Great War in East Africa Conference, The National Archives, Kew

Great War in East Africa Conference

Saturday 14 July 2012

The National Archives, Kew

Organised by Dr Anne Samson and the Great War in East Africa Association (GWEAA), the conference aimed to bring the extra-European theatre of war out from the dominating shadow of the war in Europe, particularly the fighting on the Western Front (You can download abstacts and the conference programme here and here). Generally, the campaign in East Africa is viewed as an extension of pre-war colonial interests or through the great personalities of the campaign such as Jan Smuts and Paul von Lettow-Vorbeck. The conference quite purposefully moved away from a purely military approach with papers on the social, cultural and economic aspects of the conflict. In addition, it was extremely refreshing to listen to papers that considered the roles of other powers in this campaign, notably Belgium, Denmark and Portugal. Rather than limiting its audience to the purely academic, the conference brought together individuals of all backgrounds and interests from PhD students, ex-military personnel and individual enthusiasts. This melting pot of interest allowed for lively discussion during Q&A sessions and the plenary session at the end of the day.

As someone with limited familiarity of this campaign, it was particularly useful to broaden my knowledge base and understand how the East Africa campaign contributed to the overall war aims of the Imperial powers. Unfortunately, the conference used a split panel format, so I was unable to attend all papers. However, I understand that the panels have been recorded and there is an interest in publishing the conference proceedings, so watch this space. Of the papers I attended, there were three that I feel deserve particular mention. None of these papers were concerned with the operational conduct of the campaign, but they offered interesting national perspectives on the conflict.

Mahon Murphy (PhD Candidate, London School of Economics), ‘Global links: German Prisoners of War (PoWs) from the East Africa campaign’

Mahon’s paper sought to highlight links between the East African conflict and the wider global arena of war through the transnational movement of prisoners and their treatment in a colonial context. He was particularly interested in exploring the impact that internment and PoW treatment on the Western Front (perceived ‘norms’) had on the extra-European theatre and whether the Foreign Office had a centralised approach to PoW treatment during the war. I had a vested interest in this paper as it dealt with the sharing of experience and knowledge between theatres albeit in a non-operational context.

Of particular interest was Mahon’s examination of how German PoWs were treated in East Africa with respect to the maintenance of racial hierarchies in post-war East Africa. Initially, there was a ‘role reversal’ with German PoWs carrying out perceived ‘native’ tasks, such as cleaning their own linen, sweeping floors and digging latrines. This subversion of traditional racial roles was seen as divisive and, following protests from the Austro-Hungarians, PoWs were allowed to hire their own servants whilst in captivity.

Professor Myles Osborne (University of Colorado Boulder), ‘”Martial Race‘ and the First World War in East Africa’

Professor Osborne’s paper examined how the need for native manpower in the East African campaign challenged the imperial concept of martial races. Following the ‘Scramble for Africa’ during the late nineteenth century, British administrators were tasked with finding auxiliaries to fight local wars. As a result of the Indian Mutiny (1857), recruitment was carried out based on the ‘martial races imperative’. Sudanese, Swahili or other Muslims were fit for active service, whilst East Africa’s Bantu-speaking peoples were deemed ‘unfit’ for war.

Professor Osborne highlighted that, due to the sheer manpower required, officials turned to the East African peoples to provide much needed support, notably the Kamba, a Kenyan ethnic group that, by the 1940s, was considered East Africa’s premier martial race. The Kamba used their experience of the First World War in two different ways: first, Kamba youth, upon returning from war, challenged and rejected Government appointed chiefs; and second, the Kamba used the imperial label ‘martial race’ to their own advantage, warning the colonial administration of dire consequences if their demands for education or development aid were not met.

Daniel Steinbach (PhD Candidate, Trinity College, Dublin), ‘The Internment of ‘Enemy Aliens’ in German East Africa during the First World War’

Daniel’s paper challenged the perception of East Africa as a ‘gentleman’s war’ through its examination of the treatment of PoWs and civilian internees by the authorities in German East Africa. The conditions of internment were examined as a contributory factor to the end of a unified European solidarity in Africa.

The paper had palpable similarities with Mahon Murphy’s, particularly in its consideration of how racial boundaries were challenged and exploited by the imperial powers. Internees were systematically humiliated, expected to show deference to the German flag and German officers. The incarceration of ‘enemy aliens’ was used to enhance German status within the local population with internees paraded through the streets in military order. Punishment was often based on forcing prisoners to overstep symbolic racial boundaries; for example, detention in ‘native huts’ (grass huts with mud floors), manual labour and being fed ‘African food’ such as sweet potatoes and local roots. Ultimately, these racial reversals, practiced by both the British and Germans, undermined the paradigm of white supremacy on the continent.

The Great War in East Africa Conference served to illustrate just how much mileage there is for further research into the extra-European theatre of war. Although the East Africa campaign had minimal impact on the eventual defeat of Germany, its impact on the people involved was far from minimal, whilst its legacy cast a long shadow for the people of Africa.

By Aimée Fox-Godden, PhD Candidate, Centre for War Studies, University of Birmingham

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3 responses to “Great War in East Africa Conference, The National Archives, Kew

  1. Ross,

    I believe that there is a desire to publish the conference proceedings. However, I am unsure whether this will be in book format or in a collection of journal articles. Dr Samson said she had received expressions of interest from a few journals.

    • Cheers Aimee. It will be interesting to see if the papers do see light of day. Given the upcoming centenary I would have thought they will do.

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