Social hierarchy – prison guards WW1 Africa

Attending the book launch of Mahon Murphy’s Colonial Captivity during the First World War: Internment and the Fall of the German Empire, 1914-1919, I ended up asking a nasty question. This wasn’t to catch Mahon out, as I didn’t think he would have the answer – rather it was a thought and realisation stimulated by the fascinating information he presented.

The question posed: ‘Was there a social hierarchy in the guards designated to look after the white prisoners and internees, particularly in East Africa?’

There are accounts of white prisoners and internees complaining about being guarded by ‘African’ soldiers. Generally this has been taken to mean ‘black’. However, we know that there were Indian guards – one was dealt with for cruelty – and based on Michelle Moyd’s work published in Violent Intermediaries, we know Arabs were preferred to black Africans for certain roles.  In addition, there was a social hierarchy which still persists today in some sectors and was evident during the years of Apartheid in particular.

With all of this in mind, I couldn’t help but wonder if there was a social hierarchy of who guarded whom and where. Did officers determine who was to accompany prisoners to a camp based on the ethnicity of the prisoner and the guard? Was there a concerted effort to use Indian guards to look over white women in particular as this would be ‘more acceptable’ than a black African or did an officer determine that it would be more of an insult to a white prisoner/internee to have a black guard? Were Arab Africans used as guards?

A telling factor in all this, is that von Lettow-Vorbeck was concerned about the impact it would have if his Askari saw the white officers surrender their weapons when they came to Abercorn and then to leave East Africa in February 1919. Despite all his claims of equality, there was a social difference.

Reflecting on the above, it was mostly the Germans who used guards of different ethnicities – not surprising due to the manpower shortage they had in East Africa. This leads to the question, did the South African, British and Indian Commanders of the Allied side use guards of different ethnicities? And what about the Belgian and Portuguese? Given Spicer Simson’s comments about the prisoners he took on Lake Tanganyika not wanting to go to the Belgians suggests that local black Force Publique soldiers were used.

Colour or ethnicity and social class were intertwined in Africa during 1914-18, still is today to a large extent. Posing the question about who comprised the guards and over whom they were prisoner is for me, more a question of social status and how that impacted on relations during the war.

Comments and thoughts are welcomed as I’m not sure we have, in the Imperial archives, enough information to answer the question. Memoirs, diaries and the African National and provincial archives might well hold a clue.

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Policy change implications: mind over matter

It’s fascinating how things seem to come in spurts. Recently, it’s been around taboos in particular, black soldiers in World War 1 being told they have to shoot white soldiers belonging to the enemy.

This is something those of us working on WW1 in Africa ‘know’ but it really struck home regarding the impact this change in policy had on individuals. Melvin Page’s thesis on the impact of the war in Malawi probably has the most explicit comments around this topic through the interviews he conducted with KAR veterans and German Askari. Men comment about having to get their heads around having been told if they do anything ‘bad’ to a white man they will go to hell – particularly those educated in missionary schools. Whites had been built up as bastions of society, something to aspire too. Now all of a sudden, everything which had been taught and drilled into people was undone in one swoop.

I can just imagine the anxieties the men must have felt facing the enemy knowing there was a white man in the group and in line with the rules of war, he should be taken out first as he was probably in command. I equate this at a more basic level to being told after years of calling a relative ‘aunt’ or ‘uncle’ to now call them by their first name. It feels odd, out of place. I recall a student telling me when I reprimanded him for calling me ‘Miss’ – ‘but Miss, you now want me to call you Anne when I’ve been getting into trouble for 16 years calling teachers everything but Miss.’ He brought it home – you can’t change a habit overnight.

But how did these men cope with an instruction which would have far greater consequences than me calling an aunt or uncle by their first name or a student calling me Miss?

My trip to the Western Front with the school group helped in that regard. Dickie Knight was telling us about the Inuit hunter, John Sewak, who was recruited as a sniper. When asked how he felt about shooting men, he apparently replied that it was no different to shooting a seal. For many of the black KAR and Askari, the equivalent would have been to shoot a buck or other wild animal. Once he’d survived his first shooting of a white man and with untoward consequences occuring, it would have become easier. Although as with all/most soldiers, killing of any kind was not something they relised but rather what you had to do in order not to be killed yourself.

Another case was brought to my attention by Mahon Murphy in his presentation on his book – Colonial Captivity during the First World War: Internment and the fall of the German Empire, 1914-1919 where Melanesians were told they would be forming part of the police force – the implication being that they would have command or control over the German prisoners and other inhabitants. A definite change in power relations.

A ‘simple’ policy decision can have a life-changing impact. How did these men deal with their experiences – physical, emotional and most significantly, spiritual? How did their families cope with men who had clearly come back different to when they first left? We can only really conjecture as most refused to speak about it.

I was quite intrigued recently to see a significant steep jump in divorce cases listed on the South African National Archives catalogue in the immediate post-war years. These no doubt for white families – what happened amongst the black and other African communities? Others I’ve been told were concerned with the increase in alcohol consumption.

I don’t think we’ll ever be able to think of all the possible implications of a policy change but it seems to me that those responsible for policy making should take a little more time and due diligence when considering changing the status quo and consider the support networks that need to be put in place to support the change and its consequences – long term.

Mankind – the common denominator

You may have picked up that I was involved in the production of The Unknown Fallen, a book about Allied Muslim involvement in World War 1. It’s been a fascinating journey, almost 17 years in the making so far with the book being one of the more recent markers along the way. I should clarify, my involvement with the book has only been a year or so, my journey getting to know other faith groups started about 17 years ago when I was teaching recently arrived young Muslim Palestinian men in an inner-London college trying to make sense of what had happened to their family existence in Jerusalem. Their questions only fuelled a curious mind already questioning how religion, in particular, Christianity, had been used to uphold the idea of Apartheid.

Listening to the recording of Yusuf Chambers and Dr Bilal Philips discussing The Unknown Fallen I had to smile towards the end when the two discussants commented that the conceptualiser of The Unknown Fallen had been guided by Allah to undertake the task. You call him Allah, I call him God, others call him Jehovah, HaShem, the God of Thunder, Creator – they’re all a cultural title for a force we cannot explain. And those of us with a deep-rooted faith know how things fell into place to ensure our involvement to produce this incredible book and to learn from each other.

Whilst the interview on The Unknown Fallen is naturally Muslim-oriented – talking about a book which concerns a part of Muslim history, I couldn’t help but think of the similarities with other religious and cultural groups whose involvement in the conflict is also struggling to be heard.

Many of these cultural groups feature in The Unknown Fallen. Broadly speaking, the African, Chinese and Russian spring to mind. As Dr Bilal Philips tells us today we tend to hear more about British/French or German Muslims, not Muslim Germans/French or British. This goes for so many other groups too – where the man-made community or nation the person is residing in expects preference in the identity stakes. As all the major religions teach us, respect and love for fellow mankind will ensure a more harmoneous co-existence. These divisions have become more apparent over the centenary years of the war – memorials are being put up for individual groups which have been forgotten or ignored to date. On one level, I fully understand this – it’s a visual representation and a way to ensure longer remembrance, however, it’s also divisive – where do we stop? At company or platoon level?

What struck me from the interview is how many different ways people are continuing to discover how their families and communities were involved or impacted by the war. Today the media has a big role to play, particularly in raising African awareness as noticed over the four years of the centenary of the conflict. And with this will come more desire for memorials and outward manifestations to show remembrance – a situation that could lead to further conflict as one group determines to be bigger and better (whatever that might be) than the next.

My journey continues, and as part of this, it strikes me that it’s time we start to recognise the one common denominator in all this remembrance and study of war. Humankind. With this in mind, shouldn’t we have an all-inclusive reminder? Not the poppy which is exclusive, but something as simple and all-encompassing as the minute or two’s silence we spare at times of remembrance whether on 11 November, 4 August, 19 September, 21 February, at a funeral or memorial service. So far, in my quest – a Dove: accepted by all religions and present in all countries except for the driest parts of the Sahara Desert, Antarctica and the Arctic.

In line with the message of The Unknown Fallen: Brothers/Sisters in Arms, Together we Stand – all faiths, all cultures, one people.

A musical tangent

Continuing with my reading of the Smuts Papers, vol 2, by Hancock and van der Poel, I couldn’t help but do a double-take on reading Lord Selbourne’s 1908 missive on the Transvaal policy for ‘Coloured people and Natives’ (pp374-394). This document, 20 pages long, was clearly written in the time before social media and short attention spans.

What made me stop, and there were many such occasions, was Selbourne’s thoughts on black education. For him, this should be allowed, be optional and to show commitment, part paid for by the person attending. More was to follow… The curriculum (p364) says it all:

The Native must be taught a little ordinary elementary knowledge, elementary arithmetic, and how to read and write, and I should add a considerable proportion of music. The former would make him a more useful servant, and the latter a happier being; but the main lines on which I should like to see his education developed, are those of what in England I should call a first class agricultural labourer… the one work for which the Native is most suited is agricultural work; and as an agricultural labourer he will never come into competition with the white man.

Wasn’t this, other than the agricultural aspect, what aristocratic white young women in Britain were to be taught? So much can be pulled from this quote alone, so I say no more other than that Selbourne’s paper has to be read to be believed today, but these were the thoughts and views of the time. Interspersed amongst Selbourne’s class and racial views, are some insightful comments. His statement about preventing competition between the black and white man being one such – this was the main reason for the colour divide. Education today is still used to divide and rule, across the board.

Still reeling from what I’d read in this paper, I was later following a lead on the Rhodesian Regiment which served in WW1, only to discover another musical link: this from after the war.

Percival Kirby had gone to Natal in 1914 and worked at the university before going to Wits in 1921. By all accounts he didn’t enlist. His fame is for recording ‘the music of the South African people’. He collected instruments and recorded their sound on wax cylinders. The collection is now at UCT forming the basis of various studies – how research was conducted during colonial times, what was included/left out and so forth.

I wonder how much of what Kirby recorded was influenced by black education as promoted by Selbourne? – I imagine not much. What I do know is that music is an integral part of South African life and is as diverse in genre as the people.

And for those wondering, I didn’t find what I was looking for on the Rhodesian Regiment…

Review: African Kaiser by Robert Gaudi

Where to start? I found this book challenging to read, I didn’t like the style of writing and I had been annoyed before I began reading when a glance at the bibliography showed that once again we have a memoir of Paul von Lettow-Vorbeck where German texts have been ignored other than those by Lettow-Vorbeck himself. In addition, all the myths of the First World War in Africa have been perpetuated as no primary or archival research was undertaken. How very frustrating, but thankfully all was not lost …

I always try and find something positive and for this book, it was a timely read as it reminded me of certain aspects of the campaign I had forgotten about and which were necessary for a paper or two I was writing. The basics are there.

Mixed feelings abound over Gaudi’s sidetracking – the opening scene for example is a long drawn out account of how Britain got the German codebook which eventually allowed it to pick up on the Konigsberg. And there are many others besides. The pros of this approach include new info and ideas, widening the scope of the war, showing how inter-related it was but on the con side, I just couldn’t help thinking the author was showing off.

It seems I am not the only one to have mixed feelings about this book. Mark Thatcher posted on Facebook (and I purposefully ignored it until I read the book) as follows:

Mark Thatcher So far so good with a couple of exceptions. I love the LOTR and all things Tolkien but mixing fantasy and History…hmmmm ….maybe on HBO. Also the author describes the Pour le Merite as a ‘metal’. It may be comprised of metal but the Pour le Merite is a ‘Medal’, as in medallion not metallion. Ugh.

For those not sure, LOTR = Lord of the Rings. I have no issue with including fiction in a history book – I do it myself, it’s more about how it’s done and which fiction is being referred to.

A librarian friend sent the Spectator review to me coincidentally just as I was starting the book – it must have been something in the ether – the copy I had was marked ‘Uncorrected proof, not for resale’ – it appears as though the Spectator reviewer had a similar copy. I sincerely hope that the errors, typos and other gremlins were all sorted for the release. Many of the major errors are listed in the Spectator review and I’m really pleased to see that one of the myths I had fallen for and have been trying to unravel, has been confirmed or at least sufficient evidence has been supplied for me to double check – that Max Aitken (newspaper mogul) and Arthur Aitken (Tanga fiasco) are not related:

And in any case Aitken was not Sir Max’s brother. The author has confused him with Arthur Noble Aitken, captain in the RAMC with the Canadian Expeditionary Force in France. It is not an easy mistake to make, unless you take it for granted from a secondary source. The Reverend William Aitken married Miss Jane Noble in 1867. General Arthur Edward Aitken was born in 1861 (Arthur Noble Aitken in 1883).

The Spectator refers to the Washington Post review – I can only agree with what was said in the Spectator, but I can understand where the Washington Post reviewer is coming from. If this is the first you’re reading about the East Africa campaign or von Lettow-Vorbeck, then it will be rivetting and an eye-opener, and the writing style – well, that may be a matter of taste. This is not the first American write-up I’ve seen on the campaigns in Africa which show a general ignorance of Africa and what was happening there.

Would I recommend this book? I think on balance I would, just, but with lots of cautions. The main one being to double check everything before you use it.

The Fear of Equality

It’s common knowledge that South African Native Labour Corps men who served in France during World War 1 were kept separated behind barbed wire fences and were not allowed to fraternise with the local populations. The men had to be supervised and controlled by white South African men who had experience of managing black labour in South Africa.

This scenario is often used to prove white South Africa’s racial tendencies.

Recently, I came across the following description:

Among other regulations, smoking was prohibited on duty and in public places. Alcohol was forbidden – except when prescribed ‘for medicinal purposes’ – and no member of the Corps was allowed even to enter an establishment which sold it. All letters were read by administrators, while a stringent system of chaperoning existed … The barbed wire fences around the camps served to keep the women in as well as the men out.

Yes, you read women, not black South African Native Labour Corps. Women, white, also denied the vote at the time were being treated in a similar way to black South African men.

The quote comes from “The Forgotten Army of Women: The Overseas Service of Queen Mary’s Army Auxiliary Corps with the British Forces 1917-1921” by Diana Shaw in Facing Armageddon: The First World War Experienced edited by Hugh Cecil and Peter H Liddle.

Isn’t it interesting how we shut off that which frightens us? We don’t want to engage with what we don’t know or fear.

Writing this I was reminded of an incident a good few years back now when I was still in almost full-time education. The BNP in the UK were looking as though they were going to do quite well in the general election and I was horrified at how colleges and others refused to invite BNP representatives to their institutions to be questioned by the students. It was acceptable to have the Labour, Conservative, Liberal Democrat and Green candidate visit and be challenged but not the group most feared. Ostensibly this was to ‘protect the students’, but what it did was increase curiosity and, at least, verbal support for the party – everything education leaders were trying to avoid.

Similarly, my initial intention as an historian was to study communism as, at school we’d been told this was what Apartheid was against. Communism was bad and our boys had to fight it. This made Nelson Mandela and others all terrorists. Other factors got in the way of my specialism, but I still hold a sideline interest in all things communist.

Today, as in years past, we continue to put people into camps until we’re sure about them – the Boer women and children, refugees, asylum seekers. Cross-dressers and others suffering from physical and mental differences get put in asylums or care centres, those who don’t follow our rules are put in prison… and yet others seem to languish because we’re too afraid to let them out having discovered they weren’t a threat to begin with.

Hiding people away and shutting them off from the mainstream doesn’t seem to me the best way of dealing with difference. Somehow we must find ways to engage – as the men working alongside the Women’s Auxilary Service and the SANLC found, we have more in common than not and together made working for a common goal more easily achievable.

Every time I experience new cultures and meet others who travel in the same way, it reinforces the need to cross barriers and engage. Understanding the ‘other’ leads (more often than not) to respect and a greater sense of community.

Bravery recognised

Working through files I’ve copied, I came across a file entitled Act of Bravery by Constable Mwamba Wa Mboya. It warranted reading – and sharing…

A letter from LH Macnaghten, Executive Engineer, Public Works Department, Nyeri dated 24 July 1916 reads as follows:

I wish to draw your attention to an act of bravery performed by Police Constable Mwembe Mkamba who accompanied me on my last safari and hope that he may be suitably rewarded.
At the Mathioya River Police Constable Mwamba without a moment’s hesitation leaped into the river which was running very strongly to the assistance of my syce who had been washed off his legs and was being carried rapidly downstream with one of my ponies. By his plucky action Police Constable Mwamba succeeded in overhauling the syce and in pushing him and the pony into the bank thus avoiding in all probabiluty a tragedy.
I am of course willing to pay for the brass police badge beloning to the hat which was lost in the Mathioya River.

On 5 September 1916, he expanded:

No 2900 3rd Constable Mwamba Mboya – Bravery of

In confirmation of my former letter dated 24 July 1916, I beg to state that on 26 June 1916, I was proceeding from Fort Hall to Embu and on arriving at the Mathioya River I gave instructions to my syce to lead one of my ponies across the river – at this point 100 feet wide – as the bridge, being under construction, was not passable for animals. Where the syce entered the river on the right bank, the water was approximately 2’6″ to 2’9″ deep and all went well until he and the pony were about 30 feet from the left bank, where the current was considerably stronger than on the right bank, strong enough to lift both syce and pony off their legs and the depth of the water increased to about 4’6″ to 5′. Police Constable Mwamba Mboya, who was standing on the left bank realising what had happened, immediately leaped into the river to their assistance – in my opinion at the risk of his own life – and managed as already stated to overhaul the syce and the pony and push them into the bank about 70 yards downstream.

This correspondence was sent to the District Commissioner who forwarded it onto the Governor who in turn sent it to the Colonial Office. They in turn sent it to the Royal Humane Society for consideration of an award. Unfortunately it is not recorded in these documents whether Mwamba wa Mboya received any official recognition for his bravery and I’ve not been able to source a copy of the East African Standard to see if he was mentioned in that (the online copies at the British Library only go to 1915).

Exploring where the Mathioya River is, I came across this article recording the death of Chief Karuri Gakure in 1916, a year after inviting Italian missionaries into his area and the first female chief (another view) in Colonial Kenya.

Intriguingly, and refreshingly, none of these stories concern the Great War despite all three taking place in 1916. Life went on…

Ref: The National Archives, Kew – CO 533/170 file 61878