Ox-Taming

How often have you thought of taking up ox-taming as a career?

It’s not something I’ve explicitly thought of but I have been subconsciously aware that there is a skill to getting oxen to move specially when pulling big loads up steep hills as in the Lake Tanganyika Expedition.

So, it was with some interest that I read this article on South Africa’s Famous Ox-Tamer, William Kenneth Shuman. Although he was born after World War 1, the article provides some insight into the skill required and the relationship between the driver and the ox. This relationship has been supported and explained by Marthe Kiley-Worthington in her autobiography Family are the Friends you Choose in which she explains how she managed to get Cape buffalo (Africa’s indigenous bovine) to operate in the same way.

During the Great War in Africa, next to the carriers, ox-wagon was a major means of transporting goods between bases and the front line – many oxen succumbing to tsetse fly or sleeping sickness. In addition there was ‘beef on the hoof’ to move as herds of live cows were moved to provide fresh meat for the forces in base. Herding this number of bovine required skill and an intimate knowledge of the animal concerned. For this specialist labourers were brought in from South Africa in particular, mostly part of the Cape Labour Corps – a group we know even less about than the Cape Corps. While most of these labourers were coloured, there were white farmers and others who were employed as conductors to oversee the drivers. With the introduction of motorised vehicle units where similar terms seem to have been used, the contribution of these skilled cattle-men has been relegated to the depths of memory.

With little bits of information continuing to come to light through archival investigation, we might yet obtain an clearer picture of those, other than the veterinary staff, who looked after the animals on campaign. That cows were important was brought home recently when I transcribed the Kirkpatrick report (24min zoom video; transcript) into conditions in East Africa. One of the big complaints concerned milk and its availability.

William Finaughty’s moustache

This article caught my eye for two reasons: died in 1917 and elephant hunter. Both key words when researching World War 1 in Africa. Although the feature of the article William Finaughty had nothing to do with World War 1 in Africa (he was 74 when he died in 1917), I was captivated by his moustache. It rivals the famous Kitchener moustache.

1917 was the first year the war against the Germans was fought in one African territory only. The war in Cameroon having ended in March 1916. The end of 1917 was also to see the East African conflict move into Portuguese East Africa (Mozambique), not far from Zimbabwe or Southern Rhodesia where William Finaughty was based.

And there are numerous elephant and other hunters who acted as scouts and soldiers in the East Africa campaign. The most famous being Frederick Selous (64 when he died in 1917) and PJ Pretorius. Selous too is mentioned in connection with Finaughty

Then there are the two cannon. I don’t recall the redundant cannon of Southern Rhodesia being called into action in the same way those in Malawi (Nyasaland) and Uganda were. The battle front was just that little bit further away with Nyasaland and Southern Rhodesia (Zambia) in between. Within the article, we are reminded of the black smoke guns which the Germans used at the start of the war until they were able to replace the 1870 model with captured guns and those landed by the blockade runners Marie and Rubens.

The name Jan Lee conjours up thoughts of Lee who came up with the idea of taking the two boats Mimi and Toutou overland to Lake Tanganyika to defeat the German Gotzen (today MV Liemba). I don’t think this is the John Lee but there might be a link between the two men as to date no one seems to have been able to identify exactly who John Lee is.

All that taken from a fascinating article on William Finaughty who had dealings with Lobengula and nothing to do with World War 1, other than dying of old age during the war.

REVIEW: Distinguished Conduct – Melvin E Page

Distinguished Conduct: An African Life in Colonial Malawi by Mel Page is not quite what one would expect from someone like Mel, but it works.

Thankfully Mel explains at the outset that this is not an historical narrative, so those who don’t appreciate the value of footnotes will be pleased. For those of us trying to get a better grip of the events in Africa at the time, this is frustrating, but then as Mel explained, he has not written a history book per se but a novel.

However, this is a novel with a difference. The lead character, Malawian Juma Chimwera was real and the information concerning his military service is based on fact, as are some of the other characters. Chimwera’s experiences, though, are conjectured, as is the role of a white officer who provides the linking thread through the book. So, where does this leave the history scholar?

Effectively, Mel has used his extensive research and knowledge of the King’s African Rifles and Malawi, for most of the novel Nyasaland, to provide a context for Chimwera’s life as a soldier, looking at why he enlisted and his experiences from before the First World War through to Malawian Independence. There are many white missionary and other settler accounts of this period, but few on local black experiences and this is what Mel has tried to encapsulate and in my opinion, succeeds.

Having the advantage of knowing Mel’s academic work, broadly knowing the wider history and at the time of reading Distinguished Conduct literally wading through the whole Colonial Office collection of KAR correspondence, War Diaries and other accounts, I could see how the book was grounded historically.  Yes, literary licence has been taken but one could argue that has been necessary to provide an overview and the feel for the Yao community which has not been known for its written literary record. Mel is not the first to do this, and won’t be the last. Giles Foden took a similar approach with Mimi and Toutou go forth, and I have recently become aware of a South African publication of the life of 688 Sgt Charles Henry Carelse DCM of the Cape Corps – They said we could not do it – written by his great grandson M Adeel Carelse. As Adeel explained, there was insufficient information to write an historical book, but also that wouldn’t ‘bring the characters decorated for valour to life’. I haven’t yet had the chance to read Adeel’s book but I have read Mimi and Toutou by Foden which as an historical account is sadly lacking and which was one of the main reasons for the GWAA embarking on the mammoth project which culminated in The Lake Tanganyika Expedition 1914-1917: A primary source chronology being published (vol 2 due out later in 2020). I do not foresee a similar project having to be undertaken to set the record straight concerning Distinguished Conduct. While recording the life of one man, Mel has remained an objective historian and it’s that which makes this very readable novel a valuable contribution to the novels and history of the First World War in Africa. My only concern is that it gets used as evidence/footnote material for the wrong reasons. So, I nearly end this review with a plea to anyone wanting to use it as reference material, by all means do, but let us know the reason you’re using it and if for historical accuracy, please find further supporting documentation.

Thank you Mel for sharing the life of this little-but-well-known Askari. If only your editors had shown as much care in proofreading the book – there was one too many typographical gremlins for my liking and the non-justification layout of the text took a little while to get used to.

Sperm Oil on Lake Tanganyika

Proofreading the second volume* of The Lake Tanganyika Expedition: a primary source chronology, the term Sperm Oil sprang out at me – clearly linked with whales, why would Spicer Simson want Sperm Oil and something like 50 gallons of it? It needed replacing after the Anversville caught fire.

According to Britannica, it’s a

pale yellow oil obtained with spermaceti from the head cavity (spermaceti organ) and blubber of the sperm whale.

The statement relevant to boats on Lake Tanganyika appears to be:

After removal of spermaceti and treatment with sulfur, sperm oil provided excellent lubricants that resisted extreme pressures. These were commonly used in mechanical transmissions, high-speed machinery, and precision instruments.

However, there was no signficant order for sulphur or mention of the removal of spermateci, so was it used as a lubricant or for lighting?
Not long after the German navy had been destroyed on Lake Tanganyika, the British Navy in 1917 was looking at designing ships which would work on thicker oil. Norman Friedman discusses this in his Naval Weapons of World War 1.

SCRAN provides a bit more helpful information, noting it’s a wax, not an oil, and it remains liquid even in sub-zero temperatures – not really an issue on the equator. And this one provides a short overview of how it’s all done. It was not just sperm whales who were killed for their oils, other whale species were targetted too.

Commercial whaling was eventually banned in 1982, although sperm whale hunting had been legally ended in 1944. Today, instead of sperm oil, the Royal Navy uses alternatives and the whale has been saved from extinction.

I’m still not 100% sure why Spicer Simson wanted to much oil but if he ran short, South Africa could replenish supplies – Cape Town lighthouse used it.

For those of you wondering, Moby Dick was a sperm whale inspired by a whale who got the better of humans on the ship Essex.

* vol 2 should be out later in 2019.

Review of Blood River by Tim Butcher: Lost in Translation

Blood River came highly recommended with the result that I put it on the backburner so as not to be disappointed if it didn’t live up to my expectations. Another reason it hadn’t moved up my reading list was that although it dealt with the Congo, an area I’d been working on, I understood it not to cover the Lake Tanganyika region which was my specific interest in relation to World War 1.

So, when the opportunity arose to read it for a book group I belong to, I took it and personally was not disappointed. In fact, I could relate to many of Tim’s experiences – not that I’ve done the intense ravel he has, but our little bits along the east coast of Lake Tanganyika amongst others gave a flavour. And then, without being specific, there was reference to the Lake Tanganyika Expedition with railways still being in place as well as other remnants – all rusted and no longer used. This will make it into volume 2 or 3 of The Lake Tanganyika Expedition chronology – one of those fortuitous finds.

The group overall found the book a good read – naturally it didn’t suit all tastes but everyone who started it, finished it – unlike Tess. What divided the group was Tim’s reason for doing the route and a few were rather upset that he had put people’s lives in danger for what they saw as a selfish, personal endeavour.

To some extent, I could see their point, but I also know Africa in a different context – people will tell you something is possible, difficult, but possible, and it’s only after you’re some way down the line or at the end of your journey that you become aware of the danger you and they have been exposed to. We’ve had this twice during our travels in East Africa. Once when our vehicle broke down in the Tsavo area eighteen years ago (it was a little unsafe then but now no longer – the road is tarred and far busier), and then nearly seven years ago when a tyre needed replacing travelling by road from Kitavi to Kigoma along the lake – uninhabited bandit territory – not a place to linger and observe the beauty of the huge balancing rocks or garafu as they’re locally known.

If it wasn’t for people like Tim and Paul Theroux (Dark Star Safari) undertaking apparently selfish journeys, changes and conditions in parts of Africa (and elsewhere) would go unnoticed. Historians, social anthropologists, sociologists and others have some record of how things are and have changed. Yes, the material has been processed and adapted to fit a narrative, but it’s more than we had previously. I was also rather relieved that I’d made a decision – a difficult one – not to join a group in covering the footsteps of the Lake Tanganyika Expedition – my gut had felt uncomfortable, although excited, until I firmly made the decision I’d be more of a hindrance than what my historical knowledge could contribute. Reading Blood River confirmed my gut instinct and at some level I’m rather pleased the expedition hasn’t been able to take place, although I do hope it does at some point (willing funders please get in touch).

So, why did I call this review ‘Lost in translation’? Simply, because we translate everything we read through a lens of our experiences. How I understood Blood River contrasted with the rest of the group who are all British and retired. One had visited South Africa on a few occasions and although she had witnessed some poverty there, it wasn’t to the same extent as one finds in rural Africa. I find it fascinating discovering how those of us with Africa in our blood interpret /see things differently to people with British and other backgrounds. And I definitely interpret things in Britain differently to what my British-born friends do. It works both ways. We’re similar, yet not.

Thank you Tim for giving our group a stimulating discussion and which allowed me an outsiders’ view on a continent I love (warts and all).

Tim did gain some Brownie points when the group discovered that he’s patron of a medical charity in Malawi – AMECA. Both Blood River and Dark Star Africa were recommended, by amongst others, Ruthie Markus, founder of AMECA.