How we see things

“Isn’t it wonderful how one lot of human beings can think and act so differently to another lot; and yet each party considers that nobody is right but those who believe as they do? Supposing one day some black missionaries landed in England, dressed in large earrings, bead necklaces, pocket handkerchiefs and nothing else, and tried to persuade us to worship some hideous idol and leave off wearing so many clothes. How astonished we would be … and yet they would think they were doing right, just as our missionaries do who go out to teach savages the Gospel …”

So wrote Harry Johnston, administrator of East Africa, in his novel The Man who did the right Thing, published in 1921, although set in 1886.

The conversation continued: “Well I confess I don’t see the resemblance. What we preach is the Truth,  the Living Truth. What they believe is a lie of the Devil.” … “When I was teaching geography the other day, I was quite astonished to find in the Manual that about four or five hundred millions of people were Buddhists. Isn’t it dreadful to think of their being wrong, all living in vain…”

Given how colonialism and imperialism are generally regarded today, the above statement (paragraph 1) stood out as radical thinking for the time, and even today given my experiences. I worked with a project in Tanzania where our guiding principle/philosophy in introducing any new idea to school teachers was ‘how would this be accepted if say a wealthy Sheikh insisted on doing the same at a school in England?’ It prompted careful thinking and encouraged an ethos of working in partnership. We all had something to learn from the other. I was bringing in knowledge and expertise from elsewhere, they were bringing in local knowledge and expertise and together we created something new (well that was the idea). It’s a principle or philosophy which has stood me in good stead since and allows an “out of the box” take on trying to understand and interpret events of the past.

The continuation of the conversation, between a man going out as a missionary and his soon to be wife, brought it back to earth. How, despite our open-mindedness, we can still be closed to what we think is right. In fact the conversation continued to the missionary (a Chapel worshiper) effectively telling his betrothed that her father might be saved as he was Church of England and so that although following a broadly accepted Truth was not completely on the right path.

I’d like to think we’ve moved on considerably from this position, and while some have, many others haven’t; which is the reality we live with and as historians have to mediate – then and in future.

But back to Harry Johnston (1858-1927) – he was the first colonial administrator of Nyasaland (Malawi) and then at the turn of the century was in Uganda, as well as having spent some time in Tunis and Eastern Nigeria (before Nigeria was united). Johnston’s reputation as a colonial administrator is almost the antithesis of Frederick Lugard. It turns out he was also a prolific author. The (UK) National Archives has a piece on his fantasy mapping of the African continent – in 1886, the year he set the story which inspired this posting. Yet, despite his having been involved with African colonial administration for over 40 years, there is very little about him – an article on his geographical work and a 6 page biography (1927), although Roland Oliver’s Sir Harry Johnston and the Scramble for Africa seems to include a biography – more on this in due course when I’ve read the book; this little excursion again having opened new windows on the past and challenging preconceived ideas.

Drawing the line

One of the things that struck me whilst working on Kitchener: the man not the myth was his distinction between faith and religion. A man of faith himself, he saw how religions were used to control people, especially in illiterate or oral tradition communities. Realising that those being suppressed would eventually try to have their shackles overthrown, he looked to alleviate inequalities through education, improving health and work conditions. To do this he encouraged British control (as he saw this as the most liberal at the time) however, he refused to allow Christian missionaries to set up in places where Islam was successfully embedded. He also learnt Turkish or Islamic law to address inequalities whilst he was in Egypt recognising that to tackle the issue from a British or Christian approach would not work as the cultures and underpinning values were different.

So, it was with interest that I came across the following quote by Jinnah in March 1940. In declaring the Muslim League’s decision to call for a separate state of Pakistan, Jinnah observed that: the real nature of Islam and of Hinduism [are not religions in the strict sense of the word, but they are in fact, different and distinct social orders, and it is a dream that the Hindus and the Muslims can ever evolve a common nationality.

More significantly, he noted that they derive inspiration from different sources of history. They have different episodes. Very often the hero of one is a foe of the other… (in Gandhi: A life by Yogesh Chadha, p368)

Lord Wavell, one time Viceroy of united India, on hearing of Gandhi’s death wrote: but who am I to judge, and how can an Englishman estimate a Hindu? Our standards are poles apart; and by Hindu standards Gandhi may have been a saint; but by any standards he was a very remarkable man. (in Gandhi: A life by Yogesh Chadha, p468)

For these men, the recognition was difference, not inequality. The challenge was how to reconcile these differences in a way that would not lead to conflict but to peace. Where does the give and take lie?

Gandhi in 1942 observed that: Whether my master of yesterday becomes my equal and lives in my house on my own terms, surely his presence cannot detract from my freedom. Nay, I may profit by his presence which I have permitted. (in Gandhi: a life by Yogesh Chadha, p379)

This brings us back to migrations and people moving in and settling into new territories as discussed in Journey to the Mayflower, and many other instances of cultures meeting and mixing, sometimes successfully and living in harmony whilst on other occasions friction and conflict eventually erupt. Perhaps the latter as a result of not being genuine or fair in striving for equality as Gandhi’s assassin, Nathuram Godse tried to explain in his 5-hour explanation of his actions. The history of the African continent (and no doubt others too) is riddled with such examples.

In this political time, I’ll leave you to draw your own conclusions from the above. For myself, I think there’s a clue to how we can move forward to live together in peace and harmony.

Another special remembrance

I attended a remembrance service with a difference on Monday 10 February 2020. It was to mark the 75th anniversary of the day a V2 bomb hit the central office of the then Presbyterian Church of England killing 10 people. Today it is the central office of the United Reformed Church (and between 1868 and 1970 the lodging of cross-dressers according to the blue plaque outside). I can just see those of you who know my blogs going – no Africa, no WW1… and yes, to a large extent you’re right. However, one of the men who died in the blast had served as a Church of England chaplain during the First World War. Africa featured through some of those attending.

What made this remembrance service special was its inclusiveness in a way others I had attended had not been. Others had been nationally, give or take, inclusive but this one was religiously inclusive, for all its being overtly a Christian service. Accompanying the service was an exhibition which had been put together of the area and the aftermath of the bomb’s visitation alongside short biographies on each of the people who lost their lives – men and women, clergy and other, from the receptionist, to the bookseller, the visitor and general secretary. All were regarded as equal, during the service their contribution to the work of supporting others read out in alphabetical order by those who fill similar roles today – crossing ethnic and gender lines. And all of this had been lovingly and carefully put together by the archivist – a sister of the Muslim faith. The main challenge in putting the exhibition together was that the building then belonged to the Presbyterian Church so no material was available in the current archive, and being sensitive to conditions of GDPR in a way those of us dealing with World War 1 don’t. Material had to be sourced elsewhere, including from Cambridge.

Together archivist and historian stood while the past was remembered – poignant for those who work in the building realising that one minute you’re all getting on with the day’s business and busyness, the next, ten of your friends and colleagues are no more, you’re a survivor along with 100 others in the area who were injured. Not content with only remembering the past, thoughts turned to those who suffer similar experiences today across the world.

I was the outsider in so many ways, but what a feeling of togetherness…and to think, I nearly didn’t attend.

 

A Dove to Remember

This year I discarded the remembrance poppy in favour of a dove – evidence of my journey over the past 4 years. In preparation for 2014 I had a special choker made with 4 poppies to reflect the four quarters of the globe. However, the start of the centenary commemorations showed just how exclusive this symbol was (and remains) especially when it comes to the conflict in Africa.

Poppies are not an African flower. The symbol, at least as it was linked with the Tower of London display, ignored the mass of Africans who for various (legitimately thought at the time) reasons are not recorded on the CWGC database. Then we have the Africans who served for more than one imperial power including Britain. The ‘other’ is not included. And what about all those who did their bit unofficially? The contributions of the home fronts, those who felt their calling was to keep the economy going or to safeguard some of the population for the future? All suffered through the terrible years of war and after.

Something inclusive was needed in the same way that the two-minute silence is. Something that transcended race, religion, gender, culture, age and … Posing this challenge to a reforming/liberal chaplain, his immediate reply was ‘the dove – it covers all religions.’ An internet search later, I was convinced. All continents except Antarctica have a dove species and all the major religions (at least 6) accept the dove. Most significant though, was what it represented: peace, hope and forgiveness.

The dove became my remembrance symbol. The next challenge was to find a representative dove (the 3 Abrahamic faiths each have a tailored dove). A trip to a local art shop supplied the item. All was set. Except… what to place at the cenotaph? Something natural, eco friendly and sustainable that anyone could easily access and which had symbolic meaning. Religious practice again supplied the answer: stones. They protected the dead from being dug up, were used for cairns to mark special places and were of the earth.

Broaching the issue with a friend, I discovered stones from the beach in Cape Town are used at the Castle Mendi memorial. There couldn’t be any objections to my inclusive suggestion. And at a small private-ish remembrance service at the site where the Germans were informed of the armistice (opposite bank of the Chambeshi River to where the factory was), a group of 22 set stones to remember all those involved in the wars in and from Africa.

It seems fitting that at this time of the year, I share with you my dove and all it symbolises: peace, hope and forgiveness.

Untold Friendships: A journey with The Unknown Fallen

Every now and then a challenge comes along – well, working on World War 1 in Africa, it’s more often than not as so little has actually made it into the public domain and some archives remain a challenge to access. Having managed to contribute a piece on Sikh involvement in the East Africa campaign, I started gathering information on Muslim involvement. Did you know that the Governor of East Africa called a jihad? This is a passing comment in some literature but had little, if no impact, on what happened. I was intrigued. Using primary source material I was able to write an article charting Muslim involvement in World War 1 only to have it declined as I refused to go into detail on how the different Islams were affected or developed (a minefield I am still trying to navigate and understand). I also didn’t challenge how the Governor, being a German, could declare a jihad – that wasn’t my purpose. I was more interested in why the Governor had made such a statement; it suggested that there were far more Muslims involved on both sides than existing literature had us believe. Here was another group of people whose contribution had been glossed over and who needed a voice.

Not long after submitting the above article for review, I was approached by Luc Ferrier to contribute something on Muslim involvement to The Unknown Fallen. Keep it simple – this is an introduction to the topic, were the instructions. It soon became apparent that thoughts of focusing on East Africa, the central theatre where most of the troops served from 1917, would not work and that separate pieces would need to be written on East, West and South Africa. Others were looking at the north and French involvement. Back to my task, the first two were ‘easy’ enough, as ground work had been done, but with the article in the publishing pipeline, I had to beware of potential copyright infringements so a different angle to the war in East Africa was taken in particular. South Africa proved the challenge – but through fortuitous discoveries, assumptions were shown up for what they were and a new little window has opened on another micro-nation or two. Job done!

Not so. Meeting with Luc and Vera to discuss feedback on my contributions, more was to come – editing, proofreading through my role as a publisher and supporting students with academic writing. And finally to assist with translations from French to English. Thankfully, technical translation had been done. My role, if I could do it, was to capture the feel of the original author. And by all accounts, we achieved this. I use ‘we’ on purpose. I have never known a book to be so thoroughly checked and reviewed by so many people to ensure that what has appeared in print does not offend but educates and respects – as well it should.

Initially, I had issues with the fact that this book only focuses on Allied Muslim involvement (and I know a few people I spoke to felt the same), but I soon came to see why it should. To do anything else, as my article experience proved, would require more complex explanations and enter into a world of politics which would distract from the aim – to show the diversity of men and women who worked together for a common goal.

One of the things that struck me, and still does, is that religion didn’t matter. If it did, the officers and those who wrote diaries and memoirs would have made an issue of it, but they didn’t. Few mention religious aspects. It was traditional for the British army to keep religious and ethnic groups separate for dietary purposes, but in East Africa, the nature of the campaign meant this didn’t happen and the delivery, or rather non-delivery of rations, meant that men had to eat what got through or what they could find. If anthing would cause religious unrest and ill-feeling, this would have been it. To date, I’ve not found mention of issues around having to eat foods not in keeping with religious practice or that men could not do their work becuase of the need to fulfil religious duties – be they Muslim, Sikh, Christian, Jewish, Hindu or other locally practised belief. There were differences, I don’t deny – and after the war in particular, politics reared its ugly head, but that’s all for another discussion.

There are so many gems in this ‘little’ book. [‘Little’ refers to the amount of text given the size of the book. It’s light reading but intense – so much packed into so few words.] I cannot say what my favourite part of the book is – there are too many different ‘pulls’.

  • Working with it, I became quite attached to some of the characters depicted by the artist Eugene Burnand – the diversity of soldier is incredible, and not just those of the Muslim faith.
  • What has been revealing working on The Unknown Fallen was the care and interest taken by the French government, in particular, the French War Minister Alexandre Millerand, in ensuring that Muslim soldiers were buried correctly. I’ve subsequently found a British reference which needs further investigation (thanks to Nick Ward, The Black Titanic).
  • Another highlight is the night sky of Verdun on 4 September 1914 – a double page spread of peace and tranquility, ignorant of the carnage going on below.
  • 28 statements of what Islam is – an eye-opener and in many ways a reiteration of the Christian and Jewish Ten Commandments.
  • Images to challenge stereotypes: Muslims praying in a forest or wood juxtaposed with an image of a Christian chaplain conducting mass. Brothers in Arms, Standing Together.
  • The walls of remembrance.
  • Stories of those who sacrificed their religion in name to fight for what they believed was right.

This is a book which goes beyond war to look at the human-ness of mankind. It won’t be to everyone’s liking but it certainly achieves what it set out to, and far more. Something is bound to grab at your heartstrings.

It’s been an incredibly humbling experience and honour to be a small part of The Unknown Fallen journey; a project which lays the foundation for more to come.

And for anyone wondering about the title of the blog – Untold Friendships – this caught my eye only days before I sat down to write this piece. It’s the ‘title’ of the back cover and an unexpected reward for having embarked on a journey to stand shoulder to shoulder with men of women of all faiths and backgrounds then and now in an attempt to make the world a slightly nicer place for all.