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PRINTED FROM the OXFORD RESEARCH ENCYCLOPEDIA, AFRICAN HISTORY ( (c) Oxford University Press USA, 2020. All Rights Reserved. Personal use only; commercial use is strictly prohibited (for details see Privacy Policy and Legal Notice).

date: 28 September 2020

Summary and Keywords

Guns have loomed large in many African societies since early modern times. This has much to do with their military and economic potential, but also with the influential social life they often obtained. Being instruments of destruction in the first place, the history of guns is closely connected with various forms of violence, especially with warfare and hunting; however, the significance of the gun went far beyond this. Guns were, for instance, applied in every-day protection of crops and livestock and integrated into ceremonies and festivities; they became signifiers of royal and chiefly power, objects of gender identification, attributes of professional groups, and markers of social status and racial difference. Studying the social life of guns allows for new insights into the material foundations of cultural domains and the construction of social hierarchies; at the same time, it demonstrates that the social and cultural meanings of objects, including guns, are never stable and are subject to constant change.

The history of guns in Africa is also one of appropriation and domestication of foreign technology, rising consumerism, and efforts to overcome dependency from importation. The presence of guns often had strong impacts on social and natural environments, both physically and mentally. Studying gun violence and arms regimes from an historical perspective helps us to better understand processes of political centralization and fragmentation, practices of resistance against colonial rule, and also the forming of authoritarian regimes and criminal organisations. The ambiguous history of the gun resonates in contemporary images and memories, connected with both order and violence and liberation and oppression.

Keywords: firearms, arms trade, warfare, slavery, hunting, violence, security, colonialism, gender relations, racism

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