You’d be forgiven for thinking this was the story of two cuddly bears who were off on an adventure in the land of Nod. History is indeed a rich source of eccentric and whimsical tales but none as bizarre as the battle of Lake Tanganyika.
“At the start of World War One, German warships controlled Lake Tanganyika in Central Africa. The British had no naval craft at all upon ‘Tanganjikasee’, as the Germans called it. This mattered: it was the longest lake in the world and of great strategic advantage. In June 1915, a force of 28 men was despatched from Britain on a vast journey. Their orders were to take control of the lake. To reach it, they had to haul two motorboats with the unlikely names of Mimi and Toutou through the wilds of the Congo.
The 28 were a strange bunch—one was addicted to Worcester sauce, another was a former racing driver—but the strangest of all of them was their skirt-wearing, tattoo-covered commander, Geoffrey Spicer-Simson. Whatever it took, even if it meant becoming the god of a local tribe, he was determined to cover himself in glory. But the Germans had a surprise in store for Spicer-Simson, in the shape of their secret ‘supership’ the Graf von Götzen…”
Spicer-Simson was probably the most ineffectual senior office in the Royal Navy at the time. He’d already been subjected to two court martials from events that combined negligence with stupidity. Spicer seemed to have regarded himself as a victim of circumstance and had delusions of grandeur. Why he was chosen to lead such a critical and tricky mission is puzzling. Perhaps, in the middle of a war, there was no one else available.
When Spicer and his crew left Britain for South Africa to launch the clandestine mission of dragging two largish wooden motor boats overland to Lake Tanganyika, the operation was already Britain’s worst kept secret. It’s a real wonder why the Germans, who seemed to known about the mission from the very beginning, didn’t do anything about it. Maybe, they doubted its success, laughing it off as a fool’s venture led by a fool.
Spicer originally wanted to call the two motor boats, cat and dog. When his superiors rejected these names as absurd, he decided to call them Mimi and Toutou, supposedly French for meow and bow-wow. Strangely, these names were accepted. The boats and the team who would man them were loaded on to liner bound for Cape Town. Well before this motley group reached African shores, Spicer was earning quite a reputation with his boastful idiocy:
A few minutes later Wainwright and a civilian passenger joined them. Wainwright’s companion began pointing out the Southern Cross and the other stars that filled the magnificent panoply of the tropical heavens, when a voice was heard in the darkness. It was Spicer, correcting the civilian’s reading of the night sky.
‘You must forgive me if I don’t agree,’ responded the passenger. ‘Stars are in my line of work, you know.’
‘Oh, indeed?’ retorted Spicer. ‘I certainly wouldn’t know it from what you’re telling us. I am a Navigating Officer!
Wainwright’s companion studied Spicer as he emerged into the light, then simply turned and walked away.
‘That was the Astronomer Royal of Cape Town,’ explained the doctor, as casually as he could.
‘Is that so?’ Spicer laughed out loud. ‘He’d make a damned bad Navigating Officer!’
Such stories spread like wildfire among the members of the expedition, rapidly eroding Spicer’s authority. It was his stupid boastfulness about hunting that especially did for him. When he claimed to have carried a water-buck back to camp slung over one shoulder, having outstripped his native trackers, it only needed someone to point out that a water-buck was about the size of a pony for him to appear a figure of fun.
From Cape Town, the expedition needed to take the boats 4800 km north to Lake Tanganyika. Part of the journey was undertaken using a special trail that travelled to Elizabethville in the Belgian Congo by way of Bulawayo in Southern Rhodesia, now Zimbabwe. They then travelled to the farthest railhead at Fungurume from where they had to drag the boats and their equipment over the mountains of Katanga and found their way to the treacherous Lualaba, a tributary of the mighty Congo. An eventful journey north took them to the railhead of Kabalo where they were able to hop on a train to Lukuga, a Belgian controlled port on Lake Tanganyika.
Foden, the author of the brilliant novel, The King of Scotland, writes exceptionally well. His focus is not just on the conflict on the lake but issues at its periphery as well like the expedition’s interactions with the natives:
“For many members of the Naval Africa Expedition, products of their own period in history, the Africans were little more than beasts. Like someone staring into a thick fog, they could not see the humanity there. The people on the shore and the animals on the shore were one and the same: simple embodiments of the wilderness—pawns in the romantic primitivist game the white man had been playing with Africa for the past 40 years.”
And he digs up wonderful anecdote-worthy incidents which make the book exceptional quirky:
“During the journey, British forces captured Bukoba, an important port on the other great African lake, the Victoria Nyanza. One can be sure that the full story of the victory did not come through on the Llanstephen Castle’s Morse set: drunken soldiers dancing about in looted German dress uniforms, or in stolen ladies’ underwear, with spiked Pickelhaube helmets on their heads and cigars between their lips.
Some of the looters, writes Byron Farwell, ‘were scandalised…by their glimpses of the Germans’ sex lives. One soldier discovered companion photographs of the German commandant: in the first he stood resplendent in full dress uniform beside a woman (his wife?) who was completely naked; in the second, the same woman stood fully dressed in formal attire beside the naked commandant.’”
On the shores of Lake Tanganyika, Spicer’s eccentricity bubbles over when he regularly takes to wearing skirts that his wife has stitched for him, proclaiming them much more suitable for the tropical weather. With lady luck on their side, Spicer’s men sink one German ship and capture another – efforts that Spicer commandeers as purely his own initiative. While his own men may have viewed him with some ambivalence, the Holo-holo, the tribe native to the lake shores saw Spicer in a very different light:
“The Holo-holo offered more than mere ‘appreciation’. The sinking of the Kingani and the sending away of the German captives did not simply make him a man of power in their eyes, it elevated him to the category of divine being. Everything he did seemed to increase their reverence. ‘The tattooed snakes curling up his arms added to his lustre,’ explains Byron Farwell, ‘particularly when he took to semaphoring to or from the launches, even though no one, not even the signalman, could read his messages. The Ba-Holo-holo believed he was calling to his ju-ju to deliver another German ship into his hands. Perhaps he was doing something like that.’”
They called him Bwana Chifunga-Tumbo or Lord Bellycloth in honour of his skirt and carved wooden fetishes of him faithfully replicating the skirt, binoculars and tattoos that he was famous for. Spicer’s work though was not yet done because the largest of the German vessels - the Graf von Götzen – was still prowling the lake.
The conclusion to this thrilling tale is a bit disappointing and anti-climactic. I say this because it’s easy to forget that Mimi and Toutou Go Forth is a work of non-fiction because Foden has written it almost akin to a novel. I wonder where he got all the material for the conversations from. He seems to have relied heavily on a work from the sixties. Shankland, the author of that book, extensively interviewed the doctor who accompanied the expedition who in turn undoubtedly had his own journals.
The last chapter in the book is a travelogueish diversion into Foden’s own journey of trying to pick up the pieces of the story in and around the lake. At first, I found this slightly odd; it seemed irrelevant to include it at this point. Perhaps, starting the book with this journey would have made more sense. But, then I realized that it was indeed positioned appropriately. Foden is hard pressed to find anyone who remembers the Battle of Lake Tanganyika. He is initially perplexed by this before coming to the realization that not only are the current inhabitants of the lake shore unmoved by the white man’s war in the distant past, but they also have far more pressing matters to worry about.
The strangest bit of the story relates to the present. The Graf von Götzen – the German ship that Spicer never got around to attacking – is still in operation. It ferries passengers between Burundi, Tanzania and Zambia on Lake Tanganyika under the name M.V. Liemba (the name for the lake in Livingstone’s time).
|Image available under Creative Commons|