Language dilemma

Writing historical accounts seems to be getting trickier in this globalised world.

A book I recently read had [sic] behind the word ‘Kaffir’ every time it was written – this was in quotes where [sic] is commonly used to indicate that an error has been spotted and recognised in the original. As a South African, it’s been engrained that this is a word not to be used because of its connotations. Recently, however, in one of the local UK chains, there on a spice shelf was ‘Kaffir Lime’. I might also mention that one of my favourite Anton Goosen songs is ‘Wit Kaffers van Afrika’ (white kaffers of Africa) which as I understand was the song to open South Africa’s very first equivalent of Woodstock, Houtstok, back in 1990, on 31 May.

The real dilemma arises though for the historian who wants to write about urban development in mining towns at the start of the twentieth century. Working through local newspapers in Boksburg Public Library when researching for information on Sir George Farrar, I was struck by the pages of applications for licence to open up ‘Kaffir Kitchens’ – what exactly these entailed I cannot say as I was on a tight research deadline and couldn’t stop to digest in detail. What I do know is that it will be very annoying for a reader if every time the word was used it was followed by [sic].

Similarly, ‘non-white’ in inverted commas as it appeared in the same book. I am just as comfortable using non-black, non-Indian and non-coloured when working/writing about other specific groups. It is a short hand. The alternative today, is to list all the specific groups one implies by the all collective which when there are word limits, doesn’t give much opportunity to get the message across.

Another term to come under scrutiny recently is ‘Boy’, and its female equivalent, ‘Girl’. In the South African context yet again, this has negative connotations. However, doing some research for someone on the Peninsular Wars, I was amazed to see in the Muster RollsMuster Rolls lists of ‘Boys’ going back to the early 1800s. This suggests there was a specific roll filled by young boys (how young I do not know) and that as colonisation occurred, this term was transferred to locals (natives – another controversial term for some) who did the same tasks. As older men in the colonies started to take on this work for various reasons, the title/term stuck. It’s a term frowned upon in South Africa, yet black friends and colleagues in Africa (Rwanda, Tanzania, Nigeria and Ghana to name but a few) talk quite comfortably about their ‘house girl’ or ‘house boy’.

How we read and understand terms depends on our cultural heritage. I once worked with a woman called Kulvinder – Kuli to those who knew her. However, I struggled to do so until one day I felt I had to come ‘clean’ explaining why my emails were always addressed to Kulvinder and similarly, why I hesitated every time I wanted to say her name. She was astounded when I told her that in SA, the diminutive of her Indian heritage name was the same (sounding) as the derogatory word for Indians – coolies. Both of us wiser having cleared the air, Kulvinder became Kuli, although I still inwardly wince every time I use the word.

One could argue that I’m coming at this from a group which named rather than was/is named. I can, and do, fall (partly) into the category of ‘rooinek’ (red neck) as well as ‘rock spider’ (English and Afrikaans respectively). In Swahili, I’m bluntly ‘white man’ (Mzungu), in Masai ‘those who confine their farts’ (Iloridaa enjekat), in Gambia, ‘Two Bob’ (early white settlers paid two bob for something to be done), in Ghana ‘Fada’ (from Father/Priest).

Working as a cross-cultural historian, it is becoming more apparent that historians need to find ways to deal with terms which have an historical context and at the same time political connotations for specific groups.

Reflecting on this recently whilst writing a review article on three South African Prime Ministers and my own reaction to white South Africans writing about ‘whites’, ‘Africans’ (ie blacks) and ‘Afrikaners’, it struck me that the white African group of mainly Dutch descent (aka Boers) have embraced their African-ness in their own-given title ‘Afrikaner’. And the Afrikaans word for black people is ‘swartes’ – directly translated as blacks. So why in English do the majority of white South African historians refer to black South Africans as ‘African’? I can understand this when writing contextually about the 1950s and 1960s – white South Africa has used different terms over time to refer to the black ethnic groups in the region. I remember at secondary school being told the word ‘Bantu’ was no longer appropriate and acceptable. The term was to be replaced by ‘Black’. Before ‘Black’, it had been ‘African’. How my ears tingle in Tanzania when I hear black Tanzanians refer to themselves as Bantu to distinguish themselves from the coastal peoples.

I don’t know what the solution is to this language dilemma. If historians were only writing for themselves there might/should not be an issue as we’re objective reflectors of the past (as scientific as we can be). However, we’re invariably caught up in the political of what we write about and therefore sensitive to the language we use. But at what expense? How much does being politically correct lead to cultural misunderstandings and myths being perpetuated?


A trip to Iceland was the inspiration for this blog. Visiting the house where Gorbachev and Reagan met to discuss the end of the Cold War, I found a board which read as follows:

The beginning of Free Telecommunications in Iceland

On June the 26th 1905 Iceland was first connected to the outside world by means of telecommunications.

The first wireless message was received here from Poldhu in Cornwall, England. The telecommunications equipment was provided by the Marconi Wireless Telegraph Co at the suggestion of entrepreneur and poet Einar Benediktsson. Messages were received here until October 1906, when the operation was terminated due to a government granted monopoly on telecommunications in Iceland.

This memorial plaque was donated by Vodafone

Reading Marconi immediately made me reflect on Africa – Marconi was the big telecommunications provider there too and during World War 1 provided radio support for the Lake Tanganyika Expedition.

On 7 December 1915, The Marconi Co [was] ordered to prepare two 1½ KW cart
sets. They will be ready to be shipped [on the Anversville] at Hull on or before 1 Jan.

The Marconi Company would pay for the services of the engineers who supported/worked the equipment. This included ‘One Engineer. 4 Operators … They would be borne on the ships books [sic] for disciplinary services’. They would be under the command of Spicer-Simson unless lent to the Belgians. The Engineer was Sub-Lieut EF Boileu, RNVR and the ship they were ‘borne’ on for disciplinary services was HMS Hyacinth. (The Lake Tanganyika Expedition Primary Source Chronology)

Prior to World War 1, Marconi had supplied equipment which was used during the Anglo-Boer War of 1899-1902. M de Bruijn et al in The Social Life of Connectivity in Africa tell how wireless and radio developed in Africa including mention of L59, the German Zepelin which never reached Lettow-Vorbeck.

Interestingly though, the underwater cable which linked Zanzibar with Europe at the start of the war was managed by the Eastern and South African Telegraph Company. It merged with Marconi in 1929. In the 1930s, wireless was to have a major impact on the development and use of airpower across Africa and although Guglielmo Marconi died in 1939, his name continues as noted in an article on communications between South Africa and Nigeria in 2001.

The Marconi collection can be consulted at the Oxford Museum of History of Science and Bodleian.

Day of the Ring: 21 September – Linking War and Peace

I recently received a message from the organiser of The Ring, a call for peace. He was looking for people in Africa to participate in this, The Ring’s, first international outing. I quote relevant aspects of the letter, and although we might not be physically participating in The Ring, we can wish it well on its way and that it has some impact in helping make the world a better place to live – as many of those who fought in WW1 and other conflicts then and now believed they were doing.

Delighted to tell you all that we now have our last piece in place. The Spirit of Peace Dinner will be on the evening of 21st of September. We have chosen Northern Ireland as a venue for the start and end of the phone relay as it is a major example of who peace can only be brought about by talks and goodwill….and an expressed desire for peace by the ordinary folk of a county. It is our intention each year to chose a location anywhere in the world for the start and end of The Ring, as it is an intention to make it an annual event, run by volunteers, at minimum cost and with no political agenda.

During that day, our message, chosen from those suggested by people around the world, will pass through over 200 messengers in 100 countries and regions around the world. Many more will hear about it through the Ringlet programme and the families programme. The climax will be the Spirit of Peace Dinner at the Ramada Hotel in Belfast

The Spirit of Peace Dinner.

This will be an event with 80 people present. Yes there will be some VIP’s, but mainly and in keeping with our policy, most of those invited will be the ordinary folk. During the meal, we will be showing film of the early people in the Ring passing on the message, filmed by Smartphone and sent to Peter Ferris for editing during the day. We shall be having a talk on the Magic of the Ring, and most excitingly, we will be waiting for the final message to come to us from our final messenger-this will be broadcast to all at the dinner and should be a very moving moment. At the dinner, we then plan to send the message by phone to the UN for onwards transmission as the message of peace from the people of the world to the leaders of the world.

The Ringlet programme

Some of you are taking part in the Ringlet programme. Quite simply, anyone taking part in the Ring can organise their own ring to pass on their own local message. So we have the astonishing programme being run by Campbell College in Belfast, where 126 former pupils are each representing one of the 126 pupils who fell in World War 1, and are passing around a message of tribute to them, submitted by one of the present pupils. Also Violeta Tsonga in Bulgaria has linked up schools in three cities and their Ring is to pay tribute to local World War 1 hero George Milov, Nubaru Pekol is organising a Ring with schools in Turkey, these are just three examples of the rapidly expanding Ringlet programme. If anyone wants to form a Ringlet, just go ahead and let us know. However, as always, our prime need is for you to pass on the message-anything else you do is entirely your choice.

The Family Ringlet

This is a new sector, suggested by an enthusiastic supporter of the Ring programme. His Grandfather fought in World War 1 and there is now a large family of descendants around the world, many of whom know little about the rest of the family. So, they are compiling a directory of all the family around the world and on the Day of the Ring, they are going to pass a tribute to their Grandfather, Great Grandfather and Great Great Grandfather, around the whole family. It will be the first time many of them have spoken to each other and the main family directory will be made available to all of them. If it works, they plan to do this every year. What a wonderful idea! This is part of the magic of the Ring.

Last lap
I was fully expecting to see there was still a need for people in Africa to join the link so was overjoyed to see this was not the case when I read the last paragraph:

We have the numbers to complete the ring, but some major countries are still missing. Maybe you can help. In Europe, I would like someone in Spain, Portugal, Finland, Norway, Estonia, in Eastern Europe any of the so called “stan” countries, in Asia Pacific Japan is still missing, as is mainland China, we do have Hong Kong. In Latin America we need Peru, Panama, Brazil and Mexico-and if you have any friends in the more obscure countries, do let me know, or you can approach them yourselves and if they agree, pass on their e-mails.

I’m happy to pass on any messages to Robin if you add them to this blog, otherwise you can do so through the website.

I want to ride my bicycle … by Queen, the King and Kaiser soldiers

You’d be forgiven for immediately thinking of Queen’s song – it did inspire the title… and an event during Queen Victoria’s reign as explained by Thomas Pakenham in The Boer War inspired the post – although the London tube strike influenced the date for posting.

Shortly before the Second Anglo-Boer War started, Lord Milner, the Governor of South Africa in Cape Town was on a working holiday in England. During this time, he took a secret bicycle tour to Devon with a lady friend (Pakenham chapter ‘Nods and winks‘). Aside from this intriguing human insight into Lord Milner, the section which caught my eye was:

Indeed, the bicycle was the sports car of the nineties, the sporting symbol of the age. (It added spice not only to love, but to politics. Cabinet ministers like Balfour – the ‘divine Arthur’ of the Panshanger set – went dashing down to Hatfield on their bikes to see the Prime Minister. It was on his bike that ‘Pom’ McDonnell, Salisbury‘s urbane Private Secretary, had sped from Hatfield to Osterley one sunny weekend in 1895 with the glorious news for Arthur: the Liberal government had fallen.)

Although by 1914, when the forces of the King of England and the Kaiser were at war, cars were more prevalent, in Africa bicycles still had an important role to play especially when silent movement was required. Motorcycles were used abundantly as a means of rapid transport, however, the noise often gave away the position. Hector Duff, administrator in Nyasaland pays tribute to the dangers faced by the motor-cyclists in his memoirs (). Therefore, on occasions where secrecy was required, bicycles were the preferred form of rapid transport (Hordern, Official history, p35).

The Lake Tanganyika Expedition was also to make use of the bicycle with Spicer-Simson referring to a

cyclometer for my bicycle [being delivered by] one of Mr Locke’s employees [who arrived] direct from Fungurume on a bicycle ( ADM 137/141)

Bicycles were fundamental for Lettow-Vorbeck’s assessment of the position in Tanga during the November 1914 battle – he used them himself as did officers and messengers (Reminiscences of East Africa). On 14 November 1918, Lettow-Vorbeck records that:

I cycled  back to our main body and told the Europeans what I had learned at the Chambezi, and that it was my intention to carry out the conditions [of surrender] which had been officially communicated to me… (p318, Reminiscences of East Africa).


Lieutenant Kempner was sent out on a bicycle to get this sum [one and a half million rupees] from the English, or induce them to procure it was quickly as possible [to pay the Askaris their outstanding salaries] (p319, Reminiscences of Eat Africa).

That said, bicycles are still essential forms of travel in many places in Africa and I’m constantly amazed at the type and extent of produce transported on a single bike (around 20 mattresses on one and up to 5 20kg bags of charcoal on another, on roads our vehicle was having to do 10-20km per hour).

For those who believe in history repeating itself, or at least appearing to, over the past few years, bicycles have again come into fashion, particularly in London with the Boris bike (officially Barclays Cycle Hire) and cycle trains which are prominent on tube strike days.

The importance of the bike in war has been acknowledged in the publication Bicycles in war by Martin Caidin and Jay Barbree (1974).

Previous posts mentioning bicycles:

Transporting pigeons by bicycle restricted them to being moved along existing roads.

The origin of tweeting? A tribute to the British War Pigeons 1901-2

Keeping with the wildlife theme, I couldn’t resist sharing this little discovery… It’s a summary of the contents of WO 108/27 (The National Archives, Kew).

“The pigeon post was just beginning to work admirably when peace was declared, and it is only to be regretted that it was not started earlier in the war”
So wrote Major R Napier, late DAAG Intelligence, Cape Colony on 19 September 1902 from Pretoria.

This sentence caught my eye whilst I was looking for something completely different. So, being inquisitive as I am, I diverted my attention to take a closer look.

In all, it’s a rather dreary, typically official report on the setting up of pigeon post during the Anglo-Boer War (or South African War) of 1899-1902. There is one official report which I did not find typically boring and that is John Buchan’s one on his investigation into the missing Kruger millions – I do recommend it (fiction or not) if you haven’t yet read it: The Buchan Papers by JDF Jones – and in looking up a link for those interested readers, I got distracted by this obituary of JDF Jones as numerous books of his adorn my shelves…

But there are some nuggets of interest in this story.
The pigeon post was established on 1 September 1901 by the Intelligence chaps under General Sir John French and Lieutenant EHE Abadie had the task of managing the pigeons from their main base in Middelburg through to the end of the war in May 1902.

The purpose of the pigeon post was to provide rapid and secret communication of news between scouts and forces where telegraph communication was difficult. Birds were also left with loyal farmers to communicate if necessary. During this time, 45 stations (28 main posts) were established over the Cape – but I won’t bore you with the list. How frustrating though for the men who set up the last two posts just in time for peace to be declared! All that anticipation for nought!

I found it quite difficult to believe that these birds were quite difficult to conceal and put the loyal farmers at considerable risk from the Boers. However, on reflection it makes sense – how often do you see groups of pigeons in obscure rural areas in South Africa? The pigeon lofts would also be a give-away as would the transport baskets.

The cost of providing a station of 50 birds was £7 pounds with an average working cost of £20  12 shillings per loft per month. The birds were first supplied by Homing Societies and when enough could not be sourced, the British Admiralty supplied 300 ‘selected birds’ – some of which were donated by notables, including the then Prince of Wales (soon to be Edward VII). As with any special initiative, there was opposition – in this case strong opposition from the editor of Racing Pigeon. (The editor, AG Osman was later to organise the ‘first Carrier Pigeon Service in the British Army’ during World War 1)

Due to the Embarkation Officer at Southampton Dock’s forethought to install a ‘large comfortable loft’ for the birds on the poop deck of the Orient, only 3 (1%) lost their lives on the voyage from England – arriving after peace was declared. In all, 1500 birds (including the 300 who never got to see active service) were enlisted by the British Army serving in South Africa.

Considering birds are meant to fly, these birds seemed to experience a variety of modes of transport. In addition to the Orient, some were transported on horseback despite no suitable form of basket being found. In contrast, conveyance by bicycle was far more successful – not surprising given that they only travelled on roads whereas the horses didn’t.

The comfort of the birds was of great importance as seen by the detailed instructions supplied on the kind of loft, its size and positioning. Guidance was given on the raising of young birds and exact details on how to train them to be carriers. The attention to detail is remarkable. Specific mention was made  of a ‘yearling bird’ who had travelled over 2000 miles needing to be rested and that others were overworked, not least because of the ‘trying weather they ,,, often [had] to fly through’ – it should be noted that the birds could not fly in the dark or fog.

By the end of the war, 1600 messages had been sent at a cost of 50 shillings (today £1=£94.72) per message of 250 words in ordinary manuscript (this was the limit a bird could carry). Added to this was the 8% of birds who had lost their lives in service, through capture by hawks and the discomfort of travel. A few fell foul of bullets during the heat of battle but only 13 were recorded as ‘captured by the enemy’ (4 were executed and the rest allowed to return home). Of their keepers, 2 were killed, 1 died from exposure and 2 were captured.

Passing mention is made of the Australians who supplied birds for service in the Transvaal. Perhaps another day another file will come to light somewhere on this, perhaps the first use of bird power and tweeting in the modern British Army.

Napier may have regretted the coming of peace in May 1902, but for the majority of those caught up in the war – human and animal – peace was more than welcome.