The British Empire Library

Travels in the White Man's Grave: Memoirs from West and Central Africa

by Donald Macintosh

Courtesy of OSPA

Review by Keith Arrowsmith (Eastern Nigeria 1949-57)
In 1954 Donald Macintosh joined the Nigerian Forestry Service. During the next 30 years, his various activities as a surveyor, tree-prospector and forest botanist took him through some of the most remote areas of West Africa. Many of the chapters in the book provide glimpses of the exceptional hardships he endured - though in describing his work and day-to-day life he makes light of them.

A day or two after his arrival at Lagos, he was jolting his way along the laterite road to the north of the city, heading for "West Africa's fabled rainforests". He was filled with excitement and expectancy. He had an "inexplicable feeling of contentment, of serenity, a feeling almost of destiny fulfilled already". He felt no sadness at having left home and family behind him. Instead he experienced a tremendous elation and a strange feeling that "home was where I was going right now".

Macintosh gives a vivid picture of the life which awaited him. Being a forester, he records a wealth of information about the trees amongst which he lived, worked and travelled; the gigantic Okan, hardest of all African timbers; the squat Bombax with its scarlet tulip-ike blossoms; colossal Mahoganies, eight feet in diameter; Azobes, towering skywards; the mighty Obeche; the Coula, whose hard-shelled nuts were greatly valued by village women; the Sasswood, which could rise to a height of 150 feet and was renowned for the use of its poison in so-called trials by ordeal; and many others.

The nature of his work imposed extremely hard living conditions, which he accepted with equanimity. "Day after awful day", he writes, "we slithered and stumbled, often armpit deep, through malodorous swamp, being attacked without cessation by clouds of blood-sucking flies. Occasionally a startled cobra would veer sharply on meeting us ... Once, a huge python watched us from a low fork in a bushy mangrove..." Night-time provided little or no relief. "As sunset approached we would dump our gear on some islet rising marginally out of the endless ooze and try to clean the mud from our aching bodies before settling down to a meal of hornbill or monkey.... Arboreal ants fell upon us from every leaf, twig or shrub we touched and the formic acid from their vicious stings inducing (sic) a lingering, unpleasant nausea within us. The onset of night was the cue for squadrons of voracious mosquitoes to batten on our blood until daylight, making sleep all but impossible".

Conditions were made even worse by relentless rain for half the year. It was so heavy that, in the gloom of the great trees, it was "often impossible to see more than 10 yards ahead". However, the author's sense of humour seems never to have deserted him, and he likened this continuous downpour to "an emptying of the heavenly bladders on a grand scale, a deluge of truly Noachic proportions".

Throughout the book there are descriptions of a huge variety of wildlife ranging from elephants to squirrels, eagles to weaver birds, and clouds of butterflies to armies of driver ants. Snakes were a constant hazard, and he describes graphically an encounter with an enraged cobra on which he had inadvertently trodden.

In the course of the book, we also come across a varied assortment of interesting and entertaining human beings, including: Obi, the Leopard Man; the dancing R.C. Father; Old Man Africa, who taught Macintosh - amongst other things - how to prepare snacks of fat, white, goliath beetle caterpillars fried in rich, red palm-oil; Osei, the Carpenter, and his mad wife; Magic Sperm, who by his 15th birthday had impregnated more maidens than the King of Benin had achieved during a lifetime; the son of a British peer, who had come to grief in an open sewer outside a lowly brothel; the newly married Forestry Officer who received a surprise Christmas present from the Harlots of Mundoni; Famous Sixpence; and Pisspot.

One's enjoyment of this excellent book lasts from the first to the final page. It evokes - almost poignantly - for those of us have lived on the Coast and worked in the bush, memories of past days ... and nights; "A huge African moon was edging its way up behind the two cotton trees, bathing the compound in silvery light and velvet shadow. Beyond the trees and down in the village a lone drummer began to beat a vigorous tattoo. A second drummer picked up the beat, hesitantly at first, then faster and more confidently, until the two merged as one in the ancient rhythm. They were warming up for the dance that was being held this night in the village..."

British Empire Book
Donald Macintosh
Neil Wilson Publishing Ltd


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