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White Man's Palaver
on 10 December 2010
This is a scholarly and at times gripping history of the fighting in East Africa during WW1. Events are related in more or less chronological order, with interpolated chapters on such subjects as Belgian and Portuguese colonial politics; the impact of hostilities on the development of apartheid in South Africa; the intensifying propaganda war between Britain and Germany; German attempts to stir up a jihad among the Muslim population of North Africa; and the difficulties of keeping troops supplied over the almost impossible terrain, all of which help to set the campaign in context. The nightmarish consequences for the indigenous civilian population of "White Man's Palaver", and of the Spanish flu pandemic which followed on its heels, form a sombre epilogue.
Although Paice now and again indulges a fondness for labyrinthine sentences, I really can't agree with the reviewers who found his writing style "dry" or "Victorian". His descriptions of the major engagements are lively and full of interesting detail; his account of the end of the Koenigsberg is positively thrilling, even if you do know the outcome beforehand. Tedium inevitably creeps in as the Allies doggedly pursue von Lettow-Forbeck for two years across thousands of miles, but his final surrender two weeks after the end of the war in Europe, and his inability to believe the disaster that had overtaken the Fatherland, are related with real pathos.
Paice provides some welcome balance to the myth of von Lettow-Vorbeck, highlighting his frequently overlooked failures as well as his successes. And, while after the war von Lettow-Vorbeck would boast of the loyalty of "Germany's Africans", Paice notes: "At least 300,000 civilians are thought to have perished in Ruanda, Urundi and German East Africa as a direct result of the German authorities' conduct of the war... and by the time British administrators and troops occupied the former German colonies they were already, in effect, little more than slave states." We Brits may take pride in the fact that, although our colonial record wasn't much better than anyone else's, at least we had the grace to feel vaguely guilty about it from time to time.
As for the offending opening paragraph of Chapter 2, this begins: "Sir Henry Conway Belfield, the Governor of British East Africa, had not only the appearance but also the dwindling faculties and preoccupation with health matters of a much-loved grandfather." I don't know about you, but this strikes me as rather charming pen-portrait. Now I must go and trim my bushy walrus moustache.