The British Empire Library

Destination 5 - Memoirs of an Irish Veterinarian

by Robert P Lee

Courtesy of OSPA

Review by Robert G Mares (Somaliland 1950-52, Gold Coast 1952-61, Nyasaland 1961-73, Director of Veterinary Services, Nyasaland 1969-73)
Robert P Lee was posted to Tanganyika on first appointment to the Colonial Veterinary Service. As this was in wartime the port where he had to change ships, Durban, was coded as Destination 5: hence the title of this very enjoyable book. His journey by sea in a slow convoy took six weeks to reach Durban. He sailed on from Durban to Zanzibar and Dar es Salaam and thence by train and lorry to Veterinary HQ at Mpwapwa, where the laboratory had in fact been built by the Germans for their own veterinary services before World War I.

The book is, as Professor Armour says in his Foreword, '... compulsory reading ... for nostalgic expatriates and indeed all those interested in Africa'. Thankfully the membership lists from Tonbridge indicate many surviving 'nostalgic expatriates'. There is no index or reference notes and my own background of veterinary and African history make me feel that some of Lee's text is misleading. For instance Dr Koch is described as '... the father of veterinary science in South Africa' and there are others who better deserve this title; but this need not trouble the general reader, though not altogether useful to academics.

Nineteen of the twenty four chapters are about Tanganyika; but other parts of Africa where Lee served are mentioned - Nigeria, Northern Rhodesia/Zambia and Tanzania's island of Pemba. The book is best read as a continuous narrative: two hundred and fifty pages of an autobiography dealing with the professional, but less of the personal, life of the author.

Lee's parents were Protestant Scots who had adopted the Irish Free State as their home and lived in Cork. So, while Scottish by birth, he is an Irishman by inclination and shows this by sundry comments on colonialism.

Robert Lee is my contemporary. We studied and qualified as veterinarians in the early years of WWII; Lee in Dublin and myself in London. But my service was unbroken while his was interrupted by periods of distinguished academic work which qualified him well to serve as consultant in Africa for the Irish Department of Foreign Affairs, and to attain the status of Professor.

At least four veterinary surgeons have written about Tanganyika, but without naming Lee. Their descriptions of the country and the work involved are however very similar. The illustrations, over half of them in colour, are excellent. They show the African scenery, the personalities, the lake steam-ship and the typical colonial style buildings to perfection. In contrast to the illustrations there are only two small maps which are not even adequate to show the many extensive and dramatic journeys Lee made in the course of duty. This practice of including poor maps occurs in many non-fiction works; Lee's publishers are not the only ones to fail in this respect.

It was commonplace in those days for officers, then mostly bachelors, to spend more time under canvas touring than in their homes. The domestic and social affairs at the time followed very much the same pattern as elsewhere in Africa: oil lamps, mosquito nets, house 'boys' and garden 'boys', bats in the thatch and sundowners on the veranda. There was always tennis, an irrigation tank for swimming and a spare bit of land for a golf course. However life was both hardworking and hard as those who have experienced it and readers of this book will know. His descriptions of the work of the veterinarian in Africa are very clear and emphasise the veterinary philosophy that disease is inseparable from nutrition and husbandry and all matters relating to domestic livestock.

Of Lee's consultative services for the Irish Department of Foreign Affairs, he mentions his return to Tanganyika (now independent Tanzania) 31 years after his first job there. He found much had changed; the old veterinary set up at Mpwpawa had gone and the rather desolate remains of the ill-fated Groundnut Scheme, started in 1946, marred the scenery of the nearby plains. The well meaning attempts at socialism made by President Nyerere had impoverished the country; the currency was devalued, Dar es Salaam was rundown and roads were bad. The dairy scheme he ran on Pemba, however, was successful and run on much the same lines as those by the British in Kenya and Malawi.

The final chapter is called Looking back and forward and sums up the successes and failures of the colonial period in Africa in a very fair manner. In particular he points out the great advantages to agricultural and veterinary services of the old methods of direct rule because full authority was handed to go ahead directors who had served first as field officers travelling extensively on safari and getting to know country and people. They knew what best to do and were able to initiate policy without the involvement of inexperienced politicians. His thoughts on the future of independent Africa are not without hope, and the lessons learnt from the failure of socialism in Tanzania will, he thinks, result in the long run in a happier tomorrow for that country.

British Empire Book
Robert P Lee
0 907677 79 7
Nordeal Ltd


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