White hunter is a former term used for professional big-game hunters of European or North America backgrounds who plied their trade in Africa, especially during the first half of the 20th century. The activity still exists in the dozen African countries which still permit big-game hunting, but the "white hunter" is now known as the "professional hunter". White hunters derived their income from organizing and leading safaris for paying clients.
The term Great White Hunter is a popular phrase that emphasizes the racial and colonial aspects of the profession, as well as its colorful aspects. The term echoes the privileged status of the white men who pursued this profession. Depending on the author and intention, the term can be used straightforwardly, in parody, or as a critique.
President Theodore Roosevelt's 1909 hunting trip helped popularize the African safari...
White men from Western countries had been hunting big game in Africa throughout the 19th century, particularly in the more settled southern portion of the continent. But the region most associated with the term "white hunters" is East Africa. By the turn of the century, as part of the "scramble for Africa" , Great Britain and Germany had taken colonial possession of territories on the eastern half of the continent, territories now recognized as the nations of Kenya, Rwanda, Uganda, and Tanzania.
There were many factors that led to the spread of big game hunting in East Africa, but two were foremost among them: first, a romantic European conception of hunting that combined aristocratic privilege and sportsmanship, and second, the desire by the colonizing powers to create new agricultural economies, to which unchecked animal populations posed a serious threat.
Although the origins of the phrase cannot be confirmed, the first European to go by the title of "white hunter" is generally considered to have been Alan Black. Black was hired in the 1890s by Hugh Cholmondeley, 3rd Baron Delamere, a towering figure of Britain's colonial days in Africa who in the language of British aristocracy was simply called "Lord Delamere", and known to his friends as "D". Delamere employed both Alan Black and a native Somali hunter to lead safaris in Somaliland. As the story goes, in order to avoid confusion, the Somali was referred to as the "black hunter," and Black was called the "white hunter".
At the turn of the century, East African hunting safaris became a fashionable pursuit among members of the privileged classes, particularly in Britain and the United States. The completion of the Uganda Railway in 1901 provided easier access to the interior highlands of British East Africa (now Kenya), where large game, especially elephants, lions, buffalo and rhinoceros, was plentiful. The white hunter served these paying customers as guide, teacher, and protector.
Capt. Duquesne of the Boer Army shoots a Black Rhino, circa 1900.
Typically, the hunter was hired or booked by an outfitting company (the first and most famous of these was Newland, Tarlton & Co. in Nairobi); the outfitter would make the local arrangements, gathering and packing supplies and hiring the many African workers without whom a safari was impossible. Porters, tent attendants, armed guards (known as askaris), horse-trainers, and gun-bearers, all working under the supervision of a "headman". Before the mass importation of motor vehicles, most safaris traveled on foot and horseback, and could employ anywhere from 50 to several hundred African workers.
The British colonial government also turned big-game hunting into a source of revenue, charging the tourists and hunters licensing fees for permission to kill the game animals. In 1909, a £50 hunting license in British East Africa entitled its purchaser to kill 2 buffaloes, 2 hippos, 1 eland, 22 zebras, 6 oryxes, 4 waterbucks, 1 greater kudu, 4 lesser kudus, 10 topis, 26 hartebeests, 229 other antelope, 84 colobus monkeys and unlimited lions and leopards, because these last two, which killed livestock, were classified as "vermin".
White hunters were colorful and romantic figures, often from privileged English backgrounds, who embraced a life of danger and adventure, and cast long shadows in a world hungry for compelling heroes. The first acclaimed white hunters in East Africa were Alan Black, Bill Judd, Frederick Selous (remembered as the namesake of the Selous Scouts and whose real-life adventures inspired Sir H. Rider Haggard to create the fictional Allan Quatermain African big-game hunter character) and R.J. Cunninghame (sometimes spelled Cuningham), all of whom began their exploits at the end of the 19th century. In 1909 Cunninghame was selected to lead what was probably the most well publicized African safari, Theodore Roosevelt's excursion into British East Africa. Roosevelt's fame and popularity, and his gift for generating publicity, prompted a craze for safaris among those who could afford the sizeable price tag. After the First World War, when Germany's colonial lands in East Africa were ceded to Britain, eager customers poured into Africa, creating a market for the skills of several more decades of hunters.
R.J. Cunninghame in 1909.
Among the better-known white hunters who succeeded Cunninghame's generation were W.D.M. Bell; Bror von Blixen-Finecke (who was, between 1914 and 1926, married to Out of Africa author Karen Blixen; Denys Finch-Hatton (who was, after her marriage collapsed, Karen Blixen's lover); Frederick Russell Burnham (Lord Roberts' Chief of Scouts in the Second Boer War and known as: England's American Scout); John A. Hunter; and Philip Percival and Frank M. "Bunny" Allen, whose safaris with Ernest Hemingway led the author to write Green Hills of Africa, True at First Light, The Short Happy Life of Francis Macomber, and The Snows of Kilimanjaro.
Although their business was killing, and they flourished in a colonial environment now understood as politically and economically oppressive, the white hunters are not so easily defined: they followed what they saw as a strict ethical code of sportsmanship, and they openly deplored the excesses of their more callow clients. Most importantly, they were among the first to launch efforts to conserve and protect Africa's wildlife against over hunting and extinction.
The exploits of white hunters were perfect subjects for novels and the big screen. They were romanticized in adventure novels that became the so-called "Lost World/Lost Race" genre. Perhaps the first fictional Victorian adventure hero to appear was Allan Quatermain, a white hunter who appeared in books by H. Rider Haggard. In 1924, Richard Connell published his short story The Most Dangerous Game, in which one white hunter finds himself being hunted by another; the story is still widely read. Alex Raymond created the Jungle Jim comic strip in 1934 that later lead to a comic book, film serial, film series, and television show.
A string of authors produced many stories in this genre since such as Geoffrey Household's 1939 novel Rogue Male featuring a white hunter going after Adolf Hitler. It was later filmed as Man Hunt (1941 film) and Rogue Male (film). Not surprisingly, actual white hunters were often involved in the filming of the exploits of their fictional counterparts: Bunny Allen led many film companies on safari to enable location filming for such films as King Solomon's Mines, Mogambo, and Nor the Moon By Night. The white hunter on safari in his khakis and pith helmet became an instantly-recognizable stock character, like the mad scientist in his laboratory or the wealthy industrialist in the boardroom. Abbott and Costello lampooned the type in their 1949 release, Africa Screams, which was itself a parody of a 1930 documentary, Africa Speaks. Bob Hope parodied the safari genre in Road to Zanzibar (1941) and Call Me Bwana (1963).
The phrase "great white hunter" probably has its origins in these popular depictions of safari adventures. Peter Capstick, a white hunter himself and an author of books on the subject, suggested that the word "great" may have been added by American popular culture. It was not a term employed or embraced by the hunters themselves. Its meaning, like many labels from the colonial era, is now shaded with parody or derision: it came to symbolize the arrogance of western colonial powers toward the less-developed parts of the world they controlled before the dismemberment of their empires after World War II.
Hemingway's safari story, "The Short Happy Life of Francis Macomber," richly addresses the questions of courage, cowardice, racism and power on safari. The story was made into a film titled "The Macomber Affair," but it was reissued in the United States market under the title, "The Great White Hunter." The title character is an American tourist looking to find his own courage by facing danger on safari. In the story, Hemingway accurately refers to the professional hunter leading the safari, a character named Wilson, as a "white hunter" (Wilson is said to have been based on Hemingway's own guides, Philip Percival and Bror Blixen). The addition of "great" in the movie release title may have helped to lodge the ironic use of the phrase in the popular culture.
Captain CG Biggar, a supporting character in the PG Wodehouse novel "Ring for Jeeves", is another example of the White Hunter.
A last example is Clint Eastwood's 1990 film, "White Hunter, Black Heart" where we see a clear example of this type, both in the professional hunters leading John Wilson in to the bush but also in the director's passion to be a such a hunter.