The Zanzibar Chest: A Memoir of Love and War
by Aidan Hartley, HarperCollins, 2003. Pp. xii + 446. Illus. Hb. £20. ISBN 0-00-257059-9. Pb. £8.99. ISBN 0-00-653121.
To all those with experience of East Africa and South Arabia this book is a ‘must’, but it will also interest a far wider readership. It is both a family biography and the autobiography of a front-line war correspondent. It has been praised in many reviews and deservedly so.
Aidan Hartley was born in East Africa in 1965. His father, Brian Hartley, was the fourth of four generations of his family to have served as colonial officers over two centuries: ‘a typical British story’, the author writes, ‘ …in which men, women and their children sank in ships on faraway oceans, succumbed to fevers in tropical [graveyards] 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 1954, he bought a farm near Mount Kenya. This was burned down during the Mau Mau Emergency, so he moved to another farm in Tanganyika on the slopes of Kilimanjaro: a paradise which only Nyerere’s voracious socialism later forced him to leave.
However, the book is less about the father than the son, whose life as a journalist was even more nomadic. After the end of the Cold War there seemed new hope for Africa, but again and again in Ethiopia, Somalia, Rwanda and the Congo, violence and bloodshed prevailed. The author’s graphic account of his on-the-spot experiences makes compelling reading. He also tells of other journalists who, like him, chased dramatic stories in perilous places; and of the friendships which grew out of the dangers and fear, as well as the shared sense of purpose in getting the news out to the world.
Into this narrative he weaves the story of Peter Davey, his father’s best friend in Aden. From 1938 Davey served as a political officer on the frontier between Yemen and the Aden Protectorate, where Brian Hartley was Director of Agriculture. In 1945 Davey became a Muslim in order to marry a local Beihani girl, but a year later was obliged to divorce her rather than lose his job. In 1947 he was shot dead in an unconnected incident. Davey’s diaries were retrieved by Brian Hartley who kept them in his old Zanzibar chest: hence the title of the book. The author vividly describes his own visit to Aden and Yemen in the late 1990s to reconstruct Davey’s story.
Aidan Hartley’s book is much more than a young war correspondent’s account of a continent’s pain and despair. He writes with unusual candour of the tensions and emotional turbulence which he himself experienced and from which the fleshpots of Mombasa and elsewhere offered only fugitive release. It is beautifully written and deserves to become a classic. Let us hope that, happily settled with wife and two children in Kenya, he will soon be inspired to write another.