Hidden women

The extent to which women have been left out of history is a topic of great discussion, and not one I engage with. As far as I can tell, if women desired something they set out to achieve it, including publicising what they did. When it comes to African women and women from Africa, I’m regularly in awe of what pops up.

Most recently, having written on Natal in the First World War, I was looking up something on Cherry Kearton, who served in the East Africa campaign, only to have his wife’s place of birth stand out – Ada Forrest was born in Congella, Durban, on 17 July 1877. As she’s known most popularly as Ada Kearton, I was surprised to discover she had only married Cherry after the war so technically doesn’t fit into my WW1 focus except that it’s due to her diligence that we have additional information on what Cherry got up to. During the war, Ada was in London. She had made her debut as a classical soprano singer back in 1907 and performed at the Henry Wood Promenade Concerts – that is The Proms – between 1909 and 1915. She retired from performing in 1922 when she married Cherry as she used to join him in the field and on safaris. More significant about Ada is that in 1908 she recorded her first album in London on which she sang in Afrikaans – one of the first South Africans to do so.

In 1908, another South African woman was to record an album in London, also in Afrikaans. She was Annie Visser born 8 August 1876 in Jagersfontein, Orange Free State (the place where the first SA diamond was identified). While Ada remained in London visiting South Africa on occasion, Annie returned to South Africa where the outbreak of war resulted in her career stalling. It is said this was due to her art form not being very popular, but it could also have been her politics. Annie is reported as having opened the first National Party Congress in 1915 in Bloemfontein.

And this article by Schalk van der Merwe has mention of another woman or two around the same time.

In related WW1 research, Luise White has a fascinating study on prostitution in Nairobi in a book called The comforts of home. Luise’s findings, based on interviews with women and men involved in the profession, align with the perceptions I have gleaned of empowered women through my own unrelated research. And for a fictional underpinning of how it all came to be… I can only turn to Doris Lessing‘s The Cleft (and more).

Review: Multilingual Environments in the Great War

Multilingual Environments in the Great War is an eclectic collection of essays around language edited by Julian Walker and Christophe Declercq published by Bloomsbury in 2021.

The aim of the publication is to explore ‘the differing ways in which language has been used to make sense of the Great War’ and in this it succeeds. There is likely to be something of interest for most people with an interest in aspects of language and war. The editors and section introductions deftly pull together the diverse articles finding commonalities to link them together within themselves and with the present. In particular, the introduction which was written during the early months of 2020 draws parallels between coping with war and the Covid-10 outbreak.

A range of territories, languages and texts are discussed. Africa, Eastern Europe, Australia feature, Kiswahili, Portuguese, Esperanto and Romanian are some of the languages which feature while discussions on books cover guide or tourism books, language guides, and the more traditional analyses of novels with an interesting assessment of swearing in The Mint by TE Lawrence (aka AC Ross). Another fascinating contribution was that on ‘genocide discourse’ looking at the Armenian massacres of the war.

Reading through the book, I was struck with how it complements other books to which I have contributed – The Global First World War; Propaganda and Public Relations in Military Recruitment What these books demonstrate, is how much more there is to still discover about the Great War of 1914-1918 and its impact on us a hundred years later. Kudos to all the editors for their foresight.

Frog encounters

One of the striking features of researching individuals who participated in the East Africa campaign is their interest in nature. This is particularly so amongst the doctors and vets although some like Frederick Selous and Richard Meinertzhagen, as well as Jan Smuts, had interests in butterflies, birds, and grasses respectively. Dr Carpenter who served in Uganda during the war recorded in his memoirs that he spent the war years collecting bugs hardly seeing any military action at all. One or two were natural scientists. So it was with some interest that I discovered, thanks to Simon Loader, this publication on amphibians in Tanzania.

While the war of 1914-1918 is not mentioned in the publication, it has some incredible photos of places the forces found themselves in, particularly forests. Most travellers today through East Africa seldom see forests, the area around Tsavo is better known for its dust than forests, yet talk to the older generation on Kilimanjaro and they’ll tell you the area below used to be forest. The trees were removed for firewood – no doubt to service the railways and camps in the vicinity. Not too far away in the TPC sugar plantations, there is a spot or two which has been left to nature – I wasn’t able to get a photograph of it which clearly shows its density. But having seen it, I fully understood the diary accounts of men trying to find a way through thick forest. It’s hard to believe the whole area from Moshi to Voi could have been covered like that.

Back to the frogs. Encountering lions and hippo, having giraffe pull down the telegraph wires and shooting the odd buck for the pot are regular diary features from the war years. Few write about smaller creatures, unless they’re talking of the jigger and the soldier ant, or are a collector. But could you imagine coming across one of the little (or even larger) creatures caught on camera in this publication? The frogs in my garden and I take turns at frightening each other – and that’s on a calm day. Just think how much worse it must be if one is already tense from not knowing what is in the thick bush ahead only to have a little critter jump away in disgust at having their rest disturbed. Oh, and don’t forget the earthworm like creatures at the end of the book. Some look to be as big as small snakes…

Apart from the scenery and the amphibians, this publication is written in both English and Kiswahili – enabling a wider range of people to engage. It’s the second I’ve encountered of this kind and I look forward to more in the future.

And I just can’t resist adding my discovery of Paddafontein (literally frog fountain) in KwaZulu-Natal which I came across when reading about the Bambata/Zulu/1906 rebellion. There is another Paddafontein in the Karoo (well at least in ebook novel form: It never rains in Paddafontein by Clive Cooke; and a farm in Limpopo Province). The earliest online mention of the KZN Paddafontein is page 48 of the 1890 Natal Departmental Record.

Mebos and Biltong Fund

This is the heading of a SA Railways and Harbours article from September 1916. The Magazine Committee were looking to send gifts of Mebos and Biltong to their staff serving in East Africa and Overseas. They were expecting to send 4,000 parcels at a cost of 2/6. 6p was also known as a ‘tanner’ and a shilling was a bob (more on old currency here) – the purchasing power of 2/6 in 2017 was approximately £7.37 according to the currency converter. £1 in 1916 was the equivalent of £89.23 today.

A recent visit to a South African shop in Hertfordshire revealed 1kg of biltong cost £42 and a 250g bar of mebos is £6.50. I wonder therefore how much biltong and mebos SA Harbours and Railways expected to send to their ‘boys’. Perhaps the items were cheaper in 1916 due to production costs and the greater prevalence of home industry. And there are the shipping costs which someone would have had to account for.

While biltong is pretty well-known, similar to beef jerky, mebos is less so. It’s made of apricots soaked in salt and then dried and coated with sugar (see recipe). The one item missing is the South African rusk (according to wikipedia, there are a wide range of country specific varieties).

The other burning question is how many of these parcels actually got sent and how many arrived in intact? I imagine those heading to the Western Front arrived with their intended recipient, but am not so sure of those headed to East Africa given some of the accounts one reads of food parcels not arriving or being tampered with.

I presume we won’t know the answers to these questions – I’ll let you know if I discover a report on the matter. But what this little advert does go to show is that staff/colleagues were being thought of.

The December 1916 edition tells us what the men received: 1lb Mebos and dried fruit; 1lb biltong; 1 sprig of heather; 1 bag of comforts from the Ladies Committee. The parcels for Europe were being sent care of WP Schreiner. Regarding East Africa, it was recognised that transport difficulties were ‘so great that there is little likelihood of parcels (if sent) reaching the men in time for Christmas, if at all’ so that the funds which would have been spent on them will be kept until they return.

And if you’re into railway history – the SA Railways and Harbours Magazines for 1916-1918 are all on line and contain an amazing eclectic collection of articles on railways around the world, and during the war.

Novelist: Friedrich Wilhelm Mader

Mader was a priest and novelist who set his stories in other continents. His stories set in Africa were written using the literature available in Germany at the time.

1866 – 1 September, born in Nice

1890-1894 – vicar in various places

1897-1917 – pastor in Eschelbach and Kesselfeld in Hohenlohe

1945 – 30 March, died in Bönnigheim

Books on WW1 Africa

Die Helden van Ost-Afrika

Am Kilimandjaro: Ubenteuer or pdf pages of the book

Vom Pangani zum Rowuma: Kämpfe in Deutsch-Ostafrika or pdf pages


Encyclopedia of Science Fiction

I find it fascinating that there is little background information available on German authors compared with English. This in itself raises a number of questions – all for another blog so as not to detract from the basic idea of the series on novelists.