“Minor descriptive touches derive from the author’s own native background in Kenya”

by zunguzungu

I’ve been waiting for Edmund Morris’ Colonel Roosevelt as long as I’ve known it was in the works. The largest and most important section of my dissertation is about Teddy Roosevelt’s big game trip in Africa, which is the part of his life covered by this, the third volume of Morris’ Pulitzer prize winning biography. And since Edmund Morris himself was born in Kenya, grew up during the Mau Mau emergency, and went to university in Apartheid South Africa, I was interested — to say the least — in seeing how he would write about Roosevelt’s African year. I don’t mean to prejudge Morris, of course, or at least I’m trying not to do that. The right wing hated his biography of Ronald Reagan so much[1] that I don’t want to rush to judgment. But the questions that present themselves are obvious.

To show my own cards a bit, my approach to Roosevelt is to peer at him through his omissions, to lay out how he constructs a positive account of “frontier settlement” less by telling positive lies than by omitting everything that doesn’t fit the picture he wants to paint of it. The easiest way to dispossess a people of their land and civic life, after all, is to forget they ever had it, or existed, and Roosevelt participates in that project enthusiastically, translating to British East Africa the amnesia by which Americans forgot the existence of the Indian nations that once formed their Western frontier. It is easier to commit genocide on people that don’t exist, don’t you know, and Roosevelt was an important link between the actual genocide of the American frontier and the genocidal spirit that motivated settler Kenya, particularly in the emergency period.

With that in mind, Morris’ engagement with Roosevelt in Africa is profoundly, though predictably, disappointing. There are a few little nuggets I’m going to steal; he’s an incredible researcher, and these books will not only stand as authoritative for the foreseeable future, but the bibliography is virtually a road map for future scholars. But that’s why I’m disappointed that he bypasses the opportunity to really dig into the year Roosevelt was in Africa, that he doesn’t so much do it wrong as he hardly does it at all. The book covers the last ten years of TR’s life, but the year he spent in Africa absorbs slightly less than 5% of the book‘s page count. But it’s not just an issue of space, although those numbers do tell part of the story. It’s an issue of narrative focus: the entire section emphasizes the presidency he’s just left and the Europe and America to which he will soon return. “Africa” is no more than a moment of interlude, an absence in which he has the opportunity to cleanse his spirit and rejuvenate his body. Africa is not a place embedded in history; it’s the absence of place, the absence of history.

It’s telling, in fact, that “The Roosevelt Africa Expedition, 1909-1910” occupies the position of a prologue in the book, outside even the main narrative. In this, it’s just like the first two volumes of the biography, which began with present-tense prologues setting the stage for the more conventional biography format to follow (Theodore Rex, for example, began with a long meditative reverie of reflection and anticipation, structured by the long train ride Roosevelt took from up-state New York to Washington where he was to be inaugurated president). Morris is brilliant at little touches like this; by placing in Roosevelt’s life in the now, we are set up to feel the more normal non-fiction prose that follows it. Rhetorically, in other words, it’s wonderful, because he‘s a wonderful writer. But it makes the trip itself no important part of the life, no more than a period of enforced meditation, a frustrating not-yet-president-but-almost journey, in which he and we are trying to get our heads around the turn of destiny that thrust Roosevelt into the position it had.

Here, the point seems similar: as Roosevelt sits on the cow-catcher of the British East Africa Railway, his thoughts are elsewhere. He is thinking back and looking forward, because here — in the ahistoric no-time that constitutes Africa — there is no “now” to imagine. While he is in British East Africa, nothing happens. Time has stopped for him, which (Morris argues) is precisely why he went.

Placing the trip outside the mainstream of Roosevelt’s life allows Morris to sidestep some of the darker connotations and consequences of the trip. It also gives us a very partial picture of how Roosevelt saw the trip himself, which I think Morris quite seriously misinterprets. He’s obviously read Roosevelt’s 1910 African Game Trails, but I suspect I’ve read it much more carefully than him, or at least with careful attention to aspects of Roosevelt’s life world that Morris has no interest in telling, and doesn‘t. The idea that, for example, that “His own continent recedes to time out of mind” as Roosevelt gazed out over the birds and flora, seems completely wrong to me; Roosevelt made constant and insistent analogies between his own country and British East Africa, and the point of those analogies is clear as day if you think about it a little. Like the American frontier, Roosevelt thought that the East African highlands were to be a white man’s country and he makes the analogy with this shared destiny in mind. And while America‘s frontier was lost in its past, Roosevelt’s trip to East Africa was a way of re-visiting his own time on the American frontier, almost thirty years earlier. As he puts it in one place, for example:

“In many ways it reminds one rather curiously of the great plains of the West, where they slope upward to the foot-hills of the Rockies. It is a white man’s country. Although under the equator, the altitude is so high that the nights are cool, and the region as a whole is very healthy. I saw many children, of the Boer immigrants, of English settlers, even of American missionaries, and they looked sound and well. Of course, there was no real identity in any feature; but again and again the landscape struck me by its general likeness to the cattle country I knew so well…Moreover, a Westerner, far better than an Easterner, could see the possibilities of the country…the settler who makes a success in similar parts of our own West, can do well in East Africa.”

He is attentive to place, here, but Roosevelt was also a historian; a year later, he would be the president of the American Historical Association, and his sense of history is central to everything he did. Which is why it’s worth noting that he was, while he was in East Africa, actively working to place it within a grand historical narrative of frontier settlement, the singular story of the vast movement of white settlers from Europe into the world’s waste places that he first rhapsodized about in The Winning of the West and which he updates here. To frame Roosevelt’s journey as ahistorical, in other words, is strikingly wrong. Roosevelt might have seen Africa as having been prehistoric before the railroad came — in the same way that Roosevelt’s “America” had no history until white people showed up — but he believed that once the railroad arrived, the place’s historical telos was the same as it was in North America, where a Turnerian frontier story of settlement gets underway quickly. And while he was interested in the parts of Africa that weren’t yet incorporated (this is his conservationist side), he was no less interested in the parts of it which were. The East Africa he visits is decidedly post-railroad.

Morris mostly ignores Roosevelt’s fast friendship with white settlement community (especially with the Afrikaaners, who he calls “the ideal type of settler for taking the lead in the spread of empire”), which is a big omission, and a simplification of an issue that was deeply complex. He does acknowledge — though, tellingly, only in a footnote — that Roosevelt’s trip, celebrity, and writings were being enlisted by the British colonial office to solidify their hold on East Africa, noting that it was hoped he could advertise what a great place to settle East Africa would be. Since the British had just opened the railroad connecting Mombasa to the Uganda lake region (and were thus extending British claims on the interior lake region, what Churchill called “the pearl of Africa”), it was important for the British to build up some kind of actual trade to transport on that railroad, to make it economically viable rather than simply a strategic link between imperial territories. Morris suggests, in that footnote, that the “eagerness of British imperialists to assist TR’s safari” derived from the “hope he would encourage settlement of the protectorate.”

But this is not so much wrong as it is profoundly inadequate. Imperial thinkers were deeply divided on the question of settlement in Africa. Winston Churchill, for example, had written a book only two years earlier in which he painted a fairly scathing picture of the settler community in Nairobi, a city he characterized as thoroughly “South African” as a way of not-so-subtly implying the settlers to be a traitorsome bunch of Boers who were likely to revolt against the good English rule of law. And they more or less were exactly that, which London knew, even then. The settlers did have lots of partisans within the colonial office, but the firing of Charles Eliot in 1905 signaled the end of the honeymoon, and from that point on, relations between Roosevelt’s hosts in Nairobi and London were frosty at best, a consistent cold war that ended when the British decided the settlers were more trouble than they were worth and got the heck out. But the point is that, even in 1907, undersecretary of state Winston Churchill was already speaking for a solidifying consensus in the colonial office that letting British East Africa take the South African path would be a huge disaster, that white settlers were not the right direction for the colony to take. And while Roosevelt surely read Churchill’s book — Roosevelt read everything — he paints a very different picture of the colony’s future than had the undersecretary of state for the colonies. For Roosevelt, the future of the colony is the American path, and it was a history that was well underway. To him, parts of the colony were still the Pleistocene, and Morris acknowledges that. But he was just as interested in the parts of the colony which were Dakota in 1883, and Morris ignores this entirely.

This omission is hardly surprising, really, but it‘s worth noting what it accomplishes. One cannot look too closely at Roosevelt’s trip in 1909 without coming to unpleasant conclusions about him as an imperial thinker, so Morris does not look too closely. One can better glorify Roosevelt if you forget how he praised the architects of one of the more brutal colonial states in Africa by using an American language of white supremacy. After all, if “white man’s country” had a meaning in colonial Africa, it had the same meaning in Jim Crow Georgia; as Ulrich B. Phillips put it in 1928, “[t]he Central Theme of Southern History” was “a common resolve, indomitably maintained that it shall be and remain a white man’s country.” Or, as we read in the Joint Committee’s 1872 report on the “Condition of Affairs in the Late Insurrectionary States,” Cornelius McBride recalled being whipped by a group of Mississippi vigilantes for running a school for former slaves in this way:

“I asked them while they were whipping me what I had done to merit that treatment. They said I wanted to make these niggers equal to the white men: that this was a white man’s country. They said, ‘God damn you! Don’t you know this is a white man’s country?”

Roosevelt knew this phrase in both contexts. And, of course, “white man’s country” didn’t just mean Jim Crow south. It also meant a California that would be free of Chinese and Japanese immigrants. It meant a Georgia cleansed of the Cherokee and a Western frontier in which “domestic dependent nations” functioned as internal colonial Bantustans for a United States that looks a lot like South Africa if you squint in just the right way. It meant racism, and it meant “America.” And to acknowledge that that’s what Teddy Roosevelt saw when he looked at East Africa, well, that isn’t just an ugly story if you happened to have been born and raised in Kenya, as Morris was. It’s also an ugly story to tell if you were raised in Teddy Roosevelt’s “white man’s country,” the United States of America.


[1] “He was truly one of the strangest men who’s ever lived…Nobody around him understood him. I, every person I interviewed, almost without exception, eventually would say, ‘You know, I could never really figure him out.'”