Novelist: Wilbur Smith

Wilbur Addison Smith was a prolific novelist focusing on Africa. Of the 49 novels published before his death, 4 concern the Great War in Africa.

1933 – born 9 January in Kabwe, Zambia (then Northern Rhodesia)
1940s – School in Natal, South Africa
1954 – graduated with degree in Commerce from Rhodes University, Grahamstown, South Africa
1963 – working for Inland Revenue in Salisbury, Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe)
1963 – published first story under the name Stephen Lawrence
1964 – first novel published, When the Lion Feeds
2021 – died 13 November in Cape Town, South Africa

Books on WW1 Africa
Shout at the Devil (1968) also a film (1976) – East Africa, Konigsberg
A Sparrow Falls (1977) – SA 1914 rebellion
The Burning Shore (1987) also a film (1991) – Europe, GSWA, East Africa
Assegai (2009) – East Africa, zeppelin

Wilbur Smith
see also

Recording identity

Not too long ago I was asked to specify my identity three times all linked to the same national body. The explanation given is ‘government require us to ask’ and ‘this will help the (service) prioritise local provision through identifying trends etc’ or words to that effect.

The last being online, there was no reaction but the first two mentioned occasions elicited interesting reactions to my responses ‘human’ and ‘not saying’. One was ‘but you have to say … your options are …’, the latter ‘I wish more would answer like that but I can’t tell them’.

A fourth occasion was completing the national census document – where I did specify an ethnicity under ‘other’.

Alongside this I have been reading about a religious denomination’s struggle against Apartheid where they decided to boycott recording ethnicity in birth registers as the information was being used to separate people according to colour and to deprive groups of equal status and the vote. This, at the time was an admirable stance defying legal obligations.

This presents the dilemma. As a political social being, my ethnicity (or any other classification label) doesn’t matter – I’m a human and all humans deserve to be treated equally. However, the historian/scientist in me craves classification as it helps me understand and interpret actions of specific groups and how we came to be who we are. How are researchers of the future going to get an understanding of our time given my recent answers?

This gives some insight into my varied answers to the same question. While I dont trust the anonymity of any of the systems used to record the data despite all the assurances given, the use of the census data has been of great assistance to my own research. However, my experiences of recording identity details for other purposes has been more sinister – that is not to say the current data gathering will be used for ulterior purposes but rather, it’s evidence of my being a product of my past. 

In SA people carry identity documents. These have varied in format over the century plus that they have been operational. Some were required to carry their ID document with them to verify their being in the place they were, acceptability for employment etc. It was divisive and led on occasion to protests, some turning violent as police opened fire on unarmed citizens. In the later years, ID numbers held a wealth of information – date of birth, gender and ethnicity – so if you knew the construction you could make decisions etc without asking those awkward questions – it was for this reason that some religious leaders refused to record ethnicity. My ID number hasn’t changed in the post-Apartheid years but by all accounts (so we’re told) the system has been changed so that apart from my date of birth the other numbers are just that – numbers.

For years in various countries one has had to complete a form attached to job applications containing personal information which has been removed before the recruitment team got the application forms to select their preferred candidates for interview etc. This data form we’re told is/was for monitoring purposes and to ensure a proportional representation of people in the organisation – if this was truely the case, why after all these years do we still have people complaining about glass ceilings, pay inequalities, changing their names to be less conspicuous etc? It seems more a product of habit and panacea than the social engineering tool it was meant to be.

More sinister though was the use of medical data and identity in the struggle for ethnic survival as seen by Wouter Basson’s (Dr Death) work to create products that would target specific genes while ignoring others. This would enable poisons to be used in teargas and even water (as rumour has it of towns/settlements being targeted with typhoid).

This was not widely known at the time and neither were many other actions of the day. But with the fall of Apartheid it became apparent that government, those trusted to look after the best interests of the people, had lied to the people.

It’s known too in Britain that Churchill bent the truth … portraying ships still being in service after they’d been sunk, the little ships which helped save the British army at Dunkirk having to be paid as opposed to doing their patriotic duty. He wasn’t the only one. The study of propaganda shows how much misleading of the public has been undertaken over centuries by all governments and it’s this potential misuse of identifying data that creates the dilemma.

In an ideal equal world (and I can’t think of a time when all were equal) would we even need to record our differences and similarities? So for now, how do we balance treating all equally without distinction whilst capturing data that will potentially be of use to future researchers in understanding the generations that preceded them? And can we really use the data collected to engineer a more equal society?┬á (James Lovelock & gaia theory)

Africans in Europe during the 14-18 war

That colonial forces of all colours served, to various degrees, in Europe during World War 1 is fairly well known. The French Tirailleurs, the white South Africans and SANLC on the Western Front. What is less well-known are accounts of black and Arab Africans who found themselves in Europe and Britain on the outbreak of war.

Four from British territories served in the armed forces – two from West Africa, one Zambian (Samson Jackson) and one Malawian (Frederick Njilima). There may well be others who still need to be identified. And also in the other European territories.

So it was with some intrigue that I approached Mtoro bin Mwinyi Bakari: Swahili Lecturer and Author in Germany by Ludger Wimmelb├╝cker published in 2008. Ludger gives an overview of Mtora’s time in Germany, also mentioning two other East Africans: Mdachi bin Sharifu and Halidi bin Kirama. While Mtora refrained from political involvement, the other two did not. It also appears that the latter two were employed by the German colonial office during the war while Mtora had to fend for himself, especially after being returned from East Africa after eight days in 1914.

We discover more Africans in Europe in the prisoner of war records as Annette Hoffman explained in 2017. They came to be there for a variety of reasons. Some were serving in merchant ships which were captured, such as Ntwanambi who was taken prisoner in October 1915 when the ship he was serving on as a boilermaker was captured. Others were taken prisoner whilst working on the war front as hinted at in the article. Sadly, these records were destroyed years ago, and as one commentator points out, we are reliant on the information coming to light in other recorded forms such as diaries, and non-military records.

The records from the Half Moon Camp in Wunsdorf, where many recordings were done are proving a valuable source on this front, but only where the information has been accessed, translated, interpreted and presented in (academic) publications by researchers with specific music or other specialised interests.

Hidden women

The extent to which women have been left out of history is a topic of great discussion, and not one I engage with. As far as I can tell, if women desired something they set out to achieve it, including publicising what they did. When it comes to African women and women from Africa, I’m regularly in awe of what pops up.

Most recently, having written on Natal in the First World War, I was looking up something on Cherry Kearton, who served in the East Africa campaign, only to have his wife’s place of birth stand out – Ada Forrest was born in Congella, Durban, on 17 July 1877. As she’s known most popularly as Ada Kearton, I was surprised to discover she had only married Cherry after the war so technically doesn’t fit into my WW1 focus except that it’s due to her diligence that we have additional information on what Cherry got up to. During the war, Ada was in London. She had made her debut as a classical soprano singer back in 1907 and performed at the Henry Wood Promenade Concerts – that is The Proms – between 1909 and 1915. She retired from performing in 1922 when she married Cherry as she used to join him in the field and on safaris. More significant about Ada is that in 1908 she recorded her first album in London on which she sang in Afrikaans – one of the first South Africans to do so.

In 1908, another South African woman was to record an album in London, also in Afrikaans. She was Annie Visser born 8 August 1876 in Jagersfontein, Orange Free State (the place where the first SA diamond was identified). While Ada remained in London visiting South Africa on occasion, Annie returned to South Africa where the outbreak of war resulted in her career stalling. It is said this was due to her art form not being very popular, but it could also have been her politics. Annie is reported as having opened the first National Party Congress in 1915 in Bloemfontein.

And this article by Schalk van der Merwe has mention of another woman or two around the same time.

In related WW1 research, Luise White has a fascinating study on prostitution in Nairobi in a book called The comforts of home. Luise’s findings, based on interviews with women and men involved in the profession, align with the perceptions I have gleaned of empowered women through my own unrelated research. And for a fictional underpinning of how it all came to be… I can only turn to Doris Lessing‘s The Cleft (and more).

Propaganda and Public Relations in Military Recruitment

Propaganda and Public Relations in Military Recruitment: Promoting military service in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries edited by Brendan Maartens and Thomas Bivins (Routledge, 2021) is another book which is difficult to review as such as I have a chapter in it looking at how recruitment varied across Africa over the span of the First World War. However, the book is more than just one chapter and although there was only the one chapter on Africa, there were resonances in the other contributions and simply some fascinating reads.

Elli Lemonidou’s contribution on Greece in World War One reminded me of the fear Britain had about the National Party in South Africa after the 1914 rebellion. I hadn’t realised Greece had experienced a coup during the war – Portugal had seen its move from monarchy to republic in 1910 while the Union of South Africa had come into being within the British Empire in 1910 and the 1914 attempt to leave failed. The chaos in Greece reflected that of Portugal and in all the challenge of recruiting in volatile climates with the resultant impact on the home fronts.

Emily Robertson considered the Australian recruitment effort of 1916 where the Australians objected to conscription. This differed to Kenya where the settlers were one of the first in the British Empire to propose and accept conscription as a war time measure. That the war brought a form of central control to the federal system again took me back to Kenya with people like Jomo Kenyatta and Harry Thuku realising the value of cooperation and working across cultural boundaries to achieve a common goal.

Thomas Bivins’ chapter on the use of women in USA First World War recruitment posters was a fascinating read and I couldn’t help but think of Ian Hamilton’s quote about ‘women being powerful before they put themselves on the pedestal’ (ref Kitchener: the man not the myth).

Jessica Hammett and Henry Irving’s chapter on civil defence in Britain during World War Two again brought home the importance of co-ordinated and centralised approaches. The importance of getting individual buy-in – ‘it all depends on me’, the value of word of mouth transference of information and ideas all seem to resonate with messages and calls for action since March 2020.

Roger Reece looked at Eastern Europe and the Soviet attempts to win hearts to help conscription made me wonder what overlaps there were with the South African Apartheid government’s attempts at winning conscript hearts during the ‘war against Angola’. This was also the thought reading Jessica Ghilani’s piece on USA army recruitment in the 1970s.

How Canada has embraced social media was explored by Tanner Mirrlees whilst Orna Naftali considered how China’s approach to building a positive perception of its army has occurred and Halim Rane and Audrey Courty look at how ISIS has conflated religion and military ideologies to achieve a goal. Unlike the other chapters, this last focused on an international war fought by individuals.

Brendan Maartens tops and tails the publication, and has a chapter on Britain under Attlee between 1946 and 1950, the latter causing me to wonder how it compared with Apartheid South Africa’s management of both a Permanent Force alongside National Service. These contributions put the role of media in context over time and space as well as drawing attention to the gaps still to be filled and significantly how such studies can be used positively to work for peace – well, that’s my take on learning from the mistakes of the past.

As with other compilations, its value is the wider picture and how there are similarities and differences across time and space. And with this collection in particular, another alternative take on an aspect of war, editor Troy Paddock’s World War 1 and Propaganda (Brill, 2014) being a complementary study across space but within a specified time.