A history lesson from Star Wars

“If an item is not in our archive it means it doesn’t exist” – Archivist/Librarian to Obi-Wan Kenobi Star Wars 2 (no 5; Attack of the Clones, 2002) A little later the suggestion is made that the information was erased but to find the information (a missing planet) Obi was to go to the centre of where gravity concentrated. It precedes the discussion on ‘losing a planet‘.

Who would have thought one could obtain such helpful research advice from a space film? 

There have been cases of documents removed from archives (FOI request) and on occasion fake documents added to collections (news report)- hence the strict restrictions some have for consulting material. Other documents go missing or are destroyed due to poor archive practice invariably through ignorance or lack of funding (Endangered Archives Programme).  However, an astute historian paying attention to silences and triangulating material to check logic and plausibility is generally able to locate the ‘center of the pull of gravity’ in time.

While secondary sources hold their own logic in that they address a specific question the author had (my biography on Kitchener is a good example), reading across multiple sources can highlight discrepancies and raise questions. Accessing primary source material might appear disjointed but it is important to engage with to ensure information is not accidentally erased from the constructed narrative.

It is through these primary sources that the involvement of so many has been brought to light in the Great War in Africa. Compare what we know today with what was published in the 1960s. If any further incentive is needed for getting into the archives, it should be this: dis-erasing (is there such a word?) the past.

Cold War exhibition – subtly inclusive

I wasn’t going to see it, but being a member of The National Archives’ User Advisory Group, we had a special tour of the Cold War exhibition.

The exhibition focuses on the British home front – perfect for a nation’s archive, but how in this day and age of everything having to be diverse, did they manage it?

With subtlety and taste.

You enter into a mock government bunker giving an overview of the Cold war – it just can’t ignore the superpowers of the day. Spies and MI5/6 with Dame Stella Rimington dispelling the myths of James Bond and emphasising how ‘boring’ intelligence work really is in comparison.

Next, into a typical middle-class British home to see how the Cold War impacted daily life. Civil defence measures and protective spaces in the home in case of a nuclear attack give a good idea of how life changed as politicians grappled with how to deal with something out of their control – should an attack take place. TV, music, film and books make an appearance, the mock-up under the stair refuge speaking to many in the UK and others who have read about, or seen pictures of, a typical terrace house.

But the inclusive part comes at the end when visitors are invited to share their experiences, type them up on old ‘tick tick’ typewriters and post them on the info board. Stimulated by our whistelstop tour, we verbally shared our experiences: Some spoke of their parents having been involved as scientists, others their experience of being in another European country while some had no idea of preventative measures at the time. By all accounts, some schools made a point of not scaremongering. Our 1980s experiences in South Africa, although not directly nuclear attack oriented, were similar during the Cold War years. My last years of school were peppered with ‘bomb evacuations’ as students or their friends phoned in to have a test or exam deferred. Even if a crank call was suspected, we had to take it seriously and became adept at packing things up and filing out to the playing fields at least twice a week. Thank goodness it doesn’t rain as frequently in South Africa as Britain…

At primary school, in the early 1980s, we quickly learned to discern between the ‘fire alarm’ or ‘get out alarm’ and the ‘baracade alert’. The latter being where doors were closed to stop attackers getting in, but windows were opened to reduce the impact of shattering glass, desks were pushed together and chairs and schoolbags packed around to create the walls to our makeshift ‘caves’. On the occasions we had to evacuate, I could never understand why we had to line up beautifully in rows along the perimeter of the school grounds near open fields – and one specially trained Civil Defence teacher was allowed to carry a hand-gun: to protect 1000 of us! Thankfully, children were not the target in South Africa’s ‘Cold War’.

And our literature? I recall Neville Shute’s On the beach being the best read. We were split: move to Australia where you could possibly miss the fall out of a northern hemisphere attack or move to the north anticipating where the bomb would explode so you’d be killed and not have to suffer the consequences. Incredible how the power of suggestion worked/still works.

Intriguingly, it was only discussing the exhibition with someone who hadn’t been with us at the time that I realised how subtly inclusive the exhibition had been and how conditioned we’ve become to having inclusivity thrust in out faces and blatently obvious. True inclusivity is not always obvious at a glance.

For a topic as broad as the Cold War, a point of departure was needed. Something compact. And this was achieved though the home front approach – all based on documents in the archive, but there is so much more hidden in the files as I discovered some time ago [May 2009] before narrowing my focus to WW1 and Africa.

If you’re in the neighbourhood and the exhibition is still on, it’s definitely worth a visit – you can even see how nuclear weapons have grown in impact – and for those with children, there are appropriate activities for them to do.

And for anyone wondering, the song Duck and Cover which I remember watching when we did a module on Propaganda in my MA in History was 1950s USA. In the UK, there was Protect and Survive in the 1970s.

Bravery recognised

Working through files I’ve copied, I came across a file entitled Act of Bravery by Constable Mwamba Wa Mboya. It warranted reading – and sharing…

A letter from LH Macnaghten, Executive Engineer, Public Works Department, Nyeri dated 24 July 1916 reads as follows:

I wish to draw your attention to an act of bravery performed by Police Constable Mwembe Mkamba who accompanied me on my last safari and hope that he may be suitably rewarded.
At the Mathioya River Police Constable Mwamba without a moment’s hesitation leaped into the river which was running very strongly to the assistance of my syce who had been washed off his legs and was being carried rapidly downstream with one of my ponies. By his plucky action Police Constable Mwamba succeeded in overhauling the syce and in pushing him and the pony into the bank thus avoiding in all probabiluty a tragedy.
I am of course willing to pay for the brass police badge beloning to the hat which was lost in the Mathioya River.

On 5 September 1916, he expanded:

No 2900 3rd Constable Mwamba Mboya – Bravery of

In confirmation of my former letter dated 24 July 1916, I beg to state that on 26 June 1916, I was proceeding from Fort Hall to Embu and on arriving at the Mathioya River I gave instructions to my syce to lead one of my ponies across the river – at this point 100 feet wide – as the bridge, being under construction, was not passable for animals. Where the syce entered the river on the right bank, the water was approximately 2’6″ to 2’9″ deep and all went well until he and the pony were about 30 feet from the left bank, where the current was considerably stronger than on the right bank, strong enough to lift both syce and pony off their legs and the depth of the water increased to about 4’6″ to 5′. Police Constable Mwamba Mboya, who was standing on the left bank realising what had happened, immediately leaped into the river to their assistance – in my opinion at the risk of his own life – and managed as already stated to overhaul the syce and the pony and push them into the bank about 70 yards downstream.

This correspondence was sent to the District Commissioner who forwarded it onto the Governor who in turn sent it to the Colonial Office. They in turn sent it to the Royal Humane Society for consideration of an award. Unfortunately it is not recorded in these documents whether Mwamba wa Mboya received any official recognition for his bravery and I’ve not been able to source a copy of the East African Standard to see if he was mentioned in that (the online copies at the British Library only go to 1915).

Exploring where the Mathioya River is, I came across this article recording the death of Chief Karuri Gakure in 1916, a year after inviting Italian missionaries into his area and the first female chief (another view) in Colonial Kenya.

Intriguingly, and refreshingly, none of these stories concern the Great War despite all three taking place in 1916. Life went on…

Ref: The National Archives, Kew – CO 533/170 file 61878

TNA – One of my favourite places

The National Archives at Kew, London is one of my favourite places. I’ve been going there on and off since 1997 and have seen many changes over the years. More recently with a change in focus from education to publishing and doing more historical research, I am there almost weekly when not in Africa.

This is a national treasure and for me as an historian of African relations with the imperial power, an international treasure.

One of the things I love about the archive is its setting. Although in greater London, it’s close to the Thames (the reason why being something I’ve never really understood) and under a flight path (the same wondering persists). However, a concerted effort has been made to provide a serene environment for researchers, staff and residents. There is nothing like sitting outside having lunch or a chat on a sunny day – something I don’t do nearly enough of when there are sunny days. The pond/lake is a wonderful home for wildlife and guaranteed you can have a discussion with virtually anyone about the status of the swans (I hear rumour there is a swancam somewhere nearby). But beware of the geese when it’s gosling time…I give them as much berth (relatively speaking) as I do an elephant. And then there’s the resident heron. He’s often to be found standing regally watching the world go by – I have a really soft spot for him as he’s often in trouble for eating too many fish from the pond. It’s not Africa, but it’s as close to a feeling of home as I get in London.

The approach to and from the archive is often breathtaking and no more than recently as some photos on Twitter demonstrated. This also goes for the train/tube trip across the river on approaching/leaving Kew Gardens underground station. For various reasons I wasn’t able to capture similar moments that day, but am really pleased fellow researchers and staff at TNA did so.

 

West Africa in World War 1

Saturday 15 October saw a wonderfully diverse gathering of people at The National Archives – all interested in what happened in West Africa during World War 1.

The inspiration for the day developed out of a project the African Heritage and Education Centre in East London were undertaking into what they called The Untold Story: West African Frontier Force in World War 1. I became aware of the project after being approached to help with background research and thought the group had embarked on a task which would be impossible to achieve. But I am more than glad to say, I was wrong – and the proof was in the display and resource pack which was launched at the conference by a representative of the Ghana High Commission in London.

The display boards which were on display will be touring schools highlighting the role of Africa in World War 1 – it’s the tip of the iceberg but an important start. For further information on getting the display to a place near you, contact AHEC direct. Their education packs are interactive and thought provoking for primary and secondary students – and match the Key Curriculum. The online version should be available from February 2017.

There were two unexpected inputs to the day. The first an overview of Nigeria’s role in the war from a senior military official of the Nigerian High Commission and the other an overview of BlackPoppyRose by Selena Carty. The former had been scheduled but only to give a few words of introduction, whilst Selena stood in for a speaker who had fallen ill and was unable to attend.

Nigel Browne-Davies gave an insightful overview of local involvement in the war – how the educated elites differed from the rural peasants in terms of their attitude to the war, involvement and experiences. And finally, Bamidele Aly spoke about the introduction of a new currency into Nigeria in 1916 – the reasons for this and the reactions of the local poplation to its introduction. Did you know that Hausa was written in Arabic script until about the 1950s? I didn’t…and that was in colonial Nigeria.

In response to some of the questions raised today, here are some links which might be helpful: number of forces involved; Medals won by black participants (in British forces; further details can be found in John Arnold’s The African DCM  and Military Medal).

Discussion flowed throughout the day – it was good to see old friends – Garry from Recognize and Lyn from Away From the Western Front (@aftwf191518); so many new connections were made: all in the spirit of opening up the African front to wider audiences. This was the closest I’ve come to Africa in Britain – thank you to all who made the day!