Authors: Giles Foden,Prefers to remain anonymous
Mimi and Toutou Go Forth
The Bizarre 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…
Unearthing new German and African records, the prize-winning author of The Last King of Scotland retells this most unlikely of true-life tales with his customary narrative energy and style.
here was plenty of game in the shooting grounds of German East Africa. That enormous stretch of territory between the Great Lakes of the continent and the Indian Ocean had not been over-shot. As had happened, in the hunter’s opinion, in the country’s neighbours, Kenya and Uganda. There the noble bongo, finest of African antelopes, was almost extinct, as was the white rhinoceros. These creatures were already entering the world of myth, like the unicorn. The hunter remembered another
, a genuine one. Yesteryear, when the delicate art of reading spoor had not been overtaken by the motor car and the repeating rifle.
Here in German East things were different. On his way to the lakeshore, for instance, the hunter had watched a white rhinoceros trot across the undulating grassy ridge in front of him. Even now, amid some trees nearer the lake, a cow elephant was pulling down ripening palm-fruits for her calf; rearing up and gripping the tree with her front legs, using her trunk like a spoon.
In spite of the reeds around him and the breeze wafting under the brim of his hat, the hunter felt the heat coming off the surface of Lake Tanganyika. On the shore he could see small, brown clusters of antelope dotted about in the haze. There were two types down there, he noted from his prone position: the shy, mysterious Sitatunga—whose splayed, webbed hooves kept them from sinking in swamps—and the more common Defassa water-buck or ‘Sing-Sing’.
was a fine animal with a shaggy coat, good horns and a splendid carriage, but there was no point shooting it. Water-buck meat did not roast well.
The hunter pursued his profession in German East Africa, once known as Tanganyika. He had no hunting licence from the authorities, however, nor did he live there. He was after elephant. Not this gentle she-elephant plucking palm nuts, but one of the big tuskers, 20,000 pounds at least. He shifted in the bed of reeds, feeling the rifle’s weight in his hand, Old Sol’s heat through the crown of his hat: waiting, waiting…the principal occupation of a big-game hunter. It was not the glamorous career many held it to be. He watched a flock of spur-winged geese rise into the air above the reed-bed. Now they
good eating, but they could not be shot with a .475. His rifle was by no means a fowling piece; it would blow a bird into a thousand feathery fragments.
Why carry such a heavy weapon? he was often asked. They say choice of arms comes down to ‘shock’ versus ‘easy handling’ and it was his firm belief that, where elephants were concerned, shock was very much to be preferred, as much to protect oneself as to avoid wounding and slow death.
Watching the geese fall into a V formation in the sky, he reflected that he should have told his Holo-holo bearer to bring up his shotgun as well as the heavy-calibre rifle. Then he could have shot for the pot. His eye drifted down to the lake, so wonderfully calm today. He had known gales rise here many times in the past—heavy storms that ripped up and down the water with terrifying ferocity. Tropical cyclones formed magnificent waterspouts in some seasons, rising miles high.
The lake’s headlands and creek-banks were mainly covered with acacia scrub—fringed, as here, with reed and papyrus. Elsewhere, there was thick jungle and—no less dense—
forests studded with African teak and rare ebony. In some places along the lake, sheer granite slopes rose from the water up to a thousand feet. Raked by deep gullies, these cliffs were testament to the epic narratives that had formed Lake Tanganyika. It was the longest freshwater lake in the world, more than 400 miles long. Geological time—no longer so fathomless as heretofore, but still a sign of God’s grace: the outward workings of his spiritual perfection—was the key to this beautiful inland sea.
Geology also explained those other great natural tanks of rainwater that extend down the backbone of the Rift Valley: Lake Albert, Lake Victoria, Lake Nyasa. All along this ‘vital and structural centre of Africa’, as a certain missionary had once described the Rift to him, were what were termed ‘foundered valleys’: valleys made not by the ground being pushed up, but by it falling away. Into these vast troughs—through swamp-choked estuaries, through clear, pebble-bottomed creeks, or tumbling down foaming chasms—the rivers and streams of the surrounding region had flowed for untold years. Once in the lake, the water had many of the characteristics of the sea, able to turn from green to grey to deep blue, its waves cresting white as they broke on the shore. With a surface area of 13,000 square miles, Lake Tanganyika was even large enough to attract the attention of the moon and produce tides.
As the cow elephant wandered away—her calf gripping her tail with its trunk—the hunter wondered how long the vast quantity of game could last. Modern civilisation, if that is what one should call it, was rushing into Tanganyika like Noah’s flood and so-called progress was everywhere at hand.
Mainly a whip hand. Most Germans in the colony, which had been established since 1885, carried whips as a matter of course. It was one of the reasons he hated Germans. But the Belgians across the water in the Congo were not much better and from time to time he recognised a vein of sadism in his own country’s doings, too.
The hunter lived on the Congo side of the lake. Every few days he and his bearer—a member of the Holo-holo tribe—would sail over in a former slave dhow to take advantage of the more plentiful elephant on the German shore. Not paying permits and licence fees was another of his ruses. If a large animal was killed, he allowed his bearer’s tribesmen—there were Holo-holo on both sides of the lake—to come and butcher it. The heart and the liver were considered great delicacies. For this reason, although the Holo-holo were mainly allied to the Germans, they kept quiet about his activities and even warned him of approaching German patrols.
The hunter ate some orange-flavoured biscuits purchased from a Russian grocer in Elizabethville, and then he must have dozed off. He awoke with a start at a splashing sound below and was surprised to see a large bull elephant with fine tusks washing or more properly cooling itself in the shallows of the lake, its grey flanks covered in black slimy mud. Cautiously, he eased himself into a crouching position, raising his .475. The elephant was slapping its sides with its trunk, plastering itself with the mud. The hunter was about to pull the trigger when it surged forwards.
He thought he had missed his chance, but the bull was merely heading for an island of floating vegetation. It began tugging at some young papyrus, tearing the bunched green shafts from the long-rooted plant and beating them over its back. The image which struck the hunter was that of a flagellant monk. He lifted his rifle again, noticing as he did so a smudge of grey cloud in the sky above his mark.
It was then that the animal seemed to sense him. Dropping the papyrus on the water, it turned its giant head and moved nearer, shifting its weight from one foreleg to another and raising its trunk in the air. The elephant stared in his direction, blinking, then lowered its trunk towards him. He could hear the breath vibrating as the trunk uncurled, its mottled pink tip opening and closing like a sea anemone. It was trying to smell him.
The hunter waited, not wanting to shoot while the elephant was on the move. Wounding it would only result in a rogue. But the bull was still swaying from side to side, as if haunted by some premonition of its death. A death the hunter was already beginning to calculate…a shot to the large mark of the heart or to the smaller one of the brain? The latter was trickier, since an elephant’s brain is housed in one of the thickest skulls of any creature on earth. The relative advantages of a brain shot were, to his mind—
The elephant lifted its trunk, trumpeted again and flapped its ears. With astonishing speed for such a huge beast, it floundered out of the water and galloped into the bush. The hunter jumped to his feet, but knew the game was up. Volleying never worked with elephants, they should never be shot on the run.
He sat down disconsolately in the reeds. Only then, after the birds the elephant had sent wheeling into the air had settled again, did he hear what had startled his prey: a low
, a vibrating sound which came from the lake. The noise was mechanical in nature, so different from the usual bark of a baboon or call of a bird, those familiar Tanganyikan sounds, that he wondered for a moment if his imagination were playing tricks. But it wasn’t; the sound grew louder. He lifted his field glasses.
The ship was painted white with a horizontal blue-grey line bisecting its hull. The smudge of dirty cloud he had noticed earlier was the exhaust from its funnel; the noise which had frightened the elephant was that of the wood-burning steam engine that drove the ship’s screw propellers. From his hidden vantage point behind the reeds, the hunter watched as the vessel held steady along the shore, growing larger as she came closer. Low in the water, she gleamed in the sunlight, edging forwards. About her bows curled a foam moustache.
Beyond the bow-wave, eddies spread out and slapped against the shore. Watching the impact of the wash in the reeds, the hunter wondered if the ship would come up this particular channel and if there was any danger of him being discovered. He peered through his binoculars. The name on the side was
Hedwig von Wissmann;
a vessel of nearly 60 tons in his estimation.
He saw the officers in their white uniforms, shining buttons on their chests, gold braid on their shoulders. He saw a pile of firewood on the deck, from which an African labourer extracted bundles to carry down to the boiler room. He saw a long pennant—emblazoned with the Iron Cross of the Imperial German Navy—streaming from the pole-mast. And he saw a gun: a gun that made his .475 look like a child’s toy. He watched the barrel’s erect shape as the
steamed by in profile, before turning for the horizon. Reflected in the lenses of his field glasses, the ship that ruled Lake Tanganyika continued on her tour of inspection.
Arriving some four weeks later back at his digs in Elizabethville—the capital of Katanga, the southern province of the Belgian Congo—the hunter heard in a bar from a commercial agent that war had been declared between Britain and Germany.
He had arrived in Katanga (once famous for its black-maned lions, but now dominated by the Star of the Congo copper mine) on 30 August 1914. By then, a British Expeditionary Force of 70,000 men had landed in France and been defeated by the Germans at the battle of Mons. It had been an ignominious start to the conflict.
Under normal circumstances, the hunter would have been concerned with selling the ivory he had brought back from German territory, but that seemed unimportant now. He gazed out of the hotel window over the red-dust main street of Elizabethville, with its cafes and bordellos and engineering workshops. A detachment of African soldiers—
as they were known—was marching up the street, a Belgian officer at their head. The Belgians had come into the War as Britain’s allies and these Congolese could be employed against the Germans. With the troops of their Force Publique spread throughout the colony (one of them a
), the Belgians were hard pressed. But they had a chance to attack German East Africa—if only they could cross Lake Tanganyika.
This was now impossible. The last serviceable Belgian steamer on the lake had already been holed by the time the hunter arrived in Katanga. The 90-ton
Alexandre del Commune
had been allowed to leave the German port of Kigoma on the other side of the lake on 6 August. This was two days after the declaration of war, but the port authorities were still uncertain whether the Belgian Congo would remain neutral or not. On 15 August troops from the
had landed on the Belgian side; they had cut telephone cables and destroyed canoes and dhows. On 22 August, as the hunter had been making his way back through the bush to Elizabethville, the
had engaged the
at the mouth of the Lukuga River. In a two-hour battle, the Germans landed two shells on the Belgian ship, damaging its boiler and funnel. Thus disabled, it had withdrawn into the Lukuga.
After the German attack, General Tombeur, Vice-Governor of the Katanga Province, was ordered ‘to take all measures for the defence of Belgian territory’ and to co-operate with British forces in Northern Rhodesia and elsewhere. But the presence of German vessels on Lake Tanganyika and the decommissioning of the
put the General at a major disadvantage. The fact that the
was no longer functional also meant that the British advancing to the south of the lake through Northern Rhodesia could not take offensive action. They had around 5,000 men, of whom about half were African conscripts. Many were former policemen, the rest members of the King’s African Rifles.