Proof of the African unicorn - Odell Shepard - History of the unicorn
n October 1652 there arrived in Copenhagen an "African legate" by the name of Franciscus Marchio de Magellanes. He was much impressed by the alicorn in the royal museum, especially because it was so different from the horn of the unicorn that was familiar to him in his own land. This horn, he said, came from the Tire Bina, a very fleet and wild beast about the size and shape of a small horse, which lived in the African desert. Shaggy about the head and legs and feet, the animal had a short mane and a tail like that of a horse, but not very full. Its hide, smooth and with very short hairs, was ashen in hue above, with a black line running along its back, and white from the lower jaw to the abdomen.
There was a small bundle of hairs on the brow from the midst of which there sprang a single horn to which the hairs adhered. This horn, barely three spans in length, had not the spiral striae seen in European alicorns, but small protuberances running in a straight line from the base to the point. It was of a golden hue and hollow at the root. On the point of this horn there was another bundle of hairs, as large as a man's fist and reddish. The Africans made much of this horn, using it both internally and externally against poison.
The legate told his friends in Copenhagen that the Tire Bina always dipped the horn in the water before he drank of it, and that as soon as he did this the water was greatly agitated. The inhabitants were accustomed to dip the horn in their drinking-water in the belief that this made it more healthful. They also used the animal's flesh and the burned hairs of its tail as drugs.
mong the rather numerous believers in an African unicorn the names of David Livingstone and Dr. Andrew Smith should not be forgotten. The Athenum for December 22, 1860, reviewing The Romance of Natural History, by the father of Edmund Gosse, says that "the unicorn cannot be pronounced a fable, although our national representation of it may prove to be fanciful", expressing belief in a South African species "which appears to occupy an intermediate rank between the massive rhinoceros and the lighter form of the horse".
Dr. William Balfour Baikie, the scientist and African traveller, writes in the same journal for August 16, 1862: "The constant belief of the natives of all the countries which I have hitherto visited have partly shaken my scepticism, and at present I simply hold that the non-existence of the unicorn is not proven. A skull of this animal is said to be preserved in the country of Bonu, through which I hope to pass in a few weeks, when I shall make every possible inquiry. Two among my informants have repeatedly declared that they have seen the bones of this animal, and each made a particular mention of the long, straight, or nearly straight, horn."
These persistent rumours of unicorns in South Africa seem to have revived the belief, which had died down since the seventeenth century, that the animal was to be found in the northern parts of the continent. Dr. Eduard Ruppell was told by the natives of Kordofan, without any question or suggestion from him, that there was in their country a beast about as large as a horse and of the same shape, with reddish smooth hide, divided hoofs, and one long slender straight horn on its brow. Baron von Muller, travelling in the same district in 1848, was told by a native who had provided him with specimens of many other animals, about a beast called a'nasa which he described as resembling a donkey in shape and size but with a boar's tail and a single movable horn. During his travels in Abyssinia A. von Katte heard repeatedly from soldiers drawn from all parts of the country "that the unicorn really exists in the wild valleys of the mountains.
It is true that their reports are not entirely consistent, but neither are they contradictory. Those who assert that they have seen the animal give the same description of it that Pliny left us. They say, that is, that it has the hoofs of a horse and the same shape as a horse, that it is grey in colour and has a strong horn in the middle of its brow. Its size is that of a well-grown ass. They say also that it is very shy and therefore hard to approach. These people find great likeness between it and the unicorn shown on the English arms, but when I showed them a picture of the rhinoceros they said at once: 'That is not it; that is another animal.' . . . I am therefore strongly inclined to believe that the unicorn is really to be found in the high, inaccessible mountains of this country."
The vast size and the mystery of the Dark Continent affected the imaginations of thoughtful and trained observers in the nineteenth century somewhat as America had affected the mind of Europe three hundred years before. "In a land like inner Africa", wrote Joseph Russegger, "in which Nature puts forth the strangest forms of life, we may expect that the larger and unknown quadrupeds which we have thought long since extinct will be discovered.
Is it not possible that even the unicorn may be found there? Arabs, Nubians, and Negroes told me often and much about this animal, which resembled, according to their descriptions, either an antelope or a wild ass. Their reports were too contradictory and contained too much nonsense for me to reproduce them, but everywhere one hears the refrain that the animal still exists . . . . To regard the unicorn as wholly fabulous and a product of fancy is an absurd and arbitrary position, and we do well to remember that if the elephant and giraffe and camel should once die out they too, on account of their strange forms, would be thought fabulous."