Hope yet for African Queen gunboat on Lake Tanganyika

MV Liemba (copyright Kibwanaqua)

Ships don't come with much more historical ballast than the MV Liemba. The steamer still shudders and belches its way across Lake Tanganyika every Wednesday and Friday, a century after it was built as a warship in Germany.

In its time it's been a pawn in the colonial scramble for Africa. It's been scuttled and then raised again from the deep. It may have been the model for the warship sunk by The African Queen, a steam-powered launch in the film of the same name, starring Katharine Hepburn as a prim spinster and Humphrey Bogart as the rough captain.

And now it's a ferry on Africa's longest lake, invariably packed with hundreds of people plus their jumble of bundles and baskets as it churns the water between Kigoma in Tanzania across the lake to Mpulungu in Zambia.

But for how long? Such is the ramshackle, dented state of the vessel that the company which runs it has asked the German government to help with refurbishment. The basis of the appeal is that this is a piece of German history. The steamer that serves the citizens around Lake Tanganyika was once the Kaiser's gunboat.

Cat and Dog

A spokesman for the Marine Services Company told the BBC: "We have requested that Germany help in its rehabilitation. This is because of financial constraints but we have not had a concrete commitment."

MV Liemba (copyright Peter A Levey, www.flickr.com/leveypa/) It may be cheaper to build a new ship than refurbish the old one

The Liemba started life as the Graf Goetzen in 1913 when she was built as a warship in Papenburg on the River Ems in northern Germany. It is said that the Kaiser himself ordered the construction to further his imperial ambitions.

The Graf Goetzen was then transported in parts, in 500 crates, from Hamburg to Dar es Salaam on the coast of East Africa - and from there over mountains to Lake Tanganyika where Germany, Britain and Belgium were all engaged in colonial jostling.

Britain did not take the presence of the vessel easily. As the Admiralty put it: "It is both the duty and the tradition of the Royal Navy to engage the enemy wherever there is water to float a ship."

So London decided to send two gunboats and by an equally difficult route.

The British ships were sent down to South Africa and then up the continent as far as they could be taken by rail, and after that by the sheer human power of 2,000 labourers who hauled and cut through the jungle, eventually getting them to the lake which became the site of imperial contest.

The two British boats, by the way, were initially to be called Cat and Dog but that was thought to be too flippant - the Admiralty in London at the time was not into flippancy. The names Mimi and Touto were chosen instead, the French terms used by children for cat and dog.

'Indispensable service'

Colonial rivalry and conflict then ensued, and, in the face of a British attack, the Germans abandoned the port of Kigoma, scuttling their ship, the Graf Goetzen, to stop it getting into British hands.

MV Liemba

  • Built in 1913
  • Scuttled in 1916 - raised again after several years at the bottom of Lake Tanganyika
  • Put into service as a ferry in 1927
  • An inspiration for a vessel in C S Forester's 1935 novel The African Queen, and the 1951 Hollywood film
  • Proudly described by its owners as "the oldest passenger ferry in the world"

The Goetzen then remained at the bottom of the lake for nearly 10 years until she was raised to the surface. Amazingly, the engines still functioned after minor repairs - possibly because the German engineers who had done the scuttling were the ones who had taken it out from Germany... and they took care to encase the engines in grease so that their baby could one day live and steam again.

It is not clear who raised it, perhaps the Belgians or perhaps the British - but whoever did it, the old German gunboat ended up in the hands of the British.

Clearly, a vessel of the Royal Navy could not be named after Count Gustav Adolf von Goetzen, who was a German explorer and governor of German East Africa. So the ship was renamed as the Liemba - which is how she has stayed ever since.

And so may she stay for much longer if she can be renovated. The request for financial help has fallen between the governments of Lower Saxony, in which the ship was built, and the federal government in Berlin.

The president of Germany has added his voice. The ship, said President Christian Wulff, had a "singular history" and performed an "indispensable service" to the people of East Africa. The government of Tanzania joined the clamour for salvation.

A study has been done by the German authorities but it is thought to have concluded that the costs might well be higher than actually building a new ship. But would a new ship be quite the same as an ancient steamer, dented and bulging with history?


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  • rate this

    Comment number 32.

    This ship, and its sister on lake Malawi, have always fascinated me. Boilers fueled for a century on wood from local suppliers have by definition a sustainable fuel supply, so why substitute imported diesel? Similarly, her low speed reciprocating engines have little to go wrong, if you keep them lubricated. Question is, if she's technically and socially sustainable, what is our "heritage" worth?

  • rate this

    Comment number 30.

    This ship is History! It must be restored. The fact that it is still in use is a tribute to the German Engineers who built it. Germany should be proud and so should the African Engineers who nurse it at present. Wow, what a story!

  • rate this

    Comment number 29.

    Well, the problem with a new boat would be that it would almost certainly be oil fuelled, not solid fuel powered like this one. The current boat is probably almost carbon neutral, burning local wood.

    I'd say other countries should maybe make sure it's lake-worthy, and runs, but 'cosmetic' features (fixtures & fittings) should be funded locally if they're needed.

  • rate this

    Comment number 28.

    Would be good if this proud old lady could be referbished, but I rather fear that Germany has other things to pay for at the moment - Greece for instance!

  • rate this

    Comment number 27.

    It is certainly an historic ship, and it would be a shame to lose it. One can build a new ship, but not an old one.

    By the way, there are older passenger ferries running. Here, in Switzerland, there are a few old steam-driven side-wheel paddle boats that ply the Vierwaldstaettersee (Lake Luzern), that date to the turn of the 18/19th centuries. Stiil, this qualifies as ONE of the oldest!


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