Thursday, December 29, 2016

Mimi and Toutou Go Forth

A slightly daft fellow named Spicer-Simson was stuck at a desk job in 1915 when a slightly daft assignment fell into his lap: he was to lead an overland expedition from South Africa to the Belgian Congo, transporting a pair of armed motorboats to neutralize the German naval presence on Lake Tanganyika.

He christened the motorboats Mimi and Toutou (after his original names had been rejected, Miaou and Bow-wow). They were transported from Captetown to Elizabethville by train, but after that had to be dragged by steam-tractors and ox-teams over a difficult terrain.

Spicer-Simson had been court-martialled twice and had a "reputation for disaster." Vain and full of preposterous boasts, he smoked monogrammed cigarettes, claimed to speak Chinese, used a form of semaphore unknown to anyone else, and took to wearing a khaki skirt (not a kilt) to better show off his heavily tattooed body.

Africans called him Lord Bellycloth and some regarded him as a god, worshipping clay statues of him. His men had a different view, and by the end of the expedition he was communicating with them only in writing.

After the war he was awarded a DSO but never another command. Years later he settled in Canada and died in Courtney BC in 1947.

The Bizarre Battle of Lake Tanganyika

Despite Spicer-Simson's eccentricities, Mimi and Toutou captured the first German vessel they encountered and renamed it Fifi. They also took prisoners, including an African stoker who switched sides and remained on the job when the Mimi and Fifi attacked and sank a larger German vessel.

With a British land force advancing toward Bismarckburg (now Kasanga), Spicer-Simson was ordered to prevent the Germans from fleeing by water. Intimidated, however, by the fort's wooden cannons, he took no part in the operation. For this, he received a dressing down from the commander of the British column and fell into a lethargy, taking to his bed for months.

Literary Echoes

There are passing references to Livingston and Stanley, both of whom travelled through the area around Lake Tanganyika searching for the source of the Nile, and to Joseph Conrad who made his Congo River journey in 1890 (which provided him with the material for Heart of Darkness) approximately 25 years before Spicer-Simson's expedition. There are several quotes from Remote People by Evelyn Waugh, who visited the area in 1930.

The penultiimate chapter in Mimi and Toutou Go Forth is devoted to The African Queen. Spicer-Simson's expedition was the inspiration for C.S. Forester's book. Scenes for the movie version were filmed in the Congo, with Katherine Hepburn recording her memories of the shoot in The Making of the African Queen, or How I Went to Africa with Bogart, Bacall and Houston, and Almost Lost My Mind. 

Peter Viertel, a screenwriter who worked with director John Huston on the film in Africa, portrayed Huston in a novel, White Hunter, Black Heart, which itself was subsequently filmed.

The Author

The final chapter of Mimi and Toutou ends with an account by the author, Giles Foden, of his own visit to the area and a trip on the MV Liemba on Lake Tanganyika. The vessel was originally the Graf von Gotzen, the Germans' largest asset on the lake and which they scuttled. Refloated by the British after the war, it now serves as a passenger ferry.

Foden received the Somerset Maughan award for his first book, The Last King of Scotland. Mimi and Toutou Go Forth was published in 2004 and has helpful maps and delightful illustrations for chapter headings drawn by his wife, Matilda Hunt.

At the back are silhouettes of the vessels involved and a useful bibliography. The endpapers of the hardcover edition show a fuzzy photographic image of Spicer-Simson in semaphore mode -- a nice touch for an entertaining and well-researched book.