A history lesson from Star Wars

“If an item is not in our archive it means it doesn’t exist” – Archivist/Librarian to Obi-Wan Kenobi Star Wars 2 (no 5; Attack of the Clones, 2002) A little later the suggestion is made that the information was erased but to find the information (a missing planet) Obi was to go to the centre of where gravity concentrated. It precedes the discussion on ‘losing a planet‘.

Who would have thought one could obtain such helpful research advice from a space film? 

There have been cases of documents removed from archives (FOI request) and on occasion fake documents added to collections (news report)- hence the strict restrictions some have for consulting material. Other documents go missing or are destroyed due to poor archive practice invariably through ignorance or lack of funding (Endangered Archives Programme).  However, an astute historian paying attention to silences and triangulating material to check logic and plausibility is generally able to locate the ‘center of the pull of gravity’ in time.

While secondary sources hold their own logic in that they address a specific question the author had (my biography on Kitchener is a good example), reading across multiple sources can highlight discrepancies and raise questions. Accessing primary source material might appear disjointed but it is important to engage with to ensure information is not accidentally erased from the constructed narrative.

It is through these primary sources that the involvement of so many has been brought to light in the Great War in Africa. Compare what we know today with what was published in the 1960s. If any further incentive is needed for getting into the archives, it should be this: dis-erasing (is there such a word?) the past.


Isn’t it intriguing how topics seem to congregate at the same time – almost co-incidentally? I know a few people don’t believe in co-incidences which raises the question of what is happening when unrelated related things happen simultaneously? That’s one for the philosophers and scientists. Here I’m more concerned about the history.

Milk, cow’s milk, is regarded as pretty much a staple once children have been weaned from mother’s milk. Other cultures such as in Mongolia make good use of yak, horse and goat milk for cheese, vodka-type drinks and on its own. I recall being at a student science event where plastic was made from milk although the young scientists said this wouldn’t be promoted to ensure that milk-reliant communities such as people in India would not feel tempted to sell their milk to corporations (for more money) than to use it locally. The impact on the poor would be too great. And then there is coconut milk – a refreshing drink in hot tropical climates although today it can be found alongside milks of other kinds for people with lactose intolerance and other dietary preferences.

During the First World War in East Africa, milk was an important part of the ration, especially for those in hospital. This was brought to light whilst I was transcribing the Kirkpatrick or 9 South African Infantry enquiry (TNA: CO 551/101) into the poor treatment and supply of the men during their march from Himo to Kondoa Irangi and onto Kilosa (a trip of 400 miles). Where fresh milk could not be obtained, there was a form of powdered milk and also condensed milk. Whilst at Kondoa we read of milk being in short supply, although there was in the locality. This seldom got to the hospital as it was bought by soldiers meeting the locals on their way in – there was little control or co-ordination of local supplies given the early chaos of breaking through (think back to March/April 2020 when shops were limited in their stocks and hours/numbers allowed in were restricted). There’s also an account of one orderly who was found drinking patients’ milk rather than distributing it. (More on the report will be made available in due course as it opens some interesting windows on the campaign as I shared with the SA Military History Society on 8 April 2021.)

So, it was with some interest that I read this article on Milk-Bars in Rwanda. For anyone who has seen my avatar, I’m standing with a Rwandan Royal cow. The article explains the significance and importance of cows (and milk) in Rwanda. The Maasai too are well known for their milk drinking, theirs mixed with blood. And I heard not too long ago about a researcher looking into the history of the dairy stool used for milking cows. More recently, I was reading of Marthe Kiley-Worthington’s breeding of double-sucklers. If you’re interested in the history of how milk became such a staple, here’s an article for starters and something a little more controversial.

How we see things

“Isn’t it wonderful how one lot of human beings can think and act so differently to another lot; and yet each party considers that nobody is right but those who believe as they do? Supposing one day some black missionaries landed in England, dressed in large earrings, bead necklaces, pocket handkerchiefs and nothing else, and tried to persuade us to worship some hideous idol and leave off wearing so many clothes. How astonished we would be … and yet they would think they were doing right, just as our missionaries do who go out to teach savages the Gospel …”

So wrote Harry Johnston, administrator of East Africa, in his novel The Man who did the right Thing, published in 1921, although set in 1886.

The conversation continued: “Well I confess I don’t see the resemblance. What we preach is the Truth,  the Living Truth. What they believe is a lie of the Devil.” … “When I was teaching geography the other day, I was quite astonished to find in the Manual that about four or five hundred millions of people were Buddhists. Isn’t it dreadful to think of their being wrong, all living in vain…”

Given how colonialism and imperialism are generally regarded today, the above statement (paragraph 1) stood out as radical thinking for the time, and even today given my experiences. I worked with a project in Tanzania where our guiding principle/philosophy in introducing any new idea to school teachers was ‘how would this be accepted if say a wealthy Sheikh insisted on doing the same at a school in England?’ It prompted careful thinking and encouraged an ethos of working in partnership. We all had something to learn from the other. I was bringing in knowledge and expertise from elsewhere, they were bringing in local knowledge and expertise and together we created something new (well that was the idea). It’s a principle or philosophy which has stood me in good stead since and allows an “out of the box” take on trying to understand and interpret events of the past.

The continuation of the conversation, between a man going out as a missionary and his soon to be wife, brought it back to earth. How, despite our open-mindedness, we can still be closed to what we think is right. In fact the conversation continued to the missionary (a Chapel worshiper) effectively telling his betrothed that her father might be saved as he was Church of England and so that although following a broadly accepted Truth was not completely on the right path.

I’d like to think we’ve moved on considerably from this position, and while some have, many others haven’t; which is the reality we live with and as historians have to mediate – then and in future.

But back to Harry Johnston (1858-1927) – he was the first colonial administrator of Nyasaland (Malawi) and then at the turn of the century was in Uganda, as well as having spent some time in Tunis and Eastern Nigeria (before Nigeria was united). Johnston’s reputation as a colonial administrator is almost the antithesis of Frederick Lugard. It turns out he was also a prolific author. The (UK) National Archives has a piece on his fantasy mapping of the African continent – in 1886, the year he set the story which inspired this posting. Yet, despite his having been involved with African colonial administration for over 40 years, there is very little about him – an article on his geographical work and a 6 page biography (1927), although Roland Oliver’s Sir Harry Johnston and the Scramble for Africa seems to include a biography – more on this in due course when I’ve read the book; this little excursion again having opened new windows on the past and challenging preconceived ideas.

Letters – a lifeline for historians

One of the reasons I stuck to 20th century history was because of the abundance of paper – in fact for some things there could be too much paper whilst for others finding the papers to open a window on the past is a real challenge. The thought of trying to compile history from a fragment or two of parchment was (and remains) incomprehensible. Now I wonder how historians of the future are going to cope. All these emails under password protection, that is if they haven’t been deleted, tweets on Twitter, Facebook… the options are almost endless – have you tried to find something on social media you saw some time ago and didn’t manage to download or save somehow? It’s almost impossible – but then perhaps I’m not looking properly… who knows…

But back to letters. The correspondence of Jan Smuts was published in 7 volumes by Keith Hancock and Jean van der Poel. These published letters are not everything as they selected what they felt was the most important – not much on the East Africa campaign. You’ll have to go into the unpublished letters for that info. And then there are the letters in other collections. One interesting collection I happened across was after reading about May Hobbs in volume 4 of the Smuts Papers. A quick internet search revealed this on May Hobbs by Liz Stanley. On inspection it suggests these letters are in the Smuts collection in Pretoria.

While there may not be anything ground breaking in them, they do shed some light on the social and cultural aspects of the day and show Smuts as a person rather than the politician or soldier one generally sees him as. A timely reminder that behind all great leaders, there is a person – a human one. And often through these snippets, we get to see some thinking behind the political decisions being made. Although reconciling them with the politics can be a challenge – take his correspondence with the Gilletts… I’ll leave you to read vol 4 to see for yourself.

It’s all connected

Jan Smuts wrote a book called Holism and Evolution (published 1925) explaining how we’re all connected. In February 1919 during the Paris peace talks he was writing to friends clarifying his thoughts and seeking their views:

“Life is one and universal; it is not parcelled out, divided and dissected. The individual is an organ of life universal and is as such an embodiment of the All, the Highest, the Divine. Only, in some mysterious way, an alienation may arise between the individual and the universal, which it must be the great effort in conduct to eliminate or prevent. That alienation is error, sin, or whatever else we call it.” (p59 in Hancock and vd Poel, Smuts papers vol 4)

While reading this I was reminded of two books I recently read both claiming the same end but coming at it from different directions: Marthe Kiley-Worthington’s Family are the Friends you Choose and Sue Hampton’s Rebelling for Life. And the issues (climate, -isms), despite what we think today, are not new. It’s almost as one of “my men” said about another “he’s like a lighthouse, his light only shines on one thing at a time.” Over time we get to cover the various topics while expending inordinate amounts of energy on each. Given the interconnectedness of all, it makes sense to take a holistic approach – which effectively means working together pooling our various strengths. When I think of how the diverse troops worked together in East Africa during World War 1, I take heart that it can be done. We just need the right unifying trigger.

And then, if you’re still not convinced about the connections, there’s the geological evidence supplied by Alex du Toit on continental drift.