TIME PAST IN AFRICA: MERVYN SMITHYMAN AND FAMILY RECOLLECTIONS. Anne M. Chappel. CreateSpace, 2015. 222 pp. (paperback). ISBN 978-1517172275. £7.85.
ZANZIBAR UHURU: A REVOLUTION, TWO WOMEN AND THE CHALLENGE OF SURVIVAL. Anne M. Chappel. CreateSpace, 2015. vi + 314 pp. (paperback). ISBN 978-1505511840. £10.00.
Anne Chappel, the author of these two self-published books, is the daughter of Mervyn Vice Smithyman (1911-2008), best known to historians for the way in which his all-too-brief tenure as a Permanent Secretary came to an abrupt end on the day of the Zanzibar Revolution, when he was forced to flee by swimming out to a boat in the harbour. In their very different ways, both of these books, one a memoir and the other a historical novel, help put that unforgettable incident into proper perspective, not least by providing the personal details and context, real and imagined, that are absent in the cursory published accounts. For Mervyn Smithyman was not alone that day, but before making his own escape, made sure that his family and others were safe offshore, among them the 16-year-old Anne. These complementary works of fact and fiction can be read as her own reckoning with the past and the shocking events of that day. The first embeds it in family history; the second is a sensitive reflection on its consequences for the lives of others, including those less fortunate than herself.
As a memoir, the richly-illustrated Time Past in Africa is also much more than this. Its first half traces Mervyn’s family roots and early life in South Africa, where he was born, and Nyasaland, where he spent the second half of his childhood. His parents, Fred Milner and Catherine Jessie Smithyman (neé Vice) worked their way up in colonial society from relatively inauspicious beginnings; the last of their ten children was born in 1933 and by the start of the Second World War they owned both a large family house with stables and a separate holiday home, and were running a hotel, a mineral water factory, and a brewery in Zomba. Mervyn had a job as a junior clerk in the Department of Agriculture, and repaired typewriters for the government in his spare time, work which gave him the time and means to travel around the world in the year before the outbreak of conflict. During the War itself he served as an officer in the King’s African Rifles, rising to command a battalion in India, and this experience stood him in good stead when he applied to join the British Colonial Administration.
The second half of the memoir details his subsequent career in Tanganyika and Zanzibar. His first posting was as Assistant District Officer in Mwanza; he went there in 1947 with his wife Audrey and son Michael, and they were soon joined by baby Anne. He was then posted to Bukoba and soon after to Biharamulo, where he was District Commissioner. In 1949 he was transferred to Same in Pare District, and stayed there until moving to the Secretariat in Dar es Salaam in 1953, where he worked in the District Administration Department and got to know the Governor, Sir Edward Twining. In 1955 he was appointed Senior District Officer in Mbeya, and that was his last tour on the mainland before being offered the post of Senior Assistant Commissioner in Zanzibar, a job he began in September 1956 by serving for six months as District Commissioner of Pemba, based in Wete. In early 1957 he moved to Zanzibar town, and began the period of his career that has attracted most scrutiny by researchers, coinciding as it did with the zama za siasa, the ‘time of politics’ and series of hotly contested elections that preceded Zanzibar’s Independence in December 1963. Smithyman agreed to stay on for a time as Permanent Secretary under the new Prime Minister, Mohammed Shamte. But, as we now know, this lasted for little more than a month.
The most gripping parts of this memoir are his and other family members’ recollections of what happened on that fateful day. They differ somewhat from previously published accounts, and add new details, for example about the disagreements between different expats and members of the government over how they should respond to the rapidly evolving crisis on the morning of 12 January 1964.
The novel, Zanzibar Uhuru, takes off from a fictionalised version of the same events. Like the memoir, it is written in different narrative voices. The first section, which focuses on the first weeks of the Revolution, even includes a few harangues and mad rambles in the hectoring and self-justifying tones that were typical of the speeches and writings of the self-styled Field Marshal John Okello. But the real stars of the story are two women who relate their struggles with the myriad consequences of the events that Okello set in train. The suffering of the first of these, a Zanzibari Arab orphaned during the Revolution, is very persuasively told in the middle section of the book, and carries the tale. The third and final section takes us back to the life of the daughter of a British official whose flight from Zanzibar recalls that of the real-life Smithyman, and brings us forward to the present, when the lives of the two women become intertwined again. Like all good historical novels, Zanzibar Uhuru leaves you wanting to know more about the events it is based on, and which of them might be true. It has been carefully researched, and includes references and a list of further reading for good measure. I only noticed a few minor slips.
Zanzibar Uhuru is boldly conceived and compellingly written. Critics aware of Time Past in Africa and the author’s background will accuse her of reproducing the worldview and political prejudices of her own family and class. But as a survivor of the Zanzibar Revolution herself, she has every right to tell and re-imagine her tale. Although more than half a century has now passed since the Revolution, the wounds it opened are still raw, especially for the women who live with painful memories of the brutality they and their loved ones suffered when their worlds were turned upside-down. Anne Chappel is to be congratulated for bringing part of that story to us, and I hope it will encourage others to do the same, in whatever narrative or creative form.