Destroyers and Preservers: Big Game in the Victorian Empire: Continuing Our History and the Environment Series, Harriet Ritvo Looks at the Role of Big-Game Hunting in Spreading Awareness of the Need for Conservation

By Ritvo, Harriet | History Today, January 2002 | Go to article overview

Destroyers and Preservers: Big Game in the Victorian Empire: Continuing Our History and the Environment Series, Harriet Ritvo Looks at the Role of Big-Game Hunting in Spreading Awareness of the Need for Conservation


Ritvo, Harriet, History Today


HUMANS HAVE, APPARENTLY, always hunted wild animals. At first for business, and subsequently, after the development of agriculture provided a more profuse and reliable source of calories, for pleasure, albeit pleasure with a purpose. Variously ritualised and institutionalised, the hunt has served the elites of many societies as recreation, status symbol, and para-military training. The killing of valuable animals has both enacted and represented social prestige and power. In Britain the exclusiveness of hunting had deep medieval roots. Access to game animals was limited both physically, through enclosure, and through laws that severely punished unauthorised slaughter. By the eighteenth century hunting was structured by a rhetoric of scarcity and privilege. Among sportsmen only fox hunters routinely claimed that their pastime served any useful purpose, and these claims were not especially persuasive.

The contributions of big game hunting to the imperial enterprise were multiple and complex. The vast territories of Asia, Africa, and North America were very different from the settings of domestic sport. Initially, there seemed to be little need for restraint or exclusivity. Game was plentiful, sometimes too plentiful. It could be large and ferocious, which made hunting both more dangerous and more useful. No longer purely recreational, the removal of wild animals could be appreciated as a service to humans, both colonists and indigenous inhabitants. Inevitably, imperial hunters adapted many of the sporting practices that they had learned at home, exchanging horses for elephants in some situations, guns for spears in others.

Despite such adjustments, however, the underlying meaning of the hunt did not change much. Killing large exotic animals emerged as both the quintessential activity and symbol of imperialism. Wild animals represented the obstacles that had hitherto prevented colonial territories from joining the march of progress, and that had to be eliminated before their native territories could enjoy the blessings of European civilisation. The hunt was thus a prized perquisite of colonial service in Africa and Asia, while the subsequent display of trophies and publication of stories excited and impressed expansionist sentiment at home. Rows of horns and hides, mounted heads and stuffed bodies, evoked the violent, heroic underbelly of imperialism. Such collections were readily available to the Victorian public. For example, the India Museum was founded in London in 1801 by the East India Company as a concrete representation of its commercial and political influence. The Museum soon boasted the largest collection of stuffed South Asian animals in Britain, and by the 1840s was attracting 10-20,000 visitors per year. The sporting prowess of native sons on imperial service adorned many local natural history museums, and the Great Exhibition of 1851 featured hunting trophies from around the globe.

The core appeal of such displays through their celebration of domination by naked force was further illustrated by the popular success of two mighty British hunters whose careers bracketed the most vigorous period of imperial expansion. Both Roualeyn Gordon Cumming (1820-66) and Frederick Courteney Selous (1851-1917) reaped the spoils of the chase a second time on the book, lecture and exhibition circuits. Cumming was drawn to imperial service at least partly by the promise of big game hunting. He entered the East India Company in 1838 but could not endure the climate. He returned to Scotland, but found the deer stalking too tame. He then enlisted in a Canadian regiment, but North America failed to provide the hunting opportunities he had anticipated. In 1843 he joined the Cape Mounted Rifles. When his military duties did not leave him enough time for sport, he resigned his commission in order to gratify `the passion of my youth', the collection of hunting trophies. For the next five years he supported himself as an ivory hunter, then returned to England intending to capitalise on his African experiences. …

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