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.

Shakespeare in Africa

Back in 2016 I wrote about a Shakespeare exhibition and the man’s connection with Africa as I knew it then. Well, the man has come back into consciousness unexpectedly on two fronts, both inspired by consciously working through my collection of unread books – someone once mentioned that the average person never reads more than 1/3 of their collection, so I set out to prove otherwise but as the argument goes, you can’t really work out an accurate figure as there are so many variables. According to Penguin UK, the average person who reads manages 12 books a year in the US while only 34% in the UK managed 10 or more books in one year. Given that my job and hobby both involve reading and that I read for pleasure, I’m definitely one of the 34% who reads more than 10 or 12 books a year, but it’s only having done a clear out of my library (lots of teaching/text books I won’t go back to) and removing reference books such as dictionaries from my list (yes, I have a list with dates when I finished a book), that I’ve finally made it to 35% excluding those recently bought…

So where does Shakespeare fit in? Apart from working through the collection of his writings, I happen to have read concurrently (I’m a book in nearly every room kind of person) the Brian Willan biography of Sol Plaatje and Antony Sher’s The year of the King in which he records his experience of performing Richard III. It was following my earlier encounters with Sher from his Titus Andronicus performance in South Africa and in ID about Verwoerd’s assassination, that I started collecting his written work and it’s taken me until now to read one. At one point he sees Lion’s Head in Cape Town as an inspiration for how Richard III will look – in case you’re wondering he’s also a sketch artist so has some amazing illustrations to show his thinking. This is all happening in 1983/4.

However, just over 80 years earlier, Sol Plaatje had discovered Shakespeare and saw Hamlet amongst others reflecting society as he knew it being a Barolong. In May 1916, while in England to lobby the British government to stop the SA Native Land Act of 1913, he is able to celebrate the Shakespeare tercentenary on the bard’s own soil. Plaatje watches a performance of Julius Caesar* in Stratford-upon-Avon, wrote a South African Homage to Shakespeare which was published that year in a commemorative compilation and on route back to South Africa later that year he starts translating The Merchant of Venice into Setswana. He would translate 6 of Shakespeare’s plays. Since then there have been numerous (relatively speaking) other translations and adaptations by South Africans.

And it’s not just South Africa where Shakespeare features. Alamin Mazuri considered Shakespeare in Swahili back in 1996, while in 2019 there was a Shakespeare Youth Festival. Shakespeare in Africa has podcasts by various people on the topic while Nigeria seems to have explored some alternative ways of performing/interpreting the man. You can also listen to some Hamlet in Yoruba. No doubt other African countries have their links too which Google et al will help source.

What is remarkable is how this man writing so many years ago still resonates today across continents, cultures and language.

*I wonder if Kitchener got to see the performance at Drury Lane theatre in the week before he drowned. Kitchener was one of the founding members of the Drury Lane Masonic Lodge, for actors, and had “directed” a battle scene at a preview following his return to Britain after he had conquered Khartoum.

Pecking order

Looking out my window, I’m fascinated at the order in which birds come to the feeder and how they arrange themselves to access food on the ground. There is a definite pecking order and from what I can see, it’s not always the big birds who get preference.

I’m currently helping a heritage group with some research into the West African Frontier Force (WAFF) during World War 1* and was struck by correspondence highlighting the differences between the various contingents making up the WAFF – the pecking order persists.  The issue of martial race has been discussed by many authors and until recently has been taken as read when selecting micro-nations for military service. The correspondence in @UKNationalarchives CO 445 shows how wide-ranging the pecking order was and the reasons for it.

Understandably to some extent, the needs of the Western Front dominated what was happening in the peripheral theatres of war. So, when on 3 December 1914, Lord Lugard (Gov Gen Nigeria) let the Colonial Office know that 6 maxim guns and two 2.75 / 2.95in guns had been lost in the Cameroons campaign and needed replacing, he didn’t stand much chance. The discussion in the CO papers (CO 445/34 48111) notes:

It is quite impossible to replace them at once. I understand that it has not yet been found possible to arm the Canadian Contingent with machine guns. We can of course send a copy of this to WO and ask them what they can do… say [to Gen Dobell­­­] that there is much difficulty and delay in procuring war like stores for Colonies and ask whether he considers the matter urgent.

The Canadian Contingent was headed to the Western Front. There was also some question regarding the request for replacement guns as it had been noted that on the outbreak of war there were 51 maxim guns in Nigeria (1 with each of the 34 Companies and 17 in reserve), 14 2.95inch guns (6 with No 1 battery and 4 with No 2 battery and 2 with each reserve battery). (CO 445/34 48111) What had happened to these?

The issue of weapons to the Western Front was not a ‘white’ versus ‘black’ issue which could be inferred by Canada getting preference over the WAFF, South Africa sufferened similar shortages of weapons and had to scrounge  from Malta, Australia and Portugal (forthcoming publications).

However, race did play its part in who fought where. As noted in October 1916, the War Office wanted white men in subsidiary theatres moved to Western Front asap and to be replaced by locally raised black troops including from South Africa. (CO 445/37 55218)

Closer to home, in Africa that is, the pecking order persisted as seen in the discussions over which troops were to serve in East Africa from 1916 onwards. In CO 445/37 48999 men from Sierra Leone were preferred over the West African Regiment, whilst the recruitment drive undertaken by Colonel Haywood clearly showd the military prefernce for troops from Gold Coast and then Nigeria. (CO 445/37 56748)

More specifically, in December 1916, following the WO request for 4,000 carriers to be recruited in West Africa for service with the Nigerian battalion in East Africa, the CO dsiscussion contained the following statements: The WO see Hausas being needed in Nigeria and that ‘the Sierra Leone Carrier is greatly to be preferred and is the only stamp fit for service with combatant troops.’ If carriers could not be obtained from Sierra Leone, then they should be raised from Nigeria but not from areas used for recruiting ‘combatant material’. ‘The Ibos should also be able to furnish large numbers of men of excellent physique who should make good labourers in Base Ports, and Lines of Communication releasing others who may be more suitable for employment with troops.’ (CO 445/37 62587)

What has also been striking about this correspondence is the clear understanding that the CO officials had of the different territories under their control and how this compared with the WO officials who saw no difference between the micro-nationalities comprising East and West Africa. It was nothing to the WO to suggest that King’s African Rifles (KAR) recruits be used to bring the Nigerian and Gold Coast Regiments up to establishment if men could not be found and trained quickly enough in West Africa. (CO 455/37 42406).

Another area where differences were seen was in the application of the King’s Regulations for the British Army to the African forces. Officers seconded from the British Army to the WAFF recommended that conditions for serving African rank and file be the same as for those serving in the British Army. Whilst this principle of equality was generally accepted for the WAFF, there were local conditions which had to be taken into account which mitigated against the King’s Regulations – notably the payment of separation allowances to families who had no knowledge of, or need for, money.

The above are snippets I extracted from my rapid trawl through the series, anyone wanting to delve more deeply into aspects can see the full catalogue listing for the WAFF during  WW1 CO 445 on the GWAA site.

* The African Heritage and Education Centre (AHEC) is looking for records and accounts of West Africans who were involved in the war during World War 1 – soldiers, carriers, garrison forces, home front etc. If you are able to help, please get in touch either with Christine or myself.