Currency issues

Without getting into the ongoing debate of Britain’s relationship with Europe, I was intrigued to read on 24 April 1919 of a suggestion to introduce “an international note of currency”. Its purpose would be “to supply the credit which will pay for food, raw materials – not to speak of reparations! Two birds with one stone.” 

The one bird being finance, the other linking people/countries together as a means to maintain peace. (Smuts papers iv, p127). This tied in with the idea behind the League of Nations, the single currency idea being put forward by Keynes and backed by Smuts.

So often, we see rates of pay, income, salaries and costs stated without any context. This is fine when working in a single currency at a particular time, but it can cause problems working cross-culturally and over time.

Over the years I’ve been researching the First World War in Africa, I’ve come to realise that there were different currencies in operation in the same East African theatre: the Indian rupee in the north as it was the main currency in British East Africa (Kenya) and the shilling in the south, as used in Nyasaland (Malawi) and Northern Rhodesia (Zambia). The Germans had their own currency too. What is therefore helpful in books mentioning rates of pay etc, is the comparative such as Sana Aiyar notes in Indians in Kenya. In the 1920s when the currency was changed from the rupee to the East African shilling, the income level of black Africans effectively reduced by 33%. The rate of pay was not changed but the cost of living increased based on the exchange rate of the new currency.

In 1915, the hut tax in BEA was 3 rupees 5, increased in 1920 to no more than 10 rupees each.  At that time, the rupee exchanged at R1,500 to £100, ie 1 rupee 4 was the equivalent of 1 shilling. With the new currency, the exchange dropped to R1,000 to £100 (pp86-90, Indians in Kenya). In Chiwaya War Voices, covering the experiences of Nyasalanders in the war, hut tax was between 2.5s and 6s.

Some years ago, I came across this little site (https://www.measuringworth.com/calculators/ppoweruk/) which measures the purchasing power of the British pound since 1270. It’s quite sobering. Taking 3s as the most commonly quoted hut tax charge in war-time Nyasaland, today it would be the equivalent of £12.29 or £108.20 depending on what you take into consideration. So, if we take the BEA hut tax as equating to 4 shillings, this equated to £16.39 or £144.20. What we need to know for both, however, is what their respective earnings were. The Nyasalander soldier was paid £1 1s 4d = £87.42 or £769.40. One assumes this was per month.

Concerning West African currency during the war years, Bamidele Aly explores the monetary policy and introduction of bank notes in Southern Nigeria in 1916 in There Came a Time.

If nothing else, a single currency would make historians’ lives easier when it comes to comparing standards of living and other such factors.

Africans in Europe during the 14-18 war

That colonial forces of all colours served, to various degrees, in Europe during World War 1 is fairly well known. The French Tirailleurs, the white South Africans and SANLC on the Western Front. What is less well-known are accounts of black and Arab Africans who found themselves in Europe and Britain on the outbreak of war.

Four from British territories served in the armed forces – two from West Africa, one Zambian (Samson Jackson) and one Malawian (Frederick Njilima). There may well be others who still need to be identified. And also in the other European territories.

So it was with some intrigue that I approached Mtoro bin Mwinyi Bakari: Swahili Lecturer and Author in Germany by Ludger Wimmelbücker published in 2008. Ludger gives an overview of Mtora’s time in Germany, also mentioning two other East Africans: Mdachi bin Sharifu and Halidi bin Kirama. While Mtora refrained from political involvement, the other two did not. It also appears that the latter two were employed by the German colonial office during the war while Mtora had to fend for himself, especially after being returned from East Africa after eight days in 1914.

We discover more Africans in Europe in the prisoner of war records as Annette Hoffman explained in 2017. They came to be there for a variety of reasons. Some were serving in merchant ships which were captured, such as Ntwanambi who was taken prisoner in October 1915 when the ship he was serving on as a boilermaker was captured. Others were taken prisoner whilst working on the war front as hinted at in the article. Sadly, these records were destroyed years ago, and as one commentator points out, we are reliant on the information coming to light in other recorded forms such as diaries, and non-military records.

The records from the Half Moon Camp in Wunsdorf, where many recordings were done are proving a valuable source on this front, but only where the information has been accessed, translated, interpreted and presented in (academic) publications by researchers with specific music or other specialised interests.

Review – Chiwaya War Voices: Melvin E Page

One of the benefits of being a publisher and coordinating the Great War in Africa Association is early access to some material. One of these has been Chiwaya War Voices by Melvin E Page published in March 2020 by the Great War in Africa Association.

In discussion with Mel about what best to do with the hundreds of interviews he’d conducted back in the 1970s and some later in the 1990s, we decided it would be helpful to future researchers for these to be printed and made generally available. I hadn’t seen the full scope of the interviews at this stage but was fully aware of the quality and range of interviews through my thesis work on the Great War in Africa.

Rather than use Mel’s Chiwaya War book or KAR: A history of the King’s African Rifles , I had chanced upon his thesis and what a treasure trove as it contained transcriptions of the interviews as opposed to their essence being integrated into a monograph. Now, we have access to over 140 interview transcripts in a two-volume book with no commentary other than Mel setting out in how he conducted his research and the structure of the material. The Index at the back of the book is a table rather than the traditional-style index. This was done purposefully to assist researchers in identifying the the broad type of material they are after – KAR, askari, carrier, male/female, WW1 or WW2. Mentioning WW2, there is some reference to that in Chiwaya War Voices as comparative to WW1 experiences with some fascinating insights although the main World War Two interviews will be made available in a future publication which Mel is currently working on: Chiwaya War Echoes.

Chiwaya War Voices is a valuable addition to the published primary source material on the war in East Africa. To date, most researchers have quoted Geoffrey Hodges’ interviews for black African experiences. Having looked at the Hodges collection at the Bodleian Library, there is no comparison between the two collections. Chiwaya War Voices is wider reaching in terms of people interviewed, quantity and topic covered. For anyone interested in war burials you will find numerous mentions in Chiwaya War Voices, but not one in any of Hodge’s interviews, However, this is not to discount Hodges’ work but rather to encourage researchers to consider their material carefully within the regional context. Hodges’ interviews were Kenya based whilst Mel’s are Malawi based. Hodges had an interest in the political repercussions whilst Mel’s is more social, The differences continue to echo – relationships appear far more egalitarian between different cultural groups based on the interviews Mel conducted than those by Hodges.

And for anyone questioning some of the experiences in Distinguished Conduct, Mel’s constructed history of Juma Chimwere, Chiwaya War Voices is a good place to look (and then the KAR records at TNA).

The African Army Band

Many of us in and of Africa are aware of the importance and significance of music, ranging from the talking drums to the crooned lullaby to soothe tiny people to protest songs and religious choral harmonies etc. Jazz and pipe bands also feature, the latter having their roots in the military, I think here of the Transvaal Scottish and Irish regiments who alternate in their support of the annual Remembrance Day services in South Africa.

And it’s not just South Africa which has military bands. At the ceremony to commemorate the centenary of the end of the First World War in Zambia on 25 November 2018, the Zambian Army provided a brass band, a practice which dates to before the 1914-18 war as explained by Mel Page in a fascinating article on the role of song over time (“A continuing legacy of song: From Asilikali lyrics into Malawian culture” in Society of Malawi Journal, 2020, 73:1). One of his references is George Shepperson who, in another article in the Society of Malawi Journal (“Malawi and the poetry of two World Wars”, 1990, 43:2), discussed two poems he wrote, one of them emulating the songs the Nyasalander men he led in Burma sang telling of their trials and tribulations but also their successes. Of all the King’s African Rifle units, the Nysalanders were well known for their singing.

Within the same week of reading the above, I then happened by chance upon a 2006 thesis on musicians in the Buganda Court after 1937. A quick look through, invariably such studies have a scene setting chapter which on occasion mentions the war, resulted in the little discovery that

British rule, including their introduction of European brass instruments, influenced the Kabaka of Uganda [Kabaka Chwa II’s reign (the thirty-fourth Kabaka,1897-1939)] to establish a military band for his private army. Native recruits (musicians), who learned skills on these European band instruments (on which they played European tunes), later used these Western instruments to compose and arrange indigenous melodies for their bands. In other words, among the influences of the military band, the musicians adopted non-indigenous musical instruments, which they used in their own shows or parades.

The author, Damascus Kafumbe continues to discuss how music and dance impacted on society, drawing on the past and linking to the present.
It’s one of those things we tend to forget – thinking there was nothing before – there is often a rich heritage which adapts and develops when new ideas and experiences are encountered. No one is an empty vessel waiting to be filled, and the development of the African Army Bands and the influence they had on society speaks strongly of this continuity.

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.