Review: Percy Sillitoe by AW Cockerill

Not too long ago I heard someone who had become head of MI5 (the British internal secret service) had served in East Africa during World War 1. As can be imagined, this got the cogs going and eventually the name Percy Sillitoe was revealed as the man.

The opportunity to divert from immedate research priorities came with having to prepare my talk on the formation of the Legion of Frontiersmen and MI5/6. Surprisingly, there was no direct link but it is clear that Sillitoe’s experiences in Africa set him in good stead for his future career back in the UK.

In short, Sillitoe ended up in Africa with the BSAP (British South Africa Police) in 1911, moving to the NRP (Northern Rhodesia Police) soon after. It was in this capacity that he saw service in World War 1 on the Northern Rhodesia – Congo border, before being taken ill requiring some time to recouperate in South Africa and returning to a political role in Northern Rhodesia. Marriage led him to a career in England and Scotland reforming police services wherever he went, until he was eventually appointed head of MI5 after World War 2. On retirement he ended up working on a diamond smuggling project which took him back to Africa.

This was a fascinatig and insightful read into a man, little known, who had a huge impact on policing as we know it today. And it seemed only appropriate that the two events which marked new stages in his career involved Africa – the first with the BSAP/NRP both controlled by Cecil Rhodes initially and concerning gold and diamonds. The second, being employed by Ernest Oppenheimer of De Beers – originally a Rhodes’ company.

A striking feature of Sillitoe’s work was his understanding of human nature and the realisation that a happy workforce would lead to a loyal workforce – something many of today’s managers could take on board. His time in Africa reinforced and honed this perception.

And for more of the African story not published in the biography, see this Exclusive.

It seems appropriate to consolidate here what is currently known of Percy’s World War 1 and Africa experience based on Tim Wright’s The History of the Northern Rhodesia Police.

22 May 1888 – born in Tulse Hill, London
25 April 1808 – Joins BSAP
Oct 1910 – Corporal at Vic Falls
8 Feb 1911 – Lieut Barotse Native Police (BNP)
13 Nov 1911 – At Fort Rosebery on route to Anglo-Belgian Boundary Commission escort officer to end of 1912.
Suffered Blackwater fever
1914 – served with Town Police detachment – opened the first police station in Lusaka, was the only commissioned officer
His sleeping quarters were struck by lightening, but he was in the livingroom having tea with the Assistant Magistrate from Chilanga
Prevented game poaching by Boers
August 1914 In Lusaka during attack on Abercorn; left to meet the gun crew (May Jackson) at Broken Hill to go north. With 600 carriers undertook 520 mile march averaging 18 miles a day when the norm for carriers was 15 miles.
After reaching Abercorn, Percy was sent with 50 NRP to link with the Belgians and engage with the Germans at Kituta. He returned to Abercorn when it was discovered that the Germans had left.
19 Oct 1915 – at Fife with 50 NRP
29 Jan 1916 – Edward Northey arrives in Zomba (Sailed 4 Dec 1915, Cape Town 24 Dec, 7-11 at Livingstong with Cmdt Gen Edwards)
Orders Sillitoe with two columns totalling 138 men to go from Fife to take Luwiwa ad organise food collections once occupied.
2 Apr 1916 – Northern Rhodesia Police (NRP) Temporary Captain Officer Commanding E Company
Enteric Fever
30 Oct 1916 – in command of the area Alt Iringa to Salimu
15 August 1917 – Transfers to Tanganyika Service adn becomes OETA Bismarcksburg (Occupied Enemy Terrritory Administrator)
Nov 1918 – Political Officer, Dodoma
26 May 1920 – relinquishes command of NRP
1953 – Chief Investigator, De Beers
5 Apr 1962 – died Eastbourne


The Northern Rhodesia Police Association online archive

Review: Forged in the Great War by Jan-Bart Gewald

Forged in the Great War: People, transport and labour, the establishment of colonial rule in Zambia 1890-1920 is the second book regarding the Great War and Zambia’s role to have been published during 2015. The other is Ed Yorke’s Britain, Northern Rhodesia and the First World War: Forgotten Colonial Crisis.

I recommend both and although my intention is not to review Ed’s book here, I need to refer to it, not least because Jan-Bart does. Interestingly Jan-Bart feels that his argument contradicts that of Ed’s. However, I think the two compliment each other as they are looking at slightly different aspects of the same thing. Added together, we have a very rich new understanding of the politics behind Northern Rhodesia / Zambia’s involvement in World War 1.

I’ve more to say about Ed’s book elsewhere (still to be published) and as the heading of this blog indicates, I want to focus on Jan-Bart’s short expose (174 pages incl bibliography) of labour and the making of Zambia.

As with the recent studies coming out on the East Africa campaign, we are starting to get a deeper understanding of the subtle differences between the micro-nations involved in the conflict and how these interacted with each other and the dominating colonial power structures both locally and internationally. While Ed’s book has looked at the broader internatonal position with a greater focus on the role between te British South Africa Company’s (BSAC) relationship with Britain, Jan-Bart has tended to focus more internally and it is in this regard that the ‘difference’ in argument is perceived.

Jan-Bart claims that the reason the BSAC was able to take control of Zambia during the war was because they were given carte blanche on expenditure by the British government. Here I have to differ as this was not the case. The British War Office certainly (with Kitchener in the chair) believed that no expense should be spared to enable Britain to win the war. However, this is too superficial a reading of the situation. Kitchener was known for saving costs and being frugal but not at the expense of quality. He did not believe in throwing money at a problem and certainly not in a battle he did not think necessary (or where the final decision would be made at the peace table). In this he differed to the rest of his War Office staff and back in London there was a constant struggle between the War Office and Colonial Office about expenditure in Africa and who was paying for what in connection with the war. The Colonial Office was hesitant to incur costs it, or its territories, would have to pick up at the end of the war. The BSAC was responsible to the latter for its work in Zambia and a careful reading of Forged in the Great War points to this.

On p31 Jan-Bart states:

it was precisely on account of the war, and in particular the limitless funding made available to the BSAC by the War Office during the course of the war, that the BSAC was able to establish an effective administration in Northern Rhodesia

This is in line with my findings but what Jan-Bart hasn’t picked up on was the relationship with the Colonial Office where on occasion, I imagine, somewhat heated discussions took place over who was responsible for what costs. By 1917 Jameson is less eager to spend money in Zambia as he is aware that the company might not be reimbursed. And I would go so far as to say this is the reason the chiefs do not receive in full the rewards they were promised for recruiting labour.

This is the only area I could see were the two text differ in their argument and hence the conclusions they draw.

What is more significant than differing conclusions is the information which has been brought to light  especially from the Zambian National Archives which few students of the Great War are likely to be able to visit.

Through Jan Bart’s account we get a chronological overview of how labour practices in Zamabia changed over 30 years and some of the reasons behind these changes. He looks at the slave trade and the changes end ending of that brought, how  farming practises changed and the impact of the introduction of cassava as a food source.

Of particular note is how the administration sought to find alternatives to using human carriers and the challenges introducing mechanical transport posed. Who would have thought using a truck wouldhave been so expensive to run when one thinks of the overcrowding on our roads today (p117/8):

In the course of 1916 a road was cut and bridges built from the railhead at Broken Hill to two points on the border. Up to 17 motorcars were obtained via South Africa and converted into lorries able to carry 700 lbs plus a driver and his kit. The road was an earthen track, with exception of approximately 80 miles of sand where, ‘wheel tracks in the sand were filled with soft stone and the cars ran on two slightly sunken ribbons of Macadam thus formed’.

Taking into account the amount of food carriers would need to survive a journey (p119):

Administrator Wallace wrote:
I hear from Colonel Masterman that he has asked Mr. Chaplin for authority to buy 10 more motor lorries and cars for the road Kashutu to Kasama, this will make a total of 26 cars with which he hopes to be able to deliver 2,000 lbs per day at Kasama. I estimated that three tons per day were needed and I am now informed that the amount required is nearer five tons per day. It is evident that if the motor transport had to be depended upon we should need a very large number of cars. The road will be a safeguard against failure but I hope that except for urgent stores we shall not have to use it much as the running costs alone cannot be less than £70 to £80 per ton.

Man power was still the most efficient, reliable and cost effective.

Another option which opened for the duration of the war, was river transport. The administrators, were despite today’s views, very conscious of the need to look after their labour as it was scarce and deaths or losses of any kind would have a major impact on the delivery of food – for all.

Goodall, based at Nsumbu Island, systematised and supervised the transport route through the numbering: ‘a numbered metal label nailed to each craft’, and registering of all craft. Canoes and paddlers were collected from all the river systems, and Goodall ‘soon had registered over 12,000 paddlers and 2,000 canoes’. The canoes were hired for whatever period they were needed and the owners received hire payment at the rate of 6d. per load per trip. Paddlers were engaged for two complete journeys and received 6s. pay and 2s. food allowance per journey. An extra shilling was paid to those who completed the journey in under one month. Canoes in need of repairs were dealt with at Kabunda, free of charge to owners. In this manner boats, ‘ranging from small ones of not more than 12 inches wide which with only one paddler carried 120 lbs, to large ones which with 5 or 6 paddlers would carry half a ton’, transported nearly 70,000 loads of an average 25 kilogram a piece between January 1916 and February 1917.

That the administraton was concerned is also evident in its reaction to the outbreak of the Spanish Flu and the lack of food availability. I can just imagine the confusion and anger there must have been with the government insisting that all farmers who had produce sell it to the government which then saw to it being distruibuted more fairly and widely to ensure that all had something rather than many having nothing. I’m not naive enough to ignore the ideas of misappropriation of goods and some getting more than others for various reasons (the same happened in the UK with rationing and in other countries), but it does serve to show that at least on a local level there were whites with a conscience.

Finally, it was also refreshing to see Jan-Bart’s take on The Lake Tanganyika Expedition. This is something I’ve been very aware of through the photographs of the expedition and as he notes, there is very little in the written documentation, but it is there if you look.

For May, I’m going to review Richard Smith’s Jamaican Volunteers in the First World War: Race, masculinity and the development of national consciousness. I mention this here as it provides a very insightful take on British attitudes to micro-nationalities outside of Britain.


Review: Kariakor by Geoffrey Hodges

Kariakor: The Carrier Corps by Geoffrey Hodges is probably the best known and regarded book on the Carriers or Porters of World War 1 in East Africa. This is not surprising as he spent 15 years researching the topic, starting in 1968. The current publication (1999) is an abridged version of that initially published in 1986 in the US as Carrier Corps.

THR Cashmore’s review of the book is in keeping with how many perceive the plight of the carrier. However, the story is far more complex than that set out by Hodges in his publication. At the 2015 SCOLMA conference, John Pinfold gave some insight into what was not published in Kariakor. He is working through the research Hodges collected which is kept in the Bodleian Library Archive (Charles Wendell David Reading Room / microfilm copy at IWM) and what appears to be evident is that Kariakor was a victim of the political era in which it was written (1970s – cf decolonisation, Idi Amin in Uganda…)

That the account is somewhat biased (and this is not to detract from the horrors and stresses the men (and women) suffered) is supported by veteran interviews Gerald Rilling did in the 1980s which are stored at the Imperial War Museum. Myles Osborne in Ethnicity and Empire in Kenya (2014, pp75-6) notes:

In the early months of the war, volunteers were common. At one point, for instance – in just one week – Kiteta and Mbooni locations provided 600 men for the Carrier Corps. Officials found men in both Machakos and Kitui willing to join us, and recruiters encountered little opposition as they went about their work. Relatively few deserted, and recruiting officers rejected only 6 percent of men from Machakos for service.

Other texts to consider when researching the Carrier Corps include are Oscar from Africa (1995), the biography of Oscar Watkins who was commandant of the Carrier Corps during the war. Frank – Bishop of Zanzibar by H Maynard Smith (1926). Frank accompanied his carriers on their journey, giving us first-hand insights.

Frank was most careful about getting the names of his men properly enrolled, and seeing that maintenance was provided for their wives while away. He saw that each had his correct equipment, blankets, water-bottles and haversack. He even had postcards served out to those who could write, and they were used. Here is a letter written by one African to another. It was shown to a lady on the staff, who has kindly sent me a translation:

Truly is our Lord Bishop a great man! Did he not call us and gather us all together? Did he not drill us and go for marches with us every day?

Truly, he is a great man! For when after many days a ship came to take us to the mainland, he came down to the shore to take leave of us. Then we said to him, ‘Bwana, we go not without you, for are you not our father?’ And he said unto us, ‘Good, I will go with you.’

Truly, he is a great man, for he came over the sea with us, and when we reached the mainland, he marched with us, he slept with us, he ate with us, and when we laid down at night, did he not pray with us? And when we arose in the morning, did he not pray with us again? At the end did he not take us into camp.

Truly, he is a great man.

The horror of the road was increased by the lack of water. Frank had indeed received an official list of watering places, but the man who had surveyed the route had done so during the rains. At the first halting place there was no water at all, and the weary men had to go on until night. On the second day, after a fifteen mile walk, the well was found, ‘but an inquiring spirit was rewarded with a museum of dead frogs.’ Another six miles had to be walked, and Frank writes:

The man who has not had to do extra miles beyond his promised halting place, under a tropical sun, has yet much to learn of what a broken spirit really means.

Notwithstanding the difficulties, Frank could write:

Our men did very well in this particular work. We made a record for the journey both in time and accuracy, that is, we got our loads there quicker than other porters and we got them all there. I gather this was not common.

Hodges looks at the role of the Carriers from Kenya from a specific time. As seen from the quotes above, his work needs to be taken into consideration with other texts looking at different times and places of the same campaign.

Experiences in the south, although similar, were also different. In particular, Ed Yorke considers the role of Zambians as does Jan-Bart Gewalt. Mel Page in the Chiwaya War which considers Malawi’s contribution, while Michelle Moyd in Violent Intermediaries (2015) considers the German perspective. The forthcoming book On call in Africa 1910-1932 provides some insight into the medical assistance available to, at least some, carriers whilst on the march.

The numbers quoted differ depending on what source you are using. It is not clear how much double counting has taken place and to what extent casual labour is/is not included. This is a project which is currently being undertaken by GWAA – capturing the names and details of all those involved in the campaigns in Africa, and particularly in East Africa, will hopefully help clear up some of the uncertainties surrounding the roles and numbers of those caught up in the horrors of war. The blog I did on the Numbers game (13 June 2014) needs updating in light of new information which has come to light. It’s going to take some time, but watch this space…

Hodges deserves to be recognised for opening up the world of the carrier and porter, however, his findings should be treated cautiously as the reality is far more complex than he portrays.

And for anyone interested in a slightly different history, there is MG Vassanji‘s And Home was Kariakoo, a memoir which reflects back on the history of the place he grew up in. It mentions 17 Letters to Tatham.