In 1904, on his first home leave from British Central Africa, Dr Jack Davey bought
himself a camera. He decided to purchase first class equipment and bought a Zeiss
Minimum Palmos 5x4 plate camera, together with developing and printing equipment
with which to process the photographs he planned to take when he returned to his post as
Government Medical Officer in Africa. Many years later, persuaded by his daughter and
son-in-law. Jack wrote his memoirs of his experiences in Nyasaland - the name of the
country having changed in 1907 and before it changed again on independence in 1964 to
Malawi - up to the time he left in 1919. These two decisions - to buy a good camera
and to write his memoirs - led to the production of a truly remarkable book, 'Nyasaland
Days 1902 - 1919'. It is remarkable in that it not only tells the story of a medical
practitioner and his work in Africa in the first two decades of the twentieth century,
including the First World War, but it is most richly illustrated with over 120 truly
excellent photographs. The text and the illustrations if published separately would make
fascinating reading and viewing, but together, as in this book, they produce a volume of
outstanding merit and interest.
Jack Davey was born in 1875 at Coatham near Redcar, Yorkshire, son of the
headmaster of the local Grammar School, the Reverend John Davey, who later became a
rector of a small and impoverished parish. He was educated by his father in the family's
large home until at the age of 14 he was sent to boarding school. On leaving school he
started his medical training, first at Edinburgh and then at Middlesex Hospital in
London, financing himself from a scholarship of #30 a year. When he qualified he
volunteered for the South African War for a year as a medical officer with the Royal
Army Medical Corps. He returned to Britain, disillusioned but with a hankering for
wide open spaces, and successfully applied to the Foreign Office for an appointment as a
Medical Officer in the British Central Africa Protectorate.
Nowadays the medical and other professions take great pride in their systems of
Continuous Professional Development, but these are not new concepts or practices, for
prior to joining the service Jack Davey was required to attend a diploma course and
qualify in Tropical Medicine. During his first leave he was also required to take the
diploma course in Tropical Veterinary Pathology. Furthermore, during his second leave
he voluntarily took the full course at Liverpool for the Diploma in Tropical Medicine.
In his memoirs Dr Davey describes his journey out to BCA: by ship via Cape Town to
Beira, by a German coasting vessel to Chinde at the mouth of the Zambezi and thence by
river steamer up the Zambezi and the Shire rivers for eight days to Chiromo and then by
machila (travelling hammock) for two days up the rift valley escarpment to Blantyre.
So far as the narrative of his memoirs is concerned Dr Davey deals first with his early
life from 1875 to 1901 before quickly moving on to the heart of his memoirs which
consist of 75 pages covering his Nyasaland service from 1902 to 1919. This key part is
followed by a shorter chapter on Tanganyika from 1919 to 1924 and a final chapter on
his retirement in England.
Concerning his Nyasaland Days 1902-1919 - the title of his book - the author follows
the chronological pattern of his five tours in the country and the home leaves between
them. Apart from his normal medical duties he became increasingly closely engaged in
research on sleeping sickness about which he gives many details. In this research he was
a member of Sir David Bruce's Sleeping Sickness Commission. Davey makes some
interesting comments on who really made the discoveries often attributed to Sir David.
Fascinating and important historically and socially as is the narrative of the book, the
greater impact lies in the large collection of first-class and well-reproduced photographs
of life in Central Africa a century ago. To attempt to describe these photographs would
not do them justice and would detract from the joy of looking at them as one reads the
book. As Dr Davey's son-in-law says in the Foreword, the photographs 'show important
places, events and activities like the construction by native labour of the Shire Highlands
Railway, the game that was then plentiful, tribal life, customs and costumes that have by
now largely disappeared, and the living conditions of himself and other Europeans
pioneering in an Africa just beginning to come under European influence.'
Readers will notice that the book was published in 2005 by the British Empire and
Commonwealth Museum - for which they are to be congratulated - but copies have not
been available to the public until very recently - for which the Museum is not to be
It is difficult to commend this book too highly. It is of rare quality and excellence and
will bring joy to its readers.