- The Gun in Central Africa: A History of Technology and Politics by Giacomo Macola
Macola’s new book about the history of guns traces the diverse ways in which societies of the central African savannas domesticated or rejected foreign technology in pursuit of local concerns between the early nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Scholars have long recognized that guns were essential trade goods in the nineteenth century, but Macola argues that debates about guns’ relative historical significance often suffer from a technological determinism, focusing on the values imagined by European gun producers rather than African gun users. In contrast, Macola selects several well-documented regions to demonstrate the range of engagements with guns over time—the instrumental value of guns within Msiri’s violent Yeke trade polity, Nguni warriors’ rejection of guns in favor of long-standing technologies of honorable warfare, Kaonde communities use of guns in hunting as well as social payments, and the incorporation of guns into the growing symbolic repertoire of the recently restored Lozi monarch. The African relationship with guns later changed in response to colonial regulations about hunting and gun ownership, as well as opportunities to join colonial police forces and militias.
In tracking the history of guns in late precolonial and early colonial history, Macola deftly draws on concepts from science, technology, and society (sts), consumption, and material-culture studies, placing African history in conversation with those fields. He musters an impressive number of nineteenth-century sources: early colonial and missionary records and publications (from archives in five countries), published travelogues, interviews in Zambia and the Democratic Republic of the Congo, published collections of oral traditions and songs, African-language dictionaries, and communications with other scholars (including interviews from their personal papers). Although these kinds of sources are standard fare, two achievements stand out. First, Macola’s topic and comparative approach required him to collect numerous short references to guns across scores and sometimes hundreds of sources for each case study. Second, Macola worked with materials in at least five European languages and three regional African languages.
Macola could have pushed the non-documentary evidence further. He studied guns held in museum collections in Europe and Africa, but his analysis of the objects was often relegated to brief captions. Macola also studied vernacular lexicons. ChiLuvale speakers, for example, transferred terms that originated in archery to guns: Buta (bow) was applied to gun and lukusa (bowstring) was applied to trigger (61). These names illuminate “perceived structural similarities”; for example, “flintlocks . . . belonged to the same category as preexisting hunting tools” (61). Pressing the evidence further, Luvale speakers thought of guns not as any hunting tool but as akin to a tool for shooting projectiles, a tool for specific kinds of hunting and warfare. KiKaonde speakers also connected gunmanship and archery [End Page 287] (71–72). Macola’s discussion of the Nguni allows him to probe the distinction between projectile weaponry and technologies of close, face-to-face fighting (with spears and knobkerries) and to distinguish the Nguni reaction to guns by age and gender (Chapter 5). His evidence suggests that the distinction between projectiles and close weaponry was widespread, opening the possibility for a more nuanced story of gun adoption that takes into account the transferability of skills (for example, sighting and stillness in shooting) across particular technologies (gunmanship and archery) and calls into question an assumed universal skill in gun use. Macola effectively argues that guns were implicated in performances of Luvale and Kaonde masculinity, although the opportunities to demonstrate manhood were not necessarily evenly distributed.
These critiques should not distract from Macola’s considerable achievements. In his final chapter, Macola connects his story to recent histories of violence, intercontinental trade, and armament in central Africa, demonstrating anew that precolonial African history is both accessible in, and essential to, understanding contemporary Africa.