Perceptions of Identity

Some time ago I posted about beards and moustache wearing in the British Army. How we present ourselves is part of our identity, and that is determined by the situations within which we find ourselves. In searching for information about beards etc, I came across this fascinating insight into the Moroccan veil as it is presented in the French media.

It brought to mind Michelle Moyd’s work on the Askari in the Schutztruppe (Violent Intermediaries) and the various photographs we have of different communities in WW1 Africa. Soldiers, at least in the early days of campaigning were identifiable by their uniforms and badges. I’m constantly amazed at medal collectors being able to identify the campaign etc from black and white photos based on the stripe width, shade and order it’s worn. Then we have the photos of labour supporting the Lake Tanganyika expedition – the variety of dress suggesting levels of European/mission education and encounter. The photographer Dobbertin who accompanied the German forces also shows the differences in dress and relationship.

How individuals were identified determined how they were treated and the extent to which they were accepted. Kitchener only became tolerably accepted by the British establishment when he adopted more British ways; otherwise he remained an enigma and outsider. Jan Smuts did not follow British military ways and his reputation has suffered accordingly, while Jaap van Deventer accepted the fact that British officers had to do staff work behind the lines and was regarded as a better soldier despite his reluctance to speak English.

Yet, taking on others’ identities has led to accusations where cultural nuances have not been understood. The most obvious WW1 example is of the white South African forces taking on the Zulu impi tradition on the Western Front. As Bill Nasson points out, this was reflective of South Africa’s admiration for Chaka, the Zulu warrior and how the military tradition he forged has been assimilated into South Africa per se – not unlike the Haka the New Zealand rugby team performs.

Identity is tricky – both for the individual at the time in terms of how they perceive themselves and are accepted, but also for the historian trying to make sense of a different time and place. Memoirs, diaries, letters, photographs and other primary source documents all help in constucting the context to better understand an individual or group’s place within the wider community. My research into Kitchener has been a salutary lesson in identify and how myth and dominant cultural ideas can distort the person in question.

Social hierarchy – prison guards WW1 Africa

Attending the book launch of Mahon Murphy’s Colonial Captivity during the First World War: Internment and the Fall of the German Empire, 1914-1919, I ended up asking a nasty question. This wasn’t to catch Mahon out, as I didn’t think he would have the answer – rather it was a thought and realisation stimulated by the fascinating information he presented.

The question posed: ‘Was there a social hierarchy in the guards designated to look after the white prisoners and internees, particularly in East Africa?’

There are accounts of white prisoners and internees complaining about being guarded by ‘African’ soldiers. Generally this has been taken to mean ‘black’. However, we know that there were Indian guards – one was dealt with for cruelty – and based on Michelle Moyd’s work published in Violent Intermediaries, we know Arabs were preferred to black Africans for certain roles.  In addition, there was a social hierarchy which still persists today in some sectors and was evident during the years of Apartheid in particular.

With all of this in mind, I couldn’t help but wonder if there was a social hierarchy of who guarded whom and where. Did officers determine who was to accompany prisoners to a camp based on the ethnicity of the prisoner and the guard? Was there a concerted effort to use Indian guards to look over white women in particular as this would be ‘more acceptable’ than a black African or did an officer determine that it would be more of an insult to a white prisoner/internee to have a black guard? Were Arab Africans used as guards?

A telling factor in all this, is that von Lettow-Vorbeck was concerned about the impact it would have if his Askari saw the white officers surrender their weapons when they came to Abercorn and then to leave East Africa in February 1919. Despite all his claims of equality, there was a social difference.

Reflecting on the above, it was mostly the Germans who used guards of different ethnicities – not surprising due to the manpower shortage they had in East Africa. This leads to the question, did the South African, British and Indian Commanders of the Allied side use guards of different ethnicities? And what about the Belgian and Portuguese? Given Spicer Simson’s comments about the prisoners he took on Lake Tanganyika not wanting to go to the Belgians suggests that local black Force Publique soldiers were used.

Colour or ethnicity and social class were intertwined in Africa during 1914-18, still is today to a large extent. Posing the question about who comprised the guards and over whom they were prisoner is for me, more a question of social status and how that impacted on relations during the war.

Comments and thoughts are welcomed as I’m not sure we have, in the Imperial archives, enough information to answer the question. Memoirs, diaries and the African National and provincial archives might well hold a clue.