200 years of adapting

2020 marks the 200th anniversary of the 1820 settlers into South Africa – an event which is generally passing under the radar for various reasons, not least that of lockdown. But there are small groups who are marking the occasion and as with other generally unremembered events, there are invariably one or two undertaking research to keep the memory ticking over.

As a member of the South African Military History Society, I have until this year only been able to attend meetings in country when I’ve gone home. Now, thanks to some pioneers in the same area the 1820 settlers settled, I was able to join different meetings across the country from my base in England. The first talk I joined was on the 1820 settlers by direct descendant, McGill Alexander (scroll down to number 4 on the list). It was this encounter which brought the bi-centennial to consciousness. Despite having a direct link with the events 200 years ago, it hadn’t flagged up in the same way the end of WW1 in Africa did in 2018, the anniversary of Chris Hani’s assassination and other similar events.

Although there isn’t a documented history of this part of the family moving to SA, there are accounts within the family which others have painstakingly brought together in genealogical form (my generation seems to be the first with a significant literary trait, impacting severely on those trying to find out about the past). So, why did my family and others decide to move from England to a little known territory where they would have to make their own way? Timothy Jones seems to provide a fairly balanced and detailed view of why people felt driven to leave the safety of what they knew, while Richard Marshall considers the social and cultural development of Grahamstown, the main centre of the settlers.

Back in the 1980s, South Africa had its first reality TV show called The Volunteers where a group of people tried to settle as the first settlers did – they weren’t as successful as the 1820 group. I remember diligently watching this programme, fascinated by all they had to learn and deal with. Perhaps it was this experience which influenced my preference for experiential learning.

Two hundred years after one part of my family arrived in South Africa, I am sitting in England where my main base has been for 24 years (following an unplanned chance move), yet my ties to my home in (South) Africa are stronger than ever. Africa is in the blood – all 200 years of it on this side, and potentially even further back on the other (where no work has yet been done to trace the lineage).

Experiential learning

I’m one to learn (or try to) from situations in which I find myself. Nine years of supporting an education charity in Tanzania on the slopes of Kilimanjaro were eye-openers for understanding some of the conditions the soldiers and carriers in East Africa endured. Travelling on local transport from Tanga to Mombasa soon after a series of bus-hijackings gave an idea of what anxieties men felt when moving through 8-foot high grass expecting an ambush at any time, walking up/down to the market area on Kilimanjaro in the rains provided its own insights into slippery roads and manipulating gushing water, watching as once dry river beds became torrential rivers washing away everything in their way – it made sense why some bridges were built so high above the water line. While most land from Kilimanjaro to the coast line has been inhabited, spots of natural bush gave some idea of the ‘forests’ men spoke of and the struggles of dealing with thorn and overgrowth. Oh, and the dust! let alone encountering zebra and giraffe along the road as the bus sped past. What would take us 40 minutes to drive in a car, took 2 hours by dala-dala or local taxi and all day or two for men to walk. The heat at the bottom of the mountain being 10 degrees Celsius warmer than where we were 8,000 feet up. It was bad enough in a vehicle at the height of summer … something else to have to walk in those conditions.

So with recent restrictions, it’s seemed only natural to see what I could extrapolate to better understand aspects of the past. It’s been fascinating watching social media and speaking with friends/family seeing parallels with internment as shared through the Stobs project which was expanded to Fort Napier in South Africa. More recent history, not quite WW1, are those in South Africa and elsewhere who had to suffer House Arrest. Martial law and curfews are not too different for many of us, depending on which country we happen to find ourselves.

Significantly, I find myself referring to those in Africa who were unable to communicate with family or get news as frequently as the men on the Western Front did. Letters took six months to get to the recipient if they were lucky. Torpedoed ships and poor lines of communication played their part in delaying people linking with each other. Funerals and seeing loved ones in hospital were other aspects of social life which had to be foregone although there are some accounts of small groups of men gathering together to bury a comrade either on land or into the ocean. But there are also many sad stories of comrades having had to be left behind in the hope that the enemy would provide an appropriate send-off. No technology then as we have today to video-link in or to accurately record where the lonesome grave was, which by the time someone got to return had disappeared back into the natural bush.

While many have been stockpiling, there was no opportunity to do so 100 years ago in the African bush. Poor lines of communication and later, drought and famine saw to it that rations were rationed. Accounts of being on 1/4 rations for a day or even going for 24 hours with no food can be found. More often, it’s the tediousness of the diet or eating foods not traditionally known. The latter accounted for over 90% of the Seychelloise falling ill and being recalled. Whilst many today in war/conflict zones no doubt associate with these constraints, many of us in more well-off communities still have quite some way to go before we find ourselves in such constrained conditions.

In contrast with then, we probably suffer from information overload. Newspapers were scarce and likely only in bases when they were available and again, as with letters, months out of date. Reuters telegrams and other snippets passed by telegraph wire perhaps gave an idea of what was happening elsewhere but were never long enough to provide detail. Was it better/easier to cope not knowing as it was then or as we have it now having to wade through huge amounts of detailed info from different countries to determine what is true or relevant?

And despite what everyone is dealing with in their own context, life goes on in many ways, just different, although for some not … while some find relief and opportunity in these temporary changed times, for others it’s hell on earth with no release from their enforced imprisonment. Caught in the open bush could be as restrictive and fear-inducing as being forced to stay indoors. Perhaps that’s a reason many are prepared to take risks and venture out – is it any different to wanting to be on the Western Front where facing a sniper’s bullet was less stressful than worrying about the marauding lion, jigger flea, landmine or potential ambush? How will we determine the impact of the current situation when so far much of the language used to describe conditions are so similar to what others have used in the past across numerous critical events? I used to think the East Africa campaign was unique until I read Thomas Packenham’s The Boer War and realised mobile warfare is … well, mobile warfare and nothing special to World war 1 Africa.

They still remember

A recent Al Jazeera documentary on African Black veterans who served in the British Army presented a rather biased version of the situation. Although disappointing, it was not surprising given the current rhetoric and the view expounded over the centenary of the Great War regarding white officers and black rank and file.

As then, so it is now, broadly speaking. There were ‘good’ and ‘bad’ officers and many who were ‘good’ and had a real affinity for their men recorded the actions of their men as best they could: 1st battalion Cape Corps, Nigerians in East Africa, Gold Coast Regiment. They wrote a regimental history to ensure a record remained.

At the centenary commemorations in Africa for the end of the First World War, it was white officers who had served in Africa post WW2 who were involved – behind the scenes in the big public events or quietly remembering in reflective and solemn services. I had the honour to attend a few. And always, a toast or 3 cheers to the Askari was raised, and on occasion a small group of men, their voices quavering would croak out Heia Safari, the song they and their men would have sung on the march.

But that is not all they do, as I discovered in Zambia and more recently at a King’s African Rifle and East African Forces Association dinner – a dinner attended by West African Frontier Force representatives, African military attaches and members of all colours able to attend. They fundraise!

Despite the white officers not receiving pensions as good as those who did not serve in Africa, these men try and ease the load of those who served with them in the field and whose pensions paid by the British government are even smaller. This is done through the Royal Commonwealth Ex-Services League which has arrangements with African countries to ensure the veterans receive additional support. Lord Richards, who attended the November 2018 commemorations in Zambia, is the Deputy Grand President of the RCEL and was instrumental in the 2018 announcement by DFID that aid to veterans would be increased.

And, as with WW1 where records were incomplete or went missing, etc, so it has been in the post-WW2 years. But as men who served are discovered, so they are added to the fold – during June 2019 a 93 year old veteran in Malawi will be receiving his first additional payment. What a moment to witness thanks to technology, but more importantly, people who care for those they served with.

Engaging Africa in remembrance

Does having a list of African High Commissioners due to attend a remembrance event prove inclusivity? I’m not sure. It shows engagement at a basic level. I put my theory to the test, again and introduced myself to various of the High Commissioners and/or their Military Attachés. As expected, they were [pick your term] polite, politically correct, giving lip service, saying what they expected others to want to hear. And of course, wearing a poppy. They were present but not engaged in any meaningful way.

This war which was being portrayed as inclusive still had/has no direct resonance with many from the African continent. How do I know? Well, in my encounter at this particular event, as with others, I’ve got to know the signs of polite tolerance, until you hit with a snippet that says, ‘I am serious, this is about YOUR country, how you can start engaging with the commemoration at a local level. It’s about people, not Empire.’

For Zambia, it was realising there was a black Zambian who served on the Western Front in an armed capacity. He was not just a name but a person with a history; not all positive, but that’s life. We won’t know why Samson Jackson (aka Bulaya) really enlisted, and the military records are no longer available, but he served and stayed until 1921.

Tanzania’s moment came when it was realised that the whole territory had been caught up in the war and that everyone was affected in some way, not least the local population having their homesteads overrun and having to supply food and manpower to the various forces. Added to this were the Askari and King’s African Rifles which forms the basis of the present military system. And the fact that their first President, Julius Nyerere’s policies around land were no doubt influenced by his early life experiences in the 1920s.

Kenya is an interesting one. A look at Wikipedia for Jomo Kenyatta shows he joined Masaai family members to avoid enlistment whilst Geoffrey Hodges in Kariokor notes Kenyatta worked for the British administration learning the value of organisation to achieve a goal.

I can go on, but what difference will this engagement make? In the big scheme of things, I don’t know, but it might well help fill in gaps and give confidence to a people told they should remember but who can’t see why. At a more altruistic level, it should create a more level playing field to overcome divisions as greater understanding of the past is understood for what it was.

Of one thing I’m clear, remembrance as it is currently practised in Britain and other British-influenced communities is not (yet) inclusive. This will take time – Hew Strachan points out in an essay on remembrance: ‘[The] 1914-18 [war] drew a clear distinction between the theory and practice of war in their own [European] continent and wars waged outside it.’ It’s taken Britain a century to reconcile these two points at an intellectual level. The challenge now is for Britain and others to explain this at national and local level, and develop an understanding of the African context of the war.

The impetus to remember does not rest with Britain and the European powers alone, Africans can, by looking outside the traditional European narrative, create their own remembrance as witnessed in Zambia in November 2018.

Forgotten fronts

In case you were wondering, I hadn’t forgotten to write over the past few weeks, but was rather involved in remembering those from Africa who were involved in the First World War.  At last, after all these years, there was some recognition of the African forces who served in Africa and Europe over 100 years ago, although it’s sad to see so many myths still being perpetuated. What’s just as sad is seeing how journalists, and others, assume that interpretations for one theatre can blithely be applied to Africa: India and the Caribbean are NOT Africa. But I should not lose sight of the positives – Africa is starting to be recognised and in due course, I’m sure, will be recognised for its diverse contributions.

What was striking about my recent travels, both physically and virtually, are the stories I heard about Africa in World War 2, in Burma to be specifc. I had been aware that Africans had served in Burma, but short of my family connection (a continent removed to Vinegar Joe Stilwell), I hadn’t paid much attention to the theatre, and probably after this post won’t do too much given my World War 1 focus. Yet, it is due to the stirling work black African soldiers did in World War 1 which resulted in the War Office using them in World War 2. A reappraisal of the World War 1 forces in 1937 led to the decision to make greater use of Africans in a future war. Interestingly though, as with World War 1, they were not to be used on the main front in Europe but in other peripheral conflicts, not least Burma where, as with World War 1, for those involved, the conflict was more than ‘peripheral’.

The BBC carried an article in 2009 about the forgotten forces in Burma as does the Memorial Gates Trust. As with World War 1, the focus until recently has been on the commanders and the generic accounts, now, it’s starting to get personal as noted by Martin Plaut, former Africa editor of BBC. In contrast to World War 1 though, African correspondents are engaged with recollecting accounts of Africans in World War 2, perhaps due to family members being able to share first hand memories? I’d like to think that the disappointment at not being able to access first hand accounts of black Africans involved in World War 1 has spurred researchers today to capture what they can in terms of World War 2 reminiscences before they too are lost. Reminscent of the sinking of the Mendi is the account by Kamau Kaniaru in the Kenyan Standard in 2017 on the sinking of the troopship SS Khedive Ismaili by a Japanese Submarine.

As the world moves its focus from the centenary of World War 1 to that of World War 2, perhaps more of the till now forgotten (or rather hidden) fronts will become better known, further enabling all people affected by conflict to be remembered and today be an inspiration to us to find ways to overcome our differences peaceably and create the ‘new Jerusalem’ so many thought they were fighting for.