Getting to the Source

When is a valid source not a valid source?

Well, according to many writers on the Boer War: ‘when it doesn’t support the much-cherished myth’.

Written by a leading ‘Defender of the Myth’™, one of the more mindlessly entertaining reviews of ‘Kruger, Kommandos & Kak’, for example, sought to claim the book was completely invalid because I ‘rely on Jingo sources’: a bizarre and baseless claim which ignored the wide range of reference material used – including, rather amusingly, two books written by the reviewer himself.
Though it originally appeared in Afrikaans, the translation of his opening salvo read something along the lines of:

‘Historical methods require that historians approach their sources critically. But no; Ash accepts (non-critically) British ‘Jingo’ sources prior to 1902, such as Creswicke, H.W. Wilson and Rider Haggard for his views on the Boers (but is shockingly insulting towards respected historians such as Rodney Davenport, Leopold Scholtz, Ian Smith, Bill Nasson and Thomas Pakenham.)’

To take Henry Rider Haggard[i] as an example, one wonders if this reviewer is aware that – unlike he, me or Pakenham for that matter – Haggard lived and worked in Southern Africa at the time, having moved there in 1875 to serve on the Staff of the Lt. Governor of Natal. He then transferred to the Staff of Sir Theophilus Shepstone, Special Commissioner for the Transvaal, and was present at the annexation of that territory to Britain in 1877 – even raising the Union Jack and reading some of the proclamation. He then stayed on in the Transvaal, and served as the Registrar of the High Court.

Of course Haggard – like every human ever – viewed the world through the prism of his own biases and prejudices, and, like countless millions of others at the time, did indeed look on the Empire favourably. However, and like it or not, his version of events on the ground is nevertheless a firsthand account of what he saw and experienced there as a well-placed and erudite observer. It is nothing less than laughable that a so-called ‘historian’ can so airily dismiss this evidence out of hand, simply because what Haggard described does not fit with the latter day reinvention of events.
The reason given for this white-washing would appear to be because (horror of horrors!) Haggard happened to be British and pro-Empire – and therefore obviously must have been a ‘Jingo’ – which raises another interesting point; are we now to ignore / dismiss firsthand evidence simply because it comes from someone of a different nationality or political persuasion? What justification is there to automatically assume that, even if someone were indeed a Jingo, everything they wrote was a tissue of lies? Is all Churchill’s magisterial (and Nobel Prize winning) writing to be dismissed as lies too, simply because Churchill was a pro-Empire, Conservative politician? Equally, would anyone cheerfully dismiss everything Mandela wrote in ‘A Long Walk to Freedom’, throwing out the explanation: ‘well, he was in the ANC so his entire account must be sheer fabrication’?

More laughable still is the reviewer’s suggestion that Pakenham’s work is somehow more valid than Haggard’s firsthand account of events on the ground. In stark contrast, Pakenham wrote his anti-British diatribe about 75 years after the war ended and was by no means a world renowned expert on the conflict: prior to having a bash at writing a book about the Boer War, he had only written a travel guide to Ethiopia and a book about the Irish Rebellion in 1798 – the latter being so biased that one military historian told me it should be required reading for IRA recruits.
And yet we are meant to treat Pakenham’s utterings with some sort of awe-struck reverence, purely because of his violently pro-Boer take on the war?

Indeed, it is unclear exactly what there is about Pakenham’s book which is deserving of any respect. Anything which threatens his argument is simply left out, meaning that one will find no mention at all of the ‘Bogus Conspiracy’ in his work, for example, or any of the inconvenient truths raised by Michael Farrelly. Indeed, such is Pakenham’s determination to try and lay all the blame on the scheming Brits that one reviewer of his book was moved to remark:
 ‘if Milner is placed centre-stage, it follows that Kruger, Steyn [president of the Orange Free State] and Smuts will get off lightly and that the Afrikaners of the Cape Province will hardly score a mention’, while another states Pakenham’s preferred explanation for the causes of the war is: ‘all about the British: Milner at the Cape, Lansdowne, Wyndham and Wolseley at the War Office, Chamberlain at the Colonial Office, as if Kruger purchased no Mausers, did not issue an ultimatum, nor send the commandos forth into the Cape and Natal’.

Another reviewer of his scribblings wryly remarked that While his survey of the sources is impressive, Pakenham is not above creating details when they are unavailable’ while yet another pointed out that ‘Pakenham however knew how to write a best-seller… ironically but sadly, it is probably true that had he written a fair and balanced account rather than attacking the founder of Scouting, his book would have commanded much less attention.’
Pakenham’s book does indeed relentlessly attack Baden-Powell, the most blatant example being his decision to caption one of his photos: ‘Inside Mafeking: Baden-Powell’s officers sentence to death a starving African for stealing a goat’.
Frightfully shocking at first glance… but when the same photo had appeared in Sol Plaatje’s diary[ii] when it had been published a few years earlier, the caption had been ‘The Court of Summary Jurisdiction sentences an African spy to death’. Though the caption in Plaatje’s book was later proved to be accurate, and the man had indeed been a spy, later editions of Pakenham’s book continued to use his made-up caption.

Unsurprisingly, Pakenham’s frantic efforts to re-invent the war as a wicked act of aggression by the scheming British (against the innocent, peaceful, noble and misunderstood Boer republics) earned him some interesting fans; the neo-Nazi leader, Eugène Terre’Blanche, heartily recommended the book to the members of his AWB organisation, claiming it to be ‘as good as Shakespeare’.

So quite why should Haggard’s firsthand account be dismissed out of hand, purely on the strength of his supposed political outlook, while Pakenham’s AWB-approved offering (complete with proven falsehoods) must be treated with reverence? The only explanation would seem to be that this particular reviewer of KK&K doesn’t like what Haggard had to say, but enjoys Pakenham’s endless Brit-bashing: this hardly seems a reasonable justification to utterly dismiss a source – and he even has the temerity to accuse me of non-critical methods.

We shall never know for sure, as his ‘review’ of KK&K was heavy on vitriolic invective and very light on actual detail, but as I only quote Haggard a couple of times near the beginning of the book, it is likely that this is the piece which so upset the reviewer:

Critics of the annexation have tended to focus on its impact on the Boers, ignoring the fact that they formed a tiny minority of the inhabitants of the Transvaal. As Henry Rider Haggard put it: “It never seems to have occurred to those who have raised so much outcry on behalf of forty thousand Boers, to inquire what was thought of the matter by the million natives.” Though one has to allow for a touch of exaggeration[iii], Haggard goes on to describe how, with the exception of the Pedi who continued their war even after the annexation, “the advent of our rule was hailed with joy by every native in the Transvaal … During our period of rule in the Transvaal the natives have had, as they foresaw, more peace than at any time since the white man set foot in the land. They have paid their taxes gladly, and there has been no fighting between themselves”.

The open-minded reader will concede that, ‘Jingo’ or not, Haggard makes at least one valid point: it is undeniable that the Boers made up only a tiny minority of those living in the area, and yet their situation attracted (and continues to attract) far more attention than that of the million or so Africans they lived amongst and Lorded it over – hardly a Jingoistic statement or an unreasonable reality to point out, one would think.
Secondly, and while allowing for a degree of wishful thinking (as I very clearly point out) there can nevertheless be little doubt that the majority of Africans in the region viewed British Imperial rule (whatever its faults and however begrudgingly) as preferable to that of the Boers.
It is therefore unclear quite what is so ghastly (or, indeed, inaccurate) about Haggard’s statement, or why it should be considered invalid.

Of course, it is much easier for people like the reviewer of KK&K to simply dismiss Haggard as a ‘Jingo’ than to actually address the statements he made. It is a tag which, they fervently hope, somehow immediately invalidates whatever awkward points have been raised.

In essence, their thought process would appear to be:

A. any Briton who wrote anything at the time which challenges the latter day myth = a Jingo
B. every Jingo was automatically a compulsive liar whose every single utterance is a total falsehood
C. anything else which challenges the myth can either be ignored or dismissed as Jingo propaganda

Needless to say, this is a decidedly convoluted way of looking at the past: but always remember that historical reality matters little to such people – their over-riding concern is ensuring that their myth is preserved at all costs.

Either way, and whether he was a Jingo or not (the reviewer does not see fit to provide any evidence that he was, and certainly provides no evidence why this would equate to him being a compulsive liar), it is hardly as though Haggard’s distaste for the methods Kruger and his ilk (a dislike formed from, let us never forget, his firsthand experiences) made him some sort of extremist, howling at the moon. Indeed, judging by what his contemporaries said, and who are also quoted in my books, Haggard’s views were far from unusual:

When the British annexed the Transvaal in 1877, for example, no less a man than the out-going President, Thomas Burgers, laid into the Kruger cabal in a most extraordinary outburst:
“I would rather be a policeman under a strong government than a President of such a State. It is you—you members of the Raad and the Boers—who have ruined the country, who have sold your independence for a drink. You have ill-treated the natives, you have shot them down, you have sold them into slavery, and now you have to pay the penalty.”

The missionary, Rev John Mackenzie, is another example. The clergyman was such a passionate champion of the rights of Native Africans in Bechuanaland, and such a tireless campaigner against the Boer aggression they faced, that there is still a school named in his honour in Botswana’s Francistown today. Here is how Mackenzie described the motives behind the First Boer War:
“The Transvaal rising was not dictated, as was believed in England, by a love of freedom and preference for a republic rather than a limited monarchy. It was inspired by men who were planning a policy which would banish the English language and English influence from South Africa. Their action was a blow directly dealt against freedom, progress, and union of Europeans in South Africa.”

After Kruger et al regained control of the Transvaal, another missionary, the Rev John Moffat, was tasked with giving the news to some of the black tribal leaders who would again be abandoned to their tender mercies:
“for the most part there was the silence of despair. One gentle old man, Mokhatle, a man of great influence, used the language of resignation, ‘When I was a child, the Matabele came, they swept over us like the wind and we bowed before them like the long white grass on the plains. They left us and we stood upright again. The Boers came and we bowed ourselves under them in like manner. The British came and we rose upright, our hearts lived within us and we said: Now we are the children of the Great Lady. And now that is past and we must lie flat again under the wind—who knows what are the ways of God?’”
Perhaps Mokhatle was a ‘Jingo’ too, and his thoughts can also be discarded?

The thoughts of a few more African leaders are equally illuminating:

In response to the endless violent expansion of the pre-annexation Transvaal into their territory, Montsioa Toane, Chief of the Barolong, requested that Great Britain take his people under imperial protection. In a letter flamboyantly addressed to ‘His Excellency Her Britannic Majesty’s High Commissioner, Sir P. Wodehouse, KCB’, the chief requested refuge under your protecting wings from the injustice of the Transvaal Republic, whose government have lately, by proclamation, included our country within the possessions of the said Republic.
He went on to explain: …without the least provocation on our side, though the Boers have from time to time murdered some of my people and enslaved several Balala villages, the Transvaal Republic deprives us, by said proclamation, of our land and our liberty, against which we would protest in the strongest terms, and entreat your Excellency, as Her Britannic Majesty’s High Commissioner, to protect us.

In 1876, King Khama, Chief of the Bamangwato people from northern Bechuanaland, joined the appeal:
I write to you, Sir Henry, in order that your queen may preserve for me my country, it being in her hands. The Boers are coming into it, and I do not like them. Their actions are cruel among us black people. We are like money, they sell us and our children. I ask Her Majesty to defend me, as she defends all her people. There are three things which distress me very much: war, selling people, and drink. All these things I shall find in the Boers, and it is these things which destroy people to make an end of them in the country. The custom of the Boers has always been to cause people to be sold, and to-day they are still selling people.

Even King Cetawayo of the Zulu (that famous arch-Jingo!?) laid the blame for the tensions which led to the Zulu War of 1879 squarely at the feet of the Transvaal Boers:
This war [the Zulu War] was forced on me and the Zulus. We never desired to fight the English. The Boers were the real cause of that war. They were continually worrying the Zulus about their land and threatening to invade the country if we did not give them land, and this forced us to get our forces ready to resist, and consequently the land became disturbed, and the Natal people mistakenly believed we were preparing against them.

In 1885, the liberal Cape politician, John X. Merriman described Kruger’s newly independent, and ever-expanding, republic thus:
“The policy of the Transvaal was to push out bands of freebooters, and to get them in quarrels with the natives. They wished to push their border over the land westwards, and realize the dream of President Pretorius, which was that the Transvaal should stretch from the Indian Ocean to the Atlantic. The result was robbery, rapine and murder.”

Just prior to the war in 1899, the Austrian gentleman traveller, Count Sternberg, journeyed to the Transvaal. Far from being a ‘Jingo’, Sternberg actually planned to fight for Kruger against the British, but nevertheless described the place he found thus:
“the Boer Government had reached the zenith of incapacity; in this respect it was the worst government in the world, and I, an Austrian, say it … Corruption battened in Pretoria as nowhere else in the world.”

The Transvaal’s main-cheerleader in Europe, the decidedly unpleasant (and decidedly un-Jingoistic) Dr Kuyper, commented enthusiastically on the racial policies of the republic:
The English prided themselves on protecting the imaginary rights of the natives… The Boers are not sentimentalists, but are eminently practical. They recognized that these Hottentots and Basutos were an inferior race.

So, to the unbiased observer, it would seem that Haggard’s statements were by no means unreasonable and certainly not extreme. In any case, are we really meant to utterly dismiss the firsthand accounts of people who lived through the events, purely on the basis that they dared to be in some way critical of Kruger’s corrupt gaggle or the racial policies of the Boer republics? Worse still is the way the reviewer of KK&K suggests that any inconvenient firsthand account from a Briton of the period can just be waived away as the half-baked rantings of a Jingo; it seems we are on a very slippery slope if it is somehow acceptable to utterly dismiss the validity of a source purely based on his nationality or perceived political outlook.


[i] Later, Sir Henry Rider Haggard, KBE, Kt, 1856-1925. Haggard famously wrote such classic adventure yarns as ‘She’ and ‘King Solomon’s Mines’

[ii] Solomon Thekisho Plaatje (1876 –1932). Unlike Pakenham, Plaatje lived through the Siege of Mafeking, serving as a Court Interpreter. He was one of the founder fathers of the group which would later become the ANC

[iii] The reader who note this caveat was ignored by the reviewer, such was his unseemly rush to pretend I accepted Haggard’s statements uncritically

1 Comment

  • Brett Posted March 13, 2018 9:51 pm

    This piece really highlights just how closed a mentality is adopted en masse. How is it that we simply disregard views and experiences of those we like to box and label? Perhaps because its the easy option. Thank you for this article. One can only hope it alters the thought patterns of the mind-limited many.

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