One hundred and six years ago today, on March 22, 1909, former President Theodore Roosevelt, his son Kermit and several others departed New York City bound for Mombasa, Kenya on what was heavily publicized as a scientific expedition. Although the Roosevelts paid their own expenses, the expedition was equipped and outfitted by the Smithsonian Institution. In addition to the famous father-and-son team, the safari included ornithologist Edgar Alexander Mearns, Smithsonian zoologist Edmund Heller, and field naturalist John Alden Loring. British expat Frederick Selous, the real-life model for fictional adventurer Allan Quatermain–himself the model for Indiana Jones–occasionally met up with the expedition while it was in progress. Though billed and funded as a scientific expedition, obviously Roosevelt was no scientist; while the eggheads brought their specimen cases, sketch books and measuring instruments, the chief gadgets the President brought to the party were a Winchester 405 rifle, a double-barreled shotgun, and an Army Springfield. Essentially this was the biggest, most macho and testosterone-laden hunting junket on Earth. Roosevelt hoped to encounter various exotic African animals, and kill them all.

At the end of March 1909 Roosevelt was only a few weeks removed from the White House. Originally ascending to the office upon the assassination of President William McKinley, TR was elected to a term in his own right in 1904 and then “retired” for the next election cycle, passing the presidency on to his hand-picked successor, William Howard Taft. But Teddy had no intention of fading quietly into the sunset. He couldn’t quite bring himself to let go of the reins of power and always seemed to be grooming himself for a comeback. Doubtless he viewed the African safari as well-needed R&R, but with newspapers and magazines–like National Geographic, which helped bankroll the junket–covering the trip with such interest, it was obviously intended at least in part to keep him in the headlines and the public mind. Part of Roosevelt’s public image was that of a physically active, intellectually ravenous and enthusiastic outdoorsman, and part of his political legacy was environmentalism, specifically conservation. The African safari was carefully designed to advance these images. And hey, it was also an opportunity to shoot big guns and kill stuff.

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Kermit Roosevelt, the President’s son, accompanied his father on numerous adventures. Here he is on a later expedition to the Amazon in 1913.

Kill they did, and how. Teddy and Kermit seemed to be engaged in an epic rivalry to see who could decimate the African wilderness more completely. The President blew away no less than 296 large animals, including 15 zebras, 13 rhinoceroses, 8 elephants, 9 lions, 8 warthogs, a crocodile, 5 wildebeests, 6 monkeys, 2 ostriches and 3 pythons. In the meantime Kermit Roosevelt terminated 216 specimens, bagging 8 lions (one less than his dad), 3 leopards, 7 cheetahs, 3 elephants, 7 rhinoceroses, 3 sables, a lot of gazelles and 4 flamingos. Of the big game, the hunters, scientists and their associated porters and support staff ate about half of them, with the rest skinned, the hides salted and packed up for return to the Smithsonian’s Natural History Museum. TR and party carved a path of destruction through Kenya (then a British colony), the Belgian Congo and up the Nile into Sudan. Incredible as this haul was, however, it paled in comparison to the take from most white sport hunters, who shot thousands of elephants and other big game species in Africa every year.

An expedition like this today would horrify most people, with the possible exception of Ted Nugent, but in 1910 the word “conservation,” which people used then in a way similar to (but not exactly the same as) we use the word “environmentalism” today, had very different dimensions. The classic definition of “conservation,” as TR demonstrated with his advocacy of national parks while he was President, was to set aside land for the preservation and appreciation of natural beauty, resources or wildlife. But it’s easy to take that term too literally. Conserving land did not mean putting a fence around it and keeping people out, or letting them in only under carefully controlled conditions with cameras and binoculars instead of hunting rifles. Interaction with conserved spaces expressly included hunting and harvesting of natural and animal resources, but doing so in a sustainable way. Similarly, conserving a species of wildlife didn’t mean leaving them alone. Making sure some animals remained in the wild was definitely a goal, but that wasn’t seen as incompatible with hunting them or putting stuffed specimens in museums. In fact, that was a very large part of conservation: interaction with animal species on largely human terms.

Thus, there was no real dissonance in the minds of early 20th century conservationists like Roosevelt with the idea of “conserving” species by killing, skinning and stuffing (or eating) them. For Roosevelt, conservation came out of the barrel of a Winchester as easily as it did the tip of a pen setting aside land for a national park. Today, in the era of endangered species–threatened as often by environmental factors like climate change as by hunting–many environmentalists would see this as hypocritical. Concluding that it wasn’t, at least in Roosevelt’s mind by the standards of 1910, is not the same as saying it would be OK to do the same thing today.

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Roosevelt poses with members of the safari expedition. The Smithsonian spent years stuffing and cataloguing the trophies they brought back.

Let’s also remember that the purpose of the safari was, I think, as much about politics as it was about conservation. Roosevelt was a man who had a very clear and very gendered view of nationalism and good citizenship: Americans, at least American men, were active, adventurous, fearless, at home in the outdoors and the wilderness, and were always exerting control over their environment. He believed this was the role of the United States in the world too. It’s telling that while on the safari Teddy referred to his double-barreled Holland shotgun as his “Big Stick,” which was a term he famously used in describing how America should behave on the world stage. The African safari was probably aimed as much at foreign audiences as at Americans, showing people around the globe what a “good American” was like. And yes, it was probably to keep Teddy Roosevelt’s “brand” as a politician and as an American hero polished.

The African bush was, as it turned out, the last environment that TR found he could control. When he got back to Europe and the U.S. in 1910, he was disillusioned with how Taft had drifted away from Roosevelt’s principles and his ability to control. Roosevelt famously decided that he wasn’t done with politics, and challenged Taft in 1912. His split of the party ensured the election of Woodrow Wilson, an effete history professor who was everything Roosevelt was not. It’s hard to imagine Wilson bounding around the Serengeti with a shotgun in hand. But the trying times of the 1910s were extremely unlike the heady decade when Teddy was in charge, and which ended with his grand safari. One can imagine that last sunset of the expedition, going down in a luminous African sky, as the sun setting on an era of American history.

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