The British Empire Library

Hammer, Compass and Traverse Wheel: a Geologist in Africa

by William H. Reeve

Courtesy of OSPA

Review by R. J. Barkley (Northern Rhodesia Police 1949-65)
This is an intriguing autobiography of a member of one of the unsung branches of the Colonial Service which rarely received the public credit which their value merited.

Now over 80 years old William Reeve has delved into his diaries to tell a fascinating story of his career. Starting as a young geologist in 1930 he went straight from England to Broken Hill in Northern Rhodesia where after, believe it or not, one day of being kitted out, provisioned and briefed he was sent by Anglo-American Mining Corporation to the remotest part of the Northern Province to join a survey team. His account is detailed and brings to life the conditions under which he worked and the technicalities of his job, and one must respect the resilience of this young man who adapted himself to the lonely but hard-working life in the bush without any complaints at all. His three year contract took him to the Fort Victoria District of Southern Rhodesia where, at the age of about 25, on the instructions of his employers he drove a motor vehicle for the first time in his life, and a hair raising journey it was too. The last year of his contract was in the Eastern Province of Northern Rhodesia, after which he returned to England to teach. But Africa called and, now married, he joined the Tanganyika Government and was posted to Dodoma. Once again William Reeve's observations are meticulous and it is interesting to hear that the roads in Tanganyika were far better than those in Northern Rhodesia, a legacy of the German government before the first world war. Field work commenced in April after the rains and lasted until the end of the year. Mrs. Reeve accompanied her husband and took to camp life as well as he did. At this point for the first time William had a short-wave radio for his entertainment in the bush, listening to the BBC and French and German stations as well.

On leaving Tanganyika William Reeve got mixed up with the vagaries of pensionable and non-pensionable service and, by resigning his Tanganyikan contract, he had to start from scratch as it were when, after a period of unemployment, he managed in 1939 to get a permanent and pensionable posting to Nyasaland. The war came and he was seconded to the Kenya Regiment as a private, but his qualifications were recognised and he was attached to the South African Engineer Corps as a sergeant and took part in the operations against the Italians in Somaliland. Returning to Kenya he was commissioned and became involved with location of underground water supplies and the government, finding that expertise such as his was more important in civilian life, had him released from the army and transferred to the Kenya Service.

William Reeve gives a detailed account of his work in Kenya which demonstrates the importance which was attached to the development of water supplies in that territory.

As the summit of his career William Reeve returned to Northern Rhodesia in 1951 to take up the post of Director of the Geological Survey Department, this department being newly formed as previously geological survey in Northern Rhodesia had been carried out by the mining companies. This last part of the book concentrates more on the work of the Department which among other things included the preliminary survey for the Kariba Dam rather than the personal details of day to day life which so enhance the earlier chapters.

One feels that the bush life and the elemental Africa were William Reeve's true loves and, interesting as are the technical details with which this book abounds, for those of us who knew Africa it will be his personal reminiscences that stir us the most.

British Empire Book
William H. Reeve
Pentland Press


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