Can we compare?

I’ve had a number of people suggest making links between the current virus situation and that of 1918. Some saying they’re similar, others disagreeing. Many say we’re in unprecedented times, I’m not so sure. I’ve commented before on how comments in one situation are almost identical to another (the 1899-1902 2nd Anglo Boer or South Africa War and the East Africa campaign of 1914-18 in particular). This one resonates with comments circulating during 2020 across numerous countries.

On 5 November 1918, six days before the armistice, South African Governor General Lord Buxton wrote to Jan Smuts in England with news from South Africa.* Prime Minister Louis Botha was on his way to England in preparation for the peace discussions (Smuts had earlier written to friends saying he knew the Sunday before the armistice was the last Sunday of the war).

There is going to be trouble over the Epidemic. The Health Department of ‘Interior’ was extraordinarily stupid and wanting in foresight, pedantically allowing the Influenza to come in from the Transport (Native) where it had been raging; and further throughout the epidemic, it has shewn want of energy, courage, and resource, in dealing with the position.

The ‘Health’ powers of the Government are of course lamentably limited, but Watt ought to have thrown himself with energy into the affair, and done all, and indeed more than he legally could, to cope with such a grave position as that which has arisen.

At that stage in South Africa, there had been 20,000 deaths. Buxton was also lamenting the fact that the opportunity had gone to pass a Public Health Bill and to sort out Housing.

This is one of a number of instances where the Spanish flu was mentioned, all resonating with comments I’ve heard and read in recent times. I’ve also seen similar comments expressed in relation to the Ebola outbreak, the 1980s HIV/AIDS and other significant crises during the past 100 years.

How do we, as historians, therefore determine how ‘unique’ a situation is? Should we be trying to decide whether our time is worse than that experienced with the 1918/9 pandemic or the Ebola outbreaks? Where does Foot and Mouth and BSE management regimes fit in all of this? The situations prevailing for each crisis has been different, although commonalities can be identified. Does this mean that we can draw conclusions that people in 1918 felt the range of emotions we encounter today? Were there the same concerns about people flouting what was seen to be essential practice to contain the spread? I haven’t read enough of the situation 100 years ago to be able to answer this confidently, but I don’t recall having seen much documented in the diaries and memoirs I have worked with where the flu is mentioned. For those writing diaries and commentaries on the current time – how do you plan to give future readers a clearer picture of what you’ve been through so they can distinguish between your feelings and those of other similar circumstances?

Perhaps as part of the Great War in Africa Association medical project some more might come to light as doctors explain and set out what was groundbreaking for them 100 years ago. Looking back, medical knowledge had made huge leaps and bounds – Norman Jewell talks of his first x-ray machine in Africa, plastic surgery and the manufacture of artificial limbs occurred and there were discoveries around tropical diseases. When compared with complaints around medical issues in the 1899-1902 war and Kitchener’s engagements in Sudan and other conflicts dating to the Crimean war, I’m astounded as to how medical knowledge developed, yet today we find similar questions being asked and concerns raised. How is it that we find ourselves in a similar situation today?

Can we compare? or do we simply acknowledge – it was different and when explaining the past make reference to ‘in memory’ events to help our readers understand.

* From Hancock and vd Poel, Smuts Papers, vol 3, p684,

REVIEW: Remembrance, Memories and Representation after 100 years – edited collection

Africa and the First World War: Remembance, Memories and Repesentation after 100 years, edited by De-Valera NYM Botchway and Kwame Osei Kwarteng, 2018

The pending collection was brought to my attention by someone who had hoped to attend the conference where these papers were first presented. Having seen the list of papers presented, I was keen to get hold of any published version and eventually tracked the publisher down. Thankfully I was able to get a review copy as the book is retailing at an unbelievable £116.00. I am aware this is within keeping of academic tomes but it does price texts out of the general researcher’s pocket and for an obscure topic such as Ghana’s role in the Great War, is rather depressing, especially if little of the profit makes its way to the authors.

With that out the way, the publication promises more than it delivers but is definitely worth a read if you can access a copy. The first few papers after the introduction, are a little of a let down with either not being referenced or citing Wikipedia for detail on Africa’s involvement in the war. This raises another of my bug-bears related to the price of the book. I often hear UK institutions complaining about the price of academic texts which makes me wonder how African institutions with smaller budgets are able to purchase books and articles. Without decent access to published material, how can scholars in the ‘west’ (Britain, America and Europe) expect scholars in Africa to produce material of an ‘acceptable’ standard?* And it’s not just me, See here for a local SA perspective on the value of archives/historical libraries.

The great value of this collection is the use of local archival material, allowing us in other parts of the world to get a glimpse into what can be found in Ghana, in particular. While it is not the same as doing one’s own research, having local researchers with local cultural knowledge interpreting local material is welcome and hugely valued. The richness of the local archival material is unfortunately missing from this sample but it does contain the list of Contents.

The regional approach taken with the book, and it being published through a non-traditional academic publisher has meant the contents/text have not been ‘airbrushed’ for the western audience, allowing further insight into cultural differences and acceptabilities especially where terms, generally frowned upon in western publications, are used quite freely by the authors. My experience of Africa is that we have vivid descriptive ways of saying things and one or two chapters in this book employ these effectively. In this way, I learnt about ‘Hyphenated-Americans’ being those first and second generations in the USA, effectively making me a ‘hyphenated-Brit’.

Another value is that readers are exposed to different interpretations to those we generally come acoss in American, British and European oriented texts. While some thinking from the west has clearly influenced African interpretations, there is much that is still local which is refreshing and opens new avenues for exploring concepts and ideas.

The chapters I engaged with most were towards the end of the book, possibly because they were a little out of the ordinary: Italian and Libyan involvement in the war by Stefano Marcuzzi, making historical connections by Adjei Adjepong, and an overview of cinema in Ghana with brief reference to the 1914-18 war by Vitus Nanbigne. The chapter on the flu epidemic by Kwame O Kwateng and Stephen Osei-Owusu had some interesting insights as did the chapter on the role of chiefs by Samuel Bewiadzi and Margaret Ismaila.

Overall, this is a book worth accessing, and I’ll definitely be making use of some of the content in future publications. I only wish it had a more accessible price-tag for others to be able to access as easily, and that colleagues in Africa are able to access a wider range of scholarly material than they currently do.



*It is for this very reason that the Great War in Africa Association has set up a publishing arm – to facilitate information transfer more cost-effectively and fairly for authors/contributors.