like so many historical first-person adventures, Baker’s tales can be read on two levels: as a trip to a wonderful place that no longer exists, and as a look into the mind of an author of another time.