Stories to chill the blood

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Collect to Invest: The pages of forgotten travelogues tell tales of big game hunting and the racism of imperialists. They thrill, embarrass and are selling for hundreds, reports John Windsor

The American actress Whoopi Goldberg collects racist books. Respectable heads of American corporations collect books about big game hunting. Could white colonists have imagined, as they penned descriptions of their slaving and exterminating, that their books would find a market in the 20th century among those who condemn them?

Look around this year's Antiquarian Book Fair at Olympia, 4-7 June, and you will find politically incorrect travel books displayed in a new category of their own - and that their prices are rising. Many still lie unrecognised and priced at a pound or so in secondhand bookshops.

The irony is that, amid the blatant racism and blood-lust, you can find opinions that have emerged as the political correctness of today. Take big game hunting. Today's rich Americans buy licences to cull wild animals in Tanzania, Botswana and South Africa. They are allowed to shoot, for example, old water buffalos lagging behind the herd. Their licence fees fund conservation.

With this in mind, read the account written in 1892 by the renowned big game hunter Alexander Kinloch, in his Large Game Shooting in Thibet, The Himalayas, Northern and Central India. If the "limited school" that is anti-field sports had its way, he rants, "men would become effeminate and women would lose much that now gives dignity and charm to their sex". So far, vivid, macho stuff.

But, perhaps surprisingly, Kinloch supports "judicious hunting", instead of the "vulgar and childish desire to show a long list of slain at the end of the day, and obtain the cheap notoriety of the heaviest bag of the season".

The book is pounds 648 from the antiquarian booksellers Henry Sotheran, whose Edmund Pollinger has been snapping up such books for a year or two. He says: "It's an armchair thrill. You are participating in big game hunting alongside some extraordinary people who adapted to their surroundings with little protection and somehow managed not to die. As far as prices are concerned, you have to feel your way - so far it's an untapped market."

Lord Hindlip's 1906 yarn of hunting in Abyssinia and British East Africa (pounds 798) has a hint of self-parody worthy of Monty Python: "I was called from the clouds by a yell from the guide, and, turning round, saw at a distance of only 15 to 20 yards two rhino charging full tilt at us. I turned for my heavy rifle, which I saw to my horror was in its sling-case and unloaded. There was nothing to do but bolt. My syce, who was nearest the rhino, tripped and fell heavily on his face. That day, for some reason, I had put on a topee instead of a double terai hat, and as the boy fell, this blew off and fell between the prostrate syce and the rhino, which stopped short, tried to horn the hat, and got a Mannlicher bullet from Osman in the shoulder."

It's amazing how much thinking you can cram into the few seconds it takes a charging rhino to catch up with you. Winston Churchill, in his My African Journey (1908, cloth-bound, available from bookseller Adrian Harrington, pounds 300), recalled: "There is time to reflect with some detachment that, after all, we were the aggressors; we it is who have forced the conflict by an unprovoked assault with murderous intent upon a peaceful herbivore."

Mr Pollinger says: "Around the 1920s and 1930s a revulsion seems to have set in, and authors take to the camera instead of the gun. Some relied on their flash to scare the lion they were photographing. If the flash failed, they were in trouble."

And what of the natives? There is often a curious mixture of respect and contempt. Captain FA Dickinson's book about big game hunting, published in 1908, lists three "Don'ts" when advising how to treat bearers. "Don't ignore a good gun bearer's good advice because you think you know a thing or two. Don't promise a native a thing you can't do. Don't on any account lose your temper."

If we chose to judge, we might give the benefit of the doubt to Dickinson's "Remember a savage was born a savage and brought up as a savage, and always will be one". Respect for local knowledge of the laws of nature, perhaps? But he goes on: "He has no brains. Treat him accordingly".

Whoopi Goldberg goes for such strong stuff. She has bought from Adrian Harrington, who also supplies black American institutions that collect black history. "There are a lot of black collectors," he says. "These are important documents that help them to understand where racism comes from and how it becomes part of a culture - even though they make you blush to look at them."

There is some pretty red-necked stuff about. John Campbell's Negro-mania, published in 1851 in Philadelphia (pounds 95 from Harrington's), says: "The dark race must submit to the fair". On equality: "God never intended it, had he so willed he would have made all one colour".

Sir Thomas Herbert's Some Yeares Travels Into Africa, published in 1677, alleges that the women of the Cape of Good Hope breed with monkeys. With misinformation like that hallowed by hard covers, is it any wonder that whites came to regard blacks as inferior? The book is pounds 1,500 from Bernard Shapero.

In Britain in the 1820s, prints circulated showing monkeys dressed in suits. They were bought by a white middle class that had difficulty accepting the freed slaves who were beginning to make their way in white society.

An unexpected slant on dressing up is in the Very Reverend Ignatius Scoles's book, Sketches of African and Indian Life in British Guiana, 1885, which describes how on Sunday afternoons, the "uneducated African man" would stroll in white man's finery - kid gloves, monocle, velvet-collared suit, Paris silk hat - and mimic the white man's gestures: "a cane is seen, now dangling from his forefinger, then gently used to side away a dead leaf". Then, "stopping and turning around on his high heel ... with lips compressed, viewing some slender tree from top to toe, as if he could not just then for his very life recall to memory its botanic name".

This rare book is a comparatively cheap pounds 300 from Maggs. It is little sought after. But Maggs's price for the rare and sought-after An Ivory Trader in North Kenia by A Arkell-Hardwick, 1903, is pounds 1,200. The reason? It has big game hunting in it. Hugh Bett of Maggs also reports that horrific tales by slaver captains and freed slaves sell better than books by anti- slavery reformers.

Correctness apart, the sheer incongruousness of some of the contents of these books puts a premium value on them. What about the photograph of "The author, testing the nerve of a native who has a banana on his head to be shot off" in A Yankee in Pygmy Land by William Geil, 1905, pounds 248 from Sotheran's?

Antiquarian Book Fair: a free ticket can be obtained by applying to the Antiquarian Booksellers' Association, 0171-439 3118. Sotheran's, 0171- 439 6151. Adrian Harrington, 0171-937 1465. Maggs, 0171-493 7160. Bernard Shapero, 0171-493 0876.

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