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A tale of St. Louis and the Transvaal – 2: Embarrassing parallels February 17, 2011

Posted by Jenny in Boer War, history, serial fiction.
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The USS Olympia destroys the Spanish fleet at Manila Bay. Artist unknown.

This is the continuation of a good old-fashioned piece of serial fiction about Jack Brown, who lives in St. Louis. The time: fall of 1899. The serial starts here.

Jack followed the events leading to the Boer War with great interest, finding himself instinctively in sympathy with the Boers. Many of his fellow Americans felt the same way: they saw the Boers as brave citizens defending their small independent republics against the bullying British Empire.

But when the war started in October 1899, the problem for the U.S. government was that Britain was an important ally. That would have made it awkward for the U.S. to throw its support behind the Boers, whose two republics—the Transvaal and the Orange Free State—were now under attack by the Empire. Britain’s excuse for the war was that British immigrants around Johannesburg, where unimaginably large deposits of gold had been discovered in 1886, were not given full citizenship rights in their adopted home. Paul Kruger and his Transvaal government were determined to keep the “Uitlanders” from gaining political power. The British, on the other hand, wanted to consolidate their control of southern Africa, where they already had important colonies: the Cape Colony, Natal, and Rhodesia.

Theodore Roosevelt, then governor of New York, wrote to a friend in December 1899: “The Boers are belated Cromwellians, with many fine traits. They deeply and earnestly believe in their cause, and they attract the sympathy which always goes to the small nation…. But it would be for the advantage of mankind to have English spoken south of the Zambesi just as in New York…”* In November 1900, he wrote, “I am not an Anglomaniac any more than I am an Anglophobe…but I am keenly alive to the friendly countenance England gave us in 1898 [when the U.S. entered the Spanish-American War]. I have been uncomfortable about the Boer War, and notably in reference to certain details of the way it was brought on; but I have far too lively a knowledge of our national shortcomings to wish to say anything publicly that would hamper or excite feeling against a friendly nation for which I have a hearty admiration and respect.”

The real embarrassment for the Americans was that at the very same time that Britain was fighting the Boers, the U.S. was fighting rebels in the Philippines. As soon as the U.S. defeated Spain in the Philippines at Manila Bay in August 1898, it denied the Filipinos access to their own capital, and it became mired in the lengthy, costly Philippine-American War in an attempt to maintain control over the islands. Many Americans were disgusted by the turn of events, and prominent citizens including Mark Twain formed an “Anti-Imperialist League.”

Emilio Aguinaldo

Emilio Aguinaldo had been a leading Filipino rebel against the Spanish in 1896 and was exiled to Hong Kong. Commodore George Dewey actually brought him back to the Philippines to rally his fellow citizens against the Spanish colonial government. Combined U.S. and Filipino forces successfully fought the Spanish, and Aguinaldo proclaimed the independence of the Philippines on June 12, 1898. However, the American-Filipino alliance ended the moment the Spanish were defeated. They now fought each other, and their war continued until a formal surrender by the Filipinos on July 4, 1902. However, Filipino guerilla forces continued to fight the Americans until they were conclusively defeated in the Battle of Bud Bagsak in 1913.

The official dates of the Philippine-American War, 1899-1902, are exactly the same as the dates of the Boer War.

Jack read of events in the Philippines, which practically gagged him. He turned for relief to accounts of the early battles in South Africa: the besieging of Ladysmith, Mafeking, and Kimberley, the defeat of British forces by Boer fighters at the important battles of Colenso and Magersfontein. The “Tommies” in their uniforms and cork helmets, with all their training, all their drills and formations, were being humiliated by a motley group of ragtag fighters in their rumpled corduroy suits and battered hats. The Boers did not call themselves soldiers, they called themselves only “burghers,” or citizens.

Typical Boer fighters

Jack was always a reader, but there were two particular books out that year that had made a deep impression on him. The first was Rupert of Hentzau by Anthony Hope, the sequel to Prisoner of Zenda. Oh, that was all wonderful stuff, the royalty, the doomed love of Flavia and Rassendyll, the castles and the duels and the magical forests of central Europe.

Flavia---princess in "Zenda," queen in "Rupert of Hentzau."

But even as he read that tale, he recognized that it was a fantasy world. It was fun to read about the life of that imaginary court in the kingdom of Ruritania, but that did not make him a royalist. He had no sentimental feeling about Queen Victoria—it was surprising how many Americans did. How could anyone square the ideals of 1776 against a simpering admiration for all the fancy dress and ceremony of Windsor Castle and Buckingham Palace?

Jack’s other favorite book was something like the polar opposite of the Anthony Hope. It was The Theory of the Leisure Class by Thorstein Veblen, published February 1899. That incredible notion of “conspicuous consumption”! The stubborn, gritted-teeth refusal to believe in the value of luxury! Jack had to admit that he enjoyed teasing Sarah, the young lady he’d been seeing lately, with Veblen’s commentary about female dress. “Dress must not only be conspicuously expensive and inconvenient, it must at the same time be up to date. No explanation at all satisfactory has hitherto been offered of the phenomenon of changing fashions.” And then, further along in Chapter Four, “The high heel, the skirt, the impracticable bonnet, the corset, and the general disregard of the wearer’s comfort which is an obvious feature of all civilized women’s apparel, are so many items of evidence to the effect that in the modern civilized scheme of life the woman is still, in theory, the economic dependent of the man—that, perhaps in a highly idealized sense, she is still the man’s chattel.”

Sarah seemed generally to support Veblen’s ideas, but the faintly humorous thing was that Jack seemed to be more enthusiastic about it than she was. She’d made some comment about Veblen being an ugly man. Well, he was, and the fellow didn’t seem to care in the least.

Thorstein Veblen

Anthony Hope

Jack was fond of the Ruritanian world, but it was with Veblen that his real sympathies lay. And whenever he picked up the latest news bulletin about events in South Africa, he found himself cheering for the outnumbered Boers.

It was somewhere around Christmastime that he made the decision that he would go to South Africa and fight with the Boers. He hadn’t told Sarah yet, or his family. It was hard to explain why he would want to go risk his life in a strange country. But the conflict had gotten a grip on his imagination, and he felt that whenever an idea had such power in one’s thoughts, one should probably follow it. It wasn’t so often in life that ideas emerged so clearly from the general blur of everyday life. He had a few practical details to work out. It seemed there were two ways to get from the U.S. to South Africa in the absence of direct passenger routes. Normally one would have to go by way of London, and anyway he’d never be able to book passage on a British ship to Cape Town or Durban unless he pretended to be there on the opposite errand. One of the ways to go directly from the U.S. was to join an ambulance unit, and the other was to go on one of the ships carrying mules for the British army. The English were buying up American mules by the thousand.

*Quoted in “Taking Sides in the Boer War” by Byron Farwell, American Heritage Magazine, April 1976. I am indebted to Farwell for the information about the U.S. position on the Boer War.

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Comments»

1. Thomas Stazyk - February 18, 2011

Fantastic post and pics–thanks! I remember learning about Aguinaldo in history class–he doesn’t look anything like the way he was portrayed.

Jenny - February 18, 2011

Thanks for your comment. Yes, Aguinaldo is a fairly slender, pale-looking rebel—which only makes the story of his life more poignant.


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