On 8 October 1914, the Times Literary Supplement ran an article In unknown Togoland, which reviewed the book A camera actress in the wilds of Togoland by Miss M Gehrts which tells of her experiences in the filming of The white goddess ofWangora.
The review starts by pointing out that the territory under discussion is ‘the latest British possession’ and gives a view of the Kamina radio station which was the focus of the military expedition. Her description of what the radio station was to accomplish supports its recent destruction. While filming took place in some well-known spots such as the holiday resort at Aledjo, most of it was ‘at the back of beyond’. ‘Tribes were pressed into the service as “supers”, and Miss Gehrts as the “white goddess” of a sensational story.’ It was a ‘further tribute to the enterprise of cinematograph producers.’
The reviewer felt Miss Gehrts spent too much time on trivial matters and should have expanded on ‘the very curiously fortified villages of the Tshokossi’ which was ‘of real ethonological value.’ Her account did however, provide an insight into a ‘new and little-known possession, its people, its customs and its industries’. It ‘was certainly above the average of woman traveller’s adventures’, and the film was said to be successful too.
The director of the film was Hans Schomburgk and the film was released in German in 1910. The Bioscope which has an overview of the film has its filming as 1913/4. There seems to be some discrepancy when the film was made/released with the BFI having 1910, and Wolfgang Furhmann referring to 1917 in his 2015 book Imperial Projections: Screening the colonies.
I wonder if anyone has done a comparison between the films listed in Furhmann’s book with those in English identified by Neil Parsons in Black and White bioscope. I have a sneaky suspicion that German cinematographers were far more adventurous at the time than their British counterparts, given that more German settler women wrote about their experiences than British.
What better way to commemorate 100 years of the ending of the Great War than to have a conference – this one focusing on southern Africa in southern Africa. What made this conference ultra special was its diversity. As anticipated most of the speakers would be African and white – encouraging others to research into the war is an ongoing challenge – but the audience was one of, if not, the most diverse I’ve ever encountered concerning World War 1 – and the ensuing discussions around each paper showed an engagement and desire to understand this conflict and its impact on southern Africa for what it was. My thanks to all involved and to our Tanzanian and Zimbabwean colleagues who had to withdraw at the last moment, sorry you couldn’t be with us to share your discoveries on invisible histories in Tanzania and the Askari Beni dance in Malawi respectively.
The conference, opened by Russel Viljoen provided a fitting historical context for southern Africa’s involvement followed by an almost double act by the German Ambassador, Dr Martin Schaefer (he has some interesting posts on Huffington Post), and the British High Commissioner, Nigel Casey. The day before they’d stood together at the Pretoria war memorial paying their respects as did a couple of us (German & South African/British) at the Johannesburg cenotaph.
Topics ranged from how World War 1 was a catastrophe (Herbert Behrendt, German Cultural Attache) to local reminscences by the women of Kroondal (Lize Kriel) and white childhood and racial degeneracy in Southern Rhodesia post war (Ivo Mhike). Jacques de Vries explained how the Cape Corps continued to be side-lined and how it was used in World War 2 despite the Corps valuable armed contribution in World War 1. Alex Mouton provided a fascinating insight into the Union Party and how it influenced Louis Botha’s actions, while Evert Kleynhans looked at how South Africa prepared for war in the interwar years and Tilman Dedering considered South Africa’s secret chemical weapons project from 1933 to 1945. My own contribution considered the impact of the war on various African leaders who took (or tried to take) their countries to independence.
Balancing the social, military and cultural aspects were some intellectual challenges posed by Gerhard Genis who analysed Mqhayi’s Mendi using epi-poetics (The conceptualisation of epi-poetics is based on the field of epigenetics that indicates that humans are psycho-biologically and inter-generationally linked through their historical environments and experiences.’ – Genis) and Ian van der Waag who looked at the writings of South Africa’s First World War involvement – suggesting there’s an prescribed cycle of publications by poets, memoirists, writers of fiction and non-fiction, and official histories. Johan Wassermann‘s overview of the South African school curriculum concerning World War 1 provided some insight into how flexible teaching could be if teachers were open to using the curriculum as intended.
For something a little different, Neil Parsons took us on a whirlwind tour through films of South Africa between 1910 and 1920 n terms of racial representation, and Stefan Manz kept us occupied during breaks with his poster exhibition ‘Behind the Wire: The internment of “enemy aliens” in the British Empire’ and its relevance to all peoples who find themselves interned for being in the wrong place at the wrong time.
Wide ranging in its focus, the conference provided insight into the interest and reach of the war. With more opportunities to share these ‘minor’ interests, we can only enrich our knowledge of the war and its lasting impact. Hopefully, with publication in due course, others will be encouraged to engage with the war and provide an even greater breadth of understanding. And, give a platform for objective discourse which can only bring people together in countries still divided by their past. Thanks to the generous sponsorship of the German Embassy Pretoria, these initial steps were possible.
My thanks to fellow organisers, Surya Chetty, Tilman Dedering and Stefan Manz, additional session chair Nick Southey, all the speakers and attendees for making the event what it was.