The British Empire Library

Nyasaland Days: 1902-1919

by J.B. Davey

Courtesy of OSPA

Professor Colin Baker, MBE (Nyasaland 1954-71)
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 congratulated.

It is difficult to commend this book too highly. It is of rare quality and excellence and will bring joy to its readers.

British Empire Book
J.B. Davey
John and Pamela Beard
The British Empire and Commonwealth Museum Press


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