cyclops

By cyclops

Nigeria, 1944

Recently I've been reading the correspondence between my grandmother and grandfather during the later stages of WWII - as edited and published by my uncle. 

It's fascinating. 

One is stuck in wartime Britain, based in Wakefield but with family in Glasgow.  Rationing.  Shortages.  Air Raids.  Winter. Flu.  Limited travel.

The other is in Africa, far from any fighting (he'd already had a difficult time in Europe and evacuated at Dunkirk).  He's learning to surf, playing tennis, fishing, sailing, and food is plentiful.  It sounds like he's working hard too - both on his day job, his doctoral thesis, and various side projects including a second book on photography.

He writes about goods he's sending home - not all of which arrive.  Tinned pears and jam to help with the ration.  Toys he's made for the children.  Mundane items like bed linen and curtain material that are in short supply at home.  He seems to makes many of the packing boxes for these shipments himself from local mahogany, to be kept for use in domestic projects after the war.

Some of the items sent home are shocking by contemporary standards, although seemingly routine at the time.  A leopard skin made into a jacket and hat.  Various exotic leather goods.  A custom made ivory belt buckle.  

I have one item he gave to me from that period (although not mentioned in the letters).  It's the pictured small ivory bust, carefully labelled "Nigeria, 1944" on the base.  He told me it it is made of rhinoceros horn and I have no reason to doubt that.  

I'm pretty sure it wouldn't be legal to sell or trade it these days, or even travel with it internationally, although there is no law against owning it.

I don't know quite how to feel about it.  For me, it's a relic of an important part of the life of my family.  Many would say it also symbolises the near total destruction of a species, and I suspect there's a cultural story about British imperialism and the plundering of the colonies.  

My grandfather is, as most of us are, a man of his time.  If anything, he had a progressive view of the world.  On a number of occasions he writes about the poor state of the colonies, exhorting his wife not to believe they are as well run and supported as the government tries to make out.  He also speaks well of many of the locals he meets and works with, and clearly enjoys their company and at times skills and industriousness (it is clear he didn't feel all of his peers shared these views).  He didn't see anything wrong with buying or sending these items, they were just small luxuries he had the privilege to send home.  

I'm very glad we've moved so far away from rare killing animals for trinkets, and at the same time a part of me wonders what behaviours we take for granted today will be wholly unacceptable a couple of generations, 80 years, from now...

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