Grove Press
Grove Press
Grove Press

The Zanzibar Chest

A Story of Life, Love, and Death in Foreign Lands

by Aidan Hartley

“An extraordinary and heartbreaking book, the finest account of a war correspondent’s psychic wracking since Michael Herr’s Dispatches, and the best white writing from Africa in many, many years.” —Rian Malan, author of My Traitor’s Heart

  • Imprint Grove Paperback
  • Page Count 496
  • Publication Date December 13, 2016
  • ISBN-13 978-0-8021-2585-9
  • Dimensions 5.5" x 8.25"
  • US List Price $17.00

About The Book

An epic narrative combining the literary reportage of Ryszard Kapuściński with a historical love story reminiscent of Michael Ondaatje’s The English Patient.

In his final days, rising from a bed made of mountain cedar, lashed with thongs of rawhide from an oryx shot many years before, Aidan Hartley’s father says to him, “We should have never come.” Those words spoke of a colonial legacy that stretched back over 150 years through four generations of one British family. From great-great-grandfather William Temple, who was awarded the Victoria Cross for his role in defending British settlements in nineteenth century New Zealand, to his father, a colonial officer sent to Africa in the 1920s, building dams and irrigation projects in Arabia in the 1940s, then returning to Africa to raise a family—these were intrepid men who traveled to exotic lands to conquer, to build, and finally to bear witness. For finally there is Aidan, who becomes a journalist covering Africa in the 1990s. Weaving together stories, his family’s history, and his childhood in Africa, Aidan tells us what he saw.

After the end of the Cold War, there seemed to be new hope for Africa but again and again—in Ethiopia, in Somalia, Rwanda, and the Congo, the terror and genocide prevailed. In Somalia, three of Aidan’s close friends are torn to pieces by an angry mob. Then, after walking overland from Uganda with the rebel army, Aidan is witness to the terrible atrocities in Rwanda, appearing at the sites and interviewing survivors days after the massacres. Finally, burnt out from a decade of horror, Aidan retreats to his family’s house in Kenya where he discovers the Zanzibar chest his father left him. Intricately hand-carved and smelling of camphor, the chest contained the diaries of his father’s best friend, Peter Davey, an Englishman who died under mysterious circumstances over fifty years ago. Tucking the papers under his arm, Hartley embarked on a journey to southern Arabia in an effort not only to unlock the secrets of Davey’s life, but of his own. He travels to the remote mountains and deserts of southern Arabia where his father served as a British officer. He begins to piece together the disparate elements of Davey’s story, a man who fell in love with an Arabian princess and converted to Islam, but ultimately had to pay an exacting price.

The Zanzibar Chest is an enthralling narrative of men and women meddling with, embracing, and ultimately being transformed by other cultures—one of the most important examinations of colonialism ever written.


“A Strange mesmerizing, painfully honest book: part hilarious and part horrifying, part memoir and part journalism-cum-history, part mockery and part celebration. It paints a brilliant portrait, fond but candid, of the ‘hacks’ who chase dramatic stories in exotic and scary places . . . but declines to lapse into sentimentality. . . . [A] sad, sobering, brave book.” —Jonathan Yardley, The Washington Post Book World

“Hartley’s strength as a writer is his reporter’s eye for brutal detail and his ability to fashion blunt anecdotes from the unfinished business of recent history.” —Ken Foster, The San Francisco Chronicle

The Zanzibar Chest is a many-legged hybrid. In part it is a wrenching account of African horrors. . . . Further, [it] is also a loving, often evocative account of East Africa. . . . [Hartley] writes the horrors along with the sharpest of vignettes.” —Richard Eder, The New York Times

“Sweeping. . . . Hartley convincingly relives the horrors, the stench, the utter brutalities, and immediacy of coming upon massacred Tutsi inside a church or battered bodies in Lake Victoria, the pell-mell fight of UN peacekeepers, and the lewd wantonness of conflict.” —Robert I. Rotberg, The Christian Science Monitor

“Remind[s] us that setting up democracies anywhere will fail every time if we ignore non-Western cultures and religious ideology.” —The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

“A splendiferous pastiche of Africa wisdom, youthful exuberance, nostalgia, love, adventure and despair set in a world of constant and seldom-positive change. . . . Cynicism wrestles with idealism throughout the book. . . . Hartley’s stories, told here, are an act of bravery. They should be read.” —Roy Durfee, The Santa Fe New Mexican

The Zanzibar Chest is several stories rolled into one. Included are the adventures of Hartley’s father, Hartley’s experiences reporting some of Africa’s bloodiest fighting and the intriguing mystery of the long dead Davey. Events depicted can be disturbing but are never boring.” —Kathleen Hipson, Tampa Tribune

“Riveting. . . . This haunting book is both enlightening and heartbreaking. Like Hartley, you will be forever changed by this time in Africa.” —Susan Larson, The New Orleans Times-Picayune

“Hartley has been to all the worst places and seen the worst horrors, he’s excellent with facts, and he wants to know whether history has not played a huge joke on colonizers and colonized alike.” —National Geographic Adventure

“[The Zanzibar Chest] is thrillingly charged with an undercurrent of passion.” —Suzy Hansen, Salon.com

“A lyrical mesmerizing account.” —Joshua Hammer, Newsweek Online

“This remarkable book is more than the memoir of a war correspondent. It is, by turn, slam-bang adventure and shimmering poetry. It is hilarious, orgiastically bawdy, poignantly romantic, gory as war itself, and populated with census-sized number of vivid personalities. All that—plus informative and dreadfully prophetic. . . . Hartley’s book must rank with other great journalistic memoirs—Eric Severeids’s Not So Wild a Dream and Webb Miller’s I Found No Peace.” —Bart Mcdowell, The Washington Times

“Hartley uses crisp, to-the-point prose threaded with delicious, dark humor and a sense of the absurd that reaches its height as he details the bungled U.N. intervention in Somalia.” —Claudia La Rocco, The Indianapolis Star

“The real, idiot-free Africa emerges in all its ultra-vivid complexity.” —Jonathan Miles, Men’s Journal

“Hartley uses crisp, to-the-point prose threaded with delicious, dark humor and a sense of the absurd that reaches its height as he details the bungled U.N. intervention in Somalia. His accounts of bloodshed and corruption are all the more effective for his refusal to sugarcoat it. . . . In the end, one can only stand as witness, and Hartley is an eloquent one.” —Claudia La Rocco, Associated Press

“[Hartley] has deftly captured the horror of war, famine and genocide in modern Africa. . . . Fast-paced and well-written. . .Hartley has crafted a great read, one whose disturbing sights, sounds and smells are bound to resonate with readers long after they put the book back on the shelf.” —James Scott, Charleston Post & Courier

“A demonstration of how the personal can be put to good use in journalism . . . the book is fascinating.” —Wilson Wanene, Nieman Reports

“A startling refreshing perspective on the political, social, and cultural impact of British colonialism in Africa and Arabia. . . . Hartley details a fascinating odyssey that reflects on the past, present, and future of colonialism.” —Vernon Ford, Booklist

“Mesmerizing. . . . A Sweeping, poetic homage to Africa, a continent made vivid by Hartley’s capable, stunning prose.” —Publishers Weekly (starred review)

“Engaging. . . . These accounts . . . seethe with shocking and grisly consequences. . . . [Hartley’s] native’s perspective on African affairs enhances the narrative.” —Kirkus Reviews

“A masterpiece. This is a hugely ambitious book . . . and can be compared in quality to an equally riveting book by a white African, Rian Malan’s My Traitor’s Heart.” —Matthew Leeming, The Spectator (UK)

“This is an extraordinary and heartbreaking book, the finest account of a war correspondent’s psychic wracking since Michael Herr’s Dispatches, and the best white writing from Africa in many, many years.” —Rian Malan, author of My Traitor’s Heart

“A work of tremendous candor and vigor. Passionately articulated, The Zanzibar Chest offers a vision of Africa through the eyes of the war reporter that is unsettling, compelling and moving by turns. Reportage, history, family memoir and personal testimony intertwine in a work of passion and intensity to create a book that is impossible to forget.” —Aminatta Forna, author of The Devil that Danced on the Water

“Aidan Hartley’s The Zanzibar Chest is a stunning piece of work. There is an amazing depth, breadth and grace of fine writing in this book. It will reside permanently in my memory. No one should dare say the word ‘Africa’ without reading it.” —Jim Harrison, author of Off to the Side

“Hieronymous Bosch reincarnated as a frontline correspondent invited to the midnight banquet of Africa’s bloody horrors, that’s who Aidan Hartley seems to be, an outrageously brave and anguished heart disgorging the never-inert legacies of colonialism.” —Bob Shacochis, author of The Immaculate Invasion

“A profoundly moving masterpiece. Whether he’s writing about a searing love affair in the middle of a war-zone, or describing friendships made and lost in the confusion of the front-lines, Hartley’s book is heartbreaking, achingly beautiful, and shockingly honest. Rarely has a writer bared their soul to such magnificent effect. This is much, much more than a book about war reporting. It is an extraordinary tapestry of friendships, love affairs, betrayals, and murders, that finally come together to give us an intimate and epic portrait of Africa in the 20th Century.” —Hossain Amini, Academy Award-nominated Screenwriter of The Wings of the Dove


An Economist Best Book
A Publishers Weekly Book of the Year


Beyond the Rivers of Ethiopia

My father was the closest thing I knew to the immortal. “Our Father, who art in Africa,” I prayed as a child of six. He’d always been there. When he died I couldn’t believe it. I had moments when I felt haunted by him in ways that were almost physical. They were a comfort to me. At home on the Indian Ocean coast, I swam off the beach and felt he was in the water all around me. On the upcountry plains, I imagined his bones were billowing up in the dust behind the herds of nomads’ cattle. I clung on but I felt him slipping away. Stricken and longing for something to pluck back from oblivion, I asked, “What is a man’s legacy?”

The day came for us to go through Dad’s belongings. His private territory at home was a coconut-thatched veranda overlooking the beach. He kept his writing desk there and a single bed made of mountain cedar, lashed with thongs of rawhide from an oryx shot many years before.

Some of his clothes were still hanging up in there, which described a life of sadhulike simplicity: a few khaki bush shirts and shorts, the kikoi wraps we wear in Kenya like sarongs, as well as several pairs of camel-skin ­sandals.

In the corner of the veranda was a Zanzibar chest, carved with a skill modern Swahili carpenters have forgotten. The old camphor box bore a design of lotus, paisley, and pineapple and it was studded with rivets tarnished green in the salty air. When I opened the chest lid, cobwebs tore and something scuttled into a corner. In the chest was the skin of a lion Dad had tracked down after it had killed one of his best bulls, a hunting horn, a flute of apricot wood, and a stack of files. These last contained reports on missions to southern Sudan, livestock projects for the tribes of Karamoja, botanical studies, and copious notes about camels. Always restless himself as a younger man, Dad had spent his last years devising schemes to help Africa’s nomads remain on the move, beyond the reach of those who wanted to settle them.

Inside one file were my father’s handwritten memoirs on which he had been working for years. I opened a second file and reached down to grasp the pages. The instant I touched them they began to crumble in my hands. Time, heat, and the drenching humidity had ravaged them. Mildew dusted the covers, giving off that scent of the forgotten. The translucent geckos that roam our walls had laid their soft, ivory eggs along the spines of the notebooks. White ants and silverfish had eaten into the papers, leaving a web of brown capillaries. Their tracks threaded through written words and underlined paragraphs and burrowed into months and years of recollection. I began to read the papers. I quickly realized I had stumbled on a secret that had been buried for half a century. Here were the diaries of the man named Peter Davey, my father’s good friend. Ever since I was a boy, the story of Davey crept in and out of conversation at home in vague, half-finished sentences. The tale had always been there, yet my father never properly talked about it. Davey was a silence, a shadow that moved constantly out of the corner of one’s eye. And now, as if it had been deliberately dropped into my lap, here was the full and tragic rendition of Davey’s life.

What I found in the Zanzibar chest was a story of lives so utterly differ­ent from my own, so exotic, set in another part of the world and in another time. I had never believed in any great cause; I was sent to fight no wars. What I admired most about my father, Davey, and those like them is that they were men of action, whereas I was ever the observer, not the participant, which is the main reason why I’m able to be here to tell this story.

On my flight back to Rwanda I recognized the man who had guided me during the genocide. To be certain of it I looked at his right hand and sure enough, he had no thumb. It had been shot off in the days when he used to wear a red beret and ragged fatigues. Now he appeared in a sharp gray suit carrying a briefcase. As he walked down the aisle past me, our eyes met and his face brightened.


We sat together. Frank, I was reminded from years ago, could talk nonstop. He was one of those men who has suffered immensely, but enjoys the fact that he has lived to tell you all about it. As we flew back to Rwanda, he spoke of battles, massacres and dreams. He recalled the time we marched together on a journey that would haunt us forever. Listening to him speak, I was transported back to those terrible days and felt dizzy to see that here we were, suspended in ether above Africa and toasting each other with little bottles of whiskey served up by air stewardesses.

I descended from the aircraft and felt against my face a blast of hot air carrying familiar smells. I found the faint marks of a mortar bomb impact on the runway tarmac as I walked to the terminal. Inside, the soap statue of the gorilla was back in his glass case. The roads edged by brick red earth and low huts the same. The “Guinness is Good for You” advertisements the same. Guava trees the same. Faces the same. The same, when the truth is that it was changed. Only in our minds, myself, Frank and all the other survivors, did we see a ghost town superimposed on the real city of today. But there were no piles of severed hands by the roadside. No monkey in a bow tie and tuxedo perched in a tree.

I checked into the same room at the Meridien Hotel where we had slept under our flak jackets. I tried to remember. But it was as if nothing had happened. The hotel was back to being what it had been before the fighting. A hotel.

The pool terrace was the place to be these days. This is where the Patriotic Army top dogs and intelligence chiefs drank beer all afternoon. I sat, maintaining a smile, nursing a cold beer, looking over towards the swimming pool. I remembered that the pool had been empty in the war. The UN troops had used it as their water supply when the taps ran dry and they drank every drop. Today, as I watched from the terrace, the Tutsi children of the Patriotic Army leaders, their plump black bodies glistening with wet, were leaping about in a game of water volleyball. For years I had lived in my own museum of horrors in which the Meridien swimming pool had remained empty. Meanwhile in the real world the kids were playing in the chlorinated water as white-gloved waiters carried trays of ice-cold beers to the war veterans and their wives.

From Kigali I drove to Goma, where Lazarus is buried in a mass grave somewhere. I was on the back of a motorbike taxi when two policemen in banana yellow helmets stopped us and shook down the driver for a bribe. Farther up the road that morning Hutu militias had ambushed a truck and killed three traders. The sun was beating down. The volcano on the horizon was smoking, ready to erupt any moment. I stood there watching a passing Congolese girl with hair braided into six-inch spikes and crowds of hustlers striding along in garish pyjama suits. Bicycle taxis with tinsel wound into the spokes. Guerrillas in mirror shades with radios clamped to their ears. And my cell phone rang. I answered and it was my wife Claire, calling from. “I love you,” I said and she replied, “I love you.” She told me that at that very moment, when I picked up and she heard my voice on the phone, our baby daughter kicked inside her womb.

At any one time we had six wars, a couple of famines, a coup d’état, and a natural disaster like a flood or an epidemic or a volcanic eruption, all within a radius of three hours’ flight from Nairobi. You could take off at sunrise, commute to witness a battle, or hear a starving man breathe his last and be back home by nightfall, in time to file a story, take a shower, then hit the Tamarind restaurant downtown for mangrove crab and Stel­lanbosch. Or you were dropped off, watching the plane roar away in a cloud of red dust, and you were gone for weeks, out of contact and a thousand miles from help. And each time you returned home after a trip like that for a few days you were as mad as Gulliver talking to his horses.

Those were the years when we hitched rides on dawn flights carrying cargoes of blood plasma, guns, or baby food to bush airstrips. Flights on battered Antonovs, with the word nasdrovje!—Cheers!—emblazoned on the nose of the fuselage. Flown by Russian crews with the Mongoloid faces of Soyuz cosmonauts from my boyhood stamp collection, their breath sour from drink, on three hundred dollars a month, with girls thrown in, running weapons in the orbit of modern African wars. I recall flights when the passengers sat among boxes of toothpaste and grenades, cement and drums of gasoline. I recall sitting next to a little girl in a frilly pink dress and bonnet and ivory armlets, clutching a yellow-haired Caucasian doll as, below us, broccoli-like black forests stretched for a thousand miles, unbroken and empty.

I’d climb aboard the Cessna at first light, in my mind kissing the tarmac good-bye like the pope in reverse. The pilot throttled up, mum­bled into his microphone, neck muscles bunching like a bullfrog. On takeoff I used to recite the Lord’s Prayer over and over until I got stuck on a line like a mantra—”deliver us from evil, deliver us from evil, deliver us from evil”—as the earth fell away. Ten minutes out from Nairobi and the great gate of clouds opened out, with the pillars of Mount Kenya to the north and Kilimanjaro to the south. Our path led over patchwork peasant lands, sequined with tin hut roofs glinting in the sun; farther out were empty, arid plains, broken up only by smooth brown kopjes and the capillaries of seasonal streams that dissipated into stains of green against the ocher and white desert. Look down and you’d see herds of goats and camels scatter in unison like shoals of fish. Even in this modern day, out here whole grid squares on the tactical pilotage charts were half blank and marked with the words relief data incomplete. They might as well have written “here be monsters.” The flights themselves scared the hell out of me before we’d even landed in the eye of another crisis. “I repeat, six souls on board, do you read . . . ?” Often there was no answer. The pilots called sub-Sahara’s airspace “the cone of silence.” I couldn’t fully appreciate the idea until the day I entered a control tower following a battle at an airport and saw brain, hair, and skull fragments all over the walls. Every time we flew into a cloud I’d hold my breath and think of all the UFO junk we might be on a collision course with: ghost flights, alcoholic Ukrainians shifting cargo, Zimbo arms smugglers, overflying tourist charters, medevacs, drug couriers, patrolling MiGs. There was the tropical weather too, in which minutes after observing clear skies up ahead one saw elevating thousands of feet up out of thin air a black storm with the head of a sledgehammer.

On those flights I’d look down from the sky at takeoffs and landings and see the silhouette of our little aircraft ripple over pulverized cities, refugee camps, the acetylene-white flashes of antiaircraft fire, and countries rich only in lost hopes and broken dreams. What comes to mind when I think of that time in my life are the words of Isaiah 18, which I’d read in Gideons Bibles I’d found in dozens of seedy hotel rooms where I spent so much of my life on the road: “Woe to the land shadowing with wings, which is beyond the rivers of Ethiopia. . . . Go, ye swift messengers, to a nation scattered and peeled, to a people terrible from their beginning hitherto; a nation meted out and trodden down.” That passage makes me think of my circle of friends, the journalists I knew in those years. We were like the swift messengers in Africa.

Sometimes I remember it all again. I am back in that valley at night. I see the silent panic on the livid faces around me with the gunfire roaring in the fog. Or I’m at a field hospital. I put my notebook down to help lift a casualty with his brains spilling personality all over the stretcher, when a mortar bomb slams into the triage room, liquefying patients inside. Or in the famine camp, where at my feet a child crouches like a frog with eyes clouded white as moonstones. And the American nurse is whispering in my ear, “We say the ones like that are circling the drain. You know, like a spider in your bath?”

It all comes back to me. Overnighters, all-nighters, hitching rides on tanks busting down palace gates, sipping dictators’ champagne, scoops and whores and house arrests, herograms, smelly socks and Caterpillar boots, the shits, deadlines, dead on arrival, bouts of amoebae and malaria remembered fondly like adventures, beriberi, organ failure, Stalin’s organs, brain damage, gas gangrene, coke cut with pig laxative from condoms smuggled in the bowels of living men, oral rehydration salts, satellite feeds, food aid, baby milk, mass burials through a Nikon lens, Huey chopper rides, the pure adrenaline of being in fallen cities decorated with floral mortar bursts and tracers in the sky.

My entire life seems to have been either a prelude or an aftermath to moments such as these. Sometimes for a while I can submerge them and forget. But without warning, the hog-tied corpses of memory bob to the surface once more and then I recognize how much I’ve loved and missed those days. I suppose this is why people hoard their mementoes. Mine are sundry keepsakes of war and failed states, loot and charms, an odd collection of dictators’ portraits, Red Cross press releases, permits from guerrilla armies. Plaintive letters from interpreters left behind after the news went cold. Snaps of friends, gazing over ruined cityscapes, brandishing weapons, smoking joints, posing in mock disguises and states of intoxication, arm in arm. An Ethiopian chopper pilot’s visor helmet; river pebbles from Serbia; a concrete fragment of the Berlin Wall. A reject news photo of a Liberian, his skull trepanned by a bullet and daubed over with a Day-Glo smiley face and the caption “Have a nice day!” Buried in a drawer are autopsy reports and black-bordered funeral orders of service. There are voices on tape; if I stand in the next room and listen through an open door, I can ignore their metallic distortion and imagine them to be young and alive once more. All this stuff hangs around like bad luck in my house. I’d throw it all out if it weren’t so much a part of me.

Sometimes, the stories themselves can take on their own disturbing vitality. Inside my mind, they play out the what-ifs and maybes, throwing up fresh detail or missing facts I can no longer pin down. Or they spill over into my innocent recollections. Rows of silent infants with swollen kwashiorkor bellies gatecrash the childhood movie of my grandpa tying his runner beans to bamboo stakes in his garden. A gang of executed men in a banana grove falls to the floor as I’m flicking through pictures of my summers at Oxford. All these memories are unfinished business. They seep out of the hidden recesses and coagulate. I confuse the happy ones and the bad ones, where one fuck-up ended and the other began: childhood, or my thirtieth birthday, until I can no longer determine if certain events that still haunt me are either real or imagined, or just excuses for drinking too much, or my yelling rages, or not bothering to get out of bed in the mornings. And sometimes, there are mornings when I get up just so that I can stare at the wall of the room all day.

I recall countless mornings, rooms, and faces. A hut in the suburbs of Nairobi, where the white ants ate the timber walls and the tin roof popped and sighed with the heating and cooling of the days. Back at home on the Indian Ocean beach, like a child again under my mother’s care. I have had hours, dawns, waking in strange beds and looking out of windows at deserts, unfamiliar cityscapes, wintry rain, at the airliners coasting in like sharks to land at Heathrow. All that time stuck pacing around in rooms. And when I wasn’t there, I was on a road or a flight to some destination that made sense at the time even if it doesn’t now. Checking in, checking out. The circular journeys that brought me right back to the point where I had started. It is as if I have slept through an afternoon and waking, found that it is already dark. Time passes. Yet I sometimes sense that no time has passed at all. Sometimes, it occurs to me that if I picked up the phone right now and dialed my old home number the person answering it at the other end would be myself, aged twenty-three.

But it started long before that.

I was going to tell you war stories but I’ve realized that if I want to make sense of them, there is a wider tale that follows an arc through the generations. You see, it started when I broke down after my father’s death. Suddenly I found myself taking stock of everything that had ever happened to me. I remembered the people and the things I had loved, or feared. I recalled my ancestors and my childhood. I lived through my wars again on the journey to recovery, in what the British combat photographer Don McCullin has described as the “peace process.” At first I wandered without purpose, but luckily I discovered Peter Davey’s diaries in the Zanzibar chest. Sometime later I tucked the papers under my arm and went to Arabia. There I followed the story page by page, mile by mile, and it provided me with a golden thread that guided me out of the labyrinth where I was lost. And for this reason I can’t speak of my own story without also telling you about Davey. In these pages I am going to take you to Africa and Arabia and a few other places besides, in different years and over centuries. Forgive me when it proves difficult to keep up, but you’ll just have to trust me. For now I want you to keep in mind a day in April 1947. We are in an emerald-green valley beneath the craggy peaks of high Arabia. The land has fallen silent but for the sound of birdsong and the gurgling of water in the cool mountain stream. Youth and innocence are dead. The broad-winged shadow of a vulture circles over three men. One body is that of an African, a sheikh’s slave, lying riddled with bullet wounds. Nearby sprawls the figure of Davey. The translucent bone haft of a silver jambiya dagger protrudes from his chest and blood soaks his khaki tunic. And standing over the two of them is my father.

Take Me Home to Mama

My father’s ancestors were Yorkshire farmers. My great-grandparent Hartleys, remembered chiefly for their habit of sitting up in bed together at home in the seaside town of Bridlington and arguing loudly over the morning newspapers, refused even to set foot outside Yorkshire. I sense the Hartleys’ love of home was as important to them as not meddling in the affairs of other peoples overseas. A Hartley was among those who initiated the debate on the abolition of slavery. And David Hartley, a staunch opponent of the American Revolutionary War and a friend of Benjamin Franklin, was Britain’s minister plenipotentiary and signed the Treaty of Paris in the autumn of 1783.

All this changed after Britain lost America and spread its empire in the East. My forebears were swept up in a saga that makes an exception of the Bridlington Hartleys. My mother has gathered our family history into a collection of haphazardly arranged scrapbooks. It is a chronicle of tragedy and conquest. Ours is a typical British story spanning generations, in which men, women, and their children sank in ships on faraway oceans, succumbed to fevers in tropical bone yards, and died in small wars, mutinies, and rebellions fought across the crimson atlas of the British Empire. What survives of each of them in the albums may be only a picture, or an anecdote that fills a few lines. Whole lives are distilled to a single essence, like a well-cut gemstone. Commemorating the life of Great-aunt “Horrible” Hilda, and the love of her husband, is my mother’s ring of five Burma rubies. A big champagne diamond and other rings of opal used to set my grandmother off on yet more stories of Antipodean courtships.

As a boy I looked at the faces of my grandfathers and grandmothers, and in those eyes staring back at me through fading paint and sepia I ­observed a common determination. They were from a tribe absorbed by loyal duty, like my soldier forefather who, starving in the 1688–89 Catholic siege of Londonderry, held off eating his last tallow candle in order to use it to seal his military dispatches. We were indigo planters along the Ganges at the time of the Indian Mutiny. We fled for our lives down the river, but sailed into an ambush on the banks. In a hail of musket fire, the women and children threw themselves into the flood because they preferred to drown than be captured by their “inhuman enemies.” Between the Indian Mutiny and the Boer War, Britain fought twenty-nine small colonial wars from Ashanti to the Boxer Rebellion in China. My family fought and perished in a great many of them. One warrior sums up all of them. He was great-great grandfather Colonel Surgeon William Temple, who fought against the Maoris in New Zealand. In 1863, during the Waikato War on North Island, Temple won a Victoria Cross, the empire’s highest military decoration for courage. This was recognition of his bravery while tending his wounded comrades under a hail of intense fire from the ramparts of Rangiriri Pa, a fort of the tattooed Maori rebels. Temple married the magnificent-looking Theodosia, daughter of Major General T. R. Mould, governor of New Zealand, and she bore him twelve children. Much later, in India, my great-grandfather Gerhardt L’Honneur Sanders, who was to fight in the Boer War siege of Ladysmith, asked Temple’s permission to marry my great-grandmother Mabel. The aging colonel, all braid and waxed mustaches, expressed his consent by declaring, “Better for her to be your widow than my unwed daughter!”

Our women certainly led hard lives. At Mabel’s wedding, her seventeen-year-old sister Ethel was one of the bridesmaids. Ethel caught the eye of the best man, another army officer named Beames. Beames was a friend of Rudyard Kipling, who based The Story of the Gadsbys, his 1899 Indian “tale without a plot,” on their courtship. They married and immigrated to Canada, where they became pioneers. Beames turned to drink, abandoning Ethel to raise three children in a remote log cabin. One of her sons grew up to become a sculptor and moved to the United States, where one of his commissions was a monument to the American Indian wars that stands in Washington. My grandfather Colonel Reginald Sanders proposed to my grandmother Eileen after meeting her on home leave at a piano recital before returning to duty in India. By the time her ship arrived in Bombay she had forgotten what he looked like. They met up somehow and married within hours. He took her into the hills to his new married-officer’s quarters, carried her across the threshold, and proudly asked her what she thought of it. She burst into tears.

When the colonial peoples had been conquered, we were the rulers, the civil servants, the collectors, the engineers, the planters. We added to the store of scientific knowledge and indulged our national obsession with the classification of nature. Professor James Sanders was a principal of Calcutta University, who died of fever on the ship home in 1871 and is buried in Gibraltar. Douglas Sanders discovered new butterfly species in the hills inland from Chittagong, and his lepidoptera collections can be found in the British Museum. Great-grandfather James Wise worked for the Crown Agents on Cecil Rhodes’s unrealized dream of the Cape-to-Cairo railway.

We fed the Great War and the Second World War too. Great-­grandfather Pickard was a shipping magnate who lost his fortune to German U-boats. Great-uncle Bertram was an Indian civil servant, but he died in Flanders. Uncle Alfred Hartley fought at Jutland. Uncle Percy Hartley died in Mesopotamia. Yet another uncle survived the dysentery of that same campaign because, he believed, he had put his trust in a talisman given to him by an Arab friend. In the Second World War one sank in the Hood. Uncle Mike was in Burma. Uncle Norman crashed his Spitfire fighter aircraft and was crippled for life. Noel was a member of the forces that liberated Belsen. Another was a POW of the Japanese and worked on the Burma railway.

In time, the peoples my ancestors ruled won us over to their ways and their nations became more of a home to us than England. Long before the hippies went in search of gurus, my great-uncle Claude acquired a Sikh master in India and founded a society in England to promote his teachings. My grandfather Colonel Sanders devoted forty years of his life to the 48th Dogras, Rajput regiment, and fought alongside his soldiers in the Northwest Frontier, in Aden and Palestine during the Great War, and finally against the Japanese. In photographs he appears in jodhpurs, always with a pipe sticking out of his mouth and with a perfectly clipped mustache, painting a watercolor of distant hills, standing, rifle in hand, with the “mugger” crocodile he has just shot. When Grandpa retired from the Dogras in 1947, at India’s independence, he was bereft.

My mother loved India more than anywhere else. She was born in 1925 while my grandparents were on a shopping trip to Lahore. She spent the first week of her life wrapped in cotton wool. Her earliest memories are of waking up at dawn under a tree of blossoms in the garden, in which the family took refuge during an earthquake; of a house on a river, where at night, beyond the garden, jackals howled; eating chapatis in the ayah’s quarters; the sight that made her sad of Indians doubled up under the weight of the huge blocks of ice they carried to the European clubs; and of large, cool rooms with fans and cool drinks, regimental displays, and wide, green lawns. Even after half a century in Africa, my mother still said, “Africa is nothing compared to India.”

As a boy I asked my mother why our great-grandpas and our great-grannies from families of Yorkshire farmers and Scottish doctors felt the need to leave home and travel all over the world.

“Oh, to get out of the rain, dear,” Mother replied.

After several centuries, our British Empire came to an end. Most of my tribe returned to where they had once come from. As a child I used to meet my British relatives on visits in England. We all loved ancient Aunt Connie, who had been married once but recalled little about her husband because it had been so long since he was killed in the First World War. Connie lived with Aunt Vi, a spinster and self-sufficiency enthusiast who kept sheep, a pack of Chihuahuas, and fermented raspberry wine in bottles that exploded in her corridors. But most of the rosy-cheeked cousins I met at weddings and funerals were as strange to me as the country of Britain itself.

My parents were almost the only family members I knew who refused to go back to England. We who had been in India, the Far East, the Antipodes, the Americas, and the South Sea islands stayed on where we had made our last landfall, in East Africa. Once the colonial rulers, our status was now simply that of an appendix to history: powerless, few in number, and, most of all, extremely happy to remain in exile.

Britain was known as “home.” Yet for us, it was a distant island, where after all these years it was still raining. It was almost entirely through BBC radio that we kept in touch with an idea of England, which was cleansed by the frequencies of short wave and my parents’ vaguely remembered sense of patriotism. England greeted us each dawn with the BBC World Service signature tune, “Lero Lero, Lilli burlero.” Wherever we were, Big Ben tolled the hour and Dad, doing his yoga while drinking his early morning tea, gazed out at our adopted landscape, at a rising desert sun, or at the fishermen punting their outrigger canoes into the surf.

At the center of this world was my father. In my eyes, Dad was like an Old Testament patriarch. He was mightily handsome and strong. He had been in the sun so long that his legs, head, and arms were blackish brown, but underneath where he had worn his short-sleeved shirts and shorts his skin was still pale white. He was huge, leather-backed, barrel-chested, larger than mortal, with a large nose, big earlobes, hair of jet, and on the cusp of sixty when my mother gave birth to me. I have a strong mental image of my father as I write this, as a man walking. He walked with big swinging strides. He had walked across entire lands in his day. As an old man he walked too, daily, stopping ever more frequently to survey the view. When he walked a natural euphoria came over him. That is all one can say. It made him happy. It made him remember all the other walks of his life, before cars and aircraft made us rush about and pollute the world. He looked around him and saw the beauty of the land, and saw that he was moving through it at the pace that he wanted, filling his lungs with air, greeting loudly the people he passed on his way.

He was a great storyteller, who came home in his dusty veldskoens with presents that spoke of his travels. He’d produce from his duffel bag a curved Afar dagger in a goatskin sheath, a wooden Somali camel bell, or a gold star brooch for my mother. I remember once he also came home with his Land Rover punctured by three bullet holes. When he slammed the car door and strode off for a cup of tea, I hung back and stuck my fingers into the gashed aluminum. The rare times I ever found Dad sitting down, I’d climb up on his lap and he’d enfold me with one brawny arm, Tusker beer cradled in his other hand. We could be out in the bush but even if we were in a city, the way Dad told a tale in his voice as deep as a drum made it seem as if we were around a campfire out under the stars, in a pool of light cast by flames and encircled by the darkness of a million square miles of imagination.

My paternal grandfather, John Joseph, grew up on the island of Islay, where the Scottish children called him a “Sassenach.” He married Daisy, from Queenstown in South Africa’s Cape. He worked as a government official and they settled in the Leicestershire village of Kegworth, in a rambling house called Claremont. My father was born at home on July 31, 1907. His earliest memories revolved around ordinary English village family life. Opposite Claremont was the church, where he used to steal pigeon’s eggs from the belfry. On Sundays the bells rang out “Nine Tailors Make a Man.” In the garden was an ancient mulberry tree, planted during the reign of Charles I, and an old pavement from the ruins of a Roman villa. At the bottom of the garden was the River Soar, where my father and his siblings learned to swim, sail, and fish. England’s countryside was still quiet and motor cars were unknown. In summer, one could hear the corncrake and lapwings. Noise arrived only with the outbreak of the Great War, when my father heard the sound of marching boots and horse-drawn equipment echoing through the streets for days on end. He remembered cold winters at his grammar school in Lough­borough, and frost-bitten potatoes for lunch. Each week a fresh list of names was added to a scroll of honor in the assembly room to commemorate the old boys killed on the Western Front. He saw zeppelins bombing Nottingham and once the horizon was illuminated by the explosions at Chilwell, a munitions factory where hundreds of women worked. He remembered an elderly spinster aunt’s only comment when she heard the detonation: “Oh, what is Cook doing in the kitchen?” He was haunted by his memory of the faces of soldiers coming home from the war, still in their trench coats and shouldering their rifles.

Dad recalled later in life that he had not enjoyed school and focused his mind elsewhere, “in the woods and along the river’s reedy banks.” His one desire was to roam the countryside. In time he went to agricultural college, where horses were still used for haymaking, ploughing, and haulage. He learned to stook sheaves of corn, and he built turnip clamps, cut and laid hedges, topped and tailed mangles, hoed root crops, and went turd knocking. A new era in agriculture was beginning, however, and my father studied soil analysis, artificial fertilizers, hybrid improvements of crops and livestock, pesticides, chemicals, and tractors and combine harvesters. In 1927 he was offered a Colonial Service scholarship to Oxford University.

At Oxford, my father said he learned there was more to the world than the “bullocks, sheep, and crops’ of his childhood and he “talked of politics and everything under the sun.” He began to read about Africa and in Blackwells he bought Sir Richard Burton’s First Footsteps in East Africa. After Oxford he went to study at the Imperial College of Tropical Agriculture in St. Augustine, on the island of Trinidad. When not studying cotton or coffee, he went out with his Creole friends shark fishing or iguana hunting. Until then, the only time he had gone abroad in his life was to France on a cycling tour. In Trinidad, he was fascinated by the mix of foreign races he encountered.

My father could have made his life in almost any part of the empire. Many of his generation went overseas, including his brother Ronald. I remember Uncle Ronald, a ukulele-playing agricultural college principal in Fiji who had his singing Bulgarian wife shave him before he turned out of bed each morning. At college in Trinidad, notices went up offering jobs in everything from rubber in Malaya and tea planting in Ceylon to ranching in Australia. My father chose Africa because of his mother, Daisy, who told him stories of life in the Cape in the nineteenth century and remembered trekking across the veld in an ox wagon when she was still a little girl. My father was also inspired to live overseas by his paternal uncle Ernest, whom he loved. Ernest was a businessman in India, a keen sportsman, and a raffish character with a great sense of humor, whose daughter grew up to become the actress Vivien Leigh. During the summer of 1928, Ernest and his wife Gertrude leased the house of the Earl of Mayo in Galway and Dad went to join them for a summer’s fishing. He fell a little in love with the precocious, adolescent Vivien. “Everybody knew it,” a gossipy aunt told me. She gave him a book of poems by Banjo Paterson, signed “To my favorite cousin with love from Viv.” My father adored “The Man from Snowy River” for the rest of his life.

On October 10, 1929, he received a letter from the secretary of state for the colonies. It gave news of his appointment as agricultural officer in the Tanganyika Territory and was signed, “I have the honor to be, Sir, your most obedient servant.” My father’s generation was from a new type of empire builders who were quite different from their predecessors. Before, the British in Africa had pursued an economy of simple extraction and it was as if they believed progress could not involve the mass of black people who lived in their colonies. Thin on the ground, we governed by the system of “indirect rule,” via traditional or appointed local chiefs. The surface of East Africa was barely disturbed at first. But in the years after the Great War, the British determined to “develop” the colonies by ensnaring Africa’s native peoples in the modern world economy, at the less advantageous end to be sure, as growers of cash crops and payers of tax. This was the mission my father was asked to play a role in and no doubt, at first he believed that it was a noble one, in which the destiny of Africa’s remote peoples would for their own benefit at last be joined with that of the outside world.