Pankhurst and Ethiopia

Some time ago I met a researcher working on Ethiopia who happened to mention a Pankhurst had links with that country. Then this came through, so I thought I’d dig a little more:

In 2016, the BBC reported on Sylvia Pankhurst becoming an honorary Ethiopian and in 2018 the LSE wrote an update. Martin Kettle provides some insight into how her reputation has been perceived over the years. You can see more about her here.

Her son Richard stayed in Ethiopia and became a historian of the country. He died in 2017, aged 89. He shed some light on her involvement in the Spanish Civil War, which Laurie Lee was also involved inor not – and wrote about in A Moment of War Listen to him on television in 1975 (16mins).

The Suffragettes and Suffragists have been on my radar for some time, not because of women’s rights but because of Kitchener – he met Millicent Fawcett whilst in South Africa to discuss the concentration camps and then in 1914 his niece Fanny Parker was arrested for trying to blow up Robbie Burns’ house in Scotland. She was later awarded an OBE for her wartime service having been granted amnesty for her 1914 actions in exchange for taking up war work.



I was so taken with this blog that I had to share it – the connection with Africa being that Indians served in Africa during World War 1 and that Kitchener and Barrow (mentioned in the blog) were at loggerheads determining where the Indian troops in 1914 were to go: Europe or Africa…

My initial reactions were mixed: from ‘the poor chaps – having to have their holidays organised and overseen when they’re about to become officers in the British Army’ to ‘it makes sense – London can be a big and frightful city, a guide would be helpful.’ Another interpretation is paternalism – in those days, it was believed that men from the colonies, especially men who were not white, needed looking after, but contrast this with 1963, when African officer cadets were being looked after by the KAR Club during the holidays – little had changed from 1920, to more recent personal visitors one might have, irrespective of background, from places which were previously colonies: how different has been all the guidance and offers to accompany them to certain places? I recently overheard a tube station employee advise a couple of white elderly ladies about how to keep safe at the station they were getting directions to – in the East End of London.

Another thought which crossed my mind is how many, if any, Indians who served in Africa during the war, were sent to Sandhurst in 1920 to train as officers? I hadn’t realised Indians were admitted to Sandhurst so early on. When were black Africans first admitted? A video from 1962 shows some Rhodesians on a junior leadership course, as does TJ Lovering, while Timothy Parsons (p174) has a date of 1957. It looks like more digging will be needed to answer these questions – and that will have to wait for another day, including more on Edmund Barrow. It looks like Sarah Stockwell might have some of the answers in The British End of the British Empire.

Sandhurst today is home to a memorial for the King’s African Rifles.

Talking at cross purposes

Out in Zambia for the end of war commemorations, local words were used with the assumption that all knew the meaning. Using powers of deduction and context one could generally do so but it was not always possible. The most notable being the word for the whip made of hippo hide. So I thought I’d share some – always helpful to historians and researchers of WW1 Africa…

Let’s start with the hippo hide whip:

  • Kiboko – Swahili
  • Khourbash or Shaaburg – Arabic / Soudanese
  • Shikote – Bemba
  • Sjambok, pronounced shambock – South African English/Afrikaans
  • Imvubu – Zulu
  • Mnigolo – Mandinka
  • Chicote – Portuguese Africa and Congo
  • Fimbo – Belgian Congo

Probably the most well known word, Safari which is journey in Swahili translates to Ulendo in Malawian Chichewa. The Peace Corps have helpfully provided a list of 12 commonly used words in Malawi – I recognised a few with my smattering of Swahili and other languages. I leave you to discover what you recognise.

And then that most wonderful of African trees, the Baobab, which I discovered in Sandes’ book on the Royal Engineers in Egypt and the Sudan is called the Tebaldi. Sandes explains on p336 (96MB) how the tree was used to obtain water in desert terrain. Apparently there are 9 varieties of Baobab – you live and learn. In Swahili, it is the Mbuyu and in Yoruba, the Oshe. It’s ‘monkey bread’ fruit is also proving something of a fad. Apart from being a water storage facility, in the early phase of the East African campaign of 1914/5, a baobab in Tsavo was used to house a sniper, apparently a woman, who took potshots at those trying to sneak up on Salaita Hill. And then just as you think you’ve grasped where Mbuyuni is, thinking it’s in Tsavo, you discover there are numerous places called Mbuyuni throughout East Africa – it simply translates as ‘Place of the Baobab’.

Which leads to the different names settlements had during World War 1 – local, English and German. A list of some of these can be found on the Great War in Africa, In Memory list for East Africa.

So to prevent any miscommunication and talking at cross purposes, it’s worth discovering the multiple words used for the same thing if you’re working with different cultural groups or micro-nations. My mind is reelling at the thought of having to juggle 177 different words for one item – 177 is the number of micro-nations I estimate participated in the East Africa campaign of WW1- but thankfully a number spoke the same language and regional langauges such as Swahili and Fanagalo were developed.



Confirming the past

Richard Meinertzhagen‘s reputation has suffered since the publication of Brian Garfield’s book, and for historians trying to work out what is fact and what enhanced, is quite a challenge, particuarly with the existing conditions for accessing his papers which are archived at the Bodleian in Oxford. It’s a case of working through other primary source material to verify dates and actions – a slow and tedious process, but really what any historian worth their salt should be doing. The value of double checking sources and returning to primary material has been brought home to me most recently with my current research project – despite numerous biographies written on Kitchener, accessing primary source material is revealing how interpretations have led to various aspects of the man being ignored, downplayed or misinterpreted. And I’m conscious that others might say the same about my discoveries as new insights and materials come to light in future years.

But returning to Meinertzhagen, looking for something else, I was interested to discover how the Natural History Museum is managing to find a way to unravel the confusion of the birds in its collection gifted to them by Meinertzhagen: using lice. This is a great step forward as a few years before on a visit to the Museum to see the Cherry Kearton (Legion of Frontiersmen) WW1 photo collection, the person I spoke to wasn’t sure when, if ever, they would be able to sort out the Meinertzhagen collection conundrum.

Another overlap between the two men, Kitchener and Meinertzhagen concerns Israel/Palestine. It doesn’t appear the two men met, but Meinertzhagen had close encounters with another Kitchener did: Churchill, and the latter’s correspondence too provides some interesting insights into Meinertzhagen.

A man whose past I find helpful in understanding Meinertzhagen is Lourens van der Post: obituary vs JDF Jones biography. I’m not sure either man really set out to be deceptive. Can anyone live a multiple life like theirs for as long without anyone realising? It’s more likely they were sufferers of Mutiple/Dissociative Personality Disorder. That’s for psychologists to determine, for the historian, they provide a reminder of the value of returning to primary source material and a prompt to look outside the world of traditional history to other disciplines and obscure links.



Currency matters

I clearly live in the past.

About a month ago, the author of Crypto for Starters was explaining this new form of financial instrument/payment method to me. My natural default was to understand it in terms of the Gold Standard which technically I knew had been done away with, but assumed gold was still the basis of value/price setting.

Patiently she brought me up to date on currencies and markets and how these were evolving as a result of technology. It all seemed to make sense, but only because I’ve gone back to the drawing board to a time before the Gold Standard – who determined gold was such a siginificant metal anyway? It’s not my favourite. The only way I can get my head around this crypto-currency stuff is to look at it in terms of the old barter system or early African (and elsewhere) currencies. Bamidele Ali refers to these in her article on the introduction of new British notes in Nigeria during World  War 1. And I’m quite comfortable with the idea of using cowries or other shells as currency, or rods which were cut into in the double accounting method.

But think about it: a cowrie might be difficult to forge, but if I lived near the coast, I could gather cowries and flood the market. The cut rod makes for a more fair/less chance of disagreement arrangement, but how would I remember which rod belonged to which trader I was dealing with? Safeguarding my cowries would be relatively easy as I could wear them as jewellery or even create an outfit, but marked rods are a little more difficult, although some were turned into bracelets and ankle chains. Commodities (and more) such as salt and material make sense to me too – they fit with bartering.

The questions I have over pre-money exchange mechanisms, other than goods which could be used, seem to be the same irrespective of what ‘currency’ is being considered at any time:

  • who decided that particular item was sufficiently valuable to be traded?
  • how was the value determined? (‘a few cowries to purchase a cow’? ‘two cowries to buy a woman‘?) – the mind boggles
  • where/how did you secure your ‘currency’ if large quantities were required?
  • what did it mean for interest rates? or are those a purely recent western invention?

This article might say more about me (and my failure to grasp economic basics) but it has been an interesting little diversion seeing how things have changed, yet ultimately remain the same. And how many today with no knowledge of the older African trading mechanisms are struggling to get their heads around the move from money to digital and crypto-currencies? I don’t think I’d have managed it without having cowries, rods etc to draw on – and I might not be too wrong in drawing these parallels (compared with my gold standard starting point), I see there’s an article on cowries which has come to a similar conclusion to me in equating crypto with pre-coin/money exchange mechanisms – what a relief, I’m not alone.

Education and war

It was not unusual to hear South Africans complaining about the state of education during my recent visit and subsequently. This wasn’t the usual issue of curriculum and what is being taught but rather that young people across the board are not able to think for themselves and make up their own minds about events and statements made by politicians. This was further extended to the workplace where automation and reliance on technology to do the work of humans is eroding the skills base. Who will be around in the next generation or two who has a global or ‘out of the box’ take to re-empower individuals when finances and systems are no longer available to support an ever longer-living society?

These are concerns and questions just as applicable in Britain as I’m sure they are in the USA and other countries.

Education is important – on that I think all people are agreed. The contentious issue is what education and for whose purpose. I can’t help but think of Marx’s keeping the masses ignorant in order to uphold those in office. Labour’s introduction of Critical Thinking in the 2000s was a case in point and I’m sure the current teaching on how to identify fake news is not much different.

The significance of education in war has featured in some recent reading (chapters 50, 52 and 54 of Facing Armageddon: The First World War Experience, edited by Hugh Cecil and Peter Lidddle). How teachers in Germany and France supported (or not) the war effort in their respective country, what kept children from attending school etc. Unsurprisingly, these factors can still be seen today in many African countries and more subtly across education institutions I’ve had dealings with in England over the years.

But there’s also positives to this potentially gloomy picture:

  • On my recent trip to Zambia I had the pleasure of meeting Caroline the force behind ensuring children in battle-impacted Afghanistan are able to access education again.
  • An initiative in Rwanda to teach English is doing more than that through time-tested books written specially for the locality and teachers who have lost their fluency in the English language.
  • A chance Christmas Eve meeting with Shelley of told me about the bilingual (Arabic/English) books they’re distributing with Trauma Teddies helping children in the Lebanon (and elsewhere) come to terms with what they have witnessed.
  • Seeing young people in South Africa break the technology norm being engrossed in reading real books with historical narrative and making links with discussions around them. And also saying ‘if only school history were this interesting’ – a huge compliment when it’s a ‘dull boring’ historian’s nephew making such a comment.
  • Hearing Johan Wassermann, at the Unisa conference on the legacy of WW1 in southern Africa, explain how much freedom there actually is in what appears to be a narrow curriculum which allows teachers to broaden what content they cover.
  • Knowing individual teachers and academics who do what they can to ensure their learners are equipped for the future – I am eternally grateful to Amy Ansell for the impact she’s had on my approach to teaching and history.

As Stephane Audoin-Rouzeau (chapter 54 – French children as targets for propaganda) noted, children are resilient and get through. Complaints about poor or inadequate education have been around for centuries and no doubt will continue but as our ancestors across the continents have shown, mankind muddles through – somehow.

Little literature appears on education in Africa during the war years. Immediately springing to mind are the novels: Iron Love by Marguerite Poland and Chui and Sadaka by William Powell. Any takers for looking at … missions schools and the war … post-war school policies … settler children being educated in country or going ‘home’ … African nationalism and war-time education … education and the armed forces?

Why remember?

I was asked this question at the 2018 Unisa conference on the legacy of World War 1 in Southern Africa. Specifically, the question had to do with why remember World War 1 and in particular those involved.

At heart, this is really asking ‘why remember the past?’ Simply put, our past made us who we are today, it’s part of our identity.

World War 1 was, for me, a pivotal point in our global past. It influenced, and still does, much of what we do today even if we aren’t aware of it. By remembering the individuals, their actions and the greater war we instil a better understanding of who we are and where we have come from.

I recall once (early 2000s) when I was teaching A Level History and Sociology, one of my white British students asked what British traditions there were. She was feeling rather left out with fellow students participating in Ramadan, Diwali, having foods or clothes they particularly associated with culturally, yet all seemed very comfortable socially in our diverse community. The other students had amalgamated British traditions into their own to the extent that what was traditionally British, was not seen as British. Once this was understood, my young thoughtful student felt able to engage with the others on a more level or equal footing.

More recently, the issue of British identity has come to the fore more overtly: Union Jacks flying where for years only the odd light had been placed at Christmas. I’m try hard not to read the alternative message being given to the ‘foreign’ shop owners in front of whose shops these flags had been placed. Whichever way one reads the placing of the Union Jack (which incidentally replaced the St George’s flag which appeared the Friday of St George’s Day), Britain is marking its identity and giving a message to Britons that they belong, they are important, they have a heritage. With this, I have no objection. As a foreigner-citizen in the UK, I have long felt that Britain hasn’t looked after itself. Its focus has been external to the detriment of itself. How often I hear ‘you can’t look after others unless you look after yourself’, ‘If you’re not well, how can you expect to look after xxx’. The same goes for a country. Britain’s external focus has resulted in more homeless children than for many a year, a drop in life expectancy and and and…

There’s a vacuum waiting to be filled as Britain redefines itself and creates a new identity. Remembering what was achieved socially and culturally during World War 1 with the support of Africans and other minorities, can only help create a Britain (or any other country identity) which feels inclusive and is tolerant of all.  As we bid farewell to 2018, my wish for 2019 is that through our shared humanity which crosses boundaries and divides of all kinds – we break down the growing silo identities and return to a state where all are welcomed, supported and united, simply, in being nice to each other. (And yes, I am an idealist at heart.)