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.

 

 

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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.)

God Bless Africa

A little while ago I looked up the English translation (God Bless Africa) of N’kosi Sikelele, the national anthem of South Africa and Mungi ibariki Afrika, the national anthem of Tanzania. At independence it was also the anthems of Zambia, Zimbabwe and Namibia until they adopted new ones: Zambia Stand and sing of Zambia; Zimbabwe Blessed be the land of Zimbabwe; Namibia Land of the Brave

The history of this hymn and its use as a national anthem seems to have raised interesting questions over copyright.

All the anthems seem to have been translated into multiple languages, the Zambian noted has having been written in English first and then translated. The South African anthem is currently sung in four languages (Xhosa, Zulu, English and Afrikaans), the first part Nkosi Sikelele having been written in Xhosa and then translated, the second part originating in Afrikaans and the third being an English variation of the original Afrikaans.

This raises some interesting questions with its banning by the Apartheid government: was it a hymn or a political statement? Siemon Allen challenges the banning in a fascinating summary of the use of the hymn. It is claimed that the hymn was first used as a protest song in 1919 with additional verses being added in 1927 by Samuel Mqhayi. Coplan and Jules-Rosette discuss its use in the liberation struggle.

What intrigued me were the topics covered by N’kosi Sikelele – they provide an insight into what was important to the authors and their communities at the time and surprisingly, these are still big topics today: Chiefs (leadership), public men, youth, land, wives, women, ministers (religious), agriculture, stock, land, education, unity.

Another interesting aspect links with wider discussions on the value of African languages and their being subordinated to English and French. Where there are multiple translations of the anthem, which is used at official national occasions and what is the reason for this? With so many language groups, how is unity developed? Or is it through the common tune that unity is achieved? One of my highlights was approaching a Tanzanian primary school during assembly when the children started singing the anthem. I might not have been able to join them in Swahili but I could in Xhosa and Zulu. And in solidarity we asked that ‘God Bless Africa’.

 

Cross cultural learning

Standing at the station I watched a white looking woman try and bring order to her mixed race daughter’s hair. This took me back to a conversation I had around the time the Windrush scandal began in Britain. How did white women who had children with black men learn to manage their offspring’s hair when it did not conform to what they knew?

Despite growing up in Africa I wouldn’t know what to do although I do know there are different products and people I can ask. My question is more about learning, in this case where the male is the only person of colour in the community. Generally speaking, African men would not have got involved in child rearing as that was women’s work. So, was the fact that they had already crossed a cultural boundary sufficient for other boundaries to be crossed or was it a case of the woman learning by trial and error?

This question might seem superficial and/or out of place but I don’t think so. It’s one of the clearest examples of cultural norms people had to come to deal with when crossing ethnic and cultural boundaries. Reading Charles Villa-Vicencio and Peter Grassow’s Christianity and the colonisation of South Africa suggests the first missionaries would have gone through a similar learning process in the location they started working – learning another language and its nuances without any frame of reference other than the physical environment could only have led to misunderstanding.

Today we take finding out about ‘the other’ for granted. It’s often regarded as taboo to ask and with the Internet an answer is not far away as I discovered with my hair question (this is one of a few articles on the topic, and for those interested, here are some general thoughts I found on the treatment of hair suggesting once again that we’re not all that different.).

First battlefield encounters with an unknown ally would also have misunderstandings in how actions are read and interpreted and as forces spent more time working together they’d become more honed and efficient. In particular I think of the battle for Tanga in November 1914 and the battle for Salaita Hill in February 1916. We see it on the tennis court when two players face each other for the first time compared to those such as Nadel and Djockovic facing each other for the 52nd time.

I wonder if anyone has recorded these first experiences and if so, what can we as historians learn from them?

 

South African Awards and a WW1 literary diversion

I spotted a mention that the cricketer Hashim Amla had been awarded the Order of Ikhamanga (Strelitzia) in Silver – I’d never heard of the award, but assumed it must be something similar to the British OBE or Order of the British Empire. It seems it is, and more specifically for art, culture, music, journalism and sport.

The President’s page explains all the different symbols of the award and there’s a list of all the recipients (I assume it’s all as it doesn’t specify). Some interesting spots on the list – the award was instituted in 2003 (30 November to be precise), the number of posthumous awards was quite staggering, in 2009 there is only one award listed and in 2016 Dr Marguerite Poland features – her name is significant in the realm of novels written about World War 1 in Africa – she is the fourth out of five female authors to write about the war. Her book Iron Love was published in 1999 (See p 166 for synopsis and discussion). [I discovered the fifth female author by chance, Joan Kennedy in 1916 published Sun, Sand and Sin, the total number of novels identified to date in all languages is 53.]

A little more digging reveals there are various other awards too.

  • Order of the Baobab for South African citizens who have contributed to community service‚ business and economy‚ science‚ medicine and technological innovation.
  • Order of Luthuli for contributions to the struggle for democracy‚ nation-building‚ building democracy and human rights‚ justice and peace as well as for the resolution of conflict.
  • Order of the Companions of OR Tambo recognises eminent foreign nationals for friendship shown to South Africa. It is therefore an Order of peace‚ cooperation and active expression of solidarity and support.

For readers interested in comparisons: