First, I must admit that I never knew Colonel Curie but our paths nearly crossed twice
on occasions when my family rented his beach house at Bagamoyo in Tanganyika.
We could find out nothing about him from local people; his agent said he had only met him
once and he thought that he worked for the Foreign Office. The mystery remained until the
publication of this book which consists of his letters in the period mentioned in the title.
His daughter who has edited them has added her own comments which are a great help
in explaining why her father came to be sent to live and represent our interests in such a
variety of uncomfortable and often dangerous outposts of Empire.
Curie started his adult life as a soldier, gaining a commission in the
Gordon Highlanders in December 1918. He found post-war soldiering in Europe dull
and some of the conventions irritating - he was told by his CO that owning a car
coloured red was not an appropriate vehicle for an officer. No wonder he joined the
KAR. He was posted to Jubaland - that part of Kenya's NFD which was soon to be
handed over to Italy. His time there gave him the chance to learn some Swahili and
improve his French and Italian - an asset in the light of his subsequent career - as well
as experience in understanding the way of life of nomadic people. For most of his Army
service in East Africa he remained in the NFD, engaged in protecting people from cattle raiders
crossing the frontier from southern Ethiopia. In 1928 he retired from the army
and joined the Somaliland Protectorate administration where he was posted to Hargeisa,
appointed an Assistant District Officer. After life in the NFD he found that his work was
almost entirely concentrated on sitting in Court and it is evident from his letters that
he did not find this a congenial occupation. Reading his letters reminded me of my own
introduction to litigation in Somalia some twenty years later. My predecessor in a
District Office in Somalia told me that I would find that the origins of most violent crime
could be attributed to disputes over wells, camels or girls - and the last mentioned was
far less likely to lead to violence than the other two.
Curie's experiences seem to have been much the same but he was to escape from the
courtroom which he hated. Within six months he had obtained a temporary transfer to
the Foreign Office and appointed acting Vice Consul Jijiga. He described his work there
as mostly frontier and very little consular and from his account it would seem that his
time was fully occupied in receptions and answering correspondence involving claims
arising from cross-border raids. The problems were aggravated by the status of
Somaliland; it was a Protectorate which meant that the nomadic tribes followed age-old custom of ignoring international boundaries and moving into southern Ethiopia
at certain times of the year, confident that they could rely on British protection under the
1897 treaty. It was the duty of the Consul to remind the local fituari (governor) of these
rights when they were ignored. Much negotiating and correspondence often followed.
By 1933 Curie was back in Somaliland and to fill in the short time before home leave
he was posted to Erigavo and detailed to map the areas growing and exporting gumarabic.
His conclusions were, it seems, that the export of the product from the local ports
in the district had declined and the product was no longer important. This conclusion
I find surprising. In 1948, I was stationed in the adjoining district in Italian Somaliland
(under British Military Administration) - Bender Kassim, now renamed Bosaso - and
there was a thriving export of gum-arabic in dhows which brought imports of millet and
maize from Mukalla; sacks of gum-arabic were loaded for the return journey. My Somali
interpreter, who came from Erigavo, told me that much of the crop came from his own
district. I suspect that our town provided more interesting recreation for the dhow crews
than any of the tiny ports visited by Curie on his surveys; more recently Bosaso has
become internationally famous as the centre for piracy.
On his return from home leave. Curie was appointed a member of the Somaliland-
Ethiopian boundary commission. It might have been expected to be a relatively simple
problem to establish a frontier through a countryside of semi-desert but there were three
governments involved and quick agreement proved impossible. Several pages of his letters
are taken up in criticising the French for being obstructive, incompetent or both. With the
advantage of hind-sight it seems quite obvious why the French were being deliberately
'difficult'. Our government in Somaliland was already discussing with London the
possibility of acquiring the grazing area in the Ogaden in exchange for the abandoned port
of Zeila in the Protectorate, which would make it possible for Ethiopia to by-pass the
railway terminus in the French-controlled port of Djibuti. The Emperor had agreed to the
proposal and it seems inconceivable that the French did not know what was afoot.
Twelve months passed and the boundary lines had still not been completely settled.
However, by now the Commissioners had arrived at Walwal, soon to become famous for
the battle which was to lead to the Italian invasion of Ethiopia. (For those interested, this
book provides an extract from the PRO (now The National Archives - TNA) file
FO/J71/19105 or a visit to TNA to see the file may help; also for a good read see
W F Deedes' At War with Waugh, Macmillan 2003).
By 1937 Curie had been transferred to Tanganyika and posted to Sumbawanga in
Western Province. The relevant chapter in the book is titled Quiet life as a District
Officer in Tanganyika and so it must have seemed to him after the chaotic time he had
experienced in Somaliland and Ethiopia. To reach his district the usual way was to travel
by water on Lake Tanganyika. His description of his journey on the Lake Steamer
Liemba brings back memories to anyone who was fortunate enough to enjoy that
experience. It seemed to have a maximum speed of ten knots and was an extremely
comfortable way of progression. In my time in Tanganyika it was recommended as a
cure for anyone on the verge of a breakdown.
Curie's enjoyment of a quiet life was not to last. With the outbreak of war, he was
recalled to the KAR and by 1940 had been posted to the Somali Camel Corps in Berbera.
He provides an interesting account of the withdrawal and subsequent evacuation to Aden
of British forces in the Protectorate. Back in Kenya he was appointed to form an
Ethiopian guerrilla unit and this was duly created and named the Second Ethiopian
Irregulars (Curies). Their first objective was to drive the enemy out of Kenya and Curie
recounts his experiences with a wry sense of humour - some of his comments were
erased by the censor. His last letter to appear in this book is dated 25 May 1941.
The Emperor had by now entered his capital but pockets of resistance still remained.
Curie was promoted to Lt Colonel, awarded the DSO and released 'for advisory duties in
Ethiopia'. This account of his career is well worth a read by students of African history
and that diminishing band of now-elderly companions who enjoyed or suffered life in the
Horn of Africa many years ago.