Fiona sums up Margarete Trappe as,“farmer, equestrienne, livestock breeder, skilled amateur veterinarian, healer of humans, transport rider and intelligence operative during the First World War, formidable first full-time professional game huntress in Africa, photographic and eco-safari leader, and protagonist of goodwill among the tribal people of her African home.”
She was born into a well-to-do family of five children in Petersdorf, Silesia, which was part of Prussian Germany for 200 years until 1945, and today lies in southwest Poland. Margarete was denied the opportunity to study veterinary medicine because of her gender. Instead, the already headstrong and animal-loving young woman set her mind on emigrating to Africa with her husband Ulrich Trappe, a Lieutenant in the Silesian mounted artillery regiment.
In 1906, under Chancellor Bismarck’s colonization program that would provide the means to acquire land and the basic necessities to start farming, they embarked on the Deutsch-Ostafrika Linie for the German East Africa.
Fiona provides historical background for the reader to understand the European politics behind the acquisition and administration of the almost 1-million km2 Protectorate, surrounded by British, Portuguese and Belgian possessions, as part of Germany’s “Scramble for Africa” that started under Kaiser Wilhelm I. The anchoring of German warships off the Sultanate of Zanzibar; a discussion of Swahili culture; the 1886 Anglo-German treaty of 1886; the devastating end-of-century Rinderpest that killed 90 to 95% of Africa’s cattle and much game; the bloody 1905 Maji Maji rebellion; and even the summiting of Mt. Kilimanjaro by Dr. Hans Meyer on October 6, 1889, are interestingly fleshed out.
We follow the Trappe’s 485-km trek with cooks, gunbearers, servants and trackers, from Tanga on the coast to “The Shining Mountain,” and the slow, laborious creation of Ngongongare and Momella farms in the elephant, rhino and buffalo-rich foothills of Mount Meru. We share the tented and banana-leaf house beginnings and the eventual emergence of a magnificent estate with its dairy herds, horse stud and cattle ranching six years later. The photos of the young Margarete on her black stallion, Comet – whose own saga is another story, with Africa’s ancient volcanic mountains in the background, is a page-turning read.
Throughout, Fiona provides insight into the period’s agricultural markets, the creation of game reserves for the protection of wildlife, the introduction of hunting ordinances, including the abolishment of ivory hunting for commercial purposes. She describes the character Margarete developed to raise a family and expand their holdings, while facing too many challenges and near defeats as the specter of the First World War builds to its inevitable conclusion for the colony’s 5,336 whites; 4,101 were German.
From those early days, Margarete’s reputation as a skilled huntress grew and spread, and she soon earned a request from the Bavarian Royal House of Wittelsbach to organize a safari for Prince Leopard, Field-Marshall of the Imperial Army and son-in-law of Kaiser Franz Josef of Austria, and his son. Her list of aristocratic clients would grow, and Fiona reconstructs many of their safaris from meager surviving documents and letters.
Everything would change for the 30-year-old mother of three with the declaration of war.
Fiona details the creation of a colonial armed force by the Prussian aristocrat Lt-Colonel Paul Emil von Lettow-Vorbeck, and his guerilla war strategy throughout the war to defend the German colony. The sinking of the Königsberg; General Smuts; the British assault on Longido – it’s all there.
Margarete had her own role to play, as mounted reconnaissance operative, also delivering and treating military horses, all the while looking after her estates, her staff, her children. Ulrich was taken as a prisoner of war to India and it would be years before she saw him again. Lettow-Vorbeck would say she had “Schneid für drei Männer” – the guts/courage of three men.
Margarete was never an easy person, but she was fair and square, which earned her the position of Honorary Game Warden under the new British authorities, who had restricted her movements. In 1916, while poaching game to feed her people, she started to rebuild Momella, slowly re-acquiring 600 head of cattle, 50 horses, and 300 sheep and goats. But in 1920, after 13 years of labor, the colony’s 4,000 German nationals were deported to return to their devastated homeland in the throes of economic collapse and revolution. The British confiscated all Margarete’s property, forbidding her to sell anything.
But Margarete would find a way back to Momella via the acquisition of a South African passport, and in 1926 she gave birth to her fourth child, and divorced her husband in 1928. These years, until the next war, would be the golden years in many ways – raising the children among lion cubs and pet zebras, rebuilding the farm and re-establishing her safari business stocked with blueblood clients, including Kaiser Wilhelm II’s grandson, Prince Hubertus of Prussia, and Prince Friedrich Franz von Mecklenburg-Schwerin who hunted Lake Manyara and Tarangire. Count Rantzau was Margarete’s first and most enduring client, encouraging her to become a full-time PH – the first in all Africa.
Safari life with its freedom and danger suited her nature and encyclopedic knowledge of wildlife, firearms, the field preparation of skins, following spoor with her trackers. Soon her sons Ulrich and Rolf assisted in the family business, while her daughter Ursula married and moved to a sisal plantation in the Lindi region.
Fiona recounts the rising pressures in Europe that would cause the inhabitants of Momella to be “sucked into a situation not of their making… This, too, would pass, but at what cost and when?” British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain declared war on Germany on September 3, 1939. Despite her South African passport, which made her a British Dominion subject, to the Brits Margarete was an enemy alien.
Soon, 4,000 Germans, and most Afrikaner/Boers in Tanganyika, would be interned at Iringa; many men were sent to camps in South Africa and the women and children to Southern Rhodesia. Margarete’s sister, Tine, and her children Ursula, Ulrich and Rolf were all detained and ultimately deported. By 1951, they had all returned except for Ulrich who refused to return to Tanganyika. Margarete, too, was finally interned, somehow managing to keep her two dogs, and Momella was to be auctioned off to the highest bidder. She was eventually allowed monthly visits to the estate where she was confronted by “waste, neglect, and theft,” and the Maasai and their cattle in its pastures.
After two years and four months, in early 1943, she was free to start over. But then, again, after years of ceaseless labor, the British arrived at Momella in November 1946 to deport her to a place – Prussian Germany – that no longer existed. Six months later, the order was abruptly withdrawn. With the time for big-game rifles now behind her, Margarete would make a successful business of photographic and film safaris, though Rolf followed her into the game fields through the wind of change.
Margarete Trappe died on June 5, 1957. But Momella, as part of Arusha National Park and the Hatari Game Lodge, live on, as does the legacy of an exceptional human being.
The 182-page Between Two Fires – The African Saga of Margarete Trappe, with dozens of black and white photos, is published by Rowland Ward in a standard edition (R400/US$50) and a limited and signed edition of 100 (R960/US$120). To order, go to: www.rowlandward.com
Reviewed by Brooke ChilversLubin