The Quest for B. Cooper

By David MacDougallJune 14, 2019

The Quest for B. Cooper
AS EVERY GARDENER KNOWS, an innocuous plant can grow over time into something large and obtrusive. In the same way, some previously ignored object may come to occupy a disproportionate place in our lives. In my case, the object was a handwritten diary that my wife and I came upon in a dusty secondhand bookshop in Kampala in 1968. It was shoved back among some ordinary printed books, and I doubt the bookseller knew what it was. We bought it out of curiosity, and perhaps also because of the novelty of finding something so personal in such a place. It turned out to be a sparse record of various hunting expeditions in northern Tanganyika (now Tanzania) written on the pages of a standard 1937 Letts “Quickref” Rough Diary, with additional entries added in 1943 on the lower halves of the same pages. The author was clearly a professional hunter of some kind. At the end was a Game Register for 1937 listing 68 large animals killed. There was no name on the flyleaf, but inserted among the pages was a letter in an envelope addressed to a Mr. B. Cooper at a place called Ngarenairobi.

The diary sat on our bookshelf in Australia for many years, brought out on rare occasions to refresh our memories or to show to some friend or acquaintance. It held a certain interest for us, but we also found it off-putting, both because of the number of animals it recorded killed and the atmosphere it conveyed of the colonial past, when European settlers and “white hunters” dominated much of East Africa. Along with many pleasant memories of times spent in Africa, I also had negative ones related to European colonialism: whites calling Africans “munts” and “kaffers” in Rhodesia, an old settler at his club in Nyasaland reminiscing about “shooting heaps of ’em,” police in Angola beating prisoners with pandybats, memsaabs complaining endlessly about the laxity of their servants.

Offsetting these unpleasant memories was the curious excitement I often felt at holding the diary in my hands, its cover browned with age. Inside were the scrawled entries in pencil or ink. One could imagine the writer handling these same pages at his camp or in a tent somewhere out in the bush, often after a long day’s march. These were the marks he had made, day after day, for what private purpose or satisfaction one could only guess.

The short entries in the diary gave an impression of B. Cooper (if that was indeed the writer) as a lonely man, frequently on the move, with many acquaintances but few friends, and increasingly worried about his health. In 1937, however, he was still active and vigorous, going out almost every day for game and covering long distances. Here is a characteristic passage from the diary, written on May 2, 1937.

Out in morning. Circled Ngaserai Hill about half-way up from (in anti-clockwise direction). Hardly any signs of animals having been on hill lately. Had to walk at plains level round side nearest to road, owing to dense thorny brush. Saw Rock Hyrax on rock outcrop & investigated caves, finding nests of owl. Then into bush on Longido side of hill, & walked towards Meru for about ½ hour. Saw Pig, Dik dik, and Lesser Kudu females. Shot Bushbuck female. Bush partly open sandy places, small thorn-trees, & much wild sisal grass. Back to camp by 1 p.m. 2 very tame Wildebeest near to camp — I actually stalked one with aid of boys & took a dummy shot at 220x, which range I estimated at 200x. After lunch walked along furrow behind camp & caught frogs. Saw 2 very tame geese, approached within 50 yards of them. At 4 p.m. went to water-hole & shot 7 Sand Grouse with .22 (8 shots). Started to show boys how to skin a bird, but failed badly owing to difficulty with Sand Grouse. Clouds of Culicids in evening, apparently wind-borne but did not settle. Some Culicids & Anopheles in tent also.

There are a number of entries toward the end of 1943 in which he writes of making wooden toys for a boy in a family he knew, presumably for a Christmas he would not share with them or, for that matter, with anyone. This personal detail particularly struck me and made me wonder what had become of him.

Cooper diary, front

Cooper diary, back

In the years that followed, I made a few half-hearted efforts to find out if there were any records of a B. Cooper in East Africa from that time, as I felt the diary was of some historical value, but I was unable to turn up anything. Of course, most of this desultory research occurred in the pre-internet era. Then, in July 2018, I had another look at the letter enclosed in the diary, and my interest was piqued, perhaps as much in the writer as in the recipient. It was a very mundane letter — a thank-you note, really — but there was something in the simple objects it named and its tone of genuine gratitude that touched on the humanity of the two people involved. The letter was dated November 15, 1949, some six years after the last diary entry, so in a sense it seemed an extension of the diarist’s story. I pictured him now in even worse health, finally settled down and maintaining only sporadic contact with his neighbors. The letter read as follows:

Momella 15th Nov. 49.

Dear Mr Cooper! 

Many, many thanks for all the fine things you sent. We just came back from Arusha yesterday, when your boy arrived. The Whisky came just at Time as I felt very tired and down, and then one glass of Whisky and I felt at once strong again. It really is too kind of you to send it, as it is so scarce now. The bombs, I am afraid, must be used soon. Last week the Elephants came in the night at 3 o’clock to the spring and spoiled it very badly. Also to a few nights ago we chased them away with dogs and stones. One stone hit one on the back just as he was trying to break a banana. Then they all cleared off, followed by the dogs. The lion went away without killing anything. I was very glad. But I am glad you sent the Br…… [?] shots. I am so sorry that Rolfs Ulrichs buffalo head is gone, he will be very sorry about it. Many thanks for the photos. I am very glad that you will send them to Ulrich too. But could you let me have still 2 of each? Or 3? I would like to send to Rolf and my daughter also some and to my sister. I am glad that you feel better again. So I hope to see you back at Momella soon. I am sending a bottle of wine to you. Your boy will leave as it is already 8 o’clock. I was a bit late today.

Many, many kind regards also from Resi.

Yours sincerely 

Margarete Trappe

There was added, on an enclosed slip of paper:

About the 8th of December I can let you have some of the remedy against Rhumetism [sic]. I forgot to tell you.

Kind regards still yours

At the top of the envelope was written:

2 bottle buttermilk
1 bottle wine
1 hopu [?] green colour

In these simple facts a whole era and way of life was evoked. Some of the handwriting was difficult to read, including the place-name “Momella,” but the signature was clear enough. With the aid of the internet, I was quickly able to get some basic information about Margarete Trappe, for it seemed she was quite famous. She was German, born in 1884 in Silesia, which was then part of Prussia and is now part of Poland. In 1907, she traveled with her husband and a retinue of porters from the coast up to the highlands of northern Tanganyika. Tanganyika was then a German colony and would remain so until it became a British Mandate after World War I. Near Mount Meru they established their farm, Momella, raising cattle, goats, and horses. Margarete became legendary in the area as a horsewoman and hunter.

There was more. During World War I, she secretly crossed British lines to take provisions to the German forces. She was twice dispossessed of her land by the British authorities following each of the World Wars, and twice recovered it, or parts of it. She apparently had good relations with the nearby Maasai herders. Despite her hunting prowess, she valued the local wildlife and had a particular fondness for elephants, which she protected. She eventually played a part in establishing the Arusha National Park. She died in 1957.

The question remained: who was B. Cooper, and what was his connection to the Trappes? I now thought it worth exploring a few of the leads that the letter and the diary had opened up. The diary contained several references to the paleoanthropologist Dr. Louis Leakey, who was associated with the Coryndon Museum in Nairobi in 1937 and later became its full-time curator. On June 9, 1937, Cooper wrote in his diary: “Spent whole day at museum, making notes on birds, etc. Met Dr. Leakey & had quite a long chat.”

From the diary it appeared that Cooper had collected bird specimens for Leakey and had consulted him on at least one occasion about excavating a cave near Ngaserai Hill, where there were signs of human occupation. I wrote to Leakey’s son, Richard Leakey, now as famous as his father and director of the National Museums of Kenya, who had helped obtain some crucial permits when my wife and I were filming in northwest Kenya in 1973–’74. He replied that he had no knowledge of a B. Cooper. An inquiry to Dr. Peter Njoroge, senior research scientist and head of the Ornithology Section at the National Museums, also failed to turn up anything.

Meanwhile, I pursued the other obvious line of inquiry, which was to find out more about the Trappes and their farm, Momella. Perhaps someone associated with the place had heard of B. Cooper. Momella, it seemed, was well known. It had been used as the location for the 1962 feature film Hatari!, directed by Howard Hawks and starring John Wayne, Hardy Krüger, and Elsa Martinelli. The film focused on a group of adventurers who capture wild animals for zoos. As a result of this production, Hardy Krüger bought Momella in 1960 and operated it as a game-viewing lodge until 1973. It was then nationalized and fell into disrepair. It was later operated as a small hotel, called the Ol Donyo Orok Lodge, only to close in 2002. It was finally purchased by Jörg and Marlies Gabriel and reopened in 2004 as the Hatari Lodge, a luxury hotel. The website for the Hatari Lodge included an email address for Marlies Gabriel. I decided to write to her.

Her reply was both friendly and informative. She had heard of a Colonel Dick Cooper, who had hunted in the area in the 1920s, but it was unlikely he was the same person. She gave me the names of several people who knew about Momella, including Fiona Capstick, author of Between Two Fires (2011), a biography of Margarete Trappe. Perhaps one of them would know something. She asked if I had consulted Richard Leakey, since I had mentioned Cooper’s contacts with his father. I replied that I had, and I decided to contact Fiona Capstick next.

Marlies Gabriel had given me Capstick’s email address, which indicated that she lived in South Africa. I wrote to her, transcribing the contents of Margarete Trappe’s letter. She wrote back immediately, thanking me. (Later I learned that her husband had been Peter Hathaway Capstick, a famous professional hunter, writer, and game ranger who died in 1996.) Capstick did not know of a B. Cooper, but she gave me the names of three people to contact who might know. One of them was Gregor Woods, a writer, ballistics expert, and editor of a South African hunting magazine, who — as she put it — was “a sleuth of note when it comes to tracking down information.” The second was Robin Hurt, a professional hunter and conservationist who had grown up in Kenya but now lived in Namibia. The third was Jacqueline Neufeld, the editor of Safari Press, a publishing company in California that specialized in books on hunting in Africa.

I felt the search beginning to spread out internationally into a rather strange world (to me) of big-game hunting and European settler history. What was emerging was a network of people who all knew each other and who had deep roots in hunting, wildlife, and East Africa. That their interests combined killing animals with protecting them was a familiar paradox, for I knew that hunters often became advocates for wildlife conservation — e.g., Jim Corbett, founder of the Corbett Tiger Reserve in northern India. As I was later to find out, it was a paradox that in many ways characterized Cooper himself.

I wrote to Gregor Woods and Robin Hurt. Hurt was the first to reply, thanks in part to Fiona Capstick, who had forwarded my original email to him. “Yes, I did know Brian Finlay Cooper,” he wrote. “He was working in Uganda with Jonas Bros Taxidermists in 1965/66 when I first met him. I recall that he was most knowledgeable about African wildlife and a rather quiet perhaps even shy man.” He suggested I write to Brian Herne, the author of three books on African hunting and “the highly regarded legendary senior PH of Uganda Wildlife Development in the 1960’s,” who was “the most knowledgeable person I know regarding Uganda, its human characters and its wildlife.”

Gregor Woods also soon answered, mentioning four books on hunting in East Africa, including one by Brian Herne titled White Hunters: The Golden Age of African Safaris (1999). He had checked all of these but none had mentioned a B. Cooper. “Dick” Cooper was prominent in them, but he agreed with me that this was unlikely to have been the author of the diary. In addition to this information, Woods gave me the names of a former game ranger and a former professional hunter in East Africa. The first, Jon Speed, lived in Germany, but my emails to him bounced for some reason. The second lived on a remote farm in South Africa and could only be contacted by telephone.

Jacqueline Neufeld wrote that she had looked up B. Cooper in her reference books but had been unable to find any trace of him. She also gave me Jon Speed’s email address in Germany, but it was the same as the one I already had from Woods, which had so far proved ineffective.

I wrote to Brian Herne, to whom, it turned out, Hurt had already sent a copy of his email to me. My contact with the network was beginning to feel like a game of Chinese Whispers. Herne soon replied with a fund of information. “Yes, I knew Brian ‘Walky Talkie’ Cooper, but only slightly.” He went on:

He was universally known by that name because he loved to walk and could talk the hind leg off a donkey (seriously). Brian was a colonial Tanganyika game warden in the 1950’s. I met him only a few times over the years I was based in Tanganyika. He was posted to an obscure spot called Nyamirembe beside the little-known, undeveloped Biharamulo reserve on the western shores of Lake Victoria. Biharamulo was the first hunting concession arranged by John Blower when he was Chief Game Warden of Uganda which we negotiated with John Capon, Costa M’lay and others at Dar es Salaam. More concessions were granted to us (Uganda Wildlife Development Ltd.) in western and south western Tanzania at Ibanda Arena, Lake Burigi, Kigosi, Nchiwa Kima, Moyowosi, Kigosi and later others too. These huge, remote concessions could more easily be reached from Kampala than Arusha.

Herne went on to describe Cooper’s famous “zeal to catch European law-breakers” in the Tanganyika game reserves and his later joining of Jonas Brothers in Kampala as a taxidermist, where he worked for a number of years. After some differences with the manager, he said, Cooper quit and joined a different taxidermy and safari company started by Wahid Awan, whom he described as “a polite, educated and tough young Asian (he was motor cycle champion of Uganda)” and “an experienced amateur hunter.” He went on, “Wahid’s outfit did quite well with Walky Talky as manager over several African employees.” But then, “[s]ometime later I was informed Walkie Talkie had taken his own life at Kampala. Wahid Awan was devastated.”

Thus I now had fairly definitive testimony that B. Cooper was in fact Brian Cooper, as well as news about the sad ending to his story. His name, his age, his personality, his abilities, and his activities all seemed to fit. Herne added some further details in the form of quotations from two books on Africa, The Last of Old Africa: Big-Game Hunting in East Africa (2001) by Brian Nicholson, who had been senior game warden in Tanzania, and Banagi Hill: A Game Warden’s Africa (2004) by John Blower, who had been a forester and game warden in Tanganyika before becoming chief game warden of Uganda.

In his book, Brian Nicholson described the Nyamirembe game reserve on the western shores of Lake Victoria as Brian Cooper’s crowning achievement. He wrote of him that he was

nicknamed ‘Walky Talky’ because of his fondness for walking and nonstop talking. I never knew him well but considered him an oddball because of his unpredictable, forgetful, and strange behaviour. He must have been approaching fifty and had a high forehead and little hair above that.

According to Nicholson, after leaving Nyamirembe, Cooper was posted to the north central region of Tanganyika at Usa River, not far from Arusha.

In his book, John Blower wrote of

another of my fairly regular visitors. Brian Cooper, a kindly man but excruciatingly boring, was a game department colleague responsible for wildlife matters on the far side of Lake Victoria, between the lake’s shore and the Congo border. A large pink, balding man with a small moustache, he wore very baggy khaki shorts and always reminded me of some very dedicated middle-aged scoutmaster. Being a great walker and also excessively garrulous, he had long ago acquired the sobriquet Walky-Talky, by which he was known throughout much of East Africa.

In his letter, Brian Herne included an anecdote about Cooper’s nickname. One day Cooper encountered a shooting party in the bush, whereupon “a Major King, stepping forward, [said], ‘Good Lord! Aren’t you Barmy Cooper who was in Newick House at Cheltenham?’ Poor Walkie Talkie. His schoolboy nick-name had followed him to Masailand.” This remark provided a valuable link to Cooper’s origins in England, but it was later to cause me some difficulty about his name.

As there was no name written on the flyleaf or title pages of the Letts diary, my assumption that it was Cooper’s rested on the letter found between its pages. But was this sufficient evidence? The letter could have ended up in the diary in a variety of ways. Perhaps B. Cooper was simply someone known to the author of the diary. So far it hadn’t occurred to me to look for any mention of Cooper’s name in the diary entries, but now I did. In the entry for June 24, 1937, when the writer of the diary was beginning to excavate the cave he had mentioned to Dr. Leakey, I found this:

Spent rest of day at the cave, digging & sieving earth. Found much greater depth of earth at mouth of cave (to 24”), and got lots of chippings & flakes, a few lunates, some pottery, beads, etc. (Note in Cooper’s dif Notebook).

The final sentence seemed conclusive proof that the diary was Cooper’s. I took it to mean that he had kept another book of notes on his excavations, possibly for Leakey — a notebook that had since disappeared.

Next I began looking in the diary for mentions of the Trappes or Momella. There were several. The earliest was in a description of a foot safari with porters from Ngarenairobi to Ngongongare that started on April 13, 1937:

Forded Ng. Nanyuki river (running to right), later crossing it by bridge (running to left). Dutch farms from just below the bridge. Had lunch about ½ hour beyond bridge (left road & cut across country, a mistake). Boys began to tire between here & Momella & went on by myself from there.

On April 24, on the return trip, was this: “Drenched with dew up to hips before reached Momella road, & then had to empty water out of boots.” On a safari on November 30, he wrote: “Set out about 8:30 a.m., stopping at Momella on the way.” On January 30, he noted: “Bültzingslöwen transferred lorry’s contents to Trappe’s diesel. Got to Lillingston’s at last & made camp.”

Cooper’s contacts with Momella and the Trappes became more frequent in 1943. He apparently stayed at Momella from October 27 to November 1, hunting, riding, and sailing on the Momella Lakes in his folding canoe (probably a Rytecraft model, with a wooden frame and rubberized fabric skin). He mentions visiting one of the lakes in 1939 with “Ulrich,” whom I assume was Ulrich Trappe, Margarete’s husband. And on November 5, he wrote that he had collected two buffalo heads, one “shot by Mrs Trappe (Junior).” I took this to be a reference to the Trappes’ daughter-in-law. There is one final mention, a brief trip to Momella on November 14, 1943.


A close reading of the diary (which I really only began when I started transcribing it) reveals quite a lot about Cooper and his world, even though the entries are typically terse and factual. One can begin to fill in the blanks between the details. Here was a tough and practical man, roaming an extravagantly beautiful and varied landscape filled with animals of every kind, and hunting them for a living.

His human relationships were shaped by the circumstances of colonization: on the one hand, he had contacts with the close-knit community of European settlers who operated farms in the area, often many miles apart. On the other hand, he had dealings with the local African population. Some, such as the Maasai, he encountered quite often. Their grazing areas adjoined Mount Meru and Mount Kilimanjaro and continued out onto the plains. Others, such as his African servants and porters, he knew more intimately. He interacted with them on a daily basis and relied on them in crucial ways, sometimes for his life when out hunting. As with many Europeans in Africa, these relationships were complex and ambivalent, combining a sense of superiority and entitlement with fluctuating feelings of admiration and disdain. Cooper clearly came to know several of his African workers very well and felt an obligation to look after their health and welfare. He worked closely with one man in particular, Jonah, as together they improved their skills in taxidermy. Another man, Bakari, who worked for him in both 1937 and 1943, is mentioned frequently in connection with hunting.

Toward the Maasai, his attitudes were somewhat different than those toward his own staff. Like many other British colonists, he partly shared a romantic view of them as noble savages with a fiercely independent warrior culture, but many of his dealings were more down to earth. On August 23, 1937, he writes: “2 Masai wounded by Lions yesterday, brought in to camp by about 7 p.m. Spent about 4 hours dressing wounds. Marvelous people! — never made a murmur the whole time.” The following day: “Took Masai to hospital & then to Ngongongare, getting there about 5 p.m. Very dusty journey.” Other meetings are noted more casually: “Out with the Masai to look for Eland” (June 27, 1937).

There was a further dimension to these contacts, perhaps influenced by Cooper’s connection with Dr. Leakey and his apparent collection of animal and botanical specimens for the museum in Nairobi. (This collecting may have been for other museums as well. On December 10, 1937, Cooper writes, “Sent off B.M. consignment,” which could refer to the British Museum.) He was also systematically collecting cultural artifacts from the Maasai, but whether for the museum, or for himself, or even for sale is unclear. On June 26, he writes: “Paid 3/- for feather ball for Masai spear.” Two days later he records purchasing the following:

Moran’s necklet for 1/50s.
1 snuff-box for 1 axe (1/75s).
Long necklace bits. 1 Simé (2/-).
2 Masai snuff boxes, each for 1 Simé, 1 file, & 1/- (i.e. 3/50s).
Necklace bits, for 1 axe.
Ear rings for 1/- & 2/- each. (single & double).
Sikusorieli (Mashami [?]) old shape 1/-s.

Related to Cooper’s dealings with the museum was a note following one of his trips to Nairobi in 1943: “To lecture after dinner at Municipal buildings — Dr. Leakey, on ‘Native Circumcision’ — quite interesting.” I read Leakey’s account of this period, By the Evidence: Memoirs, 1932-1951 (1974), but could find no mention of Cooper in it.

Despite his many journeys, it appears from the diary that Cooper’s base camp in 1937, and his more substantial camp in 1943, were located near the present-day village of Ngarenairobi, at about 2,000 meters altitude on the western slopes of Mount Kilimanjaro, northeast of Arusha. From here he made lengthy safaris in search of game and to study the geography and natural history of the region. In 1937, these safaris were generally on foot, often with porters and donkeys, but by 1943 he more often used a motorcar or lorry.

The changes that had occurred in East Africa during wartime are reflected in Cooper’s 1943 entries. Petrol was scarce and was now being mixed with paraffin. Cooper had frequent encounters with army officers, many from the King’s African Rifles. There are references to officers from Malta, Northern Rhodesia, and the Navy. When he was in Nairobi in April 1943, he put up at the Officers’ Club. He sometimes stayed with army officers and at least one officer visited him at his camp. By this time prisoner-of-war camps had been established in East Africa, filled mostly with Italian soldiers from the Ethiopian campaign, and there is mention in the diary of one such POW camp at Namanga. In general, the war had brought greater activity to a previously sleepy colony, and this had the effect of enlarging Cooper’s social contacts.

Among the many routine accounts Cooper gives of his foot safaris are several more endearing ones about his difficulties with donkeys. For all the trouble they caused him, he seems to have regarded them with affection. Planning a safari to Longido, westward on the Maasai plains about 45 miles from his base camp, he bought two donkeys and apparently borrowed several others. He reported on June 19, 1937: “Had several hours’ trouble with the donkeys before starting.” Later that day: “Donkeys behaved well, except that white one lay down in road when quite close to journey’s end.” On June 23: “Returned to camp to find that all the donkeys had broken loose.” On the return journey, on July 1: “White donkey tried his tricks as usual, and had to off-load once before we could get him up! Wanted to go quite fast when he did go, but wouldn’t keep it up.” On the last day of the safari, on July 3: “Trouble with white donkey as far as Ngaserai Hill, & then went like the wind.”

Cooper was very precise in the records he kept of geographic features and climatic variations. He had an aneroid altimeter to measure altitudes, and he also took photographs, which he processed and printed himself, although none were found with the diary. As well as hunting game animals, he trapped many smaller ones, including hyraxes, genets, and fucu rats. He was particularly interested in birds, and he learned to skin them. One of his entries reads: “Made a very clumsy attempt at skinning a starling” (May 22, 1937), and the next day, “Slightly better job of skinning a lark (3 hours).” Larger birds figure prominently in the diary, including sand grouse, bustard, and francolin.

Big-game animals are, of course, those most frequently noted in the dairy, as well as being listed in the Game Register. They include the big cats: lion, leopard, and cheetah, as well as zebra, giraffe, elephant, rhino, oryx and wildebeest, and antelope of all kinds, including eland, kudu, impala, kongoni, reedbuck, bushbuck, waterbuck and the gazelles — Thomson’s (always referred to as Tommies), Grant’s, and Sykes’s. Cooper seems to have hunted animals partly for their meat and skins, and partly to create mounted trophies for sale. When he was not hunting animals, he was an ardent fisherman, going out mornings and evenings to the nearby streams and lakes for trout and tilapia. In 1943, he took to gardening, planting both flowers and vegetables at his camp. He was good with his hands, constantly repairing his tents, his donkey saddles, and his folding boat, as well as making rough pieces of furniture and other personal items, such as a box for his Philco radio.

1937 Game Register

At first I had the impression that Cooper was a hypochondriac. Many entries contain details about his health, and on six pages at the beginning of the diary he meticulously recorded his body temperature over two months in 1943, sometimes hour by hour. Following this, he went into hospital, and there is a break in the diary entries from May 3 until August 23. Cooper in fact had several spells in hospital, and undoubtedly his life exposed him to a number of local diseases. In May 1937, he began consulting a Dr. Davies who lived in Kigongoto, about a three-hour drive from Ngarenairobi. The doctor eventually became a friend, or as close to being a friend as Cooper seems to have had. It becomes clear that he was subject to numerous fevers, and on November 28, 1943, he notes that Dr. Davies believed he had Malta Fever (also known as Brucellosis, or Undulant Fever), an infection commonly contracted through contact with animals.

Many of the neighbors whom Cooper mentions in his diary bear German names. This was to be expected in an area that had formally been a German colony and had been largely settled by Germans. Margarete Trappe and her husband Ulrich were among those who had taken advantage of Chancellor Bismarck’s colonization program to settle in Deutsch-Ostafrika.

Among the neighbors mentioned in the diary, whom Cooper often visited at their farms, is one named Bültzingslöwen, whom he refers to twice as the “baron.” In the course of my search for information about Cooper’s contacts, I turned up evidence of one of the darker sides of European colonization. A note of July 16, 1937, in Hansard, the British Parliament’s official record, states under the heading “Tanganyika (Treatment of Natives)”:

Captain Cazalet asked the Secretary of State for the Colonies whether he has yet received a report from the Governor of Tanganyika on the grounds for the decision taken to cancel the deportation of Baron von Bultzinslowen, who had been convicted in a Tanganyika court of flogging a native and recommended for deportation?

In reply, Mr. Omsby-Gore stated that:

the Governor has reported that he decided, with the unanimous concurrence of the Executive Council, not to accept the recommendation for expulsion, on the general ground that a very grave offence had been sufficiently expiated by the sentence of imprisonment.

Elsewhere I found records that Wulf Heinrich Maximilian von Bültzingslöwen was born in 1908 and died in July 1942 on the Russian front. He was known to be in Tanganyika at least as early as 1936. Cooper and the baron were apparently on good terms.

Other neighbors that Cooper mentions include “Phelps & Webb,” the Lillingstons, the Dykes, a Mrs. Langreby, a Mrs. Hinderlick, a Mrs. Landgrabe, a Mrs. Langreby, and others named Schiller, Utmüller, Landaval, Visser, and Purvis.

Toward the end of 1943, Cooper was unwell, with low fever nearly every day. On November 10, he began taking a course of sulfanilamide. Although he did some hunting, he spent most of his time in camp, working on small projects such as repairing his folding canoe and mounting photographs in an album. On November 14, he notes: “Started to make a model lorry for David Davies.” He worked steadily on the model for the next three days. His intermittent fevers continued. On November 19, he records: “Finished David Davies’ lorry.” He shot an impala on November 21 as meat for his African workers. On November 23, he did some fishing and then “spent rest of the day adding improvements to David’s toy lorry (number plates, lamps, etc.).” On November 26: “Took David his motor lorry.” He spent the week between November 30 and December 7 in bed with fever. On December 9, he wrote: “Got up for breakfast (0945) and made a spare wheel for David’s lorry & started painting it. Then some work on another toy of his. Felt a bit cheap after lunch, so went to bed. An ache below left ear rather worrying.” He wrote his last entry on December 10, 1943. It reads:

Got up for a late breakfast, and went down to Crisp’s dam to see canoe in water — for painting water-line. Then decided to paint it all green, up to the decking, which I painted a light (“grass”) green.

Finished painting David’s toys. To bed early, after tea, as felt a bit tired, and temp. up slightly. Pain behind ear very intermittent, but slightly sharper than yesterday. (97.8 — 98.7)


One further step in my research was to follow up the clue contained in Brian Herne’s letter about Cooper having been a student at Cheltenham College. I found Cheltenham’s webpage, which mentioned that the school had an Archives Team. I wrote to them, asking if they had any records of a Brian Cooper in the period between 1910 and 1930. After some messages back and forth about his probable date of birth, they wrote that a Bryan Cooper had been at Cheltenham in the early-to-mid-1900s. They gave his birth date as August 12, 1909, and noted that he was on the Cheltenham College VIII shooting team and had gone on to study at Victoria University of Manchester in 1928.

The fact that he was on the shooting team was suggestive, but the difference in the spelling of his first name was troubling. All my other sources had spelled it Brian. A little later, they sent me a copy of Bryan Cooper’s application to attend the school, filled out by his father on June, 18, 1918. His father’s name was Tom Shimwell Cooper of Beckfoot, Birch Hall Lane, Manchester. His stated profession was chemical manufacturer. The application stated that the boy had attended preparatory school at S. Anselm’s School in Derbyshire. And, sure enough, when I wrote to S. Anselm’s, they found a record in the Headmaster’s Journal of a new boy, B. Cooper, being admitted in 1917. I also wrote to the Alumni Association of the University of Manchester (which had absorbed Victoria University in 2004), asking if they had any record of Bryan Cooper. They wrote back, saying: “He was not a graduate. He did however attend between 1929-1931. It is not clear what subject he studied.” They gave his “parental” address as 33 Belfield Road, Didsbury, Manchester.

Thanks to my brother, I was able to acquire the 1911 census data for the United Kingdom. Tom Shimwell Cooper is listed as a “Manufacturer of Pigments, Paints, and Chemicals,” 36 years old, married to Emily Winifred Cooper, née McMonies, both born in Lancashire. Bryan Cooper is listed as their son, aged 1 year. The household also included two young female servants and an Irish woman of 27 years, described as a surgical nurse, who was perhaps Bryan’s nanny. The census also contains information about Tom Cooper’s parents. I was unable to follow this up from the 1921 census, as its contents will not be released until January 2022.

I was pretty certain that Bryan Cooper was Brian Cooper, as there were no other likely candidates at Cheltenham. When I wrote to Brian Herne about it, he insisted that he had always thought Cooper’s name was spelled Brian, and apparently some of my other contacts thought so too. But I could well understand how the more usual spelling had been commonly used. In the end, I was able to confirm that Bryan was correct, and this spelling opened up several new lines of inquiry.

First, I found a reference to a Bryan Cooper at a website called The British Empire, which described itself as “not a rigorous academic site” but one devoted to collecting the firsthand accounts of people who “were prepared to leave the world that they did know for one which was totally alien to them.” In his page on the website, entitled “First Footsteps: Safaris in Remotest Tanganyika,” John Cooke, a former district officer in Tanganyika in the early 1950s, mentions often visiting Bryan Cooper, the game ranger for the Nyamirembe region. “He taught me a great deal about wildlife and its habitats,” Cooke comments.

Another reference to Cooper I found online was not so laudatory. In a letter of September 27, 1950, to Walter S. Rogers, his fellowship supervisor at the Institute of Current World Affairs in New York (stamped NOT FOR PUBLICATION, but later published online by the Institute as one of a series of OCWA Newsletters), John B. George, who was doing fieldwork in connection with his Colonial Service course at Oxford University, described Cooper as “tall, narrow-shouldered, balding, red-faced, big-footed, and crane-necked.” He had spent four days with Cooper, in part because he wanted Cooper to take him elephant hunting. During this time, he said, “I hovered on the very brink of homicide.” He went on to say that Cooper, “better known as Walkie-Talkie,” talked incessantly, was crude and boisterous, dangerous with firearms, and bullied his African staff. He concluded, “All of the administrative officials in the area know of the Game Ranger’s ways, and most of them predict that he will come to a violent end — a poisoned arrow from a villager or a bullet from one of his own scouts.”

The letter confirms that the Brian Cooper remembered by so many as “Walkie Talkie” was indeed the Bryan Cooper of Cheltenham College, S. Anselm’s Preparatory School, and the Victoria University of Manchester (although Robin Hurt’s reference to him as Brian Finlay Cooper has not been satisfactorily explained). Several other letters that came to light online, and that used the spelling Bryan Cooper, disclosed further information about him, as well as another side of his character and activities. By the mid-1960s, he was working in taxidermy in Kampala, but he also appears to have been involved in the supply of zoological specimens to the United States and the United Kingdom, a practice in accord with his earlier supply of specimens to Dr. Leakey. One client was Dr. Henry Swan, a distinguished heart surgeon and scientist in Denver, Colorado, who was conducting research on hibernation for which he needed live lungfish from Lake Victoria. A letter from Swan to Cooper on July 10, 1965, after expressing sympathy for an illness Cooper had had the previous February, goes on to discuss methods of shipping lungfish to Denver.

From the letter it is clear that Cooper had already sent small live lungfish successfully to Dr. Swan, but what Dr. Swan now needed for his research was one large lungfish weighing 15 to 20 pounds. He suggested using a very large shipping container with “an adequate oxygen supply.” There were apparently further letters between them in August and September. We then have a letter from Cooper to Swan written on October 10, indicating that one large lungfish sent to Swan had died en route and proposing new methods of shipment. Previous shipments had apparently been in sealed containers with water and oxygen. Cooper now proposed sending a large lungfish packed only in damp cloth and with access to the outside air. He was conducting tests to see if this would work, and he reported that he had kept lungfish alive under these conditions for up to four days. He hoped to send a large lungfish soon. His letter was lucid, literate, and practical.

We have no further correspondence between Cooper and Swan, but it seems that Swan continued his research into hibernation for some years after these exchanges. At this time, he was a member of the Colorado State University’s School of Veterinary Medicine. His earlier career had been as a pioneer in using hypothermia, or cooling of the body, to allow open-heart surgery. In his studies of lungfish he eventually identified a metabolic inhibitor in the brain that he hoped could be synthesized and used to put cardiac patients into a state of hibernation during surgery. Swan died in 1996 at the age of 83.

Cooper’s letter was typed on a pale blue aerogramme form, but he had addressed it and written the salutation and closing in his own hand. Out of curiosity, I compared the handwriting on the aerogramme to that in the diary, and they were the same.

Cooper's letter to Dr. Henry Swan

This letter provided a further clue that helped to fill in one of the gaps in Cooper’s life. On the back of the aerogramme, in the space reserved for the sender’s name and address, Cooper had used a rubber stamp. This read:

B. COOPER. B.Sc. Biol. (Lond),
Uganda, East Africa.

Apart from the fact that this indicated that Cooper was staying at a hotel, and had stayed there long enough to warrant making a rubber stamp, it helped explain what he might have been doing in the period after leaving the Victoria University of Manchester in 1931 and reappearing in East Africa a few years later. But was the BSc degree genuine? Or was it just part of Cooper’s bluster, perhaps intended to impress Dr. Swan?

I found I could look up online the degrees awarded by the University of London. A Register was kept in the Senate House Library listing university students from 1836 to 1938. On page 610 of degrees awarded in 1934 I found the entry: Cooper, Bryan: BSc (Sp.)*, Impl. C.— R. C. Sc. This showed that Cooper had indeed studied at the Imperial College of London, Royal College of Science, probably from 1932 to 1934. The asterisk indicated “Honours, Medals, Distinctions etc, at Examinations.” In the 1935–’36 calendar, Cooper is shown to have graduated in the Special Examination in Biology. His study of biology explained a lot about his later interests and activities.

One of the remaining gaps in his life — between the diary entries of 1937 and 1943 — was explained in the letter written by John B. George to his supervisor in 1950. He wrote that, toward the end of his stay with Cooper, as they were driving along, Cooper told him that “he had suffered concussion as a youngster in a motorbike accident, had commanded a company of Kings African Rifles (in garrison and police duty) during the war, and had had a many-months siege of Malta fever.” It is not altogether clear whether George had the next item confided to him by Cooper or had heard it from other sources, but he went on: “One interesting aspect of his army career was that he had been a stern disciplinarian, so much so that his superiors objected and halted some of his measures. He said that you couldn’t afford to be soft with ‘nigger troops.’”


Cooper may not have been the most likable of characters, nor his life altogether admirable, but he was not without merit. He had many skills and a fund of knowledge about ­animal life gained through personal experience and hardship. He took an active interest in zoology, botany, and archaeology. He was surprisingly well educated considering the rough life he adopted, the reasons for which we may never know. Some combination of circumstances caused him to leave Britain in the mid-1930s, perhaps for adventure or lack of opportunity at home, or perhaps for more personal reasons.

We also do not know why he took his own life, especially at a time when he appeared more settled. Perhaps he missed the freedom of his earlier days, but this is only a guess. There may as easily have been some sudden deterioration in his health. He is remembered mostly in derogatory terms, but his diary reveals a more complex figure. It may prove to be his most enduring achievement, a document that was surely never intended to be read by others and that was somehow lost, either before or after his death. For all the published memoirs we have about big-game hunting and life in colonial East Africa, Cooper’s diary remains, to my knowledge, the only day-by-day record of what it was like to be a professional hunter there over 70 years ago.


David MacDougall is a documentary and ethnographic filmmaker and a writer on cinema. He is currently Honorary Professor in the Research School of Humanities and the Arts at the Australian National University, Canberra.

LARB Contributor

David MacDougall is a documentary and ethnographic filmmaker and a writer on cinema. He is currently Honorary Professor in the Research School of Humanities and the Arts at the Australian National University, Canberra.


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