It’s all connected

Jan Smuts wrote a book called Holism and Evolution (published 1925) explaining how we’re all connected. In February 1919 during the Paris peace talks he was writing to friends clarifying his thoughts and seeking their views:

“Life is one and universal; it is not parcelled out, divided and dissected. The individual is an organ of life universal and is as such an embodiment of the All, the Highest, the Divine. Only, in some mysterious way, an alienation may arise between the individual and the universal, which it must be the great effort in conduct to eliminate or prevent. That alienation is error, sin, or whatever else we call it.” (p59 in Hancock and vd Poel, Smuts papers vol 4)

While reading this I was reminded of two books I recently read both claiming the same end but coming at it from different directions: Marthe Kiley-Worthington’s Family are the Friends you Choose and Sue Hampton’s Rebelling for Life. And the issues (climate, -isms), despite what we think today, are not new. It’s almost as one of “my men” said about another “he’s like a lighthouse, his light only shines on one thing at a time.” Over time we get to cover the various topics while expending inordinate amounts of energy on each. Given the interconnectedness of all, it makes sense to take a holistic approach – which effectively means working together pooling our various strengths. When I think of how the diverse troops worked together in East Africa during World War 1, I take heart that it can be done. We just need the right unifying trigger.

And then, if you’re still not convinced about the connections, there’s the geological evidence supplied by Alex du Toit on continental drift.

Is this why colonisation happens?

I was intrigued to read in A letter to a Hindu by Tolstoy (1908) the following:

“You say that the English have enslaved your people and hold them in subjection because the latter have not resisted resolutely enough and have not met force by force.
But the case is just the opposite. If the English have enslaved the people of India it is just because the latter recognized, and still recognize, force as the fundamental principle of the social order. In accord with that principle they submitted to their little rajahs, and on their behalf struggled against one another, fought the Europeans, the English, and are now trying to fight with them again.
A commercial company enslaved a nation comprising two hundred million. Tell this to a man free from superstition and he will fail to grasp what these words mean. What does it mean that thirty thousand men, not athletes but rather weak and ordinary people, have subdued two hundred million vigorous, clever, capable, and freedom-loving people? Do not the figures make it clear that this is not the English who have enslaved the Indians, but the Indians who have enslaved themselves?”

Tolstoy continues with an analogy of drunkards complaining that ‘the spirit-dealers who have settled among them have enslaved them.’ When told to give up drinking, they refuse because they are so accustomed to it.

Tolstoy’s argument or case is rather simple. By loving one another and not giving into the superstitions that various religions have foisted upon us, we will all live in peace and harmony. He seems to forget some fundamentals about human nature although he does touch upon the issue of continuation through being ‘accustomed’.

Tolstoy’s descriptor of Indian colonisation can be applied to other societies too and across the centuries, as he notes. Looking at photos of the East Africa campaign, in particular those of the Lake Tanganyika expedition, I was struck by the notion that 28 white men could control 50-100 black men as easily as what they did, especially when the white men are otherwise occupied with no firearms in sight. Were there other armed forces keeping watch who were not captured on camera? There is suggestion that the Belgian Force Publique accompanied the expedition through the Congo. Similarly, there are the columns and columns of porters who are under the supervision of a few armed men – yes these men were at greater risk of being fired upon by those accompanying them than the Lake Tanganyika group, but there were still overwhelming numbers of unarmed men adhering to what a few armed men instructed.

This is not to move the responsibility for colonisation (being colonised) to the other side, but rather to raise questions about why we as people allow ourselves to get into situations which subjugate us on such a scale. We allow it too at a local level as expressed by Herman Charles Bosman in A Bekkersdal Marathon.

A day or so before reading Tolstoy’s response to MK Gandhi in this letter, I had read, in vol 1 of Creswicke’s South Africa and the Transvaal War, Alfred Milner’s conditions presented at the Bloemfontein Conference in 1899 to Paul Kruger which resulted in the Boer ultimatum being issued:

“15. The Civil Service shall be completely reorganised, and all corrupt officials shall be dismissed from office, and be ineligible for office in the future.”

This was the perception of the Transvaal administration – a corrupt government where again, a few held sway over thousands. Milner’s demand was a decade before Tolstoy’s letter. The Boer government naturally rejected the demand, but by all accounts the Reformers who had been involved in the Jameson Raid of 1896 had not wanted reform under the British flag but under the Transvaal flag. They were, so they said, prepared to remain under Boer control providing certain practices were changed. Again, this is simplified, but the question remains, how did the uitlanders or reformers who held economic power get themselves into this situation without doing something earlier?

A century after Tolstoy’s letter, in 2009 Wangari Maathai had The Challenge for Africa published. It’s a more sophisticated argument/case than Tolstoy’s as it addresses why people allow themselves to be controlled by others. And as with Tolstoy’s ‘simple’ solution, Maathai’s also seems to be too challenging for today’s generations across the globe. We seem to know what to do, but something keeps us from doing so… will historians examining the past ever discover what this obstacle is and if so, will we be able to overcome it?

Identity issues

Identity is complex – and fascinating, and for readers who follow my work it’s something I keep coming back to in different ways.

This most recent excursion was stimulated by an article on Vikings based on results of DNA tests which had been undertaken. This followed on closely to the response I made (25 mins in) on The Journey to the Mayflower by Steven Tomkins. What struck me this round, as well as working through Africa North of the Limpopo is the almost constant movement of people, some more than others. But more than the movement of people, the intermingling of people and cultures which lead to constant revisions and tweaking of what was before. That being Viking is an identity rather than an ethnicity is an interesting distinction and one I can associate with – I’m a mongrel in terms of my heritage. I know the broad strands but I don’t know the details. It’s rather the culture(s) I associate with who define me at any particular time.

Whilst on Vikings or rather Scandinavia, I came upon this thesis by Eero Kuparinen who has researched Nordic migration to South Africa. By the outbreak of the 1899-1902 war there was around 2,000 Scandinavians (including Finnish) in the territory, the majority of around 1,500 in Johannesburg. The Boer Army consisted of Boers, “Dutch, German, French, American, Irish, Italian, Russian and Scandinavian volunteers” while on the British side they came from “British Isles, […] South Africa, Canada, Australia and New Zealand”. (p186)

Most of the British armed forces were brought onto the African continent for the conflict, whilst those on the Boer side were predominantly resident in the Boer Republics, most likely the Transvaal. This is not to say that most settlers or residents took up arms. Many either left to return to Europe or other parts of the continent or if they remained in Boer territory took an oath of neutrality. What is significant here is the diversity of white nationality in the area and related issues of identity. Did those who remained see themselves as more African or South African/Boer? We see a similar diverse makeup in the First World War in Africa, although here numerous Scandinavians are professional soldiers/mercenaries serving in the Belgian forces. Trying to unravel a person’s identity is challenging – is it determined by place of birth? by residence? unit or force served with? how does the individual see themselves? Does association with a headman, minor chief or senior chief define identity?

More recently than the inspiration for the post on the issue of identity has been the film In My Country an adaptation of Antje Krog’s Country of my Skull.  The encounter between white Afrikaans Anna Malan and black American Langston Whitfield is poignant in so many respects, not least Anna’s statement that she would “die for Africa”. The other significant aspect to come out of the film is the mistake of assuming – assuming the background or ideals of another invariably leads to misconceptions and errors. It seems to me that the successful encounters of the diverse peoples coming together in whatever space has been a desire to understand the other for who they are and to work towards a common beneficial goal. This then begs the question: Is identity important?

Shakespeare in Africa

Back in 2016 I wrote about a Shakespeare exhibition and the man’s connection with Africa as I knew it then. Well, the man has come back into consciousness unexpectedly on two fronts, both inspired by consciously working through my collection of unread books – someone once mentioned that the average person never reads more than 1/3 of their collection, so I set out to prove otherwise but as the argument goes, you can’t really work out an accurate figure as there are so many variables. According to Penguin UK, the average person who reads manages 12 books a year in the US while only 34% in the UK managed 10 or more books in one year. Given that my job and hobby both involve reading and that I read for pleasure, I’m definitely one of the 34% who reads more than 10 or 12 books a year, but it’s only having done a clear out of my library (lots of teaching/text books I won’t go back to) and removing reference books such as dictionaries from my list (yes, I have a list with dates when I finished a book), that I’ve finally made it to 35% excluding those recently bought…

So where does Shakespeare fit in? Apart from working through the collection of his writings, I happen to have read concurrently (I’m a book in nearly every room kind of person) the Brian Willan biography of Sol Plaatje and Antony Sher’s The year of the King in which he records his experience of performing Richard III. It was following my earlier encounters with Sher from his Titus Andronicus performance in South Africa and in ID about Verwoerd’s assassination, that I started collecting his written work and it’s taken me until now to read one. At one point he sees Lion’s Head in Cape Town as an inspiration for how Richard III will look – in case you’re wondering he’s also a sketch artist so has some amazing illustrations to show his thinking. This is all happening in 1983/4.

However, just over 80 years earlier, Sol Plaatje had discovered Shakespeare and saw Hamlet amongst others reflecting society as he knew it being a Barolong. In May 1916, while in England to lobby the British government to stop the SA Native Land Act of 1913, he is able to celebrate the Shakespeare tercentenary on the bard’s own soil. Plaatje watches a performance of Julius Caesar* in Stratford-upon-Avon, wrote a South African Homage to Shakespeare which was published that year in a commemorative compilation and on route back to South Africa later that year he starts translating The Merchant of Venice into Setswana. He would translate 6 of Shakespeare’s plays. Since then there have been numerous (relatively speaking) other translations and adaptations by South Africans.

And it’s not just South Africa where Shakespeare features. Alamin Mazuri considered Shakespeare in Swahili back in 1996, while in 2019 there was a Shakespeare Youth Festival. Shakespeare in Africa has podcasts by various people on the topic while Nigeria seems to have explored some alternative ways of performing/interpreting the man. You can also listen to some Hamlet in Yoruba. No doubt other African countries have their links too which Google et al will help source.

What is remarkable is how this man writing so many years ago still resonates today across continents, cultures and language.

*I wonder if Kitchener got to see the performance at Drury Lane theatre in the week before he drowned. Kitchener was one of the founding members of the Drury Lane Masonic Lodge, for actors, and had “directed” a battle scene at a preview following his return to Britain after he had conquered Khartoum.

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?