The Golden Age of African Safaris
By Brian Herne
Henry Holt. 468 pp. $35
Reviewed by Eddy L. Harris
In this era of political correctness and well-placed concern about the endangered species of the world, when guns and hunting and especially big-game hunting in Africa seem to be on so many lists of things that ought to be banned, White Hunters is an unusual book. For White Hunters attempts to glorify a passion for the kind of hunting and the kind of killing for the sake of killing that modern sensitivities would have thought and perhaps wished dead a long time ago. And White Hunters attempts as well to raise nearly to the status of conquering hero the men and women who sought to kill for trophy and for sport majestic animals that used to roam this earth so freely, animals that now are restricted to game preserves and which, many of them, are on the edge of extinction.
Today the notion of safari is a much tamer affair, and the images evoked are more likely to involve a camera with a powerful telephoto lens than a high-powered rifle with a telescopic sight. Modern adventures are far less dangerous for both animal and hunter. But there was a time, of course (and it may be hard for us to imagine), when much of the world thrilled to hear of the exploits of many of the big-game hunters who are named in Brian Herne's book. We know some of them, perhaps under a different guise, but we know them: Ernest Hemingway, certainly, and Karen Blixen, Gary Cooper and Clark Gable and George Eastman, Teddy Roosevelt, of course, and Winston Churchill. But there were the others, too, the less known ones who were some of the best professional hunters the world has ever seen. These are the men and women Herne is really concerned with. This is their story.
White Hunters is Herne's story too, for he is one of them, a professional hunter in the company of a long line of professional hunters. His career began in the late 1950s, it seems, in Tanganyika, and he has been on both sides of the fence, the gun-wielding side and the camera-swinging side. But although he mentions himself by name a couple of times in the book, White Hunters is not a memoir. It might be a better book if it were.
What it is instead -- and unfortunately -- is a parade of hunters in a variety of locales, mostly in East Africa, killing a variety of wild animals and sometimes getting maimed and killed by them. Sometimes we get to hear of their sexual escapades, too. But it all rushes by in a blur of names and places, and only the ones we already know jump out and make a reasonable imprint.
A personal narrative covering the scope of White Hunters might have made for a better book. But it might not have been entirely possible, given that Herne has chosen to trace essentially the entire history of the great white professional hunters, going back even beyond the man he cites as the very first in Africa to be called "white hunter," Alan Black -- who was so-called to distinguish him from another hunter who was employed by the same Lord Delamere. The other hunter, a black Somali, was referred to as the black hunter, "and from this difference, or so the story goes, `white hunter' came into common usage."
Because of its very scope, however, White Hunters can give nothing but bits and disjointed snatches of the story, an episode here and an affair there. And perhaps that is how Herne wanted it, an overview of what he calls the "golden age of African safaris." But there is no central character to pull you along, nothing of substance to latch onto, no exploration of who these people are that we are meeting. And beyond the parade of names and a mountain of information, there isn't much to the book.
What White Hunters is, if you can think beneath the surface of the book, is a history lesson that provides not only a long look at white big game hunters, but also a look at European colonial history and a glimpse into the arrogance of the colonialist mind. Of Mike Cottar, Herne writes that he was "thought by many to be the greatest bushman of his day." Thought by whom to be the greatest? And greater than the African trackers and gun bearers on whom all the white hunters relied?
Today it may be difficult for us to see and appreciate the endeavors and skills of those hunters, just as they, it is nearly certain, could never understand present-day views of their enterprises. But modern sensibilities require a deeper perspective on what these hunters were all about, the times in which they lived and what may have driven them to seek life and adventure in the dark continent, as it was called. And we require as well more than a passing nod at land and animal conservation and the continued effects of poaching, which are the legacy of white hunters killing elephants for ivory.
White Hunters is a remarkable piece of research, but it lacks the depth it needs to make a lasting impression, for the history of white hunters is really about more than guns and killing.
Eddy L. Harris is the author of "Mississippi Solo," "Native Stranger" and, most recently, "Still Life in Harlem."
CAPTION: Eric Rundgren, who shot over 3,000 buffalo, in 1958