A crackly audio recording made in the 1980s is one of the few direct links left to the African soldiers and auxiliaries who served Britain in the first world war. It provides a chilling insight into their experience, which saw an estimated 50,000 Africans in labour units die from disease and other causes.
The recording contains the voice of a former porter who was working alongside the King’s African Rifles in east Africa. He described how his job was to carry boxes of bullets and as they walked, there were dead bodies lying on the road. Exhausted, he decided to rest but he was found by a superior, punished and beaten. He later escaped and lived to tell recount his experience.
David Lammy MP played the clip in Unremembered, a 2019 TV documentary investigating the hundreds of thousands of missing war graves of soldiers from the British empire which helped spark the Commonwealth War Graves Commission investigation.
In southern Kenya, Mwamkon Mwavaka, whose grandfather Chichole served the British army as a porter in the war transporting supplies to the frontline, told how he has no idea where his ancestor’s body might be and described the sometimes violent conscription of recruits.
“They were taken whether they liked it or not,” Mwavaka said. “They would beat them to submission. When he was killed they shaved his hair and brought it home to us. Only the hair was brought”.
There is no grave and no memorial for his grandfather.
With no monuments, the names of the fallen are by definition hard to trace, but Prof Michèle Barrett of Queen Mary University London, who is a leading expert in the field, found an intriguing record of some.
She unearthed a list of “native African soldiers” who had died and whose deaths were to be logged one of only three such war memorials in Africa. There was Aidi from the King’s African Rifles who died on 19 December 1918, Anjala who died on 18 May that year and Asadi Bantubalm who died on 11 November 1918, Armistice Day. There were also Muchana, Okama and Petrop Kantual – but we do not know where any of their bodies lie.
The list made clear that the plan was to commemorate them on a memorial, not by name, but rather numerically. In the event, the memorial erected in Dar Es Salaam did not even include the number of dead. Instead it included an inscription that described the carriers as “the feet and hands of the army”.
As he travelled Kenya and Tanzania, Lammy was troubled by the absence of memorials to African soldiers and auxiliaries. In Voi, southern Kenya, where the so-called “carrier corps” gathered in the war, he found the residents today lobbying for a war memorial and a museum to the fallen.
In Dar Es Salaam, what was a large carrier corps cemetery is now a dusty wasteland with no markings. How that was allowed to happen is suggested in War Graves Commission meeting minutes from shortly after the war, found by Barrett, which states that the governor for the area “considered that the vast carrier corps cemeteries at Dar Es Salaam and elsewhere should be allowed to revert to nature as speedily as possible”.
“It breaks my heart that this is their cemetery,” Lammy said. “There has to be some atonement, some reckoning.”
Source: The Guardian