Tuesday, May 8, 2012

Letters to Home, Kenya in the 1890s

 My review of Kikuyu District by Paul Sullivan, Mpuki Na Nyota Publishers, Nairobi, 2000. 

So all you former Peace Corps Volunteers probably thought that your letters home to Mom and Dad that ended up in the basement would never again see the light of day.  Think again. Perhaps your literary ambitions can be accomplished.  Francis Hall’s were.  This month’s book Kikuyu District is an edited compilation of letters that Francis Hall, one of the first Europeans to live upcountry in Kenya, sent home between 1892 and 1902.  

This interesting book that costs over $100 in paper is now available for $2.99 in electronic form from Amazon.

Francis hall, known to friends as Frank, entered into the service of the Imperial British East Africa Company (IBEAC) in 1892. The company – always abbreviated as Coy. in the letters – was tasked to support efforts to reach Uganda from the coast.  Its upcountry agents, of whom Hall was one of the first, had the task of buying food and dragooning porters – hundreds were required - for the caravans passing through.   Central to this task was the necessity of keeping the peace among the tribes. Hall’s station at Fort Smith (present day Kikuyu) put him smack between the Masai and the Kikuyu who were in constant conflict.  To his credit Hall managed relations with indigenous Africans with some tact, understanding and even appreciation for their views.  But he could also be imperious and ruthless as were his more typical colleagues.

Via Hall’s letters readers can trace the evolution of the European presence in Kikuyu District.  From him alone plus those one or two Europeans transiting in caravans for Uganda, assistants were added, missionaries arrived (whom Hall derided as over financed, misguided problem makers), a few early settlers, and railroad construction personnel.  Hall’s letters are chatty. He uses lots of jargon appropriate to his time that requires some careful consideration by a modern reader as to what he means.  Hall held strong class prejudices and was unashamedly racist – as were all Europeans of his era. He employed today’s politically incorrect terminology when referring to blacks.  Many of the letters focus on the comings and goings of various Europeans and on infighting between upcountry personnel and Mombasa based bureaucrats.  Hall dwells on the looming possibility of the IBEAC being subsumed into government and the issue of whether he would be offered a position in the new Kenya administration.  When that happened he was included.

In addition to all his gossip Hall was gored by a rhino, bitten by a leopard, welcomed in odd ways to numerous Masai and Kikuyu palavers and councils.  He got engaged to a colleague’s sister and brought her out to Kenya as his bride in 1902.  At that point he was transferred to Machakos and then ordered to start an administrative center in Muranga, later named Fort Hall in his honor. There his story sadly ends.

I found this book fascinating.  It is not pretentious or elegant; rather it provides a candid glimpse into what Kenya was like for the first Europeans who lived there. It will make you want to edit your letters for publication.

Explorers of the Nile

 My review of  Explorers of the Nile – The Triumph and Tragedy of a Great Victorian Adventure, by Tim Jeal , Yale University Press, New Haven, 2011

Although well over fifty books have been written about the European search for the source of the Nile River, beginning with the best selling accounts of the intrepid wanderers themselves in the 1800s, Tim Jeal has added a real treasure to that trove.  While it seems that nothing in the historical literary world is definitive, Explorers of the Nile, currently has the last word. And a different word it is. Neal has done a prodigious amount of research. He hunted down the papers, letters, first drafts of books, including the expunged passages having to do with sex,  and articles written by the explorers, their families, their patrons and publishers.    He found archives stashed in attics, backrooms, town halls and, of course, in collections owned by libraries, museums, the Royal Geographic Society and the government. He filtered through this enormous amount of verbiage aptly tagging prejudices and misinformation in order to arrive at some new understandings about the characters and actions of the key men involved.  Because of the self serving nature of earlier published material and the pettiness and back stabbing that characterized personal accounts, Jeal’s new look at these men and their times is especially illuminating.

The book focuses on the big names: Livingstone, Burton, Speke, Grant, Stanley and Baker (and Madame).  They were individuals of indomitable spirit. Men and a woman who refused to succumb to the travails of Africa. They suffered unimaginable physical stress – disease, infection, wounds, malnutrition – all compounded by isolation, mental fatigue and the constant threat of violence that morphed into real conflict time and again.  Yet they soldiered on. Only one of the great explorers, Dr. Livingstone, died in the field.  The others managed to survive, mostly attributed to brute force of will. Even so, Jeal points out their foibles as well as strengths. Consequently, these icons come across as real humans consumed, as we all are, with the big and the small. 

Jeal tracks their voyages in the book.  Although there are a few maps, I dug out a more detailed map of East Africa to better trace their footsteps. Jeal’s retelling of their travels uses extensive quotations from their journals.  No doubt he has this correct.  But the value of this new look goes beyond descriptions of the difficulties encountered to provide a solid overview of the region, of why the Arab slave trade was so disruptive, of why the explorers had to rely on these men whose slaving activities they deplored and importantly of why and how British patrons, politicians and the public viewed their exploits.    Jeal too gives long overdue credit to the African men – guides, headmen, interpreters, servants and porters who made the safaris reality. 

Jeal’s new look burnishes the soiled reputation of John Hanning Speke, the first European to see the source of the Nile where it exits Lake Victoria.  (As an aside, the British colonial era monument placed at the site stating that Speke was the “first man” to see the source of the Nile was dismantled shortly after independence accompanied by the thought that African men had seen the sight for centuries.)  Readers of previous explorer books will remember that Burton, who refused to accompany Speke on his northward trek to discover Lake Victoria, impugned Speke’s character and denied his claim.  Since Speke died in a hunting accident shortly after his return to England, he could never defend himself against Burton’s spurious allegations.  But Jeal does. His study of both Speke’s and Burton’s correspondence and journals prove that Speke was maligned. Similarly Jeal rehabilitates the reputation of Samuel and Florence Baker which had been tarnished by their criticism of John Petherick, the British agent in southern Sudan who failed to support them as ordered.   Petherick, however, was a connected aristocrat whereas the Bakers (not even married at the time) were lower class.  Indeed one of the values of Jeal’s book is that he deals forthrightly with class issues – something that was, of course, avoided in the nineteenth century.

After elucidating the discoveries of the various parts of the Nile basin, the book takes a hard look at what  that meant for subsequent developments in the region.  Jeal  notes that the British imperial necessity to secure the upper Nile played out to the detriment both of Uganda and Sudan with disastrous consequences for their peoples a hundred years later.  Arbitrary borders were the crux of the problem.  He posits that the inclusion of Nilotic tribes in a modern Ugandan state preordained the conflict under Obote and Amin that devastated the nation.  Similarly, the inclusion of Equatoria into a larger Sudan and then half measured development of the south under British suzerainty precipitated the chaos of the Sudanese civil war.  He suggests – and would be the first to admit that retrospect is a fine platform – that had more Afro centric policies been pursued that much of this conflict could have been avoided.    

In sum, this is an excellent book. It retells the stories in a new light and provides insight into the motives of all concerned. Importantly it portrays events in the light of their times, but with the benefit of retrospective from our era.  It’s strongly recommended.