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.

Untold Friendships: A journey with The Unknown Fallen

Every now and then a challenge comes along – well, working on World War 1 in Africa, it’s more often than not as so little has actually made it into the public domain and some archives remain a challenge to access. Having managed to contribute a piece on Sikh involvement in the East Africa campaign, I started gathering information on Muslim involvement. Did you know that the Governor of East Africa called a jihad? This is a passing comment in some literature but had little, if no impact, on what happened. I was intrigued. Using primary source material I was able to write an article charting Muslim involvement in World War 1 only to have it declined as I refused to go into detail on how the different Islams were affected or developed (a minefield I am still trying to navigate and understand). I also didn’t challenge how the Governor, being a German, could declare a jihad – that wasn’t my purpose. I was more interested in why the Governor had made such a statement; it suggested that there were far more Muslims involved on both sides than existing literature had us believe. Here was another group of people whose contribution had been glossed over and who needed a voice.

Not long after submitting the above article for review, I was approached by Luc Ferrier to contribute something on Muslim involvement to The Unknown Fallen. Keep it simple – this is an introduction to the topic, were the instructions. It soon became apparent that thoughts of focusing on East Africa, the central theatre where most of the troops served from 1917, would not work and that separate pieces would need to be written on East, West and South Africa. Others were looking at the north and French involvement. Back to my task, the first two were ‘easy’ enough, as ground work had been done, but with the article in the publishing pipeline, I had to beware of potential copyright infringements so a different angle to the war in East Africa was taken in particular. South Africa proved the challenge – but through fortuitous discoveries, assumptions were shown up for what they were and a new little window has opened on another micro-nation or two. Job done!

Not so. Meeting with Luc and Vera to discuss feedback on my contributions, more was to come – editing, proofreading through my role as a publisher and supporting students with academic writing. And finally to assist with translations from French to English. Thankfully, technical translation had been done. My role, if I could do it, was to capture the feel of the original author. And by all accounts, we achieved this. I use ‘we’ on purpose. I have never known a book to be so thoroughly checked and reviewed by so many people to ensure that what has appeared in print does not offend but educates and respects – as well it should.

Initially, I had issues with the fact that this book only focuses on Allied Muslim involvement (and I know a few people I spoke to felt the same), but I soon came to see why it should. To do anything else, as my article experience proved, would require more complex explanations and enter into a world of politics which would distract from the aim – to show the diversity of men and women who worked together for a common goal.

One of the things that struck me, and still does, is that religion didn’t matter. If it did, the officers and those who wrote diaries and memoirs would have made an issue of it, but they didn’t. Few mention religious aspects. It was traditional for the British army to keep religious and ethnic groups separate for dietary purposes, but in East Africa, the nature of the campaign meant this didn’t happen and the delivery, or rather non-delivery of rations, meant that men had to eat what got through or what they could find. If anthing would cause religious unrest and ill-feeling, this would have been it. To date, I’ve not found mention of issues around having to eat foods not in keeping with religious practice or that men could not do their work becuase of the need to fulfil religious duties – be they Muslim, Sikh, Christian, Jewish, Hindu or other locally practised belief. There were differences, I don’t deny – and after the war in particular, politics reared its ugly head, but that’s all for another discussion.

There are so many gems in this ‘little’ book. [‘Little’ refers to the amount of text given the size of the book. It’s light reading but intense – so much packed into so few words.] I cannot say what my favourite part of the book is – there are too many different ‘pulls’.

  • Working with it, I became quite attached to some of the characters depicted by the artist Eugene Burnand – the diversity of soldier is incredible, and not just those of the Muslim faith.
  • What has been revealing working on The Unknown Fallen was the care and interest taken by the French government, in particular, the French War Minister Alexandre Millerand, in ensuring that Muslim soldiers were buried correctly. I’ve subsequently found a British reference which needs further investigation (thanks to Nick Ward, The Black Titanic).
  • Another highlight is the night sky of Verdun on 4 September 1914 – a double page spread of peace and tranquility, ignorant of the carnage going on below.
  • 28 statements of what Islam is – an eye-opener and in many ways a reiteration of the Christian and Jewish Ten Commandments.
  • Images to challenge stereotypes: Muslims praying in a forest or wood juxtaposed with an image of a Christian chaplain conducting mass. Brothers in Arms, Standing Together.
  • The walls of remembrance.
  • Stories of those who sacrificed their religion in name to fight for what they believed was right.

This is a book which goes beyond war to look at the human-ness of mankind. It won’t be to everyone’s liking but it certainly achieves what it set out to, and far more. Something is bound to grab at your heartstrings.

It’s been an incredibly humbling experience and honour to be a small part of The Unknown Fallen journey; a project which lays the foundation for more to come.

And for anyone wondering about the title of the blog – Untold Friendships – this caught my eye only days before I sat down to write this piece. It’s the ‘title’ of the back cover and an unexpected reward for having embarked on a journey to stand shoulder to shoulder with men of women of all faiths and backgrounds then and now in an attempt to make the world a slightly nicer place for all.