The SS Mendi shroud – 21 Feb 2017

Remembering the sinking of the SS Mendi on 21 February 2017 is an opportunity to remember all those who served in a non-combatant role, especially men of colour from Southern Africa: South Africa, Lesotho, Swaziland, Botswana and Zimbabwe.

As awful as what the loss of lives on the Mendi was, for the families of the 135 of 700 men who died on the Aragon returning to South Africa from East Africa (also in 1917), the sense of loss was no less. A reviewer of an article I’d written once asked how could I equate the loss of lives on the Aragon with those lost on the Mendi. The loss of any life is significant and devastating for the family and the impact at home on recruitment was noticeable.

What does the Mendi signify?

Today, a political statement. But I want to move away from that. I want to think about the few men – black, white and coloured – who survived the Mendi’s sinking. What did they go back to? Much is made of the medals the SANLC (South African Native Labour Corps) never received. The story behind that decision is comples and still needs to be fully told.

A medal means nothing if you’re forgotten and ignored. A medal doesn’t put food on the table or et you a job if you’re too depressed and guilt-ridden for surviving. Similarly, those who were physically maimed, suffering from fever, malaria and other debilitating illnesses as well as having lost a limb – of all backgrounds – were unable to get work unless someone took pity on them. These men and their families paid a different price to those who lost their lives – their suffering lasted a lifetime.

How must the men of the Mendi felt every time the songs of protest evoking the words of Wauchope were sung? Bringing back memories of those awful moments of freezing cold and wet, not knowing which breath was going to be your last.

And then, there were those 19,500 men of the SANLC who did see service in Europe, some of whom chose to serve in East Africa too after having been in South West Africa at the start of the war. Their contributions lost and disregarded except as a by-line or example of racial discort in South Africa at the time. Yes, some were commandeered or forced to serve, but many went willingly for adventure and to earn money.

The men made their mark – their quality of work, their upbeat spirit despite the hardships. Life was not easy for many reasons, not least the political and social positions they found themselves in. Pawns on a chessboard as many soldiers of all races and nationalities would testify.

Back home, life went on as usual – work was difficult to obtain, perhaps many were ostracised depending on the areas they lived and worked for having supported the King of England. We know there was little allegiance to the Union then.

The names of the men are known and recorded, despite popular belief. They have not been forgotten and will not be forgotten. As the white government of 1917 rose 100 years ago to honour the black men who lost their lives when the Mendi went down, let us today use the opportunity to also honour those 200 who survived and all of the SANLC and other support workers such as the Indian Bearer Corps, the Cape Boys, Chinese, West Indian, Seychelloise and Kroo Boys from Sierra Leone who all crossed the sea to help make the world a slightly nicer place for us to live.

Let us follow their example today and work together irrespective of race or creed to make our world a better one.

We will not forget. I will not forget – those who lost their lives but more so, those who survived and who lived out the rest of their days in obscurity; no doubt wondering if it had all been worth it.

We will remember!

This is the transcript of a video I did for Diversity House, Breaking the Myths.

Understandably the Mendi and any remembrance of World War 1 in South Africa evokes strong emotions, often underpinned by political views. This is not surprising given the history of the country – surely now is the time to put aside all these differences and acknowledge the humanity of man(kind) in all our conflicts. Perhaps if we did that, we’d go some way to building the better world our ancestors thought they were fighting for.

Tito Mboweni is the descendant of Kokwana Makhakhamele Mboweni who died on the Mendi. Our starting points differ, but we ask the same questions.

Jacques de Vries is the descendant of Colour Sergeant Fitzclarence Jarvis Fitzpatrick who survived the sinking of the Mendi. One of my most moving moments was finding records in Kew relating to Fitzpatrick helping Jacques fill in the gaps.

BBC summary of the story of the SS Mendi.

There are still documents to be studied both in London and in South Africa which will no doubt change the context in which we understand the SANLC to have served, only time will tell how we react to these findings. Every memory matters.

The Titanic and South Africa

The Titanic is probably one of the most famous ships of all time. The story of the sinking of the ship has been one of speculation and hypothesis. Novels and films as well as non-fiction accounts abound. Trying to decide what I could write about that didn’t have a current political slant, the Titanic came to mind prompted by a review of The Captain’s Daughter by Leah Fleming which landed in my in-box.

I had to put the word ‘current’ into the statement as the link between the Titanic and South Africa is, or was, very political. The story spans the years 1912 and 1914 – for the astute (read World War 1 Southern African specialists) amongst my readers, you’ll no doubt have made the link between the Union Defence Act of 1912 and the outbreak of war in 1914. These two events were to play a significant role but only after Sydney Buxton had been appointed Governor General of South Africa.

At the time the Titanic was sailing, Sydney Buxton was President of the Board of Trade and it was because the ship sank that he lost his job and became Governor General and High Commissioner of South Africa. To be specific, the issue that caused Buxton’s removal was that of lifeboats. He had failed to insist on an increase in the number of lifeboats with the result that there were only enough for half the number of passengers. Somehow he survived the initial outlashing of anger and questioning. Buxton was one of the up and coming politicians/administrators of the day. He was good friends with Sir Edward Grey – the two men regularly corresponding on fly-fishing and huntin and Prime Minister Asquith held him in high regard.

It was the resignation of Herbert Gladstone as Governor General and High Commissioner of South Africa in January 1914 that provided a face-saving out for the British government. Buxton would be made a Lord and take over from Gladstone. The appointment was from February 1914 but he would only leave Britain as war was being declared and arrive in South Africa on 7 September 1914 before opening the Parliamentary session on 8 September. It was at this session that the South African government had to approve, in line with the conditions of the Union Defence Act of 1912, the South African forces going across the border onto foreign soil: a decision which sparked the 1914 Afrikaner rebellion.

In some ways Buxton went from the fat into the fire. Having had to fend off questions and attacks about lifeboats, he then had to mediate between Boer and Brit (rather anti- and pro-Empire) supporters.

For South Africa as a whole, it was probably fortuitous that Buxton ended up in South Africa. He seemed more personable than Gladstone, which was an important factor in dealing with the Afrikaans community. He was an avid listener and persuader. The Swazi king and others trusted him, he convinced the Botha and Smuts cabinet of the need to use the Coloured Corps and he ensured that no further rebellion or civil war broke out during the Great War. To do so, he persuaded Britain to pick up the costs for troops and equipment Britain had hoped the dominions would supply. If Britain didn’t, he argued, there would have to be a debate in parliament which the Nationalists would use to good advantage to promote the rights of poor whites and South African nationalism.

Buxton’s success as Governor General and High Commissioner is reflected in his tenure in South Africa – he left on his retirement in 1920. His son, Denis was killed at Passchendaele on 9 October 1917.

Buxton’s papers are kept at the British Library and provide a wonderful insight into South African politics of the day: he sent detailed unofficial accounts of meetings and encounters to the incumbent Colonial Secretary. What more could an historian ask for?

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!

Malaria

A post on the topic of Malaria has been due for some time. It ravaged the forces and others who served during the First World War in Africa and is one of the highest killers in Africa today. The World Health Organisation Africa Region notes:

In 2015, 88% of global cases and 90% of global deaths occured in the African Region. Between 2000 and 2015, the number of malaria cases declined by 42% while the malaria death rate declined by 66% in the African Region.

How to prevent being bitten and whether or not to take anti-malarials is an on-going debate and one I keep an eye on as I’m allergic to some of the prescribed anti-malarials, don’t see why the price of the tablets should be so high if bought outside Africa, are insisted upon by travel clinics across a region even if it is known that mosquitoes are only to be found in specific locations and do not trust the long-term effects of putting such drugs into my body. However, I am aware enough to know that I do not want to contract Malaria as its consequences can be quite horrific. So what are the options?
Over the years I’ve gathered snippets of advice – alas my favourites are not socially accepted and so I can’t say I’ve tried them all, but it is worth pondering on. I wonder, too, if those serving during the First World War had been aware of some of these if the instances and severity of malaria would have been reduced…

The most recent research suggest chicken odour deters the anopheles mosquito. The photo in this article (sort of) proves another point I’d been meaning to check – anopheles mosquito has striped legs!! I have tried on recent visits to Africa to ask mosquitoes to just hang on for a bit before embarking on their vampire exercise so that I could look at their legs first. Alas, none of them has been that interested in my looking at their legs. (This handy site explains the different mosquitoes for anyone interested – although it doesn’t mention stripy legs for the anophales; also no mention of stripes in this article but a short history of research into Malaria in South Africa including findings from World War 1). And the last paragraph of this article, gives some other identifiers of anopheles mosquitoes – I might put these to the test on my next visit to a malaria area.

Another deterent, one I’ve been aware of for some years now, is elephant dung. The challenge here is collecting it and then transporting it cross border… This seems to be a popular repellent in India though.

One of the things we were brought up to use was citronella oils etc, however the effectiveness of this has been called into question and research suggests citronella is not as effective as other preventatives. The UC IPM supports this suggesting citronella works best outdoors with little wind movement. I had heard from a scientist but haven’t been able to find documentary evidence that citronella actually attracts mosquitoes. This makes sense if citronella is being burnt as it is generally away from the body.

Vitamin B1 and garlic have also been recommended as a repellent because they change your blood scent to something offputting to mosquitoes. They don’t work for all but then there’s also the challenge of having to remember to take tablets religiously for x amount of days before encountering mosquitoes – requirements just open to failure…

Covering up – a challenge getting the balance right between keeping cool and wearing enough clothing to cover the body which is thick enough to stop mosquitos penetrating.

Despite all these precautions some of us are just prone to getting bitten so it’s rather reassuring to know that there are now test kits (SA version) which can be administered personally. I’ve come close to using one but thankfully one or two crucial symptoms were missing which delayed the need.

Research into malaria has developed over the years. During the First World War, quinine was the main preventative as was covering up – the German officers kept a close eye on their men taking precautions whereas the British appeared more lax. However, quinine had its own issues which may have exaccerbated the signs and symptoms of malaria and the liquid form known as Lettow Schnapps wasn’t all that tasty.

It’s incredible how something so small can be such a significan killer and that we’re still struggling to find a way to deal with it.

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.

Marconi

A trip to Iceland was the inspiration for this blog. Visiting the house where Gorbachev and Reagan met to discuss the end of the Cold War, I found a board which read as follows:

The beginning of Free Telecommunications in Iceland

On June the 26th 1905 Iceland was first connected to the outside world by means of telecommunications.

The first wireless message was received here from Poldhu in Cornwall, England. The telecommunications equipment was provided by the Marconi Wireless Telegraph Co at the suggestion of entrepreneur and poet Einar Benediktsson. Messages were received here until October 1906, when the operation was terminated due to a government granted monopoly on telecommunications in Iceland.

This memorial plaque was donated by Vodafone

Reading Marconi immediately made me reflect on Africa – Marconi was the big telecommunications provider there too and during World War 1 provided radio support for the Lake Tanganyika Expedition.

On 7 December 1915, The Marconi Co [was] ordered to prepare two 1½ KW cart
sets. They will be ready to be shipped [on the Anversville] at Hull on or before 1 Jan.

The Marconi Company would pay for the services of the engineers who supported/worked the equipment. This included ‘One Engineer. 4 Operators … They would be borne on the ships books [sic] for disciplinary services’. They would be under the command of Spicer-Simson unless lent to the Belgians. The Engineer was Sub-Lieut EF Boileu, RNVR and the ship they were ‘borne’ on for disciplinary services was HMS Hyacinth. (The Lake Tanganyika Expedition Primary Source Chronology)

Prior to World War 1, Marconi had supplied equipment which was used during the Anglo-Boer War of 1899-1902. M de Bruijn et al in The Social Life of Connectivity in Africa tell how wireless and radio developed in Africa including mention of L59, the German Zepelin which never reached Lettow-Vorbeck.

Interestingly though, the underwater cable which linked Zanzibar with Europe at the start of the war was managed by the Eastern and South African Telegraph Company. It merged with Marconi in 1929. In the 1930s, wireless was to have a major impact on the development and use of airpower across Africa and although Guglielmo Marconi died in 1939, his name continues as noted in an article on communications between South Africa and Nigeria in 2001.

The Marconi collection can be consulted at the Oxford Museum of History of Science and Bodleian.