Lettow Schnapps

I’ve recently taken to drinking tonic water, or soda water; initially with lime juice but more recently on its own. And what a refreshing drink it is although I recall turning my nose up at it when I was much younger.

I don’t know if you are like me, but I’ve always got to read the label on what I’m eating or drinking – provided of course that there is a label. One of the early tonic water labels I read specified that it ‘contains quinine’ Perhaps it was this which helped me overcome my initial distaste for the drink. Mosquitoes love me, although I can’t say the same about them – their existence is one of the big questions I have for when I meet my maker. Quinine was initially used for the treatment of Malaria, and still is on occasion. My logic therefore was that if I drink tonic water (containing quinine) then perhaps my blood flavour would revert to what it was in my youth when mosquitoes avoided me.

Tonic water is, I think, an acquired taste and I can’t help thinking of Lettow Schnapps each time I have some, especially the brand that says ‘contains quinine’. During the East Africa campaign of World War 1, the German General Paul von Lettow Vorbeck insisted that his men have quinine every day to help prevent malaria or at least reduce its effect. When the medical stores began to run short of the processed commodity, he had the bark of the fever tree boiled and mixed with water. This apparently awful tasting concoction became known as Lettow Schnapps. Refusing to take one’s daily allowance was a punishable offence, so I can imagine the varied facial expressions every morning. (The soldiers must have been quite  relieved that the expression about one’s face freezing in its position if wind blows, doesn’t hold true.)

Lettow’s insistence on the consumption of Lettow Schnapps and that his men wear long trousers and shirts paid off as the German forces tended to suffer far less from malaria than the composite British forces whose officers did not enforce the quinine rule (when it was available) and allowed their men to wear short trousers and sleeves. One black German East African was recorded advising his son about the differences between the forces: You can see the knees of the British, but not of the German.

One day, when I have time, I’ll try and get my head around the varieties of tonic water – ‘contains quinine‘, ‘Indian’ – and how they differ to soda water. At least I’ve got it that sparkling water is natural water which has been infused with carbonate soda creating the bubbles. For now, I’ll continue to drink my tonic water – preference ‘contains quinine’ in the hope that it will repel those pesky mosquitoes and be thankful that I can drink it at leisure and not as instructed every morning.

And for those who were wondering, the British forces in East Africa tended to drink a lot of Rose’s Lime Juice as a preventative against scurvy or vitamin C deficiency.

2 thoughts on “Lettow Schnapps

  1. Thanks to Jerry Rilling for sharing this:
    On Lettow Schnapps; it was made from the same tree (originally from South America) that the pills were made from. They had imported a number into the higher ground in northern Tanz.. To make the pills was more work and lost a bit of the medicinal value; so Lettow had them just collect the sap that was the ‘Lettow Schnapps’ and they carried that with them when they went south.

  2. Pingback: Malaria | Anne Samson - Historian

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