Wednesday, June 18, 2014

"Strange Gods": A Mystery in East Africa

Annamaria Alfieri is the author of 'Strange Gods,' a new novel set in early 20th century British East Africa. This is where 'Out of Africa' and 'White Mischief' later unfolded, a place of great fascination and allure. We asked Annamaria to share some of the history she learned while researching her mystery in this guest post:

The British Are Coming!

So shouted Paul Revere.

But this is not about those redcoats.

In the late Nineteenth and Twentieth Centuries, the Brits took hegemony over East Africa.  How and why they came to do that is the geopolitical background for my series of historical mysteries that begins with Strange Gods, which launches on June 24th.

The story begins not in the territory that is now Kenya, but off shore, so to speak.  Wanting a more efficient way to move wealth from India to England, Great Britain dug the Suez Canal. Then, to make sure the canal remained open and in their hands, they needed to take hegemony over Egypt. They concluded that to control Egypt, they needed to control the Nile. To control the river, they wanted to take control of its source. As the engineers began to plan and dig the canal, the legendary and somewhat loony explorers Dr. David Livingstone, Richard Francis Burton, John Speke, and Samuel Baker went out and eventually found Lake Victoria. But controlling the lake was not so easy. To do so, the Brits needed to keep administrators and troops there, men who needed supplies and the ability to communicate with the outside world. Today, in a Mercedes or a lorry one can drive the 525 miles between the lake and Mombasa on the coast in a day. But a hundred and twenty years ago, they had to go on foot and it took months. 

Britain had another great goal in the 19th Century, stamping out slavery.  The area between the coast and Lake Victoria was notorious for slave caravans—know as the “Trail of Tears"-- the route where slaves were dragged from the interior to the coast and then shipped to work in the households of Asia Minor and on the sugarcane plantations of what is now Iraq. 

By the 1880’s, the Brits had spent a great deal of blood and treasure trying to stamp out slavery worldwide.  As part of that effort, they succeeded in convincing the Sultan of Zanzibar—who ruled the coast—to outlaw human trafficking.

 But the prohibition, like all prohibitions, brought in the criminal class.  Contraband always costs more and as profits soar, the cutthroats always move in and sharpen their blades.  The British navy managed to stamp out much of the slave trading in the Indian Ocean ports, but that only went so far.  The practice had to be halted at the source, where the slaves were taken, in the hinterlands.

The weapons that Britain thought to use were a European presence where slaves were captured, the Christian religion, and legitimate ways to get rich in the territory—through trade.   In the words of Dr. David Livingstone, what Britain needed to check the cursed traffic in human flesh was “an open path for commerce and Christianity.”

The dangers and difficulties of transportation from the coast was a major obstacle.  The route from Mombasa to Kisumu was an oxcart trail.  To traverse from the coast took about three months with most of the party walking, carrying water and food.  Ordinarily around three hundred at a time made the trip, most of them tribal porters. 

 Many people died.
So the British decided to build a railroad.
But not everyone agreed.

Calling the railroad a “gigantic folly,” Liberals in Parliament were against the project, saying that Britain had no right to drive what African’s called the “Iron Snake” through Maasai territory.  The magazine Punch called it “the Lunatic Line.”  Politicians and newspaper editors called it a waste of the taxpayer’s money.  Shaky wooden trestles over enormous chasms, hostile tribes, workers dying of until-then unknown diseases—much of what transpired seemed to support those against the idea.

But from the outset, the railroad had its adherents.   Conservatives saw it as an important salvo in the “Scramble for Africa,” that Nineteenth Century madness of the European powers to take over whatever chunks of the African continent they could lay their hegemony on.   As the argument went, if the Brits didn’t take it, their rivals—largely that meant Germany—would.
Construction began in 1896.  It cost Great Britain’s taxpayers 55 million pounds sterling or $33 Billion in today’s money.

32,000 Indians were shipped in from the Raj to build it.  6,724 of them stayed after the work was done and made a life there—many of their descendants remain today. 2,498 perished during its construction, largely of diseases, but also by man-eating lions.

Once the railway was completed, goods and people could make the trip in less than two days.  And they put in telegraph lines along the tracks, making communication all but instantaneous.  Hooray for modern technology.

But that was not the end of their trials.

Having built the railroad, they needed to maintain it.  And they had some special problems to deal with in that regard.

For reasons no one could fathom, rhinos would undermine the tracks, elephants would knock over the telegraph poles, and purloined telegraph wire became the raw material for many a tribesman’s favorite jewelry.  The bill for keeping the trains going was causing great consternation on the home front.  The taxpayers were sick of the expense.  What the railroad needed was paying customers.

Though at the equator, the area around a remote station stop called Nairobi, about halfway along the line, was a mile above sea level and had a climate the King’s administrators called “healthful.”  What a perfect area for farms.  Europeans might be enticed to move in and grow coffee and sisal, raise cattle, cut and ship rare woods, and so on and so on.  Then, they and their produce would pay to ride the rails.  What a swell idea.  And so they did.
Social change in northern Europe coincided with all this.  

Industrialization meant that aristocrats in those countries could no longer remain rich and privileged just by owning land.  But with cheap labor and unexploited resources in Africa, they could have all the servants and entitlements of their former life style.
And in the second half of the Nineteenth Century, there developed an ideal of manhood the proof of which lay in striking off into uncharted territory and conquering it.  Perhaps this happened because Europe had become too manicured and tame for the available testosterone.  That would be my guess.

After the railway was built, shooting safaris became the rage.  An early visitor to the Protectorate was Teddy Roosevelt.

The railway was a huge logistical success and became strategically and economically vital for both Uganda and Kenya.  It helped suppress slavery, and it did away with a lot of suffering by eliminating the need for humans to carry burdens through such hostile territory.  It also allowed heavy equipment to be transported inland, giving rise the economic development.  Coffee and tea grown in the East African highlands could be moved to the coast and exported.   For good or evil,  the railroad cemented the British hold on what soon became the colony of Kenya.

Let me add a personal note: I read Out of Africa as an adolescent who had never traveled further from my New Jersey home than the coast of Maine.  That book gave me a nostalgic longing for a place I experience only in my dreams and had no prospects of ever visiting.  I have been there now, twice, and each encounter made me more infatuated.  Every description of its majesty, every photo I see—even the sepia ones in the books of the New York Public Library’s collection, increases the strength of my attachment.  I imagine that many of the Europeans who went to British East Africa felt much the same.

I have taken that infatuation and longing and poured it into Strange Gods.  I hope you will read my story and travel with me to there and then.

Annamaria Alfieri

“Alfieri aims for the audience who loved Out of Africa, with heartbreaking romance married to a complex mystery.” –Kirkus

Annamaria Alfieri


  1. Thanks, Annamaria, for this post which is full of fascinating information. I am so pleased to read historical accounts that do not see Brits as rich, bad and oppressive- in fact, Victorians had a strong sense of responsibility, even though their good intentions were often subject to the law of unintended consequences. I look forward very much to reading your book.

  2. Thank you, Frances. The Brits in my book are all sorts. Some of them are pretty clueless and arrogant, but not all of them. And not my protagonists--Vera and Justin Tolliver. In fact as my series goes on, my British pioneers will be so varied in their behavior and opinions that the main conflict in a book or two will be between Brits. I will be happy to hear what you think of them--the sympathetic ones and the unsympathetic. I tried to make them seem like real people who are almost never all good or all evil.

  3. Another mystery set in Kenya in 1911.It's an engagingly confounded story with a surprising solution,the principle characters are beguiling, and there are a couple of walk-ons of true individuals,which is dependably fun.Stunning portrayal of Africa itself.It's not sermonizing yet the undertake pioneerism is a cutting edge one,thank heavens.It generally won't the "good old days" of the Empire and it would be difficult to peruse a story loaded with that sort of rosy nostalgia.Note that I read the greater part of this recuperating from surgery and it was an astounding decision,astute escape that held my investment the distance.High acclaim!
    ~Cathy Hughes.

  4. Carefull now, dear.
    I dont wanna see you
    accused of idolatry
    at the Last Judgement.
    I. Love. You.
    God bless your indelible soul.


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