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The British empire, and a parody about it August 22, 2010

Posted by Jenny in Boer War, history, poetry.
Tags: , , , , ,

Queen Victoria

This post is about an empire at its apogee and about how that empire was perceived by certain others, in particular by a South African public figure who also happened to write poetry.

In 1897, the year of Queen Victoria’s Diamond Jubilee, the population of Britain itself was 40 million; the population of the British Empire was 370 million. Territories controlled by the empire included Canada, British Honduras, British Guiana, Egypt, Sudan, Guinea, Sierra Leone, British East Africa, Cape Colony, Natal, Rhodesia, Botswana, Basutoland, Swaziland, Zambia, Hong Kong, Malaya, Singapore, Burma, New Guinea, India, Australia, New Zealand, and others.

On June 22, 1897, a parade was staged in London to celebrate the 60th year of Victoria’s reign. A procession was made to St. Paul’s Cathedral, where a service of thanksgiving was held. Eleven colonial prime ministers and 50,000 troops attended. The troops from the colonies made a colorful spectacle. Officers of the Indian troops, with their turbans, sashes, gold buttons, and sabres, were especially impressive. A London newspaper noted also the Jamaican artillery, “very picturesque in their scarlet jackets with white facings and loose trousers with white gaiters”; the Cypriot Zaptiehs, who wore “dark blue uniforms and red fezes and sashes”; not to mention the Dyak Police of North Borneo, the Sierra Leone Artillery, and the Chinese Native Police.

All around Britain towns and cities held parades and celebrations. The events of the Jubilee continued for more than a week, as British subjects reveled in the sense that their nation had achieved unprecedented power and prestige in the world. The British way of life seemed benign and enlightened; surely British dominion over other nations brought progress and prosperity to those formerly backward lands.

Rudyard Kipling

Rudyard Kipling, a major voice of the empire, wrote a poem that at one and the same time celebrated its achievement and expressed a concern that the British nation could lose sight of what he considered to be its core values. It was titled “Recessional.” (I am using *** to indicate stanza breaks.)

God of our fathers, known of old, / Lord of our far-flung battle-line, / Beneath whose awful Hand we hold / Dominion over palm and pine— / Lord God of Hosts, be with us yet, / Lest we forget—lest we forget! ***  The tumult and the shouting dies; / The Captains and the Kings depart: / Still stands Thine ancient sacrifice, / An humble and a contrite heart. / Lord God of Hosts, be with us yet, / Lest we forget—lest we forget! *** Far-called, our navies melt away; / On dune and headland sinks the fire: / Lo, all our pomp of yesterday / Is one with Nineveh and Tyre! / Judge of the Nations, spare us yet, / Lest we forget—lest we forget! *** If, drunk with sight of power, we loose / Wild tongues that have not Thee in awe, / Such boastings as the Gentiles use, / Or lesser breeds without the Law— / Lord God of Hosts, be with us yet, / Lest we forget—lest we forget! *** For heathen heart that puts her trust / In reeking tube and iron shard, / All valiant dust that builds on dust, / And guarding, calls not Thee to guard. / For frantic boast and foolish word— / Thy mercy on Thy People, Lord!

Two years after the Jubilee, Britain would enter into war with the citizens of two republics in southern Africa—the Boers. Francis William Reitz, formerly president of the Orange Free State and, at the time of the war, state secretary of the Transvaal, penned a parody of Kipling’s work. It was titled “Gods of the Jingo: A ‘progressional’ dedicated to ‘Mudyard Pipling’.”

By way of background, the word “jingoism” had come to possess its meaning of “extreme chauvinism or nationalism, especially marked by a belligerent foreign policy” after a certain English music-hall song became widely popular: “We don’t want to fight, but, by Jingo, if we do, / We’ve got the ships, we’ve got the men, we’ve got the money too.”

Here is Reitz’s parody. When reading the line with the word “nigger, ” bear in mind the ironic tone of the poem.

Gods of the Jingo—Brass and Gold, / Lords of the world by “right divine” / Beneath whose baneful sway they hold / The motto “All that’s thine is Mine,” / Such Lords as these have made men rotten / They have forgotten—they have forgotten. *** The nigger, as is fitting, dies / The Gladstones and the Pitts depart / But “Bigger Englanders” arise / To teach the world the Raiders’ art / Such Lords as these have made men rotten / They have forgotten—they have forgotten. *** They’ve got the gold, the ships, the men, / And are the masters of tomorrow— / And so mankind shall see again / The days of Sodom and Gomorrah, / These are their Lords, and they are rotten / They have forgotten—they have forgotten. *** / Drunken with lust of power and pelf / They hold nor man nor God in awe / And care for nought but only Self / And cent-per-cent’s their only law / These are their Lords, and they are rotten / They have forgotten—they have forgotten. *** Their braggart hearts have put their trust / In Maxim guns and Metford rifles / They’d crush their foes into the dust / And treat what’s Right as idle trifles. / For boastful brag and foolish “fake” / Th’ “Imperialist” must take the cake! / Amen?

It would take three years, and a staggering cost in men’s lives, before Britain would defeat the two republics in a war it had expected to win in a few months.

Francis William Reitz



1. Thomas Stazyk - August 23, 2010

Colonialism is a big topic down here and I’m all over the board on the plus and minuses of it. But there’s no question that Kipling and his ilk deserve some parodying. In the Empire we call it ‘taking the piss’ out of someone or something.

2. TWL - August 23, 2010

Nice piece capturing some of the interplay and complexity in actual history. I notice that you did not sanitize the quotations. Both Kipling and Reitz seem to have frankly embraced the “white man’s burden.”

Is the Boer war another of the terrible ironies of history: the Boers, themselves originally colonials, subsequently falling victim to a much greater colonial power?

Of course, that would not make an unjust war any more just. I do not mean to reduce history to merely passing simplistic arm-chair judgments or to denigrate the bravery and fortitude of the Boer fighters, which you have brought to light so well.

So I am wondering, what was the real cause of the war?

3. Jenny - August 23, 2010

The real cause of the war was the British desire to control the gold reserves of the Transvaal, and related political concerns—initially, not to pay royalties and taxes, and to obtain voting rights in a republic in which they suddenly held a popular majority due to immigration related to the mines. Once the war actually started, it became a simple matter of annexing the Transvaal (and Orange Free State) to the Empire.

The Boers were never colonials. Initially they were employees of the Dutch East India Company. They were of Dutch and Huguenot descent, but after the British takeover of Cape Town in the Napoleonic Wars (early 1800s), they migrated to the northeast and established their own nations, the Orange Free State and the Transvaal. These were not colonies. This completely ignored African possession of those lands—but so did the British acquisition of the “Cape Colony” and “Natal.” The interesting thing about the Boers is that their territories were never a colony. The British under Joseph Chamberlain (Secretary of the Colonies) manuevered to get Paul Kruger in a position where he had to declare war, in autumn 1899. Then the British ended up fighting a desperate war for three years, when they thought they’d be able to win in a few months.

4. Jenny - August 23, 2010

This is a separate message —It never ceases to amaze me how much Americans and others of direct or indirect British descent have a sentimental attachment to the notion of British royalty! What does this mean about our sense of identity? Can’t we develop a different idea about who we are?

Thomas Stazyk - August 23, 2010

Exactly–the thought that in this day and age someone expects to be called “your majesty” is just wrong.

5. Van - June 13, 2013

This Yank has no sentiment for royalty of any kind. My English and Scots-Irish ancestors were, for the most part, laborers who fled the UK for one reason or another. My Dutch were the Van Dorens, who once owned about a third of New Jersey. My German fled Germany, Liepzig, in the 1840’s for political reasons. The Boer feared the Uitlander, who by numerical advantage were taking over the SA republics, much as the minorities, which are now on the cusp of being majorities, are taking over the USA. The white American, like the white Boer and Rooinek, made SA a productive country. Look what is happening now with the farm murders and the renaming of everything by the blacks in SA. On the way to become a new Zimbabwe, worthless and run by corrupt black communist inspired dictators. Obama is doing the same here in the USA. Everything worthwhile has been won by the blood of the white Anglo-Saxons, and being corrupted by the minorities. USA is in decline. I will fight for my heritage and the heritage of my country. I will not stand idly by watching the son of a communist cow and Kenyan kaffir ruin my country. The sons of liberty must prevail.

Jenny - June 13, 2013

My post was about white versus white, not white versus black. It was about the imperialists versus the people who had a dream of their own independent republics in Africa—something tragically impossible. The blacks were treated as subhuman by the Brits as well as the Boers, though the Brits deluded themselves into thinking they were more enlightened—they banned slavery, but they treated blacks as inferiors. I visited South Africa in 2005 and 2010 and found that the intelligent, well-educated Afrikaners with whom I visited the old Natal battlefields were setting up specific internships and educational opportunities for blacks who were deprived of a decent education under the apartheid system. That is what I pin my hopes on—the descendants of the Boers who are not knee-jerk liberals (or conservatives) but simply folks who have a humanitarian conscience. But perhaps you don’t understand a person who was inspired by the Boers yet is not a racist.

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