100 and counting – MV Liemba still going strong


(Posted 12th December 2013)

(The former Graf von Goetzen, now known as MV Liemba, still going strong after 101 years)

The MV Liemba, a Swahili word for Lake Tanganyika, has a long history of dominating the waves of Lake Tanganyika, since she was lifted in 1924 and returned to service in 1927 by the British colonial administration. But first things first, going back in time one hundred years to tell the story right.

The vessel was put into service on Lake Tanganyika after being build in Germany in 1913 in Papenburg’s Meyer Werft, and was initially known as Graf von Goetzen, named after the Governor for German East Africa Gustav Adolf von Goetzen. The Graf von Goetzen, and her two [two I know of] supply ships, were part of the German naval fleet, used to assert control over Lake Tanganyika during the Great War, as WW I is also known. She was operating under German command until the 26th July 1916, when her captain scuttled her to avoid capture and subsequent use by the British forces. Those had earlier managed to first capture one of the German gunboats before sinking another supply vessel, leaving the Graf von Goetzen without support. The British came across the lake from what was then the Belgian Congo after making it up the Congo River from Point Noire and Kinshasa before reaching the shores of Lake Tanganyika where they regrouped, assembled their assault force and then hunted for the German ships. Later on part of this story was to become the inspiration for the famous Oscar winning film ‘The African Queen’.
However, before the Graf von Goetzen was scuttled, engineers on board the ship from the Meyer Werft in Papenburg were careful, according to available reports, to ensure the ship could be salvaged later on. They carried out preservation work before the ship was submerged, by liberally greasing the engine and oiling all parts which could corrode before wrapping equipment and all in oil paper and greased sack cloth. It was this care and foresight which allowed the British in 1924 to raise her and after a 3 year restoration process put her back into service as MV Liemba.
Since then, apart for times the ship had to be overhauled, was the MV Liemba in uninterrupted service on Lake Tanganyika, plying the waters of Africas deepest lake, carrying passengers and cargo along the lake ports of Tanzania, Burundi, Zambia and the Congo.

In 2012 an offer was made by the German government, undoubtedly already with August 2014 in mind, to have the MV Liemba completely overhauled, her navigation and other equipment brought to modern day standards and the ship be given a new lease on life, able to sail across Lake Tanganyika for decades still to come.

For a while there was even talk of turning the vessel into a floating museum but the acute shortage of safe lake transport, for passengers and for cargo, made it almost necessary to retain MV Liemba’s services as an active ship instead of mothballing her in port.

Eastern Africa is thought to be featuring prominently with history and World War I buffs come August 1914, as Tanzania, back then known as Tanganyika while under German colonial rule and Kenya were on opposing sides when the war broke out. The war lead to a series of naval battles in the Indian Ocean and naval engagements on Lake Tanganyika involving the Koenigsberg and the Graf von Goetzen and their respective supply ships. The land war, briefly described here in an article ‘Battlefield East Africa’ (http://atcnews.org/2012/06/24/battlefield-east-africa) too will be remembered come the 100th anniversary of the outbreak of World War I, along the border in the Taita Taveta area but also as far as the Kenyan’s Kisii region, where German forces fought skirmishes before being repelled. A number of fortifications and sites have been found and identified by James Willson Esq. and are well described in his book ‘Guerillas of Tsavo’ which was published more recently and details of which can be found via these links http://www.guerrillasoftsavo.comhttps://www.facebook.com/GuerrillasOfTsavo.

There is hopeful speculation within Tanzanian and Kenyan tourism circles that the German government may still avail some funding to have key sites in Kenya and across the border in Tanzania preserved and readied to become tourism sites, similar to the memorial sites now maintained in the greater Taita Taveta area by the Commonwealth War Graves Commission.

It is not known at this moment if and when MV Liemba will undergo refurbishment and modernization but come August 2014, when the centenary commemoration of the start of the First World War will go underway, there will no doubt be plenty of visitors who would want to not only see her in port but sail on her and transpond their thoughts back to a hundred years ago, when this ship was still the Graf von Goetzen, carried cannons and troops and flew the German Imperial flag.

Time to remember, as 2014 is knocking on the door, that there is a long history to be remembered, when Africa against her will was drawn into the European conflicts in both World Wars and later on even into the Cold War. This aggravated the injuries caused by the often senseless drawing of colonial borders in the Berlin Conference, during which Africa was divided among the European powers. Hence, when the commemorations go underway in August next year, it should well be remembered that tens of thousands of African porters and askaris died in battles, from exhaustion and from disease, and todate, apart from some monuments for the King’s African Rifles and other units, there are still no War Cemeteries honouring the fallen Africans, unlike their comrades of European and Asian descent, who themselves however were buried in different locations. There are many lessons to be learned, about the battle fields in East Africa, along the Kenya Tanzania border, in Tanga and across Tanzania down to Mozambique and Zambia, about the insanity of that war, the immense losses to all the participating nations and most of all, about the racism which was and is still evident today, the segregation of European and Asian war graves and the total absence of African war graves. Fodder for thought as 2013 runs down the clock and 2014, the centenary memorial year, arrives. Watch this space.

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