The British Empire Library

The Zanzibar Chest - A Memoir Of Love And War

by Aidan Hartley

Courtesy of OSPA

Review by Hugh Walker (Kenya 1953-64, Aden 1964-67, BBC Somali Service 1967-74, Hong Kong 1974-88)
Anyone with past experience of Eastern Africa and South Arabia will be interested - and disturbed - by the vivid accounts in this book of how life there has changed in recent years. But the book will also appeal to a far wider readership. It is both a family biography and the autobiography of a modern front-line war correspondent. The many reviews all praise it and deservedly so.

Aidan Hartley was born in Kenya in 1965. His father, Brian Hartley, was the fourth of four generations of colonial officers over two centuries - "a typical British story spanning generations, in which men, women and their children sank in ships on faraway oceans, succumbed to fevers in tropical bone-yards and died in small wars, mutinies and rebellions fought across the crimson atlas of the British Empire. A chronicle of tragedy and conquest." Aidan Hartley describes his father as an Old Testament, patriarchal figure of immense vitality, "Our Father who art in Africa", who joined the Colonial Service in 1928 as an Agricultural Officer in Tanganyika. Ten years later he went to Aden where he became Director of Agriculture and pioneered the Abyan Cotton Scheme. Leaving Aden in 1952 he bought a farm (at Mweiga) in Kenya but the Mau Mau Emergency caused him to leave it and buy another in Tanganyika between Mounts Kilimanjaro and Mem. This was a paradise that only Nyerere's vicious Ujamaa socialism later forced him to leave; he then became a skilled Aid worker in some of the remotest areas of the continent that he could find, making the family almost nomadic.

In the middle of one camp of starving, dying peasants in Ethiopia he wrote:

'The camps lie broken down on hill and plain,
Skulls, bones and horns remain.
No shouts, no songs of fighting, or of love.
But from the bare thorn trees above.
So sadly calls the mourning dove.
Was this your ravaged land.
The work of God, or was it man's own hand?"

Nearly ninety, just before he died, he said to Aidan "we should never have come, but when we did we should have stayed". Aidan replied, "but Dad we did".

However, this book is more about the son than the father. Aidan Hartley's journalistic travels were even more nomadic. After the end of the Cold War there seemed new hope for Africa but again and again in Ethiopia, in Somalia, Rwanda and the Congo terror and suicide prevailed. As a journalist he reported from them all, recording some of Africa's most awful civil wars and famines. The graphic accounts of his on-the-spot experiences make compelling reading. He also tells of the other journalists who, like him, chase dramatic stories in perilous places; and of the friendships that grew out of the dangers and fear as well as the shared sense of purpose in getting the news out to the world.

But it is not all reporting. He weaves into his narrative the story of Peter Davey, his father's best friend in Aden before and after the war. Davey was a political officer on the frontier between the Yemen and the Aden Protectorate and Brian Hartley was the Director of Agriculture. Davey became a Muslim in order to marry a Beihani girl. He was subsequently forced to divorce her rather than lose his job. He was later shot dead in an unconnected incident. Davey's diaries were collected by Brian Hartley who kept them in his old Zanzibar Chest, hence the title of the book. Aidan Hartley vividly describes his own visit to Aden and the Yemen to reconstruct Davey's story.

Hartley also frankly recalls some of his own loves - the book's sub-title A Memoir of Love and War is not inept! However, it is much more than a war correspondent's book about a continent's pain and despair. Some of this masterpiece of fine, descriptive writing, is heartbreaking, painfully honest and impassioned; many passages are even lyrical. It is a beautifully written book and deserves to become a classic.

British Empire Book
Aidan Hartley
Harper Collins Publishers
0 00 257059 9


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