White Hunters: The Golden Age of African Safaris

Brian Herne’s White Hunters purports to be a history of “white hunters” in Africa — the term “white hunter” meaning a professional hunter, not just a Caucasian one. Sadly, it’s basically a collection of name-droppy anecdotes, with no intelligent synthesis whatsoever.

The book might be a reasonable road map to further studies on the subject, being a catalog of western hunters who worked in Africa. But this isn’t history. This is a series of book reports. It consists entirely of anecdotes culled from the memoirs of hunters, travelers and tourists, and brings nothing new to the table. There is no true synthesis whatsoever. The author occasionally tosses in an “As was typical in the African millieu of the time…” or “At the time, it was uncommon for…” but there is virtually no commentary or evaluation. It’s like he sat down with a bunch of memoirs and typed out the weirdest bits. In fact, it comes across like he didn’t retype, but clipped this stuff from Gutenberg and then paraphrased it. That seems likely, because of how intolerably long some of the anecdotes go on, long after it’s become clear they’re nothing more than anecdotes.

This approach is no more effective here than it was in Victor Ostrovsky’s By Way of Deception, which I detested even more. Herne has done a much better job than Ostrovsky of relying on first-hand, supported accounts, and in qualifying them where they might be less than factual. But then, the events related in Herne’s book are less critical in the details, since they’re presented as “rousing good tales.” I found them both rousing and good in quantities of one or two…as an entire book, they’re neither.

It’s a shame, too, because the topic of white hunters in Africa could be given a very interesting approach that incorporated synthesis of the times. Unfortunately, “the times” would have to be defined, which Herne doesn’t bother to do. The book’s marketing implies we’re talking about Victorian and Edwardian hunters, but then Herne careens all over the 20th century, even into the modern era. Huh? If he was going to do that, he should have written AN ACTUAL HISTORY of white hunting in Africa, instead of a series of anecdotes. Otherwise, he should have stuck with one general era or a couple of them, and drawn parallels that help define the times. Instead, he just blathered on indefinitely, unable to pick out the unifying threads in what he’d written (or perhaps had his research assistants read for him).

In the social sciences, I am fond of saying, the plural of anecdote is not data. And the plural of anecdote is also not “history.” In this case, the plural of anecdote is “mind-bending boredom.” Sorry.

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