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.

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.

Novelist: Alice Mabel Gibbs (Morrison) aka Joan Kennedy

Alice Mabel Gibbs (Morrison after she married) aka Joan Kennedy (1885-1965) published one of the earliest historical fiction accounts of the South West Africa campaign of 1914-1915. She has a prolific list of books, including autobiography Myself the Pilgrim (1952) suggesting that her book on the South West Africa campaign, Sun, Sand and Sin published in 1916 was her first.

1885, 12 April – Born
?? – married Hans Hamilton Morrison
1941 – Registered in Jersey, La Vieille Maison, St Aubin
1956 – Hans Hamilton Morrison dies in Le Quesne
1965 – dies in Le Quesne

The book was not favourably in South Africa at the time based on correspondence in the South African National Archives. It was mentioned in The Dominion newspaper of 7 December 1916 on page 4 under the heading “War Books of interest and value” while an synopsis is available at World Radio History.

Joan Kennedy never visited South Africa, in the foreword to the book she notes after giving a broad brush overview of how the men came to be in South West Africa: Thousands responded to the call and from one and another of these warriors who wore the green-lined helmets my tales have been garnered. Not all tell of privations – far from it. A man will rather confess to making an ass of himself than place on record his claim to the title of hero. So there is humour and nonsense, and it is only sometimes that tragedy peeps through. To the boys who told the tales, I dedicate this little collection.

World War 1 Africa Books

Sun, Sand and Sin (Botha’s War) (1916)


Review: The Great War: World War 1

I somehow came across the three DVD box set of The Great War: World War 1 – a seven part documentary on three discs which I recently watched.

What I hadn’t realised was that this was an American interpretation of the war and is one of at least three documentary series all called The Great War. There is the 26 episode BBC documentary from 1964 (online) which was a military overview, the PBS 8 episode series of 1996 with Jay Winter as the main historian behind the series with Judi Dench narrating taking a wider social, cultural and personal view of the war and this 2008 MM&V edition produced by Marathon Music & Video (MM&V) and distributed by Delta Leisure group with Gary Rhay as historian.

The series is an interesting one in that it doesn’t tell the ‘usual’ story of the First World War. It starts off giving an overview of film and motion picture in the USA and then follows a thematic approach within a broad chronology. This means that there is some repetition throughout of narrative but also image. It is very slow moving (which is not necessarily a bad thing) and the narration style suggests the documentary is older than what it appears.

There are three mentions of Africa across the series – episode 2 mentions the conflict spreading to Africa which was not intended to be involved; episode 3 has a bit more with some detail on von Lettow-Vorbeck and the events in East Africa while episode 7 makes mention of the King’s African Regiment as part of the list demonstrating diversity of the war. There are a few inaccuracies in the documentary such as that of the King’s African Regiment which should be Rifles and also reference to the German Axis which is corrected by Rhay as soon as he’s said it but not edited out.

Gary Rhay seems to have been most involved with capturing veteran accounts of war which were incorporated into documentaries for MM&V. His work on World War 1 being a diversion from his main focus being World War 2 and the Vietnam War in which he served between 1971 and 1972.

There is very little on the worldwide web (3 search engines used) on the series which perhaps says a lot about the production. The reviews of the series, if you can find them, are not very complimentary, one teacher complaining about the footage only being primary source and slow. It’s the primary source material which makes it for me as does insight into another culture or person’s take on the conflict. And while there is no mention of Stilwell (who was quite involved on the Western Front) and the role he played in World War 2 Burma (in which British African forces served too) while there is a fair bit on Pershing, Patton, McArthur etc, he at least recognises that World War 1 extended to, and was fought in, Africa.

Novelist: Gertrude Page

The first novelist/fiction writer of the war in Africa between 1914 and 1918 was Gertrude Page with two publications, one in 1915 and the other in 1918.

Gertrude had links with Rhodesia. She was there when war broke out in August 1914. She is known as the ‘Kipling of Rhodesia’.

1872 – born in Erdington, Warwick
1902 – married George Alexander Dobbin who had been an ambulance driver in the 1899-1902 war.
1904 – Arrived in Southern Rhodesia and eventually bought a farm
1922 – died in Salisbury, Rhodesia

By all accounts Gertrude left Rhodesia at the start of the war to assist with evacuating wounded from Belgium/France. Her collection of short stories and her novel concerning the war in Africa are set around the outbreak and the challenges settlers faced in determining whether to stay and develop their farms, protect their new country or go back to England to safeguard the motherland. Her insights are such that she had to have been there. For more about Gertrude and her war time experience, scroll down to the obituaries.

WW1 Africa Books by Gertrude

Follow After (1915)
Far From the Limelight and other tales (1918)