I’ve mentioned it before (briefly), but the Battle for Lake Tanganyika is probably one of the wildest naval expeditions to have ever happened. During WWI, the Germans had set themselves up for naval dominance of Lake Tang, causing the British to launch an overland expedition to bring two tiny gun boats to the lake to try to even out the naval odds. It’s one of those tiny little episodes of history that are both nearly forgotten but also have a legend all their own (The African Queen is loosely based on it!). This post isn’t really about the battle, because I could hardly do it justice, there is so much crazy stuff that happened. For a long time I thought there wasn’t much to read about it, but I guess I finally googled it or something and came across Mimi and Toutou’s Big Adventure: The Bizarre Battle of Lake Tanganyika by Giles Foden. Despite the name, it’s a book for like, adults, and is a colorful if straight history of the whole expedition (for a fictionalized account, A Matter of Time by Alex Capus is good if not entirely accurate).
Digging into the book, I was excited to discover that he had cited an article published in the October 1922 issue of National Geographic, which contained a whole series of photographs by the expedition’s historian, Frank Magee. With the power of the internet, I was able to buy the nearly century-old issue (which contained the “Special Map Supplement” of Africa), and it arrived on my doorstep mere days later.
The point of this blog post was really to show you some of the pictures from the issue. There are like 30 of them. Unfortunately, the nature of my scanner is that I couldn’t really get good scans of the majority of pictures, though fortunately some were placed nearer to the margins and that is what you get to see here. These top two are nice because they actually show some of the ships involved in the battle, with the Mimi, one of the two gunboats, featured in the one up top. There are other, even wilder pics, including one of the gunboats being hauled up a hill by a whole team of oxen. If I can figure out a better way to get the pics scanned in, maybe I can give ’em a post.
The bottom pic is at Lake Bangweulu.
The one point I wanted to make though is that in telling the story of the battle, the people that get lost in the tellings is the thousands and thousands of native Africans that were affected by it. I’ve written about the effect of WWI on the people of Africa before, and the short story is that it doesn’t go well. Fortunately, the Lake Tanganyika expedition doesn’t appear to have resulted in thousands of tenga-tenga dying or anything like that, but certainly the expedition couldn’t have happened without their support, as the pictures above illustrate. Giles Foden’s book actually touches on the lives of the people affected by the battle, and he goes to some lengths to find oral history about the battle from the people still living at the lake.
But when Foden tells his story, he has to rely on the primary sources, such as Magee’s article, and in those sources the story of these people is lacking. I’m not actually that familiar with 1920s era literature on Africa, so I can’t judge Magee against the standards of the time. I would judge him in a lot of ways sympathetic to the people, like when he tells the story of how at one point the expedition relied on “native women from local villages” carrying water in gourds and jars from eight miles away in order to fill the water tanks of the steam-powered tractors they were using the haul the boats. He notes that since water carrying is “domestic work,” the men refused to help, and expresses some disgust.
But way more often than he ponders the gender balance of work, he is concerned about all the cannibals he believes himself to be surrounded by. Graves of German sailors killed in the battle are guarded against natives “addicted” to cannibalism. On noting one particularly decked out chief, he notes “the origin of the spats and pink sunshade puzzled me somewhat until I remembered we were in the land of reputed cannibals.” But most of all the native population just aren’t characters in the story; the only Africa native that is mentioned by name in the whole article is a pet chimpanzee the expedition dubbed Josephine.
Then again who am I to judge? If you go back and read my blog articles from my time in the Peace Corps you won’t find a whole lot of names. A chunk of that is privacy, but a lot of that is just that, like the people on the Lake Tanganyika expedition, the people I met were more or less the background to my own adventures. In the link above (here it is again) where I mention the Battle of Lake Tanganyika, I was myself travelling to the lake to find a ship (the remains of one anyways). The people in that story don’t have names (even the ones that helped me along the way), and in that telling I treated them more has a hindrance to one white guy trying to find the material legacy of other white guys on their turf. I still have some lessons to learn.
This photo is from the Nile river, not Lake Tanganyika, but I like dhows.