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).

Crossing Africa in War

Working through the Society of Malawi journals I came across a fascinating account of a woman explorer who in December 1916 arrived unexpectedly in Bauchi, Nigeria who informed the young colonial officer that she was going to Yorla, then into German territory, Congo and Nyasaland with one servant and seven carriers.

The woman was Gertrude Benham. Born in 1867, she was the first woman to climb Kilimanjaro (1909) and various other mountains including the Himalayas. She also crossed Africa west to east taking 11 months at the age of 36. She would do so again at least twice. In 1916/7 she was crossing Tanzania at the time it was the scene of war. How she managed to do traverse the territory is unknown. David Stuart-Mogg was wondering this in 2005 when he wrote a short article about Gertrude which is how I discovered her story. Gertrude died in 1938. (Society of Malawi Journal, Miss Gertrude Benham, 2005, 58:1, pp29-30)

Others such as Ewart Grogan had crossed Africa before Gertrude, Ewart covering the continent south to north. Accounts of his exploits have been recorded, most notably by Edward Paice and Grogan himself. While Gertrude has written accounts of some of her adventures her name remains relatively unknown. However, there is now a biography (2009) on her by Ray Howgego as summarised by the New York Times (2019). Ray’s article contains quite a bibliography, yet none seem to cover her time in Africa during the war and David’s question remains unanswered. I wonder if any record does exist about her war-time adventure in the diaries and memoirs of those who encountered her.

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.

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.