Hidden women

The extent to which women have been left out of history is a topic of great discussion, and not one I engage with. As far as I can tell, if women desired something they set out to achieve it, including publicising what they did. When it comes to African women and women from Africa, I’m regularly in awe of what pops up.

Most recently, having written on Natal in the First World War, I was looking up something on Cherry Kearton, who served in the East Africa campaign, only to have his wife’s place of birth stand out – Ada Forrest was born in Congella, Durban, on 17 July 1877. As she’s known most popularly as Ada Kearton, I was surprised to discover she had only married Cherry after the war so technically doesn’t fit into my WW1 focus except that it’s due to her diligence that we have additional information on what Cherry got up to. During the war, Ada was in London. She had made her debut as a classical soprano singer back in 1907 and performed at the Henry Wood Promenade Concerts – that is The Proms – between 1909 and 1915. She retired from performing in 1922 when she married Cherry as she used to join him in the field and on safaris. More significant about Ada is that in 1908 she recorded her first album in London on which she sang in Afrikaans – one of the first South Africans to do so.

In 1908, another South African woman was to record an album in London, also in Afrikaans. She was Annie Visser born 8 August 1876 in Jagersfontein, Orange Free State (the place where the first SA diamond was identified). While Ada remained in London visiting South Africa on occasion, Annie returned to South Africa where the outbreak of war resulted in her career stalling. It is said this was due to her art form not being very popular, but it could also have been her politics. Annie is reported as having opened the first National Party Congress in 1915 in Bloemfontein.

And this article by Schalk van der Merwe has mention of another woman or two around the same time.

In related WW1 research, Luise White has a fascinating study on prostitution in Nairobi in a book called The comforts of home. Luise’s findings, based on interviews with women and men involved in the profession, align with the perceptions I have gleaned of empowered women through my own unrelated research. And for a fictional underpinning of how it all came to be… I can only turn to Doris Lessing‘s The Cleft (and more).

Two sides

I was quite intrigued reading Arthur Loveridge‘s Many Happy Days I’ve Squandered, an autobiography (1951) covering his early years and service in East Africa during World War 1. It comes with a huge warning today – its content may not be to everyone’s liking using today’s standards of passing judgment.

Arthur was one of the early curators of the Kenyan Natural History Museum meaning he would go out and kill specimens for display. It took a little getting used to his talk of ‘killing bottles’ – these were items with chloroform or other gas which he used to kill and preserve insects etc for later display. Similarly, mammals and other creatures would be shot for skinning and display purposes too. Although he didn’t go into great detail, I’m intrigued as to the porters and others who likely had to carry these items between bases and how they were eventually got to Nairobi. He does talk of exceeding his allotted weight and an attempt to smuggle excess baggage onto a boat via a truck.  Also intriguing is the support he got from senior officers in his quest whilst other lower ranking officers forbade him collecting.

Arthur also takes a little while to introduce us to his local staff, that is give us their names and once he does, he is full of praise for Salimu bin Asmani who was his trusted assistant for 10 years. Whilst his actions and accounts of his experiences may not be to everyone’s taste today, he does provide an insightful look at village life and human as well as animal behaviour. One of his official tasks as a game keeper was to protect locals from lions and other scavengers, and he’s a well-known snake collector. Aside from his exploits in killing various specimens, he also rescues and studies animals adding to our scientific understanding.

But the comment which really caught my attention concerned lions and their hunting method. After a fifth lioness had been killed in a gun trap where the lions had been attacking cattle at Igulwe station, ‘a convenient base from which to supply the troops’, he recalled on p184:

an old crone mumbled in the vernacular: “Lions are just like men, they send the lionesses into the traps first and so they never get caught themselves.” There was a general laugh among the assembled Africans, but an alternative interpretation of the incident occurred to me. Perhaps the lionesses were greedy and pushed forward while the lions, politely stepping aside, reaped virtue’s own reward.

This resonates – often whilst walking in rural Africa, I’ve been taken to task for not walking behind my husband, I’m invariably found in front leading the way. But this little tale got me thinking again – how often do we look at things from our perspective, without considering there might be another quite valid interpretation. This is one of the traits of my biography on Kitchener – the man we’ve come to understand is not the man I discovered and one of the challenges we face with most texts dealing with Africa in World War 1, we still have very little of Africa’s perspective to work with but slowly, in the way we eat an elephant – one mouthful at a time, African views are starting to come to the fore.

First shots of the war, 1914

It is generally accepted that Alhaji Grunshi (Gold Coast Regiment) fired the first shot of the war in Togoland. However, this needs clarification as two dates are generally offered – 7 August 1914 and 12 August 1914. An online search will invariably show that the same author has interchanged the dates in different articles, myself included.

Doing a final proofread of a chapter on the end(s) of the war in Africa, I thought it best to double check the date the first shot was fired only to discover that the author(s) I had relied on for an accurate date were ultimately in disagreement. The only thing to do was to go back to the original source material.*

The War Diaries provided no clue, although tended to suggest that of the two dates, 12 August would be the most likely. This was confirmed by Moberly in Military Operations Togoland and the Cameroons (Official History p8). The shot was fired at Togblekove (near Lomé) in response to fire by a German police force in the area.

With this statment in mind, clarification of the first shot is needed. Alhaji Grunshi fired the first British shot of the war.

Accepting that 12 August was the date of the first British shot of the war, the next challenge is reconciling the bombardment of Dar es Salaam by HMS Astrea on 8 August 1914.

This leads to further clarification: Alhaji Grunshi fired the first British Rifle shot of the war.

There does not appear to be any challenge to HMS Astrea bombarding Dar es Salaam for claiming the British first shot of the war – at least in Africa. Globally, however, it is Australia which lays claim to the first British Empire shot fired of all kinds. This was against a German ship which happened to be leaving Fort Phillip Bay, Melbourne on 5 August.

So, we have a number of first shots clarified:
5 August – first shot by the British Empire (Australia) in the war (against a German target)
8 August – first shot by the British Empire against German territory (HMS Astrea against Dar es Salaam)
12 August – first British Empire rifle shot of the war (Alhaji Grunshi in Togoland), the day the British Expeditionary Force landed in Europe.
22 August – first British Empire rifle shot of the war in Europe by Corporal Ernest Thomas of the 4th Royal Irish Dragoons

Africa also lays claim to:

  • association with the capture and sinking of the first British Empire Merchant Ship of the war when the German cruiser Konigsberg sank the City of Winchester on 6 and 12 August 1914 respectively. The Konigsberg had been in Dar es Salaam at the start of the war and was eventually put out of action in the Rufigi Delta (TNA ref).
  • first naval victory on 13 August 1914 on Lake Nyasa.

* The chapter remains with the incorrect date of 7 August for the first shot as it would have been too complex a change to make at that stage of the proceedings – and that after having been confident of the date when I initially wrote the chapter. Hopefully this little gremlin can now be resolved for future authors.

Why worry about the firsts? I suppose it gives a timeline of how the war developed. What is not recorded here are the first deaths – you can find mention of the first white British and German officer deaths in Africa relatively easily, but not so the first rank and file of either. I’ve spent too many hours searching to be confident of this – but please put me right if you know otherwise.

What these firsts mark is the start of a prolonged period of struggle in which many men, women and children across the globe lost their lives and in remembering the first, we (should) remember them all.

You can’t win

This tweet caught my eye:

 

I’m not an expert on Ngugi’s work and I haven’t read Maya Jasanoff’s book on Congo, but I have read Conrad’s Dark Heart of Africa and am still, if I’m honest, working out what all the fuss is about (I feel the same about JM Coetzee’s Disgrace). My apparent lack of sensitivity might well be due to my having grown up white during Apartheid South Africa so am immune to comments others might find inappropriate, but I do believe I’ve overcome that thanks to the values of equality and humanity instilled in me by my parents and reinforced in my work across and with different cultures both in Africa and the UK (it’s as much a ‘country’ as Africa is).

I take my hat off to Ngugi for writing what he believed whatever his motivations. That his comments go against the mainstream view should be embraced as an opportunity to dig deeper. A point that’s been driven home more than most in 2017 is the differences across Africa. This particularly revolves around WW1 – reading the texts I have and working with Diversity House on their Breaking the Myths project has exposed me to life in West Africa in a way I hadn’t experienced it before: first hand from people who grew up there. And thanks to some West African historians who have managed to get heard outside of Africa (George Ngung in particular) it’s become clear that the West African experience, most studied by white Eurocentric historians (in Britain, America and Europe), has been the dominant one and coloured the reality of recruiting and military life in East Africa. I’ve got to this point the painful way – by assuming that experiences and reasons for things happening in East and Southern Africa are representative of what was happening in West Africa. Aikona! as we say in the south.

Bearing my journey in mind, I can only begin to imagine what Ngugi is/was thinking of when he wrote the review. It shouldn’t be discounted because he approves of what is currently regarded as ‘unfashionable’. It should rather be an inspiration to dig for the truth. Juxtapose this with Peter Hoeg’s short story Journey into a Dark Heart in Tales of the Night (which includes von Lettow Vorbeck visiting Congo in 1929) and both Conrad and Lettow Vorbeck are not the men one might have thought…

Coloured – who am I?

One of the things I love about my work is discovery. I’m constantly discovering new things – even about things I know a little about. And there’s no better way to discover something than when you have to explain what you already know to someone who isn’t sure or seeks clarification.

One such enquiry derived from a contribution to Never Such Innocence on African involvement in World War 1. A teacher making use of the resource asked for clarifiction on the use of the word Coloured to describe African soldiers from South Africa.

I can just see many non-South African readers cringing at the word. Surely I should be using ‘Mixed Race’ or some other term. No, the term is Coloured and they are a people (micro-nation) who deserve recognition and respect.

I have fond memories of mixing with the Coloured community in Reiger Park, the Coloured township in Boksburg. They had a St John Ambulance Division which my mom and others supported and taught. As a youngster I would often be a ‘patient’ for them to practise on and later, when I had passed my first aid exams we went on duty together. All this during the heady years of Apartheid when races were meant to be separate.

During the First World War, Coloured men were best known for forming the Cape Corps and served admirably in East Africa (1 Cape Corps) as well as in Palestine holding the line at the Battle of Square Hill (18-19 September 1918). They also served as ‘Cape Boys’ driving oxen and cattle during the campaign in East Africa as well as in medical and other labour capacities including in South West Africa.

Here are some links I’ve found helpful for others to understand the contribution of Coloureds to South Africa’s rich and diverse heritage.
A Profile
A 2012 film: I’m not Black, I’m Coloured – I haven’t yet seen the film so can’t comment on that aspect but it shows the term is still alive and well…
There is a lovely but heart moving film I reviewed some time back called Katrina (1969) which is available on Youtube (IMDB); which puts the community into context in terms of Apartheid but also socially – then and unfortunately still today.
Coloureds have developed their own language which you can hear a snippet (this was done for the 2010 World Cup in SA so needs to be taken in context).
And finally a piece on one of their annual festivals, the Kaapse Klopse with one of their famous songs: Daar kom die Alibama (explained)

Respect to a people still struggling for the recognition they deserve in their own country, let alone elsewhere.