Written in 1936, a time when much of the African continent remained under European colonial rule, the specters of capitalism and empire move quietly through “The Short Happy Life of Francis Macomber.” The native Africans assisting the safari excursions remain nameless, personality-less characters, subject to orders and punishments from white game hunters. Though only briefly mentioned—for the narrative focuses mainly on the love triangle implicating its three white main characters—the maltreatment of the Swahili guides suggests that racial violence, subjugation, and colonialism are inextricably linked. To the white settlers in Africa, native people seem to be no better than the animals they hunt, targeted and oppressed for profit.
Early in the narrative, Wilson threatens Francis Macomber’s “personal boy” for “looking curiously at his master” (who has just fled from the lion) with “fifteen lashes,” presumably to punish the Swahili boy for his supposed insolence toward Macomber. The detached and flippant way in which Wilson explains this violence to Macomber suggests that brutal punishment, inflicted on members of a “lower” racial caste, is standard behavior in the colonized world. Threatened with “lashes,” the boy turns away “with his face blank.” Violence seems to instill passivity in the natives, shaping them into effective tools for exploitation.
Indeed, in Wilson’s view—as a white colonizer and a representative of the British empire—racial violence is economically advantageous for imperialism. A loosely-structured system of compensation for servitude facilitates the safaris. The natives are paid for the physical labor they perform and the services they provide: their knowledge of the African landscape and its animals is vital information for the white hunters and their clients, who are not native to this land. The natives’ (presumably low) pay is similarly invaluable in that it allows them to live somewhat comfortably—and with some independence—in their fractured, colonized home country, where their own sovereignty is heavily contested. “It’s their shauri,” Wilson tells Macomber, explaining why the gunbearers must help kill the wounded lion, though the animal’s injury poses a threat to the hunters (and indeed, frightens them: “[Macomber] looked at the gun-bearer and he could see the gun-bearer was suffering too with fear”). Adds Wilson, “You see, they signed on for it.” Because they have agreed to compensated work, the natives are beholden to the hunt (which Wilson describes as a “shauri,” or a problem to be solved), its regulations, and its officiators—the white hunters. Wilson explains that the only alternative to “lashes” are “fines,” docked from the natives’ pay. By maintaining the Swahili guides’ salaries—and using violence to enforce obedience instead—white hunters guarantee the natives’ service, which facilitates successful safari tours and draws a steady stream of white tourists to colonized Africa.
Despite the natives’ crucial contributions to imperial economy, they are silent, unobtrusive, and ultimately oppressed figures who hover in the background of Hemingway’s story. Though the hunted lion receives a personality and emotional depth, the gun-bearers, guides, and servant boys—who assist in the lion’s killing—are mute and somber. (Only one character is named, and this name is given once: “Kongoni,” “the old gun-bearer.”) These figures are present merely to prepare the hunt by cooking, helping to shoot and dispose of animal bodies, and providing valet services for the hunters and their clients. Moreover, the violence Macomber and Wilson exact on the lions and buffalo they pursue is careful and tempered. Wilson cautions Macomber against acting “murderous” toward the wounded lion by sending “beaters” to him. It is clear, though, that the white hunters afford no such respect to the natives, whom they beat and threaten publicly. Even during the hunt, where the natives are most valuable, Wilson treats them cavalierly. “We lost a gun-bearer. Did you notice it?” he remarks casually to Macomber about a gun-bearer who “fell off” the convoy during the buffalo hunt and returns, “gloomy-faced and disgusted looking,” to the hunting party—as if resigned, hopelessly, to the “shauri” at hand. Thus, within the colonial sphere, the natives are not only dehumanized—for as characters, they are far less complex than the white male characters who give the story psychological shape—but also made to seem less significant (and more disposable) than animals.
Hemingway’s failure to flesh out the Swahili characters might indicate that race is a secondary narrative concern in “The Short Happy Life of Francis Macomber.” Yet it also seems possible that Hemingway is pointing to the ways in which empire violently subjugates its colonized subjects on the basis of race, simultaneously turning a profit from their labor.