Buildings – a sign of community

WW1EAfricaCampaign regularly tweets items from the East African Standard telling us about auction sales and other daily events which continued despite the war being fought a bit further south in German East Africa. It’s also been rather insightful looking into the lives of Indian (that is the sub-continent – today’s India, Pakistan and Bangladesh) settlers in East Africa and their war-time involvement. It appears to be very little. The Indians who served in East Africa were contingents which had been raised on the sub-continent specifically for service in East Africa once it had been determined they were not needed in Europe. The Indians in East Africa were building businesses and running the railways, although there is an indication in Pandit Shanti’s (1963) The Asians of East and Central Africa that a handful did get involved in wartime service.

Further south, in South Africa I’ve been working on various histories of Presbyterianism. One concerns the denomination as a whole and its position in South Africa, but another is more local – to the town I grew up in. There the Presbyterian Church building turned 100 years old on 25 November 1916 – well, that’s the date the foundation stones were laid. In the more general history, comment is made about a church in Meikle Street Johannesburg having its foundation stone laid on 20 May 1917.

I’ve often wondered about church buildings. I love the one in Boksburg. It’s an old friend – one I was baptised, confirmed and married in (and the image I use for Minority Historian). The names on the walls are family and friends. I was in St Paul’s Cathedral in the week before Easter to listen to a friend play in Bach’s St John’s Passion. A beautiful building but with awful acoustics and a little ostentatious for my Calvinist background. Then there’s Westminster Cathedral and Westminster Abbey. The former is my preferred building – the inside, at the time I last visited, still needing to be completed because they’d run out of money so the ceilings were painted black rather than be covered with colourful mosaics. Yet, the two places of worship that top my list are a tiny wooden church in a village in Senegal and one of the oldest mosques in Kenya. I happened to visit the church in Senegal one Christmas Day. The rough branches that had been used to create the structure were lopsided and the gaps between enough to allow enough light (and rain) through whilst keeping the heat of the day away. A hewn piece of wood resting on two stumps formed the communion table decorated with a jam jar filled with a few cut wild flowers. The pews were rough wooden boards resting on stumps and a goat stood on the dusty sand floor looking round the door.

The mosque was just as simple. A small white-washed rectangular building split in two – one side for men and the other for women. The building not big enough to cater for all its adherents.

Another church building I have close connections with is one in Northwood, UK. This church building was completed in 1915, the foundation stone being laid in March 1914. On the outbreak of war, the community offered the building, then a tin tabernacle as a VAD Hospital. This was accepted in November 1914 and by the time of the Battle of the Somme in July 1916, the newly constructed sanctuary was also turned over to the War Office becoming a hospital. The mother of artist Roger Hilton, Louisa Simpson, captured the interior in a watercolour she painted whilst working at the hospital where her husband was the senior doctor.

Why was there this need to continue building religious buildings during war? As indicated by WW1EAfricanCampaign’s tweets, life goes on and people in uncertain times look for sanctuary.  But is a building necessary? On a previous visit to SA, I was told by a young Malawian that his community back home was desperate for a church building. They were currently meeting under the trees. Given the poverty of the area, I wondered, what will a building help? Yes, it will provide shade, but the trees already do that… It will keep people dry if it rains, but that happens so seldom, I wonder if it’s worth the community investing the amount of money required.

Having asked the question on numerous occasions before and since my Malawian encounter, what is the purpose of a church (or equivalent), I came across an answer in Calvin Cook’s history of the Presbyterian Church of South Africa. He says, ‘Buildings are a sign of community.’ It’s a thought provoking statement. They’re a place communities can come together, passers-by recognise and assume they know what goes on in buildings of a certain look – there’s a logic behind a church building’s construction as noted in How to read a church (wikipedia; video). The same with a mosque and synagogue. The latter I was told in South Africa only being allowed if there were ten or more Jewish families in the area.

The interior often tells you much about that community – the people who contributed much to its development or who are significant to its identity. I can’t help but think of the Rand Club, set up by Cecil Rhodes and others, which has recently gone through some financial struggles and uncertainty regarding its future as a result of the mining houses undergoing various changes since the end of Apartheid. Parliamentary buildings too, tell a story about the communities they represent (or try to control). Many of these buildings are no longer fit for purpose, yet many are reluctant to see any changes – the historian in me rails against removing bits of our past – I’m often caught by visitors who say things like ‘it’s good to see there are still pews’, ‘oh, and that’s a real organ, wonderful!’ Churchill too, was reluctant to change the set-up of the British Parliament in 1945. Nostaligia reigns.

I wonder what an all-inclusive, genuinely equal, building would really look like? I already see a difference in approach: Africa vs Europe vs Asian …

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Water – what a choice

A recent perusal of the George Farrar documents at the Bodleian Library, Oxford, is responsible for this posting.

Going through Mrs Farrar’s visitors’ book for 1900 (she was in Cape Town for the duration of the Anglo-Boer War while George was working intelligence for Col Brabant), I came across a dinner menu with a list of Mineral Waters. I don’t know about you, but I thought the variety of mineral waters was a recent thing but it appears not. For Mrs Farrar’s dinner, the following was on offer:

Mineral Waters:
Van Riebeck
Victoria Water
Plain Water
Boiled Water
Hot Water

This was offered alongside: Soda, Lemon, Ginger, Sherbert, Apollinaris – if you are as curious as I was regarding the last mentioned, take a look here (p17) – ending with sparklets. Curious again, I found this, and this advertising.

Compare all these waters to the alcoholic drinks on offer. There were only Wines, listed as:
Sherry White Wine, Hock* (Johannesburg 1900) and Mariani Wine.
* I wonder if this is where the term Hoggenheimer (and a bit more) came from…
Some info on Hock bottles

One can’t say Mrs Farrar was not cosmopolitan in her tastes: Spannish, German and French.

Dinner was just as intriguing so I thought I’d include it here for others who might be interested to know what a typical dinner menu looked like and what was available when a colony was at war.

Warm soup (flavour not specified),
Sardine Fish. Not too surprising as South Africa is well-known for its Sardine Run
Boiled Duck and Caper Sauce. I found a Polish and American recipe
A roast ‘Ground Hornbill‘ (caught near Trarato) – this has stumped me. The closest I came was Tarata – a New Zealand plant or a place in Bolivia
Fricasee of Owl. I assume the owl is instead of chicken?
Cold Cream. Straight forward, I think.
Snoek on Toast – clearly a South African thing. I love it!!

and NO DESSERT. My emphasis. Was this Mrs Farrar’s attempt at saving costs during a war?

It appears that Mrs Farrar became disillusioned with South Africa following George’s involvement in the Jameson Raid and after his release tried to spend as little time in South Africa as possible. However, when the 2nd Anglo-Boer War broke out, George returned to South Africa to serve (he already had investments in ERPM, the gold mine in Boksburg) and Mrs Farrar (Ella) joined him although did not seem to leave the Cape. Here she had a stream of visitors including Frank Rhodes, Lord Milner, Richard Furse and many other ‘big’ names including Margaret of Tweck and the Duke of Westminster. It didn’t look like Kitchener, Roberts or Buller popped in, although there is a letter signed by Kitchener authorising Farrar to source horses for Brabant. When the war became a guerrilla or mobile war, Farrar resigned his commission and returned to the Transvaal to rebuild his mining empire.

Encounters

I can’t believe how long it has been since my last post and I’d been doing so well having one a week. The simple reason (or excuse) is that life just got too busy with my new publishing venture, part of which includes GWAA now publishing. Spending a month in South Africa added its own complexities to the situation but what a month of encounters it proved to be.

It was quite depressing reading that the country is, according to the World Bank, the lowest on the equality rankings with the gap between rich and poor being the greatest of the countries the World Bank assesses. Also, whilst meeting people across the racial spectrum in the Gauteng area, it became apparent that not only is the economic gap huge, but so is the racial gap in the realms of employment and official positions. There is only black and other – no fifty shades of any colour. BUT despite this negativity, the people I encountered (including those in official capacities), irrespective of racial background were as open and relaxed in ways I hadn’t yet experienced in South Africa, but had in other African countries. It appears the political and social divide is also on the increase. (It made me think of our trip to Mongolia a number of years ago when we were told that the people don’t care about what happens in the political realm – they let the politicians get on with their games and just live life the way they always have. It’s probably easier to do so in a sparsely populated territory than in built up areas where people are living on top of each other.)

There had been a fair bit of concern that the election was going to result in violent outbursts – just my luck. Having been in Britain for Brexit, I was now in SA for the earth-shattering local elections. For both leading parties, neither vote went the way they expected, and having experienced the after effects of both, the people of South Africa have stood by each other in a way I haven’t yet experienced post-Brexit-vote.

On a more personal level, it was wonderful meeting up with colleagues at conferences and talks which I was involved in. The range of topics and approaches followed being refreshing: at least on this front the gap between military, social, political and other history (other than gender) is reducing. Travelling to and from the events was an eye opener. It showed how dependent one becomes on having sisters etc cart one around – having driven the roads of Johannesburg by myself regularly over 20 years ago and despite visiting it every year since, getting behind the wheel by myself and having to navigate the area proved a challenge and eye-opener.

My most incredible experience was early on missing the turn-off onto the motorway and ending up in Hillbrow – initially I wasn’t concerned. My early dating days with my husband had been in this part of Johannesburg, my sister regularly travelled through parts of it with me accompanying her to work or other events, so I felt confident I knew where I was. What I didn’t count on was Friday night traffic, the sun going down at 6.30pm, the reconfigured landscape after years of re-development and entering at a place I hadn’t been before. Now, being a lone white woman in a predominantly black area, with the reputation of Hillbrow, is not somewhere you would want to find yourself. And to top it up, I ended up on a side road, packed with taxis stopped in various positions across three lanes of traffic, car doors opening all over the place and having to drive in zig-zag fashion at walking speed. Horror story time… Time to think logically… get off the side road and back onto the bigger road where traffic was flowing. It’s Friday night and people just want to get home – they don’t care about me and as long as I look confident as though I know where I’m headed, don’t take out my mobile phone to consult Google Maps, I’ll be fine. And so it was. Heading in roughly the directions I thought I should be, I found some street names I recognised and arrived home after two hours (a journey which should have taken 45 minutes).

The remainder of the journey through Johannesburg was one of quiet reflection and observation – how certain areas made me feel more tense than others, was there a link between the amount of rubbish lying on the side of the road or not? Why/how was it that certain blocks were absolutely spotless with people sweeping the streets and pavements whilst almost across the road, the next few blocks were filthy? How many buildings which had been office blocks are now accommodation – bright gaudy colours with washing hanging out the windows and the extent to which bank headoffices had expanded. It’s clearly a city of contrasts.

Not to be outdone, I had to drive through GermistonRand Refinery looking resplendent* (1922 photo) having recently had a paint make-over contrasted with the derelection of the remainder of Germiston and opposite what was before an active mine, a squatter camp (I was told these are now officially ‘informal settlements’). Driving past this settlement, one which has a reputation for not being safe (a friend was killed there a good number of years ago dropping off a colleague), I entered a cloud of darkness – the smoke from the fires covered the road so thickly, you could hardly see 2 meters in front even with headlights on. It reminded me of descriptions of London which Charles Dickens wrote about. Past the traffic lights (robots they’re called in SA), and the air was clear again. Boksburg was next on the way, and instead of going round the outside, I thought I’d take in the old CBD (Central Business District). This was my home town. The old women’s prison is now a refuge for children and young adults (this had been the base for General van Deventer when dealing with the 1922 strike; and had seen the last women hanged in 1952). The Town Hall in its pink paint and red brick was looking cleaner than it had for years and although the war memorial had no copper left on it, it and the cannons were looking in a pretty healthy state compared to a previous visit. Vibrancy was evident even at 7pm on a Friday night in an area which would have shut down in pre-1994 years.

And so my visit went on. Encounters with the past and the present. Light and dark moments – both sides of the same coin.

On the research front, discovering death registers for the EANLC (East African Native Labour Corps) proved a huge excitement – the stories we can glean from these meticulously kept records, including the discharge and desertion registers, will be invaluable to understanding another aspect of the First World War in Africa, and in particular South Africa’s role. Watch this space, as well as the new GWAA medical project, for more on these registers.

No doubt, you’ll be reading about other encounters on this South African trip in future posts, but my experience of ‘getting lost’ in Hillbrow will no doubt stay with me for a while. On the light side of Hillbrow, I have heard (and seen) it is being cleaned up: the residents are reclaiming their rights and their streets. I wish them well – Hillbrow is one of the hearts that is South Africa.

 

*looking for a photo of Rand Refinery today (doesn’t seem to be one), I found this link which has the old Johannesburg drive-in on top of a mine-dump. Together with colleagues in 1992 we used to run up and round the drive-in at lunch-time.

Jan Smuts and the Chinese

On 24 May 2016, had he still been alive, Jan Smuts would be 146 years old. For those of you too lazy to do the maths, he was born in 1870.

At the age of 34, whilst out of a government role, Smuts was vexed by what was known in South Africa as the ‘Chinese Question‘ or ‘Problem’. Following the Anglo-Boer War (South African War) of 1899-1902, Lord Milner had arranged for Chinese labour to work on the South African gold mines as local black labour was not forthcoming and there was not enough white labour prepared to work at the unskilled labour rates of pay. Getting the mines operational after the war was vital for the economy and to cover the costs of the war. But, for the likes of Smuts, Botha and other South African politicians, the introduction of another racial group into the already volatile melting pot of Southern Africa was anathema.

Smuts felt strongly about this as noted in his letter to JX Merriman on 31 August 1905 (Hancock, vol 2):

You are quite right, the Chinese business is contaminating the very well-spring of our national and social life, and I feel sure that we shall not soon get another such opportunity for getting rid of it as now. Feeling in the Transvaal has been profoundly stirred; those people (along the Rand) who were for sordid reasons in favour of Chinese labour repent and suffer bitterly now … the question is great enough to found its own party, which will yet be the most powerful in South Africa – unless we are really going to be an annexe of China, a Hong Kong…

The last Chinese labourers were eventually sent back in 1910.

This was not the end of Smuts’ dealings wiht the Chinese, however. During World War 1, whilst he was commander in chief of the forces operating in East Africa, he would have encountered the Chinese Contingent. Unfortunately little is known of the work these men did in the theatre other than what Steve Lau has brought to light and which he shared at the 2016 Great War in Africa Conference.

South Africa, however, has retained a relationship with China in some form since these early days. Chinese restaurants provide a tangible link – interestingly during Apartheid Chinese people were classified as black, whilst Japanese were classified white. Yet dispensations were clearly given: there was a Chinese restuarant (Golden Lake) in the Boksburg Lake grounds for as long as I can remember.

Today, China itself is economically involved in developing infrastructure and providing loans to African governments.

Did Smuts forsee this development way back in 1905?

It might be worth a mention that Smuts’ World War 1 nemesis, Paul von Lettow-Vorbeck fought the Chinese during the Boxer Rebellion.

Review: Louis Botha’s War: The campaign in German South West Africa, 1914-1915 by Adam Cruise

I came across Adam Cruise’s Louis Botha’s War: The campaign in German South West Africa, 1914-1915 as a number of colleagues asked if I had read it, mentioning in passing that my name featured in the bibliography. Having covered a fair bit of Botha’s politics and involvement in the war in my thesis (published as Britain, South Africa and the East Africa campaign, 1914-1918: The Union comes of Age), I was intrigued to see what Cruise had used, naturally assuming it would have been this publication. It wasn’t – it was a summary of a talk I had given in Boksburg on the Mining Magnates, the full talk being available on academia.edu and on Brenthurst Library‘s site. My curiousity was raised – what had he used?

By page xvi, I was aware that my expectation of discovering something new was not likely to be fulfilled. Ignoring the repeated myth that the South West Africa campaign was the first to ‘be brought to a conclusion in the Great War’, it was the statement that read ‘Only recently, after trawling the internet, did I discover more about Botha…’, followed soon after by ‘The only published account of Botha’s life’ referring to the ‘long out of print General Louis Botha: A Biography‘. In contrast to Cruise’s claim, there have been a few biographies on Botha: apart from that by Meintjies, Sydney Buxton Governor General of South Africa during World War 1, FD Engelenberg, Botha’s secretary and H Spender have all written biographies on the man. OpenLibrary, provides the clue to Cruise’s statement ‘only published account’ – online, although Spender’s account is also available online as is Engelenberg’s if you register for the site.

My concerns with the book resonated with those of colleagues whose specialist interests are more military in nature, and unlike the book by Tim Couzens where most of the errors can be explained, those in Louis Botha’s War seem to be the result of poor and speedy research and for that reason I’m not going to go into detail on them.

This has been a difficult review to write, and I’ve probably spent as much time pondering over these few words that I’ve written as what I did reading the book. It’s important to recognise the toil and effort which has gone into the production of a book and I am grateful to Cruise for putting the spotlight onto Botha – something which desperately needs to be done.

Overall, I’m definitely disappointed in the book and am concerned that it’s going to be seen as a significant text on Botha – which unfortunately it’s not. Cruise has ably pulled together various secondary sources on the campaign which, disappointingly, has resulted in generalised statements and myths being perpetuated. The result is another book narrating the events of the South West Africa campaign and the Rebellion. It provides very little insight into Botha’s conduct and role as Commander in Chief of the UDF and Premier of South Africa.

Having been so critical, there are some positives which need to be recognised. The book is very readable and provides an introductory overview of the campaign in South West Africa. It has some good photos as well as little titbits such as that about feral horses. Importantly, as mentioned above, it rightly raises the profile of one of South Africa’s greatest generals and politicians and all I can hope for is that it inspires a more indepth and rigorous study into the man (in the same way that Lindie Koorts has looked at DF Malan).

A fact you can’t eVoid

Between travels, we were able to take in a concert by eVoid once again at Putney’s Half Moon, and as usual, I couldn’t resist looking for historical links. I should also admit that the inspiration for the blog title came from the band’s explanation of a couple of songs originating from a play on words – I am a fadget (fad of gadgets) and Dun Kalusin Ta Va from ‘don’t go losing your bra’ (or at least that’s what I heard).

The SA Rockdigest provides a history (below the discography) of eVoid, so I don’t need to get myself into trouble here through showing my ignorance. The band started in Brakpan, a town next to Boksburg where they went to school. Both towns clearly had their subtle impact on the music. Boksburg, in particular, was a mining town – the home of ERPM (East Rand Proprietary Mines) which was run by Sir George Farrar until his death in South West Africa during WW1. Brakpan, too had mining links, although not as prominent as Boksburg. But it’s not WW1 which featured during the concert. It was the mining influence – in particular, black South Africa.

For those who grew up on the East Rand or in other mining areas of South Africa, the whistle (listen carefully) and the high kicking ‘Mine dance‘ for which Johnny Clegg is well known. By the way, congratulations to Johnny for his OBE recognising his contribution to music in the Queen’s 2015 Birthday Honours List. An interview with eVoid sheds further light on their influences.

Both eVoid and Johnny Clegg are examples of how Apartheid could not stop the cross cultural mix happening despite all that government did. And it wasn’t just in the music arena where these cross-overs happened.

In Boksburg – put in the limelight by Leon Schuster (the Cason Mine dump you briefly see,* previously the record holder for the highest mine dump in the world, is no longer) – actually had an Indian family, Byatt, who had prime property in the middle of the CBD (Central Business District) throughout the Apartheid era. Rules were meant to be broken and Apartheid was no different. The story goes that the Byatt family had helped Paul Kruger some time before the 2nd Anglo-Boer War of 1899-1902 and as a result Oom Paul gave the family permission to remain in the Transvaal where they wanted in perpetuity. With Oom Paul’s blessing, no-one interferred or questioned this anomalie of social life. Byatt’s is still in Boksburg, having diversified their business interests and if you’re looking for something obscure, still the place to start your search despite ‘Old Man Byatt’ no longer being with us.

Music, like novels, is not a traditional source for historians. However, certain artists provide historians with an insight into specific times, places and ideas. And those with a long career provide additional insight into how society changes over time through an analysis of the music, lyrics and dress of the artists but also through observation of their different audiences. And in this regard, the South African music scene in its entirety is a fantastic historical and sociological source.

* it’s incredible – I couldn’t find a picture of the mine dump online! It was such a prominent landmark yet it doesn’t feature in any pictures of the lake, civic centre or library…

Africa from above

Soon after a visit to Malta, I flew to South Africa and what a contrast!

Looking out of the plane window, roughly two hours away from Johannesburg, the terrain was quite different to what I expected to see – it struck me that I must have been on the west side of Africa as I was flying with a different airline to the one I usually use. The patterns on the ground were striking and it looked empty, devoid of human life – or at least the signs of it. I thought I spotted a road – with perhaps a little settlement (3 shining spots – roofs?). It could only have been a road as it was so straight and long: a characteristic feature of African roads whether they be black, brown (red-brown) or yellow dependent on their location and content. This road was red-brown and was running perpendicular to the direction we were flying. I wondered where it started and where it would end, but knew I would remain ignorant as I refused to put the television screen on to look at the map. The changing landscape was far more fascinating and gave me food for thought especially as the intensely built-up sprawl of Johannesburg and the East Rand was not far away.

Malta is closer to Johannesburg – no, not in feel or in distance, but in how built up it was. It apparently has the highest population density in the world and it’s only an island 30km long!

Another road appeared outside the window – this one wound around a few obstacles but no obvious settlement could be seen.

Back to Malta … how do you fit so many people on so small a place? You build housing on top of housing and have very narrow streets. This reminded me of Zanzibar and the old “Arab Quarter” of Mombasa. This has often intrigued me as in South Africa and in some of East Africa houses or dwellings are generally more spread out and single storey. Cities are different with office blocks and apartments and in South Africa now there are housing villages where town-houses (1-up-1-down) are built attached and/or in close proximity to each other with walls encircling a number of them. But this is still nothing like Malta, Zanzibar or Mombasa.

Why is it that in such hot climates, people have chosen to build and live ‘on top of each other’? Is it to provide relief from the heat by creating shade patches? There do seem to be courtyards behind the doors to allow communal gathering and access to some sun for drying clothes and spices or vegetables etc. The girs in Mongolia spring to mind here too – a whole family and visiting friends all living in one closed tent in the middle of all that open space. I could cope with two of us living in a ger, but not more and especially not for a long winter! Each to his/her own…

I am clearly a girl of open spaces and although I enjoy exploring new environments and cultures, I was pleased that in Malta we had the space of the ocean to look over from our window.

With that, and as anticipated, the open land began to fill up and soon buildings became the dominant feature of the terrain below the plane. And, it struck me, in South Africa there are places where housing is built with very narrow streets and little space between buildings, some of which are more than one storey high: tucked between the mine-dumps (or where they used to be) were the squatter camps or as they now tend to be called, informal settlements … we’ll leave that for another day… it’s time to prepare for landing over the largest sprawled area of indoor shopping I’ve yet experienced and avoid…