Review: African Kaiser by Robert Gaudi

Where to start? I found this book challenging to read, I didn’t like the style of writing and I had been annoyed before I began reading when a glance at the bibliography showed that once again we have a memoir of Paul von Lettow-Vorbeck where German texts have been ignored other than those by Lettow-Vorbeck himself. In addition, all the myths of the First World War in Africa have been perpetuated as no primary or archival research was undertaken. How very frustrating, but thankfully all was not lost …

I always try and find something positive and for this book, it was a timely read as it reminded me of certain aspects of the campaign I had forgotten about and which were necessary for a paper or two I was writing. The basics are there.

Mixed feelings abound over Gaudi’s sidetracking – the opening scene for example is a long drawn out account of how Britain got the German codebook which eventually allowed it to pick up on the Konigsberg. And there are many others besides. The pros of this approach include new info and ideas, widening the scope of the war, showing how inter-related it was but on the con side, I just couldn’t help thinking the author was showing off.

It seems I am not the only one to have mixed feelings about this book. Mark Thatcher posted on Facebook (and I purposefully ignored it until I read the book) as follows:

Mark Thatcher So far so good with a couple of exceptions. I love the LOTR and all things Tolkien but mixing fantasy and History…hmmmm ….maybe on HBO. Also the author describes the Pour le Merite as a ‘metal’. It may be comprised of metal but the Pour le Merite is a ‘Medal’, as in medallion not metallion. Ugh.

For those not sure, LOTR = Lord of the Rings. I have no issue with including fiction in a history book – I do it myself, it’s more about how it’s done and which fiction is being referred to.

A librarian friend sent the Spectator review to me coincidentally just as I was starting the book – it must have been something in the ether – the copy I had was marked ‘Uncorrected proof, not for resale’ – it appears as though the Spectator reviewer had a similar copy. I sincerely hope that the errors, typos and other gremlins were all sorted for the release. Many of the major errors are listed in the Spectator review and I’m really pleased to see that one of the myths I had fallen for and have been trying to unravel, has been confirmed or at least sufficient evidence has been supplied for me to double check – that Max Aitken (newspaper mogul) and Arthur Aitken (Tanga fiasco) are not related:

And in any case Aitken was not Sir Max’s brother. The author has confused him with Arthur Noble Aitken, captain in the RAMC with the Canadian Expeditionary Force in France. It is not an easy mistake to make, unless you take it for granted from a secondary source. The Reverend William Aitken married Miss Jane Noble in 1867. General Arthur Edward Aitken was born in 1861 (Arthur Noble Aitken in 1883).

The Spectator refers to the Washington Post review – I can only agree with what was said in the Spectator, but I can understand where the Washington Post reviewer is coming from. If this is the first you’re reading about the East Africa campaign or von Lettow-Vorbeck, then it will be rivetting and an eye-opener, and the writing style – well, that may be a matter of taste. This is not the first American write-up I’ve seen on the campaigns in Africa which show a general ignorance of Africa and what was happening there.

Would I recommend this book? I think on balance I would, just, but with lots of cautions. The main one being to double check everything before you use it.

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Review: In search of Willie Patterson by Frank Reid

In search of Willie Patterson: A Scottish soldier in the age of imperialism by Frank Reid is a short and intense read.

Initially I wasn’t sure this book had anything to do with World War 1 in Africa, but it clearly does. Frank Reid goes on an exploration of his grandfather in an attempt to discover what he did that was so bad his, Frank’s, mother wanted nothing to do with her father. The result is a case study shedding light into growing up in Glasgow at the turn of the last century, why a young man enlisted in the same year, but at the end, of the Anglo-Boer War, and the consequences of actions.

For the student of the First World War in East Africa, this genealogical account opens up some fascinating doors to explore further. Of particular and current interest is a medical reference. Willie had contracted VD in his early army life which impacted on his military career. Despite having been cured of the ‘disease’ in 1911, he struggled to complete his army service with his home regiment, the Connought Rangers. Having been discharged, he refused to sign up again until he was conscripted – at this point he was felt to be medically unfit for the Western Front but suitable for service in East Africa! This raises some interesting questions regarding the War Office perception of the war in Africa.

Willie arrived at Dar-es-Salaam on 26 February 1917 (I write this 26 Feb 2018) – this is before the Pike Report into medical conditions is commissioned but after the official complaint into the treatment of soldiers by Colonel Kirkpatrick of 9 South African Infantry. The War Office clearly knew about the poor conditions in Africa, so why were they sending out men whose health was not the best? In addition to Willie’s VD complications, he had served in India before the war and had suffered from Malaria. The decision to send him to serve in East Africa as a Royal Engineer Signaller seems irresponsible to me.

On a related note, Frank points out that Willie was awarded the Military Medal for action at Medo and apart from a time soon after arrival in Dar when he went AWOL, he was a model soldier. How many others with a similar background to Willie were sent to East Africa and how does this link with the statement by Dr Pike that VD cases in the theatre were below average? Were the men so busy, as Frank implies, that there wasn’t time for socialising? Or were the men too remote to encounter women?

Apart from these fascinating questions about health and the attitude of the War Office, Frank’s little book provides a vivid account of his own experience in trying to locate the site of the battle of Medo in which Willie won his Military Medal. This sheds light on how ground mapping and air mapping differ as well as how subtle changes to the terrain can impact on perceptions. What is absolutely remarkable with this account, is that Frank is blind and totally reliant on the Zimbabwean Karl Wolf who is his guide into Mozambique.

And of final interest to the student of World War 1 in Africa, is the role and function of the signaller – Frank provides some insight into how this worked in practice – who would have thought that the Germans tracked the British allied forces by following copper telegraph wire? (p120).

Goans vs Indians: African micro-nations

I recall being rather taken aback when looking at statistics for East Africa during World War 1 – apart from the usual black/white distinctions, there were Indians and Goans – I assume Goans were Indians, so why this distinction?

Asking the question in 2014 at a conference Margret Frenz replied that the Goans were Portuguese whereas Indians were part of the British empire. So, I should technically amend the number of micro-nations involved in the East Africa campaign to at least 179 as Goans were not included as separate groups (BEA and GEA) in the initial count. The result of this discovery has led to me keeping my eye open for any direct reference to Goan involvement in the First World War, as I do for specific African Indian mention. (A brief history of the Goans and Britain can be found in Britannica).

Now, Clifford Pereira has written a paper entitled East African Goans in World War 1. And what a fascinating insight this is. Apart from reminding us of women and children being evacuated by ships flying American flags (ref Farwell’s book), he identifies where Goans were serving – on ships such as Astrea which served in Cameroon in 1915 too (something I hadn’t realised) and railway clerks. Not surprisingly, discrimination was present – the Portuguese heritage of the Goans being ignored (which makes me think of the Chinese-Japanese difference in South Africa pre 1994).

One of the joys of a paper such as Clifford’s is that it moves away from the direct war experience to look at the homefront – here we discover the discontent amonst the local residents and how these were dealt with, as well as the attitudes of colonists and other settlers and immigrants. I’m purposefully being vague in my attempt to get you to read the paper yourself – it’s full of gems!

And one of them is an answer to a question I’ve been trying to find an answer to for some time – how many Indians living in Africa served during the war? 227 volunteered and 45 conscripted in Kenya. We have the start of an answer…

For information on South African Indian (Durban specifically) involvement in the First World War, Goolam Vahed has written the most definitive account (alternative access).

 

 

You can’t win

This tweet caught my eye:

 

I’m not an expert on Ngugi’s work and I haven’t read Maya Jasanoff’s book on Congo, but I have read Conrad’s Dark Heart of Africa and am still, if I’m honest, working out what all the fuss is about (I feel the same about JM Coetzee’s Disgrace). My apparent lack of sensitivity might well be due to my having grown up white during Apartheid South Africa so am immune to comments others might find inappropriate, but I do believe I’ve overcome that thanks to the values of equality and humanity instilled in me by my parents and reinforced in my work across and with different cultures both in Africa and the UK (it’s as much a ‘country’ as Africa is).

I take my hat off to Ngugi for writing what he believed whatever his motivations. That his comments go against the mainstream view should be embraced as an opportunity to dig deeper. A point that’s been driven home more than most in 2017 is the differences across Africa. This particularly revolves around WW1 – reading the texts I have and working with Diversity House on their Breaking the Myths project has exposed me to life in West Africa in a way I hadn’t experienced it before: first hand from people who grew up there. And thanks to some West African historians who have managed to get heard outside of Africa (George Ngung in particular) it’s become clear that the West African experience, most studied by white Eurocentric historians (in Britain, America and Europe), has been the dominant one and coloured the reality of recruiting and military life in East Africa. I’ve got to this point the painful way – by assuming that experiences and reasons for things happening in East and Southern Africa are representative of what was happening in West Africa. Aikona! as we say in the south.

Bearing my journey in mind, I can only begin to imagine what Ngugi is/was thinking of when he wrote the review. It shouldn’t be discounted because he approves of what is currently regarded as ‘unfashionable’. It should rather be an inspiration to dig for the truth. Juxtapose this with Peter Hoeg’s short story Journey into a Dark Heart in Tales of the Night (which includes von Lettow Vorbeck visiting Congo in 1929) and both Conrad and Lettow Vorbeck are not the men one might have thought…

Egypt and World War 1

Writing a paper on the end of World War 1 in Africa, I thought it only appropriate to include something on Egypt having discovered through a paper presented by Lanver Mak that there’d been ‘homefront’ involvement there too.

Further investigation led to a litttle book by Stuart Hadawayon the events at Qatia in 1916 – a note in the front explaining that a “battle” needs one or more Army Corps and an “action” one or more divisions. Anything else is an “affair”. Put like that, there were no battles in East Africa – perhaps an action or two. I wonder where skirmishes fit? But I digress…

Blood on the Sand: The Affair at Qatia, Sinai Desert 23 April 1916 is simply told through official accounts and diaries – a military outline which for the novice provides an overview but one which is also jam-packed with detail for the more seasoned historian or student of the theatre to follow through. Numerous maps and some photos help to shed further light on this ‘more forgotten’ campaign of World War 1, Africa. (review)

And of course, one book leads to another…
Chris Vaughan’s book on Darfur: Colonial Violence, Sultanic Legacies and Local Politics, 1916–1956 explores British occupation of the territory from 1916-1956. This links with the Egyptian campaigns as Darfur was brought into the Anglo-Sudanese condominium as a result of the actions taken in 1916. (review)

Where Stuart’s account is military, Chris’ is political and you have to dig a little for the military. It’s richness is showing how colonial policy and ignorance impacted on decisions with sometimes disastrous consequences for future generations. Threading its way through both accounts is that of the Senussi – a group which tends to be better known than many of the others mentioned in both books.

Von and Van – what’s in a name?

I’ve recently read two accounts of World War 1 in Africa – one a novel, Dust Clouds of War by John Wilcox and the other a memoir to be published in 2018. In both of these texts, the British Allied commander, South African Jaap (Jacob) van Deventer, has been referred to as Deventer. Both books are by British English authors who do not fully understand naming constructions.

I’m being a little harsh here – my dad had to correct me on the pronunciation of van Deventer’s name years ago. I used to call him “van de Venter” splitting his name in keeping with many other South African names: van der Merwe, van der Westhuizen etc. Put the “de” onto the “venter” and you have “Deventer” pronounced “dear-venter”. And I’ve been known to mis-pronounce other significant names too: Tighe (“Tie” for those wondering I used to call “Tigga”), Caligula (a little before my time, was pronounced “Ka-li-goo-la”) and of course Beit (should be “bite” rather than “bate”). These are easy mistakes for readers who haven’t hear the names pronounced.So, I suppose it is not surprising that authors apply what they know of one culture to another related one.

With German names, “von” is a title added to a name in much the same way “sir” is added to British names. It’s recognition and status. For the Afrikaans South African name, the “van” or “von” is part of the name translating to “of” or “from” and specifically being lower case “v” – van Deventer originates from the Dutch for someone from Deventer in Overijssel (Ancestry).

This means that when writing German names like von Lettow-Vorbeck the “von” can be safely dropped and we can talk about Lettow-Vorbeck, but we cannot do the same with van Deventer – it’s the equivalent of calling Smith, “ith”.

Another name Wilcox gets wrong in his account is Phillip Pretorius, Smuts’ lead scout. As many have done before, he incorrectly refers to Phillip as Piet. This is in the acknowledgements noting that Simon Fonthill’s escapades were based partly on Pretorius’ search for the Konigsberg. I’m also a little puzzled as to how men could have been involved in both the Boer War (11 Oct 1899 – 31 May 1902) and the Boxer Rebellion in China (2 Nov 1899 – 7 Sep 1901). There is a window between Sep 1901 and May 1902 but I’ve not come across anyone of note having moved between the theatres. (Please let me know if you know of anyone). Lettow-Vorbeck is often mistakenly said to have fought in both, but before he was posted to China, he was in the German War Office studying the actions of the Boer War to assist the German military.
Wilcox further makes the fundamental error of referring to the Smuts raiding into the Union of South Africa during the Boer War when he should be referring to Smuts’ raid into the Cape Colony. The Union of South Africa only came into being in 1910

Review: The Seychelles Islands and its first landowners – Julien Durup

Why? you might ask am I reading and reviewing a book on the Seychelles covering the period 1786-1833 when my specialism is World War 1 in Africa?
That precisely is the link.
I came across Julien’s work whilst editing On Call in Africa by Norman Parsons Jewell. In trying to find out more about the Seychelles when Norman served there in the Colonial Service from 1910-1914 and also some local background to the Seychelloise Labour Corps which saw service in the East Africa campaign, Julien’s name kept popping up. I managed to track him down with the result that I got a copy of this book, and some answers for On Call.
The Seychelles is often regarded as an extension of Africa, a point supported by the number of words and food adopted from the continent, so there is another fitting link.
The Seychelles Island is not a story nor a narrative. Rather, it is a collection of essays on specific topics charting the history of the islands – how they were colonised, trade, settlement, language and so forth. It is an incredibly rich source for people wanting to find out about family members, the origin of words, measurements and currencies.
In addition to all the lists and detailed descriptions, Julien explains some of the challenges he had in sourcing information – useful for knowing what is not available and the complexities around locating sources.
This short (142 pages of text) is testimony to the love and dedication of a historian to his country of origin and heritage, as well as a useful resource for family, social, cultural and political historians. One thing which really struck me, apart from all the failed opportunities to protect tortoises and other endangered animals and vegetation, is the diversity of peoples who made it to the Seychelles. It makes perfect sense, when you think about it, that Indians, Arabs and Chinese explorers made their way to The Seychelles Islands. It just didn’t cross my mind and neither did the extent of influence of West Africa.
Thank you Julien for extending my knowledge a bit more.