‘Grokking’ the Boer War

In his 1961 novel, Stranger in a Strange Land, American science-fiction writer, Robert A. Heinlein, coined the word ‘Grok’. This has been variously described as meaning: “to understand intuitively or by empathy, to establish rapport with” or “to understand so thoroughly that the observer becomes part of the observed”.

When it comes to the Boer War, it is fair to say that few observers truly attempt to ‘grok’ the events or the players involved. And more the point, nor do they seem want to: instead, they want to bash and hammer history into shapes that suit a modern outlook and a self-serving interpretation.

Unless we ‘grok’ the way that Kruger and his minions saw the world, for example, we can never hope to understand what inspired him to launch his lunatic attack upon the British Empire in October 1899. It is very difficult for a 21st Century mind to grasp (let alone admit) that anyone could actually believe that the Boers were God’s Chosen People and that black Africans were little better than animals… or that anyone could be so intergalactically ignorant as to blindly accept every word in the Old Testament as the literal truth.

So instead of trying to ‘grok’ this unpleasant and inconvenient reality, many instead desperately seek to re-invent Kruger as some sort of harmlessly avuncular fellow with a big beard and a funny hat. A favourite uncle, perhaps; a little eccentric, sure, but a benign sort of chap who only ever wanted to be left in peace and never wished any harm to anyone. Only by making no effort to ‘grok’ him, his world view, or his motivations, can the pleasing myth of everything being the fault of the wicked British be maintained.

I have often been assured that there is no way the Boers could possibly have attacked the British, as that would have been such a stupid thing to do. Of course, it looks stupid to a 21st Century observer, which is why you have to ‘grok’ that so many Boers of the time were absolutely convinced their men were far better warriors than the Tommies, and try to grasp the insane belief that the Almighty would lend a hand in a cause He passionately believed to be righteous. By the same token, if we do not at least attempt to ‘grok’ Hitler’s utter contempt for the ‘rotten structure’ and the ‘sub humans’ of the Soviet Union, or the way the Japanese considered the Americans to be weak and decadent, then their equally-nonsensical decisions to launch attacks against a stronger foe also defy all comprehension. 

Similarly, little or no attempt is made to ‘grok’ the situation of the pre-war Johannesburg Uitlanders. Rather than making any effort to put oneself in their shoes, it is much easier – however intellectually dishonest – to simply dismiss them all as evil, grasping, money-grabbing mercenaries. This is done, of course, because if one does actually ‘grok’ their situation, one would have to admit that they had perfectly valid complaints and anyone with a backbone would have been equally incensed at being treated as they were by Kruger’s regime.
How many people would have been happy, for example, to be paying the Lion’s share of tax in a nation they were largely responsible for building, but to be continually cheated out of the right to vote? How many people would have been happy to be liable for compulsory military service to help violently expand the borders of a nation which they don’t get any say in running?
Quite simply: put yourself in the place of an Uitlander in the 1890s, and – with an open-mind – think how you would have felt, and what you would have done about it. Once you make an effort to ‘grok’ how the Uitlanders felt, things start making a little more sense.    

What is interesting is that most people do make the effort to ‘grok’ the situation that another group of South Africans were to find themselves in a few decades later. Though the complete lack of rights enjoyed by the Uitlanders seems to be irrelevant to most, today few (outside of the AWB) cheerfully dismiss the similar discrimination and persecution suffered by non-whites during the Apartheid era. It is rare to find an academic who will airily wave their complaints away and say, sure, they didn’t have the vote or basic human rights, but they should have been grateful that there were decent roads – why would anyone want more? Of course, once you ‘grok’ the situation that black South Africans were in, you immediately realise that you would also have demanded fair treatment and the franchise.

Unfortunately, one of the biggest lessons I have learned over the years is that few people approach the Boer War with a genuine desire to want to learn about it. Instead, the majority are more interested in frantically finding something (anything!) which will support the way they already view it, and passionately want to keep viewing it.
‘Grokking’ the Boer War (or, indeed, any other period) is certainly not conducive to this blinkered, narrow-minded approach to history, and so it is simply not done by such types.

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