Category Archives: Africa

British Indian Expeditionary Forces, WWI

From Army of Empire: The Untold Story of the Indian Army in World War I, by George Morton-Jack (Basic Books, 2018), Kindle pp. 10-14:

All the men of Indian Expeditionary Force A to France went to liberate German-occupied territory in the name of democracy. Some 85,000 Indian soldiers and 50,000 non-combatants served with Force A on the western front. In the wider world the Indian Army served extensively to shut down the German colonial empire, partly as a natural adjunct of the British cause against Prussian militarism in Europe, and partly to secure British colonies. On 6 August 1914 the Cabinet at 10 Downing Street was already cooking up, wrote Asquith, ‘with some gusto… schemes for taking German ports & wireless stations in E & W Africa & the China Seas… I had to remark we looked more like a gang of Elizabethan buccaneers than a meek collection of black-coated Liberal Ministers.’ These extra-European anti-German schemes unfurled until the war’s end, with some 40,000 Indian soldiers and 12,000 Indian non-combatants taking part, primarily with Indian Expeditionary Forces B and C in tropical Africa.

The greatest Indian numbers overseas, however, were involved in the war against the Ottoman Empire covering most of the Middle East. Approximately 430,000 Indian soldiers and 330,000 non-combatants invaded the region, making the Indian Army by 1918 the single largest Allied force on Ottoman soil. Turkey had been neutral until the end of October 1914, when it picked sides by sending warships over the Black Sea under a German admiral to bombard Tsarist Ukraine. ‘The Turkish Empire has committed suicide, and dug with its own hands its grave,’ Asquith proclaimed within days, as Russia, Serbia, Britain and France responded with declarations of war. ‘It is the Ottoman Government that has drawn the sword, and which, I venture to predict, will perish by the sword. It is they and not we who have rung the death-knell of Ottoman dominion, not only in Europe, but in Asia.’

As Asquith heard that death-knell in early November 1914, he was distracted by the need for British notes of religious caution towards the Ottoman Empire as an Islamic state. At the time the global Muslim population stood at 270 million. Around 100 million Muslims were British subjects, 70 million of them living in the Indian Empire, which made Britain the greatest Muslim power of the day, as the French Empire in North Africa and the Russian in Central Asia had 20 million Muslims each, and the Ottomans 15 million. While most Indian Muslims’ head of state was the King-Emperor, they generally revered his Ottoman counterpart, the Sultan of Turkey, as their highest religious leader. The overwhelming majority were Sunnis for whom the Sultan was Caliph, or the Prophet Muhammad’s direct successor, in whose stewardship lay Islam’s Holy Places including Mecca and Jerusalem. The British were anxious that Indian Muslims could see the war on Turkey as a war on Islam, stirring them into anti-British protest in sympathy with Ottoman co-religionists, and that Arabs under Ottoman rule could be equally alienated when they might otherwise turn on the Turks as Allied rebels. So Asquith was quick to reassure the King-Emperor and the Sultan’s Muslim subjects alike. ‘Nothing is further from our thoughts or intentions than to initiate or encourage a crusade against their belief,’ he announced on 9 November. ‘Their holy places we are prepared, if any such need should arise, to defend against all invaders and to maintain inviolate… We have no quarrel with Mussulman subjects of the Sultan.’

In the earliest days of the war on Turkey, therefore, British sensitivity to Muslim opinion ruled out any large gathering of British Empire forces for an immediate strike on the Ottoman state. Instead the British government ordered only pinpricks on the Ottoman Empire’s southern limits, reckoned to be the unavoidable minimum of military action at low risk of offending Muslims worldwide. They were all tasks in November 1914 for the Army in India. Thus Indian Expeditionary Force D of just one Indian brigade headed up the Persian Gulf. Its most obvious job was to guard from Turkish attack the Anglo-Persian Oil Company’s refinery at Abadan, vital to the British government as Anglo-Persian’s majority shareholder which depended on it to fuel the Royal Navy’s warships, and lying on the coast of neutral Iran by the border of Ottoman Iraq (known to the British as Mesopotamia). But Force D’s primary purpose was to put Indian and British boots on the ground in Iraq close to Abadan, just enough to give the local Arabs confidence of British support if they rebelled against the Turks.

Meanwhile Indian Expeditionary Forces E and F sailed to secure Egypt, a de facto part of the British Empire. Egypt’s northeastern border was the longest British imperial land frontier with the Ottoman Empire, and its main asset was another British government shareholding: the Suez Canal, the precious sea link between the Indian Ocean and the Mediterranean for Allied troopships and war materials.

From the second week of November 1914, however, the initial caution of the British war on Turkey receded as three pressures turned it into a tornado that over the next four years tore about the Middle East and European Turkey, carrying the Indian Army with it in all directions.

Firstly, the Sultan of Turkey made a dramatic intervention to wield his spiritual authority as Caliph as a force of Allied destruction. At Istanbul on 14 November 1914 he declared a holy war, or jihad, against the Allies, developing the world war into a collision between Christianity and Islam. In a joint effort with the Germans, the Turkish government orchestrated the Sultan’s jihad to multiply anti-Allied fighters. It called on all Ottoman Muslims as obedient servants of Allah to defend their Islamic state against the Christian Allied invaders coming from the Persian Gulf and elsewhere, and on all Muslims of the wider world, especially in the British, French and Russian empires and Iran, to join the jihad to punish the Allies for conspiring to annihilate Islam. ‘The rank of those who depart to the next world is martyrdom,’ the Sultan’s chief religious scholar, the Sheikh al-Islam, said of the holy warriors summoned by the official jihad proclamations that spread across Muslim Asia and Africa; ‘those who sacrifice their lives to give life to the truth will have honour in this world, and their latter end in paradise.’ For the sin of refusing to join the jihad, the Sheikh warned, the inevitable penalties were ‘the wrath of God’ and ‘the fire of hell’. Within days, in the name of the jihad the Turkish Army was plotting attacks with German officers and desert-dwelling jihadists on British Empire troops, oil pipelines and other installations from Egypt to Aden, Iraq and Abadan–all places where Indian troops were targets.

Secondly, following a Russian request in New Year 1915 for new Allied operations to divert the Turkish Army from the Caucasus, the Allies kick-started coalition warfare out of the eastern Mediterranean towards Istanbul. This began in February 1915 with Anglo-French naval attacks launched from island bases in the Aegean Sea, before falling hardest with military landings on the Gallipoli Peninsula dangling from the Ottoman Empire’s European fringe–where Indian Expeditionary Force G served.

Thirdly, the British kept bounding forward through the Middle East by following their imperialist noses to the war’s end. They seized military opportunities on horizon after horizon from the edges of Egypt, Ottoman Iraq and the Indian Empire, all in British imperial security interests and eventually making Britain the dominant force in the Middle East with control over the Islamic Holy Places. There was no masterplan here; rather it happened almost by accident as the sum of grand strategic decisions taken in bursts to secure and expand the British Empire–broadly speaking, if the war on Germany was for democracy, the war on Turkey was for imperialism.

By November 1918, the British had a stranglehold over the Ottoman Empire resembling the grip of an enchanted giant squid, its master the Prime Minister in London, its main body the Indian Empire, and its two longest tentacles Indian Expeditionary Forces: one being Force D extending from British India 2000 miles up the Persian Gulf into Ottoman Iraq, the other Force E 2500 miles up the Red Sea to Syria.

I resisted ordering this new book because the list price of the Kindle edition is over my normal threshold for Kindle books, but after downloading a sample, I decided to go ahead and buy it at what I presume to be a temporary promotional discount. It fits too well with the major themes of this blog.

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Filed under Africa, Britain, Germany, Middle East, military, religion, Russia, South Asia, Turkey, war

African vs. Indian Experience in Mauritius and Seychelles

From “Slavery and Indenture in Mauritius and Seychelles” by Burton Benedict, in Asian and African Systems of Slavery, ed. by James L. Watson (U. Calif. Press, 1980), pp. 154-168. Both colonies depended very heavily on imported labor for their sugar plantations. Watson attempts to explain why Indian cultural traits survived better in the two island groups than did African cultural traits. The following summaries are closely paraphrased.

1. ORIGINS: African slaves came from all over the continent and lacked common cultures or political systems. Indentured Indians came from diverse cultures that had nevertheless all coexisted within a more or less unified political and economic system ruled by the Mughals and then the British.

2. RECRUITMENT: African slaves were nearly all unwilling recruits who had usually passed through many hands in many markets. Indentured Indians were volunteers recruited by men from their own culture and often from the same village, caste, or tribe, even though they usually had no idea about their destination or working conditions, and their voyaging conditions were hardly better than that of the African slaves.

3. FAMILIES: Most Africans arrived as isolated individuals, with no guarantee that any surviving relatives would be sold to the same plantation. Indentured Indians left their wives behind during the early years, but were later assigned as family units, whose marriages were recognized by the local courts. They were better able to preserve family life.

4. YOUTH: Many African slaves were kidnapped as children, and children were favored over adults by plantation managers. They received little education and adapted to local French culture. Most Indians came as young adults, some with children, who learned Indian customs and values at home and at vernacular schools.

5. LANGUAGE: African slaves spoke many different languages, and had to communicate among themselves in Swahili, Arabic, or the languages of European traders. On the plantations, they learned the local French Creole. Most of the Indians came from three major language groups (Bhojpuri) Hindi, Tamil, and Telegu. Employers relied on bilingual overseers and the Indians preserved their home languages, in which they transmitted their home cultures. Many man but far fewer women learned Creole, even into the 1960s.

6. NAMING: African slaves were given European names, usually French or English for given names. Over time, African surnames were replaced by French or English ones. Indians retained their Indian names and gave their children Indian names, although some Christian converts took European names.

7. RELIGION: The dominant religion in Mauritius and the Seychelles was Roman Catholic, from when they were French colonies, and African slaves were heavily evangelized. Catholic and Protestant churches were controlled by Europeans. The Indians were generally Hindu or Muslim, and Europeans made little effort to convert them to Christianity. Moreover, temples, mosques, and religious ritual and education were controlled by Indians, not Europeans.

8. MUSIC AND DANCE: Africans lost not just their traditional religious rites of passage, but also music and dance connected with them. The latter became entirely secular, adapted to European and Creole cultures. Indians retained Hindu and Muslim ceremonies for rites of passage, along with their musical and dance components.

9. OVERSEAS CONNECTIONS: African slaves were completely cut off from Africa. Those who went overseas for training went to France or Britain, not Africa. Indians were also cut off from home, but many of those indentured returned to India, the Indian government took frequent interest in their welfare, and Hindu and Muslim missionaries came to preach to them. Many went to Europe for training but others went to India.

10. ECONOMIC BASE: Africans lost their kinship organizations, which had been their principal units of production and consumption. The sugar plantations produced cash crops, not subsistence crops, and individual workers purchased what they consumed. Indians came from highly stratified societies with complex, caste-based divisions of labor that produced goods and services. They were used to sharecropping and wage work (which was why indentured themselves), but the family remained the basic unit of consumption.

11. ENDOGAMY: Marriage in both European and Indian societies was very much about property; brides came with dowries. Both groups also tended to marry within their race, class, or caste. In African societies, marriage was more about building alliances; brides required bridewealth. African social stratification was much more fluid; chiefs could marry commoners.

Watson concludes “that there was a concatenation of factors which militated against the retention of African cultural traits (or conversely which fostered the adaptation of European cultural traits) and that these factors did not operate in the same fashion for Indians” (p. 167).

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Ransom Values of Christians c. 1810

From Skeletons on the Zahara: A True Story of Survival, by Dean King (Little, Brown, 2004), Kindle pp. 147-149:

As Riley was about to discover, a Christian’s value as a ransomable commodity depended on his rank, wealth, health, and location. On the desert, where a tent with a life of four years was worth a camel, and a camel was worth a dozen goats or half a dozen sheep, a Christian’s worth fell somewhere between a tattered blanket and an adult camel, except in rare circumstances. Officers were worth more than seamen, though the Arabs, desperate for practical skills, would hold indefinitely a gunpowder maker, a surgeon, or a smith who naively admitted it. Married men brought more than single men for their perceived added wealth. The Arabs quickly noticed a man’s fine accoutrements. Brisson, who had lavished watches, silver buckles, and money on his first captor to ingratiate himself, was sold from one owner to another for five camels, while the ship’s baker went for one. Ultimately, Brisson regretted the gifts, which served only to inflate his ransom price.

To ransom a Christian, a Sahrawi had to deliver him to the imperial port of Swearah, where foreign merchants or consuls could make the payment. To get there, they had to cross the desert, past hostile bedouin tribes, past the fortified Berber towns of the Souss region, and finally past the operatives of the Sultan of Morocco, where Christian slavery was technically illegal and the sultan was fond of the “gifts” Western nations paid for their citizens’ freedom. All the while, the captor had no guarantee he would actually receive the agreed-upon sum. Instead of making the long, risky journey, a Sahrawi often sold his slave locally at a small but sure profit to a buyer who would sell at a small profit to another buyer.

In this way, in an agonizing peristalsis, the Sahara slowly yielded Christians north one territory at a time, the nearer to Swearah the higher the price, with the medium of exchange switching from bartered goods to cash at Wednoon, on the edge of the desert. On the Sahara, the French merchant Saugnier was traded once for a barrel of meal and a nine-foot bar of iron, and later for two young camels. He was sold twice at Wednoon, first for $150, then for $180. Seamen with him brought $50 to $95. Robert Adams of the Charles went in the latter range, once for $50 worth of blankets and dates and a second time for $70 worth of blankets, dates, and gunpowder.

In 1810, the English merchant and author James Grey Jackson proposed paying a fixed rate for Westerners delivered to Mogadore. “A trifling sum would be sufficient,” he maintained, if it was always on hand and the policy well known. This would eliminate the uncertainty that led to the repeated reselling of Christians and extortionate ransom prices. Jackson estimated that $150 per man would be enough, “a sum rather above the price of a black slave.” The British adopted the practice to the south at Saint-Louis, on the Senegal River, where in 1816 the speedy recovery of some of the passengers of the Méduse proved its soundness, but no such standards existed for Christians being transported north.

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Origin of Camelids

From Skeletons on the Zahara: A True Story of Survival, by Dean King (Little, Brown, 2004), Kindle pp. 127-128:

The nomads owed much to the Arabian camel. By the time their Sanhaja ancestors had acquired the peculiar humped beasts from the east—between the first and fourth centuries A.D.—desertification had long since intensified, clustering people around oases, where they could grow food. As the land grew more arid and infertile, the black tribes migrated south, while the Sanhaja adapted to nomadic life with the camels, living like bedouins long before the first wave of bedouins arrived. Though not considered ruminants, camels, with their complex, three-compartmented stomachs, regurgitate and rechew their forage, turning poor vegetation into protein and energy even better than ruminants do. It was the camel, which could convert scrub brush into nutrient-rich milk, that allowed the Sanhaja to stay on the desert.

Oddly enough, camelids originated not in Africa but in North America. During the Pleistocene epoch, the ancestors of the llama, alpaca, vicuña, and guanaco migrated south to South America, while the ancestors of the camel crossed an erstwhile land bridge at what is now the Bering Strait to Asia. As the camelids were dying out in North America, camels migrated across Eastern Europe, the Middle East, and North Africa. By 3000 B.C., however, wild camels had become extinct in North Africa too. They were reintroduced on the Sahara as desertification increased their utility there, and they quickly became the most important thing a man could own. He who mastered the camel mastered the land.

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Harshness of the Sahara

From Skeletons on the Zahara: A True Story of Survival, by Dean King (Little, Brown, 2004), Kindle pp. 94-95:

What they looked out on, in 1815, had never been scientifically explored and was almost too mind-boggling to imagine. They faced the western edge of the world’s largest desert. Occupying a third of Africa, it stretches more than three thousand miles east to the Red Sea and twelve hundred miles from the Sahel—the fringe of savanna in the south—to the Atlas Mountains in the north, mountains that snare almost all the moisture traveling down on the northeast winds. Relative-humidity levels, rarely above an abrasive 30 percent, are often as low as a lethal 5 percent, dry enough to kill bacteria and mummify corpses. On the coast, the heat of the Sahara clashes with the cold waters of the Atlantic, often creating heavy fogbanks that envelop the shore, and on many days the irifi, a powerful, searing wind, shrouds the region in a melancholy ocher veil of dust.

The Sahara was not always like this. From 5500 to 2500 B.C., it was relatively fertile, wet and inviting. Up until Roman times, antelope, elephants, rhinoceroses, and giraffes roamed a savanna densely studded with acacia, while crocodiles and hippopotamuses wallowed in lush rivers. Ostriches, gazelles, and antelope still persisted in 1815, but by then the Saharan climate was arguably the most extreme on earth. Its temperature could sizzle at more than 120 degrees Fahrenheit in the shade, the ground temperature soaring 50 degrees higher in the sun; at night, the thermometer could plunge as much as 85 degrees. These conditions, combined with frequent windstorms and less than five inches of average annual rainfall, made sustained life virtually impossible in many parts. As flora and fauna died off or adapted, the land itself deteriorated. While only about a tenth of the Sahara is covered in barren sand dunes, or erg, almost equally formidable are its stepped plains of wind-stripped rock covered in boulders, stones, and dust—the lower elevations generally known as reg and higher ones as hammada.

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Stages of Dehydration

From Skeletons on the Zahara: A True Story of Survival, by Dean King (Little, Brown, 2004), Kindle pp. 77-78:

It is said that to a thirsty man in a boat, sea spray is a constant torment. It taunts him in its plentitude. It beads on his brow and runs down into his mouth, only to make him thirstier. Inevitably, some of the crew began to crack. A couple of them indulged their increasing fascination with death by leaning over the gunwale and submerging their heads, claiming that they wished to taste what was sure to be their fate.

The stages of dehydration would be categorized a century later by W. J. McGee, a notable amateur thirst-researcher and director of the St. Louis Public Museum. His portrait of the process of human dehydration, which has become the sine qua non of the field, shows five distinct phases: clamorous, cotton-mouth, swollen-tongue, shriveled-tongue, and blood-sweat, each roughly equivalent to a 5 percent decrease in body weight. The Commerces [sailors from the shipwrecked Commerce] had long since grown clamorous: uncomfortable, irritable, feverish. Their stale throats cracked when they spoke. Their fat, sore tongues restricted conversation to terse phrases, and they slurred or lost words. Their hearing had grown muffled, due to loss of moisture in the inner ear. In the cotton-mouth stage, the mind increasingly distorts reality and desires. Sufferers rashly toss off clothes or possessions or, in the case of the Commerces, become obsessed with how it would feel to die in the sea. It is normal for spells of feverish dreams to focus on the urge to drink, and the Commerces, parched beyond imagination and penetrated by salt, extolled the lush banks of the Connecticut River and craved a cup—or a barrel—of the delicious mineral water from the freshets that filled it. In his head, Riley built and rebuilt the stately spa he had dreamed of.

That afternoon, Riley gave up any hope of a rescue at sea. To continue on meant certain death, roasting on the woeful collection of planks that formed their boat, now an inhuman prison cell that confined their bodies in cramped agony. They might fight on another handful of days, but they did not have enough food and water to maintain their strength. They would soon lose the power to affect their fate.

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Surviving a Sahara Sandstorm

From Skeletons on the Zahara: A True Story of Survival, by Dean King (Little, Brown, 2004), Kindle pp. 4-6:

Like all successful caravan drivers, Ishrel was tough but just. Imposing and erect of bearing, the Arab leader had flashing eyes beneath an ample turban and a thick beard to his chest. He wore a long white haik of good cloth, befitting his status, drawn tight around his body and crisscrossed by red belts carrying his essentials: a large powder horn, flints, a leather pouch with musket balls, and his scabbard with a broad and burnished scimitar. He carried his musket night and day, always prepared for a sudden attack from the wild bedouins of the desert. His constant nemeses, however, were the terrain and the sun.

For six days, Ishrel’s caravan weltered in the deep drifts, the cameleers alternately singing to their camels and goading them with clubs, constantly dashing on foot here and there to square the loads. They gave violent shoves to bulges in woven sacks and tugged on ropes with the full weight of their bodies. For all their efforts, uneven loads were inevitable, causing strains to the camels’ joints and bones. It did not take long for an inattentive master to lame a camel, and a lame camel was a dead camel, a communal feast. In that way, Allah provided for them all. It was his will, and there was no compensation for the camel’s owner in this world. “We only feed you for Allah’s sake,” says the Quran. “We desire from you neither reward nor thanks.”

On the seventh day, the irifi roared in from the southeast, and the sand swirled. Sidi Ishrel ordered the camels to be unloaded and camp made. In a hurry, the Arabs stacked their goods—iron, lumber, amber, shotguns, knives, scimitars, bundles of haiks, white cloth and blue cloth, blocks of salt, sacks of tobacco and spices—in a great pile. They circled up the camels and made them lie down.

All around them the sand blew so hard that the men could not open their eyes, and if they did, they could not see their companions or their camels even if they were nearly touching them. It was all they could do to breathe. Lying on their stomachs, Hamet and Seid inhaled through the sheshes wrapped around their heads and across their faces, which they pressed into the sand.

They did not fear much for their camels, which have their own defenses: deep-set, hirsute ears and long eyelashes that protect against flying grit, collapsible nostrils that add moisture to the searing air they breathe, and eyes with lids so thin that they can close them during a sandstorm and still see. They did not worry about them overheating either, for camels have a unique ability to absorb heat in their bodies while their brains remain insulated and stable. They conserve their body water by not sweating or panting, instead retaining the heat during the day and releasing it later. On bitterly cold nights, their owners often took refuge in their warmth. As all good cameleers knew, these prized beasts were as impervious to the abuse of the desert as it was possible to be, and they were as long-lived as they were ornery, some reaching half a century in age. Many would outlive their masters.

For two days, sand filled their long-sleeved, hooded wool djellabas and formed piles on their backs until they shifted to ease the weight. Hamet and Seid and the rest of the traders and cameleers beseeched, “Great and merciful Allah, spare our lives!” When the wind at last halted and the sand fell to the ground, three hundred men lay dead on the desert. Hamet and Seid, who were strong, rose and joined the rest of the survivors in prayers of thanksgiving to Allah for saving them. They spent two more days burying the dead men, always on their sides, facing east toward Mecca, and topping their graves with thorny brush to keep the jackals away. All but two hundred of the camels had been spared. As the men dug them out, the beasts rose, grunting and snapping madly, weak-kneed, snorting out the beetlelike parasites that grew in their nostrils. There were no plants for the camels to eat where they had stopped, so the men watered and fed them from the dwindling provisions.

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