Quiet recognition

Recently, I’ve been discovering acknowledgements to various forces which have tended to be kept out of the media spotlight.

The first was an article on Johannesburg’s oldest war memorial – one to Indian troops. It dates back to 31 October 1902.

And by the time I got to visit Delville Wood on Friday 16 March 2018, I had discovered that when the memorial was opened in 1926, there were three acknowledgements which didn’t make it into the white press. Thanks to Bill Nasson who discovered a newspaper record of it and referenced it in an article entitled Delville Wood and South African Great War Commemoration (English Historical Review, 2004).

  • Leo Walmseley laid a wreath to the carriers and labourers who served in Europe and Africa. Leo himself had been a pilot in the East Africa campaign.
  • Petals were thrown to remember the 250 Indian Stretcher Bearers from South Africa who served and
  • Major William Cunningham remembered the Cape Corps who had served in East Africa and Palestine.

The newspaper which carried the info was African World Supplement, xi Abantu-Batho, 1 October 1926.

It’s a pity such remembrance was done on the quiet but it shows that there are always some who stand out from the crowd.

Review: Troopship Mendi – the Black Titanic by Nick Ward

Troopship Mendi – the Black Titanic by Nick Ward (2016) is a book with a difference. It’s clearly self published, the lack of proofing and editing are obvious but more so, it’s a record of a journey of discovery into the story behind the SS Mendi which was sunk on 21 February 1917 off the Isle of Wight, the result of an accident.

Nick takes the reader through his discovery of the first Mendi graves he found and how this led to his search for the story behind the sinking and to find relatives of those who lost loved ones on the ship. The value of the book lies, at least for me, in Nick’s journey – the challenges one faces and how doors can open when all seems at a dead end – literally.

From a content point of view, Nick tells the story of the Mendi as he discovered it, using extensive quotes from reports and enquiries. This works if you have a basic knowledge of the Mendi saga but I’m not sure how easily someone new to Mendi would be able to construct the story.

I struggled with the Titanic link, until Nick explained how this came to be. And then later made links with Lord Buxton, Governor General of South Africa who had been at the Board of Trade when the Titanic went down. In fact, had it not been for that shipping incident, it is unlikely he would have been in South Africa as Governor General. Needless to say, it all helps get the story across to a wider audience.

I have a few issues with the book, not least the huge amounts printed in italics which can be hard on the eyes and the above-mentioned proofing errors. I’m also not sure about the emphasis Nick gives to Wauchope, over whom there are questions as a spiritual leader – to the extent that he was not employed in this capacity but rather as a clerk to the force.  The other interesting aspect I found is that Nick doesn’t deal with the myth of Wauchope’s poem which apparently helped keep the men calm. In fact, there is no mention of it at all in the book and the accounts Nick has included of the ship going down suggests the usual panic and chaos at such a time, recognising that the men had been well-drilled and that this played an valuable part in containing what could have been a made rush and free for all. I would be interested to know where and how this myth began. But it doesn’t and shouldn’t retract from the role Wauchope and his family have played in the struggle for equality in South Africa. If only Nick had been able to do the same with others who had lost their lives or even survived.

And, as I usually gripe, we hear so much about the Mendi and the sacrifice the men made to the exclusion of all the other SA Labourers who served and did their bit. But to be fair to Nick, he does touch on this a bit and it was not what he set out to do. What he does and, it’s sad to write, is show how fickle remembrance can be. The memorial garden opened by the Queen and Nelson Mandela is now, or was at the time of his writing, in disrepair. Government ministers promised things would be done and when it came to the crunch, fell silent. Those of us with African backgrounds  and who have spent time in Africa have all experienced this but it doesn’t make it right.  Sad to say, the Mendi continues as with Delville Wood to be a political pawn in South Africa’s World War 1 remembrance and this is something Nick brings home, even if he does so sub-consciously.

This is a worthwhile read on many levels and I’m sure I’ll be referring back to it on occasion – but I leave one plea. Let the men rest in peace where they lie – most who gave their lives in World War 1 rest in far flung places – Rather, let’s remember and honour them and what they, and their fellow SANLC, undertook to do to help make the world a better place.

The SA Heritage portal reviewed the book in 2017.

The Fear of Equality

It’s common knowledge that South African Native Labour Corps men who served in France during World War 1 were kept separated behind barbed wire fences and were not allowed to fraternise with the local populations. The men had to be supervised and controlled by white South African men who had experience of managing black labour in South Africa.

This scenario is often used to prove white South Africa’s racial tendencies.

Recently, I came across the following description:

Among other regulations, smoking was prohibited on duty and in public places. Alcohol was forbidden – except when prescribed ‘for medicinal purposes’ – and no member of the Corps was allowed even to enter an establishment which sold it. All letters were read by administrators, while a stringent system of chaperoning existed … The barbed wire fences around the camps served to keep the women in as well as the men out.

Yes, you read women, not black South African Native Labour Corps. Women, white, also denied the vote at the time were being treated in a similar way to black South African men.

The quote comes from “The Forgotten Army of Women: The Overseas Service of Queen Mary’s Army Auxiliary Corps with the British Forces 1917-1921” by Diana Shaw in Facing Armageddon: The First World War Experienced edited by Hugh Cecil and Peter H Liddle.

Isn’t it interesting how we shut off that which frightens us? We don’t want to engage with what we don’t know or fear.

Writing this I was reminded of an incident a good few years back now when I was still in almost full-time education. The BNP in the UK were looking as though they were going to do quite well in the general election and I was horrified at how colleges and others refused to invite BNP representatives to their institutions to be questioned by the students. It was acceptable to have the Labour, Conservative, Liberal Democrat and Green candidate visit and be challenged but not the group most feared. Ostensibly this was to ‘protect the students’, but what it did was increase curiosity and, at least, verbal support for the party – everything education leaders were trying to avoid.

Similarly, my initial intention as an historian was to study communism as, at school we’d been told this was what Apartheid was against. Communism was bad and our boys had to fight it. This made Nelson Mandela and others all terrorists. Other factors got in the way of my specialism, but I still hold a sideline interest in all things communist.

Today, as in years past, we continue to put people into camps until we’re sure about them – the Boer women and children, refugees, asylum seekers. Cross-dressers and others suffering from physical and mental differences get put in asylums or care centres, those who don’t follow our rules are put in prison… and yet others seem to languish because we’re too afraid to let them out having discovered they weren’t a threat to begin with.

Hiding people away and shutting them off from the mainstream doesn’t seem to me the best way of dealing with difference. Somehow we must find ways to engage – as the men working alongside the Women’s Auxilary Service and the SANLC found, we have more in common than not and together made working for a common goal more easily achievable.

Every time I experience new cultures and meet others who travel in the same way, it reinforces the need to cross barriers and engage. Understanding the ‘other’ leads (more often than not) to respect and a greater sense of community.

I helped find their dead

My name is Maxie.

There isn’t a photograph of me but I am a WaTaveta who lives in Taita-Tsavo in what is today’s Kenya. One hundred years ago it was British East Africa and there had been some big fights between the white and Indian soldiers of the British king and the white and black soldiers of the German king.

We were told not to get involved as it was not our war, but some of us were paid to help with building the railway line, accommodation and other things that needed doing. Later on, when the fighting moved south and more labour was needed, men were sometimes forced or work for little pay. My work kept me near home.

A few months after the big fight at the dusty hill we call Salaita, a man came looking for some bodies of men who had died in the battle. I was able to tell him about 21 graves I knew at Taveta, the local market town.

I told the man, an English soldier that “When the Germans were fighting in the direction of Mbuyuni they used to bring the wounded Englishmen into the District Officer’s house here, (which, at the time was used as a Hospital,) when these Englishmen died the Germans buried them in this place and fired guns over the graves.”

I then took him about 25 paces (20 yards) to the north of the 14 graves I had shown him to show him another 7 which the Germans carried from Mbuyuni. The man said they are going to dig up the graves and move the bodies. I don’t understand why but it seems important to them. He was also trying to find out which were the English or white man’s graves.

The burial practices I saw are strange. The wafu (dead) have a special power and we believe in the existence of Mlungu (High God). Here, the white men laid the bodies down flat. In our tradition, we stand them up in the ground and build a hut over the space. When our people die, we close their eyes so that the evil spirits cannot enter the body. I don’t know who did that for these poor soldiers. Many were lying on the ground for hours before someone found them. We then lie them on a bed. The body is washed and shaved by women past the child bearing age. The head was covered by a foot of soil. One year later we take the skull to the shrine.

At kuchumbua maridia (the end of mourning a year after the burial) we have an event where a goat is sacrificed and the remains scattered over the crops. There is a final day of wailing and shaving. A cow is slaughtered for those who dug the hole and the hut is either sold and dismantled for someone else to use, or if the surviving spouse is a woman, she lives in the hut until she dies.
The man wrote some things down and went away but I was still confused.

A few years later, another white man came along. I took him to a spot about 2000 steps (½ mile) in the direction the sun rises and 125 steps from the railway track near where they used to burn the Hindus who died. The grass was burnt a few times and the ground is swampy, but you can still see where 11 men were buried, about 18 moons ago, by the wire fence and the outlines of holes which were filled in. The fires had destroyed the fence posts and wooden markers saying who was in the ground.
Later in Voi, at the end of the railway line, I heard the man, Milner he said his name was, tell the church man Verbi and Major Layzell about what I had told him. He said that about 1 February 1916, 21 men were brought into the hospital by the Germans near Salaita Hill. They were badly wounded and died soon after. These were the graves I showed him. When other men died, they were buried next to first. There was a strange ceremony which accompanied the placing of the men in the grave. The Askari (black soldiers) fired their guns into the sky. This was strange as they usually only pointed them at people to shoot.

On 4 April 1923, this is what the man said the date was, this man asked me confusing questions which I didn’t understand, something about a Native Christian Cemetery. He then asked me where the camp was of the men who were working on the construction of the railway. He said something about a loose-leaf register, South African natives, South African Railway and Cape Corps being buried.

Oh, I knew where the graves of the railway workers were and also the South African natives. This was 2000 steps from the Taveta Station and 125 steps from the railway track. This was where the cemetery was made and was marked by barbed wire. There were 11 graves.

I also took Milner to the foot of the hills on which the Old Fort stands at Taveta, and showed him a place where I had dug a grave for the Germans to bury an Englishman in. The Englishman had been shot by the Germans for spying and brought into the building on the hill during the latter part of the day. The German Askaris carried him on a rough stretcher and the following morning my friends and I were told to dig this grave. The Germans brought a box which they placed in the grave and fired shots over.

Nineteen nights later (23 April) native minister of the Taveta CMS Mission named Johana Mbela who could talk English told the Englishman that he, Johana, was taken prisoner by the Germans and placed in the building on the hill close to where we were standing. This happened in August 1914. In early September 1914, he said the Germans brought in the man who had been caught spying with a Captain on a small hill towards Serengetti. The Captain was shot dead and the man the Germans brought in ran away to get his motor cycle and was shot in the leg. After the Germans had put this man in the next room to Johana, the Germans brought the man’s clothes and some papers into his room and asked him what was written on them, but he did not tell them. He tried to pronounce a name which sounded like Groarty. He remembered the man calling for water all night until early morning, and seemed to be in very great pain, then all was quiet.

I couldn’t believe it. Minister Johana Mbela had seen the man I had to dig a grave for. These Englishman kept saying ‘what a small world.’

References
Burial rights
Commonwealth War Grave archive, Maidenhead: CWGC 1/1/7/E/57 WG 122/8 pt 2; Verbi and Layzell who reside in the Voi District had both been Intelligence Officers during the campaign in the Taveta District.
This account was written for Diversity House Micro-nations event on 27 October 2017.

Aragon vs Mendi: two carrier ships

I have written before on how I could equate the deaths on the SS Aragon with those of the SS Mendi. Transcribing the Pike Report prompted this posting.

As awful as the sinking of the Mendi was – an accident, the deaths of the more than 120 South African Native Labourers who gave up on life and who saw no future in continuing to live is a sad indictment on those tasked with their well-being. What makes it worse, is that their suffering was long drawn out, months of labour, lack of sleep and inappropriate diet, exaccerbated by the tropical conditions in which they found themselves. Later that same year, 30 December 1917, the Aragon was sunk with the loss of 610 lives.

Yes, the Mendi saw 600+ lives lost in one go, the Aragon far fewer over a a few days, but for each of the families concerned, the loss of life – Mendi or Aragon – was a huge blow: an income supplier, loved and cherished – father, son, brother, friend.

The impact on recruiting labour in South Africa was tangible. The loss of the Mendi lives saw the South African government stop recruiting for labour to serve on the Western Front. The loss of the Aragon lives was more subtle: men didn’t enlist and found excuses not to.

Until recently, the detail of the Aragon losses have been limited, if one is lucky, to a sentence or two in an historical narrative. However, the opening up of the Pike Report allows us a medical insight into the deaths, and the decisions – right or wrong – that doctors, officers and ships’ captains made in tring to ease the situation in which the men found themselves.

This is, for me, a heart-moving story of neglect through ignorance, and for some contempt on the one hand and of concern and care for humankind on the other. In the same way the survivors of the Mendi, both of the ship itself and of the Darro, had to live with their guilt and self-loathing of not being able to do more, so did the survivors of the Aragon.

Note: I’ve purposefully kept numbers approximate as records seem to differ in detail.