The British Empire Library


A Colonial Odyssey

by Robert Boyd, CBE

Vet in Africa: Life on the Zambezi, 1913-33

by John Smith


Courtesy of OSPA


Review by R.J. Short (N. Rhodesia 1950-1966)
It is the undoubted misfortune of Mr Boyd's worthy book to fall to be reviewed in harness with a minor masterpiece, which may stand beside the two classics of Northern Rhodesia memoirs, Harry Franklin's Flagwagger and Kenneth Bradley's Diary of a District Officer.

John Smith's son has served his father well as the Editor of Vet in Africa, and the narrative carries one along with the panache and elan that compels one to read till two o'clock in the morning. The happy reader is carried away by Mr Smith's experiences early this century, from Dr Jimmy knighted and re-habilitated, onwards. One is filled with respect by the easy spirit in which Smith walks, rides or canoes on his way, taking disease, discomfort, and clanger as matters of routine. Later DOs lived fairly hard, but compared to him we were more sybaritic.

"Dancing away the fever" (malaria), epitomises his laughing cavalier attitude, attired, let it be said, in white tie, stiff white shirt and collar, de rigeur it seems in the formal parties of pre-1914. One can but sit in silent admiration and enjoyment, and be swirled along like a canoe down the Zambezi, guided by Smith's adept paddlers in imagination, with all its majesty sweeping past.

This is in contrast to Boyd's Colonial Odyssey, which fails I fear to rise much above the height of an auditor's desk. Despite its elevated dedication to the author's late wife which gives the book dignity and pathos, it is in truth a dull book. It may be said to illustrate the African proverb, which runs: "the speed of the tortoise arrives the earliest", when Boyd's worthy efforts over the years are at length recognised by the award of the CBE.

One would have liked to have known what makes an Auditor's mind tick and grind into action. The dreaded Auditor's Queries in their green ink would tempt hard-pressed rural DCs to reply in the irritable terms of the Duke of Wellington's letter from Spain to the Secretary of War, to the effect that if he gave his attention to replying to the numerous petty enquiries from the clerks in His Lordship's office he may as well give up any intention of campaigning against the enemy. Such letters, however, were never despatched because the Auditor had the unanswerable reply of personal surcharge, if it came to it.

Yet the Auditor served a purpose. There was no real corruption under colonial rale. The 'present' even of a bottle of whisky would be instantly returned to the donor. That is to say, until Independence. It is quite wrong to say, as Boyd does in an aside, that the British destroyed the Zambian economy by their sanctions against UDI. The Zambians lost no time in doing this themselves. To give an example, 23 Mercedes, one per Minister, three of which were crashed within three months. This example spread. This despite Boyd's friendship with Arthur Wina, the one man of prudity in the UNIP Government.

But these are mundane matters, for the record. To return to a finer, earlier age, the noble friendship which David Smith struck up with the Litunga, and King Lewanika, which probably saved the day when huge numbers of Lozi cattle had to be slaughtered in a great Rinderpest epidemic. "My friend", Lewanika begins his letter, as we would also. And their last parting, when Lewanika knew that he was failing. They exchanged presents, and waved farewell across the vast Barotse plain. Such were the relations between later colonial servants, faithful to their charge, and later chiefs, faithful to their friends, when the end came with such suddenness. All this was swept away like lumber.

David Smith, when war broke after three years, attained his ambition and got to France with the RCVS - to the hell of Flanders, where every man of fighting age yearned to go. What hurt the refusal of release did to those who had to stick to their posts in the Second World War I well know. No matter now, fifty years after. They too "did their bit".

The final tribute of David Smith's editor-son to his father is a noble one, a comer of which we may perhaps be permitted to share with him. Of the old man, gazing into the fire, he says: "He has left his heart in Africa and could never fully retrieve it". That is his epitaph, and it is a worthy one to a glorious character.

British Empire Book
Author
Robert Boyd, CBE.
Published
1996
Pages
102
Publisher
Navigator Books
ISBN
0902830635
Availability
Abebooks
Amazon
British Empire Book
Author
John Smith
Published
1996
Pages
256
Publisher
The Radcliffe Press
ISBN
1860641326
Availability
Abebooks
Amazon


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