I helped find their dead

My name is Maxie.

There isn’t a photograph of me but I am a WaTaveta who lives in Taita-Tsavo in what is today’s Kenya. One hundred years ago it was British East Africa and there had been some big fights between the white and Indian soldiers of the British king and the white and black soldiers of the German king.

We were told not to get involved as it was not our war, but some of us were paid to help with building the railway line, accommodation and other things that needed doing. Later on, when the fighting moved south and more labour was needed, men were sometimes forced or work for little pay. My work kept me near home.

A few months after the big fight at the dusty hill we call Salaita, a man came looking for some bodies of men who had died in the battle. I was able to tell him about 21 graves I knew at Taveta, the local market town.

I told the man, an English soldier that “When the Germans were fighting in the direction of Mbuyuni they used to bring the wounded Englishmen into the District Officer’s house here, (which, at the time was used as a Hospital,) when these Englishmen died the Germans buried them in this place and fired guns over the graves.”

I then took him about 25 paces (20 yards) to the north of the 14 graves I had shown him to show him another 7 which the Germans carried from Mbuyuni. The man said they are going to dig up the graves and move the bodies. I don’t understand why but it seems important to them. He was also trying to find out which were the English or white man’s graves.

The burial practices I saw are strange. The wafu (dead) have a special power and we believe in the existence of Mlungu (High God). Here, the white men laid the bodies down flat. In our tradition, we stand them up in the ground and build a hut over the space. When our people die, we close their eyes so that the evil spirits cannot enter the body. I don’t know who did that for these poor soldiers. Many were lying on the ground for hours before someone found them. We then lie them on a bed. The body is washed and shaved by women past the child bearing age. The head was covered by a foot of soil. One year later we take the skull to the shrine.

At kuchumbua maridia (the end of mourning a year after the burial) we have an event where a goat is sacrificed and the remains scattered over the crops. There is a final day of wailing and shaving. A cow is slaughtered for those who dug the hole and the hut is either sold and dismantled for someone else to use, or if the surviving spouse is a woman, she lives in the hut until she dies.
The man wrote some things down and went away but I was still confused.

A few years later, another white man came along. I took him to a spot about 2000 steps (½ mile) in the direction the sun rises and 125 steps from the railway track near where they used to burn the Hindus who died. The grass was burnt a few times and the ground is swampy, but you can still see where 11 men were buried, about 18 moons ago, by the wire fence and the outlines of holes which were filled in. The fires had destroyed the fence posts and wooden markers saying who was in the ground.
Later in Voi, at the end of the railway line, I heard the man, Milner he said his name was, tell the church man Verbi and Major Layzell about what I had told him. He said that about 1 February 1916, 21 men were brought into the hospital by the Germans near Salaita Hill. They were badly wounded and died soon after. These were the graves I showed him. When other men died, they were buried next to first. There was a strange ceremony which accompanied the placing of the men in the grave. The Askari (black soldiers) fired their guns into the sky. This was strange as they usually only pointed them at people to shoot.

On 4 April 1923, this is what the man said the date was, this man asked me confusing questions which I didn’t understand, something about a Native Christian Cemetery. He then asked me where the camp was of the men who were working on the construction of the railway. He said something about a loose-leaf register, South African natives, South African Railway and Cape Corps being buried.

Oh, I knew where the graves of the railway workers were and also the South African natives. This was 2000 steps from the Taveta Station and 125 steps from the railway track. This was where the cemetery was made and was marked by barbed wire. There were 11 graves.

I also took Milner to the foot of the hills on which the Old Fort stands at Taveta, and showed him a place where I had dug a grave for the Germans to bury an Englishman in. The Englishman had been shot by the Germans for spying and brought into the building on the hill during the latter part of the day. The German Askaris carried him on a rough stretcher and the following morning my friends and I were told to dig this grave. The Germans brought a box which they placed in the grave and fired shots over.

Nineteen nights later (23 April) native minister of the Taveta CMS Mission named Johana Mbela who could talk English told the Englishman that he, Johana, was taken prisoner by the Germans and placed in the building on the hill close to where we were standing. This happened in August 1914. In early September 1914, he said the Germans brought in the man who had been caught spying with a Captain on a small hill towards Serengetti. The Captain was shot dead and the man the Germans brought in ran away to get his motor cycle and was shot in the leg. After the Germans had put this man in the next room to Johana, the Germans brought the man’s clothes and some papers into his room and asked him what was written on them, but he did not tell them. He tried to pronounce a name which sounded like Groarty. He remembered the man calling for water all night until early morning, and seemed to be in very great pain, then all was quiet.

I couldn’t believe it. Minister Johana Mbela had seen the man I had to dig a grave for. These Englishman kept saying ‘what a small world.’

References
Burial rights
Commonwealth War Grave archive, Maidenhead: CWGC 1/1/7/E/57 WG 122/8 pt 2; Verbi and Layzell who reside in the Voi District had both been Intelligence Officers during the campaign in the Taveta District.
This account was written for Diversity House Micro-nations event on 27 October 2017.

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Coloured – who am I?

One of the things I love about my work is discovery. I’m constantly discovering new things – even about things I know a little about. And there’s no better way to discover something than when you have to explain what you already know to someone who isn’t sure or seeks clarification.

One such enquiry derived from a contribution to Never Such Innocence on African involvement in World War 1. A teacher making use of the resource asked for clarifiction on the use of the word Coloured to describe African soldiers from South Africa.

I can just see many non-South African readers cringing at the word. Surely I should be using ‘Mixed Race’ or some other term. No, the term is Coloured and they are a people (micro-nation) who deserve recognition and respect.

I have fond memories of mixing with the Coloured community in Reiger Park, the Coloured township in Boksburg. They had a St John Ambulance Division which my mom and others supported and taught. As a youngster I would often be a ‘patient’ for them to practise on and later, when I had passed my first aid exams we went on duty together. All this during the heady years of Apartheid when races were meant to be separate.

During the First World War, Coloured men were best known for forming the Cape Corps and served admirably in East Africa (1 Cape Corps) as well as in Palestine holding the line at the Battle of Square Hill (18-19 September 1918). They also served as ‘Cape Boys’ driving oxen and cattle during the campaign in East Africa as well as in medical and other labour capacities including in South West Africa.

Here are some links I’ve found helpful for others to understand the contribution of Coloureds to South Africa’s rich and diverse heritage.
A Profile
A 2012 film: I’m not Black, I’m Coloured – I haven’t yet seen the film so can’t comment on that aspect but it shows the term is still alive and well…
There is a lovely but heart moving film I reviewed some time back called Katrina (1969) which is available on Youtube (IMDB); which puts the community into context in terms of Apartheid but also socially – then and unfortunately still today.
Coloureds have developed their own language which you can hear a snippet (this was done for the 2010 World Cup in SA so needs to be taken in context).
And finally a piece on one of their annual festivals, the Kaapse Klopse with one of their famous songs: Daar kom die Alibama (explained)

Respect to a people still struggling for the recognition they deserve in their own country, let alone elsewhere.

Aragon vs Mendi: two carrier ships

I have written before on how I could equate the deaths on the SS Aragon with those of the SS Mendi. Transcribing the Pike Report prompted this posting.

As awful as the sinking of the Mendi was – an accident, the deaths of the more than 120 South African Native Labourers who gave up on life and who saw no future in continuing to live is a sad indictment on those tasked with their well-being. What makes it worse, is that their suffering was long drawn out, months of labour, lack of sleep and inappropriate diet, exaccerbated by the tropical conditions in which they found themselves. Later that same year, 30 December 1917, the Aragon was sunk with the loss of 610 lives.

Yes, the Mendi saw 600+ lives lost in one go, the Aragon far fewer over a a few days, but for each of the families concerned, the loss of life – Mendi or Aragon – was a huge blow: an income supplier, loved and cherished – father, son, brother, friend.

The impact on recruiting labour in South Africa was tangible. The loss of the Mendi lives saw the South African government stop recruiting for labour to serve on the Western Front. The loss of the Aragon lives was more subtle: men didn’t enlist and found excuses not to.

Until recently, the detail of the Aragon losses have been limited, if one is lucky, to a sentence or two in an historical narrative. However, the opening up of the Pike Report allows us a medical insight into the deaths, and the decisions – right or wrong – that doctors, officers and ships’ captains made in tring to ease the situation in which the men found themselves.

This is, for me, a heart-moving story of neglect through ignorance, and for some contempt on the one hand and of concern and care for humankind on the other. In the same way the survivors of the Mendi, both of the ship itself and of the Darro, had to live with their guilt and self-loathing of not being able to do more, so did the survivors of the Aragon.

Note: I’ve purposefully kept numbers approximate as records seem to differ in detail.

Continual Remembrance

I was recently asked if I believe in continual remembrance. This was the first time I’d heard the phrase – clearly I’ve not been in touch with the news and general public discussion.

After a brief hesitation, I had to say yes – it hopefully keeps us from perpetuating the mistakes of the past. ‘Isn’t that political?’ was the response. It must be if we are serious about creating the world we want to live in and that those in the past were prepared to give their lives for. Naturally this conversation has been doing its rounds in my head since.

There are three issues at play here all interlinked, as far as I can see: continuity, remembrance and politics.
What are we remembering? Why should we remember? Why is remembering political?

Continuity is ongoing. It is not once a year on a particular day. As an historian of war, it’s probably easier to be in a continuous state of remembering the past than for others. Memorials, statues, telling stories around the fire of past leaders all help keep the continuity of memories, events and persons in our consciousness.

I’m a great advocate of keeping statues around especially of those who we believe did the wrong thing by our standards. Keep the statues (not necessarily in their original location) and avoid repeating what the individual did which offends. Invariably, the statue or memorial was erected for reasons other than what is causing offense and it would be good to explore those aspects before passing judgement. Yes, Cecil Rhodes may have been racist. He was a man of his time when many believed or behaved in the same way (and to be honest, many continue to do so today). He was also generous – Groote Schuur, Cape Town and Rhodes Universities, The Rhodes Foundation and scholarship: where would South Africa’s economy be today if it hadn’t been for Rhodes and his colleagues setting up De Beers etc? Rhodes loved Africa and saw potential. In his eagerness he made some bad decisions; who of us doesn’t?

Verwoerd and Apartheid – was what he did any different to what is happening today with the rise of nationalism and individual groups attempts to ensure their independence? I don’t agree with what he did but I understand why he did it. The question is – was there another way he could have achieved the same protection of his adopted people?

The First World War – the horror of the trenches and men going over the top. Generals maligned for using their men as cannon fodder. Soldiers are servants – they follow orders – those given by politicians and national leaders (yes, some soldiers assume both roles and take matters into their own hands, but I’m not talking of them as soldiers here as they fall into the political category). A sweeping statement I know, some are blood-thirsty and all that goes with it, but they’re in the minority. I can’t help but recall Lord Kitchener’s statement ‘A soldier’s duty is not to get killed’ – a point reiterated by an officer I heard talk at Sandhurst comparing Afghanistan to the Somme. I could go on…

Remembrance. It’s easy to fall into remembering what’s in front of us: The list of war dead on our memorials, the reason for the Bank or Public Holiday, if we’re aware of it. This was brought home to me earlier this year when I was complaining about South Africa having two women’s days. The August date is for the contribution the women made to end Apartheid – Sharpville in particular.

Those often ignored and forgotten especially need to be remembered. A talk with a retired Archbishop of Africa brought this home when we were talking of the victims of Apartheid – all colours, genders and ages: those who went into exile and those family members who had to cope with the outfall back home, the young men, soldiers (both sides), forced into situations which scarred them for life, their families not aware of the wounds still suppurating below the surface manifesting in addiction, violent outbursts or depression.

These are the horrors to remember and to avoid in future, but we shouldn’t forget the positives which we can build on: the comradeship which crossed boundaries – the humanity of mankind (To be human is to be humane: Xhosa: umntu ngumntu ngabanye abuntu; Swahili: Mtu ni utu; Gikuyu: Mundu ni umundu*).

There are so many examples of this – sharing food in a foxhole, leaving medical supplies for prisoners, giving someone a drink or a place to lay their head for a time, keeping the horrors of one’s experiences from loved ones back home. Drawings of birds and animals, beauty, encountered along the way.

And finally, politics. When we think of the term, it evokes emotions often linked to elections and political parties or politicians. However, I look at politics in terms of the polity – ‘the form or process of civil government; organised society, state; condition of civil order’ (Concise Oxford Dictionary). We/I have a role to play in the civil order and so everything I do has an impact – it’s political. I often recall the advice given to me by a teaching union representative back in 2009-2011 when I was bemoaning about government decisions around Further Education and our lack of influence. He told me over his 30 years of being a union rep that he’d learnt not to focus on the big things which appeared unchangeable but to rather do what felt right on the ground, in my immediate circle, and the butterfly effect would take care of the rest. These wise words have kept me from being overwhelmed on so many occasions – and goes to the heart of my politics. Treat others as I want to be treated. Memorials (including books and archives) remind me to remember those not mentioned and to remember them all.

* Mary Nyambura Muchiri, Papers on Languages and Culture: An African Perspective (2009)
Musa Victor Mdabuleni Kunene, Communal holiness in the Gospel of St John: The vine metaphor as a test case with lessons from African hospitality and Trinitarian theology (2012)

Correcting misconceptions: CWGC

Many who know me are probably tired of hearing me go on about the need to get into the primary source documents and see things for yourself rather than rely on secondary source material.

Secondary source material has an important role to play in synthesising and analysing information, for filling in peripheral gaps and for stimulating further research.

The value of visiting, or revisiting, primary source material was reinforced when I visited the CWGC archive. I’d made links with the Technical Adviser for Africa who had invited me to come and see what CWGC does and to see what kind of information is held in the archive. I selected a few files which looked interesting from a selection of the catalogue I was sent (the full list was in process of being put onto a searchable database of which I was also given a preview. This should really help open up the archive for social and cultural historians especially). And boy, were they interesting!

One file contained information on how they differentiated between religions, important for the forces in Africa where a large number were Muslim but also significant numbers of Sikhs, Hindus and Christians. A series of letters explained how unidentified remains could be linked to medical reports of graves – head slope and teeth structure being used to differentiate Caucasian (white), Black African and Indian remains. This was important when mass graves were exhumed for relocation purposes. Yes, there were mass graves in East Africa – and not only as previously assumed for the carriers. (Mass burial appears to have been the norm for the German forces with memorial plaques listing all). The necessity of war and conditions of battle meant bodies were disposed of as best one could. At Salaita Hill, a trench dug for the Allies was filled with 11 bodies – 7 white and 4 Indian – reminiscent of Spionkop during the Anglo-Boer War. Although the individuals could not be named as all identifying marks, including uniforms, were not available – four years after war ended and seven after the battle – the numbers tallied with the war reports and the bodied could be moved to a more permanent resting place at Taveta – following strict protocols to ensure respect.

Where the graves of known individuals were to be moved to a place easier to care for, relatives’ permission was sought. Often this work was undertaken by fellow soldiers or men who had served in the theatre. The local women made wreaths to place in the cemeteries – white flowers dominated. It is worth noting in this regard that this was the process for white British graves, including British citizens in other countries (only in 1926 were the dominions recognised as separate identities).
Another surprising find was a hand-written report which specified ‘Native Officers’. The general belief is that only whites were appointed officers. Here we have evidence that 47(?) people of colour, presumably black, as Indians were classified as such, were made officers – and died, suggesting there were more. The challenge now is to find out who they were.

Returning to the issue of graves and the recording – or lack therefore – of carrier names etc, it was clear from the correspondence that this had been carefully thought through and was not for reasons of race but rather that colour (race) became an identifier because the majority were black. The other main divide was literacy – being able to communicate in English and the written form. Where people were not able to do this, they were not consulted or considered in the same way as those who could communicate in written English. These reasons were not articulated in the files, but consideration of the decisions made and how they were made highlight these issues as delineators.

The decisions made were pragmatic, based on the knowledge of the day. In essence if a person was literate, where their identity was known they were given an independent grave with headstone – this accounts for the carriers and labourers who were known to be Christian being given a grave. The Christian carrier had spent some time in a mission school and had therefore moved some way to being regarded as ‘civilised’ under the definition of the time. The French had a similar practice for according someone from Africa a French citizen.

More reading of the files needs to be undertaken but it appears that the reason for the separate cemeteries (superficially along colour/race lines) were along religious or cultural lines. The Hindi or Indian cemeteries generally containing a plinth and sometimes the graves of individuals.

Although not all were given a headstone, where their names were known these were kept in a register. The challenge was recording the names. This was not always done in the heat of battle as survival was a far greater priority and often it was left to the enemy to bury the dead. In other cases, it depended on the literacy and regard of the person as to whether the name was recorded. This particularly affected labour and carrier records. Some tribes (micro-nations) did not believe in burying their dead so left them along the way for wild animals to dispose of. The exhausting nature of the march and sometimes the large numbers of deaths meant chiefs were too tired to record names, or didn’t tell the white officers, and then of course some officers were better at keeping records than others. (One sees this in the War Diaries where some daily reports include the names of all those sent to hospital, died or arrived, irrespective of contingent).

The reasons stated for not giving everyone a headstone was mainly financial – a stone cost between £12 and £60 depending on where it needed to be transported to. For families who were not likely to visit the grave or to ask questions about the resting place of a loved one (ie those less literate, not of one of the recognised major religions), they were not accorded a tombstone or even a listing on a wall. Their names however are on registers in each of the relevant cemeteries.

Trying to reconcile data in remote Africa four years after the war ended could not have been easy. The challenge for us today, with our evolved values, is to find a way to accord those without a tombstone the same recognition as those with one. It’s worth knowing that the idea behind the askari monuments in Nairobi and Mombasa including carriers and other labourers, was an attempt by those in the 1920s to collectively remember the men who had no headstone.

Getting into the primary source material is imperative if we want to avoid ‘broken telephone’ and mis-understandings or perpetuation of myth. Reading the material for ourselves with all our past individual experiences brings new interpretations and understanding which adds to the jigsaw of history.

Matchbox full of diamonds

Matchboxes are wonderful things. You can build towers and other buildings with them and once the matches inside have been removed, they can be used for storing all sorts of things – tiny things. Someone’s even created a museum of matchboxes.

David Kramer, a South African musical social commentator has a song with the same title as this blog. In the song, he tells the story of men who leave the mines in South West Africa (now Namibia) with diamonds hidden in matchboxes. No doubt these diamonds are later sold in the illegal markets for additional income.

Diamonds in Namibia were discovered in the years preceeding the outbreak of World War 1 and as a result of what today could be regarded as insider trading, but then looking out for national interests, the MP Hull set in motion the formation of Anglo-American which was to obtain the rights to these mines soon after South African received the German colony as a C-type Mandate at the Treaty of Versailles. It was in the setting up of Anglo-American that Sir Ernest Oppenheimer was invited by Deputy Prime Minister Jan Smuts to be an observer at the Peace Talks.

At the outbreak of war, there were 1500 Coloured South African citizens working in German territory who had to be brought back to the Union. They had presumably been working either on the mines or on farms. The difficulty they faced was that the German bank notes they’d been paid with were not accepted by South African banks. This was because the banks weren’t sure whether they would recoup the money from Germany. The Government had to step in and help make decisions to ensure these men were fairly compensated.

And here’s a place you can go and get your own diamonds: Diamond Crater

What is Corned Beef?

Doing a workshop with year 6 pupils on life in World War 1 provided some interesting points of discussion and as usual led to more questions and revelations.

Fortuitously, in the days before the workshop, transcribing the Pike Report into medical conditions in East Africa, I came across the minimum rations prescribed for the different groups of people campaigning in the theatre (Section 9).
– European and Cape Coloured Corps
– Indian Troops and Followers and local Indians
– African Troops, Arab Company and Gun Porters and Stretcher Bearers
– Carriers
– Cape Boys
– Gold Coast, Nigerian, other West African Troops
– West India Regiment
– East Africa Forces:
o Europeans, West Indians, British West India Regiment, Cape Corps, Indian Christians, Goanese Clerks
o Indian Troops, Followers and Local Indians
o Cape Boys, Somalis
o Chinese
o East African Troops, Followers, Porters
o Arabs
o Gold Coast, Nigerian, other West African Troops (European rations to Native Dressers, Telegraph Operators, Linesmen)
o Prisoners of War (manual labour, children)
o Animals
Despite the contents and amounts having been scientifically worked out, the men were lucky if they got the full quantity on a daily basis, and if they did, able to cook it. Most frustratingly, when India improved the dietetics for those in Mesopotamia, the Indian Government neglected to pass the information onto East Africa which resulted in unnecessary illness due to poor food intake.

Back to Year 6. They were going to get a taste of African food as prepared during World War 1 – without palm oil or ghee. This meant boiling yams, sweet potatoes and beans. The women preparing the food started cooking at 7 am the morning of the workshop, to be ready to serve at 1.30/2pm. They just managed it including about 30 minutes to travel to the venue and 30 minutes to set up. Their cooking had been done on modern appliances. How much longer would they have needed on an open fire? They were catering for about 40 people and only a taster as these young British people had not likely tasted food like this before.

The reactions ranged from ‘this is disgusting’ to ‘is there more?’ The flavour was rather bland – boiled food without spice. Personally, these were the best yams I’ve ever eaten so not sure what it says about me. But it also became apparent while thinking about it that boiling yams and potatoes would help purify water for drinking – not all that tasty at the best of times but it would have retained some of the nutrients usually cooked out of vegetables. Although cooking maize meal to a runny porridge state would have been quicker than to stodge form for fufu or ugali, spoons would have been required – finding spoons would be another challenge as the war progressed. Having the maize meal stiff meant it could be eaten more easily with fingers. If the men were lucky enough to have leftovers, some forms of maize meal would safely last a few days.

One of the featured meat items was corned beef (preserved). This led to the questions: What is it? What corn is mixed with it? We’ve had it for years but not thought until now what it is.

Surprisingly, the corn is salt – large grained rock salt, known as ‘corns’ of salt. It’s the introduction of nitrates which results in the meat turning pink, reducing the risk of botulism. Potassium nitrate – also referred to as salt peter (Source: Amazing Ribs, wikipedia)

Bully/corned beef could be eaten cold if you could get the tin open, it could be cooked, mashed and added to yams, rice etc to make a more filling meal and to provide variation – that is, providing supplies got through.