Scoop by Evelyn Waugh (1938)

‘I think it is a very promising little war.’
(Lord Copper in Scoop, page 13)

When I read Evelyn Waugh as a student I didn’t have time to read the travel books, in fact I barely had time to read the key novels. This is a shame because, rereading Waugh second time around, I’m realising just how intimately related the novels and travel books are. Not to mention the newspaper articles he wrote, and his letters and diaries (all subsequently published). In other words, the novels, which it’s easy to see as standalone achievements, in reality sit amid an ocean of discourse which Waugh produced, awash with cross-currents, tides and undertows.

So in 1930 he goes to Ethiopia as a journalist, sending back reports on the coronation of Haile Selassie. At the same time he writes letters to friends and keeps a diary. Then he uses all this material for the travel book Remote People (1931). And then he recycles images, impressions and ideas into the novel Black Mischief (1932).

Then he goes on his 90-day trip to British Guyana (January to April 1933), keeps a diary, fills notebooks, writes letters to friends. Writes all this up into the travel book Ninety-Two Days (1934), which is an achievement in itself – but then reuses sights, sounds and characters to create the bleak final third of A Handful of Dust (1934) in which the protagonist goes off to… British Guyana.

The pattern repeated when Waugh was hurriedly hired by a British newspaper in 1935 and packed off to Ethiopia, purely on the basis of his earlier book, in order to be a war correspondent covering the looming conflict between Italy and Ethiopia (October 1935 to February 1937).

Once again Waugh travelled widely, kept extensive notes, diary entries, sent letters and, of course, filed reports back to his paper in London. The result is the fascinating travelogue Waugh in Abyssinia (1936) but, from the present point of view, the point is that for the third time he recycled experiences abroad and the extensive discursive texts they triggered (articles, diary entries, letters, notes and travel book) into yet another fictional text, Scoop (1936).

Scoop combines the three subjects which inspired Waugh’s best work: the trade of journalism, the colourfulness of foreign travel, with the usual mockery of English society providing a frame. It is a broad and very funny satire on the fatuity of the newspaper industry, showing how the role of writer and journalist and the press itself are silkily sewn into the fabric of English life. It is, almost in passing, a fierce satire on the politics and culture of an African country, and on the posh uselessness of British officials abroad. But a wholesale mockery of the newspaper business is its cores subject.

Plot

In a nutshell, high society mover and shaker Mrs Algernon Stitch agrees to do her friend, the novelist and travel writer John Courtenay Boot, a big favour and persuade her other friend, Lord Copper, CEO of the Megalopolitan Newspaper Corporation which owns the popular newspaper Daily Beast, that Boot is the perfect man to send out to the (fictional) African country of Ishmaelia to cover the looming war. For his part, John Courtenay Boot is looking for a good excuse to leave the country because he wants to dump a tiresome American girl he’s going out with. Win-win.

Mistaken identity

There then follows the book’s central joke and premise which is that Lord Copper goes back to the office and tells his senior editorial team to get hold of this Boot fellow, not mentioning his first name, and they in their panic stumble across the fact that there is a William Boot who already writes for the paper – he is their unassuming, quiet and modest nature correspondent, author of a regular column titled ‘Lush Places’ – and in one of the most famous examples of mistaken identity in 20th century English literature, they hire the wrong Boot!

Boot’s style

The Foreign Editor and News Editor quote a sentence from Boot’s latest article in awe of his over-ripe prose style, a fictional quotation which has become a widely quoted sentence wherever literary types are mocking over-writing.

‘Feather-footed through the plashy fen passes the questing vole…’

Panic packing

In an atmosphere of panic and hurry, they call William Boot in, inform the astonished man that he is being packed off Ishmaelia, put him up overnight at an absurdly expensive hotel, send him to buy a vast pantechnicon of equipment at the most imposing emporium in London (Harrods?) and then rush him helter-skelter to the airport.

In fact Boot doesn’t get away that easy because Waugh has a lot more satire to create at the expense while still in London. When Boot arrives at the airport there’s a long comic list of all the things he’s brought with him, and the elaborate bureaucratic hurdles he has to jump through, right up till the comic punchline when an official asks for his passport. Oh. He doesn’t have one. Oh. So all the helter-skelter plans to fly him off to the warzone have to be put on hold and Boot is taxied back to the big hotel for another night of all-expenses-paid luxury.

Lord Copper’s office

The office of Lord Copper is very humorously described. It sounds like the vast offices you see in 1930s American movies, sleekly Art Deco, with chrome finishings. Boot has to penetrate past layers of security and secretaries, the atmosphere becoming steadily more hushed and reverent before he meets the great man.

The Megalopolitan Newspaper Corporation building (‘700 to 853 Fleet Street’) is grandiosely named ‘Copper House’ and sounds just like a satire on those kinds of American office blocks you see in swish 1930s American movies about New York, with no fewer than eight lifts permanently opening and shutting their doors with a loud pinging sound and the announcements of lift girls saying ‘going up’ or ‘going down’.

The great crested grebe

Boot’s trip up to London and all these encounters are coloured by the other Big Joke of the first half. This is that William had written a particularly thorough and well-researched article about the life and habits of the badger for his weekly column. However, he lives in a large ramshackle old house (Boot Magna, quite grand, the drive is a mile long, p.200) shared with numerous members of his large, extended, eccentric, aristocratic family and his sister, Priscilla, got hold of the article before he sent it off and playfully changed ‘badger’ for ‘great crested grebe’ throughout.

When Boot took delivery of the next edition of the Daily Beast and saw what she had done he was furious at her but horrified with fear of punishment. Thus when, a few days later, he received the telegram from Salter demanding his presence in London, William inevitably thought he was heading for the roasting of his life. This explains why he is on tenterhooks of anxiety throughout his initial interview with Mr Salter, who takes him to the pub round the corner from the office and can’t understand why Boot is so anxious and touchy.

This joke lasts a good ten pages and, like the larger conceit of Lord Copper and Mr Salter hiring the wrong Boot, they both display what you might call a deep structural grasp of comedy. I suppose it was always present in Waugh’s writing, for example the way the utterly innocent Paul Pennyfeather is sent down from Oxford when he was the real victim in his first novel, and other extended and clever plot conceits in the others.

But the previous novels have structural or thematic weaknesses: Vile Bodies is deliberately rambling and fragmented and what is probably it most central recurring theme, the on-again, off-again engagement of Adam and Nina, is meant to be shallow and is.

A Handful of Dust has plenty of comic detail but is flavoured by the bitterness of the infidelity and betrayal which is its central plot, is then tainted by the terrible tragedy at its heart, and then utterly overshadowed by the devastating conclusion.

It’s for these reasons that Scoop is many people’s favourite Waugh novel: because it combines plenty of surface comedy, pratfalls and gags, and satirises subjects Waugh knew inside out (journalism and foreign travel) but mostly because it is based on a central premise (Boot’s mistaken identity) which is itself deeply, richly comic, without any of the bitterness or darker tones found in the other novels. It is his most purely comic novel. (And – spoiler alert – it has a happy ending.)

The farce of African wars

Sure there’s a war on, but the satire about it is relatively gentle and genuinely funny. It starts with Lord Copper’s attitude that the war exists solely for his convenience, to help him sell newspapers. It’s in this context he makes his remark that it’s ‘a very promising little war’, by which he means commercially promising, in terms of circulation figures and profits. This satirical attitude extends to the apparently serious way he tells Boot what he expects from it, as if Boot can personally deliver these:

Remember that the Patriots are in the right and are going to win. The Beast stands by them four square. But they must win quickly. The British public has no interest in a war which drags on indecisively. A few sharp victories, some conspicuous acts of personal bravery on the Patriot side and a colourful entry into the capital. That is the Beast Policy for the war.

The humour extends to Mr Salter’s deliberately nonsensical explanation of the war. The satire is at the expense of even the best educated metropolitan Englishmen who generally know little about most other countries in the world and, in general, couldn’t care less. Thus when Boot asks for a pre-trip briefing this is what he gets. Boot asks:

‘Can you tell me who is fighting who in Ishmaelia?’
‘I think it’s the Patriots and the Traitors.’
‘Yes, but which is which?’
‘Oh, I don’t know that. That’s Policy, you see. It’s nothing to do with me. You should have asked Lord Copper.’
‘I gather it’s between the Reds and the Blacks.’
‘Yes, but it’s not quite as easy as that. You see they are all negroes. And the fascists won’t be called black because of their racial pride, so they are called White after the White Russians. And the Bolshevists want to be called black because of their racial pride. So when you say black you mean red, and when you mean red you say white and when the party who call themselves blacks say traitors they mean what we call blacks, but what we mean when we say traitors I really couldn’t tell you. But from your point of view it will be quite simple. Lord Copper only wants Patriot victories and both sides call themselves patriots and of course both sides will claim all the victories. But of course it’s really a war between Russia and Germany and Italy and Japan who are all against one another on the patriotic side. I hope I make myself plain?’

Even scholarly historians and commentators remark on the sometimes farcical aspects of African dictators and African wars. Gerard Prunier, author of the definitive history of the Great War of Africa, frequently comments on the absurdity of all parties, not least the bizarre, corrupt and often farcical rule of the Leopard himself, President Mobutu Sese Seko Kuku Ngbendu Wa Za Banga of Zaire.

The two Ishmaeli consuls in London

This element of African farce is sounded before Boot has even left London. When he was halted by the lack of a passport at Croydon airport, he was forced to return with his huge train of luggage to London, spend the night in the astonishingly expensive hotel, and next morning visit the Ishmaeli legation for a passport and visa. However, since the country is torn by civil war, there are two legations.

Just as Waugh mocks the grandiosity of Copper Towers and the indifferent cynicism of Lord Copper himself, the anxiety of Mr Salter, and countless other aspects of English journalism, so he satirises the pathetic aspirations of the diplomatic representatives of Ishmaelia. The Consulate for the Patriotic part of Ishmaelia resides in the downstairs flat of a house in Maida Vale where the ‘consul’ turns out to be a man Boot saw earlier in the day haranguing a crowd in Hyde Park Corner. His theme is that everything good in the modern world came out of Africa and all the great personages of history were African.

‘Who built the Pyramids?’ cried the Ishmaelite orator. ‘A Negro. Who invented the circulation of the blood? A Negro. Ladies and gentlemen, I ask you as impartial members of the great British public, who discovered America?’

According to him Karl Marx was a Negro and it was blacks who won the Great War. This is funny as an example of the comic type of the Over-Claimer. But is also given contemporary relevance that in our day, over 80 years later, there are more books, articles, speeches and documentaries than ever before making the same claim, that Western civilisation derives from Africa: the story goes it was the Africans who inspired the Egyptians, the Egyptians who inspired the Greeks, Western civilisation is based on Greek discoveries in almost all fields, so…all Western civilisation is based on African achievements.

What interests me is not the minutiae of the arguments, but the simple fact that a subject which a lot of young, fresh-faced students take to be a brave blow against white supremacy, Eurocentrism etc, was already an argument familiar enough to be satirised in a popular novel ninety years ago.

Anyway, the comic punchline is that this highly vocal propounder of the cause of the Ishmaeli Patriots turns out not to come from Ishmaelia at all. He is ‘a graduate of the Baptist College of Antigua.’

The mockery of the Over-claimer is trumped by the description of the rival Ishmaeli legation, which (comically, absurdly) gives its loyalty to Nazi Germany (!). Despite being an obvious black African the ‘consul’ insists he and his confreres are white, in fact they were the first white colonisers of Africa. Admittedly, prolonged exposure to the hot sun has given he and his colleagues a bit of a tan, but it is the Jewish-backed international Bolshevik conspiracy which promotes the lie that they are Negroes.

I suppose it would be extremely easy to describe this all as howlingly racist, maybe, by modern standards, it is. But it’s also obvious that Waugh is looking for the weak spot, the most absurd aspects, of everything he train his malicious gaze upon. Lord Copper is a fool. Boot’s extended family are decrepit and gaga. Mrs Stitch, the high society hostess who knows everyone is absurdly caricatured. The dimness of the Foreign Editor in hiring Boot is fundamental to the plot. The French colonial administrator he meets on the train across France is classically haughty and supercilious. Everyone is stereotyped and ridiculed.

Waugh’s occasional lyricism

Eventually Boot secures his two passports with visas for the wartorn country, arrives for a second time at Croydon airport and this time manages to get into the plane, which then takes off and Waugh deploys a burst of lyricism of the kind he can turn on like a tap in these early novels:

The door was shut; the ground staff fell back. The machine moved forward, gathered speed, hurtled and bumped across the rough turf, ceased to bump, floated clear of the earth, mounted and wheeled above the smoke and traffic and very soon hung, it seemed motionless, above the Channel, where the track of a steamer, far below them, lay in the bright water like a line of smoke on a still morning. William’s heart rose with it and gloried, lark-like, in the high places.

Satire on journalism

The war and Africans and London high society are mocked, but fundamentally this is a book ripping the piss out of journalism as a trade and journalists as individuals.

Boot lands at Le Bourget airport north of Paris, train into the capital, taxi across to the south-facing Gare de Lyon railway station, then onto the Train Bleu, the regular service to the South. At Marseilles he disembarks and a knackered old steamship, the Francmaçon, which is going to take him and a random assortment of other passengers the length of the Med, through the Suez Canal, down the Red Sea and to the fictional land of Ishmaelia – the same journey Waugh described in his first travel book, Labels, then in Remote People, then in Waugh in Abyssinia. Anyone reading all these texts in sequence becomes pretty familiar with the route, the scenery, and the mixture of boredom and oddity aboard ship, which always piques Waugh’s interest.

On the ship he meets a character who is going to rescue throughout the book, Corker, a rough and cynical freelance journalist or stringer. He also is going out to report the war for his agency, Universal News, which sells his reports on to various papers. Corker explains a few home truths about journalism:

News is what a chap who doesn’t care much about anything wants to read. And it’s only news until he’s read it. After that it’s dead. (p.66)

Corker regales him with stories of heroic scoops, fakes and hoaxes. He tells him a story about the legendary American newsman, Wenlock Jakes, hero to the journalistic community. I’ll give it in full because it perfectly conveys the tone of Waugh’s absurdist satire.

‘Why, once Jakes went out to cover a revolution in one of the Balkan capitals. He overslept in his carriage, woke up at the wrong station, didn’t know any different, got out, went straight to a hotel, and cabled off a thousand word story about barricades in the streets, flaming churches, machine guns answering the rattle of his typewriter as he wrote, a dead child, like a broken doll, spreadeagled in the deserted roadway below his window–you know.

‘Well they were pretty surprised at his office, getting a story like that from the wrong country, but they trusted Jakes and splashed it in six national newspapers. That day every special in Europe got orders to rush to the new revolution. They arrived in shoals. Everything seemed quiet enough but it was as much as their jobs were worth to say so, with Jakes filing a thousand words of blood and thunder a day. So they chimed in too. Government stocks dropped, financial panic, state of emergency declared, army mobilized, famine, mutiny and in less than a week there was an honest to God revolution under way, just as Jakes had said. There’s the power of the Press for you.

So you can single out Waugh’s mockery of some aspects of African culture and blacks in Britain if you are ideologically compelled to, but it seems to me the entire purpose of the book is to mock, satirise and caricature everything he can get his hands on.

One

So the easiest way to satirise the press is to point out that they routinely make stories up, to justify their jobs, to fill pages at the endless, clamorous request of desperate editors.

‘The Beast have been worrying the F.O. Apparently they think you’ve been murdered. Why don’t you send them some news.’
‘I don’t know any.’
‘Well for heavens sake invent some.’ (p.138)

Two

There’s a running joke about the extreme brevity of the telegrams Boot’s office sends him, which appear complete gibberish until Corker patiently explains the way they’re abbreviated in order to save money: you only pay per word in a telegram, hence London’s outlandish code. For example, when they put into the Red Sea port of Aden for a few days, Corker suggests he write a story about the scandal of British unpreparedness:

‘Your story had better be British unpreparedness. If it suits them, they’ll be able to work that up into something at the office. You know – -“Aden the focal point of British security in the threatened area still sunk in bureaucratic lethargy” — that kind of thing.’
‘Good heavens, how can I say that?’
‘That’s easy, old boy. Just cable ADEN UNWARWISE.’

This turns into quite a funny running gag because Boot obstinately fails to understand the code is a money-saving strategy and so persists in sending rambling chatty telegrams which are extremely expensive, to his boss’s chagrin, leading up to the one which drives his colleagues back in London spare with anger, as it is not only wordy, but reveals a breezy ignorance of their desperate need for news, hard news, exciting news, vivid reporting from a warzone but also displays complete ignorance of the staggering cost of each word included in these telegrams.

With one finger, he typed a message. PLEASE DONT WORRY QUITE SAFE AND WELL IN FACT RATHER ENJOYING THINGS WEATHER IMPROVING WILL CABLE AGAIN IF THERE IS ANY NEWS YOURS BOOT.

Three

There’s another running gag about the way journalists automatically turn all human situations into sensationalist headlines. Or to put it another way, journalists have a set of ‘stories’ i.e. narrative paradigms, in their heads, and the rich, varied and chaotic behaviour of people in the real world can all be reduced to one of about 20 stock, stereotypical, clichéd ‘stories’.

A humorous example is when M. Giraud, an official with the railway, accompanies his wife on the train to the coast to see her off on the boat back to Europe. In Corker’s hands this becomes ‘the “panic-stricken refugees” story.’ Even the most trivial event is a) inflated b) given a lurid headline. That’s what journalism is – sensationalism and exaggeration.

Each new train brings 20 or 30 more journalists to the capital of Ishmaelia, Jacksonburg, and Waugh soon builds up quite a community of comic stereotypes: the legendary Wendell Jakes, the English equivalent Sir Jocelyn Hitchcock (now working for Lord Copper and Boot’s rival paper, the Daily Brute), a roomful of surly hacks Shumble and Whelper and Pigge, a comic Swedish character, Olafsen, who’s lived in the capital for years. In a running gag, most of the town’s taxi drivers, who speak no English, if they don’t understand where their customers want them to go, end up taking them to the Swede’s house, so he can hear the desired destination and translate it for the drivers.

More and more journalists arrive

There is an obvious echo of real events as reported in Waugh in Abyssinia when the main hotel in town (The Liberty) becomes full and then starts overflowing with a never-ending stream of gentlemen from the world’s press. Boot moves out to an eccentric boarding house, the Pension Dressler, complete with pig, poultry and milk goat, a gander and a three-legged dog. This is what Waugh had done in real life.

In Waugh in Abyssinia the press corps decides it needs to go to the Front and sets out in a convoy of ragged vehicles heading north, only to encounter various mishaps – getting lost, breaking down, getting arrested by the local police for not having this, that or the other pass to travel and so on. Waugh was among these earnest unfortunates.

More or less the same happens here, except Waugh keeps his protagonist in the capital which suddenly becomes empty of journalists as they all set off to the Front.

Comedy love interest – Kätchen

This brings us to what amounts to the biggest narrative difference between Waugh’s account of actual events in Waugh in Abyssinia and this comic fictional version, which is the introduction of a girlfriend for the protagonist. In the real sequence of events, things petered out. The actual Italo-Abyssinian War took a long time to actually kick off (the Italians delaying until a time and place which suited them) during which various journalists packed up and left, and even when it did break out not many made it to any kind of ‘front’ or saw any actual fighting.

It feels like the invention of a girlfriend for Boot is designed to avoid the shapeless fizzling out which occurred in real life, to give the narrative more of the roundedness of fiction and also, of course, complies with the very old template of boy meets girl: the idea that fiction is predominantly about romance.

But this is Waugh and so it’s a comic satire on the notion of romance. For what the reader quickly realises is that Kätchen is a user, who exploits our hero’s naivety. Kätchen had been living at the German Pension, the subject of endless grumbles from the owner, Frau Dressler. She inveigles her way into Boot’s affections by spinning a sad story of how her prospector husband has gone off into the hills leaving her all alone and without any money. They get to know each other when Frau Dressler kicks her out of the best room in the pension, meaning to give it to Boot. Kätchen asks Boot if she can leave a box of her husband’s rock samples in the room. Then she asks Boot to help pay her rent. Then she asks Boot to buy the samples because she’s sure they’re valuable (for $20). Then she tells him she has lots of contacts in the town and can work as his fixer or source. For this she suggests $100 a week.

To all this Boot agrees because he thinks he has fallen in love. In this respect he is very like Paul Pennyfeather in Decline and Fall, a simple, naive, virgin who is bedazzled by his first encounter with things of the heart. They play ping pong at Popotakis’s Ping Pong Parlour or she gets him to take her for picnics in the country surrounding the capital. He is hopelessly smitten.

‘Kätchen, I love you. Darling darling Kätchen, I love you…’
He meant it. He was in love. It was the first time in twenty-three years; he was suffused and inflated and tipsy with love…For twenty-three years he had remained celibate and heart-whole; landbound. Now for the first time he was far from shore, submerged among deep waters, below wind and tide, where huge trees raised their spongy flowers and monstrous things without fur or feather, wing or foot, passed silently, in submarine twilight. A lush place.

The telegram of a career

Next morning Boot goes to see off the Swede who, in his capacity as part-time medic, has been alerted to an outbreak of plague and is off by train to help. He returns to the pension in time to greet Kätchen, back from shopping and as they chat, she lets fall snippets of gossip from the friends she’s met, casually mentioning that the president has been locked up in his room by Dr Benito and a Russian. With the complete absence of journalistic sense which makes him the comic butt of the book, Boot timidly suggests he should tell his bosses about this, Kätchen agrees but tells him to hurry up because she wants him to take her for a drive, and so he quickly dashes off what will turn out to be a historic telegram.

NOTHING MUCH HAS HAPPENED EXCEPT TO THE PRESIDENT WHO HAS BEEN IMPRISONED IN HIS OWN PALACE BY REVOLUTIONARY JUNTA HEADED BY SUPERIOR BLACK CALLED BENITO AND RUSSIAN JEW WHO BANNISTER SAYS IS UP TO NO GOOD THEY SAY HE IS DRUNK WHEN HIS CHILDREN TRY TO SEE HIM BUT GOVERNESS SAYS MOST UNUSUAL LOVELY SPRING WEATHER BUBONIC PLAGUE RAGING.

When the editors of the Beast receive this they go into overdrive, cancelling the front page, going with a massive splash, digging up a photo of Boot to puff him as their premier foreign correspondent, claiming this is a world scoop. Which it is.

The communist coup

The scenes set in Africa take less than half the book, pages 74 to 178 of a 222-page long text. The end when it comes is quite abrupt and also quite convoluted and all takes place on one action-packed farcical day.

There’s a comic garden party at the British Legation, an opportunity for mocking the British envoy who is frightfully posh and completely out of touch. But it’s an opportunity for Boot’s old chum, Jack Bannister, an official at the legation, to explain what’s going on. This is that large gold reserves have been found in the country and various European countries are manoeuvring to get concessions to mine it and/or run the country’s government. Bannister tells him the Russians are supporting Ishmaelia’s smooth public relations minister Dr Benito and his ‘Young Ishmaelia’ party.

Then Boot is cornered by the very same Dr Benito, the smooth-talking minister of information. He very strongly suggests to Boot that he accept the offer of being taken on an all-expenses tour of the country. Boot strongly resists.

He drives back to the pension where he finds an emissary of Dr Benito’s. He reveals that Kätchen has been taken into custody, for her own safety of course then has another go at persuading Boot to leave town. Boot says no, kicks him out of his room, and the pension goat which has, for months been straining at its leash at every passing human, finally bursts its rope and gives the emissary a colossal but sending him flying.

Fired up with frustration and resentment, Boot sits out at his typewriter and knocks out 2,000 words summarising everything he’s learned from Bannister about the coup and the threat of a Bolshevik takeover of Ishmaelia, threatening ‘vital British interests’, not to mention the imprisonment of a beautiful blonde and the outbreak of the Black Death. It has, literally, comically, everything. Boot takes it to the telegram office, bribes the reluctant official to send it, then goes for dinner alone at Popotakis’s, while the editors of the Daily Beast read his astonishing story and go into a frenzy.

Comedy crushing of love interest

Kätchen’s husband turns up, back from his treks through the outback. He is waiting in Boot’s room which was, of course, previously his and Kätchen’s. He is starving and Boot offers him the Christmas dinner which was included in his absurdly elaborate pack from Harrods. The German eats it all and falls asleep.

It is now night-time and the night watchman comes to tell him a car has arrived for him. Out of the dark stumbles the lovely blonde Kätchen and they embrace and she tells her how relieved she is to see him etc. But as soon as they go into his room and she sees her sleeping husband she completely forgets about Boot. She wakes hubby and they kiss and hug and make up while Boot watches. Then the three of them discuss how they can get out the country, as the German’s papers aren’t in order and the train is not taking foreigners. Kätchen remembers one of the more absurd pieces of Boot’s equipment, an inflatable boat, so they carry it down to the river, construct it, Kätchen and husband get in, along with the case of precious rocks (nearly swamping it), Boot gives it a shove and it is carried off by the swirling river. Well, so much for young love.

Up the revolution

Boot wakes next morning to find the Bolsheviks have taken over Jacksonburg. They are handing out leaflets reading WORKERS OF ISHMAELIA UNITE, they’ve stencilled a hammer and sickle on the front of the post office, hung red flags everywhere, the manifesto is glued to walls. The new government has renamed the capital Marxville, the Café Wilberforce changes its name to the Café Lenin.

Everything has gotten too much. Boot stands on the verandah of the pension and finds himself wishing that a deus ex machina would appear and solve his problems. At which precise point there is a joke for all educated people, in that he hears an airplane flying overhead and then sees a figure jump out, open his parachute and swing gently down to land on the flat room of the Pension Dressler. A god from the machine, literally.

It turns out to be the mysterious figure Boot had let board his plane from Croydon airport all those weeks ago and given a handy little lift across the Channel to Le Bourget. He is a supremely confident suave posh Englishman who is currently going under the name Baldwin and who never goes anywhere without his man Cuthbert.

This fellow knows everything and can do anything. He is entirely candid and friendly. His man has set up a radio in a secret location and lets Boot file his despatches back to the Daily Beast. He sheds more light on the Russian backing from the coup. It was between the Germans who backed a man named Smiles, and the Russians who backed Benito and the Young Ishmaelians. Both are, ultimately, after the gold.

They are drinking in the bar room at Popotakis’s when there is a mighty road and a huge motorbike comes crashing through the door and smashes into the bar. It is being ridden by the Swede who is drunk and angry at being sent off on a wild goose chase, having discovered there is no plague in the country. Mr Baldwin asks Boot if the Swede becomes more pugnacious when drunk. Yes, he does. Good, and Mr Baldwin proceeds to ply the Swede with drink and tell him the damn Russians have arrested nice President Jackson and carried out a commie coup.

They then take him to the palace where Dr Benito is in the middle of making a speech to the assembled crowd. In short, the Swede pushes through the crowd, bursts into the palace, swings a chair round his head demolishing the furniture on the ground floor then climbing the stairs to the balcony where he terrifies Dr Benito and the Young Ishmaelites into jumping off the balcony and felling through the crowd. Then he frees President Jackson from his bedroom. The coup is over.

Back at the pension Boot begins typing out a rather weedy summary of events, when Mr Baldwin politely suggests he can do better, sits down and types:

MYSTERY FINANCIER RECALLED EXPLOITS RHODES LAWRENCE TODAY SECURING VAST EAST AFRICAN CONCESSION BRITISH INTERESTS IN TEETH ARMED OPPOSITION BOLSHEVIST SPIES…

Which brings the Africa section to an end.

Back in Blighty

The Beast’s editors have gone mad with Boot’s story, splashing it across the front pages for days. Lord Copper wants to hold a welcome home Boot grand dinner and insists he gets a knighthood. We then cut to the scene at the Prime Minister’s offices where he receives the message from Lord Copper to make Boot a knight of the realm. When his assistants discuss this later, one has heard of John Courtenay Boot the author, and so the same case of mistaken identity which occurred at the start of the narrative is now repeated at the end, in the other direction. A symmetry which a Restoration playwright would be proud of. So the PM’s assistants think he must have intended the knighthood for Boot the novelist. And so, without having done anything to deserve it, without understanding why, novelist John Courtenay Boot receives a letter informing him he is going to be included in the Order of Knights Commanders of the Bath.

Lord Copper is keen to put on a massive gala dinner. The front page of the Beast announces it and that Boot will make a great speech. Meanwhile William Boot arrives at Dover, checks through customs and loads his vast equipage onto the train. At Victoria he puts it all in one taxi and tells it to go to Copper House, while he jumps in a different taxi and goes straight to Paddington i.e. for trains heading west, home, to Boot Magna.

Once safe and sound and welcomed back into the bosom of his family, Boot sends a telegram to Mr Salter resigning. Meanwhile through social circles, it has leaked out to the editors that the Knighthood is being given to the wrong Boot. Not only that but someone has got to feature at the grand gala dinner Lord Boot has arranged.

Mr Salter at Boot Magna

The senior editors depute Mr Salter to take the long train journey down to the West Country. This whole section is longer than really necessary. it is padded out with a dollop of satire at the expense of an idiot West Country yokel who is sent to collect Mr Salter (he telegrammed ahead that he was coming) in a coal lorry. It’s fairly funny in itself but also proves the general point that Waugh was determined to satirise everything and everyone he could get his hands on

This final section is slow and long, a prolonged satire on the quirks of the extended Boot family, their servants notably the butler Troutbeck, which reminded me of the Ealing comedy Kind Hearts and Coronet. There is a mass of comic detail but, to cut a long story short, William completely refuses to return to London to attend the gala dinner and be recipient of the glorious speech Lord Copper has prepared. But his uncle Theodore doesn’t refuse. He regales a weary Mr Salter with tall tales about his wicked days in gay Paree while Salter passes out in the bedroom chair.

But next day, back in London, just as Mr Salter is telling the managing editor he couldn’t persuade Boot to return to London with him and both are facing the fact they’re going to be sacked, when… Uncle Theodore appears. He is an amiable old cove, he has plenty of foreign stories. Hm. Maybe he can be persuaded to impersonate his nephew, for the duration of the gala dinner.

The gala dinner

Which is, therefore, the comic climax of the novel. The joke is that Lord Copper’s fulsome speech takes as its theme the Promise of Youth which clashes rather badly with Uncle Theodore’s bald, raffish, decrepit appearance. Theodore had only 6 hours earlier been taken on contract with the Beast. Lord Copper knows something is wrong but he can’t quite put his finger on it. Didn’t he meet this fellow Boot before he was sent to Africa? Could’ve sworn he was a young chap.

Lord Copper toasts the future and Waugh takes that as a pretext, in the last two pages, to sketch out what all the characters’ futures will be: ever-larger banquets followed by phenomenal death duties for Lord Copper; days spent at his tailors or club evenings prowling the streets, for Uncle Theodore; Mr Salter promoted sideways to become art editor of Home Knitting; the mistakenly knighted John Courtenay Boot on a long expedition to the Antarctic; Mrs Stitch continuing to be a thoroughly modern hostess. He includes a letter from the ever-optimistic Kätchen, written from a ship bound for Madagascar, and asking William to send her the money he raised by selling her husband’s rocks.

And for innocent William? Back to where he started, as the quiet, innocent, unassuming author of his snug little nature column, Lush Places, and the book ends as he puts down his pen for the evening, half way through a column about owls, and climbs the ancient stairs of Boot Magna to his calm and moonlit room.


Credit

Scoop by Evelyn Waugh was published by Chapman and Hall in 1938. All references are to the 1983 Penguin paperback edition.

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Evelyn Waugh reviews

Black Mischief by Evelyn Waugh (1932)

Black Mischief was Evelyn Waugh’s third novel, published in 1932. It very obviously recycles material from his six-month-long trip to Ethiopia and then along the East Coast of Africa which he had chronicled in the previous year’s travelogue, Remote People (1931).

The novel describes the efforts of Seth, the young English-educated Emperor of ‘Azania’, a fictional island off the East coast of Africa, based loosely on Zanzibar, to modernise his Empire, aided by the 28-year-old scapegrace and ne’er-do-well, Basil Seal.

Jaded author of jaded characters

Having just finished reading Vile Bodies and still reeling from its shockingly nihilistic ending, I think I can understand why Waugh leapt at the opportunity of fleeing rancid England. He had gone, as a temporary foreign correspondent for a London newspaper, to go and cover the coronation of the Emperor Haile Selassie in November 1930. The disgust and misanthropy which becomes slowly more obvious in Vile Bodies goes a long way to explaining why he felt the need to get clean away from the shallow party culture he describes in that book.

This hunch was confirmed a third of the way into the novel by the book’s leading character, Basil Seal, who is depicted as sick and tired of the posh, jaded, endlessly partying circles he moves in. Here he is talking to a crusty old colonel at his club:

‘Don’t you hate London?’
‘Eh?’
‘Don’t you hate London?’
‘No, I do not. Lived here all my life. Never get tired of it. Fellow who’s tired of London is tired of life.’
‘Don’t you believe it,’ said Basil. ‘I’m going away for some time,’ he told the hall-porter as he left the club.

And a bit later, talking to Lady Metroland:

‘I want to go abroad. I’ve been in England too long.’

And, a little later, to his mother:

‘You see I’m fed up with London and English politics. I want to get away.’

So it’s repeated three times. Sick to death of London life and desperate to escape. No ambiguity about Basil’s motives, then.

Waugh’s recurring characters

Basil starts out in a London full of the same cast of characters we encountered in Waugh’s first novel, Decline and Fall, and who were expanded in the sequel, Vile Bodies – people like Lady Metroland (who played such a central role in Decline and Fall), her son Peter Pastmaster, Lord Monomark the owner of the Daily Excess, whose gossip columnists played a central role in Vile Bodies, Sonia Trumpington who keeps a genuinely bohemian menage with husband Alisdair and who Basil visits before his departure. In an atmosphere of loucheness significantly further down the line than anything in Bodies we find the couple in bed and their bedroom littered with drunk or passed-out young men whose names they don’t even know. It’s that kind of behaviour, which Basil himself is expert at, which he has grown sick of.

Thousands of Europeans for well over a century had fled to the colonies to leave behind unsatisfactory lives and reinvent themselves. Obviously Waugh didn’t become a settler or anything like, but the complete change of scene offered by this sudden opportunity to become an (albeit temporarily) freelance journalist, allowed him to apply his forensic gaze and lucid style in a new way. It gave him radically new subject matter and a drastic new variety of characters to depict. To mercilessly describe what he saw in the wildly different setting of a rundown, backward and sometimes barbarous African nation. And then, being a professional, to recycle the everything he’d seen into the humorous and satirical exaggerations of this novel.

Black Mischief’s prose more solid and descriptive

What is immediately and strikingly different is the abandonment of some of the modish techniques in Vile Bodies. That novel gives the impression of being mostly made up of dialogue, the brittle, mannered dialogue of febrile London society, sometimes page after page of only dialogue and, in particular, the telephone conversations of the shallow young couple, Adam and Nina which Waugh was, rightly, proud of.

On the first few pages you realise Black Mischief is a different thing entirely. Describing London, even with satirical intent, had been done to death. It had been done by Dickens and Conan Doyle and E.M. Forster and Virginia Woolf and Aldous Huxley and a thousand lesser known writers. Waugh does it very well when he wants to, he can knock off beautifully lyrical paragraphs when they need to be deployed. But not often, and short.

Whereas a fictional African country gave Waugh the opportunity to write huge chunks of descriptive prose, much of it recycled or reworked from the travel book, which is genuinely fresh and unusual and flavoursome.

For two centuries the Arabs remained masters of the coast. Behind them in the hills the native Sakuyu, black, naked, anthropophagous, had lived their own tribal life among their herds — emaciated, puny cattle with rickety shanks and elaborately branded hide. Farther away still lay the territory of the Wanda — Galla immigrants from the mainland who, long before the coming of the Arabs, had settled in the north of the island and cultivated it in irregular communal holdings. The Arabs held aloof from the affairs of both these people; war drums could often be heard inland and sometimes the whole hillside would be aflame with burning villages. On the coast a prosperous town arose: great houses of Arab merchants with intricate latticed windows and brass-studded doors, courtyards planted with dense mango trees, streets heavy with the reek of cloves and pineapple, so narrow that two mules could not pass without altercation between their drivers; a bazaar where the money changers, squatting over their scales, weighed out the coinage of a world-wide trade, Austrian thalers, rough stamped Mahratta gold, Spanish and Portuguese guineas. From Matodi the dhows sailed to the mainland, to Tanga, Dar-es-Salaam, Malindi and Kismayu, to meet the caravans coming down from the great lakes with ivory and slaves. Splendidly dressed Arab gentlemen paraded the water-front hand in hand and gossiped in the coffee houses. In early spring when the monsoon was blowing from the north-east, fleets came down from the Persian Gulf bringing to market a people of fairer skin who spoke a pure Arabic barely intelligible to the islanders, for with the passage of years their language had become full of alien words — Bantu from the mainland, Sakuyu and Galla from the interior — and the slave markets had infused a richer and darker strain into their Semitic blood; instincts of swamp and forest mingled with the austere tradition of the desert.

The prose itself is like a tropical fruit, sumptuous and full of flavour.

Civil war in Azania

In actual fact the opening chapter is a little confusing. It hardly reads like Waugh at all. He clearly decided to make the most complete break possible with the world of Decline and Bodies.

Instead the opening chapter of Black Mischief plunges the reader straight into the confusion and anarchy which prevails in, Matodi, the port town of its fictional island nation Azania, amid the civil war prompted by the death of the old empress. Young prince of the realm Seth should have inherited the throne but instead has faced a rebellion led by prince Seyid.

The enemy army has appeared camping on a hill outside the town. During a long night of fear and paranoia everyone, including the emperor, expects them to enter Matodi the next day and trigger a bloodbath.

There are some very unpleasant episodes in which a noted Armenian merchant is threatened with hanging by troops who want to discover where he’s hidden one of the last boats on the island so they can escape. The emperor’s canny Indian scribe, Ali, is first interrogated and then strangled to death, making an awful shrieking sound in the courtyard outside Seth’s chambers. The entire chapter, its setting, the mood and its details are utterly unlike Waugh. They feel much more modern. They reminded me of the John Updike novel, The Coup or the hard, violent atmosphere of Chinua Achebe’s Anthills of the Savannah.

But the next morning it turns out that the army camping in the hills outside town was not the enemy army, but forces loyal to the emperor led by the Irish mercenary, General Connolly. Early the next morning he rides into town on a donkey followed by his victorious army to tell the emperor he has won, the emperor’s crown is secure, Seyid is defeated.

Is Seyid alive, can he be brought before Seth? Er, no. Connolly regrets to inform the emperor that Seyid surrendered to a party of the hard core native tribe, the Wanda, and that they, er, killed and ate him. So far so gruesome. It is very Waugh that it is only at this rather startling moment, that we receive the further startling news that Seyid was Seth’s father (!)

‘They should not have eaten him — after all, he was my father . . . It is so . . . so barbarous.’
‘I knew you’d feel that way about it, Seth, and I’m sorry. I gave the headmen twelve hours in the tank for it.’

The reference is to the one and only tank which Seth had purchased in Europe, wishing to make his army more up to date. Seth wants everything in his country to be modern and European. However, Connolly informs him that the tank turned out to be completely useless in jungle warfare until he found an alternative use for it. Since it heated up so quickly in the tropical sunlight, it turned out to be a good punishment cell. Hence locking the offending headman up in it for 12 hours for eating Seth’s father, a fierce punishment.

(Connolly, we learn, was previously an Irish game-warden. He has taken a local wife, who he lovingly refers to as ‘Black Bitch’, which scandalises everyone in the novel, and will scandalise any young modern reader, but the point is they are genuinely in love, he defends her, is faithful to her and she sticks by him right to the end of the story.)

The British diplomats in Azania

Having thoroughly undermined our expectations and landed us in a strange and terrible foreign setting, the narrative then switches to an extensive description of the British diplomatic community in Azania, who have been hunkering down during this regrettable war.

They are a collection of ripe caricatures, posh, nonchalant, stiff-upper-lip types, showily obsessed with trivia and utterly indifferent to the progress of the war or the two opposing sides, the names of whose leaders they affect to forget, in that blithe, dismissive, posh English way (same as Lottie Crump introducing frightfully important people as ‘Lord thingummy-jig’).

‘His Britannic Majesty’s minister, Sir Samson Courteney’ is more concerned about the frequency with which the cook serves up tinned asparagus every day than the perishing war, and likes to relax by having a long bath in the morning and a spot of knitting in the evening.

Lady Courtenay is full of empty tittle tattle about the doings of the small British community, especially their children, which schools they’re going to, how they’re managing with their various ponies. Her main concern is securing cuttings from London to continue embellishing the splendid little English garden she’s been cultivating at the Legation.

The Courtenays have a frivolous daughter, Prudence, who is in love with more or less the only eligible young man available, William Bland, the honorary attaché and assistant to Sir Samson. Sometimes the rather earnest bishop pops round for luncheon but the legation buildings are an inconvenient seven miles out of town along a bad road so he always ends up staying the night, which turns into a trial for all concerned. With the handful of other posh Brits who work at the Legation, they play endless games of bridge or poker dice or bagatelle, or Happy Families or consequences.

Prudence is writing a deep and meaningful book titled The Panorama of Life and Waugh shares with us some of her witless, factually incorrect vapourings. It is a cast of jolly English innocents abroad.

It is a running joke that the little French diplomatic community, led by Monsieur Ballon, are fierce rivals with the British and live in paranoid fear that the Brits are getting one over on them, are scheming and plotting and up to something, a seething paranoia which is satirically contrasted with the actual activities of the Brits, which are sleeping late, having long baths, supping cocktails before a long lunch, fussing about their roses or gymkhana ponies, having a nap in the afternoon, before dressing for an elaborate dinner and then spending all evening playing bridge – completely oblivious of French paranoia.

The rivalry is exemplified in the way William translates a top secret cable from London and breathlessly  presents it to Sir Samuel (‘Kt to QR3 CH’) only to be told it contains the latest chess move young Percy is playing with a chap at the Foreign Office. Whereas the French – who are, inevitably, spying on the British and hacking into their cables –suspect this very same chess move of being an extra-secret code conveying some kind of diabolical Anglo-Saxon plot.

Enter Basil Seal

It is only at this point, maybe a third of the way into the text of the novel, that we are first introduced to  its protagonist, Basil Seal, who we first encounter in characteristically jaded, post-party mode:

For the last four days Basil had been on a racket. He had woken up an hour ago on the sofa of a totally strange flat. There was a gramophone playing. A lady in a dressing jacket sat in an armchair by the gas-fire, eating sardines from the tin with a shoe-horn. An unknown man in shirt-sleeves was shaving, the glass propped on the chimneypiece.
The man had said: ‘Now you’re awake you’d better go.’
The woman: ‘Quite thought you were dead.’
Basil: ‘I can’t think why I’m here.’
‘I can’t think why you don’t go.’
‘Isn’t London hell?’

‘On a racket’. 1930s slang. Basil traipses round various friends, pops into Lady Metroland’s party, then goes to see his mother, basically to cadge money off anyone who’ll lend him five hundred quid to go to Africa. Why? Because, as he puts it, history only happens in a few places at any one time, and it’s happening right now in Azania. And he needs a break from London. Badly.

In the event the older, married women he’s having an affair with, Angela Lyne, coughs up the money which allows Basil to pack and leave London, flying from Croydon airport to Le Bourget, catch the train south to Marseilles, and so by steamer across the Med, down the Red Sea to Djibouti (exactly the itinerary Waugh himself took on his three journeys out to Ethiopia – except for the flying, Waugh caught a train across France) to arrive at the fictional island of ‘Azania’.

As well as throwing away all the advantages he has been given in life (for example, he was handed a safe Conservative seat which would have allowed him to become a Tory MP with almost no effort, but managed to throw away the opportunity) Basil is a thief. At the interview with his mother in her boudoir he nicks her expensive emerald broach and flogs it for a fraction of its price at Port Said. He shares a cabin on the ship to Djibouti, and his cabin mate only realises a few days after Basil’s departure that he’s nicked his shaving soap, bedroom slippers and ‘fine topee’. Like all Waugh’s characters, Basil is a cartoon but a complex cartoon.

Basil in Azania

Basil’s first impressions of Azania are described in luxurious detail. See the long paragraph I quoted at the start. He travels from the coastal port of Motadi to the nation’s capital, Debra Dowa, in the centre of the island. Basil’s impressions and journey overlap with scenes showing Seth impatiently telling his advisers what he needs is a modern man, a European, to help him bring Progress and the New Age to Azania.

We never see the scene where the two men meet or converse or Seth realising Basil is the man for the job. Instead the narrative jumps to a new chapter in which we find Basil already in charge of the ‘Ministry of Modernisation’. His official title if High Commissioner and Comptroller General. While still in the coastal town of Modati (where the narrative opened) Basil had come across the services of the excellent Armenian, Mr Krikor Youkoumian, owner of the Amurath Café and Universal Stores in Motadi. It is a pleasant joke that Basil makes Mr Youkoumian his number two, and very able he proves to be.

(It is worth remembering that in Remote People Waugh says that of the hundreds of people he met, it was two Armenians who stood out as the most steadfast and dependable, and he gives a little dithyramb praising their nation.)

Anyway, Basil has been commissioned by the Emperor Seth to modernise his country. What does this mean in practice? Oh, lots of things. First they must undertake a complete ‘reform of manners’. The capital, Debra Dowa, must be torn down and rebuilt in the modern style. Instead of wiggly lanes lined by low shanties, there must be a grand square, named Seth Square, with broad avenues radiating outwards (one to be called Boulevard Basil Seal, another the Avenue Connolly). Seth asks if they can build an underground tube network. Er, no.

He becomes obsessed with the topic of birth control. (It’s fascinating that the idea that women in developing countries must be given free birth control and education so they can stop being baby machines and become modern women in control of their bodies, educated into working in offices at modern jobs – that all this was familiar enough to be included in a comic novel 90 years ago. Thus Seth demands that the Anglican cathedral must be torn down and the square it’s set on be renamed Place Marie Stopes.)

Seth generates an ever-growing list of demands for reforms he has read about in all the European books and magazines which pile up on his tables, all for the cause of Progress and the New Age. This comic thread climaxes in a note he sends Basil:

For your information and necessary action, I have decided to abolish the following: Death penalty. Marriage. The Sakuyu language and all native dialects. Infant mortality. Totemism. Inhuman butchery. Mortgages. Emigration. Please see to this. Also organize system of reservoirs for city’s water supply and draft syllabus for competitive examination for public services. Suggest compulsory Esperanto.

His next fad is money and he decides to produce a home-made currency (with his own portrait on them) which he enthusiastically prints by the thousand in contravention to all economic orthodoxy. Basil is, by now, too tired and harassed by the emperor’s endless fads, to even try to talk him out of it. The worthlessness of the new currency provides a recurring thread of comedy from then on.

Growing opposition

All these changes generate opposition across a wide range of society. First to go into opposition is General Connolly. He strongly resents Seth interfering with the army which preserved him in power. There’s an extended comic theme whereby Seth decides the army must have boots, modern boots, European boots, like a European army. General Connolly is furious, explaining that the natives’ feet are tough enough to tramp through jungle whereas Western-style boots will give them blisters, infections and trench foot. Nonetheless, there is an extended comic thread as Mr Youkoumia hunts around for an importer of European boots, finds one, has them delivered in a big pile at Connolly’s barracks.

Connolly storms into Basil’s office and we wonder if he’s going to announce a mutiny but instead tells Basil that… his men ate all the boots (and then claimed they tasted more nutritious than their standard rations).

Then the birth control campaign arouses the ire of the churches. They are led by the leading Christian in the country, the Nestorian Patriarch who rallies the Chief Rabbi, the Mormon Elder and the chief representatives of all the creeds of the Empire against contraception and in favour of the decencies of married life etc. (Nestorianism is a Christian ‘heresy’ i.e. a branch of Christianity which early on diverged from what later became recognised as orthodox belief, was stifled in Catholic Western Europe but continued to flourish in the Middle East, hence then Patriarch’s authority here in remote Azania.)

Finally the French. M. Ballon and the French contingent hate and fear whatever the English are doing so they are infuriated by the influence the scapegrace Englishman has over the emperor. Only French scapegraces should have influence over African emperors.

Basil and Prudence

Basil has affair with Prudence Courtenay. She is a fresh young English rose, he is a dashing, handsome scapegrace, who never shaves or looks presentable but is tall and strong and manly and powerful. Of course, in the real world women are never attracted to tall, dark, handsome and rather dangerous men.

The RSPCA

Into the mix are thrown two prim, proper and high-minded ladies who arrive from England, Dame Mildred Porch and Miss Sarah Tin, on a mission to support animal welfare.

Their arrival is signalled at the start of a new chapter which opens with a refreshing change of modality or medium, namely from authorial narrative, to the texts of Dame Mildred’s letters back to her hubby in England complaining about pretty much every aspect of Azanian life.

This starts with the slapdash and almost insolent behaviour of the young attaché (William Bland) who is sent to collect them from the train station but makes it pretty plain his first priority is the monthly mail bag (complete with brand new records and magazines) rather than the two misses.

There isn’t space in his little car for the mail bag, the ladies and Miss Tin’s large trunk, which he leaves at the station assuring them he’ll send for it later and it becomes a running joke that this trunk never is retrieved and Miss Tin spends the rest of her stay bitterly complaining about it and having to borrow clothes.

The contraception campaign

The emperor’s contraception and family planning campaign becomes more feverish. He cares not that it will overthrow all native culture, both black African and Arab, by insisting on enforced birth control and smaller families. There’s a comic passage about a modern poster he gets made up and put everywhere showing two families.

It portrayed two contrasted scenes. On one side a native hut of hideous squalor, overrun with children of every age, suffering from every physical incapacity — crippled, deformed, blind, spotted and insane; the father prematurely aged with paternity squatted by an empty cook-pot; through the door could be seen his wife, withered and bowed with child-bearing, desperately hoeing at their inadequate crop. On the other side a bright parlour furnished with chairs and table; the mother, young and beautiful, sat at her ease eating a huge slice of raw meat; her husband smoked a long Arab hubble-bubble (still a caste mark of leisure throughout the land), while a single healthy child sat between them reading a newspaper. Inset between the two pictures was a detailed drawing of some up-to-date contraceptive apparatus and the words in Sakuyu: which home do you choose?

The comedy comes in the way the entire native population fails to get the message and picks the wrong home:

See: on right hand: there is rich man: smoke pipe like big chief: but his wife she no good; sit eating meat: and rich man no good: he only one son.
See: on left hand: poor man: not much to eat: but his wife she very good, work hard in field: man he good too: eleven children: one very mad, very holy. And in the middle: Emperor’s juju. Make you like that good man with eleven children.

It all leads up to the great Pageant of Contraception complete with floats depicting the Modern Woman, empowered by birth control to lead modern economically productive lives.

Achon the pretender

Meanwhile the emperor’s enemies have joined forces. The central trio of Connolly, Patriarch and Ballon  realise they’ll need someone to replace Seth when they overthrow him. They have heard rumours that a long-lost cousin of Seth’s, Achon, a son of the Great Emperor Amurath, was seized by Amurath’s daughter (the Empress whose recent death signalled Seth’s ascension) and sent away to be incarcerated for life in the remote monastery of St Mark the Evangelist.

He must be pushing 90 now, but the trio command the Earl of Ngumo, a comically traditionalist black chieftain, to journey through the jungle to the remote monastery and retrieve him. (The monastery itself, down to its layout and description of its ceremonies, is clearly based on the monastery of Debra Lebanos which Waugh visited on his 1930 trip and described in great (comic) detail in Remote People.)

There then follow long and canny negotiations between the Earl and the ancient Abbot about whether Achon was ever taken there, if so whether he’s still alive, if he’s still alive, how much it will cost to take Ngumo to him. This takes days, the stylised and formal discussions ringing very true and testifying to Waugh’s first hand experience of this kind of culture.

When finally revealed, it turns out Achon is pushing ninety and has been kept for decades in a cave chained to the wall. He can’t walk and can’t talk and has no idea what’s happening to him. So this is the walking skeleton the Earl of Ngumo brings back to the capital, where he is kept a secret by the trio of conspirators.

The pageant of contraception

And so the day dawns for the dramatic climax of the book, the great Birth Control Gala commences, a great festival day for the population of Debra Dowa. In a nice narrative decision Waugh doesn’t describe the thing as an omniscient narrator, but makes us see the entire thing from the point of view of Dame Mildred Porch and Miss Tin, whose hotel room overlooks the town’s main street but is quickly so overrun by uninvited guests that they decamp up to the corrugated metal roof of the hotel, with its short concrete parapet, to enjoy the scene.

Unfortunately, what they witness is the chaotic coup staged by Connolly, the Patriarch and Ballon. The procession of floats of the Modern Woman and Girl Guides carrying inspiring banners (“WOMEN OF TOMORROW DEMAND AN EMPTY CRADLE”, “THROUGH STERILITY TO CULTURE”) is suddenly interrupted by gunfire, the screaming of crowds, and then machine gunfire as troops move in.

After a long, confused and terrified afternoon trapped on the hotel roof in the blazing sun, as night finally falls the two women hear pukka English voices coming from down in the street. It is none other than young William from the Legation who has come to check they are OK. He is about to drive off when they chuck a whiskey bottle then a pillow down at his car which delays him long enough for them to run down the stairs and into the street and insist that he take them to the British Legation, despite his protestations and the knowledge that he’ll get it in the ear from his boss, Sir Sampson, who hates the even peacefulness of Legation life being disturbed in any way. Even by a coup.

The coronation of Achon

Again the omniscient narrator is ditched in favour of retailing the confused events of the next few days as they trickle through to the British Legation, isolated and fearful, 6 or 7 miles from the capital. Word comes through that Seth survived the coup but has fled.

Then we cut to the great ceremony, a week or so later, of the state coronation of Achon, who Connolly, the Patriarch and Ballon’s various propaganda channels have been telling the populace is the true heir to the throne. Unfortunately, when the Patriarch places the elaborate crown of Azania on Achon’s head it snaps his feeble neck and he dies on the spot. Chaos ensues.

At the British Legation

Fear in the Legation. Basil turns up in native disguise with camels and African servants. He helped Seth escape from the capital in the chaos after the coup, accompanied by bodyguards etc and has arranged a rendezvous in a week’s times.

Then he’s come to the Legation to see if they need his help. He takes over security and sets a watch of armed guards in case the locals or Connolly’s troops try to attack, but there is no attack. Instead, after a few days, a plane flies overhead and drops a stone with a message tied round it telling them to pack their stuff, more planes will be along soon. A few hours later some planes land in open fields by the Legation and tell the gathered Brits they are being evacuated. All the characters gather up whatever can be stashed in a small suitcase, and scamper into the planes which taxi and take off.

Prudence just has time for a last scene with Basil, begging him to catch a plane with them. But he is determined to make a rendezvous in the jungle with Seth. Prudence is wearing a rather fetching red beret. Sadly she scampers back to the planes which were waiting for her before they all take off together.

The view from up in the air is frightfully ripping till her plane suddenly seems to be flying lower than the others, the pilot yells something back to his passengers, then he has to make an emergency landing in a clearing. ‘Should have it fixed in a jiffy,’ he quips. I expected maybe Basil, trekking through the jungle with his camels, might find and rescue her. Little did I know…

Basil’s trek

There’s then quite a long description of Basil’s trek through the jungle to the rendezvous point with Seth. One by one the natives abandon him. On the second day his servants intercept a messenger who’s carrying a piece of paper stuck in the traditional cleft stick. The message is from Viscount Boaz to the Earl of Ngumo and says a) he is loyal to the new emperor Achon b) he has with him the former emperor Seth c) should he take steps to relieve the new emperor of this embarrassment? I.e. murder Seth?

Immediately grasping that Seth’s life is at stake, Basil orders the reluctant messenger to turn round and run back to Boaz and tell him Achon is dead, the coup has failed, so Seth has been restored as the rightful emperor, and not to kill him.

A day later Basil arrives at the rendezvous but, to cut a long story short, discovers Seth is dead. If only the messenger had returned a day sooner he would be alive. Boaz, who had captured Seth and is responsible for his murder, makes up various excuses and tells a stream of fictions about how Seth met his end, accident, illness, suicide and so on. Whatever the cause, he is dead. They take Basil to see Seth’s body, which native women are sewing up in a shroud with herbs and spices.

Basil decides on the spot to do the decent thing and take the body back to Seth’s ancestral birthplace, in the heart of the Wanda people. There follows more trekking through the jungle with camels bearing the dead emperor’s body.

Eventually Basil arrives and is sadly welcomed and there is a long, detailed and genuinely moving description of the funeral rites the Wanda people give their dead leader. Basil makes a long and noble exequy, such as would befit the funeral rites of a dead hero in the Iliad or Beowulf. There is not a shred of condescension as Waugh describes with forensic accuracy the ritual feast in which Basil joins, as the assembled tribal notables eat from a large pot of stew, scooping up the chunks of meat with flatbread, along with the ritual drinking and other traditional funeral rites. Waugh endows it all with great beauty as it builds to its climax of an impressive funeral pyre.

Soon the pyre was enveloped in towering flames. The people took up the song and swayed on their haunches, chanting. The bundle on the crest bubbled and spluttered like fresh pine until the skin cerements burst open and revealed briefly in the heart of the furnace the incandescent corpse of the Emperor. Then there was a subsidence among the timbers and it disappeared from view.

I actually found this scene genuinely moving because it is described so precisely and without a shred of patronage or condescension, Waugh and his character taking it completely at face value as rites becoming a dead emperor.

All the more shocking, horrifying and bitterly nihilistic is the sequel. Walking away from the ongoing celebrations around the burning pyre Basil comes across a drunk old man in the shadows, nodding and drooling. Suddenly a flare of light from the pyre reveals the old man is wearing a red beret. Basil realises it’s Prudence’s. Is she here? Basil shakes the old man and asks where the owner of the hat is. The old man pats his tummy and says ‘Here. We’ve all just eaten her.’

Waugh achieves his best psychological or emotional effects by distancing them, like the casual deaths in Decline and Fall or Vile Bodies. He doesn’t give Basil’s response or reaction or feelings. The chapter, and the entire Africa section ends on this genuinely shocking revelation.

Back in London

Next thing we know we are back in silly frivolous superficial London and Basil is ringing up his dissolute chums, owners of the bedroom where we first met him coming round from a drunken stupor, Sonia and Alisdair.

They inform him that while he’s been away there’s been some kind of ‘crash’ and everyone’s now beastly poor. It’s just too too dull. He pops round, they drink and play silly parlour games and every time he threatens to tell them anything about his African adventure they all tell him to shush. Nothing serious here, thank you very much. Later in the evening he goes round to see his mistress, the married woman Angela Lyne. The sense is of him picking up the shallow, cynical merry-go-round of London life exactly where he left off. Nothing has changed in the tone of eternal frivolity, the worship of superficiality,  the casual, depthless amorality. Except for Basil. He has changed, changed utterly.

Bleak endings

You often read people referring to the bleak ending of A Handful of Dust as an epitome of futility. I’d forgotten that the endings of Vile Bodies and Black Mischief are every bit as devastatingly nihilistic. Some people might find the killing and eating of Prudence funny, maybe I did when I was a callow youth, but now I am appalled by it and, like the death of vivacious Agatha Runcible, it casts a gloomy pall over everything which preceded it.

Epilogue

The League of Nations steps in and makes Azania a ‘protectorate’ to be jointly administered by France and Britain. We are swiftly introduced to the new generation of civil servants who are going to run the place, are building roads and hospitals and pretty little bungalows on the hill and gossip gaily about all the characters who have featured in the novel and have now departed. Sir Samson, his wife, the other Legation officials are old news now. Waugh shows with devastating accuracy how the gossip and common opinion about them has been twisted and distorted out of all recognition. It’s what happens to everyone all the time. Everything any of us does is quickly twisted and distorted out of all recognition by people who have never met us and don’t care.

The narrative focuses in on two young Brits who’ve joined the recently appointed Protectorate staff as they discuss the fate of old Colonel Connolly. They pride themselves on having gotten him expelled from the country and speculate that he might end up in Abyssinia, funny how he’s so attached to that native woman of his (Connolly’s ‘Black Bitch’ loyal to the last).

And then they agree how they all rely on the services of the estimable Armenian, Mr Youkoumian. Rulers may come and rulers may go but quick-thinking, flexible and adaptable merchants go on for ever.


Related links

Evelyn Waugh reviews

  • Decline and Fall (1928)
  • Vile Bodies (1930)
  • Remote People (1931)
  • Black Mischief (1932)
  • Ninety-two Days (1934)
  • A Handful of Dust (1934)
  • Waugh in Abyssinia (1936)
  • Scoop (1938)
  • Put Out More Flags (1942)
  • Brideshead Revisited: The Sacred and Profane Memories of Captain Charles Ryder (1945)
  • Scott-King’s Modern Europe (1947)
  • The Loved One (1948)
  • Helena (1950)
  • Men at Arms (1952)
  • Love Among the Ruins (1953)
  • Officers and Gentlemen (1955)
  • The Ordeal of Gilbert Pinfold (1957)
  • Unconditional Surrender (1961)

Waugh in Abyssinia by Evelyn Waugh (1936)

On Monday night there was a bacchanalian scene at Mme Idot’s, where, among other songs of international popularity, ‘Giovanezza’ was sung in a litter of upturned tables and broken crockery.
(Waugh in Abyssinia, page 107)

In 1935 Italy declared war on Abyssinia, an independent sovereign state in north east Africa, and Evelyn Waugh was hired by a British newspaper (I think it’s the London Evening Standard) and sent to the capital, Addis Ababa, to cover the conflict. This was because it was widely assumed that he knew about the country because of the hilarious and colourful, but also detailed and thoughtful, account of the 1930 coronation of the Ethiopian emperor Haile Selassie which he had covered for The Times and then expanded into his book, Remote People.

Serious opinions

Waugh in Abyssinia opens a lot more seriously than its predecessor, with a chapter he jokingly titles ‘The Intelligent Woman’s Guide to the Ethiopian Question’. (This is a humorous reference to the book ‘The Intelligent Woman’s Guide to Socialism and Capitalism’, published George Bernard Shaw in 1928.)

This opening chapter reads like an entry in the Encyclopedia Britannica. It gives a detailed history of Abyssinia from the turn of the nineteenth century till the present day. The facts he gives are illuminating but what’s really striking is his opinions: this dyed-in-the-wool Tory repeats at face value the standard Marxist critique of Empire, that the scramble for Africa, although dressed up in pious sentiments, was mainly motivated by the need of Western capitalists for:

new sources of raw material, new markets, but, more than anything, for new fields of profitable investment.

Even more surprisingly, he frankly agrees with modern ideas that Africa was seized by force from its traditional owners, who were swindled or simply out-gunned out of their land.

The most remarkable feature of the partition was the speed with which it was accomplished. In less than ten years the whole of pagan Africa was in the hands of one or other of the European Powers. Explorers pushed on from village to village armed with satchels of draft treaties upon which hospitable chiefs were induced to set their mark; native interpreters made gibberish of the legal phraseology; inalienable tribal rights were exchanged for opera hats and musical boxes; some potentates, such as the Sultan of Sokoto, thought they were accepting tribute when they were receiving a subsidy in lieu of their sovereign rights, others that it was the white man’s polite custom to collect souvenirs of this kind; if, when they found they had been tricked, they resisted the invaders, they were suppressed with the use of the latest lethal machinery: diplomats in Europe drew frontiers across tracts of land of which they were totally ignorant, negligently overruling historic divisions of race and culture and the natural features of physical geography, consigning to the care of one or other white race millions of men who had never seen a white face. A task which was to determine the future history of an entire continent, requiring the highest possible degrees of scholarship and statesmanship, was rushed through in less than ten years.

These are the kind of progressive sentiments which authors writing in the 1990s or 2000s pride themselves on and yet here they are, forcefully and clearly stated as long ago as 1935, as not just the property of the left or progressives, but as a universally acknowledged truth held by all educated people of the day:

But the avarice, treachery, hypocrisy and brutality of the partition are now a commonplace which needs no particularisation…

Not only that, but this Tory patriot then zeroes in on the record of his own country and the particular brand of hypocrisy which the English brought to their colonising.

It is worth remembering indeed, in the present circumstances, the particular nature of the reproach which attaches to England. France, Germany and Belgium were the more ruthless; we the more treacherous. We went into the shady business with pious expressions of principle; we betrayed the Portuguese and the Sultan of Zanzibar, renouncing explicit and freshly made guarantees of their territory; we betrayed Lobenguela and other native rulers in precisely the same method but with louder protestations of benevolent intention than our competitors; no matter into what caprice of policy our electorate chose to lead us, we preached on blandly and continuously; it was a trait which the world found difficult to tolerate; but we are still preaching.

And then his comments about the important impact of African art on Western art:

For centuries Africa has offered Europe successive waves of aesthetic stimulus…the gracious, intricate art of Morocco or the splendour of Benin…the dark, instinctive art of the negro — the ju-ju sculpture, the carved masks of the medicine man, the Ngomas, the traditional terrifying ballet which the dancing troops carry from the Great Lakes to the islands of Zanzibar and Pemba.

Although we might bridle at some of his phrasing, nevertheless this is the kind of claim you find made in up-to-the minute art exhibitions by the wokest of curators (for example, Tate’s self-flagellating exhibition about British Imperialism) . I was genuinely startled that a man who’s often seen as a blimpish reactionary held views 90 years ago which are identified with the most progressive of progressives in 2021.

Abyssinia and Ethiopia

As to Ethiopia’s origins:

At the beginning of the nineteenth century Abyssinia consisted of the four mountain kingdoms of Amhara, Shoa, Tigre and Gojjam, situated in almost complete isolation from outside intercourse.

Waugh says the word ‘Abyssinia’ is a corruption of the Arabic Habasha, variously said to mean ‘mongrels’ or ‘members of the Arabian Habashat tribe.’

They believed they had migrated from Arabia at some unrecorded date, probably before the Christian era; they employed a common literary language, Ghiz, which had some affinity with ancient Armenian, and spoke dialects derived from it, Tigrean and Amharic; they shared a common culture and feudal organisation and recognised a paramount King of Kings as their nominal head.

He says he will use the term ‘Abyssinian’ to describe the Amharic-speaking, Christian peoples of the four original kingdoms, and Ethiopian to describe the tribes and naturalised immigrants subject to their rule.

He describes the series of kings who sought to unite the four squabbling kingdoms, namely Emperor Theodore and Emperor Johannes, and then goes on to describe the rule of Menelik II, who is the key figure in the story. It was Menelik II (ruled 1889 to 1913) whose organisation, diplomacy and buying up of Western guns and ammunition allowed the well organised Ethiopian army to massacre an Italian army which had been sent to colonise his country, at the decisive Battle of Adowa in 1896. For the rest of his reign, from 1896 to 1913, Menelik devoted himself to expanding his ’empire’, and is a record of conquests, treaties and submissions by neighbouring tribes and chieftains until, by 1913, he had quadrupled the size of his ‘country’.

This long opening chapter is designed to show that the Italian invasion of Abyssinia in 1935 was far from being a simple act of unprovoked aggression. His aim is to show that Ethiopia was a much more complex place, with a complex and troubled history, than the simple shape on the map of Africa suggested. It was itself the product of imperial conquest, above all by the legendary King Menelik II, who attacked Tigray in the north, Somalia in the south and East, seizing territory, forcing countless chieftains, sheikhs and local leaders into obeisance. ‘Ethiopia’ was the result of conquest every bit as brutal as the European conquest of Africa, a ‘country’ which was more a:

vast and obscure agglomeration of feudal fiefs, occupied military provinces, tributary sultanates, trackless no-man’s-lands roamed by homicidal nomads; undefined in extent, unmapped, unexplored, in part left without law, in part grossly subjugated; the brightly coloured patch in the schoolroom atlas marked, for want of a more exact system of terminology, ‘ Ethiopian Empire’.

Return to farce

So the opening chapter is surprisingly serious, factual and (liberally) opinionated. But as soon as we move to chapter two we enter the more familiar territory of Waugh farce and fiasco.

He describes for comic effect the panic throughout London’s media as war in Abyssinia looms and companies scrabble to capitalise on the fact: publishers dust off rubbish old books about the north east Africa, which suddenly sell like hot cakes, press agencies buff up photos of Borneo head hunters or Australian aborigines to flog them as pics of Abyssinian natives.

Above all anyone with the slightest acquaintance with Ethiopia is suddenly in great demand and thus it is that Waugh finds himself able to wangle another commission as a foreign correspondent, sent by his paper to buy a mountain of comic equipment, catching the boat train to Paris, train to Marseilles, boarding a steamer along with hordes of other journalists, steaming across the Med and through the Suez Canal to Djibouti, then scrambling aboard the shabby stopping train across the barren desert and then up into the Ethiopian highlands to Addis Ababa.

Comedy

There is ample comedy about the farcical aspects of journalism, war, and Africa. Here is Waugh at his magisterial comic best, this paragraph like a magnificent galleon sailing though a comic extravaganza of his own devising.

There were several hotels in Addis Ababa, all, at the time of our arrival, outrageously prosperous. The ‘Splendide,’ at which we all assumed we should stay — the Radical had had the name painted in large white letters on his medicine chest — was completely full with journalists and photographers living in hideous proximity, two or three to a room even in the outbuildings. It was a massive, shabby building of sepulchral gloom, presided over by a sturdy, middle-aged, misanthropic Greek, who had taken it over as a failing concern just before the troubles. There was something admirable about the undisguised and unaffected distaste with which he regarded his guests and his ruthless disregard of their comfort and dignity. Some attempted to be patronising to him, some dictatorial, some ingratiating; all were treated with uniform contempt. He was well aware that for a very few months nothing that he did or left undone could affect his roaring prosperity; after that anything might happen.

Deadpan

A very Waughesque effect is the deadpan statement of bizarre or extreme facts.

Presently [the Italian consul’s] luggage arrived, prominent in its midst a dripping packing case containing bottled beer on ice, and a caged leopard.

Charles G. had had the fortune to witness a fight between two of the European police officers. As a result he had lately been expelled on a charge of espionage. His parting act was to buy a slave and give her to Mati Hari as a tip.

We secured [a cook] who looked, and as it turned out was, all that a cook should be. A fat, flabby Abyssinian with reproachful eyes. His chief claim to interest was that his former master, a German, had been murdered and dismembered in the Issa country. (p.125)

The chauffeur seemed to be suitable until we gave him a fortnight’s wages in advance to buy a blanket. Instead he bought cartridges and tedj, shot up the bazaar quarter and was put in chains. (p.125)

[The soldiers] were ragged and dilapidated, some armed with spears but most of them with antiquated guns. ‘ I am sorry to disturb you,’ said James [our servant] politely, ‘ but these people wished to shoot us.’ (p.129)

Waugh doesn’t approve of a slave being given as a tip any more than he approves of a German being murdered and dismembered. His records a world brimful of violent absurdities. It is the harshness of some of these absurdities which gives his books their bite, and also helps to explain the depth of his Roman Catholic faith. Only faith in a benevolent God could stay him against the panorama of violence, futility and fiasco he saw all around him. He reports it deadpan for its comic effect. But sometimes his despair peeks through.

Before the war

Although there were armed clashes in late 1934, and Mussolini made a steady stream of blustering warnings throughout the spring and summer of 1935, in reality Italy was happy to bide its time till the right time and place to commence hostilities.

With the result that ship after shipload of correspondents arrived from all over Europe, America, Japan and beyond, booking up all the rooms at every hotel and, like Waugh, spilling over into neighbouring boarding houses, engaging in feverish rounds of press conferences, meetings with diplomats, interviewing every official they could find, creating an over-excited community of feverish scribblers liable to over-react to every new rumour no matter how far fetched, and yet – long weeks went by and nothing happened.

Waugh is tempted to go on excursions to locations said to be vital in the strategic planning of the attackers, and so find himself going with an old friend (Waugh’s world is full of old friends from public school or Oxford or London’s narrow literary clique) back to Harar, the town he first visited in 1930, which is east of Addis. They had an interesting time, he gives an evocative description of how the place had changed in just 5 years since he was previously there. They press on further east to the town of Jijiga on the border with Somalia (p.70) and here Waugh and Balfour stumble on the story of a French aristocrat, Count Maurice de Roquefeuil du Bousquet, who runs a mining concession in the district and  who has just been arrested, along with his wife, for spying for the Italians. He had been taking photographs of Ethiopian defences and sending the rolls of film by secret courier to the Italian Consulate at Harar (p.74). Balfour and Waugh take photographs of all the relevant locations, of the count himself in prison and send off excited despatches to their papers back in Blighty.

Slowly, however, their excitement at having secured a scoop fades and by the time they arrive back at Addis they realise that, by being absent for those few days, they have missed one of the great scoops of the period, which was that the emperor had granted to an American consortium, led by one Mr Rickett, the mineral concession for the entire north of Ethiopia, precisely the territory an invading Italian army would have to cross, in a typically canny attempt to invoke international law and get the international community on his side (p.80). In fact it failed, as a diplomatic ploy, because the US government refused to ratify the concession and by doing so, in effect, gave the green light to Italy to invade.

Comic characters

In Waugh’s hands every person he meets becomes a comic character: Mr Kakophilos the gloomy Greek owner of the Hotel Splendide; Herr and Frau Heft, owners of the Deutsches Haus boarding house, also home to two fierce geese and a pig; the Radical journalist, a high-minded reporter for, presumably, the Manchester Guardian; Mme Idot and Mme Moriatis, French owners of the only two places of entertainment in town and bitter enemies; Dr Lorenzo Taesas, the beady-eyed Tigrayan head of the Press Bureau; the accident-prone American newsreel cameraman, Mr Prospero; the avaricious Greek owner of the only hotel in Harar, Mr Caraselloss; the bibulous chief of police in Harar; a spy Waugh hires, an imposing old Afghan named Wazir Ali Beg who roams the country sending Waugh ever-more ludicrous reports (p.68); the spy his friend Patrick Balfour hires, who they all nickname Mata Hari (p.69); Gabri, Patrick’s Abyssinian servant who speaks eccentric French; the wily customs officer of Jijiga, Kebreth Astatkie; the Swiss chef hired by the emperor who, when he doesn’t get paid for a few months, quit in high dudgeon and the emperor tried to persuade to return by arresting his entire kitchen staff (p.93).

These aren’t people so much as a cast, the cast of a wonderful comic extravaganza. At several points Waugh just lists the weird and wonderful types who have washed up in Addis, for their oddity value.

There was a simian Soudanese, who travelled under a Brazilian passport and worked for an Egyptian paper; there was a monocled Latvian colonel, who was said at an earlier stage of his life to have worked as ringmaster in a German circus; there was a German who travelled under the name of Haroun al Raschid, a title, he said, which had been conferred on him during the Dardanelles campaign by the late Sultan of Turkey; his head was completely hairless; his wife shaved it for him, emphasising the frequent slips of her razor with tufts of cotton-wool. There was a venerable American, clothed always in dingy black, who seemed to have strayed from the pulpit of a religious conventicle; he wrote imaginative despatches of great length and flamboyancy. There was an Austrian, in Alpine costume, with crimped flaxen hair, the group leader, one would have thought, of some Central-European Youth Movement; a pair of rubicund young colonials, who came out on chance and were doing brisk business with numberless competing organisations; two indistinguishable Japanese, who beamed at the world through hornrimmed spectacles and played interminable, highly dexterous games of ping-pong in Mme. Idot’s bar. (p.81)

And:

Two humane English colonels excited feverish speculation for a few days until it was discovered that they were merely emissaries of a World League for the Abolition of Fascism. There was a negro from South Africa who claimed to be a Tigrean, and represented another World League for the abolition, I think, of the white races, and a Greek who claimed to be a Bourbon prince and represented some unspecified and unrealised ambitions of his own. There was an American who claimed to be a French Viscount and represented a league, founded in Monte Carlo, for the provision of an Ethiopian Disperata squadron, for the bombardment of Assab. There was a completely unambiguous British adventurer, who claimed to have been one of Al Capone’s bodyguard and wanted a job; and an ex-officer of the R.A.F. who started to live in some style with a pair of horses, a bull terrier and a cavalry moustache—he wanted a job to.

In my review of Remote People I remarked that these collections of eccentrics and oddballs reminded me of the Tintin books from the 1930s and 40s, a seemingly endless supply of screwball eccentrics.

Dodgy dossier

I was fascinated to learn that the Italians compiled a dossier of grievances against Ethiopia which they presented to the League of Nations in Geneva as justification for their invasion. It brought together all the evidence they could muster from the legalistic to the cultural.

Thus they claimed the emperor had signed a contract giving an Italian firm the job of building a railway from Addis to the coast but in the event gave the work to a French company. They complained that Ethiopia had breached various clauses of the 1928 Treaty of Friendship between the two states. The new arterial road, which was specifically provided in the 1928 agreement, joining Dessye with Assab was abandoned and, instead, Selassie concentrated in opening communications with the British territories in Kenya and Somaliland. The construction of a wireless station at Addis Ababa was undertaken by an Italian company, heavily subsidised by the Italian government, but on completion was handed over to the management of a Swede and a Frenchman. They documented slights, insults, abuse and even the arrest of Italian citizens.

The Italians accused Ethiopia of what we would nowadays call ‘human rights abuses’, namely the fact that slavery and slave-raiding were universal (and this isn’t a bootless accusation; Waugh meets many officials or rich Ethiopians who are accompanied by one or more slaves). The Italians claim that justice, when executed at all, was accompanied by torture and mutilation; the central government was precarious and only rendered effective by repeated resort to armed force; disease was rampant, and so on.

How similar to the ‘dodgy dossier’ assembled by our own dear government to justify our attack on Iraq back in 2003.

The state of the prisons was confirmed by Waugh who made a horrified visit to one, discovering prisoners manacled to the walls of tiny hutches by chains which barely let them crawl a few yards into a courtyard to catch a little sun, no food or water provided, the prisoners surviving amid their own excrement. It was ‘the lowest pit of human misery’ he had ever seen (p.94)

The feverish press pack attend various ceremonies connected with the week-long festival of Maskar, some officiated over by the emperor, understanding little or nothing of what was going on.

Waugh becomes so bored he buys a baboon who, however, turns out to be ‘petulant and humourless’, and ‘added very little to the interest of these dull days’ (p.101)

The war

War finally broke out – that’s to say Italy invaded northern Ethiopia without any formal declaration of war – on 3 October 1935. It immediately resulted in a ramping up of baseless rumours and shameless speculation. The Italian forces consisted entirely of natives; a Red Cross hospital full of women and children had been obliterated by Italian bombing; the Italians were deserting in droves. All turned out to be utterly false.

The absurdity intensifies. The press pack in Addis is remarkably isolated from the front and the outside world. Therefore they routinely find themselves discovering by telegraph or even in newspapers, events which are happening in the war they’re meant to be covering. Waugh discovers a perverse law is at work: the London editors imagine stereotyped scenes, for example riots at the Addis railway station as desperate refugees fight their way onto the last train out of town weeks before anything like that happens; so that when there finally is something approximating to fights to get onto what everyone believes (erroneously, as it turns out) will be the last train, the newspaper editors aren’t interested: it’s old news even though it’s only just happened. Again and again Waugh has the dizzy experience of seeing the media-manufactured fictions precede the facts, creating ‘an inverted time lag between the event and its publication’ (p.113).

Eventually the press pack begin to discuss leaving. The most experienced foreign correspondent does in fact depart. Waugh embarks on another visit to Harar where there is a serious interlude when he talks to venerable Muslim elders of the town, who tell him, at some risk to themselves, how saddened they are by the attrition of the Muslim culture and customs of the place by the swamping Abyssinian Christians with their drunkenness, prostitution and corruption. It is to Waugh’s credit that he listens and retails their concerns with sympathy.

Back in Addis he discovers the press have been granted permission to head north to the town of Dessye, nowadays called Dessie. He decides to travel there with the Radical journalist and they buy a knackered lorry off a shifty looking Syrian. In the event the outing is a total farce. At the first little town on the way they are pulled over and given the third degree by the officious chief of police who their servant, ‘James’ buys off with a half pint of whiskey. But a few hours drive further along the road, at Debra Birhan, the shabby mayor and chief of police conspire to forbid their further progress. When they return from the chief’s shabby office they find the locals have built barricades of stone in front and behind their lorry. They are obliged to spend the night camping there, and in the morning the chief removes the barricade behind them and obliges them to trundle back to Addis. Oh well.

Barely have they got back than the Press Office gives the entire press corps permission to travel to Dessie, so now our heroes set out on the same road but this time accompanied by many other cars and lorries packed with journalists and are not hindered or stopped.

In other words, Waugh at no time gets anywhere near a front, sees no fighting, doesn’t even hear the roar of distant artillery, never sees an enemy airplane. The text is entirely about the fatuity of the press corps and the obstructiveness of the Ethiopian authorities.

The emperor arrives at Dessye which would thenceforward be his headquarters for the war, until, in the spring, he was forced to flee the Italian advance, driving fast back to Addis, then catching the train to the coast and then by ship into exile.

By now it was December and the European press and American film companies were bored of the lack of action, coverage, footage, photos and stories. One by one the journalists find themselves being withdrawn. Everyone expects the war to drag on and end with some kind of diplomatic fudge which would revert to the status quo ante, Italy with a bit more influence, maybe Britain and France intervening under cover of a League of Nations mandate, foreign companies seeking concessions, then demanding justice if there was any murder or harassment. Same old.

Waugh’s newspaper terminates his contract. Having come this far he toys with staying on as a freelancers but, like everyone else, expects nothing will happen. He blags a seat in a Red Cross car heading back for the capital.

The German driver — an adventurous young airman who had come to look for good fortune after serving in the Paraguayan war — kept a rifle across the wheel and inflicted slight wounds on the passing farmers at point-blank range. (p.142)

Bereft of its emperor, the capital is dead. The bars are empty. The thronging press pack has gone, He packs his things and gets the train to Djibouti where he discovers a little community of journalists who never even bothered to go to the capital, but were making a perfectly happy living reporting events which they entirely invented. Ship back up through the canal, to Palestine where he fulfils an ambition to see Christmas in Bethlehem. And so by easy stages back to dear old Blighty.

Collapse

The final chapter reports events as a historian, from England. The Italian advance through February and March 1936, the sudden complete collapse of Ethiopian forces and the flight of the emperor to Djibouti and into exile. It had to compete with the German occupation of the Rhine and the outbreak of the Spanish Civil War.

But he follows events, aware as few others how much being printed in the papers was nonsense, eventually overcome by curiosity he applies for permission to return to Abyssinia and, one year after his initial setting off, once again crosses France, then the Mediterranean, then down the Red Sea and so to Djibouti. It is packed with Italians and native hawkers.

Waugh is amused at the sight of the Italian soldiers having to travel from Djibouti, which was in French Somaliland, as far as the border with Ethiopia proper, in mufti. At the border they were allowed to change back into the garish uniforms. Absurdity.

Immediately things are counter-intuitive. He had read that his favourite town of Harar had been bombed and devastated. His friend Patrick Balfour wrote an eloquent obsequy for it in a newspaper. Except it hadn’t. If anything it was cleaner. the pavements had been fixed. The town was packed with Italians. The Hararis looked happy as sandmen to replace the oppressive rule of the Abyssinians with the more permissive – and lucrative – rule of the bon vivant Italians.

He discovers currency chaos with seven different currencies in circulation. There have been attacks on the train by ‘bandits’ prompting ‘pacification’ measures by the Italians in the surrounding villages. When the emperor left there was wholescale looting in Addis Ababa. Waugh discovers no building was untouched, curtains ripped down, electric light fittings torn out.

Waugh meets the Italian general running the new imperial administration, the Viceroy, Field Marshall Graziani. He is frank and forthright, happy to give Waugh whatever help he needs. Slowly it is revealed how extensively Addis was not only looted but burned down. The main hotel looted, the boarding house where Waugh stayed, attacked and burned. Accommodation is difficult. Everywhere is overflowing with the new Italian soldiers and administrators. The streams of lazy Abyssinians riding mules in their white cloaks have disappeared. Crops have not been sown. Food prices are astronomical. There will be famine.

Addis feels besieged. Groups of armed men, sometimes in their hundreds, penetrate the defences on raids. In the four days he spends there, Waugh hear of a substantial attack on the airdrome, and numerous other incursions. Waugh’s trademark deadpan humour:

I had an appointment that afternoon to visit Ras Hailu ; drove out to his house beyond the American hospital and was politely informed that his Highness was unable to see me ; he had gone out to a battle. (p.157)

The Europeans fear for the day a massed attack will be met by an insurrection of blacks within the city and they’ll all be murdered in their sleep. Uneasy sleeps the colonist.

Waugh gives his view frankly and openly, as he did at the start about the process of Western colonialism, as he did in the previous book about the cause of the white settlers in Kenya. For him the central fact is nobody expected the Abyssinian nation to collapse to quickly and completely. Instead of Abyssinians fighting against the Italians and their former subject peoples (which he and other intelligent commentators expected) the Abyssinians themselves had disintegrated into scores of warlords and warrior bandits, living off the peasantry and fighting each other. Complete anarchy, in other words.

As always, the colonists hold the cities and towns, the railway and most of the roads, during the day at least. but the vast expanse of the country is the home of warring bandits as per Afghanistan in our time, as per Vietnam, as per so many colonially occupied countries. Waugh thinks the Italians are tougher than opinion credits them and they’ll make a go of their new empire, but it will be hard.

The road

The book closes with a short chapter describing progress on the new modern motorway the Italians are constructing to run the length of their new colony, praising the engineers and navvies who have built a wide, modern trunk road from the north coast through the heart of the country to Addis and which is still being constructed south towards Somalia and Mogadishu as he writes.

Waugh is positively propagandistic about the new Italian empire. He sees white men working very hard to build the road, something incomprehensible to the Abyssinians who watch them.

The Italian occupation of Ethiopia is the expansion of a race. It began with fighting, but it is not a military movement, like the French occupation of Morocco. It began with the annexation of potential sources of wealth, but it is not a capitalistic movement like the British occupation of the South African goldfields. It is being attended by the spread of order and decency, education and medicine, in a disgraceful place, but it is not primarily a humane movement, like the British occupation of Uganda. It can be compared best in recent history to the great western drive of the American peoples, the dispossession of the Indian tribes and the establishment in a barren land of new pastures and cities.

Very surprising that someone with such a shrewd, pitilessly realistic eye, and a temperament disposed to ennui and sometimes depression, should write such rose-tinted hogwash.

He goes on a whistlestop tour of the occupied north of the country: Asmara, Axum, Adowa and many more now made accessible in hours via the modern autostrada which only a year before had been inaccessibly remote hypothetical places marked on the journalists’ maps, which would have taken weeks of driving then mule trekking to reach. Quite obviously, it is this incredible turnaround in wretched, backward, squalid Ethiopia’s landscape which prompted his raptures about the Italian occupation.

Abandoning everything which makes him such good company, such an alert, malicious, eagle-eyed observer, such a cynic, with such an acute eye for human foibles and follies, right at the very end Waugh delivers a ridiculous hymn of praise to Italian Fascism. I quote it in full a) to give the full mounting rhythm of the thing but b) because it reviews and summarises some of the places he visited and experiences he described and c) it’s an important passage:

They [the engineers and navvies] are at work there at this moment, as I write. They will be at work there when these words appear, and in a few months the great metalled highway will run uninterrupted along the way where the Radical and I so painfully travelled a year before, past the hot springs where our servants mistook the bubbles for rising fish, past the camping ground where Dedjasmach Matafara entertained us to breakfast, up the immense escarpment, past Debra Birhan, where the one-eyed chief held us prisoner, to Addis, where a new city will be in growth — a real ‘New Flower’ — to take the place of the shoddy ruins of Menelik and Tafari. And from Dessye new roads will be radiating to all points of the compass, and along the roads will pass the eagles of ancient Rome, as they came to our savage ancestors in France and Britain and Germany, bringing some rubbish and some mischief; a good deal of vulgar talk and some sharp misfortunes for individual opponents; but above and beyond and entirely predominating, the inestimable gifts of fine workmanship and clear judgement — the two determining qualities of the human spirit, by which alone, under God, man grows and flourishes.

What utter horseshit. I wonder what Evelyn’s friends, let alone his enemies, made of this misplaced paean seven short years later when many of them were fighting against and being killed by these same charming Fascists in the Italian campaign of the Second World War.

Pondering Waugh’s imperialist rhetoric

This florid passage is such a contrast with the entirely progressive, left-wing view of colonialism which he expressed in chapter one of the book. Then again revisiting that opening rhetoric may be a clue to its meaning or its origin. Waugh lived in a world where there were no aid agencies (with the notable exception of the International Red Cross which, however, restricted itself to treating victims of war). There was none of the long-established mechanisms of international aid, foreign loans, ministries of overseas aid, ministries of international development, nor the hundreds and hundreds of charities which medical, teaching, water aid, famine relief, mine clearing, humanitarian assistance and so on, which I have grown up with and take entirely for granted. (Thinking about it, I realise that there were quite a number of missionary agencies which had been operating since at least the mid-nineteenth century, and supported schools and, to a lesser extent, hospitals.)

Waugh had visited the country twice, travelled round it more extensively than most Westerners. He had learned that it was a ramshackle ’empire’ built on the conquest and suppression of neighbouring peoples and tribes. He had seen that, even at the centre, it was characterised by backward obscurantism, inefficiency, endless delay and inaction. No roads worth the name, hardly any hospitals, rarely any schools, and a population mostly illiterate living in poverty in the towns and absolute destitution in the countryside, where famine often brought starvation, many parts of which were prey to wandering bands murdering bandits.

It is worth, therefore, mentally trying on the position, I mean experimenting with the view he is clearly expressing, that Italian colonisation genuinely offered the best way forward for the people of Abyssinia. If you genuinely cared for the population, if you wanted to see roads built, and the economy developed, and modern commerce, and schools and hospitals built in regional centres and the population educated…then the building of the big new trunk road to run right across the country was a symbol of a new life for Ethiopia’s people.

This goes some way to explain his enthusiasm, that and maybe the decision to end the book on an upbeat, positive note. It still doesn’t justify the extravagance of his rhetoric, which seems ludicrous to us now. And, as with his support for the white settlers in Kenya which he expressed in Remote People, we have the immense advantage of hindsight, of knowing that his view was swept away by three or four cumulative forces: that Italian colonisation would be short-lived and ineffectual; that Mussolini’s government would be swept away by the Second World War; that the entire ideology of imperialism and colonisation would a) be swept away in the early 1960s and b) become associated with criminal exploitation.

I’m not defending his position, I’m just pointing out that Waugh knew none of this was going to happen and that, at the time of writing, while the colonisation process had barely even begun, he was genuinely inspired with hope that Italian hegemony would bring a new era of education and enlightenment to a country he had ample evidence for thinking backward and, in some areas (take his harrowing description of Addis Ababa’s prison) positively barbaric.

It is also worth remembering that we, in our fabulously enlightened modern era, despite knowing vastly more about international development than Waugh, have been prone to the same triumphalist rhetoric. Witness the gushingly positive commentary that surrounded the Western invasion of Afghanistan in 2001 and Iraq in 2003, when Western nations invaded third world countries and overthrew their dictatorial regimes, promising a new dawn of peace and prosperity, the rule of law, hospitals, schools and all the rest of it – only to find themselves bogged down in years of violent conflict with unreconciled resistance fighters.

The opening chapter of the book makes it clear that Waugh was all too aware that high-minded European involvement in a developing country all too often covered self-serving commercial and strategic considerations. This makes it all the odder that he gave way to such a booming passage of high-minded rhetoric at the end of the narrative.

Well, a Western country hadn’t invaded a developing country in quite that way, with quite the modern facilities Italy brought to Ethiopia in the 1930s, for quite a while, when Waugh wrote. Presumably he thought this time it’ll be different.

And he had actually seen with his own eyes the impressive new trunk road being built across the country and seen the contrast between the dynamic Italian navvies and the shiftless, poverty stricken native peasants who looked on in amazement. So he has the excuse that he was writing about what he had actually seen at first hand and this included his genuine excitement that genuine change was at hand for the country’s people.

Whereas 70 years later, the armchair commentators, politicians and populations of Western countries who greeted America’s invasion of first Afghanistan then Iraq had no excuses. 70 years of brutal, disillusioning global history had intervened and they should have known better. But hope springs eternal in the human breast and the supporters of those invasions, just like Waugh supporting the Italian invasion, thought this time it’ll be different.

But it’s never different. It’s always the same.

Some Ethiopian words

  • dedjasmatch = civic leader or commander in the field
  • khat = wild plant whose leaves, when chewed, release a stimulant drug which produces mild euphoria and makes people feel more alert and talkative
  • tedj/tej = a honey wine, like mead, that has an alcohol content generally ranging from 7 to 11%
  • tukal/tukul = a traditional thatched roof hut

Credit

Waugh in Abyssinia by Evelyn Waugh was published by Longmans in 1936. All references are to the 1985 Penguin paperback edition.

Africa-related reviews

History and journalism

Fictions, memoirs and travel writing set wholly or partly in Africa

Exhibitions about Africa

Remote People by Evelyn Waugh (1931)

How wrong I was, as it turned out, in all my preconceived notions about this journey.
(Remote People, page 97)

After weeks of reading heavy factual and often horrifying history about Africa, it was like getting into a warm bubble bath to read some Evelyn Waugh. He is a wonderful writer, clear and smooth – admittedly with occasional old-fashioned locutions and sometimes antiquated word order which makes you realise he was closer to the Victorians than to us – but he is nonetheless a deep pleasure to read because of his calm, clear, quietly cynical, drily humorous attitude. For his sophistication and style. For his combination of super-civilised manners and bright heartlessness. For his permanent alertness to the absurdity of life.

We sat in the open under an orange-tree and drank chianti and gossiped about the coronation, while many hundreds of small red ants overran the table and fell onto our heads from above. (p.72)

We saw a bridge being built under the supervision, apparently, of a single small boy in gumboots. (p.153)

[Jinja golf course] is, I believe, the only course in the world which posts a special rule that the player may remove his ball by hand from hippopotamus footprints. (p.156)

Temporary correspondent

Waugh establishes his a) posh, country house party persona and b) all-important membership of the network of posh public schoolboys who ran everything in 1930s England, by telling us that he was travelling by train back to London from a splendid country house in Wales when he bumped into an old chum who worked for The Times and, by the time the train journey had ended, his chum had promised him a job as a temporary correspondent to cover the upcoming coronation of the new emperor of Ethiopia, scheduled for November 1930.

So that’s why the reader opens the book to discover Waugh aboard a steamship, the Azay le Rideau, which has sailed from Marseilles across the Mediterranean, through the Suez Canal and is now docking at Djibouti on the coast of French Somalia. The ship is packed with dignitaries, royal guests, diplomats, journalists and cameramen, plus a unit from the Foreign Legion down in 4th class, and even military bands, all heading for the coronation.

There is ample Carry On comedy about the behaviour of guests on the ship, fuss about porters and baggage, and endless complications about who’s going to get priority places on the very occasional train service which runs from Djibouti up to the capital of Ethiopia, Addis Ababa.

Haile Selassie

A few words about Haile Selassie. He didn’t inherit the ancient throne of Ethiopia in a straightforward manner, by being the eldest son of the previous emperor, it was much more complicated than that. His most notable forebear was the emperor Menelik II (ruled 1889 to 1913) who extended and consolidated Ethiopia’s imperial rule over its neighbouring territories and defeated the invading Italian forces at the Battle of Adowa in 1896. Menelik left no immediate male heir and was succeeded on his death in 1913 by young Lij Iyasu (Lej Yasu, in Waugh’s spelling), who was the son of Menelik’s eldest daughter.

However, Lij Iyasu quickly alienated the powerful Ethiopian aristocracy with his erratic behaviour and the last straw came when he abandoned the millenium-old Ethiopian Christianity for Islam. He was dethroned and replaced by his aunt, his mother’s half-sister, Zewditu (or Zauditu as Waugh spells it). (Waugh also mentions that many of Lij’s Muslim followers were massacred at the town of Harar, p.18.)

Zewditu is an interesting figure in her own right, the first female ruler of Ethiopia in its history, she ruled as empress till her death in 1930. However, long before that, she had appointed young Ras Tafari Makonnen her heir.

Ras is a traditional title in Ethiopia. It translates somewhere between ‘duke’ and ‘prince’, which explains why accounts of its history are full of people with ras in their names. Tafari is a personal name which means ‘one who is respected or feared’. Makonnen was his family name.

Tension arose between Empress Zewditu and Ras Tafari because she was a deeply conservative and devout Christian whereas the young Tafari though Ethiopia needed to modernise.  In 1928 conservative elements in the court tried to overthrow Tafari and have him exiled, but they were defeated by a majority of the more progressive aristocracy. Zewditu was forced to confer on him the title of Negus or king, confirming his position as regent and heir to the throne.

Renewing the feud, in 1930, Zewditu’s own husband Ras Gugsa Welle led a rebellion against Negus Tafari in Begemder, hoping to end the regency in spite of his wife’s repeated pleas and orders to desist. But Gugsa was defeated and killed in battle by the Ethiopian which Tafari had devoted the previous decade to modernising, at the Battle of Anchem in March 1930.

A few days later the empress died, whether as a result of long-term illness or from shock at the death of her husband remains a subject of speculation to this day. Either way the path was now clear for Ras Tafari to inherit the throne and he was officially recognised by his peers as Negusa Nagast which translates as ‘King of Kings’. It is this title which is usually translated into English as ‘Emperor’.

It took 6 months to arrange for the actual coronation to be organised. It took place on 2 November 1930. It was traditional that, upon his coronation, the emperor choose a regnal name and Tafari chose to retain the name given to him at his baptism, Selassie, and incorporate it into his full imperial name – Haile Selassie. In the ancient Ethiopian language of Ge’ez, Haile means ‘power of’ and ‘Selassie’ means Trinity – so Haile Selassie means ‘Power of the Trinity’.

So much for his names. They’re just one aspect of the way that, the more you study it, the more the history of Ethiopia and Selassie’s place in it, become complicated and flavoursome.

Waugh at the coronation

Ethiopia was, at the time, more or less Africa’s only independent country, untainted by colonial rule. Italy had tried to colonise it in the 1890s but the Italian army was massacred at the Battle of Adowa in 1896 and signed a peace treaty with Ethiopia recognising its borders and independence.

Once news of this grand imperial coronation became known, the European countries sent their own princes and dukes to attend the ceremony of a fellow royal. There were also ambassadors quietly jostling for position, and the Americans sent business representatives to try and do deals with the new ruler. Hence the presence of the Duke of Gloucester (King George V’s son), Marshal Louis Franchet d’Espèrey of France, Prince of Udine representing King Victor Emmanuel III of Italy and representatives of the United States, Egypt, Turkey, Sweden, Belgium and Japan.

This all explains the atmosphere of colourful and confused diplomatic parties and Ethiopian  ceremonies which were held during the official week of celebrations leading up to the coronation and which Waugh reports with glee and satire.

He emphasises the surreal atmosphere of posh Westerners in top hats and monocles walking through streets full of white-robed locals riding mules and wearing bandoleers and antiquated rifles.

Every man in Abyssinia carries arms; that is to say, he wears a dagger and bandolier of cartridges around his waist and has a slave boy walking behind with a rifle.

The nearest thing he can compare the ‘galvanised and translated reality’ of Addis Ababa in coronation week to is Alice in Wonderland. In fact surreal details crop up throughout the narrative, making the reader gasp. I was particularly struck when, later in the story he goes for a stroll round the shabby town of Harar and discovers that a lion in a wooden cage is kept behind the courthouse (p.83).

The text continually teeters on the edge of fiction. I mean it is continually turning into a novel. Presumably most of what he reports actually happened but Waugh’s account dwells on characters and incidents which feel like they’re from a fiction. Thus (characteristically showing off his intimacy with the  aristocratic Bright Young Things of his generation) he falls in with ‘old friend’ Irene Ravensdale, the fantastically posh Mary Irene Curzon, 2nd Baroness Ravensdale, Baroness Ravensdale of Kedleston, and they go on trips together to local attractions. They spend an afternoon scrambling through the forest of Jemjem ‘in hopeless pursuit of black-and-white monkeys’ (p.71).

He also becomes friendly with an American professor – Professor W. – who is depicted as a comic character because he is supposedly an expert on Ethiopian history and culture yet doesn’t speak the language and consistently misunderstands what is going on – particularly at the coronation service itself where he gives a running commentary on proceedings which turns out to be wrong in every detail.

Despite this Waugh decides to go on a mini expedition with the professor, to Debra Lebanos, a remote monastery which has for four centuries been at the heart of Ethiopia’s spiritual life. The chapter describing this little jaunt exemplifies many of Waugh’s strengths as a traveller, observer, writer and, dare one say it, thinker.

First of all there are the colourful characters: the Armenian taxi driver they hire to take them on the long, gruelling desert journey, with his no-nonsense attitude and catchphrase, repeated at every crisis: ‘Ça n’a pas d’importance.’ The professor, who’s brought along a crate of empty Vichy water bottles to fill with holy water from the sacred spring but which keep rolling underfoot or falling out the car every time they stop. Then, once they get to the ‘monastery’ there are extended descriptions of the priests who turn out to be a pretty shabby lot, though not as shabby as many of the ‘monks’ who are, in reality, the sick and the halt and the lame who came on pilgrimages and stayed on to populate the place.

One aspect of these blunt descriptions is Waugh’s lack of pretence. About two things he has sentimental blind spots – the Catholic faith and a shamelessly sentimental, William Rees-Mogg-style fantasy about an Old England of enlightened paternalistic squires. But about everything else he is pitilessly, inexorably accurate.

Thus he doesn’t hesitate to describe the sacred monastery as a filthy dump, full of shabby undisciplined ‘monks. Even when they deign to take him and the professor up to the sacred stream, their guide gives a good indication of their general level of piety by pausing the walk to shuffle off into the nearby rocks and have a crap.

The chapter makes a more general point about travelling, or about the kind of travelling Waugh is doing, to very out of the way places – which is he doesn’t hesitate to show that a lot of these ‘legendary’ places turn out to be nothing like they’re cracked up to be. It is refreshingly not the tourist brochure or movie version, but a pitiless gaze at the impoverished, scrappy reality. Same goes for the various coronation scenes and religious ceremonies he witnesses which are often chaotic and shabby.

Then there’s broad comedy, epitomised by the honey scene. Waugh and the professor have brought with them a hamper full of choice Western delicacies (jars of olives, tins of foie gras, crackers), but when the priests offer them food they can’t, of course, refuse.

At first the priests insist that they sacrifice a beast, either a sheep or a goat, despite our heroes’ protestations. It takes the Armenian driver to make them understand that the priests exist on a very scanty diet and so killing a goat for visitors is a big treat for them, the priests. It is typical sly satire that, even when he knows this, Professor W.’s high-minded Boston principles – he is a vegetarian – make him refuse the gift, to the priest’s obvious disappointment.

But what happens next is brilliant. The priests offer to put them up in the only spare room they have, which they describe as a great honour, so Waugh and the professor are horrified to discover it is a filthy shack full of lumber and junk and pullulating with fleas.

Worse is to follow for the priest then returns with some traditional food, namely some rounds of disgusting local soggy grey ‘bread’ and, worse still, a jar of local ‘honey’. This is not the honey you buy at Harrods; it is authentic Ethiopian honey collected the traditional way, scraped off the trees where wild bees have their nests. And so the jar of translucent gloop visibly contains bits of bark, dead insects and bird poo.

Our heroes are horrified but the priest hunkers down and then looks on expectantly, evidently waiting for his honoured visitors to tuck into the monks’ bounty. Stymied and refusing to touch the poisonous viands, our heroes are at a pass, until the professor overcomes his scruples and feigns an attack of severe stomach upset, holding his tummy, pretending to be faint, mimicking throwing up.

Suddenly all attentive, the priest goes to fetch some water, then makes sure they are comfortable for the night, condoling with the poor professor. As soon as he’s left the squalid little hut, our starving heroes tear open their hamper, pull out tins of grouse and bottles of beer and have a feast – being very careful to tidy every scrap of evidence back into the suitcase before the priest returns a few hours later (pages 63 to 64).

And the last point to be drawn from this chapter, is that on occasion Waugh rises to the level of really serious insight. Not allowed into the inner sanctum of the monastery to watch the priests perform their hidden rituals, Waugh has an epiphany. He realises the enormous contrast between the obscure, secret and hidden rites of the pagan East and the bright, open, public ceremonies of Western Christianity. He spends a page explaining how Roman Christianity performs its rituals in the open, in the light, for all to see and participate in and, the corollary of this, how its liturgies and theology give clear, hard-edged verbal definition to the hazy, murky intuitions, the holy terrors and ecstasies of the East.

Obviously whether this is precisely true is debatable, but it’s a big, thought-provoking idea and it arises naturally from the bed of pitiless observation and dry comedy which he creates for it. The unflinching gaze, the comedy and satire, are all based on deeper ideas, which you may or may not agree with, but which provide a serious, substantial foundation for the comedy.

Gentlemen of the press

Waugh is well aware he is masquerading as a foreign correspondent aware that he has no experience of such a role and nothing to qualify him except the self confidence inculcated at a jolly good public school and Oxford. He is alert to the ridiculousness of his own position but also to the farcical aspects of the job. For example, the assembled press cohort realise that the coronation itself is going to take place too late for their copy to make the first editions. Waugh gives a comic survey of the way the entire press corps responds by deciding to make up descriptions of the coronation and gives us choice excerpts of detailed descriptions of the exotic ceremony which were published in various British newspapers and which were entirely fictional. There are also grace notes, as it were, describing the unruly pushing and jostling of the cameramen, especially the one and only film crew in attendance (from America, of course).

The point for Waugh fans is this sets the tone for the even more farcical description of the press and foreign correspondents which he gives in the book’s sequel, Waugh in Abyssinia (1936) and which formed the basis for what is often described as the funniest satire ever written about the British press, the magnificent comic novel Scoop (1938).

Harar

The assignment to cover Selassie’s coronation forms the first part of the book but it is only the start of an odyssey in which Waugh takes the opportunity to visit a number of British colonies in East Africa. All in all, the trip was to take 6 months (p.84) and take in an impressive list of countries, namely Aden, Kenya, Zanzibar, the Belgian Congo and South Africa.

He explains how, once he had filed the requisite number of reports via telegraph back to The Times his contract came to an end and he was a free man. In London he had booked passage by boat from Djibouti to Zanzibar, but now finds he has ten days to kill and is uncertain what to do. Until, that is, the British Consul in Harar, Mr Plowman, kindly invites him to come and stay.

In fact the consul has to remain a few more days in Addis, so Waugh decides to make his own way overland to Harar, travelling by train and taxi. Harar was the first Ethiopian town visited by the famous Victorian explorer Sir Richard Burton and one of the first territories conquered by the warrior emperor Menelik II. It was the town where the caravans met between highlands and coastal lowlands; where Galla, Somali and Arab interbred to produce women of outstanding beauty.

Or so Waugh fantasised. In reality, he finds it to be a dingy medieval town. He is visited by the bishop of Harar and quizzes him about the French poet, the boy wonder Arthur Rimbaud, who lived here after he fled France and became a gun runner to the emperor Menelik II. He is disappointed to learn that the bishop remembers him only as a solemnly serious man, who took a native wife and had a gammy leg (p.79).

The owner of the hotel where he stays, the Leon d’Or, is ‘an Armenian of rare character’, Mr Bergebedgian, who has a wonderfully relaxed attitude to life. The Armenian takes him to all the shops in the town, where he incites himself in, has a coffee and chat with the owner, moves on, telling Waugh all the gossip of the town, shows him the town prison and courthouse (the one with a lion in a wooden cage behind it).

In an aside Waugh says he grew to really admire this man’s character: he thinks he is the most tolerant man he has ever met. Bergebedgian takes him to a hilarious local party at the governor’s house, and then on to a wedding party, which he only dares visit when fully armed and accompanied by two armed police.

Slavery

Last point about Ethiopia. When Haile Selassie ascended the throne, slavery was still legal and common in Ethiopia. An estimated 2 million of the population were slaves. As a modernising ruler the King of Kings moved quickly to abolish it but, inevitably, it lingered on in remote rural areas for decades.

First nightmare

This is the name Waugh gives a short 6-page section describing his unbearable tedium at missing a train connection and so being marooned in the dull dusty town of Dirre-Dowa and then, when he did manage to get a train to the coast, just missing the steamship to Zanzibar and so being marooned in Djibouti.

It is a dithyramb on the excruciating dullness of being stuck in a tropical town with nothing to do and no-one to visit. His attempts to alleviate the boredom are accurate and funny, including a painstaking  attempt at reading the complete works of Alexander Pope which he has (for some reason) brought with him. When he gives up Pope, he is reduced to reading through a small French dictionary in alphabetical order. Then he sits staring out the window in a state of stupefaction. As he accurately notes, most travel books don’t honestly recount the amount of time that is spent in boredom and inanition and frustration and, occasional, depression.

This short chapter certainly rang a bell with me, reminding me of many moments of boredom and loneliness on my various foreign travels. It’s another aspect of Waugh’s unflinching truthfulness.

Aden

It is very surprising to discover the importance which politics assume the moment one begins to travel. (p.120)

His description of Aden as a shabby rundown dump is a masterpiece with many laugh-out-loud moments. He meets the usual cast of eccentrics, or people who, in his novelist’s hands, become eccentrics, such as the two enterprising young German engineers who are working their way round the world. He finds the bachelor world of chaps dining at their clubs very congenial. After all, he says, it’s the womenfolk who ruin colonies, insisting their menfolk stay at home in the evenings, indulging in ferocious snobbery and pooh-poohing the natives.

Waugh describes going to the open air cinema where, a few minutes into the black and white comedy he realises almost everyone around him has fallen fast asleep. He attends a scout meeting where the patient British scoutmaster hopelessly tries to teach Arab youths how to build a fire or the ten rules of scout law.

He attends a council of local Arab chiefs and goes into great detail about the social and political situation of Yemen and southern Arabia. It was barely ten years since the entire area was taken over by the British after the fall of the Ottoman Empire which had run it for centuries. There is a detailed analysis of the complicated rivalries among the tribes, exacerbated by Ottoman rule and now complicated by British attempts to bring peace between internecine feuds. The council is a jurga hosted by the Sultan of Lahej and attended by Sir Stewart Symes, Resident at Aden from 1928 to 1931. He gives detailed insight into the challenges of trying to manage such a fissiparous people.

The tendency of Arab communities is always towards the multiplication of political units.

Disintegration, tribalism, feuding, rivalry, enmity and war. Britain withdrew from South Yemen in 1967. Since September 2014 (seven years and 2 months) Yemen has been torn apart by a brutal civil war in which about 380,000 people have died, including some 85,000 children who have died of starvation. Still. Independent of the ghastly British.

Zanzibar

Zanzibar turns out to be an ordeal. Sweltering oppressive heat and the subterranean prevalence of black magic. December is the worst time of year to visit. He spends all day sweating, only achieving peace a few times a day for a few minutes under a cold shower.

The general point he makes about Zanzibar is that it was taken over by the British with the express aim of abolishing the long-standing East African slave trade run by Arabs, which had increased in volume after the Sultan of Oman relocated his court to Zanzibar in 1840.

Now, in 1930, Waugh sees all around him evidence of the decay of Arab rule and ownership and the steady buying up of everything by merchants and businessmen from India. Waugh overtly likes the old aristocratic Arab culture and deprecates the ascension of what he sees as the ‘mean and dirty’, lower middle class merchant culture of the Indians (p.128) (but then he dislikes the sharp-elbowed middle classes of every race).

Kenya

He has an unpleasant experience with two officious British passport control officials at Mombasa on arriving at the Kenya coast, but once he gets to Nairobi he starts to have a wonderful time. It is Race Week and he has letters of introduction to top chaps, such as the Governor’s aide-de-camp, and spots various chaps and chapesses he knows from school and London (the benefits of being part of that network of public schoolboys and their sisters, wives and girlfriends), and so is swept away in a whirl of race meetings, parties, gambling, cocktails and nightclubs. It is London’s Bright Young Things nightclub society recreated on the equator.

This chapter contains a long serious section about the race issue in Kenya, about race and imperialism and the problems of the white settlers. It is fascinating to read an account from the period, as he grapples with what, to him, are recent developments, such as the government White Paper on the future of Kenya published in 1923.

Basically, Waugh comes out strongly in favour of the colonial settlers. He thinks they acquired the land legitimately, by buying it at fair auction. He thinks most of the land was waste and uncultivated before white farmers invested their life savings to buy it, then reinvested their profits to develop it. He accepts at face value the idea that the whites have a special ‘love’ for the country and its people.

He brings in the broader argument that all of human history has been a record of mass migrations and so the white settlement of the best parts of Africa is just another form of migration and time will tell whether it works out or not.

And finally, he makes the case that many of the white settlers represent a model of the traditional English squirearchy which has died out in the motherland, that they represent something fine and noble, with a patriarchal concern for the natives who they are slowly lifting out of savagery and into civilisation.

More than that, he thinks the way the mindset of the white settlers is so at odds with the socialising ideology of the modern they live in that they have a sort of special connection with the figure of The Writer, who is also at odds with his time.

Hmm. He’s wrong and the settlers were wrong. They might have had legal right on their side, but it was a system of law imposed by the conquering empire, a system which, notoriously, took no account of the African natives.

Waugh’s account is valuable and interesting because it isn’t an out-and-out racist, white supremacist argument, it’s much more mixed and nuanced than that. He happily criticises the whites, saying Anglo-Saxons are peculiarly prone to paranoid fears of other races. He says the appropriation of Masai land was a great injustice. He dislikes incidents of overt anti-black racism when he sees them. But, at the same time, his depiction of the white settlers as country-loving squirearchy is laughably sentimental and rose-tinted.

His account is valuable because it takes you into the complex dynamic of the situation circa 1930. There are:

  • the hard-working white settlers and farmers
  • the white professionals living in Nairobi and the towns who have made a killing out of property speculation
  • the distant government and civil service in Whitehall who all the settlers think don’t understand them and are gagging to sell them out
  • the colonial government on the ground in Nairobi which tries to mediate between London and the settlers, while also taking into account the interests of the natives
  • the native Africans who remain almost completely invisible and silent in Waugh’s account
  • much more visible and vocal are the Indians, successful businessmen who outnumber the whites, are often richer and more successful than them, but are infuriated at the way they are excluded from all aspects of white colonial life by a solid colour bar

In this account it is the Indians who are subject to pronounced racist attitudes. Waugh gives a tendentious account of three Indians he has a conversation with in Mombassa who get very heated. They are angry that they have no rights in Kenya, no legal or political rights and are discriminated against. Then they get angry about Indian independence. Waugh clearly dislikes them.

But they’re in the right. And he acknowledges the fact when he spends half a page dwelling on the hysteria which perfectly ordinary Anglo-Saxon people are driven into when abroad, when part of this absurd empire and their white privilege is threatened. He finds it incredible that the merest speculation that the governor might amend the law to allow Indians a vote in the Kenyan government has hot-headed whites muttering in their clubs about kidnapping the Governor and staging an anti-London protest similar to the Boston Tea Party.

He concludes the 4 or 5 pages he devotes to the subject by saying the entire colonial thing is an experiment. It’s perfectly possible that in the next 25 years the whole thing will be swept away. And, of course, eerily enough, that is just what happened. The entire ants nest of squabbling interest groups was swept away in the great tide of African independence which reached Kenya just 30 years later in 1963, to be replaced by an entirely new dynamic of tribally based political parties and much more severe problems.

Race and class

It comes as no surprise that a public schoolboy travelling the British Empire in 1930 occasionally betrays a condescending and patronising tone towards the ‘natives’. The two obvious things to go on to say are:

1. That he regularly expresses more or less the same condescending criticism towards Europeans, royalty, the English middle classes, colonists and so on, in fact about the entire enterprise of Empire which, like so many of his generation, he finds endlessly ridiculous. When he has dinner with a Quaker doctor and his wife there was ‘no nonsense about stiff shirts and mess jackets’; they eat dinner outside in their pyjamas.

2. For every negative comment about this or that group or tribe, there are plenty of positive remarks about other groups or nations or races or tribes.

For example, he goes out of his way to remark that the two most impressive and congenial people he met in his entire 6-month trip were Armenians and gives extended descriptions of their characters.

When I came to consider the question I was surprised to realise that the two most accomplished men I met during this six months I was abroad, the chauffeur who took us to Debra Labanos and Mr Bergebedgian, should both have been Armenians. A race of rare competence and the most delicate sensibility. (p.84)

No white supremacy there. He is full of admiration for the beauty of the women of Harar. And what prompted me to write this little section was a remark he makes à propos of his time in Zanzibar.

The Arabs are by nature a hospitable and generous race… (p.128)

He very much enjoys the company of a Turk he met on the boat to Zanzibar, enjoys discussing history and hearing history from an intelligent man born and bred entirely from the Mohammedan point of view (p.124).

The dividing line for Waugh isn’t race, as such: it is the line between civilisation and barbarism. Black men who can read and write, are educated, or maybe neither but still have manners and decorum are, for him, civilised. The Arabs demonstrate tremendous courtesy and hospitality. His two favourites among the hundreds of people he met were Armenians for their tolerance and capability. So it’s not to do with race, it’s to do with culture and civilisation.

On the other side of the line are what he calls the savages, the uneducated, illiterate, filthy and threatening natives, the ‘savages with filed teeth’ with long hair glued together by rancid butter dressed in rags. And then the homicidal behaviour of natives remote from all townships, who murder strangers on sight, sometimes eating them. For Waugh it’s not about skin colour as such, but behaviour and values, and these can be shared by anyone regardless of skin colour or ethnicity.

There is a third category which is the pushy, angry, Indian merchants and the occasional Jewish entrepreneur he encounters, and who he takes an instinctive dislike to. But again this isn’t necessarily about race. He just dislikes money-minded merchants of any culture: he is reliably contemptuous of British businessmen, especially lower-middle-class shopkeepers, and deprecates the commercially minded Yanks who hang round the emperor’s coronation. It’s not racism, it’s snobbery.

Alert and malicious

One contemporary described the young Waugh as having the appearance of ‘an alert and malicious faun’. Exactly. He is always alert. He notices (or invents) details which give his descriptions and accounts a tremendous specificity.

But this alertness of observation only ‘exists’ because of the way it is embodied within the text by the preciseness of his vocabulary and the timing of his phrasing, which themselves enact the aloof, scrupulous, alertness of attitude.

After a profoundly indigestible dinner, Mr Bergebedgian joined us – the unsmiling clerk and myself – in a glass of a disturbing liqueur labelled ‘Koniak’. (p.80)

I’m not claiming Shakespearian mastery of the language for Waugh, but pointing out the accuracy of observation and description. The way he casually mentions that the dinner was ‘profoundly indigestible’ is funny, continuing a theme about the general poverty and dirtiness of most of the places he stayed in, indeed the hotel kept by the affable Armenian Mr Bergebedgian is described in the only travel book of the region as one to be avoided at all costs.

But it’s the placement of the adjective ‘disturbing’ which made me burst out laughing. The unexpectedness but preciseness of the word. And then it is also part of the stylised vocabulary of the public school Bright Young Things. It is part of the pose they are trained in to underplay disasters and setbacks. ‘Oh I say, how unfortunate / how regrettable / how simply ghastly’ they say as their plane falls out of the sky, canoe goes over the falls, or the roast beef is a trifle overdone. ‘Disturbing’ is typical of that public school understatement: why say something as crudely explicit as ‘disgusting’ or ‘unpalatable’ when you can achieve humour and mastery of the situation with English understatement? So this one word raises a host of connotations. It is a complex effect delivered with immaculate timing, and it is the combination of a) surreal detail described with b) English understatement c) with perfect timing, which are a key part of Waugh’s reliably entertaining style.

On other occasions it is just the sheer beauty of his descriptions. On the ferry across Lake Tanganyika he is forced to make a rough bed on the deck, all the cabins having gone to the savvy passengers who had bribed the captain:

As we got up steam, brilliant showers of wood sparks rose from the funnel; soon after midnight we sailed into the lake; a gentle murmur of singing came from the bows. In a few minutes I was asleep. (p.170)

It’s not the most dramatic scene, but he describes it with such smoothness and style, having taken a few overnight ferries I recognise the mood, I felt I was there. When it is appropriate to be simple and descriptive, he is.

At the other end of the spectrum, sometimes it is the extended caricatures of the people he meets.

Soon after five the captain appeared. No one looking at him would have connected him in any way with a ship; a very fat, very dirty man, a stained tunic open to his throat, unshaven, with a straggling moustache, crimson-faced, gummy-eyed, flat-footed. He would have seemed more at home as the proprietor of an estaminet. (p.168)

Variety and innocence

This leads into my last point which is that the book contains a great diversity of characters. Alright, there aren’t any speaking parts for Africans once he’s left Ethiopia; but this large caveat aside, I found it wonderful that wherever he went, there was this diversity of races and nationalities: the two Armenians stick out, but plenty of Italians, French, Belgians, Germans, the Indians in Zanzibar, the Arabs and Jews in Aden.

And it’s not just nationalities, but a florid variety of characters and types, ranging from the shabby ship’s captain mentioned above to the most correctly dressed Governors and ambassadors, via Quaker missionaries in pyjamas, the monks of Debra Labanos in their filthy tunics, Kikuyu serving ‘boys’, Abyssinian bandits dressed in white gowns and riding donkeys, the historically-minded Turk, any number of demoralised Greek hotel keepers.

It has the same abundant mix of nationalities and types all rubbing along together which you get in the Tintin books of the 1930s and 40s. One of the things I loved about Tintin when I was a boy was the way all the characters are so colourful, come from different countries, speak different languages, cook different cuisines, are so wonderfully varied. The argumentative sea captain, the dotty professor, the dignified butler, the unstoppable opera singer, her timid assistant, the piratical South American dictator, the nitwit detectives – how unlike the very boring, samey suburban English people I grew up among, what a wonderful escape into a realm where everyone is a vivid and distinct character.

The same variety is evident right from the opening scenes of this book on the cruise ship bringing Waugh to Djibouti with its colourful cast of passengers, from princes to Foreign Legionaries.

I’ve just read half a dozen books about African countries where, at independence, almost the entire European population fled (Congo, Angola) or, soon afterwards, was expelled and all their businesses nationalised (Zaire, Uganda).

Buried in the chaos of the Second World War were huge ethnic cleansings and attempted genocides. The Cold War saw ideological differences stop being entertaining and become murderous. In Africa (and South America and South-East Asia) communist guerrillas kidnapped and murdered foreigners, dictatorships ran death squads, the world became a much more dangerous place. In Africa, specifically, successive nationalist regimes nationalised all foreign businesses and expelled their owners. The Greek hotel owners, the Armenian taxi drivers, the Russian who runs a hide company in Addis Ababa, the other European oddballs who’d fetched up in remote corners and, of course, the large Indian business communities in many African countries – all expelled, all banished, all swept away. Replaced by much more homogeneous societies, 100% black, 100% African.

I think that’s what happened. By the time I went a-travelling in the late 1970s it felt like the colourful bricolage or personalities you regularly encounter in Tintin or pre-war travel books had vanished: in Egypt I met only Egyptians, in Thailand only Thais, in Turkey only Turks, in Greece only Greeks.

The colourful world in which you pulled into an Ethiopian or Ugandan town to find the only hotel run by a morose Greek and the only taxi in town driven by a cheerful Armenian taxi driver and got chatting with a jolly Turk happy to explain the Mohammedan view of history – that colourful world of real variety and diversity had gone for good.


Credit

Remote People by Evelyn Waugh was published in 1931. All references are to the 1985 Penguin paperback edition.

Africa-related reviews

History

Fictions, memoirs and travel writing set wholly or partly in Africa

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In The Footsteps of Mr Kurz by Michela Wrong (2000)

Comparing Michela Wrong and David van Reybrouck

David van Reybrouck’s account of Congo’s modern history is basically an orthodox chronological account and political analysis interspersed with interviews with the many veterans and eye witnesses he has tracked down and spoken with at length.

Wrong’s account feels completely different, less chronological or, indeed, logical, more thematic. Instead of historical analysis, she brilliantly conveys what it felt like to live in Zaire under Mobutu as she sets about systematically exploring and describing different aspects of Zaire society and culture. Her vividness of approach is demonstrated by the way the book opens with the fall of Mobutu in 1997, going light on political analysis and strong on vivid descriptions of what it felt like to live in a crumbling, corrupt third world country.

Chapter one dwells on the role played in so many African states by key international hotels in their capitals, in Rwanda the Mille Collines, in Zimbabwe the Meikles, in Ethiopia the Hilton, in Uganda the Nile, hotels where presidents mingle with mercenaries, dodgy diamond deals are struck between smartly dressed middlemen, security goons lurked in the background muttering into their lapel mics, and the corridors were cruised by the most expensive hookers in town. And how it felt to be one among the pack of foreign correspondents living in Kinshasa’s Intercontinental Hotel as rumours swirled, troop carriers arrived, the president’s son turned up with a pack of soldiers furiously trying to track down the men who betrayed his father. And then suddenly, overnight, all the military figures switched to wearing tracksuits and casual wear in anticipation of the arrival of the rebel troops.

That’s the kind of picture painting and atmosphere Wrong is ace and conjuring up. How a country’s decline can be measured by the way the expensive carpeting in its hotels starts to smell of mildew, the lifts stop working, the blue paint on the bottom of pools comes off on the swimmers’ feet. Van Reybrouck takes an essentially academic approach spiced with extensive interviews. He is a historian whereas Wrong is a journalist, with a telling eye for detail and snappy one-line quotes.

Obviously, in this 314-page book she tells us an awful lot about the origins, rise and fall of the Mobutu dictatorship which lasted from 1965 to 1997, but it is the fantastically evocative way she conveys what it felt like that makes this book such a classic.

Van Reybrouck gives a detailed explanation of the ethnic tensions in eastern Congo which were exacerbated by the Rwandan genocide and then the constellation of political forces which led the Rwandan and Ugandan presidents to decide to invade eastern Congo and create a military coalition (the Alliance of Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Congo-Zaire, the AFDL) and select as its leader the long-time Maoist guerrilla leader Laurent-Désiré Kabila. This is to the good. His account is worth reading and rereading.

But Wrong tells you what it felt like to be in Kinshasa as the rebel army drew ever closer. The panic among Mobutu’s cronies, the so-called mouvanciers up in their gated mansions in the smart Binza district, the rush by the city’s moneyed classes to get visas for foreign destinations, the way the various western embassies practised evacuating their staff across the river Congo to Brazzaville, capital of the once-French colony the Republic of Congo which was unaffected by Mobutu’s fall.

Van Reybrouck gives you high-level analysis, Wrong gives you the sweat and the fear, the paranoia. She tells us everyone knew the game was up when the grizzled old piano player who’d been playing cocktail jazz in the bar of the Intercontinental for as long as anyone could remember one day disappeared.

She describes how the shopkeepers and population prepared for the mass looting which always accompanies regime change, and passes on the advice of an old hand that it’s best to select in advance one and only one item you want to loot and, once the anarchy begins, focus on getting that and only that. Wrong selects a $1,000 leather jacket for when the great pillaging begins.

She describes the way rumours are spread by ‘Radio Trottoir’, Pavement Radio i.e. word on the street. She conveys the mad, feverish atmosphere of a city about to be taken by rebel forces (p.27).

Another difference is that van Reybrouck sees the history of Congo as a tragedy, or series of tragedies, and he affects the reader with his sense of high seriousness. Wrong, on the other hand, has a lively sense of humour and an eye for the absurd detail. She finds almost everything about Zaire farcical, but then she appears to find all of Africa farcical and hopeless.

As for rebuilding the impression given by the scaffolding and myriad work sites dotted around Kinshasa is misleading. The work has never been completed, the scaffolding will probably never be removed. Like the defunct street lamps lining Nairobi’s roads, the tower blocks of Freetown, the faded boardings across Africa which advertise trips to destinations no travel company today services, it recalls another era, when a continent believed its natural trajectory pointed up instead of down. (p.20)

As this quote indicates, another difference is that whereas van Reybrouck’s account is focused with laser-like precision on the history of just the Congo, Wrong’s anecdotes and comparisons freely reference the many other African countries she’s visited and worked in as a foreign correspondent. There’s a lot more international comparison and perspective. Wrong visits places around Congo but also Brussels to interview historians, to visit the Congolese quarter, and Switzerland to track down some of Mobutu’s luxury properties.

And whereas van Reybrouck is optimistic, on the side of Congo’s bloodied but resilient people, Wrong is both more humorous and more pessimistic. According to her, the story is the same all across Africa, one of unstoppable decline and fall.

Talking to the melancholic Colonel, I was suddenly overwhelmed by the sense of tragic waste, of crippled potential that so often sweeps over one in Africa. (p.178)

In Ronan Bennett’s novel The Catastrophist the Belgian colonials who describe the Congolese as ‘children’ who need order, discipline and control and will make a horlicks of their country if granted independence are condemned as racist bigots – so you must never say anything like that. However, Wrong’s book freely refers to African politics as farcical, its politicians as clowns, and that, apparently, wins prizes.

At times, too many times, politics on Congo resembled one of those hysterical farces in which policemen with floppy truncheons and red noses bounce from one outraged prima donna to another. ‘I’m the head of state. Arrest that man!’ ‘No, I’M the head of state. That man is an imposter. Arrrest him!’ (p.66)

So it’s OK to mock Africans as long as you use the correct phraseology and attitude. Calling them children is a no-no; calling their countries farcical, absurd, ludicrous, surreal, Alice in Wonderland – that’s fine.

And perfectly acceptable to be tired and bored of the absurdity of Africa’s rulers, the comical proliferation of rebels and freedom fighters and guerrilla movements, the bleak iteration of yet another massacre or round of ethnic cleansing somewhere on this blighted continent, like the western media’s news producers and sub-editors ‘shaking their heads over yet another unfathomable African crisis’ (p.7). Africa is for Wrong, ‘a disturbing continent’, ‘Africa, a continent that has never disappointed in its capacity to disappoint’, whose countries brim with ‘anarchy and absurdity’ (p.10).

When the AFDL’s representatives started calling the BBC office in Nairobi in late 1996, claiming they would march all the way to Kinshasa, journalists dismissed them with a weary shrug as yet another unknown guerrilla movement, the length of its constituent acronyms only rivalled by its obscurity, making wild plans and farcical claims. Africa is full of them: they surface, splinter into factions – yet more acronyms – only to disappear with equal suddenness. (p.245)

Several times she mentions Liberia’s drugged freedom fighter who wore wedding dressed and pink lipstick as they mowed down innocent civilians and gang-raped the women. She describes the teenage  FAZ recruits preparing to defend Kinshasa who were so drunk they could barely lift their grenade launchers. When the AFDL rebel soldiers arrive they turn out to be mostly teenagers wearing flip-flops or no shoes at all. Kabila promised to relinquish power once he’d overthrown Mobutu but of course does nothing of the sort. In turn Kabila was himself assassinated (in 2001), replaced by a family member even more corrupt and the whole of East Congo engulfed in a huge, often incomprehensible and seemingly endless war. Farce and tragedy.

The Latin Quarter hit, ‘I’m hearing only bad news from Radio Africa‘ seems as true when Wrong was writing in 2000 or now, in 2021, as when it was released in 1984.

Chapter by chapter

Introduction

Wrong arrived in Zaire as a foreign correspondent in 1994, found her way around, did features on Mobutu and his corrupt circle, the prostration of the economy (‘a country reverting to the Iron Age’, p.31) the uselessness of the army, the universal vibe of fear and poverty. Less than three years later, in autumn 1996, the AFDL seized eastern Congo and began its systematic assault on the country, seizing the mining centre of Lubumbashi in the south while other forces marched on the capital Kinshasa in the west. Wrong is perfectly placed to report on the paranoia of the last days, to fly out to the hot spots, to interview soldiers, shopkeepers, street traders, as well as army officers and government spokesmen.

So the introduction gives us tasters, snapshots: Wrong flying to the pretty lakeside town of Goma which was pillaged by its own inhabitants when the occupying army left. Wrong wandering through the rooms of Mobutu’s legendary palace at Gbadolite, now ruined and looted, the five black Mercedes, the Ming vases.

And she explains the title which is a quote from Joseph Conrad’s classic novella Heart of Darkness about the madness and barbarism he, personally, encountered, in the Congo Free State in 1890, epitomised by the fictional character of Mr Kurz, the high-minded exponent of civilisation who is sent to man an ivory station up the Congo, far from civilisation, and decays and degrades to become an epitome of barbarism and nihilism. Wrong sees herself literally following in Kurz’s footsteps as she explores all aspects of the absurd rule of Mobutu in the mid-90s, then watches his regime collapse in ruins.

Chapter 1

Plunges us into the endgame with a wonderfully evocative description of the atmosphere in Kinshasa and the Intercontinental Hotel where all the foreign correspondents stayed, during the last few days in 1997 October 1997 before Laurent Kabila’s AFDL took the city and Mobutu and his cronies were forced to flee. Snapshots of a city under siege, with brief explanations of Mobutu’s rule, the character of the AFDL and its leader Kabila, their determination to clean up the pigsty and abolish corruption.

Chapter 2

Gives a brisk but effective summary of Stanley’s exploration of the Congo (with backstory about Stanley’s biography) and King Leopold’s disgustingly barbaric regime of cruelty and exploitation, which he called the Congo Free State, 1885 to 1908 (with backstory explaining why Belgium was a relatively new country – founded in 1830 – and its king wanted a colony so as to be taken seriously by the big boys.)

In Brussels she visits the Belgian scholar Jules Marchal, once a whip-wielding colon himself, who has devoted his life to editing and publishing definitive records of the Congo Free State. She visits the Royal Museum for Central Africa and is shocked by the complete absence of references to the atrocities the Belgians carried out there, and to learn that Belgian colonial history is not taught in Belgian schools (p.55).

She takes a tour of buildings by the noted Art Nouveau architect Victor Horta, before pointing out that all the raw materials crafted into these beautiful buildings – the hardwood, onyx, marble, and copper – all came directly from the forced labour of Congolese blacks. Horta was rewarded for his services to Belgian architecture with a barony.

She describes how many of the Free State’s exploitative practices continued after the colony was handed over to Belgian government rule in 1908, including forced labour and use of the dreaded chicotte, the whip made of dried hippopotamus hide. It was only after the Second World War that Congo became less brutally exploitative and a tiny black middle class began to emerge, but if anything the colour bar or informal apartheid against this new breed of évolués or ‘evolved’ blacks grew worse.

Which moves into a description of the appearance, sights and sounds and mentality of the Congolese quarter in Brussels. She ends by making a strong case that Leopold’s atrocities, many of which continued under Belgian colonial rule, acculturated an entire region for 85 long years to abject humiliation, subservience, black market, illegal operations and corruption. Prepared the way, in other words, for just such a dictator as Mobutu.

No malevolent witch doctor could have devised a better preparation for the coming of a second Great Dictator. (p.57)

Chapter 3

Interview with Larry Devlin, the long-retired former CIA station chief in Kinshasa, who emphasises that Wrong only saw the regime at its bitter, pitiful end. She never knew the young, vibrant, charismatic Mobutu or knew the situation of anarchy between elected politicians which his 1965 coup rescued the country from (p.61).

She makes clearer than van Reybrouck or Bennett that Lumumba had actively invited the Soviets to give arms and advisers to crush the secessions. Devlin thinks Lumumba was never a communist, but he was naive. He thought he could invite in thousands of communist advisers at no cost. Devlin says he’d seen that happen in Eastern Europe after the war: your country falls to a communist coup and then Moscow is in charge. So Mobutu’s first coup of September 1960 was not just to bring political peace but to keep the Congo out of Soviet hands – and it worked. Soviet bloc personnel were given 48 hours to leave the country (p.67).

His account emphasises not just that, when the UN and US were slow to respond, Lumumba turned to the Soviets to supply him with arms and strategic advice to put down the secession of two major provinces – but that people of Devlin’s generation had seen this happen before. This was how the Soviets effected their coups in Poland and Czechoslovakia. This is how they established their tyrannies, by taking control of the army and placing personnel in key administrative and political positions. It had never been done in Africa before, but the Americans weren’t about to sit back and watch the Soviets make the experiment. So that’s why the Americans, backed by his political enemies within the country, decided he had to be eliminated. President Eisenhower personally approved CIA plans to assassinate Lumumba (p.77).

Then she backs up to give us the hasty run-up to independence from Belgium in June 1960, the army mutinying for better pay and promotion within days, triggering a mass exodus of the Belgian administrators and technicians who kept the country running, the political rivalry between ‘lethargic’ President Kasavubu (p.66) and passionate Prime Minister Patrice Lumumba and how the deadlock between them was broken by young Joseph-Désiré Mobutu, previously Lumumba’s personal secretary, who Lumumba himself had put in charge of the army and who, very bravely, faced down the army mutiny and restored order. Mobutu was encouraged then and ever afterwards by America.

A detailed look at the boyhood and young manhood of Joseph Mobutu from the Ngbani tribe, one of the smaller of Congo’s 250 ethnic groups, emphasising his brightness, reasonableness and extraordinary charisma; educated by Belgian priests, expelled for being a trouble-maker, a few years in the Force Publique rising to rank of sergeant, then contributing (anonymous) articles to new magazines set up for the Congolese, before he committed to becoming a journalist and then came to the attention of Lumumba who was looking for a secretary (pages 68 to 76). Devlin, the CIA man explains how Mobutu was really the best man available when he staged his 1965 coup.

Soon after the 1965 coup Devlin was posted to Vietnam. When he returned to Zaire in 1974 he found a drastically changed man and country. Surrounded by yes men, drinking pink champagne in his palaces, Mobutu was ‘already round the bend’ (p.82).

Chapter 4 Economics

In the immediate aftermath of the coup there were hangings, a new secret police was set up and so on. But the fundamental fact about Mobutu’s regime was he was an economic illiterate. Therefore his sole economic policy was to loot and plunder his country’s natural resources (when the going was good in the late 60s and early 70s) and then creaming the top off huge loans from the World bank and aid agencies. In other words, he didn’t know how to create or run a modern economy. He built a few high-profle white elephants, like the Inga dam, but when the builders left Zaire had no technicians to run it and there was never any coherent plan to create the infrastructure to distribute the electricity to where it was needed. Thus Congo has the greatest hydro-electric potential in the world in the shape of its huge and mighty river – and yet is a country whose cities suffer continual power cuts and outages.

He took up the creed of Pan-Africanism pioneered by Kwame Nkrumah, first Prime Minister of Ghana (who made himself president for life in 1964 and was overthrown by a military coup in 1966 supported by the CIA).

Mobutu promulgated his policies of authenticité, forcing everyone in the country to drop their European Christian names and adopt African names, renaming the state Zaire, renaming Leopoldville Kinshasa and Elizabethville Lubumbashi. He forced everyone to stop wearing European suits and mini skirts and adopt traditional African dress (p.90). He persuaded promoters to hold Miss World and the Ali-Foreman boxing match in Zaire (described in detail in van Reybrouck’s book).

In other words, he demonstrated how facile it is to address ‘cultural’ issues, fuss over ‘identity’ and language and culture. Meanwhile, in the absence of an economic or development plan, the economy tanked and the infrastructure rotted. The first years of his rule were bolstered by the high prices for Zaire’s raw materials created by the Vietnam war, but the end of the war in 1974 combined with the oil crisis to plunge Zaire into an economic hole it never crawled beck out of (p.94).

In 1973 he launched ‘Zaireanisation’ i.e. all foreign held businesses were confiscated by the state with a view to handing them over to ‘the people’ (p.92). The only problem was that ‘the people’ turned out, as when Robert Mugabe did the same thing 20 years later in Zimbabwe, to consist entirely of cronies and clients of Mobutu, who needed to be paid off or kept onside. None of them had a clue how to manage anything and ran businesses large and small into the ground, selling off the assets, living high off the proceeds, then needing further bribes or corruption money when they ran dry. $1 billion of assets were confiscated then squandered. It was gangster economics, ‘Alice in Wonderland finances’ (p.124).

And run on a massive system of cronyism. Mobutu needed so much money because he had to distribute gifts to all his important stakeholders in the manner of a traditional chieftain. Mobutu bought properties for himself around Europe, but he encouraged a system where hundreds of thousands of people scrabbled into the state administration, into the army or civil service, and then used their positions to embezzle, steal, demand bribes and generally be as corrupt as possible. By the mid-1990s Zaire had 600,000 people on the state payroll, doing jobs the World Bank calculated could be done by 50,000 (p.97).

The ambassador to Japan, Cleophas Kamitatu, simply sold the Zairian embassy and pocketed the proceeds. France sold Zaire a fleet of Mirage jets and ten years later, Defence Ministry officials simply sold them and kept the money (p.256). Ministers allotted themselves huge monthly salaries, lavish per diems, and insisted on having two of the very latest Mercedes, and their example was copied all the way down through their ministries, in state-run businesses and onto the street. Everyone stole everything they could, all the time. That’s what a kleptocracy is.

Chapter 5 Congo’s ruined mineral industries

Wrong flies to Katanga to report how nationalisation, corruption and utter mismanagement ran Congo’s mineral industries into the ground, beginning with astonishing stats about the country’s mineral huge wealth, then on to how Mobutu nationalised the Belgian mining corporation, Union Minière, consolidating it into the state-run company Gécamines. Sounds good, doesn’t it, one in the eye for the old imperial power, claiming the nation’s resources for the nation.

Except the nation never saw any of the profits. By 1978 the central bank had ordered Gécamines to transfer its entire annual profit of $500 million directly into a presidential bank account. By 1980 American researchers discovered that company officials were stealing $240 million  a year from Gécamines. Not only stole but smuggled, with huge amounts of diamonds, gold and other precious metals never reaching the books because they were stolen and smuggled abroad. In such an environment, nobody at any level gave a damn about investing in the company, in its stock and infrastructure, and so everything the Belgians had bequeathed the Congolese slowly rotted, decayed, was stolen, till the entire plants were rusting skeletons.

Wrong tours these sites giving us eerie descriptions of entire towns full of abandoned workings, derelict factories, rusting railways. That’s what she means when she described the entire country as slipping back into the Iron Age.

Wrong testifies to the decrepitude of the Shituri plant, describes the white elephant of Inga dam project built solely so Kinshasa kept control over Katanga. Pays an extended visit to the diamond town of Mbuji Mayi in the neighbouring province of Kasai, and interviews traders who explain the deep-seated corruption at every level of the diamond trade and ‘controlled’ by the Societe Miniere de Bakwanga (MIBA). She interviews its long-standing government representative, Jonas Mukamba (p.118) who paid Mobutu a hefty slice of the profits and in exchange was allowed to run Mbuji Mayi as he liked.

Eventually the infrastructure of Mbuji Mayi crumbled and collapsed, as had the mining infrastructure of Katanga. World mineral prices slumped but also, what was being produced was now being almost entirely smuggled. The rake-off from official trade collapsed because official trade collapsed. As the 90s progressed Mobutu lost his power of patronage.

She visits the central bank and the alleyway behind it jokingly referred to as Wall Street because it’s lined with unofficial street money changers. As Mobutu borrowed more and more from abroad and printed more money inflation soared and the currency collapsed. Wheelbarrows full of notes. A 500,000 zaire (the currency) note was printed to general resignation. Printing money led to mind-boggling inflation 9,800% and printing of the 500,000 zaire note. Mobutu had presided over the utter ruination of the economy.

Chapter 6

The collapse in Kinshasa epitomised by 1960s high-rise ministries without functioning lifts. The collapse of public phone system which was replaced by mobile networks, Telecel, for the wealthy. The collapse of the health system exemplified by Mama Yemo hospital which employs guards to prevent patients leaving without paying their bills.

Wrong pays a visit to Kinshasa’s small nuclear reactor, built on sandy soil liable to landslips, hit by a rocket during Kabila’s takeover of power, which had no security at all on the day she visited, and where one or two nuclear rods have recently gone missing.

Chapter 7

An explanation of ‘Article 15’, which is, apparently, the much-quoted ironic dictum by which most Congolese live their lives.

When the province of Kasai seceded soon after independence, it published a 14-article constitution. So many ethnic Luba people returned to the region expecting to become rich that the exasperated secessionist ruler made a speech in which he referred to a fictional, hypothetical 15th article of the constitution, which basically said, in French, ‘Débrouillez-vous!’ meaning ‘get on with it’, ‘figure it out yourself’, ‘deal with it’ or ‘improvise’. Since 1960 has become a universal expression throughout the country to explain ‘the surreal alternative systems invented by ordinary Zaireans to cope with the anarchy’ (p.11) they find themselves living in.

And so Wrong gives an overview of the hundred and one street professions of a people struggling to live in an economy with no jobs and no wages. Wrong gives an extended description of the Mutual Benefit Society run by the disabled street people of Ngobila Beach and the tiny loopholes in the law they exploit to smuggle and sell items.

She meets a fervent Kimbanguist, the religion described by van Reybrouck. Van Reybrouck’s account of Kimbanguism is much more thorough, lucid and logical, but Wrong’s is an in-your-face explanation via one particular believer, Charles, a Zairian who combines high moral principles (‘we are never naked’) with the profession of ‘protocol’ or fixer of bribes at Kinshasa’s notorious N’Djili International Airport.

Chapter 8

Le Sape, Congo’s equivalent of Mods, snappily dressed proles. The origin and purpose of the Society of Ambiencers and Persons of Elegance (SAPE), as explained to Wrong by self-styled ‘Colonel’ Jagger (p.176) as a protest against poverty and the drabness of the constricting African authenticité style demanded by Mobutu.

Then she gives a portrait of the ex-pat community of European idealists and chancers and romantics who came out in the 1950s or 60s and stayed on past independence and into the Mobutu years. This focuses on the example of Daniel Thomas a French construction worker who has repeatedly tried to start small farming businesses only to be repeatedly looted and ruined by his neighbours, and now all of his money is tied up in a farm he can’t sell and who has lost all hope. His wife is exhausted and disillusioned and wants to leave this sick land but they are stuck.

Chapter 9

Wrong details the vast sums loaned or given to Zaire over the years by international banks and especially the World Bank and International Monetary Fund. She interviews insiders who explain that during the 1960s, 70s and 80s very few conditions were attached to vast loans which, predictably, disappeared straight into the bank accounts of Mobutu and cronies.

Chapter 10

Details of the vast palace Mobutu had built for himself at Gbadolite in the jungle in the north of the country, right on the border with Central African Republic. It’s said to have cost $100 million, with an airstrip big enough for Concorde to land on. Musical fountains, ornamental lakes, model farm, gilt, marble. This is what a lot of Western aid paid for. Eventually it came to seem too big and imposing so… he had another one built a few miles away at Kwale, with an olympic size swimming pool,

The story of Pierre Janssen who married Mobutu’s daughter, Yaki, on 4 July 1992, and so became the only white person in Mobutu’s inner circle and a few years later revealed all in a kiss-and-tell memoir. The Moules flown in from Belgium, huge bouquets of flowers flown in from Amsterdam, cakes flown in from Paris along couturiers and barbers.

The weirdness that after his first wife, Marie Antoinette, generally reckoned to be a restraining influence on him, died in 1977, he married his mistress Bobi Ladawa, and took as a new mistress…her twin sister, Kossia. They socialised together, were seen together. Wrong speculates that there might have been a voodoo, animistic belief that the twins would ward of the nagging spirit of his first wife, for twins are regarded in Africa as having totemic powers (p.223).

Chapter 11

A brisk account of the Rwandan genocide which is in a hurry to explain the longer and more significant consequence, which was the creation of vast camps for Hutu refugees just across the borders in Zaire and how these camps, supported by huge amounts of foreign aid, were reorganised by the thuggish Hutu genocidaires who set about planning their revenge attack on Rwanda. By 1995 there were some 82,000 thriving enterprises in the camps which had become mini-towns (p.239), no surprise when you consider that the UNHCR and aid organisations had pumped at least $336 million into them, more than the Kinshasa government’s total annual operating budget.

In early 1996 the Hutu leadership undertook a mission to ethnically cleanse the North Kivu region of its ethnic Tutsis, massacring those it could find, forcing the rest to flee. In late 1996 it was south Kivu’s turn to be cleansed. The local Tutsis, known as the Banyamulenge had watched the Hutus slowly take control of the region, launch revenge raids into Rwanda, and had called on the UN and Kinshasa to neutralise the Hutu genocidaires but the UN did nothing and Mobutu gave them tacit support.

Which is why in October 1996 four rebel groups, with the backing of the Rwandan and Ugandan governments formed the Alliance of Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Congo-Zaire (AFDL) and took the fight to the Hutus, forcing the genocidal Interahamwe to flee west and majority of the refugees to traipse back into Rwanda.

Chapter 12

The main thing about the so-called First Congo War is there was hardly any fighting. The Zairian army, the Forces Armées Zairoises, the FAZ, was a joke and ran away at the first threat of conflict. The only violence came from the FAZ as they looted, burned and raped their way through the villages en route back to Kinshasa. There were a few set-piece battles but for most of the AFDL forces the war consisted of a very long march through jungle, sometimes using Zaire’s decaying roads, mostly using the jungle paths which have replaced tarmacked roads in many areas.

Wrong interviews Honoré Ngbanda Nzambo Ko Arumba, for five years the feared head of Zaire’s security service who explains why the FAZ was so useless. It all stems from Mobutu’s basic management technique which was to keep the army divided between different factions, to create a series if confusingly titled security and military units, to have a multitude of generals and security ministers and to keep them all guessing. To set them in deliberate rivalry, to give them contradictory orders, to create permanent confusion, suspicion and paranoia. Why? Simples: to prevent any single person or unit from becoming a centre of real power and so a threat to his rule.

Also, most of these units were kept down in Bas Congo, close to Kinshasa. Zaire had almost no border guards or forces. Why? Because the army was not designed to fight other countries or protect the country’s security; it was an internal security machine whose sole raison d’etre was protecting the president.

Another reason was simple corruption. The many generals and senior ranks Mobutu created, solely with a view to placating the numerous tribes and/or keeping prominent figures onside, to a man practiced various forms of corruption and graft, the simplest of which was to take the soldiers’ pay for themselves. Which explains why soldiers went without any pay at all for months on end, sometimes half a year. Which was the central reason why they mutinied and not only mutinied but went on great rampages of looting; they were claiming their back pay, taking what they though society owed them. That was the root cause of the two great Pillagings of 1991 and 1993.

And then there was greed raised to the level of comic farce. Most officers or army administrators had been selling off stock for cash for years. Thus the FAZ had out of date East European guns, the wrong ammo for their guns. Initially army commanders in Kivu sold the best of their munitions to the AFDL for a quick profit, arms and ammo the AFDL then turned back on the FAZ, who turned and ran.

Lastly, the neighbouring countries turned against Mobutu. Rwanda and Uganda were the AFDL’s main backers, but the Angolan government had for decades resented Mobutu’s support for the UNITA rebels and took the opportunity to send forces into Zaire to crush their base camps. Zambia co-operated by letting the AFDL cross its land to reach the south. Zimbabwe and Eritrea sent the rebels modern arms and Tanzania turned a blind eye to rebel bases on its territory.

By March 1997 the AFDL had taken Kisangani, next came Mbuji Mayi, then Lubumbashi, capital of the mining region in the south. It took just seven months from the launch of their campaign till the first AFDL troops arrived outside Kinshasa prompting the atmosphere of paranoid panic Wrong describes in the first chapter of this book.

Chapter 13

As so often happens with tyrants, Mobutu’s overthrow coincided with his final fatal illness. It’s as if their imminent fall from power triggers a collapse in their bodies. King Leopold II lasted barely a year after he handed the Congo Free State over to the Belgian government (February 1908) and in an eerily parallel way, the AFDL’s seven-month advance on Kinshasa coincided with 66-year-old Mobutu’s diagnosis with prostate cancer.

As the rebel forces relentlessly advanced westwards, Mobutu was in and out of the most expensive private clinics in the world in Switzerland. Thus his personal intervention and decision making was almost entirely absent during the crucial months. When he returned to his capital in March 1997, he could barely walk and had to be supported from the plane.

On 16 May 1997, following failed peace talks chaired by President of South Africa Nelson Mandela, Mobutu fled into exile and Kabila’s forces proclaimed victory. Mobutu died in exile in Morocco 3 and a half months later, 7 September 1997.

This is where Wrong places a fascinating interview with Mobutu’s son by his second wife Bobi Ladawa, Nzanga Mobutu. He mourns his father and insists he loved his family and loved his country. Wrong gives her account of the very last few days, especially negotiation with the Americans who tried to broker a deal with Kabila, partly through Nzanga’s eyes, partly through the account of US ambassador Daniel Simpson who took part in the actual discussions, and Bill Richardson, the troubleshooter US President Bill Clinton handed the tricky task of persuading Mobutu to relinquish power and tell his troops not to fight the AFDL as it entered Kinshasa, a confrontation which would have led to a bloodbath, anarchy and another Great Pillaging (p.271).

What comes over is the absolute centrality of the Americans as power brokers in the situation, but the refusal of a very sick Mobutu to formally abdicate and of Kabila to make any concessions. Right at the last his generals abandoned him. The knackered Russian Ilyushin jet Mobutu and his close family flew out of Kinshasa to Gbadolite in was peppered with machine gun fire by his very pissed-off personal guard, the Division Spéciale Présidentielle (DSP) who he was abandoning to their fates (p.279).

Chapter 14 Ill-gotten gains

A few months after Kabila took power, he set up the quaintly named Office of Ill Gotten Gains (OBMA) to identify Mobutu’s looted assets, including his multiple properties abroad (p.286). Wrong meets the first director of OBMA, former nightclub owner turned rebel soldier Jean-Baptise Mulemba lists and visits some. Three years after his fall, Wrong visits his large Swiss mansion at Les Miguettes, now falling into neglect.

Epilogue

The epilogue reminds us that this book was published in 2000, when Congo was still in the toils of what became known as the Second Congo War and Kabila was still president. She was not to know Kabila would be assassinated in 2001 and the war drag on for years.

Wrong shows us the dispiriting process whereby the initial high hopes about him and his crusade to undo corruption soon faded, as he found himself having to resort to all Mobutu’s old techniques for trying to hold his wartorn country together, namely creaming money off foreign loans, the mining companies, and even introducing tougher taxes on ordinary Congolese, in order to keep the regional governors and all manner of fractious stakeholders onboard.

Anyway, as Wrong’s book went to press in 2000 it ends with a survey of the many depressing tokens which indicated that Kabila was falling into Mobutu’s old ways, only without the dictator’s charisma or shrewdness. Blunter. Cruder. She calls Kabila a ‘thug’ (p.300).

And she ends with an assessment of whether Mobutu’s missing billions will ever be recovered. The short answer is No, for the simple reason that they don’t exist. All the evidence is that millions went through his hands but en route to the key stakeholders, political rivals, regional warlords, he needed to pay to follow him.

At a deep structural level, the corruption and gangster economy run by Mobutu and then Kabila may be the only way to keep such a huge country, divided into starkly different regions, populated by some 250 different ethnic groups, together.

God, what a thought. The population of Congo in the 1920s when the first estimates about how many died during Leopold’s rule, was said to be 10 million. By the date of independence 1960 described in Ronan Bennett’s novel The Catastrophist it had only risen to 15 million or so. When Wrong’s book went to press in 2000 she gives Congo’s population as 45 million. And now, in 2021? It is 90 million! Good grief. What future for a ruined country overrun by its own exploding population?

France

The French come out of this account, as usual, as scumbags. France was ‘Mobutu’s most faithful Western friend’ (p.287), ‘always the most loyal’ of his Western supporters (p.258). From the 1960s Zaire came to be regarded by the French government as part of its ‘chasse gardée’:

that ‘private hunting ground’ of African allies whose existence allowed France to punch above its weight in the international arena. (p.196)

The French believed they understood the African psyche better than the Anglo-Saxon British or Americans. They clung on to belief in their mission civilisatrice despite their not-too-impressive record in Vietnam and Algeria. Since the 1960s the French government has promoted la francophonie “the global community of French-speaking peoples, comprising a network of private and public organizations promoting equal ties among countries where French people or France played a significant historical role, culturally, militarily, or politically.” (Wikipedia)

The practical upshot of this high-sounding policy was that the French government promised Mobutu their undying support, no matter how corrupt and evil he became. The French government funded schools and media – so long as they promoted the French language. Valéry Giscard d’Estaing, French president from 1974 to 1981, was a great friend of African dictators and secured them many loans which just happened to coincide with a building firm run by Valery’s cousin winning quite a few contracts to build Zairean ministries and bank buildings and so on (p.131). Very handy.

It meant military aid, too. When rebels invaded Shaba from Angola, France parachuted legionnaires in to fight them. During the First Pillaging of 1991 France flew in troops to police the streets.

After his downfall, when the OBMA set out to track down the billions of dollars Mobutu had sequestered abroad, the lack of co-operation from the French government stood out.

Confronted with the AFDL’s legal and moral crusade, the silence from France, Mobutu’s most faithful Western friend, was deafening. (p.287)

But France’s standout achievement in the region was to protect the Hutu instigators of the great genocide of Rwanda. This is a hugely controversial subject, which I’ll cover in reviews of specifically about the Rwanda genocide, but in brief: the French government supported the Hutu government. The French president was personal friends with the Hutu president Juvenal Habyarimana, so when his plane was shot down and the Hutu government went into panic mode, the French government’s first response was to support them and to carry on supporting them even as they carried out the 100-day genocide. When the Tutsi Rwandan Patriotic Front invaded Rwanda to put an end to the genocide, France continued to support the Hutus and helped the genocidaires escape, along with millions of other Hutu refugees into eastern Congo, where they continued to support them, even after the evidence was long in the public domain that they had just carried out the worst genocide since the Holocaust.

Because for the French government, all that matters is the glory of France, the prestige of France, the strength of the Francophonie. Morality, justice, human rights, all come a poor second to France’s unwavering commitment to its own magnificence.

Hence France’s unwavering support for the evil kleptocratic dictator Mobutu right up till his last days; hence France’s support of the Hutu government, even after it became clear they were carrying out a genocide. A guilt France has taken a long time to face up to, has finally admitted, albeit hedged with reservations and caveats.

Repeated stories

Stories, gossip and educational facts are learned through repetition. Wrong repeats the description of big statue of Henry Morton Stanley, long ago torn down and lying rusting outside a warehouse in Kinshasa. Several times she refers to the two great Pillagings of 1991 and 1993.

She repeats the story about the Congo’s store of uranium dug from the mines of Shinkolobwe being sent by a foresightful colonial administrator to New York where it was discovered by scientists from the Manhattan Project and refined to become the core of the atom bomb dropped on Hiroshima (p.140).

Her chapter about King Leopold’s rape of Congo under hypocritical claims of freeing it from slavery and barbarism repeats much of the material I’ve read in Hochschild and van Reybrouck. She repeats Hochschild’s mentions of Congolese historian Isidore Ndaywel e Nziem’s estimate that 13 million died or fled the region during Leopold’s rule.

Van Reybrouck thought the tragic story of Lumumba betrayed by his secretary and friend Mobutu was like a Shakespearian tragedy. Wrong thinks it is Biblical like Cain and Abel, two beloved brothers who end up betraying each other. It certainly haunts the imagination of novelists and historians and commentators in a way the later, long rule of Mobutu rarely did, and the rule of Laurent Kabila not at all.

Credit

In The Footsteps of Mr Kurz by Michela Wrong was published by Fourth Estate in 2000. All references are to the 2001 paperback edition.


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Congolese soldiers in the world wars

Congo: The Epic History of a People by David Van Reybrouck is a wonderland of a book. The accounts he gives of the involvement of Congolese soldiers in the two world wars are so remarkable and so little known that it’s worth recording them in a standalone blog post.

In his characteristic style, van Reybrouck interweaves traditional, factual history with first-hand, eye-witness memories by veterans or the families of veterans, which add colour and human scale to such huge abstract events.

First World War (pages 129 to 139)

Congo as a buffer state

At the Congress of Vienna in 1815 Belgium itself was conceived as a sort of buffer state between the powers, between France and Prussia. In a similar way, at the Berlin Conference of 1885, King Leopold  persuaded the powers that his seizure of this huge chunk of Africa would serve as a sort of buffer between territory controlled by the old rivals Britain and France in west Africa and the territory claimed in east Africa by the new kid on the block, Germany.

The final agreement of colonial borders in Africa meant that Congo shared a 430-mile-long border with German East Africa. Given that the Germans owned Cameroon to the north-west of Congo, it made sense for them to ponder seizing a corridor through the Belgian colony in order to link German East and West Africa. In fact, just before war broke out, the German foreign office actually approached the British with the suggestion of dividing Congo between them, which the British wisely rejected.

Germany attacks

After war broke out in Europe in August 1914, the colonial authorities expected Congo to remain neutral, which it did for all of 11 days, until Germany attacked. A steamship crossed Lake Tanganyika from the German side and shelled the Congo port of Mokolubu, sinking some canoes, then German soldiers landed and cut the telephone wire. A week later the Germans attacked the lakeside port of Lukuga, too.

Main battle zones

Because of the lack of roads and infrastructure, the First World War in Africa wasn’t fought along huge fronts, as in Europe, but was a matter of seizing strategic points and roads. Congolese forces ended up fighting on three fronts, Cameroon, Rhodesia and East Africa.

1. In 1914 a handful of Belgian officers and 600 Congolese troops were sent to help the British in the battle for Cameroon where German resistance to British, French and Belgian colonial units finally ended in March 1916.

2. By mid-1915 South African troops had secured the surrender of German South-West Africa but German forces threatened Rhodesia and so the Belgian government in exile (in Le Havre) ordered seven Belgian and 283 Congolese soldiers to help the British defend it.

Battle of the lakes

3. But the most intense Congo-German engagement was in the East. Here the border between Congo and German East Africa had only been finalised as late as 1910. In 1915 German forces led by Paul von Lettow-Vorbeck made repeated attempts to move into Kivu district (to the west of Lake Kivu, which formed part of the border between Belgian and German territory), with a view to pushing on north to seize the Kilo-Moto gold mines of the Ituri rain forest.

The Germans took initial control of lakes Kivu and Tanganyika which they patrolled with armed steamships. In reply the Allies i.e. the British, organised the transport of steamships broken up into parts all the way up the Congo and then across land to the lakes. They also sent four aquaplanes, which undertook a campaign to bomb and sink the German ships.

The Tabora campaign

Meanwhile, a large infantry force of 15,000 soldiers was assembled on the east Congo border under Force Publique commander, General Charles Tombeur. An important fact to remember is that, in the absence of decent roads, almost all the materiel needed for these campaigns had to be carried by porters, just as in Victorian times. It’s estimated that for every soldier who went into battle there were seven porters. In total, throughout the war years, it’s estimated that some 260,000 native porters were recruited or dragooned, out of a total population of less than ten million. This disruption had a negative impact on local economies and food production, but the conditions of the porters weren’t much better, with all experiencing inadequate food, shelter and little drinking water. As usual in every conflict, disease became rife and about one in ten of the porters died on active service, a total of some 26,000, compared to 2,000 soldiers.

As to the campaign itself, in March 1916 General Tombeur led his army across the border into Rwanda and seized the capital, Kigali, on 6 May. They then marched the 370 miles south-east to Tabora, which had been a key staging post for the explorers of the 1870s and 1880s and was now the nexus of German administration. It was the largest engagement of the campaign. Tombeur’s forces joined with another army which had marched from Lake Tanganyika and, after ten days and nights of intense fighting, Tabora fell to the Belgian-Congo forces on 19 September 1916. The Belgian flag was raised in the town centre amid widespread celebrations.

In 1917 Tabora was used as a staging post for a campaign to capture Mahenge, 300 miles to the south, but the battle of Tabora was the one which went down in colonial memory. Tombeur was given a peerage and songs were written about his famous victory.

Interview with Martin Kabuya

Typical of van Reybrouck’s method of humanising history, he tracks down an army veteran, Martin Kabuya, whose grandfather fought in the Tabora campaign and, he claims, provided cover for the soldier who raised the Belgian flag in the  conquered town square (p.135). And then talks to Hélène Nzimbu Diluzeti, 94-year-old widow of Thomas Masamba Lumoso, a Great War veteran who served in the TSF or telégraphie sans fils (i.e. wireless) section from 9 August 1914 to 5 October 1918, so for only a weeks short of the entire duration of the war (pages 135 to 137).

Here’s the map van Reybrouck provides. You can see the black arrows indicating movement of Congolese forces through the two small unnamed states of Rwanda and Burundi towards Tabora in what is now called Tanzania but was then German East Africa. On the top left of the map you can see the borders of Cameroon and understand how German strategists, at one point, might have fantasised about annexing northern Congo in order to for a corridor of German colonial territory from Tanzania through north Congo and joining up with Cameroon. One of many colonial pipe dreams.

images

The Congolese in Belgium

Not many Congolese soldiers had time to be transported to Belgium before it fell to the Germans’ swift advance in August 1914. Van Reybrouck tells us the stories of two of them, Albert Kudjabo and Paul Panda Farnana, members of the Congolese Volunteer Corps. They were among the tens of thousands deployed to defend the Belgian city of Namur but the Germans swiftly captured it and these two Africans who spent the next four years in various prisoner of war camps. Among transfers between camps, forced labour and various humiliations, they were interviewed by the Royal Prussian Phonographic Committee which recorded Kudjabo singing traditional songs. The recordings survive to this day (p.138).

Van Reybrouck returns to the two POWs on page 178 to describe their chagrin and anger when they were finally repatriated to from Germany to Belgium only to read commentators in the press saying the likes of them should be packed off as soon as possible back to the land of bananas (p.178). They had fought side by side with their Belgian brothers to protect the motherland. Where was the gratitude? It left a legacy of bitterness.

Paul Panda Farnana

We know a lot about Farnana in particular because he played a central role in founding the Union Congolaise in August 1919, an organisation set up to assist ‘the moral and intellectual development of the Congolese race’. The Union called for greater involvement of the natives in the colonial administration and opened branches across Belgium.

In December 1920 Farnana addressed the first National Colonial Congress in Brussels and then took part in the second Pan-African Congress organised by American civil rights activist W.E.B du Bois. In 1929 Farnana returned to Congo and settled in his native village, but died there, unmarried and childless in 1932. He is often considered the first Congolese intellectual, but his was a very isolated voice. It would take another world war and decades of simmering discontent before real change could be affected.

Consequences of the Great War

After Germany’s defeat its African colonies were parcelled out to the allies. England took German East Africa which was renamed Tanganyika (and then Tanzania, on independence in 1961). Belgium was handed the two small states on the eastern borders of Congo, Rwanda and Burundi.

Earlier in the book van Reybrouck described the process whereby colonial administrators defined and helped to create tribal identities. Originally much more fluid and overlapping, these names and categories hardened when the authorities issued identity cards on which every Congolese had to match themselves to a limited list of bureaucratic tribal ‘identities’.

When they took over Rwanda, the Belgian authorities applied the same technique, insisting that the previously fluid and heterogenous Rwandans define themselves as one of three categories, Tutsi, Hutu or Twas (pygmy), an enforced European categorisation which was to bitterly divide the country and lead, ultimately, to the calamitous Rwandan genocide of 1994.

Although the war disrupted societies and led to significant native casualties in the eastern part of the country, the mining regions such as Katanga experienced an economic boom and huge explosion of jobs which increased urbanisation. But after the war there was a sudden drop in demand which led to layoffs, unrest and strikes.

Second World War (pages 182 to 189)

And then it happened all over again, except on a bigger scale, in 1940. In 18 days the German army rolled through Belgium as part of its conquest of France, Belgium was defeated and occupied. While the Belgian government fled to England, King Leopold III was taken prisoner to Germany. For a while there was uncertainty in the colony about which way it would jump – support the victorious Nazis or align with the humiliated government in exile? The decision was taken by the man on the scene, Governor General Pierre Ryckmans who to his great credit decided the Belgian Congo would align with the allies and fight fascism.

Ethiopia

Mussolini had invaded Haile Selassie’s Abyssinia in 1935. In 1940 Churchill sent troops from British Kenya into Ethiopia to neutralise the Italian threat. Starting in February 1941 the Brits were reinforced by the eleventh battalion of the Congo Force Publique. This consisted of 3,000 Congolese soldiers and 2,000 bearers.

They drove across British-controlled Sudan in blistering heat but had to manage the mountainous west of Ethiopia mostly on foot. From scorching heat it started to rain and the troops found themselves mired in mud. The Congolese took the small towns of Asosa and Gambela but faced a stiffer challenge at the fortified garrison town of Saio. After heavy shelling, on 8 June 1941, the town surrendered. Congo forces took nine Italian generals including the commander of all Italian forces in East Africa, 370 Italian officers, 2,574 noncoms and 1,533 native soldiers, along with a huge amount of munitions and equipment.

Van Reybrouck makes the droll point that the expulsion of the Italians (who had only held Ethiopia for 6 years) allowed the return of the emperor Haile Selassie, which gave renewed vigour to the small sect of Rastafarians in faraway Jamaica who had started worshipping the emperor as a deity during the 1930s. Thus Congolese soldiers helped in creating the spiritual side of reggae!

What Tabora had been in World War One, Saio was in World War Two, a resounding victory for African troops. More than that, for the first time in history an African nation had been liberated by African troops (p.185).

Nigeria

Van Reybrouck interviews Congo veterans who fought in the campaign, Louis Ngumbi and André Kitadi. He takes a path through the complicated wartime events in north Africa through the career of Kitadi. Having routed the Italians in the East, the focus switched to West Africa. Kitadi was a radio operator in the Congo army. In autumn 1942 he was shipped up to Nigeria and trained for 6 months in readiness to take Dahomey (modern Benin) from the Vichy French. However during the training period, Dahomey switched to General de Gaulle’s Free French and so the focus now switched to Libya where German forces under Rommel were based and repeatedly threatened to invade Egypt.

Kitadi and the other Congolese soldiers travelled across the desert of Chad (a French colony run by a black governor allied to de Gaulle). Van Reybrouck dovetails Kitadi’s story with that of Martin Kabuya, another radio operator in the Force Publique, who had also been shipped to Nigeria, but now found himself sent by sea right around Africa and up through the Suez Canal.

Egypt

Kitadi spent a year in a camp outside Alexandria. There were lots of Italian prisoners of war, kept in barbed wire POW camps. The Arabs stole everything. Kabuya was stationed at Camp Geneva near the Suez Canal, intercepting enemy Morse code messages. Once he was attacked by a big SS man who he stabbed in the gut with a bayonet and killed.

Palestine

When fighting in Europe ended, both men stayed in the army and were moved to Palestine to help with the new British mandate there (p.188).

The paradox of scale

Paradoxically, although the scale and reach of the Second World War was dramatically larger than the first, the involvement of Congolese was significantly smaller for the simple reason that the army no longer needed bearers and porters – they had trucks and lorries. So the number of Congolese directly involved in the war was nothing like the 260,000 Congolese porters dragooned into service in 1914-18, with the results that casualties were correspondingly much smaller.

The odyssey of Libert Otenga

The strength of van Reybrouck’s approach is demonstrated by the story of Libert Otenga. Otenga joined a mobile medical unit of Belgian doctors and Congolese medics.

The Belgian field hospital became known as the tenth BCCS, the tenth Belgian Congo Casualty Clearing Station. It had two operating tents and a radio tent. In the other tents there were beds for thirty patients and stretchers for two hundred more. During the war, the unit treated seven thousand wounded men and thirty thousand who had fallen ill. Even at the peak of its activities it consisted of only twenty-three Belgians, including seven doctors, and three hundred Congolese. Libert Otenga was one of them.

Van Reybrouck tracks down an ageing Otenga in Kinshasa to hear his story. First the medical unit was sent to Somalia. Then they went with British-Belgian troops to Madagascar, where they tended German prisoners of war. After Madagascar, the unit went by ship to Ceylon, where the medical unit was reorganised, and then on to India, to the Ganges delta in modern Bangladesh, a long way up the river Brahmaputra and then overland to the border with Burma, a British colony which the Japanese had captured in 1942. This was their longest posting, they treated soldiers and civilians, they had an air ambulance at their disposal. As van Reybrouck remarks:

The fact that Congolese paramedics cared for Burmese civilians and British soldiers in the Asian jungle is a completely unknown chapter in colonial history, and one that will soon vanish altogether. (p.189)

The travels of Congolese forces during the Second World War

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Congo and the atom bomb

The uranium in the Big Boy bomb dropped on Hiroshima contained uranium mined in the mineral-rich Katanga province of Congo (p. 190).

Edgar Sengier, then managing director of Union Minière, saw to it that Congo’s uranium reserves did not fall into the wrong hands. Shinkolobwe had the world’s largest confirmed deposit of uranium. When the Nazi threat intensified just before the war, he had had 1,250 metric tons (1,375 U.S. tons) of uranium shipped to New York, then flooded his mines. Only a tiny stock still present in Belgium ever fell into German hands. (p.190)

The Cold War

During the war the Congo had come to America’s attention as an important source of raw materials for war goods. By 1942 the Japanese had captured most of the Far East, so new sources were needed. the Congo turned out to be a vital source of metals like copper, wolfram, tin and zinc, and of vegetable products such as rubber, copal, cotton, quinine, palm oil for soap and, surprisingly, use in the vital steel industry. (p.191)

This was before the scientists of the Manhattan Project discovered how to make an atom bomb at which point uranium became a vital resource of strategic significance. All this explains America’s interest in the Congo in the 15 years after the war, and then its intense involvement in the events surrounding independence and its support of the dictator Mobutu through the entire Cold War period.

Conclusion

One way of seeing these events are as colourful sidelights on the two world wars and then the low level capitalist-communist antagonism which followed and van Reybrouck’s focus on individual experiences helps the reader understand how all our lives are determined and shaped by vast impersonal historic forces.

Another way of looking at it, is to reflect that from the moment it was first mapped and explored by Stanley in the late 1870s, the second largest country in Africa has never been free of interference, control and exploitation by Europe and America.

Credit

Congo: the epic history of a people by David Van Reybrouck was published in Dutch by De Bezige Bij in 2010. All references are to the paperback version of the English translation by Sam Garrett, published by Fourth Estate in 2015.

Surprisingly for a contemporary book, Congo: The Epic History of a People is available online in its entirety.


Africa-related reviews

History

Fictions set wholly or partly in Africa

Exhibitions about Africa

Stanley: The Impossible Life of Africa’s Greatest Explorer by Tim Jeal (2007)

The workhouse boy in paradise… (p.104)

When news broke that the large and expensive expedition led by the American journalist Henry Morton Stanley and funded by the biggest newspaper in America, the New York Herald, had succeeded in locating the ‘lost’ Scottish missionary, Dr David Livingstone, in deepest darkest Africa (in fact, at the town of Ujiji on the shores of Lake Tanganyika on 10 November 1871) it was telegraphed round the (developed) world and overnight made Stanley one of the most famous men on the planet.

Over the next 15 years Stanley would lead a series of epic expeditions through central Africa, making important geographical discoveries, drafting maps, establishing contact with local inhabitants, naming lakes and waterfalls and founding settlements which last to this day, especially along what developed into his main area of activity the enormous Congo river.

Stanley’s later expeditions were financed by King Leopold II of Belgium and played a vital role in marking out the territory which Leopold, at the epochal Congress of Berlin in 1885, claimed as his own personal demesne. The Congo Free State under Leopold’s personal rule had, by the turn of the twentieth century, become a byword for brutality and exploitation. Maybe as many as a million natives of the huge Congo region were killed, maimed or worked to death by white overseers intent on extracting rubber and other marketable commodities by any means necessary.

1. This association with the evil king, along with 2. numerous damning stories and rumours spread about him by his rivals (that Stanley was gay, his marriage was a sham, that he went to Africa to indulge a) his homosexual inclinations or b) his homicidal inclinations), and even 3. Stanley’s own writings in which he poses as a tough and merciless leader of men, exaggerating the battles he was in and the men he’d whipped or even killed, all these factors contributed to blackening Stanley’s reputation, from his own day down to ours.

In his introduction to this long, thorough and meticulously researched biography, Tim Jeal explains that these accusations were given their modern expression in Frank McLynn’s 1990 biography, Stanley: Dark Genius of African Exploration.

Young Stanley, aged 31, posing as the great white explorer with Kalulu, an African boy he bought out of slavery during the Livingstone expedition and took to London with him where he sent him to a church school in Wandsworth. A year later Stanley took Kalulu on the trans-Africa expedition, where the boy would die when his canoe was swept over a huge cataract on the Congo river

By sharp contrast, Jeal sets out to give a strongly revisionist account. He goes to lengths to explain that, unlike any previous biographer, he has been lucky enough to have access to the vast archive of Stanley’s papers held in the Musée Royal de l’Afrique Central in Brussels, some 7,000 items, including some 5,000 letters to him from a vast range of correspondents.

It is a close reading of Stanley’s unpublished journals, letters to  early sweethearts, to his wife, and masses of other unpublished documents which have led Jeal to take a much more nuanced approach to Stanley’s character and achievements and to actively rebut some of the traditional accusations made against him.

In addition, Jeal has spent most of his working life researching the classic Victorian explorers in Africa. His 1973 biography of Livingstone took the same approach, using private letters, diaries and archives to reveal the deeply flawed and troubled man behind the legend. And a few years after this book, Jeal published Explorers of the Nile: The Triumph and Tragedy of a Great Victorian Adventure (2011), a group portrait of the key European explorers – John Hanning Speke, James Augustus Grant, Richard Francis Burton, Samuel White Baker, Stanley, Livingstone and many others from 1856 to 1878.

The point is that Jeal has devoted a lifetime to in-depth research of these figures and it shows – in the length and scholarliness and immense attention to detail of this biography.

The central premise of Jeal’s account is that Stanley exaggerated his own brutality and the violent means he used in his explorations for personal and commercial reasons. 1. On a personal level, Stanley had experienced a childhood of Dickensian harshness and deprivation. Short, unloved, abandoned by his family and brought up in a workhouse, he over-compensated with fantasies of power, projecting himself as an invulnerable tough guy. 2. On a commercial level, Stanley was a journalist writing for American newspapers and they, too, valued sensationalism and tough guy heroics.

So both personally and professionally Stanley was incentivised to exaggerate the number of hostile tribes he encountered, the number of battles he fought, the casualties on all sides, the brutal way he enforced discipline on his own porters, the cruel way he inflicted punishment on warlike tribes. Jeal’s extensive notes indicate the thoroughness with which he re-investigated every single one of these claims and found time and time again a pattern of exaggeration and embellishment.

With the result that the Stanley who emerges from Jeal’s account is a much more intelligent, flexible and strategic figure, using violence where it was required, fighting back when attacked, but also encouraging his men and preferring to sign peaceful treaties with local chieftains, where possible. We have written evidence that he respected and admired Africans, wanted them to be treated fairly, and went out of his way to praise the lead porters who managed his extensive baggage trains. And he emerges as a much more psychologically damaged and vulnerable figure than the superficial history books suggest.

Stanley aged 44 in 1885, sporting the hat he designed to keep off flies and the sun, but which was widely mocked

Stanley’s early life

Accounts of Stanley’s three big Africa expeditions and his extended spell as explorer and negotiator for King Leopold can be found on any website about African exploration:

  • Livingstone expedition, 1871 to 1872, written up in How I Found LIvingstone, which single-handedly created the legend of the saintly missionary
  • African Great Lakes and Congo River, 1874 to August 1877 (999 days)
  • working for King Leopold, 1879 to 1885
  • Emin Pasha Relief Expedition, 1886 to 1889

Overall Stanley’s career in Africa covered some 18 years.

What is less well known and absolutely flabbergasted me was Jeal’s detailed description of Stanley’s early years. The young Stanley had one of the most action-packed and extreme lives I’ve ever heard of. So much happened to him that at several points I wondered whether I was reading a kind of spoof or parody of a life of derring-do. Surely nobody could have had so many adventures!

Stanley’s real name

For a start his name wasn’t Henry Morton Stanley and he wasn’t American. The boy was born John Rowlands in the town of Denbigh, north-east Wales, about 30 miles from the border with England.

Stanley’s mother

His mother was a teenager, Elisabeth Parry, who ended up having five children by three different fathers. Stanley never knew his father. He had suspicions and in later life tried to find out, but as a boy had no father figure in his life, and was haunted by the very real literal of abandonment.

Abandoned

His mother handed him over to his grandfather, Moses Parry, to look after but the grandfather died a few years later and the toddler John was passed onto cousins. They in turn fell on hard times and at the tender age of six, his uncle said he was taking him on an adventure, carried him on his shoulders the six miles to the nearby town of St Asaph and dumped him on the doorstep of the workhouse, rang the bell and walked away, abandoning him with no explanation. Imagine. Arguably John never recovered from these twin boyhood betrayals and the rest of his life can be interpreted by psychologists as a sustained attempt to regain the love and trust and sense of self-worth which he was robbed of at such an early age.

Workhouse

John Rowlands spent the next ten years living, eating, working in a workhouse where conditions were grim. Workhouses were inspected by local authorities and maintained a certain level of hygiene, food and education, and so young John was taught to read and write. He ended up as the equivalent of head boy and Jeal suggests that it was here, abandoned by parents and family, that he developed a taste for having younger, male followers, who he could order around, who gave him a sense of confidence and worth, which the Africa expeditions were to prove a an outlet for on a much larger scale.

Homosexuality?

In the St Asaph workhouse the boys slept several to a bed and contemporaries record that the older boys ‘took part in every possible vice’. Another Stanley biographer speculates that he was sexually abused there. Some of the girls were inducted into prostitution at an early age. Jeal quotes Stanley’s own writings asserting that this atmosphere had the opposite effect on him, putting him off sex, making him fastidious and disgusted. Maybe. There’s no doubt that his earlier, pre-Africa adventures and expeditions involved young male devotees. Was it platonic adoration or did it have a sexual tinge? This is the kind of psychosexual speculation beloved of modern biographers and encouraged by modern publishers because sex sells. Personally, I find it demeans the subject of this fruitless speculation and degrades the reader.

Jeal spends time producing the (limited) evidence and speculating. Personally, I don’t give a damn about anyone’s sex life except insofar as it directly effects their public actions or written works, and even then, most psychosexual biography seems pointless to me. Sexuality is so complicated, contradictory and chaotic that it seems to me presumptuous and generally futile to waste pages on idle speculation. I always skip these bits.

Liverpool

On coming of age Stanley left the workhouse and had to make his way in the world. His cousins arranged for him to go and stay with a relative, Uncle Tom Morris, in Liverpool (p.28). The family were friendly enough but turned out to be hard up and so John had to scout for work, eventually finding a job as assistant in a haberdashery. But the Liverpool docks were a romantic scene for a young man, full of sailors with stories of distant lands.

Cabin boy

Not surprising, then, that one day John announced to his relatives that he had signed up as a cabin boy on the Windermere bound for America. They warned him against it, it was a common practice to promise ‘cabin boys’ the equivalent of an apprenticeship but then treat them like dirt.

New Orleans

This is exactly what happened to young John and by the time the Windermere docked in New Orleans he’d had enough bullying and bad treatment, and jumped ship (p.31).

Hardware store

He wandered the streets and may have slept rough a couple of nights before getting into conversation with the owner of a hardware store and persuading him to take him on. In his autobiography John says the store owner’s name was Henry Hope Stanley and that he, John, needing a new identity in a new country, copied it. Jeal shows in meticulous detail that, as you might expect, the process was much more tentative than that: that the name might not have been that of the storekeeper himself (who Jeal identifies as a completely different person, James Speake) but certainly belonged to an eminent and successful New Orleans businessman and that John’s adoption of it was piecemeal and experimental over a period of years during which he experiments with variations on the names to create a new, American identity.

The Wild West

The store owner advised the man we can now call Stanley that he’d never make his fortune as a delivery boy, and to move up the Mississippi into the ‘the West’ where there were more openings for an enterprising man. So in August 1860 Stanley shipped up to Arkansas, to the small town of Cypress Bend fifty miles from Little Rock, where he got a job in another hardware store. Here he saw at first hand the violent, selfish, law unto themselves attitude of many of the settlers of what could be described as the Wild West. He gained in-depth knowledge of stores and supplies and provisions which would be of great use in his African adventures, and also of the very latest in guns and ammunition.

American Civil War

In April 1861 the American Civil War broke out. There was the usual rush of bellicose enthusiasm in both north and south. If young men didn’t volunteer for the army they came under concerted pressure, not least from young women, to show their manliness. Reluctantly young Stanley, still only 20, joined a regiment in the Confederate army (p.44). He fought at the famous Battle of Shiloh in April 1862, where Jeal gives a vivid description of the mayhem and massacre around him. Miraculously, Stanley survived unscathed and was taken prisoner by Union forces (p.45).

Briefly back to Wales

Stanley spent several months in a POW camp in Illinois where the prisoners came under pressure to sign up to the Union army which, eventually, Stanley did, on 4 June 1862 (p.48). A few weeks later Stanley discharged himself, made his way to Baltimore and took a ship back to Liverpool, to go see his estranged family (p.49). His mother was now the landlady of a pub in Denbigh, and when he arrived, hungry and tired, having walked from Liverpool, she rejected him. He stayed in the area a few days before returning Liverpool and taking ship back to the States.

Merchant seaman

For the next year and a half he bummed around as a sailor on American merchant ships which visited ports in Spain and France (p.51). In July 1864, still at a loss what to do in life, Stanley enlisted in the Union navy. He was appointed ship’s clerk or writer on the USS Minnesota. He was an eye witness to the bombardment of Fort Fisher in December 1864, and wrote it up not only for official records, but managed to sell colourful descriptions to several local newspapers. This marked his debut as a journalist (p.52). In February 1865 he persuaded a younger shipmate, Lewis Noe, to desert the ship when it was refitting in docks at Portsmouth, New Hampshire. They escaped wearing civilian clothes he’d bought from some carpenters.

Rafting down the Platte river

Stanley returned to New York where he resumed working for a man named Hughes. But he wanted a life of adventure, he avidly consumed accounts of adventures, he wanted to see the West. In May 1865 Stanley travelled to St Louis and managed to wangle a job a freelancer for the Missouri Democrat. To supplement his income he got a labouring job at a smelting works. Here he picked up another acolyte, William Harlow Cook and managed to persuade him to go on an ‘adventure’ and navigate the Platte River some 600 miles from Denver to where it joins the huge Missouri river (p.57).

It was at moments like this that I began to wonder whether Jeal was pulling the reader’s leg, but then I realised he is taking these accounts directly from Stanley’s own autobiography. As Jeal is a tremendous stickler for accuracy and devotes pages of text and extensive footnotes to even tiny details of the expeditions, one assumes he has cross-checked and verified Stanley’s accounts of his early adventures, too. And Stanley and Cook did have adventures, rafting during the day, camping in a tent at night: the raft capsized, losing a lot of their equipment, they were arrested by an army officer looking for deserters till Stanley threatened to shoot it out, the righted the raft and continued the journey, till it overturned again, Cook held on and was quickly carried away while Stanley had to make his way by land to Nebraska where they were eventually reunited.

Adventure in Turkey

Stanley returned to New York with Cook in tow and was reunited with Lewis Noe and his family. Somehow Stanley now managed to persuade both Cook and Noe to accompany him on an expedition to Turkey. They sailed from Boston to Izmir where, funds being low, Stanley could only afford two horses: one of his young acolytes had to walk. The journey turned into another ruinous farce. Noe set fire to some bushes to scare Cook but started a major conflagration which saw the three Americans get arrested.

Securing a release they continued inland till another controversial incident took place where Stanley tried to murder a Turk they met with a sword: he claimed he was fighting off the Turk’s sexual advances to Noe, Cook claimed Stanley meant to murder the Turk and steal his horses (p.59). The fight attracted ten other Turks who robbed our guys of all their belongings, dragged them to a nearby village, tied them up. Noe was gang-raped at knifepoint. A local magistrate heard of their situation and had them conveyed to a proper gaol. The local judge found the alleged assailants in possession of what was obviously Stanley’s American goods and so our guys all Stanley’s were released from prison and then spent some time suing the Turkish government for compensation. Stanley contacted the American ambassador at Constantinople who reluctantly lent these shabby American chancers £150, enough to pay Noe and Stanley’s fares to Marseilles, then to Paris, London and onto Liverpool (Cook had to stay behind to give evidence in the trial).

(Later we learn that much of the substance of these adventures were ratified by Lewis Noe himself who sold his version of events, from jumping ship in Portsmouth through the Turkey debacle, to the New York Sun, when Stanley returned from the Livingstone strip and was famous.)

Denbigh again

Stanley detoured, once again, from Liverpool to Denbigh to track down his mother the publican, this time wearing an officer’s uniform he’d had knocked up in Constantinople, to impress her with what a success he had become. Once again, she was less than impressed. He stayed over Christmas, visited other relatives, tried out his new persona of Henry Morton Stanley, moped around Liverpool, again, then took ship back to America.

The Wild West

In February 1867 Stanley arrived back in St Louis and wangled a full-time job on the Missouri Democrat at the princely salary of $15 a day. The very next day he was given the assignment of reporting on General Winfield Scott Hancock’s Indian campaign against the Kiowas and the Comanches (p.67). He covered the whole campaign, describing Indian atrocities and scalpings, the army’s destruction of native villages, he interviewed Wild Bill Hickock. He was right there in the Wild West.

The imperialist principle

Jeal makes the important point that it was here, watching the native Americans being harried, murdered and burnt off their ancestral land, that Stanley imbibed the key principle of imperialism – that backward nations and peoples will fall ineluctably and unpreventably before the forces of ‘civilisation’, industrialisation and economic development. In his writings Stanley sympathised with the Indians but thought that nothing could be done to save them; modernisation was an inevitable process; if not this general then another one. And this was the hard-headed, ‘realist’ attitude he took to Africa.

The New York Herald

But a fire burned in him to see the world, to have great adventures, to go to Africa. In December 1867 he travelled to New York, to the offices of the best selling newspaper in America, the New York Herald, where he bluffed his way into an interview with the tough editor James Gordon Bennett Junior, the hard-driving editor of America’s most successful newspaper, the New York Herald. Stanley pitched his idea of going in search of Dr Livingstone, but it was too speculative for Bennett who suggested a more practical assignment – reporting on the British military expedition into Ethiopia.

Journalist in Ethiopia

In 1867 the emperor of Ethiopia, Tewodros II, had taken a British envoy and others hostage the British government despatched a force to release them. Stanley arrived in Suez in January 1868 and promptly bribed the telegraph operator to transmit his despatches before any other journalist (p.71). accompanied that force as a special correspondent of the New York Herald.

He made several big discoveries on this trip. First was that, by posing as an American, he sidestepped the wretched British class system, and was treated as an equal by the lofty British officers. He was impressed by their cult of nonchalance and aristocratic indifference and cultivated the same pose. He also discovered how to be a success, ensuring that his account of the Battle of Magdala in 1868 (where the British, predictably, whipped the Ethiopian forces) was the first to be telegraphed back to Europe and America. It was a sensational scoop which made his reputation as a journalist and secured him a permanent job at the Herald (p.72)

Spain

Bennett now treated Stanley like any foreign correspondent and sent him to trouble spots to report. In October 1868 he was sent to Spain which was experiencing a civil war between monarchists and republicans. Taking a break from reports he returned to London, where he invited his mother and half sister to visit him, now staying in a grand hotel and unambiguously a successful man of the world. He returned to Spain in 1869 and Jeal uses Stanley’s autobiography to describe Stanley’s hair-raising adventures in Madrid, running across streets as the bullets flew and barricading hotel windows to stop stray bullets in scenes reminiscent of George Orwell’s Homage to Catalonia (p.82).

Through Asia

As you’d expect, Jeal deals with his customary thoroughness with the thorny question of who had the idea to go looking for the famous British missionary, Dr David Livingstone, who had departed for central Africa several years earlier, who nothing had been heard of for years, and who was feared dead. Was it Bennett’s idea or was it, the preferred option, a long-standing ambition of Stanley’s which he pitched an at-first sceptical Bennett?

Either way, although Bennett agreed it was a good idea, he decided to leave it on the back burner while public interest in Livingstone’s mysterious fate grew. Instead he paid for Stanley to go on journalistic assignments through ‘Egypt, Palestine, Syria, Iraq, the Crimea, Persia and finally India’ (p.85). During this year of travels Stanley reported on the opening of the Suez Canal, examined excavations in Jerusalem, visited Odessa and the battlefields of the Crimea, interviewed the governor of the Caucasus at Tiflis and travelled to the Persian Gulf via Persepolis.

Go ahead for the Livingstone expedition

He ended up in Bombay in October 1870, which is where he finally received the go-ahead from Bennett to proceed with the expedition to find Livingstone who was, still, ‘lost’, his whereabouts unknown. With promise of full funding Stanley set sail from Bombay across the Indian Ocean to Zanzibar, the traditional provisioning and jumping off point for east central Africa, in January 1871 (p.91).

It’s important to emphasise that there had been some news about Livingstone. In November 1869 the Bombay Gazette had published a letter Livingstone had sent from the interior, dated 6 months earlier and stating he was at the town of Ujiji on Lake Tanganyika. And this was, indeed, where Stanley was to find him.

Provisioning an African expedition

But the journey inland was perilous and logistically challenging. In the absence of any roads or wheeled vehicles or pack animals who could survive the dreaded tsetse fly, all provisions had to be carried by porters, hundreds of porters, who as well as food and drink carried the trade goods and gifts which had to be doled out liberally to all the tribal chiefs whose territory had to be crossed.

Jeal goes into characteristic detail about the funding, recruiting and provisioning for the great adventure. He hired local porter managers who had helped other explorers with their expeditions, and four white men to act as companions. Stanley led his large force out of Bagamoyo, the coastal port opposite Zanzibar, and into the interior on 21 March 1871. He had just turned thirty years old.

Summary of Stanley’s early life

What a life he had led! Just reading about his exploits is exhausting. Rejected by his mother, abandoned by his family, workhouse boy in a swamp of depravity, self educated, runaway to America where he acquired a new identity and reinvented himself as a buccaneering journalist in the Wild West, leader of absurd adventures on rivers and into faraway Turkey before bluffing his way into a top job as foreign correspondent with America’s premier newspaper, reporting from all over Europe and the Middle East. And only now, aged 30, embarking on the great adventure which would make his name and which, in turn, inaugurated 16 years of exploring, trekking, fighting, signing trade deals and mapping out huge swathes of unexplored central Africa.

He had packed more into his life before he set out to find Livingstone, aged 29, than many adventurers could claim to have experienced in their entire lives. (p.469)


Africa-related reviews

History

Fictions set wholly or partly in Africa

Exhibitions about Africa

Crossroads of Freedom: Antietam, the battle the changed the course of the American Civil War by James M. McPherson (2002)

The 160 pages or so of this tidy little book are like a pendant to ‘Battle Cry of Freedom’, McPherson’s vast 860-page history of the Civil War Era, which I have reviewed at length.

Crossroads of Freedom is part of a series called Pivotal Moments in American History. In his introduction McPherson says that, as you might expect, there were numerous important moments in the American Civil War, before going on to explain why he thinks the Battle of Antietam on September 17, 1862 justifies his focus.

Why Antietam?

Closest the South ever came to victory

In a nutshell it’s because Antietam was the closest the South came to taking Washington DC, an event which would have not just demoralised the North and possibly fatally weakened its army. Far more importantly, it would have a decisive step toward achieving the South’s primary war aim which was Recognition by the International Community. The French followed Britain’s lead and Britain hesitated to recognise the South as a separate nation until it proved itself economically viable and secure. Seizing the opponent’s capital city would have been the most dramatic proof possible that the Confederacy was indeed a nation in its own right. And Antietam was the closest they came. And they failed.

Robert E. Lee’s army of Northern Virginia lost about a quarter of its number and he decided to abandon the attempt to take the capital and withdrew back into Virginia. The South’s defeat at Antietam not only weakened them militarily, but also psychologically. Despite two and a half more years of war and many more victories on their own soil, they would never again come so close to striking one decisive blow.

The war for freedom

A year earlier President Lincoln had begun seriously considering declaring that one of the North’s war aims was to liberate the South’s slaves and abolish slavery as an institution, but had decided not to do so so as not to jeopardise the uneasy allies in the Northern Camp such as some factions in the so-called borderline states (for example Missouri and Kentucky) and the entire Democrat Party (Lincoln and the American government when the war broke out, were Republican).

Republican President Abraham Lincoln

The crushing defeat of the South’s forces at Antietam emboldened Lincoln to go ahead and make his declaration, on 1 January 1863, converting the war from one which merely wished to reincorporate the rebel states back into the Union to an all-out attempt to crush the South, to abolish the central element of its economic system, to abolish slavery and completely remould the South on the model of the free market, capitalist North.

Casualties

In fact the most consistent argument McPherson uses is the appalling casualties of the battle. A staggering 23,100 men were wounded, killed or missing in action during the battle. In a move which made sense in 2002 when the book was published, but itself looks like a historical curio, McPherson opens his text by comparing the estimated 6,000 deaths at Antietam (September 17 1862) to the (then) recent atrocity of September 11 2001, when 2,997 died; and goes on to point out that the number of casualties at Antietam was four times greater than American casualties on the Normandy beaches on D-Day Jun 6 1944, more than the war casualties of every other war the US fought in the nineteenth century put together (the War of 1812, the Mexico-America War, the Spanish-American War and all the Indian wars). It was ‘the bloodiest day’ in American history.

‘No tongue can tell, no mind can conceive, no pen portray the horrible sights I witnessed.’ (Pennsylvania soldier in his diary, quoted on page 129)

So those are the reasons McPherson adduces for choosing the Battle of Antietam as his ‘Pivotal Moment in American History.’

What is Antietam?

Antietam is a small river which runs south through Maryland into the River Potomac near the hamlet of Sharpsburg. The battle took place across the river in the sense that some of the largest casualties occurred when Union troops attempted to cross narrow bridges or ford the 30 metre-wide river. The North refer to it as the Battle of Antietam, the South the Battle of Sharpsburg.

It is pronounced Ant-eat-em, or, in American, Ant-eed-em.

Key learnings

Secession not civil war

In a sense it wasn’t a civil war. A civil war breaks out all over a country, for example in Britain in the 1640s where the Roundheads sought to overthrow Charles I’s rule over the nation. So that was a struggle between competing factions for control of one nation.

The American ‘civil war’ was more a secession. The 11 southern slave states seceded or withdrew from the nation called the United States and declared themselves a new country, with a new capital at Richmond Virginia, a new flag, and a new president, Jefferson Davis.

Confederate President Jefferson Davis

It was more comparable to events in other post-colonial countries where a province wanted to secede but the central government fought a war to hang onto and control the seceding territory, for example Biafra in Nigeria or Eritrea seeking independence from Ethiopia, the struggle of South Sudan to become independent of North Sudan, and so on.

This meant that, militarily, the North had to conquer the South in order to force it back into the country called the United States – which in practical terms meant seizing the Southern capital, Richmond, ideally along with its government – whereas all the South had to do was maintain its territorial integrity i.e. sit back and repel the North’s attacks.

As with many secessions the impartial observer is tempted to ask, Why not? Why shouldn’t Biafra seceded from Nigeria, Eritrea from Ethiopia or the Confederate states from the Union?

President Abraham Lincoln thought he had been elected president of all of America and it was his duty to maintain the nation’s integrity. He thought the South must be compelled to return back into a state they wished to leave. It’s very tempting to ask, Why?

Expansion West – would the new states be slave or free states?

One reason may have been that the US was a very unfinished nation, with most of the Western half of the continent far from settled, with much of it divided into territories which had yet to attain the legal status of ‘states’. At the time of the war the US consisted of 34 states i.e. 16 of today’s 50 states did not yet legally exist.

Therefore it wasn’t an act of secession taking place within a fixed and defined territory. Above all, the chief cause of the war was whether the new states being defined to the West – states such as Kansas, New Mexico, Arizona and so on – would be slave states of free states.

The American Civil War was a war fought against the expansion of slavery into the territories acquired after the Mexican-American War. It was not about the moral rectitude of Lincoln or the North. Although he personally found slavery abhorrent, he believed in the innate superiority of the white race. His paramount goal was not the freedom of over four million black slaves but to save the Union at all costs. He once said:

‘My paramount object in this struggle is to save the Union, and it is not either to save or destroy slavery. If I could save the Union without freeing any slave I would do it; and if I could save it by freeing all the slaves, I would do it; and if I could save it by freeing some and leaving others alone, I would do that. What I do about slavery and the colored race I do because I believe it helps to save the Union, and whatever I forbear, I forbear because I do not believe it would help to save the Union.’

(quoted on Richard Lawson Singley’s blog)

So it was not only a struggle to define what the country called the United States would consist of in the 1860s, but the result would determine whether the just-about-to-be-created states would belong to the existing union or join the Confederacy. In one sense the North and the South were fighting over who would own the West.

By ‘own’ I mean which social and economic model the Western states would adopt, slavery or non-slavery. Both sides were determined that the about-to-be-created states should adopt their social and economic system. You can see why this was a really fundamental problem which was almost impossible to decide by political means.

How the expansion of slave states would permanently alter the political balance in the US

Moreover it had a direct impact on the nature of the politics of the USA. Each American state sent two senators to the Senate, regardless of population. Therefore, there was a naked power struggle whenever a new state was admitted to the Union as to whether its two senators would be pro or anti slavery, the decision of each state threatening to upset the very finely tuned balance of power between slave and anti-slave states in Congress.

American politicians managed to defer the multiple aspects of the issue from the 1830s through the 1850s but as the nation expanded westwards it became ever-more pressing, until the series of expedients and compromises were finally exhausted by the start of 1860 and the election of President Lincoln brought the issue to a head.

International recognition

Because it was more of an act of secession than of civil war explains why the issue of international recognition was so important. At that time the ‘international community’ more or less amounted to Britain, led by the wily 70-something Lord Palmerston, and France, led by the buffoonish Emperor Napoleon III. McPherson brings out how vital it was for the South to demonstrate to Britain in particular that she was a viable independent nation. To do that she had to repel Northern attacks and, ideally, win victories herself.

McPherson describes in some detail the diplomatic manoeuvring in London where both North and South had ambassadors working at every level of the British government to sway it to its side (Charles Adams for the North, James Mason for the South).

James Murray Mason, one-time senator for Virginia and Confederate emissary to London (he wasn’t officially recognised as ambassador) where he tirelessly lobbied for British recognition of the Confederacy

By and large the British establishment, the aristocracy and the better off middle classes, supported the South. This was not out of love for slavery, for most Britons had long been against slavery, having fought a long campaign for the abolition of the slave trade at the turn of the nineteenth century and then the abolition of the legal status of ‘slave’ throughout the British Empire in 1833. Britons and prided themselves that the Royal Navy patrolled the world’s oceans to combat slavery.

No, on the whole Britain’s ruling classes favoured the South for three reasons:

  1. fear of North America’s growing industrial and economic power, combined with dislike of the North America’s crude, no-holds-barred industrial capitalism
  2. a preference for a romanticised view of the more ‘leisurely’, agricultural society of the South, which airbrushed out the slaves sweating in the fields, or chose to believe Southerners’ preposterous claims that the slaves benefited from their enslavement. (The many, many statements by Southern politicians explaining why the slaves loved their slavery or benefited from it, have to be read to be believed.)

The third reason was cruder. The core of Britain’s industrial revolution had been breakthroughs in powering and managing the textile trade and this relied entirely on cotton imported from the American South. It was in Britain’s clear economic interest to support the South. Hence McPherson is able to quote liberally from The Times newspaper which wrote numerous editorials sympathising with the Confederate cause.

But ultimately, the great prize the Confederacy sought, recognition by Britain, boiled down to the decision of one man, savvy old Lord Palmerston, and McPherson quotes conversations between the man himself and advisers or members of his cabinet or ambassadors for either side in the war, in which the canny Lord delays and prevaricates and insists he just needs to see a bit more proof that the South is a viable, standalone state.

In the autumn of 1862 his own Chancellor of the Exchequer, William Gladstone, started a cabinet debate on whether Britain should intervene. Like many in the British ruling class, Gladstone favoured the Confederacy (in fact his family wealth depended on slavery in the West Indies). The strongest argument for British intervention was humanitarian, to try to bring to an end the increasingly horrifying levels of bloodshed.

This was something the Confederates devoutly wished for, since it would place them on the same legal status as the North and amount to international recognition of their independent statehood.

But while personally sympathetic to the South, Palmerston killed Gladstone’s suggestion and maintained his temporising position right till the end of the war in April 1865, dying a few months later in October 1865, having maintained Britain’s good relations with the state that ended up winning, Lincoln’s North.

Types of freedom

In the introduction and in passages throughout the book McPherson explores the idea that the war was about different definitions of ‘freedom’.

The South was not totally incorrect in describing the North’s approach as a kind of tyranny i.e. trying to keep the 11 Confederate states inside a country they had all elected to leave. On this view the Confederacy was fighting for the principle of the states’ freedoms to choose their own laws and social systems according to the wishes of the local people and in defiance of central, federal power. Hence you read no end of rhetoric in southern newspapers and southern speeches about their aim to be free of despotism, escape the heel of tyranny, achieve deliverance and so on.

This view underplayed two factors:

One was the issue defined above, that the war wasn’t just about the present, but about the future, because whoever controlled the Western states was set to, ultimately, emerge as the larger and more powerful player in the divided continent. I.e. it wasn’t pure tyranny on the North’s part. In a roundabout way it was about the long-term survival of the North’s view of what the 1777 revolution had been about.

The second is the one you hear more about in these woke times, which is the breath-taking hypocrisy of the South to make fancy speeches about ‘freedom’ while basing its entire economy and society on the forced labour of some 4 million slaves.

McPherson indicates some of the twisted logic this led Southern politicians and commentators into:

  • some denied that there was anything wrong with slavery, declaring that Africans were happier being mentored and tutored by their superiors
  • some declared slavery as old as the Bible and justified by God
  • others bluntly said the slaves were not fully human and so couldn’t enjoy rights and freedoms reserved for whites

Any way you cook it, Southerners tended to downplay slavery, preferring to emphasise the ‘nobility’ of their fight for independence and play up the same kind of ‘freedom from tyranny’ which their great grandfathers had fought the British to achieve.

By contrast Northerners had at least two definitions of freedom. One was the obvious one of anti-slavery which associated the South as a culture of slavery and oppression. The other was a more complicated notion around the idea that no democratic nation can afford to be held hostage by the extreme views of a minority, in this instance the insistence on slavery of 11 states continually bogging down the political process of the other 23 states. It was freedom for the elected government to enact the policies it was elected for, without the endless filibustering and obstructing of the South.

Around page 100 I came across a variation on this idea, which is the notion that the government of a country cannot be held hostage by the continual threat that any region of the country which doesn’t like this or that policy will simply secede and walk away. Two things.

  1. This obviously threatens the very notion of the integrity and identity of a country (cf modern Spain’s refusal to countenance the independence of Catalonia, which would be fine for Catalans but seriously weaken Spain as a country).
  2. With each of these potential splits a nation becomes smaller, weaker and more unstable.

I was struck by the editorial in the New York Herald which pointed out that if the North gave in to secession, where would it end? The entire nation might fragment into a pack of jostling states which would fall prey to instability, rivalry, wars and weak government like the nations of South America. If the North lost Maryland (which Robert E. Lee’s army invaded in September 1862), he thought the North might:

be broken up…not into two confederacies, but into ten or twenty petty republics of the South American school, electing each a dictator every year at the point of the bayonet and all incessantly fighting each other.’ (quoted on page 102)

So that’s why the book is titled ‘Crossroads of Freedom’ – because, seen from one angle, the entire war was fought to decide whose definition of ‘freedom’ would triumph. And McPherson designates the Battle of Antietam ‘the crossroads of freedom’ because it was, in his opinion, the decisive moment in the war, the crossroads at which men died in huge numbers to contest these definitions of ‘freedom’ and out of which a massive new definition of freedom, the emancipation of all the slaves, emerged.

Emancipation of the slaves

A casual acquaintanceship with the history of the American Civil War and Abraham Lincoln leads many to think that war was fought about the issue of slavery and led directly to the emancipation of the slaves.

Slave owners disciplining their belongings

A closer reading of events teaches you that Lincoln resisted making emancipation the central issue for several years. This is because of the time-honoured, central nature of democratic politics in a large state, which is that to form a government which can pass laws and get things done you always have to form coalitions of interest. And so Lincoln was reluctant to make emancipation the central issue because:

  • he knew it would alienate many Democrats even in the North (Lincoln was a Republican)
  • it would alienate slave owners in the all-important borderline states between the Union and the Confederacy
  • it would spur the Confederacy to fight harder

One of the things that emerges most clearly from McPherson’s account is how it was a series of Confederate victories in the summer of 1862, with much loss of life on the Northern side that finally made Lincoln decide he had to ‘take off the gloves’ and go all out to win the war by any means possible. In this regard the declaration that the North would emancipate the slaves, while it contained a humanitarian motive, was also motivated by Realpolitik. It:

  1. acknowledged the reality on the ground where more and more Afro-Americans were fleeing their bondage to the nearest Northern armies where they were happy to volunteer to work as cooks and ancillary staff or be drafted into a fighting regiment
  2. put clear blue water between the two sides and their war aims
  3. unequivocally seized the international moral high ground

It marked a Rubicon. Previously Lincoln, many in his cabinet, many soldiers and civilians had hoped there could be some kind of reconciliation. The initial declaration was announced on 22 September, 1862, just five days after the battle of Antietam, and gave the South 100 days to return to the Union or lose all its slaves. The South rejected the offer and so Lincoln made the second and definitive declaration on 1 January 1863. Now it would be a war to the death, a war of conquest and domination.

Details

War aims

War aims always escalate. Abraham Lincoln reluctantly engaged in the war with the relatively narrow aims of securing US government property and ensuring its excise taxes were collected. That is why the commencement of the war with the Confederates attacking Fort Sumter near Charleston, South Carolina by the South Carolina militia was so symbolic. Fort Sumter was held by forces loyal to the North but was clearly on Southern soil. The questions of who should control it, whether the Union garrison should abandon it and ship north or hold onto it as a legitimate property of the US government went right to the heart of the issue of whether a new government (the Confederacy) existed and what rights it had.

Anyway, back to the escalation theme: For the first 2 years Lincoln repeatedly promised that if the South returned to the fold, all would be forgiven and nothing would be changed. McPherson’s account covers the period during which the Republican government realised that it couldn’t win this conflict by cajoling and coaxing, that it had to ‘take off the kid gloves’ (a phrase McPherson tells us quickly became an over-used cliché) and fight the Confederacy with every tool at his command.

It’s in this context that must be understood the proclamation of the emancipation of the slaves on 1 January 1863. It marked a seismic shift in the North’s war aims from merely reincorporating the South ‘as before’, leaving it its own institutions and laws, and a new, thorough-going determination to destroy the central pillar of the Southern economy, slave labour, and remould the South in the North’s image.

Contraband

As soon as war broke out slaves began running away from their Southern masters, fleeing to the nearest Northern centre or garrison. Northern generals in some regions let them stay, others insisted on returning them to their Southern masters. On 23 May 1861 an event took place which slowly acquired symbolic and then legal significance. Major General Benjamin Butler, commanding Union forces at Fort Monroe, Virginia, refused to return three runaway slaves who had arrived at the fort. Butler argued that, since their former owner was in revolt against the United States, his slaves could be considered ‘contraband of war’ and so were not subject to return.

General Butler refuses to return three slaves who have escaped to Fort Monroe in what came to be seen by both sides as a symbolic moment

Butler’s opinion on this issue eventually became Union policy. Two Confiscation Acts were passed by Congress in 1861 and 1862 by which all slaves used by the Confederate military for transportation or construction work could be freed if captured by Union forces. As these populations increased they were put to work behind the lines, working as labourers, teamsters (‘a person who drives teams of draft animals’), servants, laundresses, or skilled craftsmen, as well as serving as scouts, spies, soldiers or sailors. Some were recruited into all-black military units.

This explains why term ‘contraband’ came into widespread use to describe escaped slaves at the time but I admit I was surprised that it seems to be widely used by modern historians including McPherson. In these sensitive times I’m surprised that it hasn’t been replaced by a less derogatory and objectifying term such as ‘runaway slaves’.

Race war

Threaded throughout the book is the contemporary concern among Americans of both sides and even foreign commentators, that liberating the South’s slaves would lead to a Race War. Many sensible people thought the civil war would be followed by a much bigger struggle of white against black which would engulf the whole continent. Although this seems mad to us, now, we must understand that it was a real concern at the time and added to the reluctance of even very intelligent people to support unqualified emancipation.

‘“Abe Lincoln’s Last Card’, a cartoon in the British magazine, Punch, showing a ragged and possibly devilish Lincoln playing the ’emancipation card’ against a confident Confederate with the aim of detonating the powderkeg which the table is resting on, implying that the Emancipation Proclamation was a desperate and cynical move by a defeated North designed to spark a bloody insurrection. (The cartoon is by John Tenniel, famous for illustrating the Alice in Wonderland books.)

In the event we know that what followed was nothing like a ‘race war’; instead black people in America were to suffer a century of poverty, immiseration and discrimination until the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s began to effect change.

Illustrations

And it has pictures, lots of them: 17 contemporary photos of key players in the drama including Union President Abraham Lincoln, the ex-slave and writer Frederick Douglas, the great generals George B. McClellan, Robert E. Lee and Ulysses Grant, the diplomats James Mason and Charles, the Secretary of State for War, the ironclad USS Cairo and so on.

Frederick Douglas who pressed Lincoln in 1862 to turn the war for Union into a war for freedom

And photos taken after battle by enterprising documentary photographers from New York such as Alexander Gardner to feed the newspapers. (McPherson informs us that America at this date had more newspapers per capital than any other country in the world.)

The war dead look like the war dead everywhere, same as in photos of the Indian Mutiny (1857) or the Crimean War (1853 to 1856), after the Boxer Rebellion (1899 to 1901) or the Boer War (1899 to 1902) let alone the calamitous wars and genocides of the 20th century. In all of them human beings are reduced to a compost heap of rags and putrefying flesh. Death reveals there is no mystery to human life. To the earth we return after a short period of preening, just like all the other organisms on the planet.

Confederate dead lying in ‘Bloody Lane’ after the intense fighting there at midday 17 September 1862

There are some 14 newspaper etchings and illustrations, of historic and dramatic scenes such as Commodore Farragut’s fleet passing the Confederate forts below New Orleans on 24 April 1862, specific incidents during the battle itself, and newspaper cartoons and caricatures of politicians.

And, crucially, there are maps, seven beautifully drawn and beautifully reproduced maps which help you make sense of the complex military manoeuvres and operations between Spring and September 1862, the period the book really focuses on.

This is a beautifully written and beautifully produced book which helps you follow the build up to the battle in detail but also interprets the meaning and significance of events in a highly intelligent and thought provoking way. 10 out of 10.

A video

Here’s a handy video which summarises the whole thing in 5 minutes.


Other posts about American history

Origins

Seven Years War

War of Independence

Slavery

The civil war

Art

Don McCullin @ Tate Britain

This is an enormous exhibition of over 250 photos by famous war photographer Don McCullin. A working class lad who left school at 15 and got interested in cameras during his national service, the show opens with the first photograph he sold (in 1958 a policeman was stabbed by members of a gang in Finsbury Park – McCullin happened to have been at school with some of these young toughs and persuaded them to be photographed posing in a bombed-out house – people in his office saw the printed photo and said why don’t you try selling it to a newspaper? A newspaper bought it, and said have you got any more like that? And so a star was born).

The Guv'nors in their Sunday suits, Finsbury Park (1958)

The Guv’nors in their Sunday suits, Finsbury Park (1958)

The exhibition then follows McCullin’s career as he visited one warzone, famine zone, disaster zone, after another from the early 1960s right through to the 2000s, in the process becoming one of the most famous photographers in the world. He began a long association with the Sunday Times which covered war zones and natural disasters around the world in a ground-breaking combination of photojournalism.

Each of these odysseys is accompanied by a wall label which gives you the historical background of the conflict in question, and then, separately, McCullin’s reactions and thoughts about it.

Not all of them are abroad. The Troubles in Northern Ireland, though mainland Brits often forget it, was, of course, a low-level war or civil conflict fought here in Britain. And McCullin also undertook trips with journalists to parts of Britain which were still very, very deprived in the 1960s and 70s, capturing images of the homeless and alcoholics in the East End, as well as sequences depicting the bleak late-industrial landscapes and cramped lifestyles of the North of England.

Homeless Irishman, Spitalfields, London (1970)

Homeless Irishman, Spitalfields, London (1970)

The featured locations and subjects are:

  • Early London i.e. variations on his gangs of Finsbury shots
  • 1961 a journey to Berlin just as the wall was going up
  • Republic of Congo descent into civil war
  • Cyprus – intercommunal assassinations between Greeks and Turks
  • Biafra, war and then famine in this breakaway state of Nigeria
  • Vietnam – McCullin went to Vietnam no fewer than eighteen times and shot some of the iconic images of the war: there’s a display case showing the passports he used and the actual combat helmet he wore
Grenade thrower, Hue, Vietnam (1968)

Grenade thrower, Hue, Vietnam (1968)

  • Cambodia – as the Vietnam conflict spilled over into its neighbour setting the scene for the rise of the Khmer Rouge
  • the East End i.e. the homeless, tramps and derelicts around Spitalfields
  • Northern Ireland in the early years of the conflict 1970 showing youths throwing stones at British soldiers
  • Bradford and the North – McCullin has a special fondness for Bradford with its rugged stone architecture, and shot the working class amusements of the population (bingo, the pub) with the same harsh candour he brought to his war photos
  • British Summer Time – a smaller section about the activities of the British rich i.e. the season, Ascot etc
  • Bangladesh – the war followed by floods and famine as East Pakistan broke away from West Pakistan in 1971
  • Beirut – once the Paris of the Middle East descends into a three-way civil war, destabilised by neighbours Israel and Syria – there’s a famous sequence McCullin shot at a home for the mentally ill which had been abandoned by most of its carers: madness within madness
  • Iraq – among the Kurds in particular as the first Gulf War came to its tragic end (President Bush exhorted the Kurds and Marsh Arabs to rise up against Saddam Hussein but when they did, gave them no help, so that they were slaughtered in their thousands or fled to refugee camps
  • southern Ethiopia – amazingly colourful tribespeople holding kalashnikovs
  • India – one of McCullin’s favourite countries which he’s returned to again and again to capture the swirl and detail of life
  • the AIDS pandemic in Africa – pictures of the dying accompanied by McCullin’s harrowing description of the AIDS pandemic as the biggest disaster he’d covered

Finally, in the last big room, are displayed the photos from the last few decades of McCullin’s career (born in October 1935, he is now 83 years old), in which he has finally been persuaded to take it easy. These are in two big themes and a smaller one:

  • he has been undertaking trips to the ancient Roman ruins to be found in the Arab countries bordering the Mediterranean, leading up to the publication of the book Southern Frontiers: A Journey Across the Roman Empire
  • and his most recent book, The Landscape (2018), is a collection of stunning photos of the scenery near his home in the Somerset Levels
  • finally, right at the tippy-most end of this long exhausting exhibition are three or four still lifes, very deliberately composed to reference the tradition of the still life in art, featuring apples or flowers in a bowl, next to a cutting board
Woods near My House, Somerset (c.1991)

Woods near My House, Somerset (c.1991)

Black and white

All the 250 photos in the exhibition are in black and white. McCullin printed them himself by hand in the dark room at his Somerset home.

As I’ve remarked in reviews of umpteen other photography exhibitions, black and white photography is immediately more arty than colour, because it focuses your visual response on depth, shade, lines and composition.

A lot of the early war photography is obviously capturing the moment, often under gunfire (McCullin was himself hit by shrapnel and hospitalised in Cambodia). But many of the smokestack cityscapes of Bradford and the North, the images of swirling mist and muddy rivers in India, and then the bleak photos of the Somerset Levels, in winter, dotted by leafless trees, floodwater reflecting the huge mackerel cloudscapes – many of these also have a threatening, looming, menacing effect.

The wall labels and the quotes from McCullin himself make it explicit that he is still haunted by the horrors he has witnessed – of war and cruelty, but also of famine and death by epidemic disease. It is a fairly easy interpretation to find the trauma of war still directing the aesthetic of the later photos – whether of Roman ruins in the desert or lowering skies over bleak Somerset in winter – both looking as if some terrible cataclysm has overtaken them.

The magazine slideshow

The one exception to the black and white presentation is a big dark projection room which shows a loop of the magazine covers and articles where McCullin’s photos were first published, displays of how they actually looked when first used, covered with banner headlines, or next to pages of text, and accompanied by detailed captions, describing the scene, what had happened just before or was going to happen afterwards, quotes from the people pictured.

It is striking what a difference a) being in colour and b) being accompanied by text, makes to these images. You quite literally read them in a different way, namely that your eye is drawn first to the text, whether it be the splash headlines on the front covers, or the tiny lines of caption accompanying the images.

It makes you realise that they were almost all first intended to tell a story, to explain a situation and, in all of the rest of the rooms of the exhibition, where that story is told by, at most, a paragraph of text on the wall, the images become ‘orphaned’. They stand alone. they are more ominous, pregnant with meaning, imposing.

Here, in the magazine slideshow, pretty much the same images are contained, corralled to sizes and shapes dictated by magazine layout, and overwritten by text which immediately channels your aesthetic and emotional responses and underwritten by captions, explanations and quotes which lead you away from the image and into the world of words and information.

And because information is, at the end of the day, more entrancing than pictures, more addictive (you want to find out what happened next, who, where, what, why) in one way this was the most powerful room in the show. I stayed for the entire loop which must have lasted over ten minutes, incidentally conveying, yet again, the sheer volume of work McCullin produced.

Local Boys in Bradford (1972

Local Boys in Bradford (1972

One perspective

Which brings me to my concluding thought which is that, for all its breadth (some fifty countries visited) and variety (from traumatic photojournalistic immediacy of wounded soldiers or starving children, to the monumental beauty of the Roman ruin shots and the chilly vistas of Somerset in winter) there is nonetheless a kind of narrowness to the work, in at least two ways:

The louring images of Somerset could hardly be more bleak and abandoned and the commentary is not slow to make the obvious point that they can be interpreted as landscapes as portrayed by a deeply traumatised, harrowed survivor i.e. it is all the suffering he saw which makes McCullin’s photographs of Somerset so compelling.

Well, yes, but these are also landscapes which people travel a long way to go on holiday in, where people have barbecues in the summer, take their dogs for walks, cars drive across playing Radio One, which has a good cricket team and various tourist attractions.

None of that is here. None of the actual world in all its banality, traffic jams and Tesco superstores. The images have been very carefully composed, shot and printed in order to create a particular view of the world.

And this also goes for the war and disaster photos. Seeing so many brilliantly captured, framed and shot images of war and disaster and famine, as well as the images of wrecked human beings in Spitalsfield and the poverty of the North of England – all this is bleak and upsetting and creates the impression that McCullin was living, that we are all living, in a world in permanent crisis, permanent poverty, permanent devastation.

A Catholic youth threatening police, Londonderry, Northern Ireland (1971)

A Catholic youth threatening police, Londonderry, Northern Ireland (1971)

You would never guess from this exhibition that his career covers the heyday of the Beatles, Swinging London, hippies smoking dope in a thousand attic squats, Biba and new boutiques, that – in other words – while soldiers were torturing civilians in Congo or Bangladesh, lots of young people were partying, older people going to work, kids going to school, families going on package holidays to the Costa del Sol, trying out fondue sets and meal warmers and all the other fancy new consumer gadgets which the Sunday Times advertised in the same magazines where McCullin’s photos appeared.

In other words, that away from these warzones, and these areas of maximum deprivation, life was going on as usual, and life was actually sweet for many millions of Brits. Kids play and laugh, even in warzones, even in poor neighborhoods. No kids are playing or laughing in any of these photos.

McCullin’s photos build up into an amazing oeuvre, an incredible body of work. But it would be a mistake to use them as the basis for a history or political interpretation of the era. It is just one perspective, and a perspective paid for by editors who wanted him to seek out the most harrowing, the most gut-wrenching and the most conscience-wracking situations possible.

If the cumulative worldview which arises from all these 250 photos is violent and troubled that is because he was paid to take photos of violence and trouble. Other photographers were doing fashion and advertising and sport and pop music photos. Their work is just as valid.

None of McCullin’s work is untrue (obviously), and all of it is beautifully shot and luminously printed – but his photos need to be placed in a much wider, broader context to even begin to grasp the history and meaning of his complex and multi-faceted era.

The promotional video


Related links

Related reviews

Reviews of other photography exhibitions

Conquerors: How Portugal Forged the First Global Empire by Roger Crowley (2015)

Our Lord has done great things for us, because he wanted us to accomplish a deed so magnificent that it surpasses even what we have prayed for… I have burned the town and killed everyone. For four days without any pause our men have slaughtered… wherever we have been able to get into we haven’t spared the life of a single Muslim. We have herded them into the mosques and set them on fire… We have estimated the number of dead Muslim men and women at six thousand. It was, Sire, a very fine deed. (Afonso de Albuquerque describing the Portuguese capture of Goa on 25 November 1510, p.286)

In 1500 the Indian Ocean was the scene of sophisticated trading networks which had been centuries in the making. Muslim traders from the ‘Swahili Coast’ of Africa traded up the coast to the Red Sea and across land to Cairo, heart of the Muslim world, while other traders crossed the ocean eastwards to the coast of India, where Hindu rajas ran a number of seaports offering hospitality to communities of Muslims and Jews in a complex multi-ethnic web.

The trading routes were well established and the commodities – such as pepper, cinnamon, cloves, nutmeg and mace – were managed via a familiar set of tariffs and customs. Even if you were caught by one of the many pirates who patrolled the sea, there were well established procedures for handing over a percentage of your cargo and being allowed to continue on your way.

All this was dramatically changed by the sudden arrival in 1497 of the super-violent Portuguese, who had orders from their king and from the pope:

  • to destroy all Muslim bases and ships
  • to establish European forts at all convenient harbours
  • to bully all local rulers into proclaiming complete subservience to the King of Portugal
  • to build churches and convert the heathens to Christianity

This is the story of how an idyllic, essentially peaceful, well ordered and multicultural world was smashed to pieces by the cannons, muskets and unbelievable savagery of barbarian Europeans. This book is a revelation. I had no idea that the Portuguese ‘explorers’ of the ‘Age of Discovery’ were quite such savage sadists.

Massacre of the Miri

Probably the most notorious incident, which epitomises the behaviour and attitudes of the invaders, was the massacre of the Muslim pilgrim ship Miri.

The Portuguese sent their ships to conquer the Indian Ocean in large groups or ‘armadas’.

On September 29, 1502, the fourth great Portuguese Armada spotted a large merchant ship carrying Muslim pilgrims returning from Mecca. The ship, the Miri, was identified as belonging to al-Fanqi, thought to be the commercial agent representing Mecca – and the interests of the Muslim Mamluk dynasty in Cairo – in Calicut, one of the commercial seaports on the west India coast.

Portuguese Captain Matoso cornered the pilgrim ship which surrendered quickly, the captain and passengers imagining they would be able to buy off these ‘pirates’ in the traditional manner. But these were not pirates; they were Christians or, as they would come to be recognised around the Indian Ocean, sadistic, uncivilised barbarian murderers.

Commander of the Armada, Vasco da Gama, ignored all the offers of gold or cargo. His Portuguese crew plundered the ship, stole all its cargo and then made it plain that he planned to burn the ship with all its passengers – men, women and children – on board. As this realisation sank in the civilian passengers desperately attacked the Portuguese with stone and bare hands, but were themselves shot down by muskets and cannon from the Portuguese ships.

On October 3, 1502, having gutted the Miri of all its valuables, the Portuguese locked all the remaining passengers in the hold and the ship was burnt and sunk by artillery. It took several days to go down completely. Portuguese soldiers rowed around the waters on longboats mercilessly spearing survivors.

All in all it was a fine example of:

The honour code of the fidalgos with its rooted hatred of Islam and its unbending belief in retribution and punitive revenge. (p.144)

the honour code which, as Crowley emphasises, inspired the Portuguese voyages of conquest and terror.

The Calicut massacre

It helps to explain this behaviour, and put it in context, if you know about the Calicut Massacre. Back in December 1500 the Second Portuguese India Armada, under the command of Pedro Álvares Cabral, had gotten frustrated at the slow pace at which his ships were being filled with spices at Calicut, the largest spice port on the western coast of India, despite having made an agreement with its raja or zamorin.

To hurry things along Cabral ordered the seizure of an Arab merchant ship from Jeddah, then loading up with spices nearby in the harbour. Cabral claimed that, as the Zamorin had promised the Portuguese priority in the spice markets, the cargo was rightfully theirs anyway.

Incensed by this theft, the Arab merchants around the quay started a riot and led the rioters to the ‘factory’ or warehouse which the Portuguese had only just finished building to store their booty. The Portuguese onboard the ships in the harbour watched helplessly while the Calicut mob successfully stormed the ‘factory’, massacring 50 of the Portuguese inhabitants, including some Franciscan friars.

Once the riot had quietened down, Cabral sent to the Zamorin asking for redress. When it wasn’t forthcoming, Cabral seized around ten Arab merchant ships in the harbour, confiscating their cargoes, killing their crews, and burning their ships. Blaming the Zamorin for doing nothing to stop the riot, Cabral then ordered all the guns from his fleet to bombard Calicut indiscriminately for a full day, wreaking immense damage, killing many citizens and starting fires which burnt entire quarters of the town.

Crowley shows us again and again how one bad deed, a bit of impatience or a slight cultural misunderstanding was liable to blow up, in Portuguese hands, into explosions of super-destructive wrath and mass murder.

The crusader mentality

It helps to understand the Portuguese approach a bit more if you realise that the Portuguese kings – John I (1481-1595) and Manuel I (1495-1521) – didn’t send out explorers and scientists – they sent warriors. And that these warriors were still steeped in the aggressive anti-Muslim ideology of the crusades.

Crowley’s narrative sets the tone by going back nearly a century before the Portuguese entered the Indian ocean, to describe the ‘crusade’ of an earlier generation when, in 1415, Portuguese crusaders attacked Ceuta, an enclave of Muslim pirates on the north coast of Africa. The Ceuta pirates had been a pest to Portuguese shipping for generations, and the Portuguese finally had enough, stormed and sacked it.

Having established the sense of antagonism between Muslims and Christians, Cowley leaps forward to the next significant moment, to when the Muslim Ottoman armies took Constantinople in 1453. The fall of Constantinople to the Muslims sent shocks waves throughout Christian Europe.

  • It made Christian kings, and their peoples, all over Europe feel threatened
  • It cut off trade routes to the East, for spices and so on

1. The quest for new routes to the spice trade

In other words the fall of Constantinople provided a keen commercial incentive to navigators, explorers and entrepreneurs to come up with alternative ways of reaching the Spice Islands by sea. While in the 1490s Christopher Columbus was trying to persuade the King of Spain to fund his idea of sailing west, around the world, to reach the Indies, the King of Portugal was persuaded to fund expeditions in the opposite direction – down the coast of Africa with the hope that it would be easier to cruise around Africa and reach the Spice Islands by heading East.

The spices in question included the five ‘glorious spices’ – pepper, cinnamon, cloves, nutmeg and mace – but also ginger, cardamom, tamarind, balms and aromatics like wormwood, Socotra aloe, galbanum, camphor and myrrh.

Also brought back from India were dyes like lac, indigo and dyewood and precious ornamental objects and materials like ivory, ebony and pearls. All these good fetched up to ten times as much on the quaysides of Lisbon or Venice as they cost to buy in Calicut. But that was when they had been transhipped from warehouses in the ports of the Middle East. The conquest of Constantinople reduced the transhipment trade and led to a more aggressive attitude from Muslim traders, which badly hurt the commercial prosperity of Venice, in particular.

2. Outflanking Islam

But the aim of the explorers was not only to get commercial access to the spice trade. throughout the Middle Ages it had been widely believed that Christianity had been carried by the apostle James and others, deep into Africa, into Arabia, and even as far as India.

So there was a military element to the expeditions. Christian strategists thought that, if the explorers could make contact with the Christian communities which were believed to exist in faraway India, and were able to link up – then together they would be able to surround, the European armies attacking from the west, the newly awakened Indian Christian armies attacking from the East.

In other words, alongside the element of exploration, ran an aggressive continuation of the fierce anti-Muslim, crusading mentality of John and Manuel’s medieval forebears.

This helps to explain the unremitting anti-Muslim hostility of the commanders of all the great Portuguese Armadas to the East. Not only did their kings demand it, not only was it part of their explicit, written instructions (which survive to this day), but their conquering mentality was backed up by the full force of the pope and the Holy Catholic Church.

The whole European apparatus of state power, religious intolerance, and the technology of war – metal armour and huge shipboard cannons – was brought to bear on the inhabitants of the Indian Ocean.

Wage war and total destruction… by all the means you best can by land and sea so that everything possible is destroyed. (The Regimento or instructions given by King Manuel I to Dom Francisco de Almeida in 1505)

Thus it was that warrior-sailors like the Sodré brothers or the du Albuquerque cousins received orders quite simply to destroy all Muslim ships and trade between the Red Sea and Calicut.

Sadism and intimidation were seen as legitimate tactics. The reader loses count of the number of local hostages, ambassadors and civilians who are taken by the Portuguese who, if anything displeases them, proceed to hang their hostages from the yardarms, before dismembering them and returning their scattered body parts to their horrified relatives waiting on shore. This happens lots of times.

When Vicente Sodré intercepted a large Muslim ship carrying a full cargo of treasure, commanded by the wealthy and well-known merchant Mayimama Marakkar, Vicente had Marakkar stripped naked, tied to the mast, whipped and then subjected to the Portuguese practice of merdimboca or ‘shit in the mouth’ – the name says it all – with the added refinement that the Portuguese forced Marakkar – an eminent and pious Muslim – to eat pork and bacon fat (p.141).

Deliberately offensive, determined to rule by Terror, fuelled by genocidal racism, unflinching, unbending and merciless, the Portuguese conquerors, in this telling, seem like the Nazis of their day.

Conquerors

So this is the story which Crowley’s book tells: the story of how tiny Portugal, at the far western tip of Europe, managed in thirty or so years, from the late 1490s to the 1520s, to establish the first global empire in world history – in reality a set of connected outposts dotted along the west and east coasts of Africa, the west coast of India – before moving on to explore the East Indies – all the while pursuing this policy of unremitting intimidation and extreme violence. It’s a harrowing read. Noses are slit and hands chopped off on pretty much every page.

Conquerors is divided into three parts:

  1. Reconnaissance: the Route to the Indies (1483-99)
  2. Contest: Monopolies and Holy War (1500-1510)
  3. Conquest: The Lion of the Sea (1510-1520)

Over and above the narrative of events, we learn a couple of Big Things:

1. How to round the Cape of Good Hope

The navigational breakthrough which allowed all this to happen was the discovery of how to round the Cape at the southernmost tip of Africa. For generations Portuguese ships had hugged the coast of Africa as they tentatively explored south and this meant that they struggled with all kinds of headwinds, shoals and rocks, particularly as they rounded the big bulge and struggled east into the Gulf of Guinea. The net result was that by 1460 they had established maps and stopping points at the Azores, Madeira, but only as far south along the African coast as the river Senegal and Sierra Leone.

The Great Breakthrough was to abandon the coast altogether and give in to the strong north-easterly winds which blew sailing ships south and west out into big Atlantic – and then, half way down the coast of Brazil, to switch direction back east, and let the strong west winds blow you clean back across the Atlantic and under the Cape of Good Hope. See the red line on the map, below. This immensely significant discovery was made in the 1460s.

That’s if things went well. Which they often didn’t – with calamitous results. Crowley reports that of the 5,500 Portuguese men who went to India between 1497 (the date of Vasco de Gama’s first successful rounding of the Cape), 1,800 – 35% – did not return. Most drowned at sea.

All the armadas suffered significant loss of life to shipwreck and drowning.

Outward and Inbound routes of the Portuguese Indian Armadas in the 1500s (source: Wikipedia)

Outward and Inbound routes of the Portuguese Indian Armadas in the 1500s (source: Wikipedia)

2. The accidental discovery of Brazil

The Second Portuguese India Armada, assembled in 1500 on the order of Manuel I and commanded by Pedro Álvares Cabral, followed the strategy of heading west and south into the Atlantic in order to catch easterly winds to blow them round the tip of Africa. But the ships went so far that they sighted a new land in the west, landed and claimed it for Portugal.

It was Brazil, whose history as a western colony begins then, in April 1500, though it was to be some time before anybody made serious attempts to land and chart it, and Crowley makes no further mention of it.

3. Rivalry with Venice

I knew the Portuguese were rivals with the Spanish for the discovery and exploration of new worlds. I hadn’t realised that the creation of a new route to the Spice Islands rocked the basis of Venice’s maritime trade and empire.

Venice had for generations been the end point for the transmission of spices from India, across the Indian Ocean, through the Red Sea to Suez, across land to Cairo, and by ship to Italy. This was all very expensive, especially the transhipment across land. Venice was rocked when the entire supply chain was jeopardised by the new Portuguese sea route, which resulted in huge amounts of spices and other exotic produce ending up on the quays of Lisbon at a fraction of the Venetian price.

With the result that the Venetian authorities sent spies to Lisbon to find out everything they could about the Portuguese navigators, their new routes and discoveries. They also sent emissaries to the Sultan in Cairo, putting pressure on him to either take punitive measures against the Portuguese, or to lower the taxes he charged on the land journey of Venetian spices from Suez to Cairo and on to Alexandria. Or both.

The sultan refused to do either. Venetian fury.

The rivalry of Venice is sown into the narrative like a silver thread, popping up regularly to remind us of the importance of trade and profit and control of the seas 600 years ago, and of the eternally bickering nature of Europe – a seething hotbed of commercial, religious and political rivals, all determined to outdo each other.

Prester John and a new Crusade

Medieval Christendom was awash with myths and legends. One such tale concerned a mythical Christian King who ruled in wealth and splendour somewhere in Africa, named ‘Prester John’.

When King Manuel sent out his conquerors, it was not only to seize the spice trade of the Indian Ocean, but to make contact with Prester John and unite with his – presumably massive and wealthy army – to march on Mecca or Cairo or Jerusalem, or all three, in order to overthrow Islam for good and liberate the Holy Places.

Vasco de Gama had this aim at the back of his mind as he set off to round the Cape, and so did Afonso de Albuquerque who, at the end of his life, was still planning to establish Christian forts on the Red Sea and to locate the mysterious John in a joint crusade against the Muslim sultan of Cairo.

If anyone was Prester John it was the self-styled ’emperor’ of Ethiopia, who some of the Portuguese did travel to meet, although he turned out – despite all his pomp and pageantry – to be completely unprepared to help any kind of European Christian Crusade against his Muslim neighbours, not least because they completely surrounded and outnumbered him.

Still, it is important to remember that the whole point of funding these expensive armadas into the Indian Ocean wasn’t primarily to open up new commercial routes: for the king and his conquerors, that was a happy side aim, but the Key Goal was to link up with the kingdom of Prester John and the imagined Christian kingdoms of the East, in order to exterminate Islam and liberate the Holy Places.

Crowley’s approach – more adventure than analysis

Crowley’s approach is popular and accessible. He prefers anecdote to analysis.

Thus the book’s prologue opens with a giraffe being presented to the Chinese emperor in Beijing in the early 1400s. This had been collected by the Chinese admiral Admiral Zheng He, who led one of the epic voyages which the Yongle Emperor had commissioned, sending vast Chinese junks into the Indian Ocean in the first decades of the 15th century. The flotillas were intended to stun other nations into recognition of China’s mighty pre-eminence and had no colonising or conquering aim.

The Yongle emperor was succeeded in 1424 by the Hongxi emperor who decided the expeditions were a waste of time and so banned further ocean-going trips, a ban which within a few decades extended to even building large ocean-going vessels: small coastal trading vessels were allowed, but the Ming emperors hunkered down behind their Great Wall and closed their minds to the big world beyond.

One way of looking at it, is that the Hongxi emperor handed over the world to be colonised by European nations.

The point is Crowley gets into this important issue via an anecdote about a giraffe, and doesn’t really unpack it as much as he could.

A few pages later, the main text of the book opens with a detailed account of the erection of a commemorative cross on the coast of Africa by Diogo Cao in August 1483. It was one of several he erected on his exploratory voyage down the west African coast.

In both instances Crowley is following the time-honoured technique of starting a chapter with an arresting image and dramatic scene. The problem is that when he proceeds to fill in the background and what led up to each incident, I think his accounts lack depth and detail. For example, my ears pricked up when he mentioned Henry the Navigator, but Henry’s life and career were only fleetingly referenced in order to get back to the ‘now’ of 1483. I had to turn to Wikipedia to get a fuller account of Henry’s life and importance.

Once on Wikipedia, and reading about Henry the Navigator, I quickly discovered that ‘the invention of the caravel was what made Portugal poised to take the lead in transoceanic exploration’, because of the light manoeuvrability of this new design of ship.

A 15th century Portuguese caravel. it had three masts and a lateen or triangular sail which allowed the caravel to sail against the wind.

A 15th century Portuguese caravel. it had three masts and a lateen or triangular sail which allowed the caravel to sail against the wind.

Crowley certainly has some pictures of caravels, and describes them a bit, but doesn’t really give us enough information to ram home why their design was so game-changing.

It may be relevant that Crowley studied Literature not History at university. He is continually drawn to the dramatic and the picturesque, and skimps on the analytical.

To give another example, Crowley periodically namechecks the various popes who blessed the armadas and gave instructions as to the converting of the heathen and fighting the Unbeliever. He briefly mentions the famous Treaty of Tordesillas of 1494, whereby Pope Alexander VI brokered the deal deciding which parts of the New World would belong to the rivals Spain and Portugal. But there is nowhere any real analysis of the enormous role the popes and the Catholic Church played in the geopolitics behind all this exploring and conquering.

Instead, Crowley is continually drawn to the most vivid and melodramatic moments: battles are described in terms of who got an arrow in the eye, and strategy is more seen as deriving from the raging impatience of this or that Portuguese commander than from higher-level geopolitical imperatives.

The personal, not the wider geo-political situation, is what interests Crowley in Europe and Indian and Islamic politics.

Crowley’s style

Crowley writes the short staccato sentences of a popular thriller – fine if you’re looking for poolside entertainment, but not enough if you’re looking for something with a little more analysis and insight.

It was time to move on. However, the wind thwarted their departure. The wind turned. They were forced back to the island. The sultan tried to make peace overtures but was rebuffed. Ten nervy days ensued. (p.67)

This is thriller writing, or the prose style of a modern historical romance.

Either Crowley, his editors or his publishers decided that hos book would be best marketed as popular, accessible, hair-raising history. Thrilling, gripping and often quite horrible history.

In the rain, with the continuous gunfire, in a tropical hell, soaking and sweating in their rotting clothes, they were increasingly gripped by morbid terror that they were all going to die. (p.275)

He gives us gripping individual scenes, but not so many real insights, let alone overarching analysis or ideas.

Thus, despite the book being some 360 pages long, and including lengthy end notes, I felt I’d only scratched the surface of these seismic events, had been told about the key dates and events, and seen quite a few hands being cut off – but was left wanting to understand more, a lot more, about the geographical, economic, technological and cultural reasons for the success of Portugal’s cruel and barbarous explorers and empire makers.

This feeling was crystallised when the book ended abruptly and without warning with the death of the bloodthirsty visionary, Afonso de Albuquerque, in 1415.

For sure he was a central figure, who grasped the strategic importance of seizing Goa, who tried to storm Aden, who arranged a native coup at Ormuz, who burned Muslim towns and ships without mercy, who chopped the hands and ears off his hostages by the score. By page 330 he had become the dominant figure of the book, almost as if it the book was at one stage intended to be a biography of just him.

So the book ends with his death in 1515 but … the Portuguese Empire had only just got going. There would be at least another century of colonising effort, in Brazil, on the coast of Africa, and further East, into Malaysia, Japan and China. A century more of adventures, wars and complex politicking.

None of that is here. Crowley briefly refers to all that on the last pages of his book, before a few sententious paragraphs about how it all led to globalisation and modern container ships. But of the real establishment and running of the Portuguese Empire which stretched from Brazil to Japan there is in fact nothing.

The book’s title is therefore a bit misleading. It should be titled something more like The generation which founded the Portuguese empire. That would excuse and explain his relatively narrow focus on de Gama, Cabra and Albuquerque, and on the king who commissioned their exploits, Manuel I. Maybe adding Manuel’s dates – 1495-1521 – would make it even clearer.

In fact, with a bit of rewriting, the book could have become Manuel I and the conquerors who founded the Portuguese Empire: that accurately describes its content.

The current title gives the impression that it will be a complete history of the Portuguese Empire – which is why I bought it – and which is very far indeed from being the truth.


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