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date: 17 May 2021

Animals in African Historyfree

  • Sandra SwartSandra SwartDepartment of History, Stellenbosch University


Animal history in Africa—the multi-species story of the continent’s past—as a separate subdisciplinary “turn” is both recent and tentative, but as an integrated theme within the broader historiography it is both pioneering and enduring. Historians of Africa have long engaged with animals as vectors of change in human history and, of course, at the same time, understood that humans were a key agent of change in animal histories too, especially in the long-lived and extensive writing on epizootics, livestock farming, pastoralism, hunting, and conservation. African animal histories should resist the imposition of intellectual paradigms from the Global North.

How to Look at Animals—Even Dead Animals

This article offers both a bird’s eye view and a worm’s eye view of that which has been published on animals in African history.1 It presents a broad synopsis of developments from a top-down macro point of view, studded with close-up case studies from the bottom up. It shows how a multi-species story of the past may be embraced in various ways. Its ambition is to open up existing animal-centric historiography to a broader readership in order to explain the possibilities and constraints of such writings and to proffer the reader a beastly bibliography. “Animal studies,” “critical animal studies,” and “human animal studies”—all three of which include elements of loosely defined “animal history”—have arisen in several centers internationally. From the early 21st century the new disciplines have had their own regional societies, conference circuits (especially the renowned Minding Animals Conference held every three years), book series, and journals. As this article will show, as a separate subdisciplinary “turn” (like the self-styled “postmodern turn” or “literary turn”) within African history writing, animal history certainly exists but has remained little studied and elusive, a hybrid creature roaming the disciplinary deep forest, nibbling at the edges of conferences and journals, straying into unexpected territories, and prone both to local extirpations and bursts of fecundity. But as a living, breathing beast, it has been grazing in full sight of everyone in the historiographical field for as long as African history has existed and those in the field often caught and consumed it.2 Indeed, historians of Africa have enduringly engaged with animals as vectors of change in human history (and, of course, at the same time, albeit often tacitly, understood that humans were a key agent of change in animal histories too, especially in the long-lived and extensive writing on epizootics, livestock farming, pastoralism, hunting, and conservation). Yet, focusing specifically on the animals themselves—and reflecting upon their role as subjects or even agents, rather than objects—is much more recent and rare, beginning in the early 21st century.3 But it has started to happen. The expansion of “histories with animals included” to “animal histories” was intended to challenge the instrumentalization of animals. Animals, as Marx said of humans, “make their own history, but they do not make it as they please; they do not make it under self-selected circumstances.”4 This is particularly true in the age of the Anthropocene.

The primary sources for writing animal histories are everywhere but are as scattered and various as the animals themselves. Archives are full of references to horses as part of the colonial state’s military project, to cattle and sheep as integral to feeding the nation, livestock-breeding initiatives, game control and wildlife preservation, and verminous threats, but references to specific game may be elusive. Animal histories may be reconstructed within the existing context of African history’s lasting and contested concern with “agency” in writing the history of the silenced. In crude terms, this approach simply accepts the premise that oppressed groups were and are not simply passive instruments or victims.5 But in doing so historians have been accused of ventriloquizing the Other.6 Similarly, doggedness in seeing history through the “animals’ eyes” is not possible; such thought experiments are just a historiographical version of an inkblot test, exposing more about the historian and their own era’s idiosyncrasies than the animal through whose “eyes” they purport to see.7 Historians have, however, long found innovative methodologies for discussing those that are silenced (“representing” is too strong an assertion and comes dangerously near to ventriloquizing the subject). So, instead of bombastic claims of “seeing through the animals’ eyes” or “from the animal’s perspective,” the more modest term animal-sensitive history or the more generous multi-species history may be preferred.

There is grave and obvious irony in bestowing upon animals the gift of agency. In fact, animal histories can extend the argument over the fairly limiting agent–victim dichotomy by destabilizing the presumed meanings of this otherwise increasingly sterile debate:

Everyone is acted on every day, no matter how independent they may pretend to be. Victims need not be passive, nor the passive weak, nor actors free agents, for history to happen. Part of the problem lies in reifying such categories into timeless states: once a victim, always a victim, for example (or at least until the victim-turned-agent dialectic kicks in). It is quite possible to speak of agency and victimization in the same breath, because those attributes are entangled and mutable, not discrete.8

Some animal histories show us that even victims were far from passive (and, of course, “victim” is itself a dangerously portmanteau concept implying a tragic inadequacy, or, conversely, innocence, which might be provocatively empowering, operates as a useful political device for demanding redress or ameliorative action). Of course, as noted by Africanist historians, agency has its conceptual limitations. The debate over agency has found some of its most sophisticated theorists among Africanist historians and is useful in extending the debate within critical animal studies but remains largely ignored by scholars of the Global North, who predominate in critical animal studies/animal history.9 Equally, as those engaged in Southern Theory have noted in other contexts, the North nevertheless all too frequently is deployed as proxy for the “normal course of history” (Africanist historians have grappled with this ever since Hegel cheerfully declared Africa “no part of history”).10 Southern histories remain invisible and are thus frequently not part of so-called global histories.11 A standard text, for example, declares that industrial capitalism led inexorably to urbanization, which then simply “removed animals from humans’ daily experience.” This has not been true in many parts of Africa, for example, where livestock remain part of urban lives and where industrial capitalism has not caused the “once-profound connections between animals and humans” simply to be “reduced to artificial representations.”12 In fact, shifting battlegrounds continue to exist between humans and rodents, birds, baboon, lion, elephant and crocodile.13 The apartheid state used animals as part of its arsenal of oppression—testing crowd-control methods on baboons and using predators as “border guards” and trying to deploy a new breed of police dogs and even wolf-dog hybrids as technologies of fear.14

Here, without drawing any insulting comparisons or making glib analogies, one can still redeploy (strategically and sensitively) methods through which other underrepresented groups have received historiographic recognition previously—as this a particular strength of African history writing since the 1960s. (Of course, it must be reiterated, to learn from comparisons between human and animal history as “silenced” groups is certainly not to merge or to diminish the lives and suffering of either group.) After all, African history pioneered fresh advances as a discipline in the 1960s in reaction to the independence of African states and in retort to attitudes epitomized by Hegel and later Hugh Trevor-Roper’s absurd assertion that history in Africa was really only the record of European actions as the rest was static and shadowy and not the “proper subject” of the discipline of history. So early Africanists had to demonstrate that Africa had history. Similarly, those interested in animal histories are determined to prove that it even exists. Historians must therefore demonstrate that an animal past may offer one social history rather merely natural history; it must show one change over time rather than stasis—essentially, one must, as a historian of animals, be able to screen a diachronic movie rather than merely flash a synchronic snapshot.

Two neglected approaches in animal-sensitive or multi-species histories are the analytical lenses of generation and gender. Generation has been ignored, especially analysis of children–animals interactions in history. Some scholars like Nancy Jacobs have, however, opened up avenues into the former by examining the interactions of isiXhosa-speaking boys in the early 20th century with two types of birds—the umcelu and intengu, whose whistling was believed by the boys to keep their cattle from peril, allowing them to escape onerous herding duties from time to time.15 The neglect of gender is true of animal studies so far, and more generally, of environmental history.16 In fact, the Anthropocene might as well be the “Manthropocene” in most environmental history overviews. Claims about a rarefied historical women–animal bond are usually not very useful—indeed, the idea of the subordinate genders/classes/castes or races being historically “closer to nature” is both untrue and dangerous (which is why we were so careful earlier to remind readers that to learn from the methodologies of writing the history of human silenced groups is neither to run together nor to diminish the lives of any being, especially the human oppressed). Instead, some have called for a feminist political ecology, which looks not only at women but also at gendered dynamics at work in human interactions with nature. Sexism has also affected understanding animal–human interactions and even animal–animal interactions: as in anthropomorphic sexism, which obscured (human) understandings. Consider lions, creatures often viewed as the quintessential African animals: viewed through the prism of patriarchy, the lioness’s centrality as hunter was neglected by earlier focus on the male. This is perpetuated in portrayals of lions that permeate pop culture, like The Lion King, which promote a patriarchal vision in which the female role is one of subservience, submission, and subordination—essentially to give birth to the next male heir to the Jungle King’s throne.17 Similarly, the historical endowment of lions with nobility and the quality of the elite meant that when field conservationists first discovered that lions were opportunistic scavengers that stole from hyena kills, their initial discovery was met with outraged disbelief by the public.18

One possibility is for us to, like the overly lionized lions, scavenge from others: we could borrow an idea from the new social historians of the 1960s called the “worm’s eye” view of history: a history of the powerless considered as equally worthy of study as that of the powerful, the weak as well as the mighty, the worms along with the lions. Previous generations of historians variously embraced this approach in writing workers’ history or labor history, women’s history and later gender history, gay and queer histories, and, especially in the African history context, the histories of previously colonized peoples. Women’s history, for example, shares many connections with “animal studies,” as both contain, in southern Africa at least, several practitioners from a liberal, middle-class tradition and also those from a radical activist position.19 The first interventions defied male chauvinist histories with a simple substitution: swopping powerful women for powerful men. This was followed by research into “ordinary women”: first women as victims and then women who displayed agency. There is congruence between writing the histories of both groups: animals and women were historically oppressed groups who sometimes resisted their oppression—the taming of either kind of shrew proved difficult. Thus, by also drawing on an early women’s history, historians interested in animals might simply demonstrate that animals have a history at all, just as Africanists had to. This could be demonstrated through biography. Animal biographies might be intended to reveal the individuality or the typicality of an animal in a moment in history.20 Others might explore the subjectivities of animals or focus on their effect on (human) communities. Keeping with the leonine leitmotif, some could focus on charismatic individuals or outliers: like Cecil, a charismatic and beloved lion roaming Zimbabwe’s Hwange National Park and whose killing in 2015 by an American dentist sparked global outrage and celebrity ire, or Osama, the lion who terrorized Rufiji, Tanzania, from 2002 to 2004, killing perhaps fifty people, and whose death sparked no global interest but considerable local relief.

The lens could turn to the lives of various famous racehorses like Sea Cottage, Wolf Power, and Politician in order not only to show how their individual lives played out and their symbolic value in various political eras but also to tell a bigger story about the shifting lives of racehorses since the first recorded race meeting of the African Turf Club was run in 1797 and was won by the five-year-old Zemman Shaw. The story could focus on the domesticated or the wild individual, the former epitomized by a dog called Just Nuisance and the latter by a hippopotamus baptized Huberta—both citizens of South Africa. Just Nuisance was a Great Dane born in 1937, who “volunteered” to join the Royal Navy in 1939. He traveled the trains around Simons Town and Cape Town with the sailors, sporting a collar created for him in the Naval Dockyard, to which his free rail pass was clipped. He was given the rank of Able Seaman, commemorated in a celebrity biography, Just Nuisance—Able Seaman Who Leads a Dog’s Life, at the height of war jingoism in 1941, and some of his puppies were auctioned for War Funds. He had the checkered career of many wartime sailors, causing the deaths of the mascots on the HMS Shropshire and the HMS Redoubt. His own death followed complications after being hit by a car. He was buried with full military honors and commemorated with a statue.

Both animals won public attention by their travels, but while Just Nuisance seemed to join the hegemonic human order, Huberta challenged it. Huberta was a hippo who wandered out of her Zululand lagoon and into the public imagination. In November 1928, Huberta (as she was posthumously christened after first being assumed to be male and dubbed Hubert) embarked on a three-year, 1,600-km trek south. Her journey’s motive is murky: some speculated that she was looking for a lost mate or was fleeing hunters, or perhaps—more elegiacally—she desired to see the ancestral haunts of hippos now extirpated. She crossed railways, roads, and rivers, suburbs and sugarcane fields, golf courses and gardens. She won a cult following among various ethnic groups, including some who believed her to be supernatural. In the end, she was shot by farmers who claimed they did not realize it was the celebrity hippo. They were heavily fined after a national outcry, while Huberta’s body was preserved and is now on display at a museum.

Just as for Just Nuisance, Huberta’s biography was first captured in a popular book. It was written in 1961 and her story (and it context) was then reconstructed by a professional historian in 2004.21 The genre of animal biographies has long existed (think, for example, of Black Beauty)—but recently these popular books, often written for children, have been augmented by academic endeavors. The histories reconstructed have been mainly of those animals who normally live closely within human society but who broke the bounds of domesticity (like Just Nuisance) or, conversely, those “wild” animals who behaved anomalously by entering human society (like Huberta).

As a second strategy, historians have discussed not only animal celebrities but also the “ordinary animal,” although not always with sufficient attention to the animal itself, often rendering it a cipher or a metonym. In women’s history, the second and third waves required documentation of women’s ordinary lived experience, which marked the turn to social history and insisted on the variance and diversity of the lives of the so-called masses.22 Similarly, the one way to approach writing history that takes animals seriously includes the impact on animal histories of transformations in human lifeways, including the move from hunting economies and transhumant pastoralism to agribusiness, all within, especially in recent years, changing climate. Historians of Africa have long included the animals owned by pastoral peoples or the wildlife surrounding them, addressing the reciprocal influences of a mutable nature and shifting (human and non-human) animal groups. In Africa there have been histories that included animals for several academic “generations.” Work on animals specifically comes out of the socio-environmental historiographical field or literary studies stables.23 Instead, most historians who take animals seriously are promoting a continuing process of inclusion and measured mainstream acceptance of the animal as historical subject, object, and even perhaps agent: Dan Wylie on elephants, William Beinart on sheep, Karen Brown on insects, Simon Pooley on crocodiles, Nancy Jacobs on donkeys, Gerald Mazarire on rodents, Clapperton Chakanetsa Mavhunga on “vermin,” Sandra Swart on horses, dogs and baboons, Lance Van Sittert on dogs, several on animals and diseases, Malcolm Draper on trout, and Jacob Dlamini and Jane Carruthers on wildlife.24 Much more research needs to be directed toward understanding African ideas about animals over the longer term and vernacular definitions of cruelty.25 Settler notions of African cruelty to animals played a key role in how whites related to blacks: “the fact that Africans required civilization on this point provided incontrovertible evidence of African savagery. It justified white violence on African bodies. It reinforced the imagined distance between white and black.”26

Some historians have explored animal–human relationships through ethnographic research with southern African KhoeSan peoples, including a study on snake motifs in rock art, revealing a number of links between snakes and water, fertility, dance, and medicine. Snakes’ “sinewy flexibility and muscular slithery movements, mysteriously enables them to propel themselves rapidly forward, despite the absence of limbs. . . . perhaps snakes are good to think because they act fractal-like as a ‘portal’ through which something is conveyed of the quality of life’s mysterious and unpredictably generative and destructive potency.”27 Yusufu Qwaray Lawi and Tamara Giles-Vernick looked at animals in colonial and post-colonial history, investigating ways of incorporating local or vernacular knowledge in some tentative long-term pre-colonial studies.28 After all, in some ways Africa (and African history) has resisted many empires—long before the 19th century’s “scramble.” Africa was pigeonholed, as it were, as the “natural” domicile of animals, an animal-rich but history-scarce “placeless space” upon which to screen the metropole’s fancies and fantasies.29 This notion then won fresh stimulus from the 17th century to the mid-20th century wrapped up in the colonialism’s rhetoric of a “civilizing mission,” which analogized African wildlife to the state of African societies, and animals to Africans themselves. There is no room here to analyze complicated and changing colonial policy, but crudely put, the colonial project was to both control (or, more accurately) kill Africa’s animals and civilize (or, more accurately) subdue Africa’s people. Then from the early to mid-20th century, Africa was recast as a wilderness to be protected and conserved (often from its indigenous peoples) and hunted only by an elite or conquered by camera rather than gun, policed by game wardens rather than colonial troops.30 Thus, conservation adopted a crusading model akin to the previous era’s colonial Christian conquest, with the “identity myth of a colonizing society returning to or discovering an earthly Eden [being] deeply implicated in the establishment of national parks in Africa.”31 Several historians of Africa have dissected these myths about pristine pre-settler Africa and exposed the legends of the frontier “lone rangers”: white masculine conservation heroes who single-handedly saved Africa’s animals from the depredations of either rapacious modernity or indigenous Africans.32 The histories of settler fantasies of Africa’s animals continue to influence conservationist practice.33

But there was no linear triumphalist story to tell about Africa’s conservation success. While there has been substantial research into big game hunting and policing African access to animals by white officials, some recent books have explored a different kind of imperial exploitation of Africa’s animals, looking at the network of plundering (rhino horn, lion bones, ivory, and donkey skins) from local poachers to the Asian markets.34

Zooarchaeological methods, paleoenvironmental evidence, DNA analysis, and linguistics have been used to reconstruct the previous 5,000 years of livestock-keeping, for example, in East Africa where sometimes nomadic herders followed the conventional historical narrative of becoming sedentary farmers and agropastoralists; in other instances penurious pastoralists turned to temporary or permanent foraging, abandoning their herding way of life.35 Livestock were key to both African and then subsequent settler societies, and transhumance was basic to both right up until the 20th century—and remained central in some societies. More broadly, Africa’s geography, especially its climate, needs to be considered in understanding the shifting animal–human interface: the continent’s seasonal transitions have been from wet to dry and the most extreme anywhere. Long-term flux has played a role in shaping survival strategies involving animals, including those of hunters and pastoralists. Herders of livestock made decisions about those species’ specific needs for water and nutrients, coupled to their abilities to perform labor, produce food, serve as status symbols, and store wealth.36 Livestock moved with human diasporas in long-distance trade networks. They were adapted to suit human desires but were also adapted to disease and parasites and varying environments with concomitantly various grazing opportunities. The genetics of these latter characteristics are still to be analyzed, but they bring to light the “animal side of the close co-evolution between humans and domestic animals in Africa.”37

One of the ways animal histories have been particularly helpful in telling the African past is through the significance of cattle in society. There have been a range of extremely important (often hotly contested) analyses of the socio-political role of animals, particularly cattle, dating to the second decade of the 20th century.38 For example, Herskovits’s 1926 classic “cattle complex” describes pastoralists’ valuing cattle as social, rather than economic, goods. It made much of their evident love for and pride in cattle and general reluctance to kill them except as part of socio-political rites. Some settlers interpreted this model to be a complex in the psychiatric sense, like an inferiority complex, and saw it as further evidence of African irrationality. Ensuing generations of historians, however, have shown that these cattle-based practices had rational foundations and that there is a wide range of meanings inherent in cattle–human relationships. Other historians challenged the notion of the “cattle complex” by showing the various African cattle and milk regime responses to the emergence of a hegemonic colonial order, with its exploitative and racially prejudicial tendencies exploding the notion of a static and stagnating “cattle complex.” A recent research project on cattle in the Angolan-Namibian border region between 1890 and 1990 further challenged conventional historiography. Kreike demonstrated, that, in fact, contrary to received wisdom, the region’s cattle were actually a global market commodity before the colonial conquest. It was only during and, indeed, because of colonial rule that cattle became utilized largely only for local subsistence. Colonial administrators grumbled about soil erosion, desiccation, and overgrazing, even though there was little proof to support their accusations of overstocking and environmental degradation. But the study also points out that African cattle ownership and use was not somehow “naturally sustainable,” static, and harmonious since (pre-colonial) pastoralism was also prey to human conflict, affected by migrations, as well as epizootics and environmental changes.39

The Empire Bites Back?

Animal studies, which includes animal histories, is gradually taking up a transnational perspective after being overly occupied with the Global North. African history is shifting too, with a broadening of environmental history to include a focus on animals.40 Africanists write “human–animal histories” with a strong sense of place. It must be added, however, that while an embryonic “animal turn” within African history has generated some valuable new research, animals have long been acknowledged as key to understanding the African past. What is new is a fresh self-awareness, theoretical sophistication (including drawing African history into “critical animal studies” or “human animal studies”), comparative international and transnational case studies, and a closer focus on the animals themselves, whether they exhibit agency or not. What is thus far missing from the historiographical debate, with obvious and urgent application to the present, is the long histories of livestock and game in the context of early 21st-century African land restitution politics.41 There is a pressing need for more research into the role of indigenous societies in shaping ideologies of the animal within human society rather than merely the imposition by the invading outsider. Moreover, terminology matters—neither “critical animal studies” nor “human animal studies” (paradigms from the Global North) captures the historicity of the endeavor, whereas “animal history” ventriloquizes the subject in ways that are unacceptable particularly to historians of Africa long resistant to such practices in (human) spheres. Thus “animal-sensitive history” is perhaps a more unassuming but useful term.

Methodologically, showing that the lives of animals changed over time shows their social (rather than “natural”) history.42 Animals have existed in plain historiographical sight since African history began, but since the start of the 21st century there have been active attempts to “write animals into African history.” A range of approaches—on animal as instrument and as symbol, animal consumption, animal labor, animal disease, animal conservation, animals in politics, animals and gender—and on a range of animals—the wild or unwild, domestic, pet, or feral, indigenous or alien. The point of this article has been to acquaint readers with the enduring and pervasive existence of animals in the telling of Africa’s past but also to track new directions. African animal-sensitive history needs a rich biodiversity of ideas in order to rewild academe’s monocultures.

Discussion of the Literature

As illuminated in this article, animals have been key in some tellings of Africa’s past for a very long time. Certain animals, like cattle, have proved pivotal in several reconstructions of the ostensibly “human” past. Yet even so, the agency and subjectivity of the non-human animal was neglected up until the major paradigmatic shift of the early 21st century. A usefully illuminating, if shamefully self-indulgent, example of this paradigmatic shift may be offered by contrasting two books on horses in African history. Robin Law’s 1980 history, The Horse in West Africa, sternly disowned any “enthusias[m] for horses” and went to lengths to explain that he had “in fact, no special affections for these animals” while describing their role as technologies of change in human societies.43 Thirty years later, in 2010, I published Riding High—Horses, Humans and History in South Africa, in which I happily confessed my enthusiasm and affection for horses and attempted to take them seriously as historical subjects and agents. I tried to ride a new beast in writing a new kind of African “animal-sensitive” or multi-species history, intent on exploring an interspecies relationship between horses and humans.44 This more recent work of history (like Law’s) certainly looked at the horse’s role in human conflict, mobility, trade, and agriculture. But, by contrast, it also tried to take the “horses” of the title as seriously as the “humans” in narrating the “adventures of a big gentle herbivore and a small, rogue primate.” Similarly, there are now key works of history in which the animal is granted central position—like Dan Wylie’s work on elephants in southern African history. Thus the extension of “histories with animals included,” to “animal-sensitive human histories” to more generous to “animals’ histories” or “multi-species histories” was intended to confront and contest the historiographical instrumentalization of animals. What is important to note (to abuse T. S. Eliot a trifle) is the key shift in the literature from treating animals as mere “attendant lords,” used to “swell a progress” or “start a scene or two,” “easy tools,” no doubt “glad to be of use,” to a new phase of moving animals to the historiographical center stage as heroes and anti-heroes along with their human counterparts. In essence, it is the transition from ham to Hamlet.

Primary Sources

Primary sources vary in quality and availability. Oral tradition abounds in animal legend and lore, proverbs and idioms, songs and stories. Here one can draw on vernacular memory, although it is necessary to mine the rich primary seam closely, sifting through the anthropocentric sand to find the non-human animal gold dust. Oral tradition is recorded in many sites, including the Killie Campbell Africana Library. Some animals, especially those of value like horses, have prominent holdings in national archival collections, like the South Africa National Archives and Zimbabwe National Archives. In reconstructing a multi-species past, an interdisciplinary approach is essential because of the paucity of sources. Here the historian needs to rely on a multi-pronged research for evidence, depending on the period under investigation and upon which animal the focus falls. Livestock, perceived scourges of livestock (dubbed “vermin” like jackal), and trophy animals for hunting are well represented in the colonial and post-colonial archive, but other animals are not recorded in the archives at all. (For example, in the South African National Archives, of the records of central government since 1910, “horse” is mentioned 648 times, “sheep” 1,792, “cattle” 2,370, and “pigs” a slightly more humble 175 times. Charismatic mega-fauna like rhino, lion, and hippopotamus are recorded, if more fleetingly. Even porcupines receive a mention.) Moreover, the existing archives capture only a tiny part of Africa’s past. Thus zooarchaeology, rock art, oral tradition, and oral history provide vital information missing from archival or text-based historical sources. Of course, animals themselves cannot generate textual sources—so these are written by their protectors, abusers, champions, or enemies—but animals can leave a physical trace. Here zooarchaeology is important and has been especially helpful in understanding the role of animals in co-constituting the spread and settlement of farmers based on the primacy of cattle in the occupation by the first farmers during the first millennium ad. Zooarchaeologists have estimated potential livestock numbers, together with body weight, disease, and skeletal data, of these long-dead herds. This paradigm has been contested by a shift to looking at the descent patterns of farmers, but the methodology still relies on analysing animal changes.45 (For more on local archaeology see the South African Archaeological Society). Rock art also offers a significant source into a deeper history of Africa: longer-standing and very different human-animal relationships (see the Rock Art Institute).46

Further Reading

  • Carruthers, Jane. The Kruger National Park: A Social and Political History. Pietermaritzburg, South Africa: University of Natal Press, 1995.
  • Jacobs, Nancy. Birders of Africa: History of a Network. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2016.
  • Mazarire, Gerald Chikozho. “The Burrowed Earth: Rodents in Zimbabwe’s Environmental History.” Critical African Studies 8, no. 2 (2016): 109–135.
  • Swart, Sandra. “Writing Animals into African History.” Critical African Studies 8, no. 2 (2016): 95–108.
  • Swart, Sandra. Riding High—Horses, Humans and History in South Africa. Johannesburg: Witwatersrand University Press, 2010.
  • Skabelund, A. “Animals and Imperialism: Recent Historiographical Trends.” History Compass 11 (2013): 801–807.
  • Van Sittert, Lance, and Sandra Swart, eds. Canis Africanis—A Dog History of Southern Africa. Leiden: Brill, 2008.
  • Wylie, Dan. Elephant. London: Reaktion Books, 2008.
  • Wylie, Dan. Death and Compassion: The Elephant in Southern African Literature. Johannesburg: Witwatersrand University Press, 2018.


  • 1. See Albert Grundlingh, Christopher Saunders, Sandra Swart, and Howard Philips, “Environment, Heritage, Resistance and Health: Newer Historiographical Directions,” in The Cambridge History Of South Africa, 2, ed. Robert Ross, Anne Mager, and Bill Nasson (Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 2011).

  • 2. This paragraph and others in the essay draw in part from Sandra Swart, “Writing Animals into African History,” Critical African Studies 8, no. 2 (2016): 95–108.

  • 3. See Sandra Swart, “Beasts of the Southern World,” Colloquium: African Environments & Their Populations (Georgetown University, Washington, April 23, 2016).

  • 4. “They cannot represent themselves, they must be represented”: Karl Marx, The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Napoleon (1852), trans. D. De Leon Charles (Chicago: Kerr & Company, 1919).

  • 5. Sandra Swart, “The World the Horses Made—A South African Case Study of Writing Animals into Social History,” International Review of Social History 55, no. 2 (2010): 241–263.

  • 6. Gary Minkley and Ciraj Rassool, “Orality, Memory, and Social History in South Africa,” in Negotiating the Past: The Making of Memory in South Africa, ed. Sarah Nuttall and Carli Coetzee (Cape Town: Oxford University Press, 1998); and Ciraj Rassool, “Power, Knowledge and the Politics of the Public Past,” African Studies 69, no. 1 (2010): 83–84.

  • 7. As noted of animal histories in Sandra Swart, Riding High – Horses, Humans and History in South Africa (Johannesburg: University of the Witwatersrand Press, 2010).

  • 8. David A Chappell, “Active Agents versus Passive Victims: Decolonized Historiography or Problematic Paradigm?,” The Contemporary Pacific 7, no. 2 (1995): 303–326.

  • 9. As Skabelund notes, histories of animals and imperialism will profit by becoming “less Western-centric and more transnational and transimperial”; A. Skabelund, “Animals and Imperialism: Recent Historiographical Trends,” History Compass 11 (2013): 801–807.

  • 10. Ngũgĩ Wa Thiong’o, Decolonising the Mind: The Politics of Language in African Literature (Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann, 1986); Ngũgĩ Wa Thiong’o, Moving the Centre. The Struggle for Cultural Freedoms (Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann, 1993); and Raewyn Connell, Southern Theory: The Global Dynamics of Knowledge in the Social Sciences (Sydney, Australia: Allen & Unwin, 2007).

  • 11. Laura Czerniewicz, “Inequitable Power Dynamics of Global Knowledge Production and Exchange Must Be Confronted Head On, 13 March, 2014.”

  • 12. Cited in D. Brantz, ed., Beastly Natures—Animals, Humans, and the Study of History (Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 2010).

  • 13. For a discussion of animals as “border control” historically, see Jacob Dlamini, “Stray Boys’: The Kruger National Park and Migrant Labour,” in Long Way Home Migrant Worker Worlds 1800–2014, ed. Peter Delius, Fiona Rankin-Smith, and Laura Phillips (Johannesburg: Wits University Press, 2014), 132–143.

  • 14. Lance Van Sittert and Sandra Swart, “Canis Familiaris: A Dog History of South Africa,” South African Historical Journal 48, no. 1 (2003): 138–173.

  • 15. Nancy Jacobs, “Herding Birds, Interspecific Communication, and Translations,” Critical African Studies 8, no. 2 (2015): 136–145; see also Nancy Jacobs, Birders of Africa: History of a Network (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2016).

  • 16. A comparison between animal studies and women’s and labor history is developed in Sandra Swart, “‘The World the Horses Made’: A South African Case Study of Writing Animals into Social History,” International Review of Social History 55, no. 2 (2010): 241–263.

  • 17. G. Gutierrez, “Deconstructing Disney: Chicano/a Children and Critical Race Theory,” Aztlan: A Journal of Chicano Studies 25 (2000): 7–46.

  • 18. S. Glickman, “The Spotted Hyena from Aristotle to the Lion King: Reputation is Everything,” in Humans and Other Animals, ed. A. Mack (Columbus: Ohio State University, 1999), 87–123.

  • 19. This paragraph from Swart, Riding High.

  • 20. For theoretical pieces on animal biographies and “autobiographies,” see Margo DeMello, Speaking for Animals: Animal Autobiographical Writing (New York: Routledge, 2013); and Susan McHugh, Animal Stories: Narrating Across Species Lines (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2011).

  • 21. Leslie Witz, “The Making of an Animal Biography: Huberta’s Journey into South African Natural History, 1928–1932,” Kronos 30 (2004): 138–166; see also Edmund Lindop and Jane Carlson, Hubert, the Traveling Hippopotamus (Boston: Little, Brown, 1961).

  • 22. Drawn from Sandra Swart, Riding High.

  • 23. William Beinart, “African History and Environmental History,” African Affairs 99 (2000): 269–302; Dan Wylie, Elephant (London: Reaktion Books, 2008); and Wendy Woodward, The Animal Gaze: Animal Subjectivities in Southern African Narratives (Johannesburg: Wits University Press, 2008).

  • 24. Dan Wylie, Elephant; William Beinart, “The Night of the Jackal: Sheep, Pastures and Predators in the Cape,” Past and Present 158 (1998): 172–206; Karen Brown, “Political Entomology: The Insectile Challenge to Agricultural Development in the Cape Colony, 1895 to 1910,” Journal of Southern African Studies 29 (2003): 529–549; Simon Pooley, “A Cultural Herpetology of Nile Crocodiles in Africa,” Conservation & Society 14, no. 4 (2016): 391–405; Simon Pooley, “The Entangled Relations of Humans and Nile Crocodiles in Africa, c.1840–1992,” Environment and History 33, no. 2 (2016): 421–454; Nancy Jacobs, “The Great Bophuthatswana Donkey Massacre: Discourse on the Ass and the Politics of Class and Grass,” The American Historical Review 106, no. 2 (2001): 485–507; Gerald Chikozho Mazarire, “The Burrowed Earth: Rodents in Zimbabwe’s Environmental History,” Critical African Studies 8, no. 2 (2016): 109–135; Clapperton Chakanetsa Mavhunga, “Vermin Beings: On Pestiferous Animals and Human Game,” Social Text 29, no. 1 (2011): 151–176; Greg Bankoff and Sandra Swart, Breeds of Empire: The “Invention” of the Horse in the Philippines and Southern Africa, 1500–1950 (Copenhagen: Nordic Institute of Asian Studies, 2007); C. Roche, “Ornaments of the Desert: Springbok Treks in the Cape Colony, 1774–1908” (unpublished MA thesis, University of Cape Town, 2004); L. Van Sittert and Sandra Swart, eds., Canis Familiaris—A Dog History of Southern Africa (Leiden: Brill, 2008); Sandra Swart, “Dogs and Dogma: A Discussion of the Socio-Political Construction of Southern African Dog Breeds as a Window on Social History,” South African Historical Journal 48 (2003): 190–206; for animal diseases, see, for example, John Ford, The Role of the Trypanosomiases in African Ecology: A Study of the Tsetse Fly Problem (London: Oxford University Press, 1971); James Giblin, “Trypanosomiasis Control in African History: An Evaded Issue,” Journal of African History 31 (1990): 59–80; Kirk Hope, Lords of the Fly: Sleeping Sickness Control in British East Africa, 1900–1960 (Westport, CT: Praeger, 2003); Maryinez Lyons, The Colonial Disease: A Social History of Sleeping Sickness in Northern Zaire, 1900–1940 (Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 1992); William Beinart, “Transhumance, Animal Diseases and Environment in the Cape, South Africa,” South African Historical Journal 58, no. 1 (2007): 17–41; Beinart, “Vets, Viruses and Environmentalism at the Cape,” in Griffths and Robin, Ecology and Empire, 87–101; S. Blendulf, “Rabies in Natal,” Natalia 20 (1990): 43–49; S. Brooks, “‘Ropes of sand’: soldier-settlers and nagana in Zululand” in White farms, black labor: the state and agrarian change in Southern Africa, 1910–1950, ed. A. Jeeves and J. Crush (Portmouth and Oxford: Heinemann, 1997), 243–264; A. de V. Minnaar, “The Locust Invasion of Zululand 1933–1937,” Natalia 20 (1990): 30–42; Malcolm Draper, “Going Native? Trout and Settling Identity in a Rainbow Nation,” Historia 48 (2003): 55–94; Jacob Dlamini, “Putting the Kruger National Park in Its Place: A Social History of Africans, Mobility and Conservation in a Modernizing South Africa, 1900–2010” (PhD diss., Yale University, 2012); and Jane Carruthers, “Wilding the Farm or Farming the Wild?,” The Evolution of Scientific Game Ranching in South Africa from the 1960s to the Present,” Transactions of the Royal Society of South Africa 63, no. 2 (2008): 160–181.

  • 25. For an extended discussion of how an astute African political strategist could himself use the discourse of animal cruelty, see Sandra Swart, “‘It Is as Bad to Be a Black Man’s Animal as It Is to Be a Black Man’—The Politics of Species in Sol Plaatje’s Native Life in South Africa,” Journal of Southern African Studies 40, no. 4 (2014): 689–705.

  • 26. Brett Shadle, “Cruelty and Empathy, Animals and Race, in Colonial Kenya,” Journal of Social History 45, no. 4 (2012): 1–20.

  • 27. See Sian Sullivan and Chris Low, “Shades of the Rainbow Serpent? A KhoeSan Animal Between Myth and Landscape in Southern Africa—Ethnographic Contextualisations of Rock Art Representations,” Arts 3, no. 2 (2014): 215–244.

  • 28. Yusufu Qwaray Lawi, “May the Spider Web Blind Witches and Wild Animals: Local Knowledge and the Political Ecology of Natural ResourceUse in Iraqwland, Tanzania, 1900–1985” (PhD diss., Boston University, 1999); and Tamara Giles-Vernick, “We Wander Like Birds: Migration, Indigeneity, and the Fabrication of Frontiers in the Sangha Basin of Equatorial Africa,” Environmental History 4, no. 2 (1999): 168–197.

  • 29. Jonathan Adams and Thomas McShane, The Myth of Wild Africa: Conservation Without Illusion (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1996); Dan Brockington, Fortress Conservation: The Preservation of the Mkomazi Game Reserve, Tanzania (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2002); John MacKenzie, The Empire of Nature: Hunting, Conservation, and British Imperialism (Manchester, U.K.: Manchester University Press, 1988); for Africa as “placeless,” see William Adams, “Nature and the Colonial Mind,” in Decolonizing Nature: Strategies for Conservation in a Post-colonial Era, ed. William Mark Adams and Martin Mulligan (London: Earthscan, 2003), 17.

  • 30. See Gregg Mitman, Reel Nature: America’s Romance with Wildlife on Film (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1999), 188, 190; and Thomas Lekan, “Serengeti Shall Not Die: Bernhard Grzimek, Wildlife Film, and the Making of a Tourist Landscape in East Africa,” German History 29, no. 2 (2011): 224–264.

  • 31. Robert Nelson, “Environmental Colonialism,” The Independent Review 8, no. 1 (2003): 65–87; and Roderick Neumann, Imposing Wilderness: Struggles over Livelihood and Nature Preservation in Africa (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1998), 18.

  • 32. Melissa Leach and Robin Mearns, eds., The Lie of the Land: Challenging Received Wisdom on the African Environment (Oxford: International African Institute/James Currey, 1996); James Fairhead and Melissa Leach, Misreading the African Landscape: Society and Ecology in a Forest-savanna Mosaic (Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 1996); Jane Carruthers, The Kruger National Park: A Social and Political History (Pietermaritzburg, South Africa: University of Natal Press, 1995); A. E. Cubbin, “An Outline of Game Legislation in Natal, 1866–1912,” Journal of Natal and Zulu History 14 (1992): 37–47; Shirley Brooks, “Changing Nature: A Critical History of the Umfolozi and Hluhluwe Game Reserves, Zululand, 1887–1947” (PhD thesis, Kingston, 2001); and Stephen Ellis, “Of Elephants and Men: Politics and Nature Conservation in South Africa,” Journal of Southern African Studies 20, no. 1 (1994): 53–69.

  • 33. Jane Carruthers, The Dongola Wild Life Sanctuary: “Psychological Blunder, Economic Folly and Political Monstrosity” or “More Valuable Than Rubies and Gold?,” Kleio 24, no. 1 (2007): 82–100; and David Bunn, “The Museum Outdoors: Heritage, Cattle, and Permeable Borders in the South Western Kruger National Park,” in Museum Frictions: Public Cultures/Global Transformation, ed. Ivan Karp et al. (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2007), 357–391.

  • 34. Edward Steinhart, Black Poachers, White Hunters: A Social History of Hunting in Kenya (Athens: Ohio University Press, 2006); and Richard Ellis, Tiger Bone and Rhino Horn: The Destruction of Wildlife for Traditional Chinese Medicine (Washington, DC: Island Press, 2005).

  • 35. Paul Lane, “The Archaeology of Pastoralism and Stock-Keeping in East Africa,” in The Oxford Handbook of African Archaeology, ed. Peter Mitchell and Paul Lane (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013), 507–525.

  • 36. James C. McCann, “Climate and Causation in African History,” International Journal of African Historical Studies 32, no. 2/3 (1999): 261–279.

  • 37. Diane Gifford-Gonzalez and Olivier Hanotte, “Domesticating Animals in Africa,” in The Oxford Handbook of African Archaeology, ed. Peter Mitchell and Paul Lane (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013), 491–506.

  • 38. Some key articles (in chronological order): M. J. Herskovits, “The Cattle Complex in East Africa,” American Anthropologist 28 (1926): 650–651; E. Colson, “The Role of Cattle Among the Plateau Tonga,” Rhodes-Livingstone Journal 11 (1951): 10–46; E. E. Evans-Pritchard, “The Sacrificial Role of Cattle Among the Nuer,” Africa 23 (1953): 181–197; R. M. G. Mtetwa, “Myth or Reality: The Cattle Complex in South East Africa, with Special Reference to Rhodesia,” Zambezia 6 (1978): 23–36; and Allison Shutt, “The Settlers’ Cattle Complex: The Etiquette Of Culling Cattle In Colonial Zimbabwe, 1938,” Journal of African History 43 (2002): 263–286. For studies of the longue durée, see Peter Mitchell, African Connections: Archaeological Perspectives on Africa and the Wider World (Walnut Creek, CA: AltaMira Press, 2005).

  • 39. Emmanuel Kreike, “De-Globalisation and Deforestation in Colonial Africa: Closed Markets, the Cattle Complex, and Environmental Change in North-Central Namibia, 1890–1990,” Journal of Southern African Studie 35, no. 1 (2009).

  • 40. This conclusion draws on Swart, “Writing Animals into African History.”

  • 41. See, for example, Jane Carruthers, “South Africa: A World in One Country: Land Restitution in National Parks and Protected Areas,” Conservation and Society 5 (2007): 292–306; and Lotte Hughes, “Rough Time in Paradise: Claims, Blames and Memory Making Around Some Protected Areas in Kenya,” Conservation and Society 5 (2007): 307–330.

  • 42. Sandra Swart, “The Lion’s Historian—Animal Histories from the South,” inaugural address, Stellenbosch University, October 9, 2017.

  • 43. Robin Law, The Horse in West Africa (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1980).

  • 44. Swart, Riding High.

  • 45. See, for example, Shaw Badenhorst, “The Zooarchaeology of Iron Age Farmers from Southern Africa,” in The Oxford Handbook of Zooarchaeology, ed. Umberto Albarella, Mauro Rizzetto, Hannah Russ, Kim Vickers, and Sarah Viner-Daniels (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2017), 427–438.

  • 46. For an example, see Sam Challis, “Binding Beliefs: The Creolisation Process in a ‘Bushman’ Raider Group in Nineteenth-Century Southern Africa,” in The Courage of ||Kabbo and a Century of Specimens of Bushman Folklore, ed. J. Deacon and P. Skotnes (Johannesburg: Jacana, 2014), 246–264.