Pure duty – An irony of history

Jan Smuts in September 1919 was returning for the first time to the area he had raided eighteen years before when fighting for the Boer republic. He wrote to Issie, his wife, telling her that ‘Now I go there to ask them to let the republic go. That is the irony of history, apparently contradictory; and yet both are in the way of pure duty. But people do not easily understand such choices.’

How do leaders of all kinds convince their followers that circumstances and situations have changed, requiring a different approach? Unfortunately, Smuts doesn’t give any suggestions and judging by the fact that he lost the election in 1924, he wasn’t very successful in his attempts. 

I can’t help but recollect when thinking about human behaviour and change that Marthe Kiley-Worthington believes it takes two generations of elephants for them to overcome the effects of a traumatic experience. Is it the same for humans? Or are we more selective in our forgetting? How is it that many of the youth in South Africa today have little or no recollection of the struggles their parents went through in the ending of Apartheid? As far back as 2003 when teaching A level students in the UK about the Cold War etc, none of my students from Eastern Europe had any idea of life before 1991 – did their parents purposefully not share what they had been through?

This contrasts with friends across the globe who have come through the tail end of civil upheavals – comparing notes is fascinating and insightful. Yet our reactions and responses can be quite different to those of our parents’ generation. Some have struggled to make the transition to a more free and equal society while others have embraced the new world, with all variations in between. And yet, despite all this wealth of experience and first hand knowledge, we don’t always see (or want to see) the warning signs of society and countries getting themselves into similar twists… this strange amalgamation of past, present and future seem to play a part in how we respond to being warned of changed and changing circumstances. 

Bringing about lasting change is a slow process which many experts have written about. Yet, it still seems that a catalyst is needed to jolt us (some at any rate) to action. I wonder how elephants work through the process of overcoming the trauma their ancestors experienced?

Review: History of Science in South Africa

Every now and then you come across a book which consolidates a range of material, books, and thoughts you’ve encountered along the way. William Beinart and Saul Dubow’s The Scientific Imagination in South Africa: 1700 to the Present is just such a book.

This is a book on the history of scientific development in South Africa. It is not a complete history as the authors well acknowledge, but a start, and hopefully an inspiration to others to pick up the baton and continue.

The book follows the political trajectory of South Africa through to 2020 culminating with a comment on the impact of Covid in relation to other pandemics South Africa has experienced.

By all accounts, South African scientists weren’t very active on the World War 1 front – many undertaking their studies at that time but there are links to topics which feature, such as Rinderpest which is covered by Dan Gilfoyle, an editor of the Great War in Africa’s There Came a Time, colonial specialist at The National Archives in London, and involved with SCOLMA, which concerns African studies material in UK libraries and archives. Rinderpest was a huge problem for farmers across Africa as noted by Dan’s articles, Philip (PJ) Pretorius in Jungleman (2013) and more recently in The Rinderpest Campaigns: A Virus, Its Vaccines, and Global Development in the Twentieth Century (2018) by Amanda Kay McVety which I am still to read. Pretorius and Alex Mouton in his biography on FS Malan (Prophet without Honour, 2011) refers to farmers having to eradicate infected herds – a huge financial loss.

Keeping with the animal theme, is Marthe Kiley-Worthington’s Family are the Friends You Choose (2020). While Marthe’s book is not directly mentioned by William and Saul, her time in South Africa coincided with the launch and development of the animal studies unit at the University of Pretoria in the 1960s. While Saul and William cover this as a scientific development, Marthe shares a personal insight to the department as an outsider encountering South Africa’s internal political struggles.

Both Marthe, a trained scientist, and Philip Pretorius, a hunter and explorer, take animal studies into the rest of Africa, and beyond in the case of Marthe. Their books align with William and Saul’s in bringing natural and indigenous knowledge into awareness alongside the science. Pretorius’ experiences are a repeated theme in White Hunters.

Hunters of animal and plant, for the pot and the museum, by gun and camera were prevalent during the 1914-1918 war in Africa as numerous accounts set out – Dr Carpenter in the Congo, Richard Meinertzhagen, Arthur Loveridge, Cherry Kearton to name but a few. A few others used their war-time experiences to develop their interest in the lay of the land, geography and geology – all amateur interest. Professionally, Alex du Toit was completing his studies at the time, but after went on to formulate and prove the theory of continental drift as Suryakanthie Chetty explains, also referred to by William and Saul.

Medical developments feature with a mention of the first heart transplant, the ethics of which are touched on in Marthe’s book. This is the one area I was most surprised to see no mention of World War 1 as many of South Africa’s leading doctors, as per the SA Medical Journal, were involved in the war. But then concerning the war in East Africa, little has been published on this topic generally. Discussion of William Soga and Thabo Mbkei’s approach to science and indigenous knowledge raises the question of what labour and carriers in the field did where they, like the Boer women, did not trust British or scientific medicine. Can we draw links from presenters at the 2016 Scolma conference on Medical Matters? Does anything feature in diaries and memoirs hidden, so far undetected, in archives across Africa and Europe?

William Beinart and Saul Dubow have succeeded in presenting a timeline of scientific development in South Africa providing a context for much else, whilst leaving room for questions to be asked and hopefully answered by others in due course.


How often have you thought of taking up ox-taming as a career?

It’s not something I’ve explicitly thought of but I have been subconsciously aware that there is a skill to getting oxen to move specially when pulling big loads up steep hills as in the Lake Tanganyika Expedition.

So, it was with some interest that I read this article on South Africa’s Famous Ox-Tamer, William Kenneth Shuman. Although he was born after World War 1, the article provides some insight into the skill required and the relationship between the driver and the ox. This relationship has been supported and explained by Marthe Kiley-Worthington in her autobiography Family are the Friends you Choose in which she explains how she managed to get Cape buffalo (Africa’s indigenous bovine) to operate in the same way.

During the Great War in Africa, next to the carriers, ox-wagon was a major means of transporting goods between bases and the front line – many oxen succumbing to tsetse fly or sleeping sickness. In addition there was ‘beef on the hoof’ to move as herds of live cows were moved to provide fresh meat for the forces in base. Herding this number of bovine required skill and an intimate knowledge of the animal concerned. For this specialist labourers were brought in from South Africa in particular, mostly part of the Cape Labour Corps – a group we know even less about than the Cape Corps. While most of these labourers were coloured, there were white farmers and others who were employed as conductors to oversee the drivers. With the introduction of motorised vehicle units where similar terms seem to have been used, the contribution of these skilled cattle-men has been relegated to the depths of memory.

With little bits of information continuing to come to light through archival investigation, we might yet obtain an clearer picture of those, other than the veterinary staff, who looked after the animals on campaign. That cows were important was brought home recently when I transcribed the Kirkpatrick report (24min zoom video; transcript) into conditions in East Africa. One of the big complaints concerned milk and its availability.


What might Khandahar have to do with Africa you might well ask… it’s one of those one-thing-leads-to-another type relationships.

The link is Lord Kitchener who spent a fair bit of his life on the continent – of his 64 years, 12 were spent in the UK, 2.5 in South Africa, 7 in India, approximately 8 in the Middle East, Cyprus and Turkey, about 2 travelling the world and the remainder in Egypt/Sudan.

During his time in India as Commander in Chief of the Indian Army, Kitchener brought about some changes to the military structure and the way the regiments operated. Not all were successful, and as I explain in Kitchener: The man not the Myth, not all was a failure. One of the things that struck me whilst researching the man was his open-minded approach to fighting – he was open to trying new things, had been up in a hot-air baloon, was supposedly the first British general to fly in a plane, involved the navy with his campaigns in Egypt and thought the bombardment of the Western Front was not the most effective way of dealing with the Germans – he was certain there was another way to break through.

In line with this, to defend the Indian frontier, was Khandahar. Kitchener explored the use of skis for the Indian Army. However, he gave up on this idea as impractical. Alas, I couldn’t find anything more on Kitchener, skiing and Khandahar other than what is recorded in Arnie Wilson’s Snow Crazy: 115 years of British Ski History which I happened to be proofreading whilst researching Kitchener. How fortuitous is that?! especially as I don’t ski or do much snow-related, other than try and avoid it.

And then, proofing Marthe Kiley-Worthington’s Family are the Friends you Choose, again Khandahar appeared. Here, Marthe talks of ‘bellowing skirts’ on skis – which if you’ve seen the cover of Snow Crazy, you’ll understand. Both books are fascinating reads – I had no idea any of ‘my’ history characters, ie have a connection with the First World War in Africa, were prominent in the ski-world. There’s more than just Kitchener… This opens up new connections to explore in due course. Marthe’s book, however, is more directly Africa related. She grew up in Kenya, spent time in Congo and South Africa researching animals, dodging the outbreak of wars and experiencing Apartheid as a visiting lecturer. Apart from her fascinating insights into animal behaviour and how it compares/relates to us as humans, she explores what a world of vegans would look like and suggests ways we can improve the quality of life for all. What an incredible 115 and 80 years of experience respectively, all wrapped into a few pages. Now, I just need to visit Kandahar.