Review of Blood River by Tim Butcher: Lost in Translation

Blood River came highly recommended with the result that I put it on the backburner so as not to be disappointed if it didn’t live up to my expectations. Another reason it hadn’t moved up my reading list was that although it dealt with the Congo, an area I’d been working on, I understood it not to cover the Lake Tanganyika region which was my specific interest in relation to World War 1.

So, when the opportunity arose to read it for a book group I belong to, I took it and personally was not disappointed. In fact, I could relate to many of Tim’s experiences – not that I’ve done the intense ravel he has, but our little bits along the east coast of Lake Tanganyika amongst others gave a flavour. And then, without being specific, there was reference to the Lake Tanganyika Expedition with railways still being in place as well as other remnants – all rusted and no longer used. This will make it into volume 2 or 3 of The Lake Tanganyika Expedition chronology – one of those fortuitous finds.

The group overall found the book a good read – naturally it didn’t suit all tastes but everyone who started it, finished it – unlike Tess. What divided the group was Tim’s reason for doing the route and a few were rather upset that he had put people’s lives in danger for what they saw as a selfish, personal endeavour.

To some extent, I could see their point, but I also know Africa in a different context – people will tell you something is possible, difficult, but possible, and it’s only after you’re some way down the line or at the end of your journey that you become aware of the danger you and they have been exposed to. We’ve had this twice during our travels in East Africa. Once when our vehicle broke down in the Tsavo area eighteen years ago (it was a little unsafe then but now no longer – the road is tarred and far busier), and then nearly seven years ago when a tyre needed replacing travelling by road from Kitavi to Kigoma along the lake – uninhabited bandit territory – not a place to linger and observe the beauty of the huge balancing rocks or garafu as they’re locally known.

If it wasn’t for people like Tim and Paul Theroux (Dark Star Safari) undertaking apparently selfish journeys, changes and conditions in parts of Africa (and elsewhere) would go unnoticed. Historians, social anthropologists, sociologists and others have some record of how things are and have changed. Yes, the material has been processed and adapted to fit a narrative, but it’s more than we had previously. I was also rather relieved that I’d made a decision – a difficult one – not to join a group in covering the footsteps of the Lake Tanganyika Expedition – my gut had felt uncomfortable, although excited, until I firmly made the decision I’d be more of a hindrance than what my historical knowledge could contribute. Reading Blood River confirmed my gut instinct and at some level I’m rather pleased the expedition hasn’t been able to take place, although I do hope it does at some point (willing funders please get in touch).

So, why did I call this review ‘Lost in translation’? Simply, because we translate everything we read through a lens of our experiences. How I understood Blood River contrasted with the rest of the group who are all British and retired. One had visited South Africa on a few occasions and although she had witnessed some poverty there, it wasn’t to the same extent as one finds in rural Africa. I find it fascinating discovering how those of us with Africa in our blood interpret /see things differently to people with British and other backgrounds. And I definitely interpret things in Britain differently to what my British-born friends do. It works both ways. We’re similar, yet not.

Thank you Tim for giving our group a stimulating discussion and which allowed me an outsiders’ view on a continent I love (warts and all).

Tim did gain some Brownie points when the group discovered that he’s patron of a medical charity in Malawi – AMECA. Both Blood River and Dark Star Africa were recommended, by amongst others, Ruthie Markus, founder of AMECA.

Detained

On my last visit to Rwanda I discovered the book Detained: A writer’s prison diary by Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o. Many years ago now, I think it was about 2011, I heard him speak on education in Dar es Salaam and have found him an attraction since.

Detained, written during his incaceration by Jomo Kenyatta’s government post independence was a fascinating and insightful read. Where the other books (more later) I’d read by detained people had been under colonial powers, this was the first by someone who had participated, in his own way, in the independence struggle of his country, Kenya. Now he was believed to be an ‘enemy of the state’. During his stay, Ngugi was able to write a novel and keep this record of his experiences and thoughts – all recorded on toilet paper. As a fellow author, my heart dropped along with his when we recounted how a search of his cubicle led to the removal and anticipated destruction of his creation. Similarly, on the return of the document, my heart soared. I’ve lost writing on my computer before and know the anxiety of wondering whether the back-up will work etc.

Other fascinating insights included how the prisoners communicated to each other, how they could pick up on news despite the black-out and how they dealt with bullies. What was also intriguing was Ngugi’s discussion on religion – how he became aware of Islam and the differences with Christianity. Perhaps society can learn something from this…

The other two books by detainees that stick in my mind are Ruth First’s 117 Days and Winnie Mandela’s Part of My Soul.

I recall 117 Days being an emotional read – how Ruth managed to survive all they did to her and her resiliance in not giving in to what she believed was right. I couldn’t put it better than this blogger.

It may seem a bit odd having a ghost-written autobiography by Winnie Mandela included but in her early days as an activist she was someone to be admired. Winnie’s detention was quite different to both Ngugi’s and Ruth’s. She was under house arrest in Brandfort in the Orange Free State during Nelson’s early days on Robben Island. Again, how Winnie coped with her situation and maintained her values was fascinating reading.

In essence, none of the three authors differed much in how they coped. It must be one of mankind’s inbuilt processes.

What made reading Ngugi’s book more poignant is the fact that a friend is currently being detained with few hearing of his well-being. I take hope from those who’ve gone before and survived that he will too. I know prior to his being detained he was working on a book of South African involvement in World War 1 – a project which helped him escape from the harsh realities around him. The day I was meant to get the complete manuscript was the day he was taken. That is now over four months ago.

I can’t help asking myself, what does detaining people in this way achieve? It didn’t change Ngugi, Ruth or Winnie’s outlook on life or what they believed and I don’t think, from the conversations I had with Will that his detention will change his views. And for those doing the detaining? What do they achieve? In the big scheme of things, not much! Apartheid still fell, Jomo Kenyatta died and Kenya continued struggling – we still wait to see what will happen in the Sudan and elsewhere where others are currently detained.

Winnie and Ngugi continued their struggle and still do, whilst Ruth continued hers until she was exterminated by a letter bomb. Will felt strongly about helping those who were being bullied, as did Winnie, Ngugi and Ruth – for me Will is a humanitarian. May he and all others standing up for what they believe be set free soon to help make the world a better place. And as Ngugi so aptly put it – not let the innocent family members and friends suffer simply for their association with the detained person.

 

 

 

An alternative take on a history talk

My sister-in-law attended the talk I gave on novels in August 2016. As someone not interested in history, she accompanied her husband who was listening to me present a history talk for the first time. Knowing the likely boredom levels, I provided a pen and paper for the inevitable doodling (she’s got an artistic streak) and this was the outcome:

A Review of Dr Anne Samson’s talk by Sr S… S… [that’s the young one]

Dr Samson is dressed in a minion-like suit complimented by yellow, black and blue and slight white. Other people at the talk were all old [she’s 32 – I’m old]. You don’t need to worry about being overdressed only if you are old!! The auditorium is dressed in carpet – that is on the wall.

If you give talks here you get wine – so worthwhile thinking of doing a talk here.

The being referred to as the GANG aka supporting party – are just known as the ‘medical party’.

Anne promises to only talk for 20 minutes – hope she keeps to her time. Also she needs more colours in her pencil bag. The other speaker hasn’t arrived yet. Maybe he doesn’t like wine – shame. With all these old people here, X and I might be at danger – lots of health risks. There is one other young person ere. Maybe I must introduce him to Y… The chairs aren’t very comfortable – not suitable for a movie theatre. The MC is clearly Afrikaans [so is she] The Boris guy sounds important [a book launch was being promoted]. Anne is almost coming up – Yeah! They have just turned off the lights. Eish difficult to make notes in the dark.

Anne looks kinda scary in that dim light – whooo she is talking about East AFrica.

Gertrude Page (Northern Rhodesians, protect, Britain) like JK Rowling now!! Wow!! and talks about some other dudes (dead ones). Gertrude was a farmer and used their car as an ambulance. They said tese books are novels, don’t sound very romantic.

These chairs are really not comfortable.

Anne starting to lose me now. Something about marching tangoes [Marching on Tanga] wonder if these people can even do the Tango? There were nurses there too – Yeah [she’s a nurse].

Anne seems to know her s*** ag I mean stuff desn’t look on her notes very often. People here think the history stuff is funny, maybe they must be introduced to a comedy bar. Lion King also came up [Simba – Cherry Kearton’s dog which went up in a plane]. Covers of the books look interesting – and something of ice-cream [An Ice-cream war by William Boyd]. King money or shilling [The King’s Shilling by Hamilton Wende] and Shidaka [Chui and Sadaka by William Powell] – must have eaten a lot of toffees.

Anne really likes the book A Matter of Time [Alex Capus] – came to Germany in a crate or something – something about Spies Simpson [Spicer Simson]. Ok there are more books. Annd did a lot of reading – a lot of boring reading. Note self: get Anne a stick to show people pictures on slide thing.

Anne – it’s not Kloetie – it is Cloete (pronounced Kloe-te) [Stuart Cloete – How young they died]. We on the last slide now with 4 books about Intelligence. Anne don’t worry bout spelling mistakes on slide. All the people here are clearly old and I don’t think they can see that far!

Karen Bliksem [Blixen] – shame having a vloekword [swearword] for her surname. They get excited about dogs named after a lion going up in planes. Yeah dog!!

Maybe the bee also featured. They keep going on about planes.

Anne uses novels to make people understand concepts. OK I thought we done but we are NOT! More boring questions. Now hiatuses…look at that page 9. Don’t feel like writing any more. I’m out!

I might try and convince her to attend a few others in the future – some interesting perceptions and an honest take. In its own way, a history of the evening and one which no doubt differs to many of the others of the same event if they were to be written.

Thanks Sussa! [Afrikaans term of endearment for sister]

West Africa in World War 1

Saturday 15 October saw a wonderfully diverse gathering of people at The National Archives – all interested in what happened in West Africa during World War 1.

The inspiration for the day developed out of a project the African Heritage and Education Centre in East London were undertaking into what they called The Untold Story: West African Frontier Force in World War 1. I became aware of the project after being approached to help with background research and thought the group had embarked on a task which would be impossible to achieve. But I am more than glad to say, I was wrong – and the proof was in the display and resource pack which was launched at the conference by a representative of the Ghana High Commission in London.

The display boards which were on display will be touring schools highlighting the role of Africa in World War 1 – it’s the tip of the iceberg but an important start. For further information on getting the display to a place near you, contact AHEC direct. Their education packs are interactive and thought provoking for primary and secondary students – and match the Key Curriculum. The online version should be available from February 2017.

There were two unexpected inputs to the day. The first an overview of Nigeria’s role in the war from a senior military official of the Nigerian High Commission and the other an overview of BlackPoppyRose by Selena Carty. The former had been scheduled but only to give a few words of introduction, whilst Selena stood in for a speaker who had fallen ill and was unable to attend.

Nigel Browne-Davies gave an insightful overview of local involvement in the war – how the educated elites differed from the rural peasants in terms of their attitude to the war, involvement and experiences. And finally, Bamidele Aly spoke about the introduction of a new currency into Nigeria in 1916 – the reasons for this and the reactions of the local poplation to its introduction. Did you know that Hausa was written in Arabic script until about the 1950s? I didn’t…and that was in colonial Nigeria.

In response to some of the questions raised today, here are some links which might be helpful: number of forces involved; Medals won by black participants (in British forces; further details can be found in John Arnold’s The African DCM  and Military Medal).

Discussion flowed throughout the day – it was good to see old friends – Garry from Recognize and Lyn from Away From the Western Front (@aftwf191518); so many new connections were made: all in the spirit of opening up the African front to wider audiences. This was the closest I’ve come to Africa in Britain – thank you to all who made the day!

Review: Kitchener – hero and antihero by Brad Faught

The significance of this review today is that I started reading Kitchener: hero and antihero (2016) by Brad Faught on the 100th anniversary of the death of Lord Kitchener – 5 June 1916. For those of you who know me, Kitchener is one of my heroes: warts and all. In fact its how he managed the warts that make him who he was…

I approached reading the book with some trepidation. One, I met Brad when he spoke at the Great War in Africa Association Conference in May this year and two, I am myself working on a biography of Kitchener. The big question was: would Brad have taken my thunder and would there be anything left for me to say about Kitchener, and if he didn’t address what I thought was important about the man, how would I convey this in a professional and academic assessment of the book?

Reading the opening pages resulted in a mix of emotions. Relief – it was clear Brad had not touched on areas I thought important to highlight (and I’m not going to expand on them here as I might as well reproduce my manuscript) and anticipation at what was going to follow that would add to the already 64+ biographies on the man.

The value of Brad’s book, written in the traditional military biography style is that it brings the previous biographies up to date, addressing some of the big questions around Kitchener: was he homosexual or not (does it really matter?), was he a hero or not and what constitutes a hero. It was refreshing not to have to go through in great detail the last days of Gordon’s life in Omdurman – Brad refers the reader to other texts, as he does for other aspects impacting on Kitchener’s military career. This allows him to focus on the man and his reaction to the events – something he does with sensitivity and humanness. He tries to understand Kitchener as a military man of his time and does this adequately. Personally, I would have approached this from a different angle, but interestingly our conclusions coincide.

Brad needs to be commended on his handling of the Indian Kitchener-Curzon crisis (c1905) and the Dardanelles issue (c1915). Both accounts are balanced and I believe the closest we’ve got to the truth of the situations where emotion and bias have been removed (as far as they can be). This I know from my working on the material available has not been an easy task to achieve, especially as Kitchener left so little of his own versions of events.

Overall, this was a satisfying read as well as a spur to get my account of the great man’s life completed. Thank you, Brad.

And in case you’re wondering what Kitchener has to do with Africa… he served in Egypt in the 1880s and 90s, was involved in the Zanzibar Boundary Commission (1890s), commanded in the Anglo-Boer War (1899-1902), was British Agent and Consul General of Egypt (1911-1914) and during World War 1 tried to keep East Africa out of the war. He also owned a farm in what is today Kenya.

Review: Information History of the First World War

I recently received a copy of Information History of the First World War edited by Z Karvalics, Lazlo (L’Harmattan, 2015) from Marika Sherwood who contributed a chapter – An information ‘black hole’: World War 1 in Africa.

This is an interesting (genuinely) collection of articles around the theme of information: How information was transmitted in the field, between the war front and home front, propaganda through the use of photos and posters.

Unfortunately the book has been poorly edited – most chapters have been written by non-English writers and most are well-written. However, the introduction and a few others apear to have been translated using something like Google Translate. This makes for difficult reading and reduced clarity of expression especially around abstract topics such as knowledge and information transfer.

For someone interested in the areas described above, I encourage you to persevere as the content is stimulating and, was for me, eye-opening. I can only identify the areas I found fascinating from the other chapters as my knowldege of the theatres covered is limited: how the term ‘hate’ differed depending on whether you were a soldier or at home, the origin and impact of the term ‘Hun’, how the same photo was used in different contexts with different titles and the development of technology are the aspects which stand out.

As I have a fair knowledge of Marika’s topic, I can say a lot more. As someone who has worked on the African theatres of World War 1 for 18 years now, Marika’s article was both a pleasure and a frustration to read. On the positive side, Marika has tried to reconcile the various numbers given by different researchers of black soldiers and carriers involved in the East and West African campaigns as well as give reason for the lack of information in the press at the time and why it is that we historians cannot agree on the numbers. She also touches on the Boer rebellion of 1914.

The areas I found frustrating and which I’ll detail below, might appear ‘picky’ but I think it’s important to raise these in relation to the historiography (history of history) of the theatre and my own learning curve in the hope that it will help other scholars ‘new’ to the World War 1 African fronts consider their approach and assumptions. Marika’s chapter is the case study bringing together concerns from a number of articles, conference papers and reflecting back on my early years of engaging with the war.

My biggest concern, brought about by the centenary and increased interest, is the reliance on secondary material, and particularly the internet for compiling accounts of the campaigns. This information, that is secondary source (not internet) was credible and compiled by recognised experts in the field but, as I noted in an article for the 1914-1918 Enclyclopedia, there has been a revolution in information available on the theatres which challenges the previously accepted accounts. It is imperative that historians of all kinds consult primary material as much as possible as so much more has been opened to the public since the 1970s and 1980s.

Another frustration is the assumption that the war in Africa was fought along the same lines as that in Europe. It was not – whereas the Western Front was overseen by the War Office, in Africa, the War Office, Colonial Office, India Office and local administrators all had their own agendas concerning the war. The fact that so many departments were involved – based on pre-war responsibilities – has resulted in information being scattered between archives and across different series within archives. To compile accurate numbers is a challenge – who recruited the individual? who paid the individual? in what capacity were they employed? The answers to these questions will determine who created and maintained the records, so military service records in London can be found in WO, CO and ADM files, but one also needs to consult the CWGC for deaths as those who died during the war were not necessarily issued with a medal. For all the African campaigns, the records in London are not enough. Local records need to be consulted especially for the recruitment of labour – there might be mention of labourers in the War Diaries but this is not consistent.

Application of World War 2 practices to World War 1 is another common practice. Things had moved on. World War 1 saw a major change from early colonial military practices which evolved further after the war and then changed again as World War 2 approached. The organisation structures imposed during the First World War allowed for closer management of the colonial territories and there was increased mixing between the settled and the settlers. This lead to opportunities being seen and taken by all concerned with the result that local inhabitants were more confident, more Western literate and more politically involved than during World War 1.

My final major point concerns using how we see the world today to judge how things were in the past. This is a natural human tendancy but it does an injustice to all those who served (willingly or otherwise). Times were different, so were beliefs and these impacted on actions and decisions of the day. What happened then should be looked at in the context of the day – without judgement.

Baring the above in mind, and the limited sources Marika used, it is good to see others grappling with some of the issues of the campaigns in Africa and bringing the little remembered theatre to light. It helps those of us immersed in the theatres to take stock of how the world still sees the campaigns and to realise how much work with primary source material still needs to be done (and published).

Review: Blockade and Jungle by Christen P Christensen

Blockade and Jungle (1941, reprint 2003) by Christen P Christensen is the fictionalised story of Nis Kock who served on the German blockade runner the Kronborg which managed to get through to German East Africa in April 1915.

At the very first Great War in Africa Association Conference in 2012, Bjarne S. Bendtsen (Danish Literature lecturer) presented a paper entitled: ‘Danes’ at war in East Africa: The case of the blockade runner SS Kronborg. In his abstract he noted,

There are at least two memoirs published in Danish about Kronborg’s voyage and the crew’s participation in Lettow-Vorbeck’s safaris: Nis Kock’s Sønderjyder vender hjem fra Østafrika (1938) and Anker Nissen’s Sønderjylland Afrika tur retur (1962), and a fictionalized version of Kock’s experiences: the author Christen P. Christensen’s Sønderjyder forsvarer Østafrika 1914-18 (1937).

The fact that Blockade and Jungle is a fictional account should not detract from its usefulness, particularly in view of its having been based on Nis Kock’s account and translated into English. As with all fictional (and I would suggest factual too) accounts, details should be checked before being taken as ‘true’. Through telling the story of Nis Kock, we discover yet another ‘forgotten’ micro-nation which saw action in the East Africa campaign of 1914-1918. The crew of the Kronberg were mainly Danish, although in 1914 the territory was occupied by Germany, again as Bjarne explains:

The 1864 war between Denmark and Prussia/Austria, which led to Denmark’s cession of Schleswig and Holstein to Prussia, meant that about 30,000 ‘Danes’ had to fight in the German army in the world war 50 years later. Among these ‘Danish’ conscripts, a handful were picked for an adventurous voyage with a supply ship, cunningly turned into the fake Danish SS Kronborg, bringing supplies to Lettow-Vorbeck’s troops in East Africa and to the German cruiser SMS Königsberg, blockaded by British men of war in the Rufiji river delta in Tanganyika.

According to Christensen, who used Nis Kock’s account to write Blockade and Jungle, there were 50 South Jutlanders who fought in German East Africa and another 30 South Jutlanders who formed the crew of the SS Kronborg. Christensen takes us through the recruitment of the men providing some insight into how the German military administration system worked, the precision planning of getting a ship through the British blockade in the North Sea and life of board a blockade runner.

Once in East Africa, the ship came under attack from the British cruiser Hyacinth and was sunk, although the crew ensured they’d be able to recover most of the equipment on board. Harry Fecitt gives an overview of the blockade runner’s arrival (as well as that of a later blockade runner, the Marie) while Hans-Martin Somer, a Research Scientist gives an account of the blockade runner in his History of Manza Bay.

Nis Kock played an instrumental role in the salvage operation and as there is no longer work for the men on the ocean, they join the land forces – Kock becoming an ammunitions’ expert. Here again, we get some lovely descriptions and insight into how the Germans managed their logistics and how carriers were used (by some). Mention is made that Nis Kock and 450 bearers cleared Morogoro of all ammunition in one day (p140). In addition to this, we get a glimpse into how the German forces were able to use the variety of weapons and ammunition they had to conduct the war and the challenges these posed (p133), including those rescued from the Konigsberg.

The account ends with Kock being one of those who had to remain behind at Nambindinga in November 1917 when Lettow-Vorbeck trimmed his force to take only the strongest into Portuguese East Africa. Instead of the expected sense of relief at no longer being involved in this trying conflict, the reader is presented with a sense of loss, rejection and guilt at not being able to continue to do one’s duty. This is an aspect I particularly valued in reading the book – perceptions and assumptions being challenged. Christensen takes things a little further with a Postscript noting that Kock was sent to Sidi Bish in Egypt before returning to Denmark in 1919. The final words again provide a contrast to how we, in the English speaking world have come to see the arrival of the GEA forces back home:

When, later on, they went to Berlin to get their papers put in order, their welcome has hardly cordial: “Communists and Warmongers!” yelled the “Imperialists” at these men who had fought in East Africa to defend Germany’s last colony.