Review: Dr Abdullah Abdurahman – Martin Plaut

A biography on Dr Abdurahman has been a long time coming so it was with some keen anticipation that I was looking to get a copy of Dr Abdullah Abdurahman: South Africa’s First Elected Black Politician by Martin Plaut.

Abdurahman was one of the characters who has featured from quite early on in my research into South Africa’s involvement in the East Africa campaign of 1914-1918. Dr A was the man behind the formation of the Cape Corps which was to see two units serve in East Africa and later a contingent in Palestine. This in addition to the Cape Boys who provided labour in the various theatres where South Africans served. Dr A, leader of the African People’s Organisation, was a tenacious person – in a year he sent 32 letters to the Prime Minister and Minister of Defence encouraging them to employ the Cape Coloured in the war. Eventually writing to the Governor General, and a change in attitude to the war in Africa, the South African Union Government saw its way to recruit Cape Coloureds as Imperial troops. Martin touches on this but sadly from my perspective didn’t do more on Dr A and the Great War. Partly this is due to scarce material – finding out more about Dr A has been on my ‘to do’ list for 20+ years.

Martin’s book has therefore been welcome in putting the meat onto the bones of the man. This has been a challenge given the scarcity of material – as noted in the introduction, the late discovery of Dr A’s private papers yielded little as they were illegible. The focus of the book therefore falls into what has been available in the public domain resulting in a book which explores South Africa’s race relations and collaboration between cultural groups within South Africa, particularly those who were not white. This is a vital contribution in understanding or exploring the relationship between the ANC (formed 112 as the SANNC) and other political parties.

Apart from more on the First World War, there are two aspects of the book I felt a little challenged by – one being Dr A’s Muslim identity and the other the use of the term African. Dr A was a Muslim – his first wife, a Scot, was married under Islamic law in Britain. Martin mentions a second wife with no records being available. All indications are, given his continued relationship with Nellie, that his second marriage was also under Islamic law. This was acceptable in South Africa, although such marriages are still not legally accepted (despite the emphasis on human rights etc in the 1994 Constitution, 2000 legal comment; 2020 position). While perhaps not important for the question Martin was answering, for my work on WW1 in Africa, this is an important aspect. Research to date suggests that the rank and file enlisting in the Cape Corps had to renounce their Islamic faith – for dietary purposes. Yet, looking at medical registers of the time, patients note Islam under religion. How did they reconcile these positions? Dr A walked/lived life both as a Muslim and as a ‘Westerner’ achieving at the time what few others were able. How did he do this? What debates did he have with himself, friends, family etc in walking this tightrope of different cultures? And even more controversially at the time of the 1914 outbreak of war, how did he reconcile the British Empire being at war against the Ottoman Emperor of which by marriage he was linked? My quest continues… Few historians, if any, in South Africa are working on related topics making this a rich research field for anyone interested.

And then the term ‘African’. While Martin has gone some way to use terms interchangeably, namely black, Coloured, Indian, white, there is still an overwhelming tendency to refer to black South Africans as African. This is something I probably need to write a more considered paper on as the term (politically acceptable and promoted in Britain, the USA and Europe) encompasses so many cultural groups. The term Afrikaner translates to person of Africa aka African, the Coloured, Cape Coloured or Cape Malay (an accepted term in South Africa – interestingly even people born in the 1980s to mixed couples were officially registered as ‘Cape Coloured’) is African in origin culturally and ethnically. So while the term jars as a single group descriptor and gave me a roller-coaster of a read, Martin has gone some way to mediate the cultures he writes for and knows (South African and British) in mixing the terms.

I’ve noted the gaps above but these should not prevent you from exploring Dr Abdullah Abdurahman by Martin Plaut. A far greater window has been opened on the man which gave me the hook to explore Islamic marriages in SA (there are some very interesting legal papers on the issue for anyone interested in trawling the web). For anyone visiting Cape Town and District Six in particular, the book is definitely worth reading for background – and then visit the District Six Museum to experience some of the transformation of the area Dr A represented for so many years. A remarkable man with a remarkable wife and daughter to boot.

Correcting errors – Kitchener and Botha photograph

Typical, isn’t it…? One checks things and references appropriately, but there’s always a gremlin or two which creeps in to a book.
Although this one has been caught too late, ie the book has been published, it’s been picked up early enough in the book’s career and I’m not the only one to have missed it (recently Richard Steyn has the photo in his book on Smuts and it features in Rodney Atwood’s article on Kitchener in the Summer 2020 journal of the Victorian Military Society, Soldiers of the Queen.) Although with hindsight I should have listened to my gut – something just wasn’t right, but the title said it was what it was, the characters looked right …

Thankfully, Robin Smith who has a review of Kitchener: The Man not the Myth coming out in the next edition of the South African Military History Journal alerted me to the fact that the label on the photograph of Kitchener meeting with Louis Botha and the other Boer leaders was not at the signing of the Treaty of Vereeniging but the earlier discussions in 1901. Annoyingly having searched on both these events, Robin’s write-up on the photograph on the SAHMS website did not come to light, and I’d not received my copy of the December 2019 copy of the SAMHS Journal by the time we were proofing Kitchener, so didn’t see this important article. The bottom line is my gut instinct was overridden through all the other experts who’d used the image.

In the article which Robin kindly sent me, he explains:

This is the original photo that appeared in “After Pretoria I” which was issued from 1901 until the war’s end in instalments. (A second volume “After Pretoria II” covered the last few months of the war). This is the original caption for the picture from After Pretoria I: “This reproduction has been made, by special and exclusive arrangement with Mr Barraud, the owner of the copyright, from the very fine guinea carbon print (size 15in by 12in) published by Messrs Mayall of 126 Piccadilly. The original negative was taken by permission of Lord Kitchener by Messrs Barraud and Pavey of Middelburg; it forms a unique record of a very interesting event. With their usual cunning some of the Boer leaders promulgated the report among their more ignorant followers that Lord Kitchener and his staff had been made prisoners by Botha and released only on parole, and they produced this photograph to prove their assertion.”

More on the individuals appearing in the photograph can be found in Robin’s article in the 2019 copy of the SAMHS Journal.

So, what was my gut saying? Robin’s extensive work on the 1899-1902 war resulted in him questioning the names attributed to individuals and having seen the photo in an early war publication was able to resolve the conundrum. I was wondering why the photo was so informal and the group so small given what I knew of the 1902 meeting and, more significantly, why Lord Milner was not present. Having been the British government’s representative at the May 1902 talks, he would have been the senior British figure present and with the tense relationship between Milner and Kitchener, I could not see Milner allowing such a photo to be taken without him being in it. Robin’s title fits more comfortably.

And finally, how did this slip through my pedantic checking of other facts? Well, simply, it’s a photo which is not my strong point to begin with and that annoying four-letter word – time. I’d left the images right to the end, and had it not been for the gentle cajoling of my editor, they probably would have been completely overlooked, if I’m honest. So thank you Chris – as both published reviewers to date have commented positively on the photos as have various readers who’ve told me so.

The lesson learnt: photos are important (thanks to all who have been reinforcing this point) and deserve as much time being interrogated as text does.

For anyone interested, an article by Robin’s including mention of the meeting between Kitchener and Botha et al can be found here, with some photos I hadn’t seen before of a later meeting by the Boer leaders.

The Grand Rand Easter Show

Do you remember the Grand Rand Easter Show held at Sturrock or Milner Park every year? I used to go along on First Aid duty with St John Ambulance for many years and remember fondly going to explore the military section standing with awe looking at machines, many towering over me and reading about the latest technological developments. This was South Africa proving to the world that isolation had no negative impact on the country. My other ‘must see’ were the farm animals – prize cows, bulls and sheep on display – what more can I say…

But for the life of me, despite having gone there once a year for at least 10, I would never be able to direct you to the place and struggled to identify the location when travelling near by outside of show time. Sense of direction and maps are not my strong point! The place has always held a fascination, and was a part and parcel of South Africa and its politics – it was here on 9 April 1960 that there was an attempt was made to assassinate Prime Minister Hendrick Verwoerd .

During World War 1 the grounds were a collection point for soldiers in Johannesburg before they were sent on their way, and between the outbreak of war and September 1915, it was the prisoner of war camp for enemy aliens before they were moved to Roberts’ Heights [Voortrekkerhoogte and now Thaba Tshwane] and then Fort Napier. But there is obiously more to the space than meets the eye and as shown in this blog on Johannesburg 1912. What a wonderful rich resource opening a window on a part of Johannesburg few might recognise today. And for those wondering, the grounds today form part of the Wits sports complex. For anyone in the Johannesburg area, with a car, it’s worth “getting lost” in the area as I did last year – some of the old buildings from before the 1914-18 war are still standing – it felt a step back into the past without having to visit a museum.

The Rand Show still continues, 125 years after its first event in 1894, now at the NASREC Centre.

Isandlwana – new discoveries

The battle for Isandlwana is a little before the period I usually focus on, but it has featured indirectly through my research into Lord Kitchener as Lord Wolseley left Egypt to take over command in South Africa. The accounts we have are usually from the British perspective and in passing, I had wondered if there was a Zulu account but thought nothing more of it until I met the grandson of one of the Zulu commanders on my last visit to South Africa. It’s amazing how a personal connection makes an event more real and can tweak research interest. It’s part of joining the dots – all those individual accounts make up the narrative, and then when revisited, help dispel the myths created by the narrative.

At the time of Isandlwana, Kitchener was moving between Cyprus and Egypt, trying to get a taste of some military action (he saw very little comparatively speaking), and clashed with Wolseley. Kitchener’s break came when Wolseley was sent south. This led to another name popping up in connection with Egypt which I only knew in connection with South Africa, namely Redvers Buller. Buller had been in the First Anglo-Boer War of 1881, then in Egypt with Evelyn Wood – who had fought under Chelmsford in the struggle against the Zulu – before returning to South Africa to participate in the 1899-1902 Anglo-Boer War. For the newcomer to these conflicts, it can all be rather confusing as the battles and wars seem to overlap. Oh, and don’t forget, between these all there is the war against the Ashanti in West Africa and the Boxer Rebellion in China. Names of leading British officers feature in numerous of them challenging concepts of time and travel 150 years ago.

What has been brought home to me, apart from the connectedness of all these African conflicts with other parts of the world, are the other side’s accounts which can be found if one searches for them. These have started to make an appearance on the battle of Isandlwana and I’ve discovered one or two on Kitchener’s time in the Sudan. Africa is slowly realising it has an interpretation of past events which is as valuable as the, till now, dominating narrative. As these accounts are increased, developed and become more well known, a clearer and more rounded understanding of the past will be achieved. With people actively looking for Africa’s experiences during World War 1, and a growing interest in African involvement in World War 2 with a few veterans still alive, we might well start seeing more rounded and balanced interpretations of Europe and Asia’s involvement in Africa.

And for those who hanker after the past, don’t forget Johnny Clegg’s wonderful coverage of the battle of Isandlwana in his song Impi– and that has a history of its own.

A Dove to Remember

This year I discarded the remembrance poppy in favour of a dove – evidence of my journey over the past 4 years. In preparation for 2014 I had a special choker made with 4 poppies to reflect the four quarters of the globe. However, the start of the centenary commemorations showed just how exclusive this symbol was (and remains) especially when it comes to the conflict in Africa.

Poppies are not an African flower. The symbol, at least as it was linked with the Tower of London display, ignored the mass of Africans who for various (legitimately thought at the time) reasons are not recorded on the CWGC database. Then we have the Africans who served for more than one imperial power including Britain. The ‘other’ is not included. And what about all those who did their bit unofficially? The contributions of the home fronts, those who felt their calling was to keep the economy going or to safeguard some of the population for the future? All suffered through the terrible years of war and after.

Something inclusive was needed in the same way that the two-minute silence is. Something that transcended race, religion, gender, culture, age and … Posing this challenge to a reforming/liberal chaplain, his immediate reply was ‘the dove – it covers all religions.’ An internet search later, I was convinced. All continents except Antarctica have a dove species and all the major religions (at least 6) accept the dove. Most significant though, was what it represented: peace, hope and forgiveness.

The dove became my remembrance symbol. The next challenge was to find a representative dove (the 3 Abrahamic faiths each have a tailored dove). A trip to a local art shop supplied the item. All was set. Except… what to place at the cenotaph? Something natural, eco friendly and sustainable that anyone could easily access and which had symbolic meaning. Religious practice again supplied the answer: stones. They protected the dead from being dug up, were used for cairns to mark special places and were of the earth.

Broaching the issue with a friend, I discovered stones from the beach in Cape Town are used at the Castle Mendi memorial. There couldn’t be any objections to my inclusive suggestion. And at a small private-ish remembrance service at the site where the Germans were informed of the armistice (opposite bank of the Chambeshi River to where the factory was), a group of 22 set stones to remember all those involved in the wars in and from Africa.

It seems fitting that at this time of the year, I share with you my dove and all it symbolises: peace, hope and forgiveness.