Review – Chiwaya War Voices: Melvin E Page

One of the benefits of being a publisher and coordinating the Great War in Africa Association is early access to some material. One of these has been Chiwaya War Voices by Melvin E Page published in March 2020 by the Great War in Africa Association.

In discussion with Mel about what best to do with the hundreds of interviews he’d conducted back in the 1970s and some later in the 1990s, we decided it would be helpful to future researchers for these to be printed and made generally available. I hadn’t seen the full scope of the interviews at this stage but was fully aware of the quality and range of interviews through my thesis work on the Great War in Africa.

Rather than use Mel’s Chiwaya War book or KAR: A history of the King’s African Rifles , I had chanced upon his thesis and what a treasure trove as it contained transcriptions of the interviews as opposed to their essence being integrated into a monograph. Now, we have access to over 140 interview transcripts in a two-volume book with no commentary other than Mel setting out in how he conducted his research and the structure of the material. The Index at the back of the book is a table rather than the traditional-style index. This was done purposefully to assist researchers in identifying the the broad type of material they are after – KAR, askari, carrier, male/female, WW1 or WW2. Mentioning WW2, there is some reference to that in Chiwaya War Voices as comparative to WW1 experiences with some fascinating insights although the main World War Two interviews will be made available in a future publication which Mel is currently working on: Chiwaya War Echoes.

Chiwaya War Voices is a valuable addition to the published primary source material on the war in East Africa. To date, most researchers have quoted Geoffrey Hodges’ interviews for black African experiences. Having looked at the Hodges collection at the Bodleian Library, there is no comparison between the two collections. Chiwaya War Voices is wider reaching in terms of people interviewed, quantity and topic covered. For anyone interested in war burials you will find numerous mentions in Chiwaya War Voices, but not one in any of Hodge’s interviews, However, this is not to discount Hodges’ work but rather to encourage researchers to consider their material carefully within the regional context. Hodges’ interviews were Kenya based whilst Mel’s are Malawi based. Hodges had an interest in the political repercussions whilst Mel’s is more social, The differences continue to echo – relationships appear far more egalitarian between different cultural groups based on the interviews Mel conducted than those by Hodges.

And for anyone questioning some of the experiences in Distinguished Conduct, Mel’s constructed history of Juma Chimwere, Chiwaya War Voices is a good place to look (and then the KAR records at TNA).

Society of Peoples of African Origin

I came upon the Society of Peoples of African Origin in a Colonial Office file (CO 323/807 41495). The society was asking the Colonial Office whether any of the African military units would be represented in the forthcoming ‘Peace March‘. Not having heard of the Society, I did a little digging.

While the letter was signed by WFE Taylor, Felix Eugene Michael Hercules was a leading figure in the Society which was involved in the 1919 Cardiff and Liverpool riots. The Society had been ‘founded in 1918 by a group of black businessmen and students in London.’ Their aim was ‘to further the general interests of blacks everywhere, to bring their grievances to the notice of the British public, and to promote closer relations between the Mother Country and the colonies in Africa and the West Indies.’ They produced a newspaper, African Telegraph. (WF Elkins, ‘Hercules and the Society of Peoples of African Origin‘, Caribbean Studies, 1972, 11:4, p47)

Despite its remit, it did not seem to engage too much with peoples from Africa, although Hercules did get to West Africa in 1919 around the time the Society associated with the African Progress Union to become the Society of African Peoples. In December 1919, African Telegraph stopped publishing and the attempt to set up an African League had failed. Not long after the Society of Peoples of African Origin disappeared too.

Regarding the Peace March which brought the Society to attention, the Colonial Office replied that it would not be possible to arrange for African units to be there. The cost of bringing the forces to the UK would be too much, let alone deciding which units would be best to attend. There seem to have been a few peace marches in 1919, another earlier in the year was on 3 May where already most colonial forces were not represented as they had returned home.

While none of the groups were long-lived, they are evidence of groups of people trying to give themselves a voice, independently and collectively, unable to overcome the various hurdles they encountered.

Novelist: Percy F Westerman

Percy Westerman was a prolific author of ‘boy’s own’ stories publishing 174 during his lifetime. He wrote two concerning the war in East Africa. He had no direct link with the continent, basing his stories on what he heard from soldiers and others passing through Portsmouth Harbour where he was based during the conflict.

1876 – born
1900 – married Florence Wagner in Portsmouth
1908 – first book published
1914-1918 – Royal Navy coastal duties and navigation instructor for Royal Flying Corps
1959 – died

It is clear from the content of his stories that he hadn’t experienced the war in Africa as in Wilmshurst and the Frontier Force he has bombing and straffing as well as engagements that are more Western Front in nature than African. While his British forces are inclusive – Wilmshurst is an officer of a West African Frontier Force regiment, with South Africans and Indians participating, his view of the German colonial/soldier is stereotypical: ruthless, cruel, undermining. This contrasts with the British colonial who is kind, just and a has a sense of fair play. Rounding up a Raider is based on the destruction of the Konigsberg.

WW1 Africa books by Percy

Rounding up a Raider (1916)
Wilmshurst of the Frontier Force (1918)

Sources

http://www.culturecourt.com/B/Westerman.htm
https://www.theguardian.com/theguardian/2013/jan/30/percy-westerman-books-boys-archive
https://historicnavalfiction.com/authors-a-z/percy-f-westerman
http://www.gutenberg.org/ebooks/author/32140

It’s all connected

Jan Smuts wrote a book called Holism and Evolution (published 1925) explaining how we’re all connected. In February 1919 during the Paris peace talks he was writing to friends clarifying his thoughts and seeking their views:

“Life is one and universal; it is not parcelled out, divided and dissected. The individual is an organ of life universal and is as such an embodiment of the All, the Highest, the Divine. Only, in some mysterious way, an alienation may arise between the individual and the universal, which it must be the great effort in conduct to eliminate or prevent. That alienation is error, sin, or whatever else we call it.” (p59 in Hancock and vd Poel, Smuts papers vol 4)

While reading this I was reminded of two books I recently read both claiming the same end but coming at it from different directions: Marthe Kiley-Worthington’s Family are the Friends you Choose and Sue Hampton’s Rebelling for Life. And the issues (climate, -isms), despite what we think today, are not new. It’s almost as one of “my men” said about another “he’s like a lighthouse, his light only shines on one thing at a time.” Over time we get to cover the various topics while expending inordinate amounts of energy on each. Given the interconnectedness of all, it makes sense to take a holistic approach – which effectively means working together pooling our various strengths. When I think of how the diverse troops worked together in East Africa during World War 1, I take heart that it can be done. We just need the right unifying trigger.

And then, if you’re still not convinced about the connections, there’s the geological evidence supplied by Alex du Toit on continental drift.

Review: Dr Abdullah Abdurahman – Martin Plaut

A biography on Dr Abdurahman has been a long time coming so it was with some keen anticipation that I was looking to get a copy of Dr Abdullah Abdurahman: South Africa’s First Elected Black Politician by Martin Plaut.

Abdurahman was one of the characters who has featured from quite early on in my research into South Africa’s involvement in the East Africa campaign of 1914-1918. Dr A was the man behind the formation of the Cape Corps which was to see two units serve in East Africa and later a contingent in Palestine. This in addition to the Cape Boys who provided labour in the various theatres where South Africans served. Dr A, leader of the African People’s Organisation, was a tenacious person – in a year he sent 32 letters to the Prime Minister and Minister of Defence encouraging them to employ the Cape Coloured in the war. Eventually writing to the Governor General, and a change in attitude to the war in Africa, the South African Union Government saw its way to recruit Cape Coloureds as Imperial troops. Martin touches on this but sadly from my perspective didn’t do more on Dr A and the Great War. Partly this is due to scarce material – finding out more about Dr A has been on my ‘to do’ list for 20+ years.

Martin’s book has therefore been welcome in putting the meat onto the bones of the man. This has been a challenge given the scarcity of material – as noted in the introduction, the late discovery of Dr A’s private papers yielded little as they were illegible. The focus of the book therefore falls into what has been available in the public domain resulting in a book which explores South Africa’s race relations and collaboration between cultural groups within South Africa, particularly those who were not white. This is a vital contribution in understanding or exploring the relationship between the ANC (formed 112 as the SANNC) and other political parties.

Apart from more on the First World War, there are two aspects of the book I felt a little challenged by – one being Dr A’s Muslim identity and the other the use of the term African. Dr A was a Muslim – his first wife, a Scot, was married under Islamic law in Britain. Martin mentions a second wife with no records being available. All indications are, given his continued relationship with Nellie, that his second marriage was also under Islamic law. This was acceptable in South Africa, although such marriages are still not legally accepted (despite the emphasis on human rights etc in the 1994 Constitution, 2000 legal comment; 2020 position). While perhaps not important for the question Martin was answering, for my work on WW1 in Africa, this is an important aspect. Research to date suggests that the rank and file enlisting in the Cape Corps had to renounce their Islamic faith – for dietary purposes. Yet, looking at medical registers of the time, patients note Islam under religion. How did they reconcile these positions? Dr A walked/lived life both as a Muslim and as a ‘Westerner’ achieving at the time what few others were able. How did he do this? What debates did he have with himself, friends, family etc in walking this tightrope of different cultures? And even more controversially at the time of the 1914 outbreak of war, how did he reconcile the British Empire being at war against the Ottoman Emperor of which by marriage he was linked? My quest continues… Few historians, if any, in South Africa are working on related topics making this a rich research field for anyone interested.

And then the term ‘African’. While Martin has gone some way to use terms interchangeably, namely black, Coloured, Indian, white, there is still an overwhelming tendency to refer to black South Africans as African. This is something I probably need to write a more considered paper on as the term (politically acceptable and promoted in Britain, the USA and Europe) encompasses so many cultural groups. The term Afrikaner translates to person of Africa aka African, the Coloured, Cape Coloured or Cape Malay (an accepted term in South Africa – interestingly even people born in the 1980s to mixed couples were officially registered as ‘Cape Coloured’) is African in origin culturally and ethnically. So while the term jars as a single group descriptor and gave me a roller-coaster of a read, Martin has gone some way to mediate the cultures he writes for and knows (South African and British) in mixing the terms.

I’ve noted the gaps above but these should not prevent you from exploring Dr Abdullah Abdurahman by Martin Plaut. A far greater window has been opened on the man which gave me the hook to explore Islamic marriages in SA (there are some very interesting legal papers on the issue for anyone interested in trawling the web). For anyone visiting Cape Town and District Six in particular, the book is definitely worth reading for background – and then visit the District Six Museum to experience some of the transformation of the area Dr A represented for so many years. A remarkable man with a remarkable wife and daughter to boot.