Publishing 100 years ago

I was undecided whether to post this here or with my publishing hat on, but in the end decided here was more appropriate because of the historical links.

Back in 1922, Solomon Plaatje tried to get his novel Mhudi published in the USA. Plaatje was a black South African but before assumptions are made and conclusions drawn, it’s worth considering the wider context. In the 1920s according to Brian Willan, Plaatje’s biographer, there was an interest in the USA for black literature and Plaatje was a published author in the UK with Native Life in South Africa and various pamphlets to his name. He was a well-known newspaper writer and editor too and his work had the support of academics at University College London (UCL) and the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS).

Despite his resume, Plaatje’s book was rejected by the big players of the day but a small publisher offered to print his book – which he praised, predicting 20,000 sales for the grand total of $1,500 which worked out at $5 per book.

It was these figures that jumped out at me – the figures quoted haven’t changed much in 100 years. Authors I speak to today have often been told a publisher will publish if the author contributes or pays for the print. The lowest figure given to me has been £1,500 and this is from both small, big and academic publishers.

The other striking aspect on book selling which Plaatje brought home was the unpredictability of sales. He travelled widely – in the UK, USA and South Africa promoting his work and selling his books. In 1920 he recorded that, in the USA, he got $40-50 from sales whereas in 1922 he could hardly get $8 or $10. His books did not feature in bookshops (since 2010, only 1% of all books published are likely to make it into a bookshop) despite there being reviews in recognised newspapers of the day such as the South African.

Again, this resonates with book selling today. Publishers generally do very little marketing of books expecting the author to do most of it, preferring to focus their energies on books they expect to make a return within three months of being released. There are numerous outlets now (social media) for letting people know about new books which technically means reaching more readers however, some time ago I read that only 7% of social media gets seen in a day. An article published at the beginning of December 2020 suggests that the average user receives 1,500 posts a day of which only 300 are shown in their feed (those deemed most relevant). This prompts the question then: is the ‘reach’ any different then from Plaatje’s time?

It has also been suggested that today that the book buying world consists of authors and publishers – few outside of the book producing world buy books. There may be something in this, but it’s hard to say. Reading habits have changed over the years and there are more books entering into the world every year whilst the second-hand book market ensures older books continue to circulate almost in perpetuity. Another random read recently noted that what is really important when it comes to books is not the number sold but the number read. Much is seen today about tsundoku or the art of buying books and never reading them as I wrote about recently. Can one make the assumption that, with fewer books in circulation and relatively more expensive 100 years ago, people read more of what they bought? I’m not sure we’ll know.

Today there is a huge industry in self-publishing but I don’t think this is much different to Plaatje’s day. Numerous books I encounter regarding the First World War in Africa are noted to be for private circulation or privately published, confirming there was no major market for the book but the author felt it needed to be made more widely available. The difference today is that technology has levelled the playing field when it comes to self-publishing. Most of Plaatje’s travels and book promotion tours were to raise funds to get new books published where the publisher asked the author to make a financial contribution. This effectively puts his books into the ‘self-published’ category. I wonder how Plaatje’s writings would have fared had he had access to the technology we have.

Mhudi was eventually published in 1930, ten years after it was written, by Lovedale University – Plaatje having to make no financial contribution. Since his death, and the reprint of the book in 1978 (with a foreword by Tim Couzens) more copies of the book have been sold than during his lifetime – and not for the reasons Plaatje initially set out to write the book but despite this, by all accounts, once again according to Willan, Plaatje’s aim has been realised.

Who would have thought that a biography on the first published black South African author would have provided such an insight into the world of publishing? Willan’s biography is definitely worth a read – it opened many windows onto a man whose name has generally been confined to Native Life in South Africa and his reporting of the Boer siege of Mafeking in the 1899-1902 war.

Ghostly fascinations

There seems to be a fascination with the dead returning to life. Recently we have television programmes such as The Mentalist and Sue Thomas FBI to name but two. There are also vampire and werewolf interests (The Vampire Diaries, etc). I have recently read a few books, linking the 2nd Anglo-Boer War (1899-1902) with the present. Damian Barr‘s You will be safe here, and soon to be published Roberta Eaton Cheadle‘s A ghost and his gold.

This fascination is not new, it was prevalent a century ago in literature and Folklore Thursday amongst others tell tales of even further back. Of the texts published a century ago, these prompted this posting, two again set in Africa: Prester John by John Buchan and Benita: An African romance by H Rider Haggard. In both these tales ghosts or spirits appear or are called on to give power either politically/spiritually or economically. There also appears to be a significant role for caves which are difficult to get into. Interestingly, an author of the time probably most associated with spiritualism, Arthur Conan Doyle, although mentioning it in an early letter to the press, embraced it in 1916 writing a novel The Land of Mist in 1925.

While these accounts are fictional, Africa, along with other territories, seems to have a close connection with the spirit world. Ewart Grogan in his travels from Cape Town to Cairo overland at the end of the twentieth century shared in From the Cape to Cairo: The first traverse from south to north described his encounters with people impacted by the fear of spirits as they refused to take him through certain areas. Various of the British South African Police reminiscences also refer to the impact of spirits on people’s actions and the fear of witch doctors. Appeasing the ancestors is important – then and now.

An article on Why we see dead people flitted across one of my social media platforms on no less than 11 November – a day of remembrance, specifically for those who died during World War One or the First World War, the Great War or the war of 1914-1918 (depending on your pedantic stance as to how you refer to the conflict). And accounts abound of people encountering ancestors on the battlefields and elsewhere which give insights into what potentially happened. I find these fascinating but as an historian, I wonder how much of our interest and fascination with a ghostly past in whatever form is important for our defining who we are as individuals and communities, especially bearing in mind how our cultures are defined or influenced by past and present religious practices, beliefs and traditions through education in its widest forms. To what extent did our ancestors who served in Africa during the Great War and other earlier conflicts respond to those who died where ‘normal’ practices could not be enacted? What impact did this have on later remembrance?

Review: The Corfield Papers – Kim Leslie

I was given a copy of The Corfield Papers in West Sussex Record Office: An illustrated catalogue and family history by Kim Leslie, the author of the book.

This might seem a bit of an odd thing to do but there is an African connection in none other than Daniel Patrick Driscoll of Driscoll’s Scouts in the 1899-1902 war and of 25th Royal Fusiliers (Legion of Frontiersmen) fame in the East Africa campaign of World War 1.

Driscoll has a reputation something Kim touches on as an illegitimate daughter of Driscoll’s, conceived in South Africa, was adopted by Carruthers Corfield and his wife Betty in 1903 in England. More will be coming on this in due course as I am currently editing a biography on Driscoll written by Peter Lovatt (a family connection), to be published through the Great War in Africa Association.

The book is a publication format I hadn’t come across before – a catalogue of family papers as one used to dealing with paper catalogues would understand, supplemented with background to the various contributors to the archive providing a valuable family history with select family trees and a range of illustrations from the collection. All in one publication – an absolute labour of love and for researchers interested in social history of the nineteenth and early twentieth century, this looks a rich and varied source of data.

While there wasn’t much on Driscoll for obvious reasons, some things caught my eye which gives a flavour of what can be found in the book and collection.

It was a timely reminder of how apparently official documents can have inaccuracies – names, dates of birth/death can differ, all through human error – supporting the need to corroborate evidence. This is a family with some tricky pasts linking into Japan, the USA and Australia. I wonder if such situations are as prevalent today in our technologically linked up world? Is it as easy today as it was then for a person to marry someone else whilst still married to another or to believe one is married only to find out it wasn’t legal for some technical reason? These are questions posed by some family experiences.

I’ve already mentioned the Inspector of Nuisances in a previous post. Another interesting discover is ‘snowbird communities’. This seems to be a United States of American thing where people find winter hideaways – in this case it was Lake Alfred in Florida.

There is also a fascinatingly sad story about Carruthers and Betty’s daughter who set herself alight aged 18 months. That this happened in a doctor’s house and so rapidly suggested the matches concerned were not what we know as ‘safety’ matches. An article published in May 2020 explains the difference and sets out that although they were invented in about 1893, they only became legal in 1910. How many other children lost their lives due to this seemingly innocuous little piece of wood. For anyone interested there is a website called History of Matches.

There is much (relatively speaking) being published or said about the difference in burial or treatment between black and white in Africa (interestingly little attention is given to the demise of the local Arab, Indian or Chinese in these discussions). So I was intrigued to read in The Corfield Papers of a letter dated 1859 (p113) in which it referred to a death in Jamaica as follows: “…it is the custom of the Country for every Estate to have a burial ground on it, one for the white, another for the black people”. Without debating the rights and wrongs or reasons for the difference in treatment, it was clearly a practice of long standing.

And finally, I discovered another link with Kitchener: Carruthers Corfield was a trustee of the Kitchener Benevolent Society with correspondence or information predating 1918 suggesting Corruthers was there from the start and there is reference to a 1918 letter regarding tensions with Frances Parker otherwise known as Millie, Kitchener’s sister. The other related Frances Parker is Fanny Parker the suffragette.

To be honest, I wouldn’t have gone out of my way to get this book, but can see the value for family, social, cultural and medical historians/researchers. It was a real bonus to discover some of these links and all compliments to Kim on a labour of love – it’s a useful catalogue, fascinating family history and beautiful book.

Being sent places…

Growing up Timbuktu was a mythical place one would say they were going to: “from here to Timbuktu”. It was only in adulthood when I started travelling that I discovered it was a real place. Until then, it was an isolated place, “far away, at the end of the world” or as the Oxford Dictionary notes “the most distant place imaginable.” The link has more detail on how this phrase came to be and some history of Timbuktu (Timbuctoo).

On arrival in England, I discovered people were being “sent to Coventry” – a place I knew as the home of Lady Godiva.

More recently in reading about the 2nd Anglo-Boer or South African War of 1899-1902, some places closer to home seem to have been popular relocation terms:

To be Stellenbosched – Kipling explains it is to be demoted and sent back to base, while Arthur Anderson Martin in A Doctor in Khaki (p32) recommending the practice in 1914 explained, “it is indicative of a quiet retirement, where they can live without thinking, where there are quiet clubs, cigars and cocktails, and comfortable chairs for an afternoon nap.

In contrast to the quiet nature of Stellenbosch was “to Mafek” – to party boisterously as they did on the relief of Mafeking on 17 May 1900.

However, one that continues to stump me, is why the soldiers in Africa used to sing “It’s a long way to Tipperary” (1915 recording) if the unit or person wasn’t Irish. It was written in 1912 and made popular in 1914 with the outbreak of war. Having this extra bit of background info, it now falls to checking personal memoirs etc to confirm whether the song was sung on the African battlefields of WW1… and apparently it was popular in Germany too.

The importance of transport

One of the biggest complaints one hears in connection with the East Africa campaign of the First World War concerns logistics and the lack of food getting to the front line. The person who is most riled against in this regard is Jan Smuts when he was commander in chief between February 1916 and January 1917. His rapid moves meant that his lines of communication became overstretched with the result that on occasion men were on as low as 1/4 rations for a few days. This when rations were already at their minimum.

So, it was with interest that reading Conan Doyle’s Letters to the Press (pp60-), I discovered that he had something to say about the importance of transport during the Second Anglo-Boer or South African War of 1899-1902. Early in the war, Conan Doyle was a doctor in a private hospital in Bloemfontein, his offer of service to the War Office having been declined (see Something of themselves for more detail on Conan Doyle’s work in South Africa).

On 7 July 1900 in a letter to The British Medical Journal under the heading “The Epidemic of Enteric Fever at Bloemfontein”, he wrote:

When the nation sums up its debt of gratitude to the men who have spent themselves in this war I fear that they will almost certainly ignore those who have done the hardest and most essential work. There are three classes, as it seems to me, who have put in more solid and unremitting toil than any others. They are the commissariat, the railway men, and the medical orderlies. Of the three, the first two are the most essential, since the war cannot proceed without food and without railways. But the third is the most laborious, and infinitely the most dangerous.

He continues to expound the word of the orderlies who had to deal with the enteric outbreak where in one month there “were from 10,000 to 12,000 men down with this, the most debilitating and lingering of continued fevers. I know that in one month 600 men were laid inn the Bloemfontein Cemetery. A single day in this one town saw 40 deaths.”

The medical men and “the devotion of the orderlies” saw this through:

When a department is confronted by a task which demands four times more men than it has, the only way of meeting it for each man to work four times as hard. This is exactly what occurred, and the crisis was met. In some of the general hospitals orderlies were on duty for thirty-six hours in forty-eight…

The rest of the article is devoted to the medical conditions and how despite the lack of resources, the Medical Services achieved what they did.

An army marches on its stomach (Napoleon?) and ill men need decent food to heal properly, and for this transport would be required. When Millicent Fawcett met Kitchener to find ways to ease the issues in the concentration camps, he acknowledged that food was important but for him as commander of the army, the army was his priority. However, he had no issue adding an extra carriage with food (providing Fawcett’s group paid for it) to the trains delivering food along the railway lines. His soldiers had been suffering too from food shortages.

While South Africa had the railway line which ran the length of the country, as opposed to the three lines in East Africa which ran across, all three were single track meaning trains could move only in one direction or the other limiting the time they could run. More significantly, those needing to be fed were not always close to the railway line requiring other means to get them their rations. Porters in East Africa, ox-wagons in South Africa – each with their own limitations and challenges to overcome. As Army Surgeon General Dr Pike recorded in the report he wrote on the East Africa campaign, the transport drivers were the most hardworking, often up before most in camp and the last to go to bed, often without meals as they ensured their vehicles were fit to undertake the journey.

One could argue about whose role was most difficult and important in conducting the war, in both conflicts all were called on to exceed expectations and did. It’s where they worked together harmoniously and in sync that success was achieved. What Conan Doyle and Pike remind us of in their comments, is that those working “behind the scenes” are as significant as those on the front line.