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.

Correcting misconceptions: CWGC

Many who know me are probably tired of hearing me go on about the need to get into the primary source documents and see things for yourself rather than rely on secondary source material.

Secondary source material has an important role to play in synthesising and analysing information, for filling in peripheral gaps and for stimulating further research.

The value of visiting, or revisiting, primary source material was reinforced when I visited the CWGC archive. I’d made links with the Technical Adviser for Africa who had invited me to come and see what CWGC does and to see what kind of information is held in the archive. I selected a few files which looked interesting from a selection of the catalogue I was sent (the full list was in process of being put onto a searchable database of which I was also given a preview. This should really help open up the archive for social and cultural historians especially). And boy, were they interesting!

One file contained information on how they differentiated between religions, important for the forces in Africa where a large number were Muslim but also significant numbers of Sikhs, Hindus and Christians. A series of letters explained how unidentified remains could be linked to medical reports of graves – head slope and teeth structure being used to differentiate Caucasian (white), Black African and Indian remains. This was important when mass graves were exhumed for relocation purposes. Yes, there were mass graves in East Africa – and not only as previously assumed for the carriers. (Mass burial appears to have been the norm for the German forces with memorial plaques listing all). The necessity of war and conditions of battle meant bodies were disposed of as best one could. At Salaita Hill, a trench dug for the Allies was filled with 11 bodies – 7 white and 4 Indian – reminiscent of Spionkop during the Anglo-Boer War. Although the individuals could not be named as all identifying marks, including uniforms, were not available – four years after war ended and seven after the battle – the numbers tallied with the war reports and the bodied could be moved to a more permanent resting place at Taveta – following strict protocols to ensure respect.

Where the graves of known individuals were to be moved to a place easier to care for, relatives’ permission was sought. Often this work was undertaken by fellow soldiers or men who had served in the theatre. The local women made wreaths to place in the cemeteries – white flowers dominated. It is worth noting in this regard that this was the process for white British graves, including British citizens in other countries (only in 1926 were the dominions recognised as separate identities).
Another surprising find was a hand-written report which specified ‘Native Officers’. The general belief is that only whites were appointed officers. Here we have evidence that 47(?) people of colour, presumably black, as Indians were classified as such, were made officers – and died, suggesting there were more. The challenge now is to find out who they were.

Returning to the issue of graves and the recording – or lack therefore – of carrier names etc, it was clear from the correspondence that this had been carefully thought through and was not for reasons of race but rather that colour (race) became an identifier because the majority were black. The other main divide was literacy – being able to communicate in English and the written form. Where people were not able to do this, they were not consulted or considered in the same way as those who could communicate in written English. These reasons were not articulated in the files, but consideration of the decisions made and how they were made highlight these issues as delineators.

The decisions made were pragmatic, based on the knowledge of the day. In essence if a person was literate, where their identity was known they were given an independent grave with headstone – this accounts for the carriers and labourers who were known to be Christian being given a grave. The Christian carrier had spent some time in a mission school and had therefore moved some way to being regarded as ‘civilised’ under the definition of the time. The French had a similar practice for according someone from Africa a French citizen.

More reading of the files needs to be undertaken but it appears that the reason for the separate cemeteries (superficially along colour/race lines) were along religious or cultural lines. The Hindi or Indian cemeteries generally containing a plinth and sometimes the graves of individuals.

Although not all were given a headstone, where their names were known these were kept in a register. The challenge was recording the names. This was not always done in the heat of battle as survival was a far greater priority and often it was left to the enemy to bury the dead. In other cases, it depended on the literacy and regard of the person as to whether the name was recorded. This particularly affected labour and carrier records. Some tribes (micro-nations) did not believe in burying their dead so left them along the way for wild animals to dispose of. The exhausting nature of the march and sometimes the large numbers of deaths meant chiefs were too tired to record names, or didn’t tell the white officers, and then of course some officers were better at keeping records than others. (One sees this in the War Diaries where some daily reports include the names of all those sent to hospital, died or arrived, irrespective of contingent).

The reasons stated for not giving everyone a headstone was mainly financial – a stone cost between £12 and £60 depending on where it needed to be transported to. For families who were not likely to visit the grave or to ask questions about the resting place of a loved one (ie those less literate, not of one of the recognised major religions), they were not accorded a tombstone or even a listing on a wall. Their names however are on registers in each of the relevant cemeteries.

Trying to reconcile data in remote Africa four years after the war ended could not have been easy. The challenge for us today, with our evolved values, is to find a way to accord those without a tombstone the same recognition as those with one. It’s worth knowing that the idea behind the askari monuments in Nairobi and Mombasa including carriers and other labourers, was an attempt by those in the 1920s to collectively remember the men who had no headstone.

Getting into the primary source material is imperative if we want to avoid ‘broken telephone’ and mis-understandings or perpetuation of myth. Reading the material for ourselves with all our past individual experiences brings new interpretations and understanding which adds to the jigsaw of history.