Comparative Technology Transfer and Society 1.2 (2003) 231-232
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Notes from the Field
William K. Storey
There is a tendency among historians to tell the story of technological imperialism from the standpoint of London or Paris. This has led many of us to believe that the spread of industrial technologies, such as firearms, was mainly a story of production in Europe and the United States and of export to Asia and Africa. By contrast, Clapperton Mavhunga gives us a local viewpoint, from the remote, disorderly Crooks' Corner section of what is today Zimbabwe. Mavhunga focuses on the importation of firearms by southern Africans and on the local problems associated with the uptake of firearms. Historians of technology transfer will appreciate how Mavhunga is sensitive to local adaptations. In Crooks' Corner, the local environment and the local economy put a premium on the ability to repair and modify guns. There was very little money to buy lead and powder, let alone modern cartridges, so Shona people kept old muzzle-loaders in service and made bullets from stones and glass beads. Old iron muskets could be kept in service almost indefinitely by local blacksmiths, whereas modern, expensive breech-loaders needed metropolitan gunsmiths as well as imported brass cartridges. Even so, there were trade-offs involved in using outmoded weapons. Old muskets could be used successfully against animals, but could do little against Europeans and other Africans who had the resources to buy breech-loaders.
Mavhunga's research findings on indigenous knowledge of weapons [End Page 231] contradict the widely held view that Africans played a passive role in late-nineteenth-century technological history. Mavhunga shows that Africans shaped their own lives under colonialism, and that Africans shaped, and were shaped by, the introduction of new firearms technologies. It is a tricky matter, however, to understand these local events. For like other scholars who are focusing on the users of technology—a somewhat recent trend in historical circles—Mavhunga faces the challenge of uncertain sources filtered through the reporting of outsiders. Thus, not all accounts can be taken at face value.
Even so, Mavhunga raises important issues for historians and also for policymakers, especially in light of contemporary problems with weapons proliferation. In recent years, international gun control has been the subject of discussions at the United Nations and other international bodies. And yet this historical case shows the practical difficulties of regulating guns—they are dangerous technologies that are easily concealed and transported across borders. It is clear from the failure of three different colonial governments to regulate Crooks' Corner that transnational gun control will be exceedingly difficult to attain. Advocates for gun control tend to favor controls on supply, such as licensing, recognizing that controlling the demand for guns will be difficult. This study of Crooks' Corner shows how the demand for guns was related to the need for security in a tumultuous region. It also relates the demand for guns to the spread of capitalism and new notions of masculinity. And yet the author makes references to "gun-societies," a "gun frontier," "rogue cultures," "firearms discourse," and even calls Crooks' Corner "an historical complex modeled on the supremacy of firearms technology," without specifying what, exactly, any of these concepts mean. Mavhunga is not the first to refer to gun societies, but one wonders if a more specific sociological definition might help us to understand the demand for guns, and how to regulate it.
William Storey is the author of Science and Power in Colonial Mauritius(Rochester, 1997) and Writing History: A Guide for Students (Oxford, 1999; 2nd ed., forthcoming ). He is assistant professor of history at Millsaps College in Jackson, Mississippi. He can be reached at <email@example.com>.