Folk tellers

Herman Charles Bosman was a South African author, born 5 February 1905, died 14 October 1951. He became one of South Africa’s greatest authors capturing the essence of the backvelder or rural Boer. At 9 years of age he was too young to participate in the First World War but being in Johannesburg would no doubt have been caught up in the tensions prevailing with the January 1914 strike and the October 1914 rebellion. He attended Jeppe High School, which has military links through the Scottish/Irish band. During this time he most likely witnessed the 1922 miner strike which affected the East Rand and Johannesburg.

He studied English at Wits University before going to Groot Marico where he was a teacher. In 1926, on holiday, aged 21, he accidentally shot his step-brother and was sentenced to 10 years hard labour having been reprieved of the death sentence. In 1930 he was released on parole. In prison he started writing his ‘Oom Schalk Lourens’ short stories. Roy Campbell, SA poet, considered ‘Mafeking Road’, broadcast on BBC in 1942, to be some of the best stories to come out of South Africa.

By all accounts he was an outspoken journalist and was often in trouble for his outspoken comments. He is one of my favourite authors capturing a section of South African culture as no one else, of a time which coincides with my history research. He’s been one of those characters I’ve wanted to find out more about and as two articles recently come to light, it seemed appropriate to share. Reading these articles has also shown how accounts [includes archive catalogue] of the past become inflated – I’d always understood Bosman spent time in Groot Marico as part of his punishment and that it was there he shot his brother.

I have no idea how non-South Africans would see his work and no doubt today much of his writing would be seen as politically incorrect, but as Johnny Masilela is quoted as saying ‘it will be a great tragedy for the creative process if […] we deny our children the opportunity to read Bosman with his very wry sense of humour’ and I would add insight to a culture now long gone. And in case you thought this quote was a one-off, this is rather illuminating.

His equivalent today would be David Kramer who has captured a cross section of voices and lifestyles from the Cape and old Transvaal.


Baragwanath origin

Busy searching to see what the relationship between Lords Ardagh and Kitchener was, the word Baragwanath caught my eye. Specifically, the sentence

It was a cold winter’s eve in June 1900 when engine driver RH Baragwanath and his fellow Cornishman, Richard Williams sat down to dinner at Moss’ Grill Room in Central Johannesburg

Was this the man behind the naming of the now Steve Biko Baragwanath Hospital in Soweto, South Africa? Back in the late 1980s I had friends training as doctors at the hospital, then only under the name Baragwanath, and visited it on occasion – what an experience when contrasted with the ‘white only’ hospitals in the main towns. Yet, it was sought after by foreign doctors who wanted to train in specific injuries which were well-known to be local to the hospital. And as Soweto itself holds special memories for me – I was warmly welcomed with a shaking of hands by Godfrey Moloi as a youngster still at school at one of his sporting events where I was part of the first aid team.

I just had to look this up – was RH Baragwanath the man behind the hospital’s name and if so, what had he done? Alas, it was another Baragwanath who gave his name to the medical centre: John Albert. In short, according to the hospital’s website, John Albert after trying various ways to make a living during the gold rush in Johannesburg set up an inn, one day’s ox journey from Johannesburg, which became known as Baragwanath. Apparently Bara in Welsh means ‘bread’ and Gwanath means ‘wheat’. Eventually in 1940 when South Africa was needing more military hospitals for men serving in World War 2, it was decided to build on Corner House mining property close to where Baragwanath had been. And the rest, as they say is history – which you can read about on the hospital link above, including the Royal visit in 1947. Winnie Mandela was reputedly the first black social worker at the hospital in 1955.

So, who was RH Baragwanath who featured in Diana Rose Cammack’s The Rand at War, 1899-1902: The Witwatersrand and the Anglo-Boer War (University of California Press, 1990)? Well, he used to frequent Moss’s Grill Room in Johannesburg – there is a write-up in Henry Longman’s Progressive Johannesburg for some info of the time, although no photo of Moss’s by all accounts. He and his friend Williams were arrested with many foreigners in Johannesburg at the time, the name Baragwanath not recognised as British and were eventually deported, arriving back in Britain on the Braemer Castle in September 1900. They had been mistaken for ruffians, whom Milner and Mckenzie were clearing out of Johannesburg which had been occupied by the British forces in May.

And further digging shows there was a Baragwanath Airfield which closed down in the early 1980s. It was the home of the Johannesburg Light Plane Club.

And the relationship between Ardagh and Kitchener, nothing of note, other than that Ardagh offered advice on various areas Kitchener was also involved; not enough to feature in my forthcoming publication on K of K.

Pankhurst and Ethiopia

Some time ago I met a researcher working on Ethiopia who happened to mention a Pankhurst had links with that country. Then this came through, so I thought I’d dig a little more:

In 2016, the BBC reported on Sylvia Pankhurst becoming an honorary Ethiopian and in 2018 the LSE wrote an update. Martin Kettle provides some insight into how her reputation has been perceived over the years. You can see more about her here.

Her son Richard stayed in Ethiopia and became a historian of the country. He died in 2017, aged 89. He shed some light on her involvement in the Spanish Civil War, which Laurie Lee was also involved inor not – and wrote about in A Moment of War Listen to him on television in 1975 (16mins).

The Suffragettes and Suffragists have been on my radar for some time, not because of women’s rights but because of Kitchener – he met Millicent Fawcett whilst in South Africa to discuss the concentration camps and then in 1914 his niece Fanny Parker was arrested for trying to blow up Robbie Burns’ house in Scotland. She was later awarded an OBE for her wartime service having been granted amnesty for her 1914 actions in exchange for taking up war work.


I was so taken with this blog that I had to share it – the connection with Africa being that Indians served in Africa during World War 1 and that Kitchener and Barrow (mentioned in the blog) were at loggerheads determining where the Indian troops in 1914 were to go: Europe or Africa…

My initial reactions were mixed: from ‘the poor chaps – having to have their holidays organised and overseen when they’re about to become officers in the British Army’ to ‘it makes sense – London can be a big and frightful city, a guide would be helpful.’ Another interpretation is paternalism – in those days, it was believed that men from the colonies, especially men who were not white, needed looking after, but contrast this with 1963, when African officer cadets were being looked after by the KAR Club during the holidays – little had changed from 1920, to more recent personal visitors one might have, irrespective of background, from places which were previously colonies: how different has been all the guidance and offers to accompany them to certain places? I recently overheard a tube station employee advise a couple of white elderly ladies about how to keep safe at the station they were getting directions to – in the East End of London.

Another thought which crossed my mind is how many, if any, Indians who served in Africa during the war, were sent to Sandhurst in 1920 to train as officers? I hadn’t realised Indians were admitted to Sandhurst so early on. When were black Africans first admitted? A video from 1962 shows some Rhodesians on a junior leadership course, as does TJ Lovering, while Timothy Parsons (p174) has a date of 1957. It looks like more digging will be needed to answer these questions – and that will have to wait for another day, including more on Edmund Barrow. It looks like Sarah Stockwell might have some of the answers in The British End of the British Empire.

Sandhurst today is home to a memorial for the King’s African Rifles.

Talking at cross purposes

Out in Zambia for the end of war commemorations, local words were used with the assumption that all knew the meaning. Using powers of deduction and context one could generally do so but it was not always possible. The most notable being the word for the whip made of hippo hide. So I thought I’d share some – always helpful to historians and researchers of WW1 Africa…

Let’s start with the hippo hide whip:

  • Kiboko – Swahili
  • Khourbash or Shaaburg – Arabic / Soudanese
  • Shikote – Bemba
  • Sjambok, pronounced shambock – South African English/Afrikaans
  • Imvubu – Zulu
  • Mnigolo – Mandinka
  • Chicote – Portuguese Africa and Congo
  • Fimbo – Belgian Congo

Probably the most well known word, Safari which is journey in Swahili translates to Ulendo in Malawian Chichewa. The Peace Corps have helpfully provided a list of 12 commonly used words in Malawi – I recognised a few with my smattering of Swahili and other languages. I leave you to discover what you recognise.

And then that most wonderful of African trees, the Baobab, which I discovered in Sandes’ book on the Royal Engineers in Egypt and the Sudan is called the Tebaldi. Sandes explains on p336 (96MB) how the tree was used to obtain water in desert terrain. Apparently there are 9 varieties of Baobab – you live and learn. In Swahili, it is the Mbuyu and in Yoruba, the Oshe. It’s ‘monkey bread’ fruit is also proving something of a fad. Apart from being a water storage facility, in the early phase of the East African campaign of 1914/5, a baobab in Tsavo was used to house a sniper, apparently a woman, who took potshots at those trying to sneak up on Salaita Hill. And then just as you think you’ve grasped where Mbuyuni is, thinking it’s in Tsavo, you discover there are numerous places called Mbuyuni throughout East Africa – it simply translates as ‘Place of the Baobab’.

Which leads to the different names settlements had during World War 1 – local, English and German. A list of some of these can be found on the Great War in Africa, In Memory list for East Africa.

So to prevent any miscommunication and talking at cross purposes, it’s worth discovering the multiple words used for the same thing if you’re working with different cultural groups or micro-nations. My mind is reelling at the thought of having to juggle 177 different words for one item – 177 is the number of micro-nations I estimate participated in the East Africa campaign of WW1- but thankfully a number spoke the same language and regional langauges such as Swahili and Fanagalo were developed.



Confirming the past

Richard Meinertzhagen‘s reputation has suffered since the publication of Brian Garfield’s book, and for historians trying to work out what is fact and what enhanced, is quite a challenge, particuarly with the existing conditions for accessing his papers which are archived at the Bodleian in Oxford. It’s a case of working through other primary source material to verify dates and actions – a slow and tedious process, but really what any historian worth their salt should be doing. The value of double checking sources and returning to primary material has been brought home to me most recently with my current research project – despite numerous biographies written on Kitchener, accessing primary source material is revealing how interpretations have led to various aspects of the man being ignored, downplayed or misinterpreted. And I’m conscious that others might say the same about my discoveries as new insights and materials come to light in future years.

But returning to Meinertzhagen, looking for something else, I was interested to discover how the Natural History Museum is managing to find a way to unravel the confusion of the birds in its collection gifted to them by Meinertzhagen: using lice. This is a great step forward as a few years before on a visit to the Museum to see the Cherry Kearton (Legion of Frontiersmen) WW1 photo collection, the person I spoke to wasn’t sure when, if ever, they would be able to sort out the Meinertzhagen collection conundrum.

Another overlap between the two men, Kitchener and Meinertzhagen concerns Israel/Palestine. It doesn’t appear the two men met, but Meinertzhagen had close encounters with another Kitchener did: Churchill, and the latter’s correspondence too provides some interesting insights into Meinertzhagen.

A man whose past I find helpful in understanding Meinertzhagen is Lourens van der Post: obituary vs JDF Jones biography. I’m not sure either man really set out to be deceptive. Can anyone live a multiple life like theirs for as long without anyone realising? It’s more likely they were sufferers of Mutiple/Dissociative Personality Disorder. That’s for psychologists to determine, for the historian, they provide a reminder of the value of returning to primary source material and a prompt to look outside the world of traditional history to other disciplines and obscure links.



Currency matters

I clearly live in the past.

About a month ago, the author of Crypto for Starters was explaining this new form of financial instrument/payment method to me. My natural default was to understand it in terms of the Gold Standard which technically I knew had been done away with, but assumed gold was still the basis of value/price setting.

Patiently she brought me up to date on currencies and markets and how these were evolving as a result of technology. It all seemed to make sense, but only because I’ve gone back to the drawing board to a time before the Gold Standard – who determined gold was such a siginificant metal anyway? It’s not my favourite. The only way I can get my head around this crypto-currency stuff is to look at it in terms of the old barter system or early African (and elsewhere) currencies. Bamidele Ali refers to these in her article on the introduction of new British notes in Nigeria during World  War 1. And I’m quite comfortable with the idea of using cowries or other shells as currency, or rods which were cut into in the double accounting method.

But think about it: a cowrie might be difficult to forge, but if I lived near the coast, I could gather cowries and flood the market. The cut rod makes for a more fair/less chance of disagreement arrangement, but how would I remember which rod belonged to which trader I was dealing with? Safeguarding my cowries would be relatively easy as I could wear them as jewellery or even create an outfit, but marked rods are a little more difficult, although some were turned into bracelets and ankle chains. Commodities (and more) such as salt and material make sense to me too – they fit with bartering.

The questions I have over pre-money exchange mechanisms, other than goods which could be used, seem to be the same irrespective of what ‘currency’ is being considered at any time:

  • who decided that particular item was sufficiently valuable to be traded?
  • how was the value determined? (‘a few cowries to purchase a cow’? ‘two cowries to buy a woman‘?) – the mind boggles
  • where/how did you secure your ‘currency’ if large quantities were required?
  • what did it mean for interest rates? or are those a purely recent western invention?

This article might say more about me (and my failure to grasp economic basics) but it has been an interesting little diversion seeing how things have changed, yet ultimately remain the same. And how many today with no knowledge of the older African trading mechanisms are struggling to get their heads around the move from money to digital and crypto-currencies? I don’t think I’d have managed it without having cowries, rods etc to draw on – and I might not be too wrong in drawing these parallels (compared with my gold standard starting point), I see there’s an article on cowries which has come to a similar conclusion to me in equating crypto with pre-coin/money exchange mechanisms – what a relief, I’m not alone.