The colour drawing of the creature's head, from Rev. John Campbell's book Travels in South Africa, Undertaken at the Request of the London Missionary Society; Being a Narrative of a Second Journey to the Interior of That Country, Volume 1 (Francis Westley: London, 1822) (public domain)
One thing I've come particularly to admire about Karl over the years is his dogged persistence in following up a promising cryptozoological tid-bit or intriguing clue in the hopes that it will yield up something more substantial farther down the line. Even when the trail goes cold, Karl will wait until a new lead emerges – whether from a fresh piece of witness testimony, a letter from one of his many correspondents or a bit of evidence turned up in a forgotten book or archive.
Fortean Times editor David Sutton, in his foreword to my book Karl Shuker's Alien Zoo (published in 2010, a compilation of many of my AZ columns and other cryptozoological writings that have appeared in FT down through the years)
From my earliest days, I have always been blessed (or cursed?) with an insatiable fascination for the obscure, the overlooked, and quite frequently the downright outlandish within the diverse realm of natural history, or unnatural history, as I tend to dub those anomalous cases that are of such particular interest to me – a fascination, moreover, that is constantly spurred on by an equally insistent curiosity to uncover the facts behind them. And in his above-quoted words, David Sutton has summarised all of this very succinctly and astutely, because for me there is indeed nothing more exciting in cryptozoological research than serendipitously encountering in some obscure source a tantalising line or two concerning a mysterious creature not only hitherto-unknown to me but which, upon preliminary investigation, appears to have left no further trace in public history and is certainly entirely undocumented in the cryptozoological literature.
When faced with such a case, I always bring to mind those famous Shakespeare-purloined words of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's fictional detective Sherlock Holmes so often spoken with keen delight to his faithful assistant Dr Watson upon finding himself in a similar situation: "The game is afoot!"
Furthermore, just as Holmes could call upon Watson, not to mention his equally loyal gang of Baker Street Irregulars, to assist him in his clue-gathering endeavours, so too have I been equally fortunate for so many years to be able to call upon a veritable army of Watsons and BSIs in my own investigations, albeit of the cryptozoological rather than the criminological kind. These include the noble readers of Fortean Times, and, especially, those steadfast devotees of my long-running Alien Zoo column therein (now in its 22nd consecutive year). And so it was with the case featuring in this present article, once again previously undocumented, unexamined, and unsolved within the cryptozoological world.
As is so often true with cases like this, it all began entirely by chance, while surfing online during the evening of 27 June 2017, and, after an initial investigation by me signally failed to uncover any information or clues whatsoever concerning it, resulted in a plea for assistance from my indefatigable band of FT Watsons and BSIs via a short item included by me in one of my AZ columns – in this particular instance the column that appeared in FT356 (August 2017). Here is what I wrote:
How often have I stumbled upon a hitherto-unsuspected report of great interest while looking for something entirely different, and the following example is no exception. While browsing through Vol. 9 (April-October 1821) of a British periodical entitled The Atheneum; or, Spirit of the English Magazines in search of an account concerning a giant spider (which I did eventually locate and which formed the basis of a subsequent ShukerNature blog article of mine), I chanced upon a short but fascinating report of a reputed unicorn that had lately been sent to Britain, possibly while still alive, but which I'd never read about anywhere else before. So here it is:
Another animal resembling the description of the unicorn, as given by Pliny, is now on its way to this country from Africa; it nearly resembles the horse in figure, but is much smaller, and the single horn projecting from the fore head is considerably shorter than is given in the real or supposed delineations of that doubtful creature.
What could this very intriguing creature have been? Bearing in mind that it was entirely unknown to me prior to my serendipitous finding of the above report, whatever it was had evidently failed to excite the media once it did arrive in Britain, and yet its description matches nothing familiar to me from Africa. The facts that it was horse-like and bore its single horn upon its brow would seem, if reported correctly, to eliminate a young rhinoceros. For both African species (black rhino and white rhino) have two horns each, but with neither one borne upon the brow, and even as calves they are burly in form, not remotely equine. Might it therefore have been a freak specimen of some antelope species, in which a single central horn had developed instead of the normal pair of lateral horns? Occasional 'unicorn' specimens of goats, sheep, and even deer have been confirmed, so this would not be impossible. Moreover, certain African antelopes are superficially horse-like. Indeed, one in particular, the roan antelope, is sufficiently so for it to have been given the formal binomial name Hippotragus equinus ('horse horse-goat'). Equally ambiguous is the state in which this mystery beast was sent to Britain from Africa, because the report does not make it clear whether the animal was dead or still alive. If it were still alive, however, where is it likely to have been sent? In later years, the premier recipient of exotic live beasts was London Zoo, but this establishment did not open until 27 April 1828. In 1832, the animals contained in the Tower of London's menagerie were transferred to London Zoo's collection, so perhaps, back in 1821, the unicorn, or whatever it was, had been sent to the Tower? Also, whatever happened to its remains? Are they languishing unstudied or even unlabelled in a museum somewhere today? If anyone reading my AZ account has any knowledge concerning this tantalising lost beast, we'd love to hear from you at FT.
The Atheneum; or, Spirit of the English Magazines, vol. 9 (April-October 1821), p. 486; ShukerNature, http://karlshuker.blogspot.co.uk/2017/06/dracula-van-helsing-and-giant-spiders.html 28 June 2017.
Time passed, and it began to look as if even the resourceful readers of FT may have been impaled at least metaphorically upon the sharp horns of the dilemma (if not the horn of the beast itself!) posed by this lately-disinterred crypto-conundrum, for responses came there none. Nor did my own continuing searches succeed in locating any further material relating to it. An inviolate impasse appeared to have been met – but then, on 4 September 2017 I received a short email from FT reader Daniel Frankham that finally shone some much-needed light upon this enshadowed mystery.
In his email, Daniel informed me that after reading my AZ unicorn item and then searching through the British Newspaper Archive's website, he'd obtained scans of two relevant newspaper reports, which he kindly attached with his email to me. One of these was from the Caledonian Mercury of 20 August 1821 that provided an account of the creature's discovery, and the other was from the Cheltenham Chronicle of 4 October 1821 that mentioned the presentation of the latter's horn to the Museum of the London Missionary Society.
They also identified the person responsible for the procurement of this reputed unicorn, but which turned out to have been shot dead rather than captured alive. He was the Reverend John Campbell (1766-1840), a Scottish missionary and traveller, who was sent twice (in 1812 and again in 1819) by the London Missionary Society to South Africa's Cape region to inspect and repair missionary stations there.
Sepia engraving depicting Rev. John Campbell, from Robert Philip's book The Life, Times and Missionary Enterprises of the Rev. John Campbell (John Snow: London, 1841) (public domain)
The relevant section from the Caledonian Mercury's report reads as follows:
Mr Campbell has kindly favoured us with the following description of the head of a very singular animal, which he has just brought from the interior of Africa. We also have had an opportunity of seeing it, and fully agree with Mr Campbell, that the animal itself must have answered the description of the Reem or Unicorn, which is frequently mentioned in Scripture. — "The animal," says Mr Campbell, "was killed by my Hottentots in the Mashow country, near the city of Mashow, about two hundred miles N.E. of New Latakoo [now Dithakong, in present-day South Africa's Northern Cape], to the westward of Delagoa Bay. My Hottentots never having seen or heard of an animal with one horn of so great a length, cut off its head, and brought it bleeding to me on the back of an ox. From its great weight, and being about twelve hundred miles from the Cape of Good Hope, I was obliged to reduce it by cutting off the under jaw. The Hottentots cut up the rest of the animal for food, which, with the help of the natives, they brought on the backs of oxen to Mashow. The horn, which is nearly black, is exactly three feet long, projecting from the forehead, about nine or ten inches above the nose. From the nose to the ears measured three feet. There is a small horny projection of about eight inches immediately behind the great horn, designed for keeping fast or steady whatever is penetrated by the great horn. There is neither hair nor wool on the skin, which is the colour of brown snuff. The animal was well known to the natives. It is a species of the rhinoceros; but, if I may judge of its bulk from the size of its head, it must have been much larger than any of the seven rhinoceroses which my party shot, one of which measured eleven feet from the tip of the nose to the root of the tail. The skull and horn excited great curiosity at the Cape. Most were of opinion that it was all we should have for the unicorn. An animal the size of a horse, which the fancied unicorn is supposed to be, would not answer the description of the unicorn given by Job, chap. xxxix . verse 9. et seq., but in every other part of the description this animal exactly answers to it." — Pliny's description of the unicorn is a sort of medium between Mr Campbell's account and the animal depicted on the Royal coat of arms.
And here is the relevant section from the Cheltenham Chronicle's report:
Gloucestershire Auxiliary Missionary Society
The Fifth Anniversary of this Society was held in Gloucester on Monday last…The Meeting received a very important detail from the Rev. J. Campbell, who has twice visited the Missionary Stations in South Africa…
It appears that Mr. Campbell's visit has been productive of a discovery alike important to Revelation and to science. At a city which he reached beyond Lattakoo, the inhabitants on complaining, that their harvest that year had been defective, urged Mr. C. to request his men to shoot a rhinocerous [sic] for them. His Hottentots accordingly went in pursuit of one, and were providentially directed to an animal which in the Scriptures is called the unicorn. It was long thought that the rhinoceros was the animal there described, but the head of the one shot being brought to Mr. C. he immediately perceived it to be the unicorn of the Scriptures. He has deposited the horn in the Museum of the London Missionary Society and, in the opinion of scientific men, it is pronounced to be that of the unicorn so long sought after.
Reading these two newspaper reports and the Atheneum account, it is only too clear that there is considerable confusion and some notable descriptive discrepancies in relation to the nature of the animal shot by Campbell's men.
According to the Atheneum report, this creature "nearly resembles the horse in figure, but is much smaller", and its "single horn", said to project from its forehead, "is considerably shorter" than that which is normally ascribed to the legendary unicorn. Yet in the Caledonian Mercury report, its horn alone, which again was said to project from the forehead (but now with a much smaller second one behind it), was claimed to have measured 3 ft long, which would be disproportionately lengthy (and therefore highly cumbersome and unwieldy) if the animal were "much smaller" than a horse. And indeed, in the Caledonian Mercury report, the creature was stated by Rev. Campbell to have been "much larger" than any of the seven rhinoceroses shot by his men earlier.
Moreover, in that same report, the creature itself was specifically referred to by Campbell as a rhinoceros, yet there is no known species of rhinoceros that typically possesses a brow-borne horn of any shape or form, let alone one that is 3 ft long (and even has a second, smaller one positioned behind it). And throughout the Cheltenham Chronicle's report, a clear distinction is made between rhinoceroses and the creature killed by Campbell's man, which was identified unequivocally in this report by unnamed "scientific men" as the biblical unicorn, and thereby supplanted longstanding belief that the latter beast was a rhinoceros. (In fact, the biblical unicorn, or re'em, is nowadays popularly deemed to have been the then still-surviving aurochs or European wild ox Bos primigenius, which became extinct in 1627 AD, but that, as they say, is another story!)
Faced with such a mass of contradictions and controversies, it seemed as if the only way in which this truly perplexing mystery might ever be conclusively resolved would be to determine whether the creature's principal horn still existed and, if so, gain sight of it in order to attempt a positive identification of its erstwhile bearer. As it happened, however, this option did not need to be acted upon, because the information already present in the two newspaper reports suggested an alternative line of investigation, one that could be instigated straight away, and which, when I did so, proved to be not only much swifter but also entirely successful.
Colour map showing the locations mentioned here by me (most of whose names have changed since 1822) in relation to more familiar locations (whose names remain the same today as they were back then), from Rev. John Campbell's book Travels in South Africa, Undertaken at the Request of the London Missionary Society; Being a Narrative of a Second Journey to the Interior of That Country, Volume 1 (Francis Westley: London, 1822) (public domain) (NB - please click map to enlarge for reading purposes)
As noted earlier, these two reports revealed that the person responsible for the so-called unicorn's procurement and the retention of its principal horn was Rev. John Campbell, and when I researched his life history I discovered that he had documented his second visit to the Cape in a two-volume travel memoir entitled Travels in South Africa…Being a Narrative of a Second Journey to the Interior of That Country. Volume 1 was published in 1822, but a copy of it in pdf form was readily accessible online, so I duly downloaded it, and sure enough, within just a few moments of locating the relevant section within it, the very curious case of Mashow's beheaded unicorn was a mystery no longer.
In an entry for 19 May 1820, Campbell provided his own, first-hand account concerning the killing of this 'unicorn' (which took place in Mashow while he was away) and its morphological appearance. As will now be seen, his account differs in places from the versions in the two above-quoted newspaper reports, and shows the Atheneum account in particular to be woefully ill-informed:
During our absence from Mashow two rhinoceroses came into the town during the night, when the inhabitants assembled and killed them both. The rhinoceroses…having been cut up, were brought, the one in a waggon, the other on pack-oxen…They brought also the head of one of them, which was different from all the others that had been killed. The common African rhinoceros has a crooked horn resembling a cock's spur, which rises about nine or ten inches above the nose and inclines backward; immediately behind this is a short thick horn; but the head they brought had a straight horn projecting three feet from the forehead, about ten inches above the tip of the nose. The projection of this great horn very much resembles that of the fanciful unicorn in the British arms. It has a small thick horny substance, eight inches long, immediately behind it, which can hardly be observed on the animal at the distance of a hundred yards, and seems to be designed for keeping fast that which is penetrated by the long horn; so that this species of rhinoceros must appear really like a unicorn when running in the field. The head resembled in size a nine-gallon cask, and measured three feet from the mouth to the ear, and being much larger than that of the one with the crooked horn, and which measured eleven feet in length, the animal itself must have been still larger and more formidable. From its weight, and the position of the horn, it appears capable of overcoming any creature hitherto known. Hardly any of the natives took the smallest notice of the head, but treated it as a thing familiar to them. As the entire horn is perfectly solid, the natives, I afterwards heard, make from one horn four handles for their battle-axes. Our people wounded another, which they reported to be much larger.
Appended to Campbell's account was the following footnote penned by him, confirming the subsequent destination of the head (including its still-attached principal horn and diminutive second horn):
The head being so weighty; and the distance to the Cape so great, it appeared necessary to cut off the under jaw and leave it behind…The animal is considered by naturalists, since the arrival of the skull in London, to be the unicorn of the ancients, and the same as that which is described in the xxxixth chapter of the book of Job. The part of the head brought to London, may be seen at the Missionary Museum; and, for such as may not have the opportunity of seeing the head itself, the annexed drawing of it has been made.
Also worth recalling here is a second footnote, this time appended to a concise summary of Campbell's 'unicorn' incident that appeared in an extensive biography of Campbell written by Robert, Philip, entitled The Life, Times and Missionary Enterprises of the Rev. John Campbell, and published in 1841. This second footnote expanded upon the details provided in Campbell's, by mentioning that one notable scientific figure holding the view that this creature was indeed the identity of the biblical unicorn described in the book of Job had been Sir Everard Home FRS (1756-1832). He was a British surgeon and prolific author on animal anatomy, who had written an essay about the creature, which he had read to the Royal Society. I also have on file the concise summary of Campbell's account from his book that appeared in issue #362 of the Monthly Magazine, published on 1 January 1822.
As for the oft-cited biblical unicorn account contained in verses 9-12 from the 39th chapter of the Book of Job (which evidently refers to a very powerful animal, yet provides no descriptive information concerning any aspect of its actual form, not even its celebrated horn), here it is:
Will the unicorn be willing to serve thee, or abide by thy crib?
Canst thou bind the unicorn with his band in the furrow? or will he harrow the valleys after thee?
Wilt thou trust him, because his strength is great? or wilt thou leave thy labour to him?
Wilt thou believe him, that he will bring home thy seed, and gather it into thy barn?
In addition, while in the process of preparing this article I uncovered a further, highly illuminating reference in the form of another book penned by Campbell, entitled African Light Thrown on a Selection of Scripture Texts, and published in 1835. In it, Campbell proffered a much more detailed account of the creature's principal horn than given by him in his earlier work from 1822, and also divulged more details regarding the opinion of Home and others concerning the creature's nature. The pertinent extract is as follows:
About twelve hundred miles up, in the interior of Africa, from the Cape of Good Hope, we shot a large animal, evidently a species of rhinoceros, with a strong horn projecting from its forehead about three feet. Its horn is not like that of the cow, which is hollow within, but is, to the very heart, composed of a solid, horny substance, and is capable, from its own strength, and the great weight of the animal, (perhaps two tons) with facility to pierce through the most powerful animal known, yea even a brick wall. I brought home the creature's skull, with the horn and massy [masticating?] teeth in it.
The skull, &c. was thrice examined by the late Sir Everard Home, who was reckoned one of the first [i.e. foremost] naturalists in Britain, to whom I gave all the information in my power concerning the animal. He afterwards composed an essay on it, which he read to the Royal Society, which they printed [but a copy of which I have yet to trace]. He, in the first place, considered all the animals found in a fossil state that approached to the unicorn; then those that were known; and last, the skull I had brought from a latitude in Africa where no European had been before, except one party who were all murdered a little higher up.
After stating various arguments, and particularly attending to the description given of the unicorn in the thirty-ninth chapter of the book of Job, Sir Everard gave it as his opinion, "That this animal was the unicorn of the Bible."
A party of gentlemen, from India, when viewing the skull at the Cape of Good Hope, compared its horn, as an offensive weapon, with the offensive weapons of all the animals they were acquainted with in India, and likewise with such as they had read of; after much conversation, they were unanimously of opinion, that this animal had the most powerful offensive weapon of any animal at present known in the world.
His skin is about an inch in thickness, like that of the African rhinoceros, which cannot be penetrated by a musket ball, except immediately behind the ear, or above the head of the foreleg, where the skin is thinner than in the other parts of the body.
As shown earlier, the 39th chapter of the Book of Job contains no descriptive details whatsoever concerning the biblical unicorn's form, so I remain unclear as to how that passage could have convinced Home that Campbell's creature was the biblical unicorn's identity. Campbell, conversely, had provided a very accurate description of the nature and form of a rhinoceros horn, which in reality constitutes an extremely dense, solid, keratinous mass, but which exhibits a deceptively horn-like external appearance. Equally, there is no doubt from his two separate accounts quoted here that Campbell did consider this 'unicorn' to be a rhinoceros, and a very large one at that, albeit with a highly aberrant horn complement – or was it highly aberrant? It is often said that a picture is worth a thousand words, so it was with a mixture of delight but also initial bewilderment that I beheld the full-page colour drawing of this animal's head that accompanied his original, 1822 account, and which I have already reproduced at the beginning of this present ShukerNature article of mine but for ease of access will reproduce again herewith:
First and foremost it has to be said that this is certainly not one of the most accurate renditions of a rhinoceros head that I have ever seen. Nevertheless, it clearly reveals that in spite of Campbell's claim to the contrary (and faithfully reiterated in the subsequent media versions presented by me here), the long, slender, principal horn was not borne upon the creature's brow at all, but just behind its nose. True, in the drawing it was positioned a little further back than is typical for modern-day rhinos, but even so it is still borne upon the nasal bones, with the much smaller second horn sited just behind it, exactly as in all African rhinos, whether of the black (aka hook-lipped) species Diceros bicornis or of the white (aka square-lipped) species Ceratotherium simum (some taxonomists split the latter into two species, northern and southern, but this does not have bearing upon the case under consideration here). Consequently, any comparisons to unicorns are instantly discredited, because the fabled unicorn's single horn characteristically arises directly from the centre of its brow, i.e. from its frontal bones.
Having said this, one might conceivably argue that as the drawing was far from being an exact depiction of a rhinoceros head, perhaps its placement of the long principal horn upon the nasal bones was in fact another manifestation of its inaccuracy, and that it should have depicted this horn arising from the frontal bones instead, in accordance with Campbell's verbal description of it projecting "from the forehead". Yet if this were true, surely Campbell would either have not included the drawing in his book at all or, at the very least, would have appended to it a comment highlighting its error.
Consequently, to my mind the likeliest explanation for this specific but significant inconsistency between drawing and description is that it was in fact Campbell who was less than precise, when describing the long principal horn's location on the creature's head, but that as he apparently had no issue with the drawing, its depiction of this horn's location was indeed a faithful representation of what he had seen and had tried (albeit ineffectively) to convey verbally. This explanation in turn meant that yet another line of speculation that I had considered – namely, that perhaps this particular individual really had possessed a freak, teratological horn projecting from its brow – was also unnecessary. Interestingly, as I mentioned in a chapter reviewing contentious rhinoceroses contained in my book Extraordinary Animals Revisited (2007), towards the end of the 19th Century London Zoo exhibited a female great Indian rhino Rhinoceros unicornis (a species normally possessing only a single horn) that bore a rudimentary second horn upon her forehead – but this minor excrescence was far-removed indeed from the formidable 3-ft-long primary horn under consideration here.
Back in Campbell's time, both the black rhinoceros and the white rhinoceros still existed throughout South Africa, but the species referred to above by him as the common African rhinoceros was the black rhino, whose principal horn tends to be shorter, more curved, and burlier than that of the white rhino, which in contrast is sometimes extremely long, straighter, but slender – thereby corresponding well with both the drawing and Campbell's verbal description. Similarly, the white rhino's second horn is often extremely small, again corresponding with drawing and description alike.
Colour photograph of the head of a living South African white rhinoceros that has a notably long, slender principal horn recalling that of Campbell's specimen from 1820 (public domain)
Lastly, but of crucial significance, is that whereas the black rhinoceros had been formally described and taxonomically named as long ago as 1758 (by none other than Linnaeus himself), the white rhinoceros remained scientifically unrecognised until 1817. While exploring South Africa from 1810 to 1815, English explorer-naturalist William J. Burchell had heard tell from the Boer settlers of a mysterious giant rhinoceros, bigger than the black species. After finally confirming its existence when encountering it at Chue Springs on 16 October 1812 and collecting some teeth, horns, and epinasal skin, in 1817 Burchell dubbed this newly-revealed, extra-large species the white rhinoceros Rhinoceros simus - 'white' actually being a mistranslation of the Afrikaans word for 'wide', referring to its broad lips. (In 1867, British zoologist John E. Gray transferred it into its own genus, Ceratotherium, and changed its species name to simum.) In short, the white rhinoceros was still largely unknown outside zoological circles in 1820 when Campbell encountered it, which undoubtedly increased still further his confusion regarding it at that time.
Taking all of the above-discussed aspects into consideration, it is evident that the decapitated unicorn from South Africa was simply a white rhinoceros, incompletely recognised by Campbell (though entirely familiar to the natives, as noted by him), inaccurately reported by the media (plus ça change, plus c'est la même chose!), and implausibly transmuted by scholars of Scripture and science alike into the zoological identity of a biblical mystery beast (but one that in reality was most probably something very different indeed).
My sincere thanks to Daniel Frankham for his much-appreciated assistance in my resurrection and unmasking of this fascinating but long-overlooked denizen of the Dark Continent, and also for confirming yet again that I can always rely upon my diligent detachment of Fortean Watsons and FT Irregulars to seek out clues and track down evidence upon my behalf whenever the cryptozoological game is afoot!
ANON., 'The Unicorn', Caledonian Mercury (Edinburgh), 20 August (1821).
ANON., 'Gloucestershire Auxiliary Missionary Society', Cheltenham Chronicle (Cheltenham), 4 October (1821).
ANON., 'The Unicorn', The Atheneum; or, Spirit of the English Magazines, 9 (April-October): 486 (1821).
ANON., 'Africa', Monthly Magazine, 52(6) (no. 362; 1 January): 543 (1822).
CAMPBELL, John, Travels in South Africa, Undertaken at the Request of the London Missionary Society; Being a Narrative of a Second Journey to the Interior of That Country, Volume 1 (Francis Westley: London, 1822).
CAMPBELL, John, African Light Thrown on a Selection of Scripture Texts (Waugh & Innes: Edinburgh, 1835).
FRANKHAM, Daniel, 'Personal communication', 4 September (2017).
PHILIP, Robert, The Life, Times and Missionary Enterprises of the Rev. John Campbell (John Snow: London, 1841).
PICKERING, Jane, 'William J. Burchell's South African Mammal Collection, 1810-1815', Archives of Natural History, 24(3): 311-326 (1997).
SHUKER, Karl P.N., Extraordinary Animals Revisited (CFZ Press: Bideford, 2007).
SHUKER, Karl P.N., 'Whither the Unicorn?', in Alien Zoo, Fortean Times, no. 356 (August): 25 (2017).
WENDT, Herbert, Out of Noah's Ark: The Story of Man's Discovery of the Animal Kingdom (Weidenfeld & Nicolson: London, 1956).
For more details concerning unusual or unexpected forms of rhinoceros, please see my book Extraordinary Animals Revisited.