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Book Reviews

Innocent Prisoners Of Tsavo

Volume 16, Issue 3  | 
Published 03/03/2020
  |

Authors: Lalchand Sharma and Vishva Bandhu Lalchand Sharma

Publ: Life Rich Publications

Reviewer: Neera Kapur-Dromsom

‘My book should be called The Innocent Prisoners of Tsavo. The Uganda Railway line passed through Tsavo, where a pioneer engineer, Lt Col JH Patterson, worked. He named his book about the shooting of two horrible man-eating lions, Man Eaters of Tsavo, (a school text book under British Raj). Since the core incident of my life occurred in the same Tsavo area, the title of my story should resonate with Patterson's best seller. The irony is that in my tale, the man eaters were British colonialists....’

With these introductory words in the Prologue, the author Lalchand Sharma, sets the framework for his memoir. Lalchand Sharma was taken prisoner in the Tsavo area during the First World War by the British military in Kenya for a crime he did not commit. He became a victim of crass racism, political and military ineptitude and propaganda by the then British colonial structure. 

Forty years after Lalchand Sharma passed on, his son Visho Sharma has carefully compiled his father's notes written over a period of twenty years, which we are now fortunate to see recorded in The Innocent Prisoners of Tsavo.  

The book is set in two parts. The first eighty pages or so are the memoirs of Lalchand Sharma, a life that begins in India and thereafter when he moves to British East Africa; his traumatic experiences and incarceration in Kenya during the 1914-1918 Anglo-German war. Interspersed throughout are illuminating explanatory notes by Visho Sharma that set in perspective the father's accounts; these deal with the circumstances leading to the accusations and incarceration of the prisoners, some of whom were executed. In the second part, Lalchand Sharma's diary notes continue as he moves on in his life 'after' the trauma. 

Lalchand Sharma was born in Gondpur, Punjab to Jawaharlal (Chachu) and Badam Devi in 1895. He started school late, was in and out of schools and finally quit this quest altogether. Not attending school was normal in the village. Still in his teens in 1912, he touched his parents’ feet and boarded the German ship, SS Marka Graph bound for Mombasa. In East Africa, plagued by illness in the beginning, he was in and out of odd jobs along the railway line, until he settled in as a sub fuel contractor supplying wood as fuel to the Uganda Railway (UR). 

Between 1896 and 1901, some 32,000 indentured labourers had been recruited by the British administration in Kenya from British India to construct a rail line from Mombasa to Port Florence (Kisumu). The broad objective was to cull cotton in Uganda and control the source of the Nile and thence the Suez canal - hence the name ‘Uganda Railway’. A remarkable engineering feat aside, the construction of the railway was widely believed to be of a financially unsound investment; it came to be called ‘the Lunatic Line’. Many workers died of malaria, blackwater fever, insect bites and thorns from acacia trees especially in the Taru desert areas of line construction. Moreover, approximately 2,500 labourers were killed by two lions who had become man-eaters, mostly in the Tsavo and Simba areas during this period. 

To Winston Churchill, the UR was a ‘brilliant conception’. He wrote: ‘Through everything, through the forests, through the ravines, through troops of marauding lions, through famine, through war, through five years of excoriating Parliamentary debate, muddled and marched the railway.’  

During the 1914-1918 Anglo-German war, the strategic importance of the Uganda Railway was immeasurable for British imperial interests in Eastern Africa. The war that was fought here was forced upon the non-European workers and civilians in Eastern Africa who had nothing to do with it. The 1885 Berlin Treaty stated that the colonies should remain neutral in the event of a European war – bringing East Africa into the European War arena was a breach of the treaty. A European war became a World War.  

The presence of the Germans with well-fortified posts and a smaller but brilliant and competent army haunted and humiliated the British commandment. Compounded by malice, mediocrity and mendacity and with no-one clearly in charge and no clear objectives, the British army's strategy and tactics were confined to keeping the UR secure. The guerilla tactics of the legendary German General Von Lettow-Vorbeck, his clear and strategic vision, military skill and unspeakable courage made the task of the British military  increasingly difficult.  

‘Lettow-Vorbeck's brilliantly timed and executed raids had the effect of paralyzing rather than galvanizing the British,’ quotes Visho Sharma from Hill and Mosley's books. The German guerilla units continued attacking the UR line in the Tsavo area; the British commanders blundered and muddled through as they searched for scapegoats, putting the blame on the Indians working in the Tsavo area.  

The 'muddling through' persisted in the first two years of the war with fateful circumstances. Writes Visho Sharma: ‘A hundred years ago, Britain's civil administration in Kenya determined that, under martial law imposed during World War 1, the British military had unjustly executed three fuel contractors. They were innocent, caught in a web crafted by British authority to intimidate Indians demanding equal rights with Europeans’. Neither the victims nor their families ever received any apology or compensation for this gross injustice. The publication of this memoir lays bare the perfidy and brazen inhumanity of British colonialism – is it too late for the British Government to express remorse?! 

 ‘Innocent Indians were executed; those spared by their British tormentors suffered long, hard-labour incarceration, some being deported to British India after Armistice (11 November 1918). The British were served by a deficient intelligence which clumsily linked the “offences” by the Indians with both the Indian demand for equal rights in Kenya and the larger freedom struggle in India,’ in the words of Visho Sharma. 

During the First World War, an anti-imperialist Ghadar Party established a branch in Eastern Africa, attracting support from some of the Asian community living there. Led by an educated elite, the Ghadar (rebellion, revolt) Party, that became a movement of the Indian diaspora, had its roots in the Punjab, India. Its base in San Francisco was initiated by Indian immigrants (mostly Sikhs), initially for rights in the USA and for Indian independence from the British Raj.  

Through its paper, the Ghadar, the militant and anti-imperialist movement spread its message globally, including Western Europe and British East Africa. The British authorities saw it as a terrorist movement and their response was swift and brutal. These innocent Indians were falsely accused of being in possession of what the British termed as  ‘seditious literature’ and were incarcerated. The British military used all sorts of devices - harassment, lies, even payment to perjure for the crown. Law and any sense of justice had broken down. 

Lalchand Sharma and his two cousins were convicted on trumped up charges for allegedly assisting the Germans to blow up the UR line. They were imprisoned in Fort Jesus jail and denied access to their lawyer. The cousins were shot at dawn by a British firing squad hours after the verdict by a kangaroo court martial trial; another was hanged in public. Lalchand Sharma's sentence was reduced to ten years hard labour and so he lived to tell the tale. 

 In a moving paragraph, Lalchand Sharma writes, ‘The cousins faced their unspeakable end with great courage. They had taken a cold shower and worn white dhotis ... sat stoically through the ritual havan (sacred fire ceremony) chanting the few mantras ... prayers said, they walked resolutely to their death in bare feet ... the military authority cruelly denied the two innocent martyrs the last rites, burying their bullet ridden bodies in that very compound in unmarked graves.’  

This non-fiction life story narrated in the first person is an important contribution to our history offering new information on the evil legacy of the trauma of colonialism as well as racism. Visho Sharma's additional research to help elaborate his father's journey goes a long way in putting light on history never revealed to the public before. He writes, ‘The record of the horrible episode remained inaccessibly buried in the British War office vaults for 80 years; and what was recorded turned out to be perfunctory.’ 

There is mention of leaders like AM Jeevanjee and MA Desai from the Indian Association and A Visram trying to assist for his release. This reflection on the past shines a light on how consequences and decisions have a ripple effect. There is a very interesting synthesis on the World War 1 strategies used by the Germans and the British in East Africa as the British muddled through with no one clearly in charge. Many pages are dedicated to the war conditions that prevailed in the Tsavo area to put in context the historical conditions in which his father found himself - to be falsely accused and to be condemned to ‘death by hanging’.   

The vivid portrayal and analysis of the war incidents are well developed. The war is not only a political event, there is also social segregation, racism and inequality. Moreover, archives can be as limiting as they are telling, especially when you are trying to find stories of people who have been pushed through the margins. Visho Sharma is well aware of this when he and his support team go through various records and come across biases in class and race, the harsh facts of history therein.  

It is also a story of courage, and of resilience. After such a traumatic experience, that Lalchand Sharma was able to pick up the threads of his life, tells the reader that even in the event of all odds, a successful challenge to adversity is possible. Lalchand did not allow the incident of the 1914-1918 war to embitter him, but took it all philosophically.  

The story shifts from military jargon to building a new life in the next 170 odd pages. His youth might have been constrained and compromised by circumstances, but clearly Lalchand Sharma was a survivor who matured through all these experiences into a man of uprighteousness and with a philosophical streak.  

As part of their 'divide and rule' policy, the British had encouraged the formation of separate institutions based on religious and linguistic affiliations. The Arya Samaj, an independent religious/reformist movement started by Dayanand Saraswati in India in the 1870s calling for Swaraj, ‘India for Indians’, was founded very early in British East Africa. The adherents were mostly from the Punjab, and Lalchand Sharma found a base that gave him strength, and that he gave back to.  His strong roots in Arya Samaj beliefs gave him the needed courage and force to move on.    

Bearing witness is a step forward toward liberation in time of crisis. The portrait is of a youth in dire political times and the lasting impact of political trauma when things often fall apart, as he seeks a way out. The memoir is worth reading precisely for all these reasons. In the second part, the book narrates the stories of Lalchand re-commencing education, becoming a law clerk, a shopkeeper and finally an industrialist. He marries Badam Devi and the couple have two daughters and three sons who as adults move on to India and the USA.  

In the epilogue, Visho Sharma writes of post-independence betrayal of their lofty dreams in Kenya and for Kenyans by the new leaders. ‘Quite clearly, as we read his writing, a huge paradigm shift occurred; even as people changed Kenya, Kenya changed them. Gradually Kenya became their substantive home; India began to recede in their minds as a distant reality...’ India was the home he had left, Kenya was the home where he matured. Yet, after the independence of Kenya, Lalchand Sharma was disappointed and dismayed. ‘Our father shared with JM Nazareth an impassioned love for Kenya,’ writes Visho, quoting the poignant words of Nazareth, ‘To the African: No Guest Am I’, and the reluctance by the new leaders to accept ‘immigrants’, some of whom were 4th and 5th generation Kenyans, many who had played a role in building the country and fighting for independence.  

Finally, this is also a story of immigrants, trying to rebuild new lives and new support networks in the adversity of discrimination both by the colonial and independent governments.  

Even though it merits better editing, especially regarding some repetitions in the second part and the relatively blurred quality of photographs that might be a bit jarring; ultimately they don't derail what is a book of importance. This rich and deceptively simple work, is actually detailed with well researched historical notes and cultural and traditional anecdotes. You can see that the book is written with love as the author talks of his family and friends. Visho Sharma has indeed done justice for putting it all in proper perspective not only as his father's memoirs, but for a more just and inclusive history.

Last modified on Wednesday, 04 March 2020 10:04

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