November 25, 1841 The Slave Ship Amistad

In arguing the case United States v. Schooner Amistad, former President John Quincy Adams took the position that no man, woman, or child in the United States could ever be sure of the “blessing of freedom”, if the President could hand over free men on the demand of a foreign government.

By 1839, the international slave trade was illegal in most countries while the “peculiar institution” of slavery, was not. In April of that year, five or six hundred Africans were illegally purchased by a Portuguese slave trader and shipped to Havana, aboard the slave ship Teçora.

Fifty-three members of the Mende people of West Africa, were sold to Joseph Ruiz and Pedro Montez, who planned to use them on their Cuban sugar plantation. The Mendians were given Spanish names and designated “black ladinos,” fraudulently documenting the 53 to have always lived as slaves, in Cuba. In June, Ruiz and Montez placed the Africans on board the schooner la Amistad, (“Friendship”), and set sail down the Cuban coast to Puerto del Principe.

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Replica of the slave ship, Amistad

The Africans were brought in chains to Teçora but chains were judged unnecessary for the short coastal trip, aboard Amistad.  On the second day at sea, two Mendians were whipped for an unauthorized trip, to the water cask.  One of them asked where they were being taken.  The ship’s cook responded.  They were to be killed, and eaten.

That mocking response would cost the cook, his life.

On the second night at sea, captives armed with cane knives seized control of the ship, led by Sengbe Pieh, also known as Joseph Cinqué. The Africans killed the ship’s Captain and the cook, losing two of their own, in the struggle.  Montez was seriously injured while Ruiz and a cabin boy named Antonio, were captured and bound.  The rest of the crew, escaped in a boat.

The mulatto cabin boy who really was a black ladino, would be used as translator.

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Mendians forced the two to return to their homeland but the Africans, were betrayed.  By day, the two would steer east, toward the African coast.  By night when the position of the sun could mot be seen, the pair would turn north.  Toward the United States.

After 60 days at sea, Amistad came aground off Montauk on Long Island Sound, when several Africans came ashore, for water.  The ship was apprehended by a US Coastal Survey brig under the command of Thomas Gedney and Richard Meade.  Meanwhile on shore, Henry Green and Pelatiah Fordham (the two had nothing to do with the Washington), captured the Africans who had come ashore.

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This print depicting Joseph Cinqué appeared in The New York Sun newspaper, August 31, 1839

Amistad was piloted to New London Connecticut, still a slave state at that time.  The Africans were placed under the custody of United States marshals.

Both the slave trade and slavery itself were legal according to Spanish law at this time, while the former was illegal, in the United States.   The Spanish Ambassador demanded the return of Ruiz’ and Montez’ “property”, asserting the matter should be settled under Spanish law.  American President Martin van Buren agreed but, by that time, the matter had fallen under court jurisdiction.

Gedney and Meade of the Washington sued under salvage laws for a portion of the Amistad’s cargo, as did Green and Fordham.  Ruiz and Montez sued separately.  The district court trial in Hartford determined the Mendians’ papers to be forged.  These were now former slaves  entitled to be returned, to Africa.

Antonio was ruled to have been a slave all along and ordered returned to the Cubans.  He fled to New York with the help of white abolitionists and lived out the rest of his life, as a free man.

Fearing the loss of pro-slavery political support, President van Buren ordered government lawyers to appeal the case up to the United States Supreme Court.  The government case depended on the anti-piracy provision of a treaty then in effect between the United States, and Spain.

A former President, son of a Founding Father and eloquent opponent of slavery, John Quincy Adams argued the case, in a trial beginning on George Washington’s birthday, 1841.

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In United States v. Schooner Amistad, the Supreme Court upheld the decision of the lower court 8-1, ruling that the Africans had been detained illegally,  and ordering them returned to their homeland.

John Tyler, a pro slavery Whig, was President by this time. Tyler refused to provide a ship or to fund the repatriation.  Abolitionists and Christian missionaries did the work, 35 surviving Mendians departing for Sierra Leone on November 25, 1841 aboard the ship, Gentleman.

Back in Sierra Leone, some of the Africans helped establish a Christian mission.  Most including Joseph Cinque himself, returned to homelands in the African interior. One survivor, a little girl when it all started by the name of Margru, returned to the United States where she studied at Ohio’s integrated Oberlin College, before returning to Sierra Leone as the Christian missionary, Sara Margru Kinson.

In arguing the case, President Adams took the position that no man, woman, or child in the United States could ever be sure of the “blessing of freedom”, if the President could hand over free men on the demand of a foreign government.

152 years later, President Bill Clinton, Deputy Attorney General Eric Holder and AG Janet Reno orchestrated the kidnap of six-year-old Elián González at gunpoint, returning him  to Cuba over the body of the mother who drowned bringing the boy to freedom.

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October 20, 1952 Get Out! Get Out!

Colonial Governor Evelyn Baring declared a state of emergency on this day in 1952, arresting hundreds of suspected leaders of the uprising. Reason and restraint seemed to have fled the land of Kenya, judging by the events that followed.

By the mid 1940s, British Colonial rule over the Kikuyu people of Kenya stretched out, for nearly fifty years.  Politically, Kenyan Africans broke into three blocs in those days.  First came the conservatives, who tended to support the status quo.  Next were moderate nationalists, those who sought an orderly return to indigenous rule over African soil. Last were the radical nationalists. This last group stood for African rule, Right Now, no matter the cost.

The first attempt to form a country-wide political party began in 1944, with the formation of the KASU, the Kenya Africa Study Union.  KASU was anti-colonial from the beginning, becoming increasingly radicalized through the World War 2 period and into the late 1940s.

The violent uprising of the early 1950s was called “Mau Mau”, an anagram of Uma Uma, roughly translating as “Get out, Get out”.

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The first “blow against the Colonial regime” was struck on October 3, 1952, when a white woman was stabbed to death near her home in Thika, in the Kiambu County of Kenya.  Senior Chief Waruhiu wa Kungu was shot to death in his car less than a week later.

Governor Evelyn Baring declared a state of emergency on October 20, arresting hundreds of suspected leaders of the uprising.

Reason and restraint seemed to have fled the land, judging by the events that followed. Thousands of black Africans were hacked, burned or shot to death by Mau Mau militants, many mutilated and horribly tortured before death. Militants attacked the settlement of Lari on the night of March 25-26, herding Kikiyu men, women and children into huts before setting the whole thing, on fire.  Anyone who tried to escape was hacked with machetes, and thrown back into the flames.

The scene played out on dozens of occasions. Massacres were met with retaliatory raids by African security forces, at least partially overseen by British commanders.  There was even an instance biological warfare, when Mau Mau radicals used the poisonous milk of the African milk bush, to kill cattle.

Displeased with the government’s response to the uprising, settler groups formed their own “Kenya Police Reserve’s Special Branch”. God help the unlucky militant who fell into Their hands.

Black Africans were victims of most of the violence, with fatalities numbering into the thousands. Combined with those who simply “disappeared”, the number ran into the tens of thousands by the time the violence subsided in 1956. 62 Asians, predominantly Indians, were also killed, along with 58 whites.

3EECA77200000578-4378158-image-a-31_1491295237197.jpgBarack Obama wrote in his memoir “Dreams from my Father”, that his grandfather Hussein Onyango Obama was captured and tortured by British authorities during the Mau Mau uprising. The now-former President wrote that his father was “selected by Kenyan leaders and American sponsors to attend a university in the United States, joining the first large wave of Africans to be sent forth to master Western technology and bring it back to forge a new, modern Africa“.

The elder Obama’s real history seems to differ from the public version, though the American media is remarkably quiet on the subject. The UK Daily Mail reports, under the headline “Obama’s grandfather tortured by the British? A fantasy (like most of the President’s own memoir)“, that Onyango was inclined to create “[H]istory to conform with the image he wished for himself…Following on from his forebears on both sides”.

DnMaumau1209kdIf you’re interested in a little pop culture sauce to go with this turkey, the Mau Mau uprising inspired a number of similar rebellions throughout the region. One of them occurred in the East African coastal city of Zanzibar.

Thousands of Arabs and Indians were murdered in the 1964 Zanzibar rebellion, while thousands more fled for their lives.

Among those to escape were Bomi and Jer Bulsara, along with their 17-year-old son, Farrokh. The Bulsaras were Parsis from the Gujarat region of India, who had sent Farrokh to piano lessons from the age of 7. By the time he was 12, the boy had formed a school band, called “The Hectics”.

Farrokh was attending St. Peter’s boarding school at the time of the rebellion, and calling himself “Freddie”.

After fleeing Zanzibar, the family settled in Feltham, Middlesex, in England. Freddie Bulsara resumed his studies while joining in a series of bands throughout the late sixties. First “Ibex”, then “Wreckage” and finally, “Sour Milk Sea”.

In April 1970, Bulsara changed his name to “Mercury”, forming a band with guitarist Brian May, bassist John Deacon and drummer Roger Taylor. The group went on to record 18 #1 rock music albums, 18 #1 singles and 10 #1 DVDs. The group sold close to 300 million albums, being inducted into the Rock & Roll Music Hall of Fame in 2001, as “Queen”.

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Feature image, top of page:  Kenyan revolutionary leader Musa Mwariama (Right), the highest-ranking Mau Mau leader to survive the war, celebrates Independence with Prime minister Jomo Kenyatta. ca May, 1963.

March 20 1870 The Lion of Africa

The Lion of Africa, the German officer and conquering hero of WW1, who once told the upstart Adolf Hitler to perform an anatomically improbable act.

Paul Emil von Lettow-Vorbeck was born into minor Prussian Nobility on this day in 1870. Joining the Corps of Cadets as a teenager, Lettow-Vorbeck worked his way up the German Imperial Army chain of command, becoming a general by 1914.

general-paul-von-lettow-vorbeckAt the outset of the “Great War”, a map of Africa looked nothing like it does today. From the Belgian Congo to Italian Somaliland, most of the continent was carved into colonies of the various European powers. France, Britain, Germany, Italy, Portugal, Belgium and Spain.  All administered parts of the African continent.

Stationed in German East Africa and knowing that his sector would be little more than a side show in the greater war effort, Lettow-Vorbeck determined to tie up as many of his adversaries as possible.

With a force never exceeding 14,000 (3,000 Germans and 11,000 Askari warriors), “Der Löwe von Afrika” tied up as many as 300,000 British, Belgian, and Portuguese troops, who wore themselves out in the pursuit.

Like the famous Lawrence of Arabia, Lettow-Vorbeck became a master of guerrilla warfare. He never lost a single battle, though it was not unheard of for combatants to break and flee a charging elephant or rhinoceros.

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To his adversaries, disease and parasites were often more dangerous than enemy soldiers. In one month (July, 1916) Allied non-battle casualties ran 31 to 1 compared with combat-related injuries.

In 1956, Brazilian scientists attempted to cross African honey bees with indigenous varieties, to produce an insect better suited to the South American tropics.  Today, we call the results of these failed experiments “Africanized” or “killer” bees.

Askari-on-MarchAt one point in the battle for Tanga (November 7-8, 1914), a British landing force and their Sepoy allies were routed and driven back to the sea by millions of African bees, disturbed by rifle and machine gun fire. There’s a story about a British radioman, I don’t know if it’s true.  This guy held his station, directing the evacuation from the beach while being stung to death by thousands of angry bees. He would be posthumously awarded the Victoria Cross for “gallantry under aerial attack”.

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Lettow-Vorbeck surrendering his forces to the British at Abercorn, as drawn by an African artist. H/T Wikipedia

Returning home after the war, Vorbeck was greeted as a conquering hero.  Of all German commanders in World War One, “der Löwe von Afrika” (the Lion of Africa) alone remained undefeated in the field.  The only German commander to successfully invade imperial British soil during the Great War.

General Paul von Lettow-Vorbeck

Lettow-Vorbeck developed a deep distrust of the upstart Adolf Hitler. When then-Chancellor Hitler offered him an ambassadorship to the Court of St. James in 1935, Lettow-Vorbeck told Hitler to go “f**k yourself.” Describing the interview afterward, Lettow’s nephew explained “That’s right, except that I don’t think he put it that politely.

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Following such a blunt refusal, Lettow-Vorbeck was kept under continual surveillance by the Nazi regime. His home and office were searched, his person subject to constant harassment. The Lion of Africa was destitute by the end of WWII. His two sons killed in service to the Wehrmacht, his home in Bremen destroyed by Allied bombs.

For a time, Vorbeck lived on food packages from British Intelligence Officer Richard Meinertzhagen and South African Field Marshal Jan Christiaan Smuts, two of his former adversaries in the East Africa campaign.  It was a token of the respect these two had, for a man who had once been their enemy.

letvorIn 1964, the year Lettow-Vorbeck died, the Bundestag voted to give back pay to former African warriors who had fought with German forces in WWI. Some 350 elderly Ascaris showed up. A few could produce certificates given them back in 1918, some had scraps of old uniforms.  Precious few could prove their former service to the German Empire.

The German banker who had brought the money had an idea. As each man stepped forward, he was handed a broom and ordered to perform the German manual of arms. Not one man failed the test.

Lettow-Vorbeck formed a lifelong friendship during his time in Africa, with the Danish author Karen Blixen, best known by her pen name Isak Dinesen, author of “Out of Africa”. Years later, Blixen recalled, “He belonged to the olden days, and I have never met another German who has given me so strong an impression of what Imperial Germany was and stood for”.

 

massaquoiA Trivial Matter
Following years of colonial, military and diplomatic interaction, romantic relationships between Germans and Africans, were inevitable. Though rare as hen’s teeth, Adolf Hitler’s Reich included the children of such relationships. One such was Hans J. Massaquoi, a self-described “kinky-haired, brown-skinned, eight-year-old boy amid a sea of blonde and blue-eyed kids filled with patriotism”. Though prohibited from joining by racial “purity” laws, the eight-year-old Hans was entirely caught up in the excitement of the Hitler Youth.
Mr. Massaquoi tells his unusual and fascinating story in Destined to Witness: Growing Up Black in Nazi Germany.

March 12, 1894  The Real Thing

Over 400,000 calls and letters came into company headquarters, complaining about the change.  One note was addressed to “Chief Dodo, The Coca-Cola Company”. Another letter asked for Goizueta’s autograph, since the signature of “one of the dumbest executives in American business history”

By the 19th century, Europeans had long believed natural mineral waters held medicinal qualities, and favored the beverages over often polluted common drinking water. British chemist Joseph Priestley invented a means of carbonating water in 1772.  Jacob Schweppe’s Geneva, Switzerland company was bottling the stuff by the 1780s. The first soda water manufacturer in the US was Yale University chemist Benjamin Silliman in 1807, though it was Joseph Hawkins of Baltimore who secured the first US patent, in 1809.

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At first sold for their therapeutic value, consumers increasingly bought carbonated beverages for refreshment. By the time of the Civil War, “soft drinks” were flavored with ginger, vanilla, fruits, roots, herbs, and countless other flavorings. The first cola drink appeared in 1881.

In 1865, Confederate Cavalry officer John Stith Pemberton was wounded by a saber slash across his chest at the Battle of Columbus, Georgia. Like many wounded veterans, Pemberton became addicted to the morphine given him, to help ease the pain. A chemist in civil life, Pemberton experimented with painkillers to take the place of opiates, landing on a combination of the coca plant and kola nut in 1886.

Vicksburg, Mississippi pharmacist Joseph Biedenharn installed bottling equipment in the back of his soda fountain and sold the first bottles of Coca Cola on March 12, 1894.

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The most famous rivalry in the soft drink business began in the 1930s, when Pepsi offered a 12oz bottle for the same 5¢ as Coca Cola’s six ounces.

The Coca Cola Company’s flagship brand had a 60% share by the end of WWII, but that declined to less than 24% by the early 80s, most of the difference lost to Pepsi and their “Pepsi challenge” blind taste test promotions of the late 70s.

cola_taste_test_300x352By the 80s, market analysts believed that baby boomers were likely to switch to diet drinks as they aged, and any growth in the full calorie segment was going to come from younger consumers who preferred the sweeter taste of Pepsi.

Roberto Goizueta came on board as Coca Cola Company CEO in 1980, saying that there would be “no sacred cows” among their products. He meant it. The company launched the top secret “Project Kansas”, to test and perfect the flavor for a new version of Coke. The company’s marketing department fanned out holding taste tests, surveys, and focus groups.

Early results were favorable, the newer, sweeter mixture overwhelmingly beating both Pepsi and Coke itself. Most tasters said that they would buy the product, but a small minority of 10–12% were angry and alienated at the very thought of it. This small percentage was adamant. They would stop drinking Coke products altogether, and they frequently swayed other members of their focus groups.

The way things turned out, the company should have listened to this group a little more carefully.

On an April Friday in 1985, Coke let the media know that a major announcement was coming the following Tuesday. Coca Cola officials spent a busy weekend preparing the re-launch, while Pepsi Executives announced a company-wide holiday, taking out a full page New York Times ad crowing “Pepsi had Won the Cola Wars“.

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Skepticism was high on the day of the Big Announcement. Reporters were fed questions by Pepsi officials, and Goizueta fumbled, refusing to state the reason for the change. He certainly wasn’t going to give Pepsi any credit for their performance in taste tests, explaining “[It’s] smoother, uh, uh, rounder yet, uh, yet bolder…a more harmonious flavor“.

The backlash was soon in coming, and closely tracked earlier focus group results. Atlanta based Coca Cola’s southern customers described the change as another surrender to the “Yankees”.  Consumers filled basements with the old Coke.  One man in San Antonio bought $1,000 worth.

“Protesters at a Coca-Cola event in downtown Atlanta in May carried signs with “We want the real thing” and “Our children will never know refreshment.”” – Coca-cola.com

Over 400,000 calls and letters came into company headquarters, complaining about the change.  One note was addressed to “Chief Dodo, The Coca-Cola Company“. Goizueta himself said the worst part, was the letter made it to him!  Another letter asked for Goizueta’s autograph, since the signature of “one of the dumbest executives in American business history” would probably be worth a fortune. Critics proclaimed the “marketing blunder of the century” while frazzled customer service representatives fielded fifteen hundred angry calls, a day.   A psychiatrist hired to listen in on calls, told executives some callers sounded as if they were mourning the death of a family member.

max_headroom_1986Even Max Headroom and his “C-c-c-catch the wave!” couldn’t save the company.

Ads for “New Coke” were booed at the Houston Astrodome, while Pepsi ran ads in which smiling first-time Pepsi drinkers said “Now I know why Coke did it!”

Even Fidel Castro weighed in, calling the change a sign of capitalist decadence.

Company President Donald Keough knew it was over, on a visit to the Mediterranean Principality of Monaco. A small restaurant owner proudly said that he had “the real thing, it’s a real Coke,” offering Keough’s party a bottle of the old stuff.

The 1985 return of the old brand led two network news broadcasts, and hit the front page of nearly every newspaper, in the country.  “New Coke” became “Coke II” and quietly disappeared, from store shelves.  One reporter asked Keough if the whole thing had been a publicity stunt. Keough’s answer was itself, a classic. “We’re not that dumb,” he said, “and we’re not that smart”.

 

A Trivial Matter

Coke makes so many different beverages if you drank one per day, it would take you over 9 years to try them all. Coca-Cola’s $35.1 billion in revenue makes it the 84th largest economy in the world, just ahead of Costa Rica. H/T gkfacts.in

December 17, 1865 Horrors of the Congo

Rubber plantations took space and clear-cutting old-growth rain forest took time, so the king’s agents drove villagers from their homes, to fend for themselves. Problem solved, instant space for the most important cash crop, of the era.

President Robert Mugabe of Zimbabwe once orchestrated the murder of 20,000 civilians from a single province, after failing to receive a single vote. Josef Stalin deliberately starved as many as ten million Ukrainians to death, in a political “terror famine” known as the Holodomor. Pol Pot and a revolutionary socialist cadre of nine – the Ang-Ka – killed between 1.7 and 2.5 million fellow citizens of late 1970s Cambodia: about 1/5th of the entire population. Mao Tse-Tung’s policies and political purges killed between 49 and 78 million of his own citizens, between 1949 and 1976.

You’re really playing in the Big Leagues, when they can’t get your body count any closer than the nearest thirty million.

From Adolf Hitler to Idi Amin, the top ten dictators of the last 150 years account for the loss of nearly 150 million souls. We remember the names of these people, or most of them, as some of the great monsters of history.

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December 10 1892 satirical cartoon depicts Cecil Rhodes as the New Colossus bestriding the continent, from Cape Town to Cairo. Hat tip, Punch

Yet, one man escapes notice, though his crimes rival and even exceed the worst atrocities carried out by twentieth century dictators. He is King Leopold II of Belgium.  For nearly thirty years, the undisputed slave master of a personal plantation some 76-times the size of Belgium itself, and run for the personal enrichment of this one man.

As late as 1870, the European powers controlled barely ten percent of the African continent, with most of those holdings, along the coast.  By the outbreak of the Great War in 1914, only Ethiopia and Liberia remained independent of European control.

From German East Africa to Italian Somaliland, most of the continent was carved into colonies of the various European powers, administered by governments in France, Britain, Germany, Italy, Portugal and Spain.

Leopold II ascended to the throne to become King of the Belgians on this day in 1865. Like most of the statesmen of the era, Leopold was convinced that a nation’s greatness, lay in proportion to its overseas empire. He first cast his gaze on the Philippines, then a Spanish possession, but negotiations broke down when Queen Isabella II was deposed in the “Glorious Revolution” of 1868.

Leopold next set his sights on Africa.  Henry Morton Stanley may never have ‘presumed’ to meet up with Dr. Livingstone in “Darkest Africa”, had it not been for the personal assistance of one Tippu Tip, the most powerful of Zanzibar’s Arab slave traders. This was an execrable lot, Stanley himself once lamented the lack of a heavy machine gun, on witnessing the abject misery of 2,300 unfortunates, held captive by these people: “Would to God I could see my way to set them all free and massacre the fiends guilty of the indescribable inhumanity I have seen today.

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His Majesty, King Leopold II of Belgium

Leopold buttressed what was at fist a weak position with an alliance with the Arab slave trader, and later raised an army of Congolese mercenaries, to wrest control. The two year Congo-Arab war was a proxy war, fought mostly by native Congolese aligned with one side or the other, and sometimes switching sides.

Leopold emerged victorious from this Imperial double-cross, and set about reorganizing his mercenaries into a Force Publique, charged with enforcing his will across a region three-times the size of Texas and cynically called, “The Congo Free State”.

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Portrait of Tippu Tip, House of Wonders Museum, Stone Town, Zanzibar.

Leopold’s Congo was divided into districts for the purpose of extracting all the region could produce, in ivory, gold, diamonds, rubber, and more.   Provincial governors were paid by commission, and press-ganged enormous numbers of Congolese into agricultural labor, or worked them to death in the mines.

Entire ecosystems were denuded of large animals, as beaters in the hundreds or thousands drove ivory-bearing elephants by raised shooting platforms, where European “hunters” awaited, armed with a dozen rifles apiece.

Rubber plantations took space and clear-cutting old-growth rain forest took time, so the King’s agents drove villagers from their homes, to fend for themselves. Problem solved, instant space for the most important cash crop, of the era.

The greed of these overseers is hard to get one’s head around. Failure to meet quotas for gold or ivory would be met with mutilation, most often taking the form of amputation of a foot, or a hand. If a man needed both hands to work or if he couldn’t be caught, hands and feet would be cut from his wife, or his children.

While the King never personally set foot on African soil, the savagery inflicted on the Congolese by Leopold’s agents has been compared with the Mongol rampage across Asia, of a thousand years prior.  It’s impossible to know how many died of overwork, starvation or disease, or the infection caused by mass amputations.  An estimated twenty million populated the Congo Free State in 1885. By the time of the 1924 census, that number had fallen to ten million, with no corresponding influx into neighboring regions.

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The Belgian government reluctantly took over administration in 1908, but the whippings and mutilations continued in Leopold’s Congo, long past the time of Leopold himself.  The wealth of the region continued to be siphoned off until Congolese independence, in 1971.

Today, the “Democratic Republic of Congo”, sometimes referred to by a former name of “Zaire”, has yet to recover.  The “Great African War” swept over the region in the 1990s, killing some six million and overturning one dictator in Kinshasa, for yet another.  The Tutsi genocide led by Hutu-militia in 1990s Rwanda, is familiar to the modern reader.

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“Nsala of Wala contemplates the severed hand and foot of his five-year-old daughter in 1904” – H/T Allthatsinteresting.com

Today, one of the most resource-rich regions in the world remains in abject poverty, with infant mortality twelve times higher and life expectancy 23 years shorter, than that in the United States.

Leopold II, King of the Belgians and at one time the largest landowner on the planet, died peacefully on December 17, 1909, forty four years to the day, from his coronation.

If you enjoyed this “Today in History”, please feel free to re-blog, “like” & share on social media, so that others may find and enjoy it as well. Please click the “follow” button on the right, to receive email updates on new articles.  Thank you for your interest, in the history we all share.

 

October 13, 1914 Signalman Jack

One day, a train passenger looked down and realized with horror, that a monkey was switching the tracks.

In the early days of the Great War, the formerly separate British colonies of the Cape, Natal, Transvaal and Orange River were united in the Union of South Africa, in support of the Allied war effort.

Public opinion was by no means, unanimous.  “Afrikaners” were bitterly opposed to alliance with the British.  The Jameson Raid and two Boer Wars were hard pills to swallow, and life-long friendships were cast asunder.  As former Generals of the second Boer War, Prime Minister Louis Botha and Defense Minister Jan Smuts had once fought the British.  Now, that was in the past.  Like many, the two men dreamed of a unified South Africa.

Anti-British rebellion broke out on this day in 1914, but was quickly put down by loyalist South Africans.  Before the war was over, some 136,000 of their countrymen would serve in the African, Middle East and Western Fronts of the Great War.

The story of World War 1 is intertwined with the history of rail.  The mobilization of millions in a matter of weeks, would have been impossible without the railroads which moved them.   WW1 could not  have happened the way it did, without rail.

(c) Piet Conradie Klipplaat 25-08-2009 e - SAR Class 15AR (R indicates reboilered) engine no 1840

South African recruits traveled rails begun in 1859, when early construction worked its way inland from deep-water ports and harbors. James Edwin Wide came to work for the South African railroad, about twenty years later.

Co-workers on the Cape Town–Port Elizabeth Railway service called him “Jumper” for his fondness of jumping between railway cars.  It was a regrettable habit, which would one day, cost him his legs.

After the accident, Wide’s railroad days seemed to be over.  Then a signalman’s job opened up. Wide would work the Uitenhage train station twenty-three miles outside of Port Elizabeth, switching the tracks for oncoming trains.

Trains would toot their whistle a specified number of times, telling the signalman which tracks to change.  The job suited him, pulling the levers is easy enough for a man with no legs.  Not so much, the half-mile walk to work.

jack-the-signalman3One day at an open-air market, the peg-legged signalman saw something that changed all that. It was a monkey, a Chacma baboon.

One of the largest of the “Old World” monkeys, a Chacma or “Cape” baboon is an intelligent animal. “Corporal Jackie” proved as much, during the “War to end all Wars”. This one was exceptionally so. This one was driving an oxcart.

Wide bought the animal and called him”Jack”, and taught him to pull his small trolley, up and down the line.  Jack was a help around the house, sweeping the floors and taking out the trash. He figured out the train signal and the switch thing too.  Soon, Jack was pulling on the levers, himself.

William Luff writes in The Railway Signal, that Wide “trained the baboon to such perfection that he was able to sit in his cabin stuffing birds, etc., while the animal, which was chained up outside, pulled all the levers and points.

One day, a train passenger looked down and realized with horror, that a monkey was switching the tracks. (It must have been fun to be in the complaint department, when That one came in).  Railroad managers were furious and could have fired signalman Wide, but decided to test his baboon, instead.

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Railway superintendent George Howe came away, astounded. “Jack knows the signal whistle as well as I do, also every one of the levers…It was very touching to see his fondness for his master. As I drew near they were both sitting on the trolley. The baboon’s arms round his master’s neck, the other stroking Wide’s face.”

Jack passed with flying colors.  Managers were so impressed they gave him the job, for real. “Signalman Jack” now had an employee number, and a salary of twenty cents per day, plus a half-bottle of beer, each week.  It isn’t clear what a baboon did with the money, though one suspects it may have purchased more than a few peanuts.

Signalman Jack worked the rail until the day he died of tuberculosis, in 1890.  A keyword search for railroad accidents between 1880 and ’89, the time-frame for this story, reveals a list of sixty-one serious incidents. In the nine years in which he was on the job, Signalman Jack made not one single mistake.

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March 20 1870 The Lion of Africa

With a force never exceeding 14,000 (3,000 Germans and 11,000 Askari warriors), “Der Löwe von Afrika” tied up as many as 300,000 British, Belgian and Portuguese troops, wearing them out in the pursuit.

When war broke out in 1914, a map of Africa looked nothing like it does today. From the Belgian Congo to Italian Somaliland, most of the continent was carved into colonies of the various European powers. France, Great Britain, Italy, Portugal, Belgium, Germany and Spain.  All administered parts of the African continent.

Paul Emil von Lettow-Vorbeck was born into minor Prussian Nobility on this day, in 1870. Joining the Corps of Cadets as a teenager, Lettow-Vorbeck worked his way up the German Imperial Army chain of command, becoming a general by the time of WWI.

paul-emil-von-lettow-vorbeck1_originalStationed in Deutsch-Ostafrika (German East Africa) and knowing that his sector would be little more than a side show to the greater war effort, Lettow-Vorbeck determined to tie up as many of his adversaries as possible.

With a force never exceeding 14,000 (3,000 Germans and 11,000 Askari warriors), “Der Löwe von Afrika” tied up as many as 300,000 British, Belgian and Portuguese troops, wearing them out in the pursuit.

Like the much better-known Lawrence of Arabia, Lettow-Vorbeck became a master of guerilla warfare. He never lost a single battle, though it was not unheard of for combatants to break and flee a charging elephant or rhinoceros.

lettow5To his adversaries, disease and parasites were often more dangerous than enemy action. In July 1916, Allied non-battle casualties ran 31 to 1, compared with battle casualties.

In 1956, Brazilian scientists attempted to cross African honey bees with indigenous varieties, to produce an insect better suited to the South American tropics.  Today, we call the results of these failed experiments “Africanized” or “Killer” bees.

askariAt one point in the Battle of Tanga (November 7-8, 1914), a British landing force and their Sepoy allies were routed and driven back to the sea by millions of African bees, disturbed by rifle and machine gun fire. There’s a story about a British radioman, I don’t know if it’s true,  who held to his station, directing the beach evacuation while being stung to death by thousands of angry bees. He was posthumously awarded the Victoria Cross for “gallantry under aerial attack”.

“Der Löwe von Afrika” – the Lion of Africa – returned to Germany a conquering hero.  Of all German commanders in WWI, Lettow-Vorbeck alone was undefeated in the field.  The only German commander to successfully invade imperial British soil, during the Great War.

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Lettow-Vorbeck developed a deep distrust of the upstart Adolf Hitler, and attempted to establish a conservative opposition to the Nazi party.  When then-Chancellor Hitler offered him an ambassadorship to the Court of St. James in 1935, Lettow-Vorbeck told Hitler to “go f**k” yourself. Describing the interview afterward, Vorbeck’s nephew explained “That’s right, except that I don’t think he put it that politely.”

images (34)Such a blunt refusal was guaranteed to bring unwanted attention from the Nazi regime. Vorbeck’s home and office were searched, his person subject to constant harassment and surveillance. By the end of WWII, the Lion of Africa was destitute.  Both of his sons were killed serving in the Wehrmacht, his home in Bremen destroyed by Allied bombs.

For a time, Vorbeck lived on food sent from British Intelligence Officer Richard Meinertzhagen and South African Field Marshal Jan Christiaan Smuts, two of his former adversaries in the East Africa campaign.  It was a token of the respect these two had, for a man who had once been their enemy.

The old General never forgot his Ascaris, returning to East Africa in 1953, to the tears of his former warriors.  Paul Emil von Lettow-Vorbeck died in 1964, at the age of 93.  A few months later, the Bundestag voted to give back pay to the African warriors who had fought with German forces in WWI. Some 350 elderly Ascaris showed up. A few could produce certificates given them back in 1918, some had scraps of old uniforms.  Precious few could prove their former service to the German Empire.

Lettow ww2

The German banker who brought the money had an idea. As each man stepped forward, he was handed a broom and ordered to perform the German manual of arms. Not one man failed the test.

Lettow-Vorbeck formed a lifelong friendship during his time in Africa, with the Danish author Karen Blixen, best known by her pen name Isak Dinesen, author of “Out of Africa”.  Years later, Blixen recalled, “He belonged to the olden days, and I have never met another German who has given me so strong an impression of what Imperial Germany was and stood for”.

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