Frog encounters

One of the striking features of researching individuals who participated in the East Africa campaign is their interest in nature. This is particularly so amongst the doctors and vets although some like Frederick Selous and Richard Meinertzhagen, as well as Jan Smuts, had interests in butterflies, birds, and grasses respectively. Dr Carpenter who served in Uganda during the war recorded in his memoirs that he spent the war years collecting bugs hardly seeing any military action at all. One or two were natural scientists. So it was with some interest that I discovered, thanks to Simon Loader, this publication on amphibians in Tanzania.

While the war of 1914-1918 is not mentioned in the publication, it has some incredible photos of places the forces found themselves in, particularly forests. Most travellers today through East Africa seldom see forests, the area around Tsavo is better known for its dust than forests, yet talk to the older generation on Kilimanjaro and they’ll tell you the area below used to be forest. The trees were removed for firewood – no doubt to service the railways and camps in the vicinity. Not too far away in the TPC sugar plantations, there is a spot or two which has been left to nature – I wasn’t able to get a photograph of it which clearly shows its density. But having seen it, I fully understood the diary accounts of men trying to find a way through thick forest. It’s hard to believe the whole area from Moshi to Voi could have been covered like that.

Back to the frogs. Encountering lions and hippo, having giraffe pull down the telegraph wires and shooting the odd buck for the pot are regular diary features from the war years. Few write about smaller creatures, unless they’re talking of the jigger and the soldier ant, or are a collector. But could you imagine coming across one of the little (or even larger) creatures caught on camera in this publication? The frogs in my garden and I take turns at frightening each other – and that’s on a calm day. Just think how much worse it must be if one is already tense from not knowing what is in the thick bush ahead only to have a little critter jump away in disgust at having their rest disturbed. Oh, and don’t forget the earthworm like creatures at the end of the book. Some look to be as big as small snakes…

Apart from the scenery and the amphibians, this publication is written in both English and Kiswahili – enabling a wider range of people to engage. It’s the second I’ve encountered of this kind and I look forward to more in the future.

And I just can’t resist adding my discovery of Paddafontein (literally frog fountain) in KwaZulu-Natal which I came across when reading about the Bambata/Zulu/1906 rebellion. There is another Paddafontein in the Karoo (well at least in ebook novel form: It never rains in Paddafontein by Clive Cooke; and a farm in Limpopo Province). The earliest online mention of the KZN Paddafontein is page 48 of the 1890 Natal Departmental Record.

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.





Reviews: WW1 history through Art

I’m not a great one on works of art. I know what I like and what I don’t but ask me for more than that and I’m stuck. Words are my thing. However, over the years I’ve come to appreciate the value of photos to the historian – for what they tell you that words don’t or can’t. Photos concerning the Lake Tanganyika expedition are a case in point. More recently, though I’ve begun to realise that art produced after the time is a good indicator of how the memory of events has developed. This final year of the centenary of the Great War has provided an opportunity to see four (well three in their entirety)  artistic exhibitions on the war.

The first was William Kentridge’s Head and the load, previously reviewed. Next was Aftermath at Tate Britain which I saw with a friend, followed by a first-day viewing of the Singularity of Peace exhibition in partnership with Forgotten Heroes in Hammersmith and then a taster of Mimesis: African Soldier at the Imperial War Museum in London.

Of the three later exhibitions, that of Singularity of Peace was my favourite. Yes, perhaps my bias at having worked with the book The Unknown Fallen which gives rise to the exhibits is part of it, but it is also the most human and African. I’ve also discovere I’m not really a moving visual fan so solid art takes preference in my books.

Regarding Aftermath, what was significant was the absence of Africa in any of the pieces – both those created during the war and after. It shows how little attention was given to labour and behind the scenes (or is that indicative of the curators who selected the pieces for display?). The exhibition is explicit in stating that it is about French, British and German art and in this, it doesn’t fail. It was fascinating to see the different artistic styles around a similar theme. And of the pieces on display, those which most appealed to me were: Otto Griebel, Clive Branson, Curt Querner, Glynn Waren Philpott’s Entrance to the Tragada, and Edward Burra’s Les Folies de Belleville. The last two because they gave a hint of Africa and ‘other’ being involved, although both these are post war, 1931 and 1928 respectively. The first three for getting to the heart of man. Many of the war-time images showed little new (at least to those of us not familiar with the detail). In this category the remain of a sculpture hanging from the ceiling was probably the most moving.

The Unknown Fallen felt like a return home. All the familiar photos were there – large and small – now juxtaposed against windows showing buildings being constructed. In addition to the familiar, were pieces from the Never Such Innocence awards – wonderful to see them in original form compared to print. And then there were some new pieces which had been created specially for the exhibition – artwork from the Middle East, Eastern Europe and the UK all depicting the aftermath of war and a move towards peace. This exhibition was also the most basic in that it was a form of ‘pop up’ art – an opportunity seized. Again, I discover I prefer the rough and ready to the perfectly choreographed.

Finally, Mimesis by John Akomfrah. Despite the publicity it hadn’t struck me that this was a 75 minute sit down and watch exhibition until the person I was lunching with mentioned it. I happened to be at the IWM to do some research and thought I’d whizz through – not expecting much given what I’d previously seen in the new WW1 display. I’m afraid I lasted about 10 minutes – it was definitely too innovative and obscure for me. And then an Australian or New Zealand flag appeared in the picture – I thought this was about Africans in World War 1… so on my way out made a particular point about reading the ‘blurb’ at the entrance: it mentions “African and colonial soldiers” so don’t be deceived by the title of the production. How much of the 75 minutes is about the colonial contribution I cannot say, I was lost with a person sitting on a chair under a solitary tree in a desert with the tree wrapped in red, who then fell over as though shot. Then a bed with a red matress in the desert with a solitary woman walking in the distance… and I’m not sure the men were dressed appropriately for WW1, so in effect I spent the 10 minutes I was there trying to work out how this all could potentially relate to the war I know with music so loud my ear drumbs reverberated and no words or language to guide me. I’m clearly a child of the past. One day I might find 75 minutes to explore the whole show and what is says about remembrance, but for now will rely on what others have to say.

A Kodak Moment…

I recently wrote about things over 100 years old. Well, one I left off the list was the Kodak camera – of particular interest because it was the make used by wildlife photographer Cherry Kearton whilst on service in East Africa with the Legion of Frontiersmen during World War 1.
The inventor of Kodak was George Eastman (1854- 1932) who explains:

Kodak – This is not a foreign name or word; it was constructed by me to serve a definite purpose. It has the following merits as a trademark word. First, It is short. Second: It is not capable of mispronuncuation. Third: It does not resemble anything in the art and cannot be associated wiht anything in the art except the Kodak.

(PBB: p24)

In 1891 the first Kodak factory was set up in the UK, on the outskirts of London.
At the time the US entered the war in 1917, Eastman was releasing what he called ‘The Soldier’s Kodak Camera’ which was small enough for men to take across to the front.
Before this, however, the company had laid off ‘about 2/3 of [its] Harrow staff’ and was preparing to ‘put the remainder on short time’. All continental branches except one in Paris had been closed. (CA: p238)

When Eastman heard at Christmas 1916 that four of his German staff had been killed, he wrote to the manager:

You may continue paying their wives what is necessary up to one half of their salaries… I shall be glad to know how you are fixed and whether you need additional money…

(CA: p.295)

The generosity of such wealthy men is often overlooked. Another was Ernest Oppenheimer who helped survivors of the torpedoed Galway Castle get back on their feet. He was on the ship himself, returning to South Africa, when it was hit on 12 September 1918.

Carl William Ackerman: George Eastman, 1930
Peter Brooke-Ball: George Eastman and Kodak, 1994
Harry Oppenheimer: Sir Ernest Oppenheimer