Open main menu

OSWELL, WILLIAM COTTON (1818–1893), 'the Nimrod of South Africa,' was born at Levtonstone, Essex, on 27 April 1818. His father, William Oswell, was the third son of the Rev. Thomas Oswell, whose family had for generations lived at Oswestry. His mother was the daughter of Joseph Cotton, master of the Trinity House and grandson of Dr. Nathaniel Cotton [q. v.] From Rugby, where he was under Arnold, Oswell proceeded to the East India Company's training college at Haileybury, and, passing out head of his year, started for Madras in 1837, having obtained an appointment through his uncle, John Cotton, one of the company's directors (Prinsep, Services of Madras Civilians, v. 110). During his ten years' residence in Madras he won celebrity as an elephant-catcher, and first exhibited a remarkable aptitude for languages, acquiring Tamil and several native Indian dialects. He also studied surgery and medicine. After serving as head assistant to the principal collectors at Arcot and Coimbatore respectively, he was ordered to South Africa for his health, proceeded thither on furlough, and spent two years in hunting and exploring districts hitherto untraversed by Europeans — exploits for which sterling moral qualities ntted him no less than his great personal strength and linguistic and other accomplishments. When he was in Africa vast herds of game of every kind roamed over tracts which are now cultivated and thickly populated by Europeans; and the Kalahari desert was looked upon as an impassable barrier against advance from Cape Colony northwards. When, in 1849, Livingstone determined to investigate the truth of rumours as to a great lake in the Kalahari, Oswell and his friend Mungo Murray returned to South Africa from England in order to take part in the exploration, Oswell generously undertaking to defray the whole expense of the guides. The result was the discovery of Late Ngami, and the important practical demonstration that the Kalahari could be crossed by oxen and wagons. Livingstone freely acknowledged his indebtedness to the companionship of Oswell, who looked after the wagons and supplied the party with food, thus enabling the work of surveying, of making scientific collections, and of studying the native peoples to be carried on without anxiety or preoccupation. The kuabaoba, or straight-horned rhinoceros, was named Oswellii after Oswell, who also received the Paris Geographical Society's medal . for his share in the journey. He was again with Livingstone in June 1851, when the Zambesi was first sighted. Recalled from a life of adventure by family matters, he returned to England in 1853; but on the outbreak of the Crimean war he went to the front as the guest of some of his Indian friends, and rendered good service both in the trenches and in the hospitals. Anxious for active employment, he volunteered to carry secret service money for Lord Raglan, and, though deserted by the escort assigned to him, succeeded in defending his charge and handing it over safely to Colonel (now Field-marshal) Sir Lintorn Simmons at Shumla. During 1855-6 Oswell wandered through North and South America; and in 1860 he married Agnes, fourth daughter of Francis Rivaz, and settled at Groombridge in Kent. There he died on 1 May 1893, leaving a widow, three sons, and two daughters.

Livingstone describes Oswell as one who had had more hairbreadth escapes than any man living, though his modesty prevented him from publishing anything about himself; and he adduces, by way of illustration, two instances of Oswell's having been tossed by a rhinoceros. A splendid rider and shot, he always sought to obtain the closest quarters with his game; and the natives conceived a just idea of his courage from the fact that he always hunted elephants on foot and without dogs. Unlike other African travellers of eminence, Oswell published neither a journal nor a big volume of travel. He was induced, however, to contribute some chapters on 'South Africa Fifty Years Ago' to 'Mr. C. P. Wolley's 'Big Game Shooting' (Badminton Series, 1894). These are prefaced by an appreciative notice of the writer by his intimate friend, Sir Samuel W. Baker. Oswell's style is racy and suggestive, and his tone singularly humane. While his great strength and exploits as a sportsman inspired the natives of Africa with a wholesome awe, he owed the friendly character of his relations with them to his forbearing and sympathetic temper.

[Geographical Journal, 1893, i. 561; Livingstone's Zambesi (pref.) and Missionary Travels and Researches in South Africa, 1857, passim; Big Game Shooting (Badminton Series), 1894; Macmillan's Magazine, August 1894; Mr. H. H. Johnston's Livingstone, 1891, p. 106; Times, 3 May 1892; materials kindly furnished by Mrs. Oswell.]

T. S.