Reading this week:
- Gravel Heart by Abdulrazak Gurnah
We’re going to venture into all new territory for this blog and do a book review. The book in question is timely and relevant to our discussions here on this blog, which as my myriad loyal readers are aware has lately (though unlikely permanently) become more and more focused on the activities of the London Missionary Society in Central Africa. I promise I have other interests, which have also been documented on this blog, but it is winter and I am a working professional man now and Tim Harford tells me it is good to have serious hobbies so here we are.
One of the things I like about reading into the history of the London Missionary Society and especially the history of their steamer the Good News is that there is not a lot of competition in the space. There are a few other people I have found who have looked into all this which makes it interesting but it’s not like it takes all that much research to rocket to the top echelons of the field. However, the other edge of this sword is that it can make it difficult to access research items. One such item is the subject of today’s book review: Steam and Quinine on Africa’s Great Lakes: The story of the steamers white and gold on Africa’s inland waters by David Reynolds, with illustrations by Keith Watts Thomas.
Given the overall lack of interest in the topic, it is a little stunning that two books were published detailing the lake steamers of Africa in close order, namely The Lake Steamers of East Africa by L.G. Bill Dennis in 1996, and Steam and Quinine in 1997. Unfortunately, it doesn’t appear that either book got a second edition, and although there are copies of Steam and Quinine on sale for $60ish, I haven’t been able to find a copy of Lake Steamers except over in the Library of Congress. Fortunately for us, however, the Yale University Library is still willing to mail me books, which is how I got my grubby little hands on a copy of Steam and Quinine for us to peruse.
This book is clearly a work of passion for our friend David Reynolds. His biography on the back reveals he “was born to missionary parents near the shores of Lake Victoria in 1932” and completed his education in South Africa. This was his third book about African boats, the first being A Century of South African Steam Tugs (which apparently got three (!) editions) and Kenneth D. Shoesmith and Royal Mail, Royal Mail being a shipping line. This is clearly a man after my own heart, when it comes to steamships at any rate.
Although my specific interest in this book are the boats of Lake Tanganyika, and even more specifically as mentioned the Good News, he covers all the great lakes (Nyasa/Malawi, Tanganyika, Kivu, Albert, Victoria, and the honestly not-so-great Kioga) in a northward fashion. My expertise in this area is targeted, but I haven’t spotted any steamships (or some motor ships) that he missed, making this a very comprehensive review of steam navigation on the African Great Lakes. He does, however, devote more space attention to the boats that pique his personal interest, but honestly what is the point of being passionate about something if you’re not going to devote way too much space to it? *cough* this whole blog *cough*
But let’s circle back to my specific interest, the Good News. Honestly I gotta say this section does not come through shining. I think we’re both partisans here, but I am a much bigger fan (or devotee anyways) of Edward C. Hore than he is. Mr. Reynolds spends a good chunk of time maligning Captain Hore’s character, ending his biography with the note that Hore “died, impoverished and institutionalized, in Tasmania.” According to research published by Dr. G. Rex Meyer (kindly provided to me by the former editor of the unfortunately defunct Church Heritage journal), the only part of that sentence that is true is that he a) died b) in Tasmania, which for me throws much doubt onto his scholarship overall.
Although a feature of the book are paintings of several of the ships by Keith Watts Thomas, the book is also illustrated with sketches by David Reynolds. One of these sketches is of the Good News, included above. I have another nit-pick here. In his sketch, the ship is depicted with a sort of wheelhouse on top of the main cabin. Being as there are a limited number of pictures of the Good News and I have tried hard to see all of them, I think you, the reader, will agree with me that the sketch is derived from the below picture of the Good News in drydock. The ship that Mr. Reynolds has sketched does not match the layout of the real ship at all, which again puts me in fear for his scholarship, on my favorite boat anyways. The below picture isn’t perfect and shows a Good News under repair (for example, it is missing the booms and funnel), but I have also included below an engraving of the Good News under steam from Captain Hore’s book, Tanganyika: Eleven Years in Central Africa, which still doesn’t match the sketch.
I will try to avoid being entirely whiney here but noting that I did learn something intriguing about the eventual fate of the Toutou of Battle of Lake Tanganyika fame. This tidbit is hidden away in the section on the Graf von Goetzen / Liemba:
The Fifi, considered unserviceable, was towed out onto the lake and sunk in deep water on October 19, 1924. She went down with flags flying and all honours. The Toutou did not last long on the lake. She was transferred to Cape Town and could be seen in the Victoria docks with a brightly polished plate in her cockpit which read: ‘This launch served in the East African Campaign as an armed cruiser. Captured and sank three German gunboats with assistance of her sister launch, Mi Mi.’
This means now I gotta get my butt to Cape Town and see if she isn’t still there. Or better yet, anyone in Cape Town already?
All in all if you want to get one book on the steamships that plied the African great lakes, honestly I’m not sure what book to recommend because there are astonishingly two and I haven’t read the other one. Though then again only one of them appears to actually be available. Though then again again the available one is like $60 and I’m not sure I can recommend it at that price. Then again again again they aren’t making more. I don’t know. It was at times a tedious and at times a very entertaining read, and as I said at the top a lot of passion went into it. I guess to conclude, please enjoy this final image I extracted from the book, the masthead of the African Lakes Corporation: