Walther Dobbertin raises questions

Walther Dobbertin was a German photographer who spent time in East Africa before and during World War 1. Many of the photos we know of German askari were taken by Dobbertin.

Suprisingly, there doesn’t seem to be a biography of Walther. He was born in 1882, emigrated to German East Africa in 1903, served with the German army in East Africa during World War One until his capture in 1916. After being released as a prisoner of war, he returned to Germany where he died in 1961. There is a lovely photo of him here.

What I find intriguing though, is that many of his war photos are dated 10/4/1918. I discovered this when completing the book Zambia: The end of the Great War in Africa 1918-2018. We were, and still are, trying to identify the British officer in a photo with von Lettow-Vorbeck and Georg Kraut. This particular photo is marked March 1918, although the commons licence notes March 1919, and to the credit of the Bundesarchiv, it does not identify the photographer.

The photo and date pose some challenges:

– in March 1918, von Lettow Vorbeck was in Portuguese East Africa, so highly unlikely he’d be posing in a relaxed photo with a British staff officer.
– it is most likely this photo was taken after the surrender/laying down of arms once the German officers had arrived in Dar es Salaam which places is between December 1918 and 5 February 1919. At this time, Dobbertin was in a prisoner of war camp somewhere having been taken prisoner in 1916.

The conclusion here is that someone other than Dobbertin must have taken this photo, a British soldier who gave a copy to von Lettow-Vorbeck? This seems the most likely explanation for how this got into the Bundesarchiv.

But what about the other photos Dobbertin took which are dated 4/1918? eg 1, 2, 3

  • Was Dobbertin part of a prisoner exchange which saw him return to Germany earlier than post-war?
  • Was he allowed to send his wife all these photos or negatives whilst a prisoner? Surely the British authorities would have wanted to see the photos themselves and possibly kept a copy – are these hidden away in an archive or private collection somwhere?
  • Did Dobbertin manage to give the negatives to one of the captains of a blockade runner who then was able to return to Germany via Portuguese East Africa?
  • Are these the dates the negatives were developed by Dobbertin in his prison camp, which were then later adopted by the Bundesarchiv when it catalogued the collection? eg 2 looks like it was taken at Tanga in 1914

Other questions which then come to mind:

  • Did Dobbertin only take photos for his own pursposes? or
  • were any of his photos used for intelligence purposes such as those taken by Cherry Kearton?

From the sample of photos available on the internet, it appears that none were taken for intelligence purposes, which begs the question, why?
And then, the German photos referred to in the Bohill collection at Hendon RAF Archive – who were they taken by? And what did they consist of? And where are they now?

A sample of Dobbertin’s photos was published in 1932, since reprinted, but with the advent of the internet, many can be found online thanks to the Bundesarchiv’s accessibility policy.

Perhaps one day someone will consider investigating this man who has provided us with a fascinating collection of photos from the German colonial period in East Africa.

 

 

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Review: Sudan’s First Railway by Derek A Welsby

I just have to share this little gem of a find. Not my usual, I admit, but relevant for a forthcoming book. Thanks to members of the Specialist Research Group which meets at The National Archives, Kew, every few months, I was introduced to John who has a specialist interest in railways not least because he worked on numerous in Africa and Asia. He had a book which might be of use – and it most definitely has been, but there’s more to it than what I was looking for, hence sharing its find with you.

Sudan’s First Railway: The Gordon Relief Expedition and The Dongola Campaign, by Derek A Welsby was published in 2011 by the Sudan Archeological Research Society, as Publication Number 19.

Now, to be absolutely honest, the book did not directly answer my questions but in the succinct overview of the origins of the railways in Egypt and Sudan, I was able to follow references which filled in gaps we (my SA railway expert Sandy and I) were still struggling with. Derek has distilled from the copious autobiographies and other histories of the area, the development of the railway in a manner easily digestible and with some explanatory footnotes directing the intrepid researcher to other sources.

What makes this book special though are the photographs – of then and now. Derek has actually travelled the lines giving us a vision of what it looked like at the time from photographs and illustrations and how it compared in 2010. Apart from rolling stock, there are some clear maps and tables further explaining details for those particularly interested. Descriptions are given of camps and bases as well as the challenges faced in constructing particular parts of the line.

It’s absolutely fascinating to see how the desert has retained the ‘wounds’ of yester year – not dissimilar to the aged markings we saw through the Namib desert dating to WW1 and before. Welsby takes these photos, translates them into sketches and then explains them – there were recently similar explanations of WW1 training trench discoveries in southern England and Time Team as in the past ‘drawn’ over the image to show the pattern. Welsby’s are separate which allows for a clarity and clearness. He discusses ritual deposits, ticket offices, floor coverings, wells, redoubts, war memorials and more. This is then followed by 70 pages of ‘finds’ – photos and descriptions – of all sorts, railway materials, camp items and war related. One could spend hours pouring over the detail – not unlike visiting some museums. In fact, the book can best be described as a museum in print – at least with this museum you don’t have to get info overload before leaving, you can dip in as desired.

In addition to the texts mentioned by Welsby, for the UK railway specialist, The National Archives in Kew has a fascinating collection of pamphlets and booklets at reference ZSPC 11 and then for Cape to Cairo info, there’s Leo Weinthal’s epic publication in 4 volumes.

The railways of Africa provide a fascinating insight into the development of the continent, the economics and politics of the day. I’ve had to stop myself being diverted into all sorts of new imperialist explorations – but it won’t be for long, there are too many names from WW1 who are linked with African railway dicussions and surveys over the turn of the previous century.

 

 

 

 

A little Chinese help

I’m not usually one for picking up on anniversaries/notable events in time, but thanks to the British Library’s Asia and Africa blog, I see it’s time for Chinese New Year – 5 February 2019. This provides an opportunity to remember the Chinese Labour Corps who served in East Africa during World War 1 and to say “Happy New Year” again…

There is still much work to be done on this group of men. According to the Commonwealth War Graves Register, six men of the Chinese Contingent died in East Africa and are named on the Screen Wall in Dar es Salaam CWGC (see also). What is fascinating about their entries are the dates of death – November 1917 through to November 1918. This was during the ‘mopping up’ operations phase when many of the other Labour contingents had been sent home and even the Cape Corps was being moved to Mesopotamia. A search on The National Archives’ Discovery catalogue doesn’t give any obvious link to how many others served in East Africa. But there are some entries in War Diaries (available from The (UK) National Archives) which can shed some light:

WO 95/5302/5, 4 Aug 1918 (Dar es Salaam) – The AAG had been asked for ‘sanction of certain personnel for preliminary work in IWT [Inland Water Transport] Chinese Camp, pending approval of establishment’. On 5 August the erection of the camp commenced. On 5 August, the AAG was informed that ‘1,035 Chinese were awaiting transhipment to Rangoon.’ Simla required only 629 and ’15 interpreters essential.’ It appears that India was also sourcing Chinese manpower from elsewhere: on 24 August  ‘India had arranged diversion of 30 at Rangoon’ and on 16 August, ‘6 interpreters had been arranged.’

Also on 5 August, ‘A draft of Indians and Chinese Mechanics arrived at Daressalaam by SS “Magdalena” for the Construction and Maintenance Section.’ On the 6th, ‘9 Chinese, 12 Anglo-Indians and 35 Indians disembarked’ from the Magdalena, while ‘One Chinese Follower, One Ango-Indian, sailed for Dar-es-Salaam from India, on HT “Shuja”. On 7 August, those who had arrived on the 5th were assigned to MLO and Mechanical Section.

8 August saw a ‘telegram sent by 3rd Echelon to CHIEF SIMLA requesting 40 Chinese Stevedores to be diverted, owing to recent developments’ [what the ‘recent developments’ were needs further investigation].

On 10 August, 8 Chinese personnel who had arrived from India were sent to Construction Section.

We get some clarification of the diversion on 21 August: 360 Chinese Stevedores, diverted at Rangoon. Remainder of about 690 saild for DaresSalaam about 22nd August.’

An entry on 28 August might not be very politically correct today, but it shows the challenges of trying to work with diverse cultures in a specific place and time and attempts to keep relations harmonious: ‘In view of the peculiarities of the Chinese [not specified], it is considered advisable that not more than two should occupy one 80lb Tent.’

Somewhere there had been a Mutiny, as the entry on 28 August refers to one, noting that concerning the Ivy, ‘crew undesirable, 34 under arrest charged with Mutiny’. The crew was being returned to Bombay India with a new ‘crew consisting of Nigerians Swahilis.’ Whether this was purely a mutiny on the Ivy or had any connection with the Chinese is not clear.

That something was amiss is revealed in the entry for 2 September noting that ‘Wire fence for IWT Chinese Camp approved by DA and QMG. Necessary instructions issued’ and on 3 September it’s recorded that ‘Q gave authority for wiring in Chinese Camp, owing peculiarities Chinese.’

At last on 5 September there is mention of a name in relation to the Chinese: ‘Lieut JH Goby IARO and 669 IWT Chinese disembarked from HT “Trent”. No contract papers arrived with Draft.’ Goby was Serjeant James Henry of the Indian Army Reserve of Officers – medal cards ref: WO 372/8/40154; WO 372/26/1473.

On 7 September, ‘Q authorises issue of opium to Chinese personnel, ie 20 grains per day’.

On 10 September, 15 Chinese Interpreters were requisitioned from India. Whether these are the same or new interpreters from those referred to earlier, is again not clear without further research.

Five gangs Chinese, consisting of 328 men reported for duty on the wharf on 13 September in Dar es Salaam.

A return of employment on 14 September for the Mechanical Section, showed no Chinese being employed there:

  • Europeans       18
  • Anglo-Indians   6
  • Indians            17
  • Goanese            7
  • Swahilis           22
  • total               70

On the 16th, ‘Communications sent to COO recommending an issue of Thin Suits, Felt Shoes and Tarbosh for Chinese Stevedores’. This was followed with ‘Six specially selected Chinese sent to APM for training as Police. Remainder of Chinese reported at Wharf.’

At 5pm on 27 September, van Deventer inspected the Chinese camp in Dar es Salaam.

Another War Diary file WO 95/5359/4, provides a little more tantalising information for anyone wanting to research the topic further:

2 November 1918, Hospital Ship “Dongola” had 75 Chinese Contingent and 4 Chinese Labour Contingent on board.

9 December 1918, HT Karagola had 8 Chinese Interpreters IWT

18 December saw 12 Chinese of IWT and 35 Chinese from Base MT scheduled to embark on MT “Iran” on 20 December.

On 11 December, No 1205, Chang King Yine, Stev, Chinese Labour Contg died of VDH, as reported in Base Orders by Major HGF Christie, Officiating Base Commandant, East Africa Force, 13 December 1918, Dar es Salaam.  For some reason his name missed being added to the CWGC wall.

On 16 December, No 396, Yoh Zoa Kin, a driver for the Chinese Contingent died of Influenza, while No 1540 Stevedore, Chen Yung Foh, Chinese Labour Corps died of Dysentery on 20 December 1918. Neither are listed on the CWGC list.

This is what I’ve found fortuitously whilst looking for other information. It’s limited in scope but provides a flavour of what Chinese Labour did in East Africa and the  challenges faced by all. It allows another three men to be remembered by name and hopefully together with an officer’s name, will enable others to dig a bit deeper and open up more on the contribution of the Chinese to the British war effort.

As someone recently said, many still need to discover the true meaning of ‘World’ in World War 1 – and 2.

War Diaries of the Base Commandant DSM – a little gem

Finishing off a book on the end of the war in East Africa, I thought I’d check some War Diaries. Per chance I came across the Bast Commandant for Dar es Salaam and it is a little treasure trove.

The diligent Base Commandant(s) have dutifully recorded the names of all who died under the command irrespective of position – with the result that we have some records of Chinese Labour still being in EA at the end of the war and the names of some of the German prisoners of war (all ranks). In addition to listing the person, the date and cause of death are recorded as well as initials where available and force number. This should prove a very useful source for indentifying names not on the Imperial lists (and when I get a chance I’ll transfer them to the Great War In Memory lists).

In addition to the death records, there are the embarkation notfications for shipping. This includes the names of officers travelling and numbers of other ranks. What stands out here is the diversity of ‘other ranks’ – including the number of women and children attached to units who are being transported between bases 22 women and children of the KAR were going from Dar-es-Salaam to the Detail Camp at Kilindini (Mombasa) on 31 December 1918. Animals, vehicles and equipment are all listed – quantity and destination.

And then there are church services listed for the forthcoming week – a range of venues and denominations are covered. As are significant general orders and various Courts Martial and enquiries including the verdict in many cases,

For the patient researcher who is prepared to strain their eyes with the poor quality print (it is clearly copy x of xx rather than the original here), there should be more than a few gems which come to light.

Ref: The National Archives, Kew: WO 95/5359 parts 4 and 5
The book commemorating the end of the war is called Zambia: the end of the war, 25 November 1918 – 25 November 2018 (GWAA, 2018)

 

Leprosy in South Africa

I came across this article on Leprosy coins and was reminded of my visit some years ago to Robben Island which I discovered had been a place people suffering from Leprosy had been sent. The idea of isolating people for health or political differences was not lost. In sourcing further information, I happened upon an Oral History Project linking Leprosy and Robben Island. Its sentiments seem fitting.

Not long after, looking up some info for someone on SA wartime expenditure, it was with a little surprise that I spotted the heading “Mental Hospitals and Leprosy Asylums” (TNA: CO 633/68/6) How widespread was Leprosy was the question which sprang to mind especially as the estimated budget for 1916/7 was £302,850, an increase of £4,991 on the previous year. Thankfully a little further on there was some more info:

The spread of hospitals in 1916/7 was as follows:

  • Leprosy Asylums: Robben Island, Emjanyana, Natal, Pretoria, Bochem
  • Mental Hospitals: Valkenburg, Grahamstown, Port Alfred, Fort Beaufort, Pietermaritzburg, Pretoria, Bloemfontein

A total of £1,419 was for research related activities and £9,700 for transport for patients and relatives.

In 1935 the International Leprosy Association named the following members, the Emjanyana which is in the Eastern Cape was under the responsibility of Dr Arthur R Davison and Dr John A Macdonald, Pretoria under Dr Adrianus Pijper.
There was another asylum at Botsabelo in Maseru, Basotholand under Dr Peter Strachan and Dr RC Germond

Some further digging revealed an article by Harriet Deacon on Leprosy and Racism on Robben Island 1846-1900
Anne Digby on Medicine, Race and the General Good: The Career of Thomas N G Te Water (1857–1926), South African Doctor and Medical Politician
A family account of Herbert Hayward Budd ‘The Doc’ – a medical officer on Robben Island
A letter in the Lancet re Leprosy segregation in the Cape in 1906
An obituary for Sir George Turner notes there was a leper asylum in Pretoria in the early 1900s where he worked for 7 years. It accommodated 50 Dutch and 40 Native patients (Obit pg 1, pg 2)

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

The times they are a changing…

Walking back from the SANDF Doc Centre in its last years in Visagie Street, Pretoria (it’s now in Irene – at the end of the road joining onto Pierre van Ryneveld at Nellmapius Drive) to Pretoria General Station on my first day back in Pretoria after a year, I couldn’t help ponder over all the warnings I’d been receiving about walking in Pretoria Central.

When I was a student in Pretoria (early 1990s), we used to walk the streets until quite late without a problem. Now, as on my previous trip, I was being warned against it. As usual this got me thinking – everyone who was warning me, except for the very last person, was white. I therefore tested out my views of walking the streets with a few people of colour and was told to ‘continue walking as though you own the place’.

The next day I set out as usual but on this occasion paid close attention to the car drivers travelling along the roads I walked – I was by now quite used to being the only white person on the pavements, but hadn’t really thought about the drivers. The blunt thought struck me: where have all the white folk gone? It was almost the complete reverse of my student days.

Pretoria used to heave with whites, now they are almost non-existent. My thoughts immediately equated this with the days gone by and the Bantustans – what do we call the still predominantly white enclaves behind huge walls, fences, prected by alarms and security guards?

Thankfully pure white enclaves are rare, Oranje being the most (in)famous. The traditionally white areas are becoming more diverse and although many white South Africans still tend to avoid the CBDs (Central Business Districts) for reasons of ‘safety’, they have far more character and warmth than the clinical streets of my youth.

Later in the week (2015), I accompanied my mother to the Whitney Houston show at the then Civic Theatre (now Mandela Theatre in the Joburg Theatre complex) where I’d last been a year before with my sister for Elvis (they both do first aid duty for the theatre). Again, the contrast between these two visits was remarkable, so refreshing – the Civic has clearly got its line-up right, presenting a programme which appeals to all the different cultural groups. How wonderful it was to see a previously ‘whites only’ theatre packed with ‘mocha skin’ [as per the star of the show] enthusiasts of all ages. And to top it off, it was a South African, Belinda Davids performing the tribute to Whitney (and much better in my humble opinion).

The perception of South Africa as being dangerous persists – I’ve written about this before and it’s interesting typing up this blog piece I wrote a few years back but didn’t get to post then as to how my views haven’t changed. I feel safer now than I did in the 80s and early 90s in Johannesburg and as with all cities, one has to remain vigilent.

The other complaint I often hear is that the country has deteriorated, it is no longer what it used to be. Well, no, it isn’t and neither should it be the same country. Wasn’t that the point of overthrowing apartheid? Has the country deteriorated? In some cases, yes (and we won’t go into the corruption of politicians and others here) and there is still a lot of work to do politically and economically. But in other ways, the country hasn’t deteriorated. It is on the cultural and social fronts that the country has undergone its most radical transformation and in humble opinion – for the best.

I typed this as the ANC leadership has changed and we wait to see what transpires – the implications are huge but I hope and pray that the social and cultural progress which has been made to date influences and impacts positively on the economic and political. And I can’t but help remember the words Winnie Mandela uttered back in the early 1990s – the new South Africa will ‘accommodate everybody’ (1:18:00).

PS: In 2017 I drove into Pretoria to visit the National Archives – too far too walk from the station – but I arrived from Johannesburg rather than Boksburg and duly got myself lost! Many of the street names have changed. Whilst at the National Archive the young reading room assistant tried to explain to a white woman how to get to the courts where she would likely find the info she was needing. To the relief of both, and my amusement, he, a Tswana (we’d had a very enlightening conversation about Swahili earlier), gave up on the new street names and reverted to the old. It was just too confusing. Perhaps the next generation not knowing of the old names will find it easier.