Lake Steamers of East Africa

Reading this week:

  • Vanishing Fleece by Clara Parkes

As has been discussed many times on this blog before I am a sucker for steamships on Lake Tanganyika. Also discussed is the fact that there are probably two whole books in the world about these steamships, and they are both extremely difficult to get one’s hands on for less than a notable amount of money. The first of these books was Steam and Quinine which I managed to get from Yale. The second book about the lake steamers of east Africa is of course The Lake Steamers of East Africa by L.G. “Bill” Dennis, and the only place within a few hundred miles of me that has a copy is the Library of Congress, which actually is very convenient once you know what to do. I did not used to know what to do! But I do now.

The most confusing part of getting a reading card at the Library of Congress is finding the room. It’s not that complicated, there are signs everywhere, except I missed the elevator but eventually I recovered. Or at least that was the most complicated part for me, for others it was apparently filling out the online form despite all the people who tell you to fill out the online form, but the guy making the readers cards took it all in stride. You need a reading card to read any of the books at the Library of Congress, but it is not my sense that a majority of people who actually get cards read any books or even use it twice, but just want to go in and check out the main reading room from the ground floor. It is gorgeous and this is a good use of time. After I got my reading card I proudly walked into the main reading room and very much did not know what to do to actually do any reading, but one of the very friendly and very helpful librarians who clearly gets this question all the time walked me through the process, which is you request an item online and ask for it to be delivered to the main reading room. Then it takes at least an hour for it to arrive but that’s okay because they had wifi. Once your book arrives you go pick it up from the other nice librarian person and then find a desk to sit at and then you can read all about lake steamers to your heart’s content!!!

Anyways this post was meant to be a book review, because I might as well review all both books about lake steamers on the African great lakes, but I vacillated between that and writing about my Library of Congress experience which is what the above paragraph was about. The Lake Steamers of East Africa is pretty good. It is a much different book from Steam and Quinine, which was somewhat more about the romance of steaming around on the great lakes and also much more about the paintings that are reproduced in the book. Lake Steamers has a number of small historical photographs throughout it, like the one at the top or the diagram below of the Kingani:

The reason both of these pictures look so bad here is sheer hubris. Since one time I managed to “scan” several things at home with good lighting using only my phone camera, I was like “oh I can just take pictures of these on my phone and it’ll look great,” but it doesn’t look great, and I am sorry. I have since discovered that the Library of Congress has fancy self-service overhead book scanner thingies, but you gotta bring your own USB flash drive, so in the future my Library of Congress book reproductions might be better (maybe!). Anyways. Like I said Steam and Quinine is about the romance of steaming around on the lakes, but Lake Steamers is much more about the history of commercial steamship operations on the great lakes. It is ordered chronologically (unlike Steam and Quinine), so information on Lake Tanganyika is scattered throughout instead of being lumped into its own chapter. But a relatively small portion of the book is about Lake Tang; this is due to there not being a whole lot of commercial steamship history of Lake Tanganyika, especially compared to Lakes Nyassa and Victoria. But what it does have is very in-depth. For example, it has a detailed description of the raising of the Goetzen/Liemba, only a small part of which is below:

The German ship Goetzen had to be raised. In early December, 1922, a small salvage party assembled at Kigoma under Commander Kerr, assisted by Commander Sharp, both late Royal Navy and both resident in Kenya. The technical adviser was Mr. J. Shepherd, previously holding the same position in Dar es Salaam during operations on the sunken dock in that harbor…

Using the leaky pontoons an attempt was made to lift the vessel, although when the bow rose to the surface, the ship turned onto its starboard side. She was allowed to sink again and later righted. Extra steel pontoons were fabricated using the few tools available, but even with these the stern stayed down in eleven fathoms of water. It was not before the divers had entered the engine room to seal the shaft-tunnel door enabling a deeper airlock towards the stern that the salvage was successful on the 16th of March, 1924… The reconditioning had cost £30,000 and she earned her first revenue thirteen years after launching.

It also contains a chart of every ship launched on the lakes, including name, type, builder, launch date and location and other details. The author did not neglect color however::

The whole of Sunday was spent loading and off-loading at M’pulungu, Northern Rhodesia and was a great day for the European inhabitants of the surrounding region who drove up to two hundred miles from copper mining areas for a day on the Liemba, the early arrivals boarding by ten o’clock. The bar was open all day, lunch was served from twelve onwards and it was not unusual by five o’clock to see lunch being served in one part of the saloon or tea elsewhere. Some eighty miles inland and upward is the town of Abercorn, where history has it that a resident of the local Abercorn Arms died and was not found for four days when the room maid turned up.

So all in all a pretty good book despite some passages reading a little less woke than they could, frankly, and it is a crime it did not get a second printing or more specifically a crime that I haven’t located an extremely cheap copy in my neighborhood used bookstore. But until then there will always be the Library of Congress.