S2A3 Biographical Database of Southern African Science

Cumming, Mr Roualeyn George Gordon (zoological exploration, bird egg collection)

Born: 15 March 1820, Altyre, Moray, United Kingdom.
Died: 24 March 1866, Fort Augustus, Scotland, United Kingdom.
Active in: SA Bot.

R.G. Gordon Cumming, big game hunter, explorer and trader, was educated at Eton College, where he showed a strong affinity for sport. In 1838 he joined the English East India Company as a cornet in the 4th Madras Cavalry and on his way to the East visited the Cape of Good Hope. After resigning in 1840 he returned to Scotland, but soon obtained a position as an ensign in the Royal Veteran Newfoundland Companies. Not finding suitable sport in America he exchanged in 1843 into the Cape Mounted Rifles, which had its headquarters at Grahamstown in the Cape Colony.

Cumming was a man of great height and strength, but with a disregard for military discipline. His consequent arrests led him to sell his commission in order to hunt and undertake trading expeditions into the interior. In October and November 1843 he hunted between Grahamstown and Colesberg, and thereafter for several months along the Orange, Vaal, and Riet Rivers. From April 1844 to January 1845, and again from March 1845 to January 1846, he undertook expeditions as far as Mahalapye in Botswana. He visited Robert Moffat at Kuruman, and also met David Livingstone*. On his last two expeditions, from March 1846 to February 1847 and again from March 1848 to April 1849, he explored the Limpopo valley. He was the first to describe that portion of eastern Botswana between Mahalapye and the Motloutse River (a northern tributary of the Limpopo). During his stay in South Africa he shot a vast number of large animals, including over a hundred elephants, and collected numerous trophies. Despite his destructive hunting he was a fair naturalist and his collection of birds' eggs was considered one of the finest in Britain.

Cumming kept a detailed journal and after his return to Britain wrote Five years of a hunter's life in the far interior of South Africa (London, 1850, 2 vols). The book proved very popular, and several editions and translations were published over a period of some 60 years. This detailed account proved useful to the entomologist Claude Fuller* when compiling an historical review of Tsetse in the Transvaal and surrounding territories in 1923. Cumming's Catalogue of hunting trophies, native arms, and costumes, from the far interior of South Africa... was also published in 1850, and the next year his collection of trophies was exhibited at the Great Exhibition in London. For some years he lectured and exhibited his trophies about the country, before settling at Fort Augustus on the Caledonian Canal, Scotland. His private museum there attracted many visitors.

List of sources:
Cumming, R.G. A hunter's life in South Africa (facsimile of the 1857 edition). Alberton: Galago, 1986.

Dictionary of South African biography, Vol. 2, 1972.

Fuller, C. Tsetse in the Transvaal and surrounding territories. Pretoria: Department of Agriculture, Entomology Memoirs No. 1, 1923.

Oxford dictionary of national biography. Oxford University Press, 2004.

South African bibliography to the year 1925. London: Mansell, 1979.

Compiled by: C. Plug

Last updated: 2020-04-23 17:30:14