Review: Violent Intermediaries by Michelle Moyd

Michelle Moyd‘s book on the Askari in East Africa has been a long time coming, but at last it is here. I first met Michelle in 2000 when she was starting out on her study, not long after I’d started on mine. Over the years, she’s produced various articles and chapters on her research and, now, we have the definitive output. It’s definitely been worth the wait!

Violent Intermediaries: African soldiers, conquest and everyday colonialism in German East Africa, 2014, is an informative and accessible journey through the history of the askari from their formation in the 1890s through to their experiences during World War 1. Michelle explores the askari relationship with their kinfolk and the role of the camp follower as well as dispelling some of the myths about the loyalty of the askari to German General Paul von Lettow-Vorbeck.

This book has a wide ranging interest for scholars and enthusiasts from across the spectrum as noted by the reviews by Joanna Lewis for Africa at LSE and H-Net. In addition you can hear an interview with Michelle (1 hour) about the book.

As an historian of WW1 in East, Centrals and Southern Africa, I found the book particulary informative on the issues of recruitment, camp followers and relationship with their officers. It helps contribute towards a more balanced assessment of the war and the experience of the German side. Michelle’s discoveries concerning the askari accord with experiences documented in various English texts/interviews in respect of recruitment and loyalty which confirms that Africa had a different concept of loyalty during the war and it was not to do with nation or state.

A companion study is that by Myles Osborne, which also took a while to reach us, on the Kikamba. Ethnicity and Empire in Kenya: Loyalty and Martial Race among the Kamba c1800 to the present covers similar ground to Michelle and together these books provide the most holistic account we have to date on the development of the modern black soldier in East Africa in the early twentieth century.

Michelle’s next study as alluded to at the Great War in Africa conference in Stellenbosch promises to be just as illuminating and even more challenging – that of the role of women in the East African military. I wait in anticipation…