THE THURSDAY BOOK: Gunboat Diplomacy on the African Front ; Mimi and Toutou Go Forth Giles Foden Michael Joseph, Pounds 16.99/ Pounds 15.99 (Free P&p) from 0870 079 8897

By ToGreen | The Independent (London, England), October 21, 2004 | Go to article overview
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THE THURSDAY BOOK: Gunboat Diplomacy on the African Front ; Mimi and Toutou Go Forth Giles Foden Michael Joseph, Pounds 16.99/ Pounds 15.99 (Free P&p) from 0870 079 8897


ToGreen, The Independent (London, England)


THE FIRST World War summons up many images, but trudging through the Congolese jungles is rarely among them. The Great War mainly evokes Flanders mud. Yet, as Giles Foden's book illustrates, the 1914-18 conflict mattered in Africa too. In a rehearsal for the shadow-boxing of the superpowers during the Cold War, Britain and Germany saw their new colonies as extensions of the home front.

At this time, forced labour was still building Africa's colonial cities ports and railways. Rebellions against hut taxes and cash- crop agriculture remained in the air, nowhere more so than in the German colonies, where the 1905-7 Maji Maji rebellion (Tanganyika) and the 1906 Herero uprising (Namibia) were crushed.

In 1914, the prospect of platoons of African soldiers joining the German side was alarming. Britain decided to overturn Germany's naval supremacy on Lake Tanganyika, the western border of German East Africa. To challenge German steamers, the Admiralty sent two small gunboats to Cape Town; these were transported by rail to Belgian Congo, then through the jungle to the lake.

The expedition reflected British attitudes. The gunboats were named Mimi and Toutou ("miaow" and "woof" in French), symbolising the pet African project. The command was given to someone more suited to a Wodehouse novel than the Congo.

Geoffrey Spicer-Simson was the sort of fantasist whose exploits were always legendary.

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THE THURSDAY BOOK: Gunboat Diplomacy on the African Front ; Mimi and Toutou Go Forth Giles Foden Michael Joseph, Pounds 16.99/ Pounds 15.99 (Free P&p) from 0870 079 8897
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