Winston S. Churchill, Author

I have never been aware of differences in writing style as clearly as I recognize differences in speech of those I know well.  Winston Churchill always spoke in an unforgettable style, so I thought I could learn something about writing by reading some of his works.  I selected his book, My African Journey, written in 1908 when he was 34, primarily because I could download it for free at Project Gutenberg and begin reading it immediately.

I was not disappointed.  On every page, you can hear his characteristic voice droning out as if from an old newsreel.  (In searching for his books, his middle initial distinguishes him from another author with the same name.)

He describes his trip over one hundred years ago from Mombasa, a city  about half-way down on Africa’s east coast, to Lake Victoria in the interior by way of the Uganda Railway, then returning northward along the Nile to Khartoum and Cairo.  Here is his magnificent opening paragraph:

“The aspect of Mombassa as she rises from the sea and clothes herself with form and colour at the swift approach of the ship is alluring and even delicious. But to appreciate all these charms the traveler should come from the North. He should see the hot stones of Malta, baking and glistening on a steel-blue Mediterranean. He should visit the Island of Cyprus before the autumn rains have revived the soil, when the Messaoria Plain is one broad wilderness of dust, when every tree—be it only a thorn-bush—is an heirloom, and every drop of water is a jewel. He should walk for two hours at midday in the streets of Port Said. He should thread the long red furrow of the Suez Canal and swelter through the trough of the Red Sea. He should pass a day among the cinders of Aden, and a week among the scorched rocks and stones of Northern Somaliland; and then, after five days of open sea, his eye and mind will be prepared to salute with feelings of grateful delight these shores of vivid and exuberant green. On every side is vegetation, moist, tumultuous, and varied. Great trees, clad in dense foliage, shrouded in creepers, springing from beds of verdure, thrust themselves through the undergrowth; palms laced together by flowering trailers; every kind of tropical plant that lives by rain and sunshine; high waving grass, brilliant patches of purple bougainvillea, and in the midst, dotted about, scarcely keeping their heads above the fertile flood of Nature, the red-roofed houses of the town and port of Mombassa.”

Pack my bags, I’m going!

ChurchillBoarding the train with a few British friends, his seat is curious.  ” In the early morning, then, we start from Mombassa Station, taking our places upon an ordinary garden seat fastened on to the cow-catcher of the engine, from which position the whole country can be seen.”  (Other photos also show them incongruously dressed in suits and ties.)

His train often stops as they disembark for a hunting trip into the jungle, or “safari.”  I suspect the train is just for them and waits for their return.  He does not mention his entourage, but they and the supplies must have been huge.  Someone, not him, must have arranged and supervised everything.  He is a member of parliament and his friends are knighted. He often mentions being met at a remote station by an honor guard of British soldiers followed by a  local tribal ceremony.  The  ceremonies originally had been fierce, deadly serious depictions of tribal war, but now done with smiles and good humor for the visitors’ entertainment. Many times he comments on the dignity, intelligence, and hospitality of the tribal chiefs he meets, even while they nonchalantly stand buck-naked in front of him.  They are not the wizened old chiefs of the movies. They are young, one a boy only 11 years old dignified and hospitable beyond his years.

Churchill is a man of his times, however.  He describes a lion hunt:

“But when pursued from place to place, chased hither and thither by the wheeling horsemen, the naturally mild disposition of the lion becomes embittered. First he begins to growl and roar at his enemies in order to terrify them and make them leave him in peace. Then he darts little short charges at them. Finally, when every attempt at peaceful persuasion has failed, he pulls up abruptly and offers battle. Once he has done this, he will run no more. He means to fight, and to fight to the death. He means to charge home; and when a lion, maddened with the agony of a bullet-wound, distressed by long and hard pursuit, or, most of all, a lioness in defense of her cubs, is definitely committed to the charge, death is the only possible conclusion. Broken limbs, broken jaws, a body raked from end to end, lungs pierced through and through, entrails torn and protruding–none of these count. It must be death–instant and utter–for the lion, or down goes the man, mauled by septic claws and fetid teeth, crushed and crunched, and poisoned afterwards to make doubly sure. Such are the habits of this cowardly and wicked animal.”

We are brought up sharply by the last sentence.  Surely, it is the hunter who is cowardly and wicked.  The lion as described is exceptionally brave and noble.

Wild pigs, vicious and aggressive, are a common danger as they charge unexpectedly out of their burrows.  He recommends a carrying a cowboy-style pistol and holster that explains why they were so popular in our West:

“I should certainly recommend the intending hunter in East Africa to strap a revolver on his thigh in case of accidents. ‘You do not want it often,’ as the American observed; ‘but when you do, you want it badly.'”

The jungle is constantly encroaching on the rails:

“But for the ceaseless care with which the whole line is scraped and weeded it would soon become impassable. As it is, the long fingers of the encroaching forest are everywhere stretching out enviously towards the bright metals. Neglect the Uganda Railway for a year, and it would take an expedition to discover where it had run.”

In Uganda, he travels by rickshaw pulled by one man and pushed by three, all nattily dressed in white tunics and red caps.  They keep up their pace and spirits by a monotonous back-and-forth antiphony, and are relieved by a fresh crew after each eight miles.

At this point, he has traveled from Mombasa to Lake Victoria by train, then across the lake by steamer to the northern city of Ripon Falls, considered to be the source of the White Nile.   The easy part was over.  His goal from there was to get to a point on the Nile below the rapids where he could catch a steamer to Khartoum at the edge of civilization and then on to Cairo by rail.  Getting to the steamer would be much more difficult, traveling on foot through the bush and by river, although downhill all the way from Lake Victoria which is at a high elevation of 4,000 feet.

(The geography of Africa has confused many students of Egyptian history.  The Nile begins in Lake Victoria on the high central plains where it flows north to the Mediterranean Sea.  Cairo is on the “Lower Nile” and the “Upper Nile” is to the south on the high plains.  The Upper Nile has two branches, the White and Blue Nile, that join in Sudan at Khartoum.)

His immediate task was to travel north to Lake Albert by following the White Nile.  That section would take three stages:  First, travel overland to get below the rapids at Ripon Falls, then three days travel in canoes, then another overland march to get to Lake Albert. From Lake Albert, it was another four days by water to Nimule where the rapids begin again, requiring an overland march to Gondokoro where they would catch the steamer to historic Khartoum.

When traveling overland, they covered 12–14 miles per day, mostly in the cool mornings, and stayed overnight in a “banda,” a comfortable, temporary shelter of bamboo and thatch put up fresh by a local tribe.  (After only a week, a banda was too infested with vermin to be usable.)  Everything was carried by porters in groups of about 20 under the control of a headsman.  Each carried about 65 pounds and set the limiting pace on a journey.  Churchill was opposed to this use of humans as beasts of burden, but there was no other option.  Horses and mules did not survive long in central Africa.

Surprisingly, a good method of travel could be by bicycle on the dry paths worn smooth by countless native feet, and Churchill wishes he had known that.  He could have sent the porters on ahead while he explored a wider area.

The travelers took constant precautions against insects and vermin, particularly mosquitoes.  They ate at a table under a 12-foot gauze tent, never sat directly on a cane-bottomed chair, stored their clothes overnight in a tin box, and during the day wore caps, scarves, gloves and “mosquito-boots,” soft leather leggings reaching to the hip.  “Thus one moves, comparatively secure, amid a chorus of ferocious buzzings.”

Reaching Lake Albert, they boarded a steam launch that I imagine resembling the African Queen in the movie of that name.  From there, they were able to travel the 170 miles to the next set of cataracts at Nimule.  (I measure it about 100 miles on a map.)

That part of the journey was plagued with heat, tsetse flies, and crocodiles.  A rifle shot sent “hundreds and hundreds” of crocodiles fleeing from a distant bank that was thought to be of only gray mud.  The crocodiles thrived on the carcasses of hippos swept down from the rapids above that broke every bone in their bodies and turned them to mush.

Along the way, they stop for hunting trips in the bush where he ecstatically shoots rare white rhinos:

“To wade and waddle through such country carrying a double-barreled ·450 rifle, not on your shoulder, but in your hands for instant service, peering round every corner, suspecting every thorn-bush, for at least two hours, is not so pleasant as it sounds.  . . . When you fire a heavy rifle in cold blood it makes your teeth clatter and your head ache. At such a moment as this, one is almost unconscious alike of report and recoil. It might be a shotgun. The nearest rhino was broadside on. I hit him hard with both barrels, and down he went, to rise again in hideous struggles–head, ears, horn flourished agonizingly above the grass, as if he strove to advance, while I loaded and fired twice more. . . . It is enough to say we shot two more of these monsters.”

After a day in the bush,

“I dropped off to sleep that night in the little Kisingiri moored in the bay, and heard the grunting barks of the hippo floating and playing all around, mingling with the cries of the birds and the soft sounds of wind and water, the African forest for the first time made an appeal to my heart, enthralling, irresistible, never to be forgotten.”

As he returns to civilization, he is elated, “For, after all,” he wisely observes, “contrast is an element in pleasure.”

This is a delightful book, one of those rare finds that, once started, I reluctantly put down.  It was quite an adventure, and I see him in a new light.  He was well suited to guide Britain though World War II.   To give you the flavor, I have included many quotations from the book, but selecting these while eliminating others was a difficult chore.  He describes an Africa in an era gone forever, before an AK-47 became every boy’s companion, before Idi Amin Dada gained control of Uganda and casually shot field workers from his porch just for sport.  In only one chapter Churchill pontificates on white rule, but even this is interesting to see how the paternalistic and optimistically the British were thinking back then.  He is not always clear about his route, but partly this is because the locations he mentions, often no more than 20 thatched huts in a clearing, have long disappeared or changed their names.

He ends by making a case for extending the Uganda Railway northward, so “the reader, who will no doubt take care to secure a first-class tourist ticket, will no longer require my services as a guide.”  I can hear his voice saying that.

About Roger Walck

My reasons for writing this blog are spelled out in the posting of 10/1/2012, Montaigne's Essays. They are probably not what you think.
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