Churchill’s Desk

Walk into the average teenager’s room and it would be adorned with posters of people they are fans of.  People, usually music stars, that they look up and admire, and more importantly people to which they role model.  These people are powerful icons which shape them psychologically.

ChurchillTo an adult, after a more experienced life, the icons who have moulded them – their role models, the people they admire most usually end up in picture frames or as small statues on mantels, desks and tables, very often family but very often also great thinkers, leaders who have step-changed their world and great sportsmen and women (even the odd music star from their teens might even make an appearance).

It’s no different with Winston Churchill, his desk at Chartwell is the most telling of who shaped him as a person, who he admired the most, who he loved and who he looked to for inspiration when writing his accounts of history, his epoch changing speeches and his great works on shaping the future of Great Britain.

Churchill suffered from great bouts of depression, which he called his ‘black dog’ and it is  in these people represented on his desk that he would also find light and drive, these are very important individuals to him.

chartwell study website size

In and amongst his family portraits on his desk, he positioned three non-family members in the middle of his desk – his ‘heroes’ looking strait back at him for inspiration – Napoleon, Nelson and, believe it or not, Jan Smuts.

One Englishman, one Frenchman and one Afrikaner … now that’s a strange combination for someone who epitomised everything British and her Imperial Empire.  Horatio Nelson you can understand, but two great former enemies of Britain, that’s odd.

So let’s understand why Churchill was such a big fan of Nelson, Napoleon and Smuts and examine why these specific people shaped him as a leader, a man who was to be voted by the British in 2002  as the greatest Briton in their history ahead of a nomination of 100 others in a BBC survey.  A man, whether some like it or not, who is one of the most influential men to have shaped our 21st Century’s social, political and economic landscapes.

Horatio Nelson

horatio-nelson-george-baxterPerhaps owing to Churchill’s role as First Lord of the Admiralty (a position which he held twice) Churchill developed a serious love of Nelson. A bust of Nelson sat on his desk at Chartwell and Churchill had a grey cat which accompanied him on trips to Chequers during the war which he named for the great Napoleonic Wars admiral.

One of Churchill’s favourite movies was Lady Hamilton, a film about Nelson’s mistress. Churchill also wrote about Nelson in History of the English Speaking Peoples.  Lets face it he was a fan.

But not just Churchill, in the BBC vote for the greatest Briton, Horacio Nelson also made the short-list.  The British we such fans of Nelson they went further than a small busts of him, they erected a column (which extends the full length of the HMS Victory’s mast) in the middle of their most famous square in the centre of London and put him on the top.  Nelson still towers over London on his ‘column’ to this day.

31755351_2132092927019694_4424184196008771584_n

What Nelson did to get all this admiration is he ‘saved Britain’ whilst at the ‘helm’ of the Royal Navy by destroying the French Navy at the Battle of Trafalgar in 1805 and this is really why Churchill found inspiration in him.  Churchill was to emulate his hero exactly when he too ‘saved Britain’ at the ‘helm’ of the Royal Air Force by destroying the German Luftwaffe during the Battle of Britain in 1940.

That is why Nelson sits on Churchill’s desk.

Napoleon Bonaparte

Churchill had a fascination and an immense respect for Napoleon. His bust also sat on Churchill’s desk at Chartwell, but was slightly larger and more prominently placed than Nelson’s – in fact it sits dead centre and dominates his desk.

Churchill enjoyed reflecting on Napoleon’s military genius, perhaps wanting to emulate the French emperor. After all, like Churchill after the Dardanelles, Napoleon made a significant comeback. Churchill even hoped to write a biography of Napoleon but never found the time.

More than that, he hated it when people would compare Hitler to Napoleon. “It seems an insult to the great Emperor and warrior,” he said, “to connect him in any way with a squalid caucus boss and butcher”.

31703886_2132093103686343_4492955349791277056_o

But most of all, during the 2nd Anglo-Boer War (1899 to 1902) it was Napoleon’s quote that came to his mind when he surrendered to Boer forces once he found him isolated from an armoured train which the Boer’s attacked.  Of the incident when a Boer horseman pointed a rifle at his head and waved it to signal he should come out, Churchill considered his idol – Napoleon who said, “When one is alone and unarmed, a surrender may be pardoned.”  So he obeyed the Boer’s signal to surrender or die and walked out. Napoleon had literally saved his life.

However, Churchill’s admiration of Napoleon is a lot deeper, what Churchill saw in Napoleon was a reformer. Napoleons influence on the modern world brought liberal reforms to the numerous territories that he conquered and controlled. His Napoleonic Code has influenced the legal systems of more than 70 nations around the world. British historian Andrew Roberts summed up Napoleon very well;

“The ideas that underpin our modern world—meritocracy, equality before the law, property rights, religious toleration, modern secular education, sound finances, and so on—were championed, consolidated, codified and geographically extended by Napoleon. To them he added a rational and efficient local administration, an end to rural banditry, the encouragement of science and the arts, the abolition of feudalism and the greatest codification of laws since the fall of the Roman Empire”

napoleon-bonaparte-high-quality-genuine-pure

With France capitulating to Nazi Germany early in World War 2, Europe’s great bastion of liberty forged by Napoleon was no longer in contention, and Churchill saw Britain as the last hope to carry this flame and become the next great reformer of Europe, and it has manifested itself in the creation of the European Union, the roots of its creation and thinking can be traced to none other than Churchill when after the 2nd World War he called for the creation of a ‘United States of Europe’.

That is why Napoleon sits on Churchill’s desk.

Jan Smuts

Jan Smuts’ portrait sits to the left of Napoleon’s bust on Churchill’s desk at Chartwell, sitting alongside what is arguably the two greatest military strategists known – Nelson and Napoleon. Here Churchill viewed Smuts as an equal to two of the biggest hitters in European history. But why this lessor known Afrikaner General, why Smuts?

31772977_2132093840352936_3593175403679711232_o

Some would say it was Churchill’s close personal relationship with Smuts as his advisor during World War 2, that he was simply Churchill’s ‘friend’ with loads in common.  But that too would be incorrect, Smuts was the extreme opposite of Churchill, Smuts was a near teetotaler whereas Churchill was seldom sober, Smuts was an early to bed early riser, Churchill was a night-owl, Smuts maintained a stringent diet whereas Churchill was a glutton, Smuts enjoyed exercise and long walking and climbing treks and Churchill hated the very idea of it.

So, nothing in common as friends go then.

Less informed people in South Africa would venture it’s because Smuts turned ‘traitor’ on his people and turned ‘British’.  But that’s both grossly ignorant and entirely wrong as the rather inconvenient truth to these detractors is that Winston Churchill admired Jan Smuts precisely because he was a ‘Boer’.

Churchill emulated and admired Smuts, because Smuts had been his great adversary during the South African War (1899-1902).  He was a fan of Smuts’ strategic and tactical military capability and leadership in the field.  Churchill, like many of his peers and the general population in England, admired Smuts preciously because he epitomised the legacy of a great Boer fighter.

Smuts02

There is credit in the arguments which expose certain officers and South African based British politicians for ‘Boer hatred’ during The South African War (1899 to 1902), it’s true in some cases and there is no denying that – but it is not generally true of the whole, in fact it’s entirely the opposite.  Across the English-speaking world, in Britain and America particularly the Boer fighter would take an on almost legendary and mythical status.

Consider this famous influential Briton’s admiration of the Boer nation.  Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, the creator of Sherlock Holmes, said of the Boers after the South African war;

“Take a community of Dutchmen of the type of those who defended themselves for fifty years against all the power of Spain at a time when Spain was the greatest power in the world. Intermix with them a strain of those inflexible French Huguenots, who gave up their name and left their country forever at the time of the revocation of the Edict of Nantes . The product must obviously be one of the most rugged, virile, unconquerable races ever seen upon the face of the earth. Take these formidable people and train them for seven generations in constant warfare against savage men and ferocious beasts, in circumstances in which no weakling could survive; place them so that they acquire skill with weapons and in horsemanship, give them a country which is eminently suited to the tactics of the huntsman, the marksman and the rider. Then, finally, put a fine temper upon their military qualities by a dour fatalistic Old Testament religion and an ardent and consuming patriotism. Combine all these qualities and all these impulses in one individual and you have the modern White Boer.”

IMG_104Smuts found thousands admirers for his speeches, in the general public, political circles and even in the British Parliament who received him with a resounding ovation, all of them within living knowledge of the South African War and the extremely hard time tenacious Boers, including Smuts, had given the British during the war.

The value of the ‘little guy’ standing up to the giant and giving it a bloody nose resounds very well in the English-speaking world.  So too the very British value of ‘pluckiness’ which the British saw in a tiny Republic taking on a Superpower, you just had to admire it.  Again, the Boer cause strikes the British value of ‘fortitude’, the ‘stiff upper lip’ required for supreme perseverance against intense adversary – and the Boer fighter amplified this value in buckets.

The 2nd Anglo-Boer war (1899-1902) was the single biggest event to ‘shape’ the young Churchill as a character, it forged him into who he became and his exploits in South Africa directly contributed to his success as leader.  He was time and again to encounter the Boer fighting spirit and strategic and tactical capability, the Boers made a POW of him, shot his horse out from under him and so narrowly killed him on so many occasions that Churchill would describe the sonic wakes of Boer bullets so close to blowing his head off they ‘kissed his cheeks’, his survival of Boer military assaults and marksmanship he puts down to his own sheer luck and nothing else.

Smuts Boer

General Jan Smuts in the 2nd Anglo-Boer War

What’s not to admire about these ‘pesky’ Boers made up of small groups of simple farming folk in their thousands using skilful military manoeuvrability and marksmanship to keep an entire professional army expeditionary force in their hundreds of thousands at bay with their heads down.

But not in his home country, Smuts would not find hordes of adoring fans, instead the nationalists spin-doctored this fame and admiration to further reinforce their argument that Smuts had turned ‘British’ and split him from his voter base and people. Not that this mattered a jot for Churchill in his worship of Smuts and the Boers, to him the ‘National Party’ was nothing more than a relatively small bunch of misled Nazi sympathising politicians, their brand of politics in countenance to just about every fibre in this body and they had nothing at all to do with the values he so admired in the Boers and Afrikaners in general.

It’s precisely because Churchill considered Smuts an ‘enemy’ and not a ‘friend’, that he was ‘Boer’ and not a ‘Brit’ that he found so much admiration in Smuts, that he thought himself an equal military strategist to wrestle his ideas with his old foe, to grapple with this formidable ‘Boer’ General for strategic perspective and in so not make the kind of mistake he made with the Dardanelles operation and the resultant, rather disastrous, Gallipoli campaign in World War 1.  Smuts tempered Churchill throughout World War 2 advising against his intrinsic disposition for impulsiveness with sheer reason.  Smuts ‘balanced’ Churchill perfectly.

It was the sheer fortitude of the Boer fighter that Churchill admired so much, the little guy giving the big guy the old two-fingered ‘Agincourt’ up-yours ‘mate’ salute the English archers gave the superior French forces in 1514 in defiance of them, a salute which Churchill (and even Smuts) would later turn around in a double-entendre of the gesture to indicate ‘Victory’ without losing its actual meaning.

Simply put – he admired all the ‘Boer’ traits of fortitude, versatility and mental toughness in Smuts, and it manifests itself in Churchill in just about every speech he made and work he did.

Richard Steyn in ‘Unafraid of Greatness’ sums this up very well;

“Yet the great paradox of (Smuts’) life was that – as Leif Egeland pointed out – it is precisely because Smuts was a Afrikaner and a Boer soldier that he built up such a formidable reputation world-wide.  On his many visits abroad and in his personal life, he kept the image of the Boer general, ‘one of the most romantic and bravest figures in history’. Whilst many of his countrymen described him for being an Englishman at heart, in Britain and around the world ‘General Smuts’ was respected and revered for being a true and patriotic Afrikaner – the finest example of his tribe”.

That’s why Smuts sits on Churchill’s desk.

Related work and Links

Churchill and The South African War; Churchill’s epic ‘Boy’s Own’ Adventure in South Africa

Smuts; “The force of his intellect has enriched the wisdom of the whole human race”- the death of Jan Smuts.

Smuts’ speech to the Houses of Parliament; A true statesman, Jan Smuts addressing the British Parliament – 1942


Written and Researched by Peter Dickens.

References include ‘The National Trust Collections’ Chartwell, Jan Smuts reconsidered by Hermann Giliomee 26 January 2016, Richard Steyn’s Smuts: Unafraid of Greatness 2015.  ‘Who were Churchill’s heroes’ by Warren Dockter, historian 2015.  Horatio Nelson portait by George Baxter,  Image of Smuts and Churchill – Imperial War Museum

 

Whose land is it anyway?

It’s a thorny issue in South Africa, the taking of farm land without compensation.  However the Anglo-Boer Wars (both of them) and even the Voortrekker Zulu War carry with them some interesting history and it asks the question ‘whose land is it anyway’ One significant and conveniently overlooked answer lies in the grounding history and cause of the South African War 1899-1902 (also known as the 2nd Anglo-Boer War).

This answer makes the case for the giving of annexed land by the Transvaal and Orange Free State Republics (The Boers) back to the black indigenous peoples of South Africa who existed in those two republics prior to The South African War, and it ALSO makes a case which reinforces the ‘white’ Boer ownership of vast tracks of land in the two old Boer Republics annexed by the British during The South African War.

To many South Africans the chief cause of the Second Anglo-Boer War is completely misunderstood, it is shrouded by a National Party narrative and bias caused by the fierce sense of Afrikaner Nationalism created by this party’s ideology.   Dismiss for a minute the whole Nationalist idea that all the land was ’empty’ or bartered and traded for fairly during the Great Trek. Also, dismiss for a minute also the whole idea that the 2nd Anglo-Anglo Boer war was all only about ‘gold’ and ‘diamonds’ and British greed for it. Finally, dismiss the idea that the Boer concentration camps of The South African War were systematic ‘extermination’ camps designed to rid the British world of the Boer nation in its entirety (Nazi style).  All of these Nationalist fuelled ideas are either falsehoods or at best only half-truths.  When putting these into correct context and in the ‘inconvenient’ truth that the case for ‘who owns the land’ is found.

Let’s start with the real underpinning reason for the 2nd Anglo-Boer war (The South African War), which is the 1st Anglo-Boer War (The Transvaal War).  Like World War 2 is World War 1, Part 2, so too a key underpinning cause of  the 2nd Anglo-Boer War was the 1st Anglo-Boer War.   In effect ‘Boer War’ 2 is ‘Boer War 1’; Part 2.

1st Anglo-Boer War

The 1st Anglo-Boer War (Transvaal War) is an enigma to most South Africans, barely understood even today, the events and outrages of the 2nd Anglo-Boer War completely cloud it out, and it’s an inconvenient war to look at as it throws up these thorny truths which don’t suit the political narrative:

  • The Transvaal Republic was at one stage a British Colony BEFORE the 2nd Anglo- Boer War
  • The Transvaal Republic ‘raad’ handed their Republic, with all its wealth and their state coffers (tax), their flag and their independence to the British in April 1877 – willingly and WITHOUT one single protest or shot fired.
  • ‘Native Land’ and ‘Protection’ were also a central reason why the Transvaal Boer Republic INVITED the British to colonise their Republic.

In 1876 the tiny Boer population of the ‘Transvaal’  people was under threat from a much bigger population of warring African tribes in the Transvaal Republic and on the Republic’s borders (remember this was before the discovery of gold in 1886 and before the future ZAR Republic was rich in arms and munitions).

The reason why the Transvaal Boers were under threat is that they were annexing tribal land by force and demanding tax from various tribal groups for the land (and forcing labour) on land they were allowed to occupy. This had stirred up the Pedi, led by Sekhukune I and resulted in a war in 1876 which is recorded as a Boer defeat.  To the East the very powerful Zulu kingdom was also making claims on ‘Transvaal’ territory.

This ‘Black African’ uprising was one the Boers could not cope with alone.  So the Boers INVITED the British to Colonise their Republic and protect them.

The Black Africans in the Transvaal Republic felt they had a case too, and they too called on the British to help them from what they saw as Transvaal Republic aggression, land grabbing and subjection.  They also INVITED the British to protect them.

All good then, invited by EVERYONE in the Transvaal Republic the British moved into the Transvaal on the 12th April 1877 to settle the peace, annexed it as British Colony,  with no resistance they took down the ZAR ‘Vier-Kleur’ and hoisted the Union Flag (Jack) over Pretoria and erected a British government.  In doing so the ex-Boer Republic also handed   over the money, tax would now be collected by the British – all tax, the taxes on mining and the taxes on land.

In addition, to protect the ex-Boer capital they built forts around Pretoria (Johannesburg did not really exist as a complete mining city and some of these forts in Pretoria are still there as an inconvenient reminder of this history). For their efforts, the British got to expand their territory in Africa (more land for them) suiting their expansionist Imperialism agenda right down to the ground, everyone happy right?

But not for long, the British had crushed the Zulu threat in 1879 (Anglo-Zulu War), with the threat gone, it did not take long before the British policies on Black African land rights and their policies of taxation of Boer land became an issue with the resident Boer population.  It all came to a head with the Boers when the British confiscated one Boer’s wagon in lieu of his backdated tax, which he refused to pay.  This brought them into direct conflict with a Boer Commando drafted to help the farmer and simply put the Boers now wanted their old Republic back and the British OUT.  This then kicked off the 1st Anglo-Boer War, the ‘Transvaal War’ in November 1880.

image

The Siege of Rustenburg, 1st Anglo-Boer War

So what was the issue really – it can’t just be one wagon?  We have to ask ‘whose land is it anyway’ and ‘who really needed it protected from who’?  The Boer case lies in two events in history which occurred more or less at the same time, the ‘Great Trek’ and the ‘Mfecane’.

The turbulent early 1800’s

Its complicated history, but in a nutshell in the early 1800’s are the key, specifically the period 1819 to 1838 – this was the epicentre of events in South Africa which were to shape the problem we have in South Africa today, especially as to ‘freedoms and land’.

It all started in one part of the country on the 1st December 1834 when the British took the bold decision to ban slavery in the Cape Colony and in addition gave franchise (the ‘vote’) and property ownership rights to all its inhabitants – Black and White (Setter, Coloured and Indigenous) on an equal footing.  This did not sit well with the  mainly Dutch (with a blend of French and German) farmers many of which found themselves in an intolerable situation as ex-slave owners and they chose, just a short 6 months later, in June 1834, to up-sticks and leave the British colony and their endless meddling in their social structures, beliefs and social spheres.  At the same time taking with them into South Africa’s hinterland their ideologies of racial servitude, ideologies which would underpin the future Boer Republics which they formed.  They would also form a new nation an ‘Afrikaner’ one, with an Afrikaans language both named after their ‘land’ in ‘Africa’ – essentially a ‘White African Tribe’.

31487269_2130655337163453_5957646760985928386_n

The Great Trek – artists impression

Around the same time, in another part of the country Shaka Zulu and the Zulu nation  was born.  In 1819 Shaka Zulu managed to unite, through force and war, a number of small tribes into a newly established ‘Zulu nation’.   Like the Boer ‘Afrikaners’ their nation did not exist as a ‘Zulu’ one prior to the early 1800’s.

The 1st ‘depopulation’ of land

So when and how did these northern ‘Black African Tribes’ establish themselves in South Africa? The answer lies in the Mfecane (meaning ‘the crushing’), also known by the Sesotho name Difaqane (scattering, forced dispersal or forced migration).  This great  displacement of Black tribal people took place between 1815 and about 1840.

30806362_2130615857167401_5549917167853742007_o

King Shaka – artists impression

As King Shaka created a very militaristic Zulu Kingdom (situated in the territory between the Tugela River and Pongola River) his forces expanded outwards in a wave, subjecting or simply annihilating all other peoples.  This expansionism also became the prelude to  the Mfecane, which spread from this Zulu epicentre. The forced movement of peoples caused many displaced tribes to wage war on those in other territories, leading to widespread warfare and death as well as the consolidation of various tribes.  Notably, it brought up the Matabele actions who dominated in what was the ‘Transvaal’ when Mzilikazi, a king of the Matabele, who between 1826 to 1836 ordered widespread killings and reorganised his territory to establish the new Ndebele order. The death toll is estimated between 1 to 2 million people (it cannot be satisfactory determined), however the result can, as simply put was massive swaths of land in the region became depopulated, either entirely or partially.

Now, enter the trekking ‘white tribe’ Afrikaner Boers, who in 1836 whilst all this is taking place arrive in the same place as the Mfecane, and to survive as nation and not be ethnically cleansed  themselves in addition to the other tribes, the Boers take on by force this warring Matabele nation and then they take on the warring Zulu nation by force of arms, the cumulation was the Battle of Blood River on the 16th December 1838.

30171590_2130613020501018_7878437854953059926_o

Artists impression of the Battle of Blood River – artist unknown

The Battle of Blood River is significant, not just for the Boers, but for all future Black South Africans who are not of Zulu or Matabele ethnic origin.  In effect the Boers, by decimating the Matabele army and then the Zulu army put a temporary end to their respective fighting capabilities and therefore put an end to the Mfecane, they ended what is South Africa’s first and only mass genocide and ethnic cleansing.  It’s an ironic twist but the very existence of any of these ‘Black’ South Africans in South Africa today (other than the aforementioned Matabele and Zulu), and the very fact they are even identified as tribes and exist as nations, is largely thanks to the Afrikaner Voortrekkers – the ‘white tribe’ Boer nation.  They literally owe them their lives and nationhood.

Now, as to the old ‘half truth’ the land was ’empty’ or ‘traded fairly’ so the Boers could occupy it.  In part there is truth, some of the land had been depopulated by the Mfecane also many tribes welcomed the Voortrekkers giving them parcels of land in trade and in grateful thanks for their ‘protection’ against been slaughtered by Matabele or Zulu armies. All good right – fair is fair?  Not so, it’s only partly true.  There’s a more sinister side to the formation of the two Boer Republics, not all the land was fairly settled, the two Boer Republics also embarked on expansionism to establish borders and forced various tribal Africans from some of their land at the same time as annexing land belonging to various chiefdoms and putting it under Boer ownership.

1820 Settlers 

To be fair the Boers, the British in the early 1800’s were also securing and expanding their own borders and territory (land) and endeavoured to repel the southward migration of the Xhoza tribe, driven very much by the Mfecane up north.  This issue came to a head around Grahamstown, on what was known as the ‘Border’.

fig-8-4

British 1820 Settlers arriving in South Africa

In the UK, the end of  the napoleonic wars at the Battle of Waterloo 18 June 1815 posed a problem, they had massive unemployment, especially soldiers who were no longer needed and rising debt from fighting the wars.   They solved this by offering citizens, who were to become the ‘1820 Settlers’, their own land, and it was land which they needed reconciled on the ‘Border’ of the Cape Colony.  After a number of small wars were fought with indigenous tribes settling the ‘border’ issue – the British then went about reconciling the land under deed, some farm land was even given under deed to Black African farmers, but others remained controversial and it still is.

The even more turbulent late 1800’s

Now, fast forward to the Anglo-Zulu War of 1879 and a year later to the 1st Anglo-Boer War of 1880.  The African chiefdoms in the North and West Transvaal have recovered from the Mfecane, and have been armed in part by missionaries and traders trading rifles.  Whilst at the same time the Zulu Chiefdom bordering the ‘Natal Colony’ settled by the British and the newly minted British ‘Transvaal Colony’ also now settled by the British, is again back up to fighting strength.  ‘Land’ becomes the central problem again (the Zulu’s were really not that interested in gold).

31543425_2130621920500128_6212394080895866691_n

President Thomas Burgers

Consider for the underpinning tensions leading up to the 1st Anglo-Boer War  (The Transvaal War) in 1880.  The British annexed the Transvaal in 1877 at the invitation of the out-going ‘Boer’ Transvaal President, Thomas Burgers.  President Burgers laid squarely the blame for bringing the British to the Transvaal at the future President, Paul Kruger and his cabal.  His  blame and anger is expressed with this most extraordinary outburst and it is most illuminating:

“I would rather be a policeman under a strong government than a President of such a State. It is you—you members of the Raad and the Boers—who have ruined the country, who have sold your independence for a drink. You have ill-treated the natives, you have shot them down, you have sold them into slavery, and now you have to pay the penalty.”

The missionary, Rev John Mackenzie, gives us another example. Here is how Mackenzie described the motives behind the First Boer War: 

“The Transvaal rising (1st Anglo Boer War) was not dictated, as was believed in England, by a (Boer) love of freedom and preference for a (Boer) republic rather than a limited monarchy (Great Britain). It was inspired by men who were planning a policy which would banish the English language and English influence from South Africa. Their action was a blow directly dealt against freedom, progress, and union of Europeans in South Africa.”

30822238_2130622417166745_8255877245435884884_o

Paul Kruger

After Kruger et al regained control of the Transvaal, another missionary, the Rev John Moffat, was tasked with giving the news to some of the black tribal leaders who would again be abandoned to their tender mercies: 

“for the most part there was the silence of despair. One gentle old man, Mokhatle, a man of great influence, used the language of resignation, ‘When I was a child, the Matabele came, they swept over us like the wind and we bowed before them like the long white grass on the plains. They left us and we stood upright again. The Boers came and we bowed ourselves under them in like manner. The British came and we rose upright, our hearts lived within us and we said: Now we are the children of the Great Lady. And now that is past and we must lie flat again under the wind—who knows what are the ways of God?’”

The thoughts of a few more African leaders are equally illuminating:

In response to the endless violent expansion of the pre-annexation Transvaal into their territory, Montsioa Toane, Chief of the Barolong, requested that Great Britain take his people under imperial protection. In a letter addressed to ‘His Excellency Her Britannic Majesty’s High Commissioner, Sir P. Wodehouse, KCB’, the chief requested “refuge under your protecting wings from the injustice of the Transvaal Republic, whose government have lately, by proclamation, included our country within the possessions of the said Republic”.
He went on to explain: “…without the least provocation on our side, though the Boers have from time to time murdered some of my people and enslaved several Balala villages, the Transvaal Republic deprives us, by said proclamation, of our land and our liberty, against which we would protest in the strongest terms, and entreat your Excellency, as Her Britannic Majesty’s High Commissioner, to protect us.”

Chief-khama-IIIIn 1876, King Khama, Chief of the Bamangwato people from northern Bechuanaland, joined the appeal: 

“I write to you, Sir Henry, in order that your queen may preserve for me my country, it being in her hands. The Boers are coming into it, and I do not like them. Their actions are cruel among us black people. We are like money, they sell us and our children. I ask Her Majesty to defend me, as she defends all her people. There are three things which distress me very much: war, selling people, and drink. All these things I shall find in the Boers, and it is these things which destroy people to make an end of them in the country. The custom of the Boers has always been to cause people to be sold, and to-day they are still selling people.”

8e21cb58c3a6c0e4296505afee709889

King Cetshwayo

Even King Cetawayo of the Zulu laid the blame for the tensions which led to the Anglo-Zulu War of 1879 against the British squarely at the feet of the Transvaal Boers, now this is ironic from the leaders of Zulu themselves, he said: 

“This war (the Zulu War) was forced on me and the Zulus. We never desired to fight the English. The Boers were the real cause of that war. They were continually worrying the Zulus about their land and threatening to invade the country if we did not give them land, and this forced us to get our forces ready to resist, and consequently the land became disturbed, and the Natal people mistakenly believed we were preparing against them.”

250px-John_X_Merriman_-_Cape_Prime_Minister

John X Merriman

Just prior to the 1st Anglo-Boer and the British annexation of the ‘Transvaal Colony’, in 1885, the liberal Cape politician, John X. Merriman described Kruger’s newly independent, and ever-expanding, republic as follows: “The policy of the Transvaal was to push out bands of freebooters, and to get them in quarrels with the natives. They wished to push their border over the land westwards, and realize the dream of President Pretorius, which was that the Transvaal should stretch from the Indian Ocean to the Atlantic. The result was robbery, rapine and murder.”

30419962_2130626770499643_2719702072784891833_o

Dr Abraham Kuyper

The ZAR ‘Transvaal’ Republic’s main-cheerleader in Europe, Dr Kuyper, commented enthusiastically on the racial policies of the Republic: “The English prided themselves on protecting the imaginary rights of the natives… The Boers are not sentimentalists, but are eminently practical. They recognized that these Hottentots and Basutos were an inferior race.”

Majuba

Things came to a head in the 1st Anglo-Boer War at The Battle of Majuba Hill (near Volksrust, South Africa) on 27 February 1881.  This was the main and decisive battle of the 1st Anglo-Boer War (Transvaal War). It was a resounding victory for the Boers and the battle is considered to have been one of the most humiliating defeats of British arms in history.

30821223_2130612847167702_4007037161243377805_o

It sent the British back over their border to Natal, but it also resulted in a very uneasy ‘peace’ as to the British ‘Transvaal Colony’.  In the aftermath of the war the South African Republic (Transvaal) regained its independence. The Pretoria Convention (1881)  and the London Convention (1884) laid down the terms of the peace agreement.  In terms of land the Pretoria agreement settled the Transvaal’s borders and re-established an independent Boer Republic again, but it still had to have its foreign relations and policies regarding black people approved by the British government.  The new version of the Boer Transvaal Republic was also not allowed by the British to expand towards the West (and link with the Atlantic Ocean).

These policies meant that the Transvaal was still under British suzerainty or influence. In 1884 the London Convention was signed. The Transvaal was given a new Western border and adopted the name of the South African Republic (ZAR). Even then, the ZAR still had to get permission from the British government for any treaty entered into with any other country other than the Orange Free State.

An ‘uneasy’ peace

The Boers saw this as a way for the British government to interfere in Transvaal affairs and this led to tension between Britain and ZAR. This increased steadily until the outbreak of the 2nd Anglo-Boer War in 1899, especially with the on-set of gold mining. which saw tens of thousands of British miners settle in the Transvaal.  Gold mining was done under concession from Kruger’s government.  Kruger took the position that his people, the Boers, were farmers and not miners, so he gave British mining concerns a mandate to mine and pay the ZAR government a hefty tax for the privilege. Initially mining in the Transvaal was an all British affair – from the mining concerns, to the infrastructure (rail and buildings) and even right down to the labour.  Again ‘land’ had been conceded by the Boer Republic to British miners and companies.  As inconvenient truths go, they already ‘owned’ the gold at the onset of the 2nd Boer War and had no reason to ‘steal’ it.

The unsettling problem for the British and the Boers was a demographic and representation one, there were more Britons on the reef than Boers.  These British citizens were denied political representation and citizenship qualification periods became an issue (Kruger realised if he allowed citizenships after 5 years residency he would lose his state).

Also the Boer State was crushing political protest on the reef in a jack-booted and heavy-handed manner using their Police, known as ZARP. Things came to a head with a privateer raid (supported privately by Rhodes) called the Jameson Raid in 1895 which was planned in the billiards room of the Rand Club in Johannesburg (and not by British Parliament in Whitehall as is incorrectly assumed – in fact to British politicians the whole affair came as uncomfortable surprise).  The Raid, financed by the mine owners and not the British government, was intended to trigger a simmering civil revolt on the reef. The revolt was crushed by the Boers.

A1S7_1_20170618730957404

Jamesons Last Stand The Battle Of Doornkop 1896.

This unrest and uneasy peace established after the 1st Anglo Boer War all came to a another head when negotiations on citizenship and political representation of the Transvaal Britons broke down.  To settle the dispute the Boers declared war on Britain and invaded the British colonies late 1899 – in effect they wanted a swift victory whilst British forces were weak and unsupported by any substantial expeditionary force – as they did at Majuba and weaken the British negotiation hand, re-set the table so to speak.

It backfired. The mandate given to the Boers to re-establish their ‘British Transvaal Colony’ as an independent Boer Republic lasted barely 15 years after the London Convention peace agreement which properly ended the 1st Anglo-Boer War and finally established the ZAR territorial borders.

To the British, there was an ‘old’ score to settle with the Transvaal Boers, and it had nothing to do with ‘gold’ and everything to do with territory – ‘land’.  It is best summed up by Churchill who reflected on the 1st Anglo-Boer War as “a disgraceful, cowardly peace” – and now they wanted their Colony back.

Mjuba

Graffiti scrawled by both sides in a house recaptured by the British in the 2nd Anglo Boer War. The Boer graffiti reads: ‘Don’t forget Majuba, Boys’. British graffiti reads: ‘No fear, Boere, no fear’.

1st Anglo-Boer War – Part 2, the 2nd Anglo-Boer War

Now, as ‘Boer War’ 2 is the logical expansion of ‘Boer War’ 1, consider that these tensions over land and the whole of the Transvaal had by the late 1800’s escalated somewhat.  In the intervening period between ‘Anglo-Boer War’ 1 and ‘Anglo-Boer War’ 2,  gold was discovered in the Transvaal, and in addition to this the local Black tribes flourished, with no more large wars to fight and no Mfecane and aided by the introduction of medicine by missionaries, this mounting black population of the Transvaal added to the hundreds of thousands of mainly British immigrant mine workers now settled in the Transvaal.

Now, with a ‘old score’ to settle over the Transvaal territory, along with a simmering revolt of miners over their rights to the land, the Boer declaration of war against the British, provided a ‘Casus Belli’ to the British to again wage war them again, and so began the 2nd Anglo-Boer War (1899 to 1902). To give perspective of how long the ZAR lasted, from the time the British Union ‘Jack’ was taken down over Pretoria to the time it was put up again took a mere 16 years.

The 2nd ‘depopulation’ of land

Back to the issue of land.  During the 2nd Anglo-Boer war the British, after winning the ‘conventional’ war phase were forced into a second and more bitter phase,  guerrilla war with disposed Boer governments now ‘in the field’ and running their Republics from the veldt, a moving and endlessly fraught war where Boer forces relied on their communities and families for supply to keep the fighting.

Lord Kitchener in an attempt to bring the war to rest adopted a policy depriving the Boer forces of supply, and so began a policy of ‘concentration camps’.  This can be better described as ‘forced removal’ from land and the placing of citizens in ‘deportation camps’, it involved rounding up of both White and Black civilians in demarcated conflict zones and effectively ‘depopulating’ the land and moving all the people to isolated camps.  The policy which resulted in the deaths of tens of thousands and people deprived of their land leaves a deep scar on many South Africans, and not just the white Afrikaners, the black South Africans caught up are equally traumatised.

28699287_1608270105876259_4601684936069398143_o

So, now we have an interesting dilemma for the current citizens of South Africa who own vast tracks of land in the Republic, the inconvenient truth is that not only was it ‘depopulated’ by the Zulu Kingdom in the early 1800’s, it was depopulated again by the United Kingdom – eighty or so years later.

The international case

Now here is where the issue of land ownership gets interesting, and funnily it is in line with the issues now surrounding the Palestinian question and Israel (and best illustrated by this case as it surrounds ‘land’ ownership and war).  Many people are not familiar with the underlying problem of land under occupation in Israel.  In international law an occupying force can do anything within limitations on the land it occupies as long as a state of war exists.  This has become a thorny issue with the Palestinians who, like the Boers, were deposed of their land by war – land which the British sold to Palestinians under title-deed whist Palestine was a British protectorate (those pesky British again), and this land is now under private title deed is owned by Palestinians and occupied by Israelis – and it makes up massive portions of modern Israel.

1_244173_1_9

If given back to the legal owners it will most certainly unseat Israel as a state and put millions of dollars invested in land at risk.  The only way Israel can hold onto the land legally is to be in a constant state of war with the Palestinians (not really the other way round – see annual Palestinian protests when the bring the house keys and title deeds to their land to the fore – which over the border are now occupied by Israeli families or developed into multi-million dollar property estates and shopping malls).

How does this odd bit of International law apply to South Africa’s farmers. Simply put they were deposed of their land during the 2nd Anglo-Boer war, it came under British control under the edicts of war.  Unlike the Palestinians the Boers were allowed to return to the land, land on which families were decimated and could not be re-settled was re-allocated by the British and the Union governments after the war, the last ‘legal’ owner of this land expropriated during the war were in fact the British.    In the subsequent years after The South African War, as a colony of Britain and then under British administration and dominion as a Union, the country went about formalising land title and ownership from the old Boer Republics and concluding war repatriation and re-settlement.

Palestine-kids-key-ap-img

Palestine ‘Keys’ and ‘Deeds’ protest symbolised by their old keys to their houses in Israel

So, in our modern day, if this land is now taken away without compensation, the Israeli/Palestinian dilemma and the annual ‘keys’ protest rears it head, where the ‘British’ issue is now again at the forefront of title deeds and like the Palestinians, the dispossessed modern Boer family will want to turn to Britain for an answer, adding to the many dispossessed Zimbabwean white farmers with a similar case.  That would be a nasty surprise for the modern British Foreign Secretary.

Here’s another interesting question over South African land located in the Centre and Northern  provinces and the two seismic events that depopulated much of it, not to mention the British sale of land in the Cape, especially in contested ‘Border’ region which they purposely ‘settled’.

Would a claim now for restitution or compensation for land ‘re-appropriated without compensation’ be laid at the feet of the Zulu King or at the feet of the British Queen?

In Conclusion

All very complicated this land reformation business, now an almost impossible job to simply unbundle through declarations of ‘mine – you stole it’ and simply grabbing it.  A case example here is the land grabbing which recently took place in Midrand and Hermanus, this land has nothing to do with the disputed historical African territories unseated by the expansion and creation of the old Transvaal, Orange Free State, Natal and Cape Colony borders, and the people occupying it are not all the proper ancestors anyway.  This is a political grab using a very bent interpretation of history.

There is value in identity of having a ‘homeland’, but whose people are we referring to when we say ‘our people’, the ‘homeland of the Afrikaner nation is also Africa. By all means look at the land taken by force of arms from various Chiefdoms as their tribal land borders and were they stood after the Mfecane, and the resultant occupation by Zulu, Matabele, Brit and Boer alike and not the land ‘sold’ to the Boers or the British for that matter for trade or protection.   Present the historical evidence showing which families and grouping were unseated by force of occupation and how this ‘stolen’ land was then put under plough by the occupiers.  There’s not much to go by in the way of arable and profitable ‘land’ here, but lets challenge it properly.

Generally the historically contested farm land is nowhere near the bulk of multi-million rand privately owned title-deed farms – so really of no political value.  Unless you provide the argument that all land was occupied by whites, and this is not historically true at all.  In which case everybody who has a white skin can have his property simply taken away – now we are into a ludicrous argument, and one used to incite racial disharmony and hatred.

Urban land, depopulated by Apartheid policy only really accounts to small areas located near Johannesburg and Cape Town city centrals,  Land, which now, because it worth literally millions of Rand, is under contention, the reason for the slow progress is that multiple families are making claims to the land, families which actually own it and families which rented it.  District 6 is a prime example, it really is a political quagmire as its now vastly profit driven and less about the ‘home’ it once offered.  Also in reality it cannot be settled by huge numbers of the ‘people’ offered by the EFF – they want the nice well run profitable farm land which is under title-deed and owned for decades by private individuals (who are not Black) – whether it’s under real historic contention or not, so it’s entirely wrong of Cyril Ramaposa to cite District 6 in his SONA address as a key underpinning social cause of the ANC’s entire land without compensation drive.

The biggest dilemma facing the proposed amendment to the Constitution is that in reality the land everyone in the ANC and EFF wants and is highly productive – and its land which has not only been depopulated once, its been depopulated twice and resettled twice over after the end of the Mfcane and 2nd Anglo-Boer War respectively.

The lands negotiated with and allocated to the Zulu kingdom are even a more thornier question and we might want to ask is the Zulu kingdom is going to pay for land depopulated by their expansionism and militarism, so too can the same question be asked of the Matabele.  There another human trait here, one that will not go away once this particular monkey is out the cage, it’s called greed, and it’s an intrinsic human condition the ANC has been indulging itself in, time and again.  Here is where the Zulu have drawn the line when Mangosuthu Buthelezi rightly accused the ANC and EFF of ‘playing with fire’.

The simple truth is this.  ‘Land’ ownership in South Africa has been defined by war and armed ‘struggle’, and not just war between ‘Blacks and Whites’, war between ‘Blacks and Blacks’ and even war between ‘Whites and Whites’.  The burning question is, will it be defined again by another ‘war’  – another armed ‘struggle’?

Related articles and Links

Concentration Camps; To fully reconcile The Boer War is to fully understand the ‘BLACK’ Concentration Camps

Concentration Camps; I’m not pro Boer, I’m British, this isn’t OUR way!

Majuba; Boers; ‘Don’t forget Majuba, boys’. Brits; ‘No fear, Boere, no fear’.

Winston Churchill; Churchill’s epic ‘Boy’s Own’ Adventure in South Africa

Kruger and Victoria; Kruger “blunders” and declares war on the world’s Superpower!


Written and researched by Peter Dickens.  References from Wikipedia, the South African History Association on-line, quotes gleaned from ‘getting to the source’ by Chris Ash. Colourised 2nd-Anglo Boer War photograph copyright Tinus Le Roux.

Churchill’s epic ‘Boy’s Own’ Adventure in South Africa

Winston Churchill’s ‘Great Escape’ from Boer captivity during the ‘South African War’ (1899 to 1902) – also referred to as the ‘2nd Anglo-Boer War’ is the stuff of a ‘Boy’s Own’ adventure book. Boy’s Own was a Victorian period magazine featuring great fictional adventures and deeds of Empire.

Boys_Own_Magazine_Feb_1855Because Churchill’s exploits in the South African War were marketed as a grand adventure, it vaulted this failing politician into the annuals of British heroism and resuscitated his career in a manner that can only be described as ‘stellar’.

It was this escape from a POW holding pen in Pretoria during the South African War that set up and ultimately forged Churchill into the juggernaut politician and statesman he was to become, without it Great Britain may never have had its great wartime leader and ‘saviour’ during World War 2 and by the same token the disaster at Gallipoli during World War 1 may even have never taken place.

So, let’s have a look at why South Africa is the epicentre of Churchill’s revived career and why by association this country gave the world a man who in 2002 was voted as the ‘Greatest Briton of all time’ placing him at the top of the most influential people in British history.

Let’s also examine why a lot of people would frankly have been very happy if the Boers had shot and killed him on the fateful day he was caught in Natal (an outcome which very nearly may have happened).  On the way we’ll also unravel some truths and myths.

Churchill’s South African ‘Adventure’

Young Churchill

Known as ‘Copperknob’ a colourised young Churchill at Harrow

To say Winston Churchill was an ambitious young man would be a classic example of English understatement. By the age of 25, the freckled-faced redhead had already written three books, run unsuccessfully for Parliament and participated in four wars on three continents. He was even nicknamed “Pushful, the Younger” because of his ambition, Churchill hungered for fame and glory unwavering in his belief that he would one day become Prime Minister. “I have faith in my star that I am intended to do something in the world,” he wrote to his mother.  Unknown to him at this stage his ‘star’ was to align and bring him fame in South Africa.

Winston Churchill initially took part in the South African War as a ‘war correspondent’ for The Morning Post.  Some war correspondents (like Churchill) tended to be retired commissioned officers with military experience attached to British Regiments or Formations, their reporting was intended to toe the military line.

Churchill as a war correspondent was generally disliked by the British upper officer class, they found him highly critical of their strategy, tactics and actions, they also found him impertinent, arrogant and nothing more than a meddling glory monger.  His ‘upper class elite’ and ‘political class’ heritage presented him as a double-edged sword to any Regiment or Division’s officer elite and they had no choice, simply put they had to just put up with him.

True to form, Churchill’s activities in South Africa literally read like a ‘Boys Own’ Adventure Novel. Within two days of the Boer Republics declaring war on Great Britain on 11th October 1899, Britain started to mobilise their forces at home, in the Cape Colony and Natal their forces were relatively small frontier garrison forces supplemented by citizen force members (which they began to muster anticipating the coming hostilities), and they were hopelessly under-strength.

18056649_10155221467369476_6950152090307411838_nIt a ‘myth’ that Britain had built up large forces to invade the Boer Republics before the start of the war.  The ‘truth’ is they were relatively unprepared and much weaker than the well equipped Boer forces – ‘Black November’ illustrates this perfectly.  The Boers had banked on a swift victory whilst Britain was weak, hence their ultimatum was followed immediately with a surprise Boer invasion of the British colonies – Natal and the Cape Colony.

The British decided to initially send General Sir Redvers Henry Buller and a small contingent of officers, a detachment of troops and a gaggle of journalists off to South Africa on a fact-finding mission to gauge troop strength ahead of sending any major expeditionary force requirements, they left on the Dunottar Castle on 14th October 1899.

Churchill had planned to publish his magnum opus in October 1899, “but when the middle of October came, we all had other things to think about”. He said, “the Boer ultimatum had not ticked out on the tape machines for an hour” and he was on his way to the Cape Colony, appointed as the principal War Correspondent of the Morning Post. He was to be paid £250 per month for four months (£ 1000 was a small fortune at the time), all expenses paid and he retained the copyright on his articles.

Churchill was first in with Buller’s fact-finding mission anticipating his big ‘scoop’.  Sailing with great haste and at high-speed, Churchill called the voyage with Buller as “a nasty, rough passage” and wrote his mother that he had been “grievously sick.” The passage aside, in typical form Churchill even took his valet with him and a vast liquor cabinet that included 18 bottles of Scotch Whiskey also went in tow.

churchill to the cape

Illustration of General Sir Redvers Buller on the Dunottar Castle, steaming at haste to Cape Town departing Britain on 14 Oct 1899

In those days before radio, they were completely cut off from the world while at sea. Approaching the Cape, a passing ship held up a blackboard on which was written: BOERS DEFEATED, THREE BATTLES, PENN SYMONS KILLED. A staff officer ventured to address Buller. “It looks as if it will all be over, sir.” Buller only said,“I dare say there will be enough left to give us a fight outside Pretoria.”

Churchill arrived with Buller in Cape Town on 31 Oct 1899, by this stage the siege of the British frontier town of Ladysmith was well underway, and the initial message of Boer ‘defeat’ was very incorrect.  Churchill could not believe his good fortune and endeavoured to be become the first British journalist to get to Ladysmith – against all odds – ahead of Buller’s fact-finding mission and way ahead of any sizeable expeditionary force (which only was to start landing in Cape Town from 10 November 1899).  In effect he was going to be the first to ‘ascertain’ the situation for the very apprehensive Britons back home, not Buller.

Churchill immediately teamed up with journalistic colleague John B. Atkins of the Manchester Guardian to go to the front at Ladysmith before any other journalists could do so.

They took a 700-mile undefended train ride up north to the Cape Colony’s frontier near Port Elizabeth, then they boarded a small steamer bound for Durban and promptly sailed into the teeth of a violent Indian Ocean storm. After several harrowing days in very high seas, the pair arrived at Durban.  This ‘adventure’ had started to play out in an extraordinary way.

Capture 

Still determined to get to see the Boer forces’ siege of Ladysmith ahead of any advancing forces, Churchill and Atkins made another dangerous train ride of 60 miles to within hearing range of the artillery fire from the Boer guns on Ladysmith. Churchill, still keen on getting closer to the action accompanied a scouting expedition on an armoured train.

The train was ambushed by the Boers and on 15 November 1899 using field artillery and heavy rifle fire, whilst trying to manoeuvre out of fire, the front truck hit an obstruction which was placed by the Boers on the track and it was tossed from the tracks. The Boers then opened up on the stalled train with field guns and rifle fire from a vantage position. With the front truck overturned, the engine and rear trucks remained on the tracks, still coupled to them.

Churchills train

The wrecked part of the armoured train Churchill was travelling in

As shells roared around him and bullets pinged the sides of the armoured train, Churchill’s instincts as a trained military officer took over from his ‘journalist’ side, possibly even more in self-preservation. Acting like a decorated commander, Churchill braved the line of fire for more than an hour as he directed the soldiers to free the train. He also instructed the train driver, a civilian, who was injured and hiding to return to his post (he lied and convinced him that odds are it was not possible to get wounded twice in one day).  He became involved in un-coupling the section of the train which was not completely de-railed, the idea was to use this part of the train still on the tracks as a shield for the soldiers as they retreated to safety.

Churchill

Colourised image of Churchill next to the ambushed train – taken later in the war. Colourised by Tinus Le Roux

After some 70 minutes of action the Boers swept down the hillside, Churchill by this time had become separated from the part of the train on the tracks as it retreated. A number of men were taken prisoner, but a large section of the train, now loaded with men, had escaped.

Churchill made for cover to try to escape and found himself alone in a gully near the track. A Boer rode up and seated on his horse raised his rifle to bear at a range of 40 yards. Churchill went for a Mauser pistol he was carrying in his belt but it wasn’t there, whilst clearing the train he had taken it off and left it on the train, it was now safely making its way back without him and Churchill was unarmed.  So, as myths go Churchill was not simply an ‘unarmed’ journalist and as other myths go he also did not fire the pistol during the attack, but he certainly had every intension of shooting the Boer horseman (at his own admission).

In a flat dilemma, Churchill considered his idol – Napoleon who said, “When one is alone and unarmed, a surrender may be pardoned.”  So he obeyed the Boer to surrender and walked out.  Whilst walking into captivity next to the Boer horseman Churchill suddenly realised he had two magazine clips on his person for the Mauser Pistol, which were loaded with ‘soft-nosed’ ammunition. Figuring this may get him into a lot of trouble (soft-nose ammunition makes a bigger striking wound than hard-nosed ammunition and was generally not thought of Kindly by soldiers – it still isn’t), he realised he had to get rid of them fast.

Churchill silently got rid of one magazine, whilst trying to dispose of the second the Boer caught him in the act and said in English, ‘What have you got there?’.  Quick thinking, Churchill gave a whopping lie and replied, “What is it?’ I picked it up”.  The Boer took the pistol magazine and threw it away.

With that Churchill went into captivity, protesting that he was just a civilian war correspondent and therefore not subject to a Prisoner of War status and should be released immediately.  The Boers would have none of it, they had captured a ‘great prize’ who had not behaved under fire in characteristically ‘civilian’ manner.

Passing Majuba 

Whilst his POW train passed Majuba hill on its way to Pretoria Churchill had time to think.  Majuba was the site of the British defeat in the 1st Anglo-Boer War (1880 to 1881) twenty years earlier, to understand the deep causes of The South African War (2nd Anglo-Boer War), we need to understand the 1st Anglo-Boer War (like the 2nd World War is World War 1 Part 2, so too the case with the two Anglo-Boer Wars).

As inconvenient truths go the Transvaal was annexed by the British in 1881 at the invitation of the Boers to save them from an African revolt, the Boers did not take to British administration, especially as to how they dealt with the Black African’s claims and taxes and so kicked them out, this cumulated in the Battle at Majuba – and all this happened long before Gold was discovered in the Transvaal – think about that.

Mjuba

Graffiti scrawled by both sides in a house recaptured by the British in the 2nd Anglo Boer War. The Boer graffiti reads: ‘Don’t forget Majuba, Boys’. British graffiti reads: ‘No fear, Boere, no fear’. Imperial War Museum image

This act of defeat and subsequent ceasefire agreement from the battle at Majuba was described by Churchill as “a disgraceful, cowardly peace” as he pondered it whilst passing Majuba hill in his POW train going into captivity.  The general sentiment at the time amongst the British was that the South African War i.e. 2nd Anglo-Boer War (1899 to 1902) was going to settle the disgrace and tentative ‘ceasefire’ of the 1st Anglo-Boer War (1880 to 1881) once and for all.

How history twists 

In one of the most ironic twists in history, after The South African War (1899 to 1902), when Boer Generals visited England to ask for some loan or assistance on behalf of their devastated country, Churchill was introduced at a private luncheon to their leader, General Louis Botha.  Churchill began with his story of his capture, Botha replied ‘Don’t you recognise me? I was that man. It was I who took you prisoner. I, myself,’

Churchill highly respected and valued Louis Botha after the war, he found the Union of South Africa’s first Prime Minister as “an acquaintance formed in strange circumstances and upon an almost unbelievable introduction ripened into a friendship which I greatly valued. I saw in this grand, rugged figure, the Father of his country, the wise and profound statesman, the farmer-warrior, the crafty hunter of the wilderness, the deep, sure man of solitude”.

In another strange twist of history, Kmdt Dolf De la Rey was in command of forces attacking the train is also credited with capturing Churchill (amongst others), much later on De la Rey in 1950’s, as an ageing Boer veteran of The South African War, joined Sailor Malan in his Torch protests against the National Party, such is the rich tapestry of Afrikaners against Apartheid.

Prisoner of War

Although the Boers allowed prisoners-of-war to purchase newspapers, cigarettes and beer, the future British Prime Minister despised his imprisonment “more than I have ever hated any other period in my whole life”. What frustrated Churchill even more than the loss of control was the possibility that he was missing out on further opportunities for glory. “I had only cut myself out of the whole of this exciting war with all its boundless possibilities of adventure and advancement,” he lamented.

Winston Churchill POW

Group of British Prisoners of War, with Churchill on the right. Imperial War Museum image

So, he decided to do something about it and escape, and the ramification of doing so would have massive historical consequence.  Here Winston Churchill himself sums up the randomness and sheer ‘luck’ this would all bring him.

“I was to escape, and by escaping was to gain a public reputation or notoriety which made me well-known henceforward among my countrymen, and made me acceptable as a candidate in a great many constituencies. I was also put in the position to earn the money which for many years assured my independence and the means of entering Parliament. Whereas if I had gone back on the engine, though I should perhaps have been praised and petted, I might well have been knocked on the head at Colenso a month later, as were several of my associates on Sir Redvers Buller’s Staff”.

Churchill’s ‘Great Escape’

In December 1899 Churchill’s plan to escape took shape.  He was held in a prison dedicated to British officers, it was a State Model school in central Pretoria converted to hold Prisoners of War.

He wrote.“The State Model Schools stood in the midst  of a quadrangle, surrounded on two sides by an iron grille and on two by a corrugated-iron fence about ten feet high, these boundaries offered little obstacle to anyone who possessed the activity of youth, but the fact that they were guarded on the inside by sentries, fifty yards apart, armed with rifle and revolver, made them a well-nigh insuperable barrier” he then adds “No walls are so hard to pierce as living walls”.

In cohorts with two officers, Captain Haldane and Lieutenant Brockie (who was in fact a Sergeant Major who passed himself off as a Lieutenant in order to get better quarters).  They had noticed a ‘blank spot’ in the movements of Boer guards behind the latrines.  After a first attempt at escape was aborted, they had another go the next day.  Churchill was to go first followed by the other two.

churchill

Churchill’s departing note

On the night of his escape, December 12, 1899 Churchill even had the gumption and cheek to leave a ‘Dear John’ departing note on his pillow thanking the Boer Republic for its hospitality, it read in part:

 “… I wish in leaving you thus hastily and unceremoniously to once more place on record my appreciation of the kindness which has been shown me and the other prisoners by you, the Commandant and Dr Gunning and my admiration of the chivalrous and humane character of the Republican forces.”

‘Churchill entered the small circular lavatory, waited some time monitoring the guards from the lavatory, he waited until the guards had turned their backs and this was his moment, he hesitated twice and then went for it, he scaled the wall and jumped, initially snagging himself on the ornamental metal spikes on top of the wall.

Once free he hid himself in a nearby shrub in the adjacent garden and waited for his partners, who did not arrive, he lay here for an hour with great impatience.  He overheard them speaking in Latin gibberish and mentioning his name, he risked a cough and they told him the game was up on the guard movements and they were not able to join him.

So, there he was, he considered going back and instead undertook to press on with his escape.  The escape was very poorly planned, he had only figured out how to get out of the prison, no real further thought had been given other than to head east. Churchill the ‘fugitive’ had no map, no compass, no intimate local knowledge, no ability to speak the local languages and just “four slabs of melting chocolate and a crumbling biscuit” in his pocket for food.  The compass and food had been with his colleagues, but he still possessed a seemingly superhuman level of self-belief that he could safely navigate the 300-mile journey through enemy territory.

On the ‘run’

Contrary to many myths, Churchill did not scarper out of Pretoria as a running fugitive only to ‘forge the mighty Apies’ river to freedom (that was all media hype).  In fact, he casually walked out of Pretoria.  He figured so as not to draw attention to himself he would just amble along in the middle of the road, in full view, humming a tune, pretending to be just a regular ‘Burgher’ on his way home.  He would later joke with Jan Smuts that there was a good chance he just walked straight past him.

Without ‘forging’ any river, he eventually found himself strolling along looking for a railway line, he figured he would follow the easterly tracks, the idea was to get to neutral Portuguese East Africa (now Mozambique).  When he reached the eastern suburbs of Pretoria he sat down on a small bridge and for a little while contemplated as to how his ‘adventure’ was now panning out.

He resolved to turn South and eventually he struck a railway heading in an easterly direction, following it, all the while reasoning with himself that he would jump aboard a train and hide.  A coal train passed and he jumped aboard hiding amongst the sacks, and promptly went to sleep.  He awoke hungry and thirsty and needed sustenance, and to get a bearing (he was not sure the coal train had in fact run east) so he disembarked by jumping off.

His next effort to find another train proved entire futile, hungry, tired and thirsty he marched on with increasing hopelessness. By now he was desperate, that night he spotted a fire, thought it a Black African hamlet and hoped to fall on their tender mercy.  On approaching the fire, it turned out to be a railway siding and he overheard Dutch-Afrikaans been spoken.  But desperate and miserable he then resolved to ‘give up the game’ and approach a nearby house.  Chuck it all in, whatever comes, he hoped against hope there would be a sympathetic owner to his plight.

Winstons Wanted Poster

Churchill’s ‘Wanted’ Poster

Meanwhile back in Pretoria and in the United Kingdom, news of his escape broke.  The British public and media shifted into a mode that can only be described as ecstatic, news stories broke on the ‘bravery’ of Winston Churchill giving the Boers the old ‘Agincourt salute’!

Good old stiff upper lip resistance stuff – in a sea of negative news on the heavy British battle losses over November and December this made for the only media ‘great news’ and positive propaganda for a public desperately keen on anything good coming from the war to date – and all thanks to only one man – Winston Churchill. The Zuid-Afrikaansche Republiek (The South African Republic) , also known as the ‘Transvaal’ Republic (abbreviated ‘ZAR’), went on the man-hunt and immediately put a bounty on Churchill’s head – £25 for the return of Churchill ‘Dead or Alive’.

The Transvaal Police (ZARP) circulated a telegram after Churchill escaped from prison and it gives a very accurate description of Churchill demeanour, it is also very telling of the saga unfolding for Churchill.  It read:

“Englishman 25 years old about 5 foot 8 inches tall medium build walks with a slight stoop. Pale features. Reddish-brown hair almost invisible small moustache. Speaks through his nose and cannot pronounce the letter S. Had last a brown suit on and cannot speak one word of Dutch.”

Throwing the dice 

Churchill, now in sheer desperation, cautiously approached the house and knocked on the door.  His odds were really 50/50 and he knew it, to dispel another myth, The South African War was not a clean-cut affair between the British and Afrikaners facing each other.

The South African Republic (ZAR) was rammed full of tens of thousands of mainly British mine workers and managers, who also worked the mining support infrastructure – like rail (they were the cause Britain cited as the Casus Belli for war in the first place), there were more Britons living along the Transvaal gold reef’s towns in the Republic than Boers.  Equally there were more Afrikaners with British Cape Colony citizenship in the Cape Colony than Britons.

At the beginning of the war, English and Afrikaners with citizenships on either side of the fence, if caught siding with one or other cause were generally executed for treason by either the British or Boers – this kept most of them at bay and non-hostile one way or the other. Also, there were many Afrikaners living in the two Boer Republics and most in the Cape Colony who were in fact sympathetic to the British cause, as there were also many English ZAR citizens sympathetic with the Boer cause.  The next phase of Churchill’s ‘adventure’ illustrates this perfectly.

On knocking on the door, a light came on and a man asked in Dutch-Afrikaans “Wie is daar (Whose there)”. Winston went into shock, the game was up, so he immediately lied and said; “I want help; I have had an accident”. The door opened, and the man said in English this time “What do you want?” Not sure of the status of things Winston carried on lying and said; “I am a burgher, I have had an accident. I was going to join my commando at Komati Poort. I have fallen off the train. We were skylarking. I have been unconscious for hours. I think I have dislocated my shoulder”.  He had in all honestly no clue what to say next.

The stranger regarded Winston intently and ushered him in pointing to a room with one hand whilst holding a revolver in the other.  Winston Churchill half expected to be shot in the back of the head there and then.  He chose to come clean and said; “I am Winston Churchill, War Correspondent of the Morning Post. I escaped last night from Pretoria. I am making my way to the frontier. I have plenty of money. Will you help me?”

Now here’s where Winston just got lucky, his host responded; ‘Thank God you have come here! It is the only house for twenty miles where you would not have been handed over. But we are all British here, and we will see you through.”

Brave words from the host, and here’s why, it turns out that Churchill’s new host was John Howard, an Englishman managing Transvaal Collieries. He had become a naturalised citizen of the Zuid-Afrikaansche Republiek and he had bribed the local Boer Field Cornet, so he would not be called up to his Commando and fight the British.  His team was all of British heritage and had been allowed to stay if they remained ‘neutral’.

‘Verraaiers’ (traitors) everywhere!

John Howard and some of his compatriots resolved to hide Churchill under-ground in a nearby coal mine whilst they figured out the next move.  They ran a tremendous risk, had they been caught they would have been shot as traitors and collaborators, especially John Howard who would have been shot outright.

Churchill sat it out in a mine shaft with food provisions given to him, his only company the many rats.  On the fifth day of his escape, John Howard hatched an escape plan for Churchill.  In the neighbourhood of the mine there lived an Afrikaner named Burgener, who was sending a consignment of wool by rail to Delagoa Bay on the 19th December.  Burgener was an Afrikaner ZAR citizen sympathetic to the British cause.

Howard had secretly met with Burgener, told him of Churchill and they agreed to smuggle Churchill into a specially adapted wool bale on the train and take him to safety.  Phew, supreme treason this, had this Boer ‘turncoat’ been caught he would surly have faced a ZAR firing squad or noose.  Burgener was also to accompany Churchill all the way to Portuguese East Arica and safely see him through – now not many people know this part of the narrative, it’s inconvenient to highlight a ‘Afrikaner’ collaborator in all of this.

What all this skullduggery means, the idea of broad partisan loyalty to the Zuid-Afrikaansche Republiek’s cause is simply a myth – thousands of ZAR citizens, English and even some Afrikaans were not behind Kruger’s politics or his cabal.

Do you know who I am?

In the middle of the night on the 19th December, Churchill was taken the train loaded with wool bales, Howard pointed the spot made available for Churchill to hide and Winston snuck away into the centre of the specially modified wool bale (with enough space to sit up in), he was given a revolver and food (chicken, meat and bottles of cold tea) – a small space enabled him to see out.  Off the train trekked, final stop, Portuguese East Africa (Mozambique).

Once safely over the border into neutral Portuguese territory, he emerged from his wool bale sang and shouted in jubilation whilst firing his revolver into the air.

Once in Lourenço Marques (now Maputo), he carefully disembarked the train and saw Mr Burgener (the Afrikaner who had helped him), Burgener then pointed him to the British Consulate.  He marched in expecting a rousing reception – he got none of it.  Instead a terse British civil servant told him to ‘Be off,‘ the Consulate was closed, he added; ‘The Consul cannot see you to-day. Come to his office at nine tomorrow, if you want anything.’

At this point Churchill spat his dummy in the reception area, in a typical ‘do you know who I am’ rant he demanded to see the Consular who was duly called, happily the weekly streamer to Durban was leaving that night, he embarked immediately and arrived in Durban to the jubilant reception he was expecting.

img-310

Churchill addresses the crowd at Durban following his escape from Pretoria and return via Portuguese East Africa (Mozambique)

Becoming a ‘Caesar’

In Durban, Sir Redvers Buller was preparing his next push to relieve the siege at Ladysmith, Winston decided he wanted to re-engage his military commission and get into the fight properly as a British Army officer.  His problem, his contract with the Morning Post,which did not allow him as a correspondent to take part in soldering, and Buller who had a strict military only doctrine.  So, he struck a unique agreement with Buller, he would do both jobs, the Morning Post would pay him and the British Army would not.  In another first, Churchill became the world’s first ’embedded’ journalist.

22467705_732497103616836_9219497881391366999_o

Colourised portrait of Winston Churchill as part of the South African Light Horse

With that he eagerly found himself back in uniform and off to war, with a lieutenant’s commission in the South African Light Horse.  In his words; “I stitched my badges of rank to my khaki coat and stuck the long plume of feathers from the tail of the sakabulu bird in my hat, and lived from day-to-day in perfect happiness”.

Churchill took part in the famous battle of Spionkop outside Ladysmith from 23-24 January 1900, he acted as a courier to and from the summit at Spionkop and Buller’s headquarters and made a statement about the scene:“Corpses lay here and there. Many of the wounds were of a horrible nature. The splinters and fragments of the shells had torn and mutilated them. The shallow trenches were choked with dead and wounded.”

He fought a number of skirmishes and battles to relieve Ladysmith, watching the final attack on the Boer position by the Irish Brigade, a desperate affair and out of twelve hundred Irish who assaulted, both colonels, three majors, twenty officers and six hundred soldiers had fallen killed or wounded.  The path to Ladysmith was clear, and Churchill was front and forward riding into Ladysmith in triumph, he said; “We all rode together into the long beleaguered, almost starved-out, Ladysmith. It was a thrilling moment”.

This highlights another inconveniently overlooked fact of The South African War (especially in context of Boer and Black concentration camps later in the war), British civilians, women and children included, suffered heavily under Boer siege tactics, they were forced to live in nearby caves and bunkers (in Ladysmith) and in mine shafts (Kimberley) to avoid the indiscriminate shelling of their cities, many died of shrapnel and disease brought about from the ravages of war.  At near starvation they were emancipated.  They were described by their liberators as ‘ghosts’. Churchill’s account of entering Ladysmith recalls; “Suddenly from the brushwood up rose gaunt figures waving hands of welcome”.

Besides his harrowing images at Ladysmith, in Churchill’s writings during the campaign, he chastised British hatred for the Boer, calling for them to be treated with “generosity and tolerance” and urging a “speedy peace”.  His call was to fall on deaf ears, especially Kitchener’s who only got he ‘speedy peace’ part.

23847272_1499827570053847_6859845416546278573_o

British dead in their tench on top of Spionkop, colourised by Tinus Le Roux

Fighting on into the Orange Free State Republic, he was nearly captured again when he found himself well forward and isolated observing Boer movements, they attacked his position and his horse bolted under fire, Winston ran for his life under heavy fire with bullets whizzing around him, his savour came when another officer rode up to him, gave him a stirrup, hoisted him up, the horse was wounded but they still rode with Winston in tandem out of immediate danger.

He was front and forward again when the British eventually marched on Pretoria in June 1900.  He watched the last Boer fighting forces leaving Pretoria on a train and he and his cousin, the Duke of Marlborough, took the opportunity to get ahead of the rest of the troops and he rode into Pretoria like a conquering Caesar.  He immediately found his way to the State Model School POW prison, the very prison he had escaped from at the beginning of the war, here he demanded and received the surrender of 52 Boer prison camp guards.  The relieved British officers in the prison produced a British Union Jack (flag), they took down the Transvaal ‘Vierkleur’ and hosted the British Union flag – the first time a British flag re-appeared flying over Pretoria since Pretoria was annexed by Britain as a colony at the invitation of the Boers (see 1st Anglo-Boer War) in 1880, twenty years earlier.

14516334_10154528497944476_6692268421857196301_nAfter the victory in Pretoria, Winston returned to Cape Town and sailed for Britain in July 1900, on the very same ship he had arrived on, the Dunottar Castle. While he had still been in South Africa, his Morning Post despatches had been published as London to Ladysmith via Pretoria, and they sold like wildfire.  He arrived a national hero, nearly god-like, adored by millions.

A future fan base

Churchill 1904

Portrait of a young Winston Churchill during his MP days, 1904

There’s a lot not to like about Churchill, his warmongering nature and ability to lie at will, dithering between politician, journalist and army officer all for personal advancement for starters.  But there’s a lot to like in addition when you consider this.

What a Victorian Boy’s Own adventure! Think about it; the story starts with bang! The hero heads off to war on an urgent sea passage to the Cape Colony, braving high seas and a tropical storm to get to Durban.  In Natal he then single-handedly saves an entire British armoured train and its troop from certain death.

Captured by a skilful and determined enemy, he then escapes a POW prison in Pretoria with a ‘dead or alive’ bounty on his head, the subject of an extensive man-hunt for 300 miles and eventually – intrigue, he’s smuggled out the country to freedom by a group of traitors.

He promptly then re-joins the fight and takes part in the epic Battle of Spoinkop, then he’s on to relieve the starved and besieged British folk in Ladysmith riding in triumph. He then fights his way up Africa to take the enemies ‘prize,’ the capital city of Pretoria.

In a perfect ending to the adventure our hero races in to relieve imprisoned British comrades from the same prison he escaped from, and it all ends with the raising the first British Union Flag of the war flying high above the conquered capital.

In all the hero risks being shot in the head on more than five separate occasions, bravery on an almost unsurpassed level – all for Queen and Empire.

You could not make this stuff up! How Churchill did not earn a Victoria Cross is a matter of conjecture (and a topic of many discussions). To the average Victorian prepubescent boy this was an epic ‘Boy’s Own’ adventure, the difference with fiction, it was all true – and a generation of Churchill fans was born.

A fall from Grace

With a stellar career in front of him, as World War 1 churned on Churchill found himself as the 1st Lord of Admiralty, he asked the Prime Minister “Are there not other alternatives than sending our armies to chew barbed wire in Flanders?” Churchill, believed he had the solution for breaking the impasse—a second front.

Churchill fancied himself a military strategist, he said. “I have it in me to be a successful soldier. I can visualize great movements and combinations,” He proposed attacking the Dardanelles in Turkey and opening a second front.  This was Churchill’s ‘soft underbelly of Europe’ theory – and ironically he made the same mistake with the Italy Campaign of the Second World War, and like Italy later, Turkey proved a ‘tough old gut’ in World War One.

The Gallipoli campaign was an outright failure, the Battle of Gallipoli became a slaughter and quickly morphed into a stalemate just as bloody, just as pointless as that on the Western Front.

In May 1915, Churchill was demoted to an obscure cabinet post. “I am the victim of a political intrigue,” he cried to a close friend. “I am finished!”

Churchill-in-French-Helmet

Churchill (right), back from the trenches in WW1 wearing a French Adrian helmet; the officer to his left is Maj. Archibald Sinclair

Displaying his typical dogmatic determination, he resigned to make good his character, and he did this is a most remarkable way, he joined the Army again and chose to spend his time in his ‘political wilderness’ fighting in front line trenches in France, slogging in the blood and mud as a Lt. Colonel with the Royal Scots Fusiliers. After several brushes with death, he returned to politics in 1917 as the Munitions Minister, from his experiences in the front lines he wrote of the urgent need for the armoured ‘tracked caterpillars’ to traverse the mud and ‘no-mans land’ – his involvement with a group of innovators to resolve the problem led to the development of the battle tank and warfare was forever changed.

Destiny 

Churchill became the Chancellor of Exchequer (Cabinet Minister) in 1924 upon re-joining the Conservative Party. Churchill was outspoken on a number of issues, such as the danger of Germany’s re-armament after World War One. His warnings against Hitler were largely ignored, but at the outbreak of the Second World War, his foresight was acknowledged, and he became the war-time Prime Minister. His speeches and military strategy were a great encouragement to the British, and he is regarded today as one of the greatest Britons of his time.

It is largely due to Churchill’s leadership during the Second World War that Britain was not invaded by Hitler’s Nazi forces at the on-set of the Battle of Britain, that Britain (and Western Europe for that matter) is the modern European democracy with the freedoms it enjoys today is largely thanks to Churchill (whether his detractors, of which there are many, like it or not, it remains a fact), and here’s another obscure fact – South Africa had a big role in shaping Churchill, his ‘adventure’ in South Africa took him from a minor politician to a political giant with a near demigod status, even failures like Gallipoli could not unseat his destiny – South Africa both directly and indirectly shaped this future.

Churchill

Winston Churchill (Colorised by Mads Madsen)

Related Works and Links

Winston Churchill and Louis Botha: The Battle of Spionkop shaped 3 future leaders – Churchill, Botha & …. Gandhi

The 1st Boer War; Boers; ‘Don’t forget Majuba, boys’. Brits; ‘No fear, Boere, no fear’.

Winston Churchill and Jan Smuts: A true statesman, Jan Smuts addressing the British Parliament – 1942

Winston Churchill and Jan Smuts: “The force of his intellect has enriched the wisdom of the whole human race”- the death of Jan Smuts.

Winston Churchill and Tobruk; “Defeat is one thing; Disgrace is another!” South Africa’s biggest capitulation of arms – Tobruk

Winston Churchill and Smuts; Two fellow members of The South African Legion – Churchill and Smuts

The Transvaal; Vive la rue du Transvaal, vive la France


Written and Researched by Peter Dickens

References and extracts

My Early Life. A Roving Commission. Author: Churchill, Winston S, published October 1930. The Daring Escape That Forged Winston Churchill by Christopher Klein – for the History Channel, November 2016. Winston Churchill’s World War Disaster by Christopher Klein – for the History Channel. Churchill’s capture and escape – November-December 1899, blog by Robin Smith. The Churchill Factor: How One Man Made History by Boris Johnson.

I’m not pro Boer, I’m British, this isn’t OUR way!

There are few times you see a balanced documentary on the 2nd Anglo Boer War when it comes to the issue of the British concentration camps, but this landmark documentary “Scorched Earth” is about the best you will ever see … a MUST watch.

As South Africa addresses its history from a holistic perspective,  the complete story of the 2nd Anglo Boer War starts to emerge – the scale of the concentration camps as not strictly a “white” issue, but a “black” issue too is now becoming highly apparent.  That the war is now been viewed in both contexts and in the context of its historical time opens up new questions on the deep scars of hatred, still not fully addressed, affecting all of South Africa’s ethnic groups.

Apportioning ‘Blame’ 

That the concentration camps are a human tragedy on an epic level is not debatable, that within the history of the camps exist war crimes there is little doubt.   The key question to be addressed is the aspect of “blame”.

Can blame be put at one man’s feet – Lord  Kitchener under whose watch and policy this tragedy unfolded and a man with a disdain for the Boer nation and women in general, or does blame lie in cultural misunderstanding – actually going as far as blaming the women themselves for not following British heath regulations for tented camps, not trusting the nursing and hospital staff due to language and cultural barriers and using ancient remedies which accelerated the deadly social diseases instead?

Or, more to the point, does blame lie in the complete British maladministration of the camps, lack of medicine and lack of site and logistics planning by the British policy makers and proponents of the camp system?

7a7879c9b051127afdd349e3f9ffa2a2

White Concentration Camp of the 2nd Anglo Boer War

Does blame lie with the Boer Commanders insistence on continuing a war after it had been “lost” through conventional war – fully in the knowledge that their kinfolk and entire nation’s survival was heading to complete annihilation?

Does blame lie in the sheer racism and lack of human respect to ‘non whites’ and ‘lesser civilised’ peoples by prevailing Victorian attitude and the subsequent attitude of the army officer and political elite, and by default the broad British public, to purposefully ignore an unfolding human tragedy?  Does blame even lie with men at war with one another and the propaganda to paint one another as somehow lesser human beings?

20448955_10155633958753980_1228035049095603465_o

Black Concentration Camp of the 2nd Anglo Boer War

Does blame lie in the British initiating a medieval policy of putting to the crucible those women and children whose menfolk where still fighting and rewarding those whose men had stopped fighting with extra food by way of incentive?  And then the very thorny question – does blame lie in a system used knowingly by the British which would have had only one outcome, the decimation of a nation’s fountain of youth?

In essence, there is a strong case to argue that the concentration camps where a punitive measure to stop a phase of war which nobody really understood – the conventional war was lost when the Boer’s capital cities were taken, the decision by the Boer commanders and “government in the field” to take the war into a guerrilla one – supplied and fed by homesteads – simply brought the homesteads into the line of fire and war’s ravages – especially disease which proved the biggest killer.

But there is also a strong case to argue, that the targeting by the British of Boer nation’s most vulnerable – the old men, the women and children, to effect a victory – is simply a despicable act of barbarity, especially when considering the standing British conventional army in South Africa by far out-weighted the whole Boer nation population, let alone the combatants.

To the Victorian men and women such behaviour in South Africa was shielded for much of the war and when exposed in the media by the likes of Emily Hobhouse, the British government and media quickly regarded much of it as an “act of barbarism” and the backlash in Britain as to the conduct of the Boer war by British officers and the urgent need to help a nation in distress ultimately came, but it was too little and far too late.    In this respect Emily Hobhouse’s words to Kitchener are sharply poignant “I’m not pro Boer, I’m British, and this isn’t our way”.

In Conclusion

There is a very long way to go – but the future in reconciling the true effect of this war and redressing it as a nation – is to understand that the Boer War was not only a “white” man’s war, nor the concentration camps strictly about Afrikaans women and children, a much bigger story exists and which needs to be reconciled with – and that is the suffering of South Africa’s black population and the extraordinary losses they experienced in these concentration camps too – which only now are becoming fully understood.  For more on the ‘Black’ concentration camp history do visit this Observation Post link for a fuller story: To fully reconcile The Boer War is to fully understand the ‘BLACK’ Concentration Camps

The redress for white Afrikaners in South Africa as to any form of global awareness and world condemnation of this tragedy to their nation lies in the reconciliation of the history with the previously unwritten and misunderstood “black” history behind The 2nd Anglo Boer War.  Only if it is a national issue, a common cause and a national healing process implemented to dealt with it – will amends and long-awaited apologies from the British be found.


Written by Peter Dickens.  Image copyright, Imperial War Museum.  ‘Scorched Earth’ documentary, Director Herman Binge, produced for M-Net by Pearson Television, copyright 2001.

The Battle of Spionkop shaped 3 future leaders – Churchill, Botha & …. Gandhi

A little more unknown military history on just how one small battle in South Africa has shaped some of the greatest men of our time, including, believe it or not, Mahatma Gandhi, the famous Indian political reformer and spiritual leader.

Gandhi’s formative years were in South Africa and many don’t know this, but he even took part in the 2nd Anglo Boer War. He was also present at the battle of Spionkop, fighting for the British Army as a stretcher bearer and medic.

Spionkop is such a significant battle that three future heads of government were present, Winston Churchill, Mahatma Gandhi and Louis Botha. As a result, South Africa, and that battle in particular, played a significant role in moulding the contemporary history of the world in the years to come, simply because of the way the battle influenced these three men.

Background to the Battle of Spion Kop

After much sabre rattling over British immigrant workers rights on the mines in the Zuid-Afrikaansche Republiek (Transvaal Republic) and Rhodes’ Imperial expansionist visions, The 2nd Anglo Boer War was officially declared by the Boers on 11 October 1899 when they invaded the British Colonies of Natal and the Cape.

The move by two relatively small Boer Republics – the South African Republic (Transvaal) and Orange Free State Republic – to declare war on what was then the world’s only real superpower – The United Kingdom (Great Britain) – came with some astonishment to Queen Victoria and the British Government. The British expansionist Imperialists in Southern Africa, along with the Gold and Diamond mining magnates, on the other hand, could hardly believe their luck.

From the Boer’s perspective, the pressures Milner had put on Paul Kruger’s government to grant citizenship rights to mainly British mine workers on the Rand had simply become too much to bear.  Numerically speaking there were to be more miners than Boers in the Transvaal and the granting of such rights would have ended Boer governance of the province eventually – simply by the ballot alone.

As with the 1st Anglo Boer War (or Transvaal War as it was known) fought 20 years earlier from 16th December 1880 until 23rd March 1881, the Boers banked on a quick and decisive victory over the British Colonial forces in Natal and the Cape (which were somewhat weaker than Boer forces at the start of the 2nd Anglo Boer war), and bring to an end the United Kingdom’s demands on them and give them an upper hand in re-establishing their peaceful relations with their British neighbours – exactly as they had done after their victory over the British at The battle of Majuba in the 1st Anglo Boer War.

The Boer advance was however stopped by three small garrison armies at the British border towns of Mafeking, Kimberley and Ladysmith.  The Boers promptly put all three of these towns to siege and brought up heavy artillery and cannons to bombard them, both the garrisons and the civilians alike came under repeated and constant fire, the British citizens in these towns – especially women and children, were forced to near starvation and were now living rough in bunkers, mine shafts and caves.  This prompted an outrage back in Britain and fuelled by public opinion of the arrogance of it all Queen Victoria was able to draft the biggest British expeditionary force ever seen to go to Southern Africa and get their towns back. Central to all of this was the plight of the citizens in Ladysmith – Ladysmith was to become the pride of the British empire in Southern Africa and the rally call.

General Sir Redvers Henry Buller VC landed in Cape Town on the 31st October 1899 to appraise the situation, the main body of the first wave of expeditionary forces due to arrive shortly afterward by 10 November 1899.  By the beginning of December 1899 Buller had assembled all his forces in Durban to begin the relief of Ladysmith – what the British did not expect was to get was a resounding beating, ‘Black Week’ awaited them.

Buller’s woes in Natal started  with the Battle of Colenso – which was the third and final battle fought during the ‘Black Week’ – 10th to 17th December 1899 (the other two been resounding Boer victories at Magtersfontein and Stormberg in the Cape Colony),

At the Battle of Colenso, fought on the 15th December 1899, Buller’s forces came up against well entrenched Boer forces under the command of General Louis Botha (the first of the men profiled here).  Despite a brave attempt to ‘save the guns’ at Colenso, inadequate preparation and reconnaissance and uninspired leadership led to a heavy, and in some respects humiliating, British defeat. Buller’s army lost 143 killed, 756 wounded and 220 captured. Boer casualties were only eight killed and 30 wounded.  Buller retreated to reinforce, he requested even more British expeditionary battalions from the War Office by January 1900 and next up for Buller in a second attempt to relieve Ladysmith was The Battle of Spion Kop.

In a nutshell, the Battle of Spion Kop (Dutch: Spionkop; Afrikaans: Slag van Spioenkop) was fought about 38 km (24 mi) west-south-west of Ladysmith on the hilltop of Spion Kop along the Tugela River, Natal in South Africa from 23–24 January 1900.  It was fought between the South African Republic (Transvaal Republic) and the Orange Free State forces under the command of General Louis Botha on the one hand and British forces under command of General Sir Redvers Henry Buller VC in their second push to relieve Ladysmith on the other hand.  Spion Kop occupied the centre of the Boer line, and was therefore of strategic and tactical importance.

1403133_10203084409771670_1091144163_o

Iconic photograph of British dead in situation after the Battle of Spionkop

So what were these three future statesmen and reformers doing at Spion Kop? During the battle, Gandhi performed the role of a medic, Churchill acted as a courier and Botha led the Boers during the battle.  So let’s have a look at these three and their involvement a little more in depth, and chart how this singular battle affected their future views and helped shape their careers.

Louis Botha

vo017cbaAt the onset of the war in 1899, Louis Botha initially joined the Krugerdorp Commando, he fought under Lucas Meyer in Northern Natal, and later as a General commanding and leading Boer forces rather impressively at the Battle of Colenso and then at the Battle of Spion kop.

General Louis Botha’s forces came up against General Sir Redvers Buller VC forces as he was trying to relieve Ladysmith.  Botha’s forces held the Tugela River and although Botha’s men were outnumbered, they were mostly equipped with modern Mauser rifles and up-to-date field guns, and had carefully entrenched their positions. In December, 1899, Buller made a frontal assault on the Boer positions at the Battle of Colenso The result was a heavy British defeat.

Over the next few weeks, Buller received further reinforcements, and he moved to cross the Tugela river and capture the hill of Spion Kop in a second attempt to advance on Ladysmith – Spion Kop lay at the centre of the Boer line, so of great strategic and tactical advantage if taken.  So on the night of 23 January 1900, General Sir Charles Warren, tasked with the advance on Ladysmith, sent the larger part of his force to secure the top of Spion Kop.

4-Boers_at_Spion_Kop_1900_-_Project_Gutenberg_eText_16462

Boer Forces on Spion Kop, January 1990

The British climbed up the hill at night and in dense mist. They surprised the small Boer piquet  and drove them off the kop at bayonet point. The Boer piquet retreated down the hill to their camp waking up their fellow Boers by screaming “Die Engelse is op die kop.” (The English are on the hill.). At that time a half-company of British sappers began to entrench their position on the hill with a mere 20 picks and 20 shovels (oddly – while almost 1,000 soldiers stood around idle).

As dawn broke, the British discovered that they held only the smaller and lower part of the hilltop of Spion Kop, while the Boers occupied higher ground on three sides of the British position. The British had no direct knowledge of the topography of the summit and the darkness and fog had compounded the problem. Furthermore, the British trenches were inadequate for all defensive purposes. Because the summit of the kop was mostly hard rock, the trenches were at most 40 centimetres (16 in) deep and provided an exceptionally poor defensive position – the British infantry in the trenches could not see over the crest of the plateau and the Boers were able to fire down the length of the crescent-shaped trench from the adjacent peaks.

2000px-Flag_of_the_Orange_Free_State

Orange Free State Republic flag

In the resultant murderous and accurate Boer rifle and artillery fire as well as Boer assaults – the British ran up an unacceptable level of casualties and deaths – in what was to become known later as the ‘murderous acre’.  Although they eventually broke the Boer line after a herculean effort they withdrew from the hilltop as an exhausted and broken force, allowing the Boer’s to re-occupy it and win the day.

The British took 20,000 men and 36 Field Guns into the battle and by the end of the battle, the British suffered 243 fatalities; many were buried in the trenches where they fell and 1,250 wounded.  Whilst the smaller Boer force of 8000 men, 4 Field Guns and 2 cannon only sustained 68 killed 267 wounded.  It was a resounding Boer victory against the numerically superior British.

za-trans

South African Republic (Transvaal) flag

The Boers, including Botha, thought that their victory at the Battle of Spion Kop would be the end of all the hostilities, and like the end of the 1st Boer War which saw a similar British defeat on the hill of Majuba – the Boers thought the British would now sue for peace and so many of them even went home.  (see Observation Post Boers ‘Don’t forget Majuba, boys’. Brits ‘No fear, Boere, no fear’. for more on this battle).

Little did they foresee the ‘total war’ that was to become the 2nd Anglo Boer War and British resolve to not only take back their captured cities but also to eventually conquer the two Boer Republics with a degree of ruthlessness never before seen in South Africa, and never seen again.

Botha

Louis Botha as the first Prime Minister of South Africa

The successes at Colenso and Spion Kop eventually saw General Louis Botha take control of all Boer Forces.  However, once the British won the conventional phase of the war and captured the capital city of Pretoria, the Boer commanders decided to move their government ‘into the field’ and embark on a new Guerrilla warfare phase.  This resulted in the British using heavily handed scorched earth and concentration camps systems to squeeze off supply to the guerrillas in the field.  The net result of these policies is that by the end of the 2nd Anglo Boer War, the Boer Republics’ farming sector was economically broken and Boer armies and Boer people’s completely decimated.

To build their country up again General Louis Botha teamed up with General Jan Smuts to propose ‘Union’ between the two British colonies and the two Boer states, take control back in the form of an independent South African parliament from Westminster (so it would be able to make its own laws) and create a new country – South Africa.  The Union of South Africa was born in 1910 with these two ex-Boer commanders leading it (without a shot been fired) and as one of these two reformers Botha took the mantle of South Africa’s very first Prime Minister.

Botha is literally the co-founder of South Africa and Smuts was very prepared to let him take the Prime Minister position as he was a far more popular man than the deep thinking broody Smuts,  here Smuts felt their relationship was perfectly balanced for the work of creating a new country and all the challenges that would bring.  Botha’s popularity, especially amongst the Afrikaner lay in his great deeds during the 2nd Anglo Boer War and his popular and likeable manner in command, this popularity was forged by his successes at Colenso and Spion Kop.

Botha would die in office on the 22 August 1919, and in a further ironic twist, it would be Field Marshal Smuts, Botha’s partner in Union who would go on to be come a key advisor and close friend to Winston Churchill during the invasion of France in World War 2 and the formation of the post war world.  To read more on Smuts and Churchill read Observation Post “The force of his intellect has enriched the wisdom of the whole human race”- the death of Jan Smuts.

Winston Churchill

Winston ChurchillWinston Churchill took initially part in the 2nd Anglo Boer War as a ‘war correspondent’ for The Morning Post.  War Correspondents like Churchill tended to be commissioned officers serving in uniform attached to Regiments or formations, their reporting was intended to toe the military line.  South Africa literally made Churchill into a national hero and it is the epicentre of his rise to political greatness.

Churchill’s activities in South Africa read like a ‘Boys Own’ Adventure Novel.  His impertinent nature saw him arrive in Cape Town with General Sir Redvers Henry Buller’s expeditionary force, and he immediately teamed up with journalistic colleague John B. Atkins of the Manchester Guardian to go to the front at Ladysmith before any other journalists could do so. They took a 700-mile undefended train ride, boarded  a small steamer bound for Durban and promptly sailed into the teeth of an Indian Ocean storm. After several harrowing days, the pair arrived at Durban.

Still determined to get to see the Boer forces’ siege of Ladysmith ahead of Buller’s advancing forces, Churchill and Atkins made another dangerous train ride of 60 miles to within hearing range the artillery fire of the Boer guns on Ladysmith. Churchill, still keen on getting closer to the action accompanied a scouting expedition on an armored train. The train was ambushed by the Boers and on 15 November 1899, Churchill and after a firefight in which Winston played a direct combatant role, he was captured by none other than Louis Botha (the other future statesmen profiled here).

large_000000

Churchill – standing off-set to the right as a POW

Churchill was imprisoned in a Prisoner of War (POW) camp. He managed to escape, and with a ransom price on his head and the assistance of an English mine manager, he eventually made his way to Delagoa Bay (Mozambique) after forging rivers, hiding in mine shafts and stowing away on a train . Hailed as a hero back in England, Churchill returned to Durban.

Here Churchill joined Buller’s advance on Ladysmith and was commissioned as a lieutenant in the South African Light Horse by General Buller whilst he was basking in the glory of his well-publicised escape from Boer captivity.  By January 1900, at the Battle of Spionkop just outside Ladysmith Churchill acted as a courier to and from the summit at Spion Kop and Buller’s headquarters and made a statement about the scene: “Corpses lay here and there. Many of the wounds were of a horrible nature. The splinters and fragments of the shells had torn and mutilated them. The shallow trenches were choked with dead and wounded.”

article-2094822-118BA99F000005DC-359_636x521

Churchill on horseback during the 2nd Anglo Boer war, this photograph was taken just after his escape from Boer captivity.

1280px-Flag_of_the_United_Kingdom

British Union Flag

Later, after the war Churchill used his new-found status as a national hero and turned his attention to politics, winning a seat in Parliament in the 1906 general election.

Ironically, it was Winston Churchill who revealed that General Botha was the man who captured him at the ambush of the British armoured train he was travelling in on 15 November 1899. Churchill was not aware of the man’s identity until 1902, when Botha travelled to London seeking loans to assist his country’s reconstruction, and the two met at a private luncheon.

Churchill became the Chancellor of Exchequer (Cabinet Minister) in 1924 upon rejoining the Conservative Party. Churchill was outspoken on a number of issues, such as the danger of Germans re-armament after World War One. His warnings against Hitler were largely ignored, but at the outbreak of the Second World War, his foresight was acknowledged and he became the war-time Prime Minister. His speeches and military strategy were a great encouragement to the British, and he is regarded today as one of the greatest Britons of his time.  It is largely due to Churchill’s leadership during the war that Britain was not invaded by Hitler’s nazi forces at the on-set of The Battle of Britain, that Britain (and Western Europe for that matter) is the modern democracy with the freedoms it enjoys today is largely thanks to Churchill (whether his detractors, of which there are many, like it or not, it remains a fact).

Mahatma Gandhi

Historians have forever struggled to explain why this apostle of peace and non-violence rendered support to the British Empire in the Boer War, the 1906 Natal Rebellion and the First World War.  However what is clear by Gandhi’s own writings was that his intentions in supporting the British Army in Southern Africa was to buy the Indian population in Southern Africa more political concession and representation based on endorsement and participation in British war efforts.

Natal Colony

Natal Colony Flag

When the Boer War came about Mahatma Gandhi actually played a pivotal role in the forming Natal Indian Ambulance Corps which fell under the British Military command.  He even raised the money to form the Corps from the local Indian Community.   It consisted of 300 “free” Indians and 800 indentured labourers (Indians were encouraged to emigrate to South Africa as labourers under contract, once the specified dates of the contract finished they were “free” to own land and make their own way as citizens).

In an urgent response the siege of Ladysmith the British authorities recruited the Natal Volunteer Ambulance Corps of about 1100 local White men, at the same time Gandhi pressed for his Indian stretcher-bearers to be allowed to serve, which was duly granted.

Gandhi lawyerMahatma Ghandi first saw action with Buller’s forces at the Battle of Colenso on 15 December 1899,  when the Natal Volunteer Ambulance Corps we ordered to remove the wounded from the front line and then transport them to the railhead.

During the Battle of Spion Kop, the Natal Volunteer Ambulance Corps (including Gandhi) moved into the frontline to collect the wounded. There is even an account of Ghandi’s bearing during the Battle of Spion-Kop. Vera Stent described the work of the Indians in the Illustrated Star of Johannesburg, July 1911, as follows:

“My first meeting with Mr. M. Gandhi was under strange circumstances. It was on the road from Spion Kop, after the fateful retirement of the British troops in January 1900.

The previous afternoon I saw the Indian mule-train moved up the slopes of the Kop carrying water to the distressed soldiers who had lain powerless on the plateau. The mules carried the water in immense bags, one on each side, led by Indians at their heads. The galling rifle-fire, which heralded their arrival on the top, did not deter the strangely-looking cavalcade which moved slowly forward, and as an Indian fell, another quietly stepped forward to fill the vacant place. Afterwards the grim duty of bearer corps, which Mr. Gandhi organised in Natal, began.

ghandi7It was on such occasions the Indians proved their fortitude, and the one with the greatest fortitude was the subject of this sketch [Mr. Gandhi]. After a night’s work, which had shattered men with much bigger frames I came across Gandhi in the early morning sitting by the roadside – eating a regulation Army biscuit. Everyman in Buller’s force was dull and depressed, and damnation was heartily invoked on everything. But Gandhi was stoical in his bearing, cheerful, and confident in his conversation, and had a kindly eye. He did one good… I saw the man and his small undisciplined corps on many a field during the Natal campaign. When succour was to be rendered they were there.”

34 Indian leaders were awarded the Queen’s South Africa Medal for actions in the Boer War. Gandhi’s is held by the Nehru Memorial Museum in New Delhi.

Mahatma Ghandi remained in the military as a reservist, and was eventually promoted to the rank of Sergeant Major, he also took part in the 1906 Natal Rebellion for which he again received 1906 Rebellion Medal.  For more in Gandhi’s military service see The Observation Post Gandhi was a man of peace, but he was also a man of war! .

In the below image is Gandhi as a medic on the side of the British this time, seen in this photo with the stretcher-bearers of the Indian Ambulance Corps during the Boer War, South-Africa cira 1900.

1465327_235941723242234_756707980_n

Standing: H. Kitchen, L. Panday, R. Panday, J. Royeppen, R.K. Khan, L. Gabriel, M.K. Kotharee, E. Peters, D. Vinden, V. Madanjit. Middle Row: W. Jonathan, V. Lawrence, M.H. Nazar, Dr. L.P. Booth, M.K. Gandhi (Mahatma Gandhi), P.K. Naidoo, M. Royeppen. Front Row: S. Shadrach, “Professor” Dhundee, S.D. Moddley, A. David, A.A. Gandhi.

After the wars (Boer War and Natal Rebellion), Mahatma Gandhi’s politics began to shape up as one of non violence, and no doubt his exposure to the violence on war guided Gandhi to his philosophy of peaceful resistance.

In another irony as his political career travelled in synch with that of Louis Botha, in 1910, the same year the South African Union was established, Gandhi established an idealistic community called ‘Tolstoy Farm’ near Johannesburg. It was here, based on his wartime experience and his unsuccessful experiences of trying collaborative politics with the British, that he nurtured his policy of peaceful resistance.

Mahatma Gandhi’s political path was to cross with Louis Botha and Jan Smuts on a number of occasions over the issues of Indian rights and franchise in South Africa, and although Gandhi was arrested on a number of occasions for civil dissonance, he and Smuts developed a strong mutual respect, see Observation Post “… I am not worthy to stand in the shoes of so great a man”  for more on this unique relationship.

In all Mahatma Gandhi spent 22 years of his life in South Africa, a significant period of time, and there is no doubt the region’s politics and violence forged the man he had become by the time he returned to India in 1915.  On arrival in India he brought with him an international reputation as a leading Indian nationalist, theorist and organiser.

He joined the Indian National Congress and was introduced to Indian issues by Gopal Krishna Gokhale, his mentor. Gandhi by the time he arrived in India was utterly devout to the ideals of non-violence and universal love. He was against “untouchability” of India’s most destitute and all sorts of injustice in society. He lived a frugal life and imposed self suffering and hunger strikes to see his ideals triumph. In essence he dreamed of a “Ram Rajya” where everybody would live in peace.

In Gandhi’s in book Hind Swaraj Gandhi outlined his ideals of change via principles of non co-operation, and he declared that British rule was established in India with the co-operation of Indians and had survived only because of this co-operation. If Indians refused to co-operate, British rule would collapse and “swaraj” (self rule) would come.

Ghandi3

Negotiation of independence for India, Gandhi with Lord and Lady Mountbatten in 1947

Whist using this idea of non co-operation to fight British rule in India, he maintained his principles of truthfulness, peace and non-violence. In 1942, he launched the “Quit India Movement” to drive the British out of the country and gave the famous slogan of ‘do or die’ to his countrymen. The movement brought tremendous pressure on the British who eventually granted full independence to India in 1947.

1200px-Flag_of_India

National flag of India

He even famously crossed political paths with Winston Churchill when Churchill famously commented  “It is alarming and also nauseating to see Mr. Gandhi, a seditious Middle [Inner] Temple lawyer, now posing as a fakir of a type well known in the East, striding half-naked up the steps of the Viceregal palace, while he is still organizing and conducting a defiant campaign of civil disobedience, to parley on equal terms with the representative of the King-Emperor.”

Gandhi famously disarmed this typical Churchill rhetoric and insult when Gandhi wrote to Churchill in a letter saying, “Dear Prime Minister, You are reported to have a desire to crush the simple ‘naked fakir’ as you are said to have described me. I have been long trying to be a fakir and that [too] naked – a more difficult task. I, therefore, regard the expression as a compliment though unintended. I approach you then as such and ask you to trust and use me for the sake of your people and mine and through them those of the world.”


Written and researched by Peter Dickens.  References – wikipedia, Imperial War Museum, SAHO – South African History on-line, the escape of Winston Churchill.  Image copyright Imperial War Museum.  Colourised Spionkop image copyright Tinus Le Roux

The Horrible History and many names of Thaba Tshwane

The featured photo of the South African Army College in Thaba Tshwane has a lot of hidden history. South Africans just love re-naming things in pursuit of one political party’s agenda over that of another one, all in the interests of political narrative – all of them serving to either change or hide South Africa’s strong military and cultural heritage to suite this or that political likeness.

Take the military compound in Pretoria as an example – First it was called Roberts Heights – then Voortrekkerhoogte – now Thaba Tshwane  – even the changes in language used in the name and subsequent name changes speaks volumes.

25136980491_0dce82938e_b

Lord Roberts

The complex was founded around 1905, just after the 2nd Anglo Boer War by the British Army to garrison the city of Pretoria, and they called their new garrison area Roberts Heights after Lord Roberts.

Field Marshal Frederick Roberts (Lord Roberts) VC, KP, GCB, OM, GCSI, GCIE, KStJ, VD, Pc was one the most successful British commanders of the 19th century and the overall commander of British Forces during the 2nd Anglo Boer War.

It was however. renamed Voortrekkerhoogte (“Voortrekker Heights”) to commemorate The Great Trek in a flurry of Afrikaner nationalism which accompanied the Great Trek centenary – and what better than re-naming the hated “English occupiers” military base and removing the name of Lord Roberts – a man loathed by Afrikaners – and for good reason for many Afrikaners – the Boer war left this community deeply scarred, how the British and English South Africans felt about it at the time – different matter, to many of them Lord Roberts is a hero.  So, a controversial move that deepened social differences.

Following the end of the National Party and their influence of Afrikaner Nationalism as an ideology to govern South Africa, it was renamed again on the 19 May 1998 by the incoming ANC regime, this time called Thaba Tshwane instead.   This was done by the ANC to rid the area’s heritage of both its much hated ‘Colonial’ heritage and ‘Apartheid’ heritage with something more ‘universally shared’.

Voor

The inaugural ceremony of the Voortrekker monument at Voortrekkerhoogte, held on 16 December1949

So, Thaba Tshwane it is then, meaning of which is a little lost in translation, but some say its named after Tshwane, son of Chief Mushi, an Ndebele leader who settled near the Apies River, although there is some debate to whether he actually even existed as a historical figure (there’s a problem – there is no written or historic record – its all deeply back in a mystical oral tradition).

DSC_0594

Chief Tshwane statue

In any event, the name was changed again, and once again it was done to suit the next incoming regimes’ political narrative – the replacement of Black African culture and history over that of White African culture and history and scrubbing out anything the National Party or United Party or even the British did in the name of Afrikaner or English identity and heritage in South Africa.

The casualty in all this re-naming and one-upmanship is the actual history, the actual legacy, the golden thread that links our combined journey together – that it was British military compound established and named after Lord Roberts – was sadly even lost on the thousands of  South Africans who served there in the 70’s and 80’s who simply knew it as Voortrekkerhoogte and now even that will be sadly lost to the next generation of South Africans who serve there – who will in time just know it as Thaba Tshwane.  The actual “History and Heritage” lost forever.

To give an idea of  just how much of this rich tapestry is lost in ‘Thaba Tshwane’ can be found in one simple little cornerstone. The oldest building in the military complex is the one pictured – the “South African Garrison Institute” what is now re-named as the “South African Army College”. But here’s the really interesting bit – Lord Kitchener laid the cornerstone of this College on the 12th June 1902.

kitchener-photo-boer-war-site1

Lord Kitchener

During the Second Boer War, both Lord Kitchener and Lord Roberts (the chap they originally named Thaba Tshwane after) arrived in South Africa together on the RMS Dunottar Castle – along with massive British reinforcements in December 1899.

Following the defeat of the conventional Boer forces, Kitchener succeeded Roberts as overall commander of British Forces in November 1900. He subsequently inherited and expanded the successful strategies devised by Roberts to force the “Bittereinder” (Bitter End) unconventional Boer forces to submit.

The “Bittereinder” Boer Commandos had changed their tactics and were now using highly controversial and relatively new “hit and run” guerrilla tactics. The British in turn – in order to figure out how to stop “guerrilla war” – came up with the idea of containing the Boer’s supply line (their horse feed, shelter and food which where been provided by their families/homesteads) and placing all involved in supply (families and farm workers /servants alike) into both “White” and “Black” concentration camps respectively – and then burning the farms (a policy known as “scorched earth”).

Conditions in the concentration camps, which had been conceived by Roberts as a form of control of the families whose farms his forces had destroyed, began to degenerate rapidly as the large influx of Boers outstripped the ability of the minuscule British force to cope. The camps lacked space, food, sanitation, medicine, and medical care, leading to rampant disease and a very high death rate – especially among women and children (children particularly).

41cMeyjGDRL._SY450_You’ll recognise Lord Kitchener anywhere – he became the poster model for the “Your Country Needs You” campaign to spur British and Commonwealth men to sign up and fight in the trenches of World War 1. The poster is funnily seeing a little contemporary resurgence in celebration of the centenary of WW1.

It’s a “Horrible” history – but it’s history none the less – and for this very reason – that it is “horrible” that this history really needs to be told – lest we forget the sacrifice that it took.

Covering over it by re-naming everything, for the sake of a political one-upmanship merely washes out the country’s history, heritage and cultural understanding – it cleanses the rich tapestry that makes us unique as a nation.

In effect it takes us ‘off’ our combined journey as South Africans and does exactly the opposite of all the ‘good’ intentions for getting us to the best and most ‘shared’ option  – it separates us again, it deepens racial and cultural divide and perpetuates South Africa’s deepest problem, its on-going race politics.


Written by Peter Dickens