1899-1902 war in southern Africa

The 2nd Anglo-Boer War or ABW, also known as the South African War (or 3 year war according to Ben Viljoen and CR de Wet) was never largely on my radar. However, over the past few years, it’s begun to feature more prominently in all aspects of my working life – as historian and publisher. So, it seemed appropriate to share some of my encounters.

These range from novels such as … Good-bye Dolly Grey: The story of the Boer War by Rayne Kruger (1960) – regarded as a history of the war, it is a fair introduction told in novel format, but only skims the surface of a complex encounter between the opposing sides. The more thorough account is Thomas Packenham’s The Boer War.

Little did I realise, there is also a song (https://sites.google.com/site/functionofmusichall/war-propaganda/goodbye-dolly-gray) with the title “Good-bye Dolly Grey”: an early version by Harry Macdonough (https://youtu.be/MnLfLOuebLc) and then a later, very different, version by Linda Thompson (https://youtu.be/B1DrvKCSfIk)

The Dop Doctor (http://www.gutenberg.org/ebooks/27966) by Richard Dehan, the pseudonym of Anne Clovis (1910) set in a siege town during the ABW. A tale of love and adventure – a very long descriptive read, made into a film in 1915 (https://www2.bfi.org.uk/films-tv-people/4ce2b70de390e).

A Ghost and his Gold by Roberta Eaton Cheadle – set in the 21st century in Irene, Pretoria, it takes a ghost from the ABW to solve a modern medical conundrum. Irene has one of the largest concentration camp cemeteries in SA and nearby, at Doornkloof Jan Smuts, who led the famous Boer raid into the Cape, had his home after the war (1908) (now a museum. The building is an old British barrack from the ABW.)

An African Orchard by Mavis Pachter – tells of a family emigrated from Poland to South Africa making their way. The daughter marries into a Boer family with the consequence of her and her family spending time in a concentration camp. A story of survival – and apple farming. The same apple farm inspired this painting by Bronwyn Reece (https://www.instagram.com/p/CoKm3TGIrtU)

Jeannot’s War: A novel of the Boer War by Peter Weinberg (self published, 2019) – not written in a style I like or found easy to read, this was a mix of family history and fiction as Peter strove to tell of his grandfather’s involvement in the ABW on the Boer side.

Through to military or battlefield histories by Robin Smith (Practically Over; But we got the gun; We rest here content) Louis Creswicke, Thomas Packenham

Related histories – British military chaplaincy and religion in South Africa 1899-1902 by Dahlia Harrison; Elizabeth van Heyningen’s The concentration camps of the Anglo-Boer War: A social history

and Memoirs – Denys Reitz, Ben Viljoen, CR de Wet

One reason I started engaging with this particular war ŵas to complete my biography on Kitchener. This meant I engaged with texts such as Milicent Fawcett’s What I remember, and biographies of officers who served with Kitchener: Archie Hunter, Ian Hamilton, etc.

Another, more significant link is that with the East Africa campaign of WW1 – many white soldiers who served in the 1914-18 war saw service in the 1899-1902 war too. Their interwar service with the 1906 Bambatha or Zulu uprising has meant that military engagement is featuring more prominently in research too (watch this space).

More recently, engaging with the BSAP publications as a publisher (see books on https://gweaa.com) has led to a greater awareness of then Rhodesian, now Zimbabwean, involvement in the war as well as bringing to light the earlier campaigns against the Mashona and Matabele. More too is coming to light about men who were involved in the Jameson Raid.

It never fails to astound me how territorially interlinked military service is when following individuals. This makes sense in some ways, people protecting their interests, or those of their country, looking for adventure, and no doubt the nature of war linked with empire building which meant soldiers developed local knowledge of specific areas depending on where their regiments served – mostly Indian service links with west and east Africa, Egypt/Sudan with southern Africa and so it goes on (with exceptions to keep research interesting).

While some commentators and publishers think the ABW has had its day in the limelight, there is still much new coming to light which I haven’t yet engaged with: Chris Ash on Kruger’s war; Simon C Green on blockhouses; Spencer Jones on foreign nationals fighting on the side of the Boers.

A consequence of my work on Kitchener and links with the historians of the Legion of Frontiersmen (https://frontiersmenhistorian.info) has come a closer association with the VMS who regularly publish articles on the ABW. SOTQ (https://www.victorianmilitary.org/sotq) is an excellent way of keeping up to date with new research into the ABW and other conflicts the British Empire was involved in at the turn of the last century.

Will we ever learn?

A leader in The Natal Daily News of the 15th January, 1949, though lacking the authority of a Judicial Commission, was of a very thoughtful nature and was representative of much opinion at the time. It read:

“These riots stem directly from our communal shortcomings which have been both material and spiritual. On the material side it is the flat failure to deal with the harsh facts of physical existence that has prepared sections of the community to react with murderous violence when certain stimuli are applied. When people are ill-housed, packed into congested areas, deprived of proper transport, subject to political frustration and some degree of economic exploitation, then the ground has been well prepared for terrorist outbreaks. When the particular people so treated are people whose way of life has been changed utterly in little more than a generation, the danger is multiplied. On the spiritual side, in turn, the faults are equally obvious – and equally black. Our politics are deeply sectionalised, our outlook is coloured with prejudices and discriminations. There are natives who can pretend, not without some foundation, that any anti-Indian measures they take can earn the covert sympathy of many Europeans and are justified by their harsh words. “Hatred has been sown and the harvest, though dreadful and shocking, should not surprise us.’

These words appear in the regimental history of The Durban Light Infantry, vol 2 by AC Martin (p423). This concerned the relationship between South African black and Indian, both resident in Durban. There were said to be 700 black African refugees ‘at Jacobs Native Location and at Lamontville. There had been instances when Indians attacked Africans. At Clairwood a mob fell upon and killed 3 Africans. At Overport an African was shot by Indians who were patrolling the area in a car’ (p422). The immediate cause of the violence referred to above was an argument on 13 January between a young 14 year old black African and a slightly older 16 year old Indian shop assistant. When the latter hit the former, he fell through a window cutting his head. The following day, full scale conflict between the two groups erupted and the Durban Light Infantry was called to help restore order. It turned out that the rumour had spread that the young black lad had been decapitated… This reminded me of a seven year conflict we’d been told about in northern Ghana back in 2000, which was caused by an argument between two women over a chicken. And then in SA, during the 1914-1918 war, we have the attacks on German and other foreign residents simply because their home country was at war against the British Empire and then the sinking of the Lusitania – no consideration given to the value the foreigners had made to their new adopted country, which they now saw as home. Outbreaks of random violence seem a regular occurrence.

So, what was striking about the quote at the beginning? I had never heard about the 1949 troubles – it got buried in later troubles. We know of Sharpeville (1960) and Soweto (1976) followed by all those of the 1980s and 90s which merge and then the more recent xenophobic attacks. The other striking point was what the author saw as the causes of the conflict. How little we have learned from the past – despite and in spite of believing that ‘history repeats itself’ and ‘we should learn from the past.’ Why haven’t we? We seem to think each outbreak of unrest is unique, but history shows invariably it’s the same causes underpinning the violent outbreaks.

Lord Kitchener tried to circumvent this cycle by finding ways to improve the situation of the poorest in Egypt when he was in a position to do so. Reduce the wealth gap and provide people with opportunities to improve themselves economically, and through education, and they will likely be more content. He left before he fully achieved this, but I understand that in North Africa, he is looked upon more favourably than in the UK because he tried to improve the lot of those least able to initially help themselves because the systems were against them.

Rather than giving lip-service to learning from the past, isn’t it time we found a way to make it a reality?

Reconciliation – Smuts’ answer to SA and the 1919 peace

Smuts was ‘very anxious that the name of South Africa shall not be tarnished with this peace [of 1919].’ With this in mind, he wrote to the Gilletts, his Quaker friends in England: ‘I am going to give our Germans good decent treatment in spite of the awful terms about their private property.’ (p8 – Jean van der Poel, Selections from the Smuts papers, Vol 5)

Smuts’ reaction was within keeping of Botha’s actions as well as those of Lord Kitchener towards the defeated. No doubt Smuts’ main aim concerned the Germans within the Union. Reconciling them would ease some  issues in the mining fraternity given the links between some mining magnates and Germany, while it would also keep those who had rebelled against going to war with Germany quiet. How successful he was needs to be explored.

Looking at SWA (Namibia) which South Africa obtained as a mandate, the situation is less clear – half the German population was repatriated, the other half retained to help maintain the white presence. Was this compromise an attempt at ‘decent treatment’ or were there alternative economic and political drivers? 

It’s not always easy discerning altruistic motives from others in such actions, but one would like to think humanitarian priorities dominate. Sadly, history seems to prove otherwise – if Smuts could reconcile the Germans and Botha the Boers (although unsuccessfully as it turned out), why did they not do the same with other South African groups? What got in the way? The same issues that ultimately prevented the Boer reconciliation? It takes two to tango so they say, it also takes two to keep/create peace. As Kitchener said about taking Africa into World War 1, why fight for something with all that loss when its future will be ultimately decided at the conference table. And as he planned for Egypt, reducing the wealth gap, bringing people closer together, would ultimately reduce conflict. Why it didn’t happen is ably explained by Wanagri Maathai in The Challenge for Africa…

From Abercorn to King Edward via Cairo

The town of Abercorn, better known today as Mbala, has the distinction of being the place where Paul von Lettow-Vorbeck and his remaining German force laid down their arms on 25 November 1918. I was therefore intrigued to discover that the town had been envisaged by Harry Johnston back in 1890 who camped there on his travels through Central Africa. He named the farm after the Duke of Abercorn, then Chairman of the British South Africa Company which was part funding his work in Central Africa (p165)

It therefore made logical sense to discover that Fort Johnston in Malawi, today Mangochi Boma, was named after him, although it doesn’t appear that he named the place after himself. What is interesting about Johnston’s appointment to Nyasaland is that he had a hat band of white, yellow and black, colours which were later used for the police/military uniform as he was keen on showing the unity between white, black and Indian (pp197,207).

Johnston appears to have been a considerate administrator, confirming that land was unoccupied before having it ceded to the crown through treaty rather than the usual European claiming of land in the name of the crown (p220). This was to be his practice wherever he governed, although he was not scared to use force if needed such as in suppressing the slave trade.

When he got to Uganda in 1899, he looked to combine Uganda and today’s Kenya into one colonial administrative territory with the seat of administration at a new place along the Uganda Railway which he planned to call King Edward. Unlike Lugard’s uniting of the Nigerian territories, uniting those in East Africa at the time Johnston proposed would, some think, have been better for the region especially given Johnston’s sensitivities towards the local inhabitants – that the Kibaka of Uganda sent a tribute which appears on Johnston’s tombstone says much: His faithfulness to Buganda shows that England wishes all whom she protects to be free (p357). However, King Edward never materialised as Clement Hill of the Foreign Office Africa department apparently did not like Johnston and counteracted much of what Johnston proposed purely because it was suggested by Johnston.

Johnston’s is a name that features much in early colonial history, yet he remains an obscure character – for similar reasons that Kitchener was disregarded. He was not of the accepted ruling classes which meant his achievements were downplayed. Significantly both men were supported and owed their career progress to Lord Salisbury, Prime Minister and Foreign Secretary. Kitchener and Johnston overlapped with the 1885 boundary commission in East Africa – Johnston’s work on Kilimanjaro and a treaty he arranged over Taveta playing a large part in the final boundary decision (pp86-87). Yet, it does not appear the two men met at that time. Later, in 1895 Johnston was to be Kitchener’s guest in Cairo (p257). Johnston commented that Kitchener thought it was “Nyasaland and not Uganda which abutted on the southern frontier of Sudan”. Oliver suggests this is evidence of the lack of general knowledge concerning Africa – however, given Kitchener’s own experiences of the continent and his mapping skills, as well as meeting with Stanley and others, this statement suggests to me that Kitchener was playing with his guest. He had a crafty sense of humour.

It was a chance conversation that led to me digging a bit more into Johnston – why was he not as well known as Lugard given that both men had huge influence in how colonial Africa developed? While Sir Harry Johnston and the Scramble for Africa by Roland Oliver has opened some windows onto the man, there is far more to discover – not least through his many books, fiction and non-fiction, on aspects of the continent.

Culture clash: Rules of war

One of the things that struck me when researching Kitchener: the man not the myth was Kitchener’s idea on what constituted a fair war. He was said to have exclaimed ‘It’s not war’ when he heard about the first use of gas on the Western Front, and felt at a distinct advantage when facing the Dervishes with his guns against their spears. It was also apparent that there were differences concerning women – Kitchener offered the Dervishes an opportunity to surrender to safeguard the women and children whilst the Dervishes did not see this as an option. The role of women as camp followers was a further difference between the British and Dervish forces although Kitchener allowed the Egyptian Army to have female camp followers, as did the German Army.

These cultural differences were brought home quite recently again reading Robin Smith’s history of the Anglo-Boer War 1899-1902 Practically Over. During the 1899-1902 war in South Africa there were numerous instances where the Boers misused the white flag of surrender by firing on the British forces when they were in close proximity having been lured over by the white flag. Reading these accounts, I often have the question ‘how would the rural Boer have known what the rules of war were?’ and ‘how likely were they to know the decisions agreed at Geneva and the Hague about the conduct of war?’ Few of the Boers had any formal military training.

What prompted me to write this up was reading of an instance where the Boers in June/July 1900 asked Archibald Hunter for an armistice whilst they sorted out who was to be their new commandant following the departure of Christian de Wet. Hunter obviously refused the request and the Boers quickly resolved their differences by electing a leader who promptly surrendered (p52). This incident was either a cheeky ploy on the part of the Boers or more likely due to their take on what constituted a fair war. Reading the encounters Robin has included in his book bring home how little the Boers fired at men, rather killing the horses to reduce the British soldier’s mobility. A similar attitude was evident in the derailing of trains – enough explosive to derail the engine and cause delays rather than death.

In the East Africa campaign of 1914-18 we read of captured soldiers being given parole and the exchange of letters complaining about inappropriate action in contrast to medical supplies being left for prisoners of war, local truces or understandings to bury the dead etc.

We tend to object to the other side ‘playing unfair’ – but that’s according to our rules. What about their rules? We assume all countries and cultures follow the same basic principles – think of the outcry at the Japanese Kamikaze or suicide unit of World War Two. Their view of prisoners being similar to that of askari in the East Africa campaign. And the more recent terror attacks where attacking civilians is seen as fair game in their struggle. How we engage in war was brought to the fore again when reading about China sending observers to the Western Front to learn what they could to develop their military forces.

Retaliation seems to be the standard response as seen in the dropping of the atomic bombs and targeted air strikes etc. However, I can’t help but wonder whether our stepping back to consider and understand the ‘other’ culture would lead to a different outcome than we have seen in the past.