King Lewanika and Suffragettes

King Lewanika of Barotseland died in February 1916. This led to a series of articles in the Cape Times, one being the front page of The Weekly Cape Times and Farmers’ Record, 18 February 1916.

The short article concludes: ‘It is also to be noted that Lewanika long ago settled the Suffragette question by a stroke of genius. It was ordained that once a year on one day, the head woman be permitted, in the presence of other women, to have full and free licence to criticise the Council of the nation without check or interruption. It is said that the head woman exercised this right with immense satisfaction, and that her criticism of the men was complete and scorching. In witnessing the discomfiture of the men on that glorious day the women forgot their wrongs and their rights.’

I wonder what the Suffragettes made of this? It would be interesting to know if the head woman gathered the views from a range of other women or if she only spoke for herself.

The power of the female voice as expressed in the article resonated with Ian Hamilton’s statement about women being powerful before they put themselves on the pedestal, and also Louis Botha’s attempts to find a way out for the Boer rebels who were being pressured by their wives to make a stand against the government in 1914. He resorted to offering options – imprisonment or government service leaving the men to decide which was the lesser of the two ‘evils’.

Given the general shortcomings in our democratic processes today, I wonder if our forebears did not miss a trick back in the day when women were demanding a greater say. Is there a clue in these past experiences to help give all marginalised a greater voice while preventing new discriminations? Democracy has never been for everyone, even in its first formation it was discriminatory and promoting one group above another does not solve the equality dilemma. Perhaps we can take something from the implied messages of these few instances commenting on the power of women before they were permitted to enter the Councils of men, and design a system that works for all, irrespective of gender or background. I keep dreaming…

A sinking ship – 1917

In all my reading around South Africa and World War 1, I only recently happened across the account of a ship being mined off the South African coast during the war and the role South Africans played in rescuing the survivors.

A postcard given by Louis Botha triggered a little investigation. I’d read about German raiders and the fear of them off the South African coast but this is the first account I’ve come across (that I can recall) of their impact.  On 16 January 1917, the German raider Wolf laid mines off Cape Agulhas. On 6 February that year, the SS Tyndareus, carrying the 25th Middlesex Regiment, hit one (page 3/4 has photo and short account).

The Middlesex regiment, 1005 strong, was on its way to Hong Kong for garrison duties under command of Lieutenant John Ward. It left Devonport in England on 22 December 1916 and would change ships in Durban. At 6.55pm on 6 February, 173 kilometres out of Cape Town, the ship struck the mine. All on board were evacuated and the ship was towed for two days to Simonstown where she received some repairs.

On 16 February 1917, the garrison provided a guard of honour for the opening of the Union parliamentary session before it reached Hong Kong on 1 April 1917. Ward commissioned a memorial in memory of the exemplary conduct displayed by the men when the ship had been sunk. This was placed on the Peak on Hong Kong Island, but during the 1990s was removed and now (2004) was on display in the National Army Museum in London which is the Middlesex Regiment’s official regimental archive. (Dan Waters, ‘The Middlesex “Tyndareus” Stone‘ in Journal of the Hong Kong Branch of the Royal Asiatic Society 2003)  I wonder if the stone is still on display in the ‘new look’ NAM – I’ll keep an eye open for it next time I visit the archive.

The SS Tyndareus was not the only ship to suffer these mines. According to WW1 US photos (scroll down for more detail), four ships sank off the Cape Town coast:

26 Jan 1917 – Matheran (British)

12 Feb 1917 – Cilicia (British)

26 May 1917 – Carlos de Eizaguirre (Spanish)

10 Aug 1917 – City of Exeter

The SS Tyndareus was the only one salvaged with some lives from the others being saved.

Time for silence

Amid all the depressing news of death caused by the flu epidemic of 1918, which was to see the Prime Minister of South Africa, Louis Botha, lose his life along with so many others, I was surprised to see a little advert in the Mafeking Mail of 14 November 1918 headed ‘Christmas cheer for all S.A. Soldiers’ …  to ‘Make the “Boys” happy on their last Christmas at the Front!”

The advert had obviously been placed around the time of the armistice on 11 November with the realisation that many would not be demobilised and be able to return home in time for Christmas. This event was to see a street colection on the 16th and it was hoped that

‘the public of Mafeking … will cap their many generous acts by one big final effort for the boys at the front. This is the last opportunity of showing “THE BOYS” how you have appreciated their GALLANT SERVICES” remember they have helped to stop the greatest war in history and brought the greatest peace in the World.’ [emphasis as in original]

The advert ended with:

Give gladly – generously now! Make their last Christmas fires bright with happy thoughts of HOME and their native land – SOUTH AFRICA.

I wonder what the boys received to make their last Christmas memorable, and by all accounts, had it not been for Louis Botha pushing for his ‘boys’ to come home in April 1919, they might well have spent another Christmas in Europe.

While many celebrate Christmas and other festivals at this time of year and spending time with family, it’s worth remembering those who cannot be home for whatever reason – whether working to keep us safe, have been forced to flee to be safe, are in hospital, prison or are no longer living.

This season is often a challenge for many, and while it might have been the last on the front for ‘our boys’ back in 1918, it’s invariably a first of many for so many. Whatever the season holds for you, irrespective of your beliefs, may it be peaceful, and perhaps not out of place for a two-minute silence as suggested by Sir Percy for 11/11 at 11am…

A Titanic connection

A little while ago I visited Northern Ireland – what a little gem of a territory. We spent most of our time out in the country, travelling the northern coast line which on a smaller scale and with no rain could rival Cape Town, and unbeknowingly, until I asked a police officer, caught the last of the season’s marches. I had wondered why there were so many flags with battle honours flying in so many places. The march reminded me of days in 1980s SA when the AWB used to strut their stuff in my home town. Another thing I found fascinating were the large wall paintings recording aspects of the past, memorials to fallen comrades or such like. I wonder if anyone has written about these? It would make a fascinating cultural-political study. Crossing the empty Garvaghy Road as we moved between areas contrasted with television images of years gone by – long may it still last. And then into Belfast where we saw the incredible Big Fish by John Kindness telling of Ireland’s past. Within walking distance on the other side of the river is the Titanic Museum, the building itself a work of art and quite moving outside, the dock where the ship was built now an outline of her size, where lifeboats were placed and the proportion of people who lived and died according to deck etc. I can’t say anything more about the museum as we didn’t go through – I wasn’t sure my interest would have been catered for: the Titanic’s link with South Africa.

Back in 2012, a century after the ship went down, the Mail and Guardian ran an article identifying South Africans who had been on board. It too did not contain the link I was interested in. Few people know that South Africa’s second Governor General, Sydney Buxton, had been the President of the Board of Trade which sanctioned the Titanic sailing with the few life vests and lifeboats it did. In his defence, his decision had been based on the expert reports he had been given – hindsight is always much wiser. After initial thoughts that his political career would survive the disaster, when Governor General Herbert Gladstone decided to resign his post in South Africa, it was decided Buxton should fill the role; especially as an election was looming. Buxton’s appointment at the time was, for South Africa, most fortuitous. He had been in the Colonial Office before the 1899-1902 southern Africa war so had a fair idea of what the challenges were. His hands-on pragmatic approach and personable attitude, although eliciting the odd exasperation from Louis Botha as his interference, was welcomed by the young Union government trying to find its way through rebellion and supporting a country it had fought against less than 15 years before all while creating its own armed force in spite of the UDF having been formed in 1912.

South African – Irish links extend beyond the Titanic. Irish men fought on both sides of the 1899-1902 war, in 1917/8 Jan Smuts visited Ireland and was involved in trying to prevent the territory splitting – it was believed that the British-Boer and British-Irish situations were similar and lessons could be learnt from how Botha and Smuts had worked to unite South Africans. And in more recent times, current President Cyril Ramaphosa was in the 1990s involved in the Irish arms decommissioning process. And in the East Africa campaign, at the ceremony where the Germans laid down their arms in 1918 there was at least one Irishman present – John ‘Jack’ Bannon of 1/4 KAR and while there is no known South African present, the man who negotiated with the German commander was none other than South African Jaap van Deventer. An Irish doctor, Norman Parsons Jewell saw most of the war in Africa – both Irishmen too were caught up in the Irish troubles of the time: Bannon having just enlisted, was involved in suppressing the Easter uprising before he left for Africa, while Jewell was warned about leaving his accomodation in 1922 as he was a targeted man for having served in World War 1. The result of the latter was that Kenya saw him return as a doctor until 1932.

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 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).