New Perspectives, Africa and the First World War

Joni and members of the New Perspectives team

I’ve been so lucky to be a part of the New Perspectives project team for the past few months as part of my museum studies course; the programme is a really creative way to involve young people in the future of the museum. One of my favourite aspects has been having the opportunity to explore lesser known items in IWM’s collection related to the First World War in Africa. I knew little about this subject before starting on the project so I’ve become a bit of a student myself, learning alongside the young people about the ways in which the war was truly ‘global’.

Sifting through our archives to find material to support the themes we’re exploring – such as recruitment, camouflage, and propaganda – has revealed so many facets of the war that have surprised me. For instance, I had no idea that one million Africans were used as ‘carriers’ in East Africa because roads and rail links were undeveloped and horses were decimated by the tsetse fly. Humans had to step in to carry all the supplies needed for the frontlines over vast distances, covering up to 12 miles a day while carrying 50 pound loads!  Although the stories of the carriers are largely undocumented, our archives contain a number of letters and diaries from the officers they supported which illuminate how difficult the working conditions must have been.

Discovering stories from our collections

Another story I loved was that of British commander, Geoffrey Spicer-Simson, and his improbable mission to bring two motor boats, Mimi and Toutou, from England to the Belgian Congo to fight the Germans on Lake Tanganyika. The journey-which covered a distance of about 10,000 miles-took nearly 4 months. After arriving at Cape Town, the boats were transported by rail and river before being dragged through the African jungle and over steep mountains to arrive at the lake, where they defeated much larger German warships. Talk about triumph against adversity!

Perhaps the best thing of all has been sharing my excitement about these stories with the young people on the project, whose enthusiasm and creativity have been so inspiring. It has been really fun to see what kinds of things would attract their attention and to follow them on their journey of making their own discoveries about our collections.

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