Review: Kariakor by Geoffrey Hodges

Kariakor: The Carrier Corps by Geoffrey Hodges is probably the best known and regarded book on the Carriers or Porters of World War 1 in East Africa. This is not surprising as he spent 15 years researching the topic, starting in 1968. The current publication (1999) is an abridged version of that initially published in 1986 in the US as Carrier Corps.

THR Cashmore’s review of the book is in keeping with how many perceive the plight of the carrier. However, the story is far more complex than that set out by Hodges in his publication. At the 2015 SCOLMA conference, John Pinfold gave some insight into what was not published in Kariakor. He is working through the research Hodges collected which is kept in the Bodleian Library Archive (Charles Wendell David Reading Room / microfilm copy at IWM) and what appears to be evident is that Kariakor was a victim of the political era in which it was written (1970s – cf decolonisation, Idi Amin in Uganda…)

That the account is somewhat biased (and this is not to detract from the horrors and stresses the men (and women) suffered) is supported by veteran interviews Gerald Rilling did in the 1980s which are stored at the Imperial War Museum. Myles Osborne in Ethnicity and Empire in Kenya (2014, pp75-6) notes:

In the early months of the war, volunteers were common. At one point, for instance – in just one week – Kiteta and Mbooni locations provided 600 men for the Carrier Corps. Officials found men in both Machakos and Kitui willing to join us, and recruiters encountered little opposition as they went about their work. Relatively few deserted, and recruiting officers rejected only 6 percent of men from Machakos for service.

Other texts to consider when researching the Carrier Corps include are Oscar from Africa (1995), the biography of Oscar Watkins who was commandant of the Carrier Corps during the war. Frank – Bishop of Zanzibar by H Maynard Smith (1926). Frank accompanied his carriers on their journey, giving us first-hand insights.

Frank was most careful about getting the names of his men properly enrolled, and seeing that maintenance was provided for their wives while away. He saw that each had his correct equipment, blankets, water-bottles and haversack. He even had postcards served out to those who could write, and they were used. Here is a letter written by one African to another. It was shown to a lady on the staff, who has kindly sent me a translation:

Truly is our Lord Bishop a great man! Did he not call us and gather us all together? Did he not drill us and go for marches with us every day?

Truly, he is a great man! For when after many days a ship came to take us to the mainland, he came down to the shore to take leave of us. Then we said to him, ‘Bwana, we go not without you, for are you not our father?’ And he said unto us, ‘Good, I will go with you.’

Truly, he is a great man, for he came over the sea with us, and when we reached the mainland, he marched with us, he slept with us, he ate with us, and when we laid down at night, did he not pray with us? And when we arose in the morning, did he not pray with us again? At the end did he not take us into camp.

Truly, he is a great man.

The horror of the road was increased by the lack of water. Frank had indeed received an official list of watering places, but the man who had surveyed the route had done so during the rains. At the first halting place there was no water at all, and the weary men had to go on until night. On the second day, after a fifteen mile walk, the well was found, ‘but an inquiring spirit was rewarded with a museum of dead frogs.’ Another six miles had to be walked, and Frank writes:

The man who has not had to do extra miles beyond his promised halting place, under a tropical sun, has yet much to learn of what a broken spirit really means.

Notwithstanding the difficulties, Frank could write:

Our men did very well in this particular work. We made a record for the journey both in time and accuracy, that is, we got our loads there quicker than other porters and we got them all there. I gather this was not common.

Hodges looks at the role of the Carriers from Kenya from a specific time. As seen from the quotes above, his work needs to be taken into consideration with other texts looking at different times and places of the same campaign.

Experiences in the south, although similar, were also different. In particular, Ed Yorke considers the role of Zambians as does Jan-Bart Gewalt. Mel Page in the Chiwaya War which considers Malawi’s contribution, while Michelle Moyd in Violent Intermediaries (2015) considers the German perspective. The forthcoming book On call in Africa 1910-1932 provides some insight into the medical assistance available to, at least some, carriers whilst on the march.

The numbers quoted differ depending on what source you are using. It is not clear how much double counting has taken place and to what extent casual labour is/is not included. This is a project which is currently being undertaken by GWAA – capturing the names and details of all those involved in the campaigns in Africa, and particularly in East Africa, will hopefully help clear up some of the uncertainties surrounding the roles and numbers of those caught up in the horrors of war. The blog I did on the Numbers game (13 June 2014) needs updating in light of new information which has come to light. It’s going to take some time, but watch this space…

Hodges deserves to be recognised for opening up the world of the carrier and porter, however, his findings should be treated cautiously as the reality is far more complex than he portrays.

And for anyone interested in a slightly different history, there is MG Vassanji‘s And Home was Kariakoo, a memoir which reflects back on the history of the place he grew up in. It mentions 17 Letters to Tatham.

 

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One thought on “Review: Kariakor by Geoffrey Hodges

  1. Pingback: Review: Blockade and Jungle by Christen P Christensen | Anne Samson - Historian

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