Thursday, June 9, 2022

Marches without water

Poor William Grant Stairs. Aged but 28 he died of malaria 130 years ago today. Having been caught up in the feverish ‘Scramble for Africa’ at the behest of the ruthless King Léopold II, he became a cruel leader himself. On an expedition to win mineral rights in Katanga many of his men died, and many others deserted. A diary he kept of his exploits in Africa, not published in English until the late 1990s, gives a good feel for the moral corruption of those enacting imperialist ambitions, as well as the arduous conditions they suffered.

Stairs was born in 1863, in Halifax, Nova Scotia, and educated in Edinburgh before attending the Royal Military College in Kingston, Ontario. He spent three years working for the New Zealand Trigonometrical Survey. In 1885, he was commissioned in the British Royal Engineers, though soon after he joined the privately-funded Emin Pasha Relief Expedition led by Henry Morton Stanley which sailed from London in 1887. (See more on this extraordinary expedition in The Diary Review article Rescuing the Emin Pasha.) On his return, Stairs was named a Fellow of the Royal Geographical Society.

Subsequently, and on Stanley’s recommendation, Stairs was appointed by King Léopold II of Belgium, who privately ruled over the Congo Free State, to command a mission to claim Katanga, a mineral-rich territory, now in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. A rival expedition, led by the Cecil Rhodes’ British South Africa Company, was also after the minerals in Katanga.

Stairs set out from Zanzibar in June 1891, and ultimately achieved his goal in that Katanga became part of the Congo Free State. But, he was a cruel leader, often resorting to violence, and he lost many of the 400 men he started out with, either because they died from appalling conditions on the expedition or because they deserted. He himself was frequently sick, and while onboard a steamer on the lower Zambezi he died - on 9 June 1892 - from an attack of malaria. In 1908, the Congo Free State was annexed by the government of Belgium after the increasingly brutal mistreatment of local peoples and plunder of natural resources had become an international scandal.

Wikipedia has plenty of information on Stairs, his expedition, and the part they played in the ‘Scramble for Africa’. But more can be read in the introduction to African Exploits: The Diaries of William Stairs 1887-1892 by Roy D. MacLaren (sub-titled as ‘A personal account of imperial ambitions in Africa in the nineteenth century’). This was first published by McGill-Queen’s University Press in 1998, and most of it is free to read at Googlebooks. At the time, Roy MacLaren was High Commissioner for Canada to the United Kingdom.

According to the publishers, ‘few diaries of the period convey better than Stairs’s the nature and course of imperialist expeditions in Africa in the nineteenth century and the psychological and moral corruption caused by absolute power’. Stairs’s diaries of the Emin Pasha Relief Expedition, it continues, ‘present a candid, personal account of the long and arduous venture, including a very unflattering assessment of Stanley, whom Stairs described as cruel, secretive, and selfish’.

African Exploits is divided into two main sections: Stairs’s diary of the Emin Pasha expedition, and the diary of the Katanga expedition. According to MacLaren, the latter is less spontaneous and less personal, because it was written as per the terms of his contract, as an expedition diary. It also suffers, he says, from having to be translated back from the French (the only extant version of the Katanga diary is in French in Léopold’s journal Le Congo Illustré) and along the way has lost ‘the lively Victorian idiom which Stairs habitually employed’.

Nevertheless, here are a few extracts from the Katanga diary in African Exploits.

27 August 1891
‘I have tried, during my leisure hours, to write some verse. I certainly have not achieved anything notable, but if I have been able to analyze faithfully the changing lights and shadows of the daily life of an African expedition, I shall have realized a long-held goal.’

28 August 1891
‘Tomorrow we must tirika: sleep in the bush without water . . . an eleven hour march almost twenty miles from here to the next water. A camp without water worries me, for on the following day, the men are good for nothing.’

29 August 1891
‘We have marched twenty kilometres in five hours and fifty minutes. We passed the place where poor [Thomas] Carter [a British army officer who had tried to introduce Indian elephants to Africa] was killed several years ago. . . Our camp is near the Lake Cheia which at the moment is simply a parched expanse without a drop of water. I sent natives on ahead to search for water. . . they report only empty wells, surrounded by decomposing buffaloes, giraffes, and antelopes, all dead from thirst. Extraordinary as it is for this region, there is also the corpse of an elephant upon whose putrid flesh the Africans feed.’

30 August 1891
‘Marched from 5:15 am until 10:15 am, when we arrived at Itura with my caravan dying of thirst and exhaustion. In the wells there was no more than a small ribbon of water. An Arab whose caravan preceded ours assured the natives along that route that we rob the natives. The result is that only with the greatest difficulty have I been able to buy any food. And to think how kind and courteous I have been to the Arabs.’

31 August 1891
‘Six and a half hours of march to cover fifteen miles. We camp amidst the brush, tired beyond description and without water. Tomorrow we shall reach water after a two and a half hour march, but the following day there is a wasteland of fifteen miles to Rubuga. [. . .]

As we approach Tabora I fear increasingly the desertions of more of my men. These long marches without water terrify them and I sense that they would prefer to desert than to continue in such conditions. . . The hardships and the weariness cause me such endless cares. . . that I have become as thin as a rail and my cheekbones stand out in my face.’

This article is a slightly revised version of one first published on 9 June 2012.

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