Mother Jones magazine’s Dave Gilson reckons the NRA’s whitewashing history at their National Firearms Museum. Specifically, he attacks the NRA’s recent tweet trumpeting the fact that their fabulous collection contains Henry Morton Stanley’s elephant gun while neglecting to mention that the African explorer was a homicidal maniac. Setting aside Twitter’s character limits. “As Stanley related in his own accounts, he repeatedly used his big guns to intimidate and kill people he encountered on his African travels. Here’s how he dealt with some of the “savages” who got in the way of his trans-continental journey in 1875 . . .
I discharged my elephant rifle, with its two large conical balls, into their midst…My double-barreled shotgun, loaded with buckshot, was next discharged with terrible effect, for, without drawing a single bow or launching a single spear, they retreated up the slope of the hill…
Twice in succession I succeed in dropping men determined on launching the canoes, and seeing the sub-chief who had commanded the party that took the drum, I took deliberate aim with my elephant rifle at him. That bullet, as I have since been told, killed the chief and his wife and infant, who happened to be standing a few paces behind him, and the extraordinary result had more effect on the superstitious minds of the natives than all previous or subsequent shots.
On getting out of the cove we saw two canoes loaded with men coming out in pursuit from another small cove. I permitted them to come within one hundred yards of us, and this time I used the elephant rifle with explosive balls. Four shots killed five men and sank the canoes.
Sounds like a grand day out to me. No, seriously, is Gilson implying that Stanley shouldn’t have been exploring Africa in the first place or that he should have allowed the natives to kill him and his party (if I may use that term)? Something like that, I presume. Anyway, Gilson twists the knife on Stanley’s rep.
The final body count of this incident, Stanley claimed, was 14 dead and 8 wounded, presumably including the baby and its mother. Due to tales such as this, Stanley gained a reputation for indiscriminate slaughter. George Bernard Shaw described him as a “wild-beast man, with his elephant gun, and his atmosphere of dread and murder.” Fellow expeditionist Richard Burton observed, “Stanley shoots negroes [sic] as if they were monkeys.”
And then, the money shot.
Though the elephant gun in the NRA’s collection is likely not the one fired in the [baby killing] passage above, it’s not surprising that the gun lobby isn’t volunteering the larger story behind the trigger-happy owner of this “special treasure.”
Ha! That said, point taken?
While I’d like to read the caption underneath the elephant gun exhibit at the NRA museum, it’s true that the lionization (so to speak) of Stanley’s exploits ignores the profoundly racist context of the exploration/exploitation of the Dark Continent. The same applies to the perpetuation of Teddy Roosevelt’s carefully manufactured manliness—illustrated by his iconic firearms—which ignores the President’s detestable, racist imperialism.
Great, important guns can trigger important debates about history. Or not.