Black Poachers, White Hunters: A History of Hunting in Colonial Kenya

By Carruthers, Jane | African Studies Review, December 2006 | Go to article overview

Black Poachers, White Hunters: A History of Hunting in Colonial Kenya


Carruthers, Jane, African Studies Review


Edward I. Steinhart. Black Poachers, White Hunters: A History of Hunting in Colonial Kenya. Oxford, James Currey/Athens: Ohio University Press, 2006. East African Studies series, viii + 248 pp. Photographs. Bibliography. Index. $49.95. Cloth. $26.95. Paper.

Ed Steinhart is well known to scholars of Africa, and it is a pleasure to have his new book in the Eastern African Studies series on our shelves. Steinhart has engaged with the history of East Africa for many years, and his numerous publications on Uganda and elsewhere attest to his prominence in the field. Black Poachers, White Hunters: A History of Hunting in Colonial Kenya is a most useful overview of hunting practices in Kenya over more than a century. It aims to examine the history of hunting from "a Marxian perspective in both its dialectical outlines and its emphasis on class" (3). In accomplishing this end, the author presents a masterly survey based on an impressive and wide-ranging list of primary and secondary sources.

The book is divided into four parts arranged chronologically: "The African Hunters," "The White Hunters," "Black and White Together," and "Gamekeepers and Poachers." Steinhart analyzes three particular topics related to hunting: the practices of indigenous Africans before the colonial era; hunting as practiced by Europeans before the era of state-imposed conservation legislation and national parks (principally the influences of the safari industry and the commodification of wildlife as objects of the gun and the camera); and, more briefly, changes in those practices affecting both Africans and whites thereafter.

In term of its content, Black Poachers, White Hunters is largely a booklength version of an article entitled "Hunters, Poachers and Gamekeepers: Toward a Social History of Hunting in Colonial Kenya" that Steinhart published in 1989 in the Journal of African History. Innovative for that time, his main argument is now-seventeen years later-perhaps somewhat tired. Had Black Poachers, White Hunters appeared within a year or two of the article, its impact would have been considerable; it might even have become a classic. But the historiography has not been static. During the past decade social historians have begun to unravel more nuanced postcolonial understandings of African agency and to consider issues of identity. They also have been influenced by the cultural and linguistic turn in the social sciences and the wealth of environmental literature about Africa's resources, much of it historical in focus. It is to be regretted that Steinhart did not take some of these fresh ideas on board, since they would have enhanced the value of what he has to say.

In many respects the field has moved away from the simple binary of "black poachers, white hunters"-i.e., "good" versus "evil"-to acknowledge that despite their shadowy presence in the literature and official records, Africans were able to manipulate their roles as guides and porters in order to maximize their employment and lifestyle opportunities. It would have been interesting, for example, to know much more about where the white safari hunters took their clients (i.e., on whose land they hunted and whether the porters had a say in the route), the pay for porters and guides and how they spent it, the provision of clothing or other equipment, the role of women in encouraging these men, whether obtaining porters was easier during times of drought, and the actual process of acculturation.

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