Themes – buck and other ungulates
To learn more about the arms illustrated, click on the images.
THE term ungulates, or Ungulata, is no longer used in scientific classification to indicate hoofed animals, but since it sums up the hoofed mammal group, it is still used informally. Various kinds of ungulates are to be found in South African coat-armour, and most notably antelopes or buck species. Two types of buck in particular have symbolised parts of South Africa, at least, for the longest: the black wildebeest, or gnu (Connochætes gnou), and the gemsbok (Oryx gazella gazella). The wildebeest, although not a beautiful animal by any means, was used by two 19th-century British colonies, the Cape and Natal. A wildebeest appeared as the dexter supporter in the arms of the Cape Colony, while Natal – which at one stage exported vast quantities of wildebeest hides – adopted a pair of them running across the veld for its coat of arms. When the Cape first adopted the wildebeest as a supporter, its tail hung downwards. Other drawings down the years showed the tail either down or up – heraldry regards an upward tail as proper, while one hanging down indicates cowardice. But only in the 1950s, when the Cape Province regularised its use of the arms of the Cape Colony, was the tail officially fixed in the upright position. The Cape’s wildebeest failed to make the cut for the arms of the Union of South Africa, but Natal’s two became the second quarter of that coat, and the second quarter was also granted to Natal in 1911 – an irregular move that was not communicated to the province, and was later abandoned. Natal’s wildebeeste survive today in the form of the single wildebeest supporter in the arms of KwaZulu-Natal.
The Cape’s gemsbok had a longer run as a supporter, since it was selected (from being the sinister supporter in the colony’s arms) as the sinister supporter in the arms of the Union. As with the Cape wildebeest, this animal’s tail originally hung down, subsequently going through a succession of changes before being officially fixed in the upright position, firstly in the 1932 version of the Union arms, and then in the 1950s in the arms of the Cape Province. The Cape’s wildebeest and gemsbok supporters also appeared, quite improperly, in the arms of Umtata. The gemsbok survives today as the dexter supporter in the arms of the Northern Cape Province.
No longer officially in favour is the springbok (Antidorcas marsupialis), which nonetheless has a strong following, especially in the form of the leaping springbok which is a registered trademark of Rugby South Africa (formerly the South African Rugby Union). The use of copyright legislation to “protect” emblems of a heraldic nature is unwarranted, as pointed out here. The springbok first made its appearance in the arms of the Orange River Colony, a device which was used by the Orange Free State Province for the first two decades of its life. And when the arms of the Union of South Africa were devised, the ORC springbok was selected for the honoured position of dexter supporter in that device. And like the gemsbok supporter, the springbok appeared in the 1910 version of the arms with its tail hanging down . . . and again in 1930. But in the 1932 version, the tails of both buck were up. A leaping springbok can be found in the arms of the Pharmaceutical Society of SA.
The springbok in the arms above are all full-grown and male. Roedean School in Johannesburg, however, chose quite deliberately to incorporate a springbok doe in its arms, and a young one besides, as a symbol of the pupils who attend the school. The doe springbok is a substitution for the doe roebuck in the arms of the school’s “elder sister”, Roedean School in Sussex, England.
The largest of all antelope are the two species of eland, of which the lesser eland (Taurotragus oryx) is indigenous in South Africa. A pair of lesser eland are the supporters in the arms of the Eastern Cape.
A most impressive antelope type is the kudu (Tragelaphus strepsiceros), with its curly horns. Mpumalanga has two kudu for supporters, while Northern Cape has the kudu as its sinister supporter – although the artist for Northern Cape has forgotten to include the vertical white wavy stripes that mark the flanks of this animal. The Albany Divisional Council also had a kudu for its sinister supporter, this one charged on the shoulder with a protea. Lastly, this writer has adopted a blue kudu for his crest.
In the 20th century the bontebok (Damaliscus dorcas dorcas) has been rescued from extinction. Found only between Bredasdorp and Cape Agulhas, it has grown in numbers from a handful of survivors to a thriving herd on the Bontebok National Park. Appropriately, Western Cape Province chose it as one of its supporters. The bontebok is closely related to the blesbok.
Among the larger species of buck is the impressive sable antelope (Hippotragus niger), of which North West Province adopted two as its supporters.
Last among the antelopes is an anomaly, since it has no real existence in nature, and even its status as a heraldic beast is questionable. This is the pair of buck which the College of Arms foisted on the Standard Bank for its supporters. The bank describes these creatures as heraldic antelope, but – as explained here – the heraldic antelope is in fact a fantastical beast with no equivalent in the natural world. The antelope in the bank’s arms are an amalgam of a variety of species, having horns a little like those of the gemsbok, but nothing else in common with it. One thing in favour of the buck drawn by the Herald Painter from the College is that, unlike so many animals in heraldry nowadays, it is quite definitely a male beast.
Renowned as one of the Big Five is the Cape buffalo (Syncerus caffer). Pairs of them feature as supporters in the arms of both East London, in the south, and Limpopo Province, in the far north.
Much more distantly related to the hoofed creatures shown above is the giraffe (Giraffa camelopardalis). The several subspecies of giraffe and the okapi (Okapia johnstoni) together make up the order Artiodactyla. Grahamstown selected two spotted creatures (a leopard and a giraffe) for its supporters in 1862. (In mediæval legend the leopard and the giraffe were thought to be related, because of their spots! The giraffe was supposed to be the offspring of a camel and a leopard.) These supporters were taken over (in altered colours) by the town’s public boys’ and girls’ schools, now called Graeme College and Victoria Girls’ High School. When Grahamstown obtained a grant of arms in 1912, its leopard and giraffe were obliged to wear distinguishing marks: each received a red scallop shell on its shoulder.
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Comments, queries: Mike Oettle