'We should have never come!' So said Aidan Hartley's father in his final days, rising from a bed made of mountain cedar, lashed with thongs of rawhide from an oryx shot many years before. His 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 in Africa in the 1920s and a builder of dams in Arabia in the 1940s, the Hartleys were intrepid men who travelled to exotic lands to conquer, to build, and finally to bear witness. In The Zanzibar Chest, Hartley weaves together his family's history, his childhood in Africa and the dark world of the continent's horrendous wars, which he witnessed at first hand as a journalist in the 1990s.
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, terror and genocide prevailed. In Somalia, three of Hartley's close friends are torn to pieces by an angry mob. Then, after walking overland from Uganda with the rebel army, he saw the terrible atrocities in Rwanda, arriving at the sites and interviewing survivors just days after the massacres. Finally, burnt out from a decade of horror, he retreated to his family's house in Kenya, where he discovered 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 more than fifty years earlier. 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 travelled to the remote mountains and deserts of southern Arabia where his father served as a British officer. He began 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 died tragically.
At once a modern and a historic love story, The Zanzibar Chest is also an epic narrative charting the fates of men and women who interfered with, embraced and were ultimately transformed by twentieth-century Africa.