Winston Churchill's "My African Journey"

by A. O'Hare / November 29, 2019

    Before starting out to criticise some of the quite controversial content of this book, it must first be noted that this journal of Churchill’s was published in 1908 - 111 years ago to this year, and as such, his words and actions must be put into context. Churchill is often, I think for many, thought of as a figure of modern times, for he passed away in 1965 and due to his great accomplishment of defeating the enemy in WWII and contributing to the survival of a diverse Western civilisation, he is still very much alive in the nationalism and patriotism of the British people, and for the older generation – still very much alive in their memory. He was however born in the year 1875 and was very much a 19th century man. In his prime during the peak of the British Empire, he lived to see it’s golden age decline and, following the second world war, crumble to pieces. During the time of writing, the mindset of almost all children of the empire was that Britain was doing the wold a tremendous favour in her crusade of colonising and civilising every inch of her territories.


    “In brief one slender thread of scientific civilisation, of order, authority, and arrangement, drawn across the primeval chaos of the world.”

    In this excerpt from the start of the book, Churchill here describes the Uganda railway which was built by the work of Indian labour under British instruction. This way of speaking, this world view rather, is almost like an appetiser for the modern reader pre-empting the platter of now seemingly alien ideology that is to come. Before I get onto that however, it must be said that despite his flaws, Churchill does to a certain extent show reasoning and sympathy for the natives of the lands which he is visiting. The book gives away no clues (as at the time of writing, why would it need to), but after some research, I found out that during this period, Churchill was the Under-Secretary of State for the Colonies’ (1905 – 1908) and the purpose of his visit to the protectorate of West Africa was a political one.

    I can give praise to Churchill throughout this book for his constant (sometimes almost to the point of irritation due to repetition) advocation and deep desire for hydroelectric power generation throughout the many rapids and waterfalls which run through West Africa. He sees this as the key to economic growth and the enhancement of the settlements there. Churchill proposes that a turbine at Victoria falls could generate power for the whole of Uganda! Credit can also be given for his advocation of investment in railways throughout the region and he even dedicates the title of a chapter to, and pre-names one of the railways he is proposing to be built – “The Victoria and Albert Railway”.

    Churchill’s descriptions of the natural environment, the people, the places he visits are detailed elegantly and fully. Some of the conditions he describes in terms of the terrain he travels through, the constant risk of disease and attach from predators, the blazing equatorial heat, also warrants praise for his endurance of character and physical endurance, even if undoubtedly the bulk of his belongings and supplies were hauled around by native servants. It would be almost inconceivable in our times to see a British politician trekking through African forests and jungle 20 miles each day on foot, pony and bicycle, then sleeping with the risk of numerous infectious diseases from the many flies and other pests, and with the risk of attach from predators. Yet Churchill was at an advantage. Again, obvious to the average reader at the time but not to the modern reader (and with no clues given in the book), Churchill was a soldier and had an active military career from 1895 – 1899 in Cuba, India and Sudan, even taking part in a cavalry charge in Omdurman. This again just illustrates the fact that Churchill was very much a man of another era and he cannot be treated the same as a modern age man, nor can he be judged as one – judgement must be in context.


Battle of Omdurman

Charge of the 21st Lancers at Omdurman, 2 Septemer 1898 (Image coutesy of National Army Museum https://collection.nam.ac.uk/detail.php?acc=1957-04-4-1 )

    I have now praised Churchill for what there is to praise in this book and have set the context. I will now proceed to describe the less agreeable parts of the book.

    “The manner of killing a rhinoceros in the open is crudely simple. It is thought well usually to select the neighbourhood of a good tree, where one can be found, as centre of the encounter. If no tree is available, you walk up as near as possible to him from any side except the windward, and then shoot him in the head or the heart.”

    This excerpt from the opening chapter of the book is part of a detailed description in which Churchill describes his hunt of a rhino. This is the first of many he kills on this ‘African Journey’ and as far as I recall, between himself and his entourage they total around 3 standard rhinoceros, 4 white rhinoceros, a couple of elephants, a hippo, a crocodile, countless deer and gazelle and surely countless other wild animals now protected and endangered. But take a look at this paragraph which follows shortly after:

    “There is time to reflect with some detachment that, after all, we were the aggressors: we it is who have forced the conflict by unprovoked assault with murderous intent upon a peaceful herbivore; that if there is such a thing as right and wrong between man and beast – and who shall say there is not? – right is plainly on his side…”

    What I take from this is that Churchill does have some sense of, not remorse, but some sense of consideration that what he is doing to this magnificent creature may be unjustified. Perhaps it is his admiration for seeing such a prehistoric spectacle of nature in the wilderness, or perhaps it is actually momentary fragment of guilt, but the fact remains that he ignores whatever lapse in judgement or emotions he has and proceeds to empty lead into this beast and many others. In contrast to this paragraph, in a later chapter he talks about not being able to resist pulling the trigger on a crocodile basking on a rock in the river as he passes by in a steam boat, out of his sheer hatred of the creature.

    Perhaps it is a perverted instinct that humans have to get pleasure from the killing other animals, but in his time ethical arguments against hunting and animal rights were considered an absurdity and would surely have been laughed at. Also, if Churchill had backed down on killing the rhino when he had these thoughts, he would be emasculating himself in front of his contemporaries, and being a politician, it would surely reflect negatively on his character as someone who has a weak stomach. Nevertheless, I don’t think he actually gave it any further thought, I think he saw it as sport, ‘fair game’ and nothing abnormal - a bit of enjoyment.

    More disturbing than the killing of all these now endangered species is perhaps the fact that nowhere in the book does Churchill mention going to retrieve the carcasses or at least taking their tusks and hides. As though they have shot them just for the shooting’s sake. At one point he mentions some of the natives going to retrieve  the tusks of an elephant and at another he mentions gifting some hides to some natives, but there is nothing conclusive to suggest that they did anything than shoot the animals dead, take a photo, then walk away. But again, as it was nothing abnormal at the time of writing, why would he feel the need to mention it even if he did retrieve the carcasses? He had nothing to justify and nobody wants to hear about skinning, butchering and trophy making.

    Beyond the descriptions of hunting, the title page photograph of “Mr Churchill and Burchell’s White Rhinocerous” and the great sadness reflected on by Churchill of not having found a lion to shoot, perhaps more troubling is the manner in which he describes the natives and his apparent view of white man as a superior race.

    Again I will stress, if at least out of an attempt of judgemental restraint against the man who led Britain through one of the most horrific wars the world has ever seen, I will stress that he is a man from another era and cannot be judged like men of today. I am solely reflecting on the content of this book specifically, but if one wanted to make a fair judgement of Churchill, one would have to compare him against his contemporaries, because one’s opinions are never entirely of their own but rather a collective of the thinking of the time – all the bad and all the good, with a final opinion formed out of the selection of those influences with critical thinking, personal reflection and one’s own sense of moral judgement.

    “At the Thika camp, then, several gentlemen, accomplished in this important sport, have come together with ponies, rifles, Somalis, and all other accessories.”

    Here in a seemingly hideous display of propriety, Churchill describes the camp at which they are preparing to go lion hunting. “…Somalis, and all other accessories.” Need I say more? Before jumping to immediate conclusions though, let me quote and excerpt from the chapter “Around Mount Kenya”:

    “It was pleasant to hear with what comprehension and sympathy the officers of the East Africa Protectorate speak about their work; and how they regard themselves as the guardians of the native interests and native rights against those who only care about exploiting the country and it’s people.”

    “It will be an ill day for these native races when their futures are removed from the impartial and august administration of the crown and abandoned to the fierce self-interest of a small white population.”

    Here, he somewhat shows sympathy for the native people and feels he has a sense (or at least the government has) of responsibility for their well being or else they will surely suffer. In a sense and with little knowledge of African history, I can say he was probably correct to a certain extent. There were the natives of Africa, blissful in their ignorance, living a simple life in paradise, and then came the Europeans with disease, technology, temptation and changing their lives forever. So in a sense yes, Britain did have a responsibility, it’s just his tone that makes it sound so arrogant and self-righteous.

    In contrast, going back to the “Somalis and all other accessories”, this to the modern ear makes one think Churchill sees them as a tool, as a possession rather than equals. Well we know he supports the protection of their rights but does he think their rights should be equal or does he merely think that they ought to be treated humanely and not exploited like slaves? Does he consider the natives as equal, and if not, does he believe with education they can become equal?

    “Armed with a superior religion and strengthened with Arab blood, they maintain themselves without difficulty at a higher level than the pagan aboriginals among whom they live.”

    “The European has neither the wish nor the power to constitute a white proletariat in countries like East Africa. In his view the blacks should be the private soldiers of the army, but the non-commissioned officers and the commanders must be white. This should not be dismissed as a mere assertion of racial arrogance. It is an obstinate fact. It is already a grave defect for a community to found itself upon the manual labour of an inferior race, and there are many complications and perils that spring therefrom.”

    “How is it that they have never become the home of some superior race, prosperous, healthy and free? Why is it that, now a railway has opened the door and so much has been published about them, there has not been one furious river of immigration from the cramped and insanitary jungle-slums of Europe?”

    “And, meanwhile, let us be sure that order and science will conquer, and that in the end John Bull will be really master in his curious garden of sunshine and deadly nightshade.”

    Churchill talks of a place in the world for white man and a place in the world for black. Where he supposes white man cannot survive, he proposes that those places be centres of economic output feeding European interests. He talks of inferior races and a superior races. Whether he is using these terms to define superiority in terms of the level at which each race is technologically advanced and civilised, or whether he sees it as a genetic distinction of superiority is unclear. Regardless, one thing is for sure – the rise of fascism and the Nazi superiority complex will have surely sparked a different outlook not just in himself but in the people of the British Empire and Western Civilisation as a whole. Looking back at this book post WWII, would he have judged his past self differently? Would he have seen the naivety and ignorance of his former self? On this one would need to research and consider in order to fairly judge the man as he was born in a different era and lived through the wars which prompted the biggest economic, social and ideological changes in modern history. One thing certain is that he is surely a complex figure and there is much more to learn.