Teddy Roosevelt came to Kenya, guns blazing

Saturday March 27 2010

His passion for capturing and killing game inspired Roosevelt’s (on horseback) Africa Safari. Photo/FILE

Barack Obama is not the first US president with a Kenyan connection.

A century ago, Theodore Roosevelt completed a nearly year-long safari that begun in Mombasa and took him across what was then British East Africa, via the “Lunatic Express.”

Roosevelt, the 26th US president, set off from Washington weeks after completing his second term in March 1909.

He travelled through Kenya with a 250-member retinue that included his son, Kermit, and the famed British hunter and conservationist, Frederick Selous.

The safari is described in detail in African Game Trails, a best-selling book that Roosevelt wrote after returning to the United States.

It inspired American writer and journalist Ernest Hemingway to undertake his own Kenya safari 25 years later.


Howard Ehrlich, the interim director of a Theodore Roosevelt historical association in New York says of the 600-plus-page account: “It was motivated in part by Roosevelt’s desire to show a great civilisation in Africa to American readers who were largely unaware of it.”

Ehrlich adds: “He had a fondness in his heart for Africa that was conveyed not only in the book but also in a series of lectures.”

But Roosevelt frequently referred to Africans as “savages” in his book and expressed sympathy for the European colonial project in East Africa and Congo.

Africans had not advanced beyond the cave-man stage, he observed in recounting his trip aboard the Lunatic Express.

Seated with Kermit on a bench bolted to the front of the train, Roosevelt saw that, “the railroad, the embodiment of the eager, masterful, materialistic civilisation of today, was pushed through a region in which nature, both as regards wild man and wild beast, does not differ materially from what it was in Europe in the late Pleistocene.”

Such attitudes were typical among whites at the time, including Harvard-educated aristocrats including Roosevelt.

As president and earlier, as governor of New York, Roosevelt had actually compiled a comparatively progressive record on race relations.

An invitation he extended to political leader and author Booker T. Washington in 1901 marked the first time that an African-American dined as a guest at the White House.

Roosevelt also expressed admiration for the courage of Nandi hunters whom he watched encircle and kill a lion.

“Each, when he came near enough, crouched behind his shield, his spear in his right hand, his fierce, eager face peering over the shield rim,” Roosevelt wrote in African Game Trails. “It was a wild sight; the ring of spearmen, intent, silent, bent on blood and in the centre the great man-killing beast, his thunderous wrath growing ever more dangerous.”

Killing and capturing game was the main reason Roosevelt had taken the safari financed partly by the Smithsonian Institution, the overseer of several US museums.

His party bagged more than 500 big-game animals, including 11 elephants, 17 lions and 20 rhinos.

Roosevelt bristled at charges that he had engaged in wanton slaughter in East Africa.

“I can be condemned only if the existence of the National Museum, the American Museum of Natural History and all similar zoological institutions are to be condemned,” he declared.

Roosevelt donated most of his specimens to the natural history museums in Washington and New York.

Aged only 51 years old at the conclusion of his safari in March 1910, Roosevelt renewed his involvement in politics.

A Republican who would today be considered left-of-centre, Roosevelt had been elected as vice president in 1900 and ascended to the presidency the following year following the assassination of William McKinley. Roosevelt was elected in his own right in 1904.

He then endorsed as his successor his friend and fellow Republican, William Howard Taft.

But Roosevelt came to oppose Taft’s conservative policies, which he challenged unsuccessfully in the 1912 election.

He remained politically and physically active until his death in 1919.