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

Posted by Jenny in Boer War, history, poetry.
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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

The capture of the “Lady Roberts” July 20, 2010

Posted by Jenny in Boer War, military history.
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A 4.7 inch naval gun similar to the "Lady Roberts." This photo is said to have been taken at the battle of Colenso, a year earlier than the battle of Helvetia described below.#

By June 1900, the British had captured the Boer capitals—Bloemfontein and Pretoria—and the Boers had decided to switch to guerilla tactics and continue the fight, even though they were outnumbered, in any given engagement, on the order of ten to one. They would keep fighting as long as they could. They were forced to capitulate, out of starvation and lack of ammunition, two years later. The British had destroyed most of their farms and transported most of their families to giant unsanitary camps.

Boer farmhouse burned by British army

The massive British army, under the command of Lord Roberts, had pushed the ragtag remnants of the Boer army eastward, toward Portuguese East Africa (now Mozambique). But the various commandos had filtered back to the highveld from dangerous malarial lands inhabited by lion and leopard, a region adjoining and including parts of what is now Kruger National Park.

By November 1900, General Ben Viljoen of Johannesburg had reassembled forces scattered by the eastward flight. Viljoen’s men had little in common with each other except that they came from the goldmining towns of the Rand and they weren’t ready to give up their war. There were fighting Doppers under Field-Cornet Kruger, a relative of the exiled president Paul Kruger. There were the Johannesburgers, the Fordsburg men, the Jeppestown men, the survivors of the Zarps. There was even a remnant of the Transvaal State Artillery, although the artillerists were armed now with rifles, not their giant Creusot guns.

General Ben Viljoen

Their great moment of fame arrived on the night of December 28, when they attacked Helvetia and surrounding forts. A young burgher named Roland Schikkerling and members of the Johannesburg and Fordsburg commandos were to capture a heavily defended fort called Swartkoppies while other commandos attacked Hevetia itself. Their field cornet, with some guides, led the way through the pitch black night.

Schikkerling rode along in the darkness, keeping his horse up close behind the one ahead because he had no idea of the route. But all of a sudden the chain of horsemen broke and the men milled about in confusion. Some hapless fellow named Fick had fallen asleep, and all the burghers behind him had lost their way. Their field cornet continued ahead with about 30 men, unaware that 100 had been left behind. The stragglers quietly searched for the ones in front, then, not wanting to disturb the khakis slumbering in their forts, gave up and stopped behind a kopje to wait for daylight.

Before dawn they saw a blaze of rifle flashes ahead, distant and disconnected from them, like something in astronomy. This was the other commandos attacking Helvetia. The flashes sparkled for about ten minutes and then stopped. When the first streaks of dawn appeared they made out the fort Swartkoppies across the veld. “Now of course, it was too late to do anything and we felt vexed and ashamed of ourselves,” Schikkerling later wrote.* They were desperately curious to know the outcome of the fight. Finally three horsemen rode in their direction, coming with the news that Helvetia had surrendered. The commandos had taken many prisoners and supply wagons. Best of all, they’d captured one of the big English guns. This one was called “Lady Roberts” in honor of the wife of the British commander (who had just gone back to England, thinking most of the work was done). They all rode forward to help bring her out.

Roberts, known as "Bobs," after the Boer War

The khakis were causing aggravation by shooting at the oxen of the gun team. Every time one of the oxen fell, the burghers had to yoke a fresh ox in its place. Sometimes, a man had to step in and carry the empty half of the yoke.

The capture of the “Lady Roberts” was a great thing, but it would be even more satisfactory if they could also bring out the Lady’s ammunition. But as they struggled to make off with the ammunition wagon across the open plain, the Swartkoppies guns got them in their sights and pelted them with shells. Since a direct hit would create a fireball of sufficient size to be seen back in England by Lord Roberts, they abandoned the wagon. A few horsemen grabbed up what they could of the gun’s 46-lb. shells, each man cradling one of the shiny projectiles as he galloped away.

Explosion of an ammunition wagon (this was at Paardeberg the year before)

Two hundred and thirty-four men of the Liverpool regiment marched in a long irregular file behind the gun. When the Boers had overrun the fort and the commanding officer was wounded, many of the Liverpools had filled their water bottles from the garrison’s barrels of rum. Some were already too drunk to walk, while others offered swigs to their captors. As the motley procession staggered up a long hill, thunder and lightning made the sky crackle. The air turned solid with rain. The gun team of 18 oxen struggled and slithered in the mud. Knots of unguarded prisoners followed along, not inclined to run off into the sodden veld. During the height of the downpour Schikkerling and a comrade named Malherbe dismounted and sheltered themselves under their blankets. When they rode on again, they passed straggling Tommies, miles behind the others, who inquired brightly if they were “right for the laager [camp].”

Most of the burghers, tired and hungry, had gone on to the village of Dullstroom. Schikkerling and eight others were asked to guard the “Lady Roberts” as she trundled slowly along. At last they reached the village and, trusting that the prisoners would not suddenly rise up and carry off the gun, they found a storehouse of wool and curled up in its soft contents to go to sleep.

The “Lady Roberts” was presented to the government of the Transvaal Republic, which remained largely intact even though it was attempting to perform its duties on behalf of the nearly extinct Boer republic while being incessantly chased by the khakis. The government happened just then to be camped at Tautesburg, not far away.

Francis William Reitz, secretary of state of the Transvaal and father of the famous Boer fighter Deneys Reitz, wrote a song about the “Lady Roberts” that was sung by the burghers throughout the remainder of the war.  It went: “The women out he [Lord Roberts] drives / He can not overcome the men /  So persecutes the wives. / But his old Lady Roberts / Who lyddite [a type of explosive] spits for sport / He puts her at Helvetia / For safety in a fort / He thought there was no danger / For that confounded Boer / With his confounded Mauser / Would trouble him no more….”

This post is adapted from my work, “Transvaal Citizen.”

* Roland Schikkerling, Commando Courageous: A Boer’s Diary (Hugh Keartland, Johannesburg, 1964).

#The label on the original photo does not specify, but I think this must be one of the guns captured at Colenso by the Boers, as those artillerists are certainly not British.

Ben Viljoen commando. Note "hairy burgher" at front.

Deneys Reitz in WWI/ Why take the British side? February 7, 2010

Posted by Jenny in Boer War, military history, World War One.
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Reitz had fought against the British at Spion Kop

This is the second part of a series that starts here.

When the First World War broke out, many Boers sympathized with the Germans more than with the British—even though the consequence of the Boer War (1899-1902) was that they were all now British citizens.  Many truly hated “the English” with a vengeance, still dreaming that their independent republics—the Transvaal, the Orange Free State—might somehow be restored to them.

Deneys Reitz had fought the British from the very beginning to the very end of the war, from the age of 17 to 20.  Following the Treaty of Vereeniging in June, 1902, he went into exile in Madagascar rather than pledge loyalty to King Edward.  Yet, in WWI, he not only fought in Germany’s African colonies with the army of the British-aligned Union of South Africa, he went out of his way to journey as a volunteer all the way to Europe and join the British army on the Western Front.  What made him change his thinking?

When Reitz went to Madagascar, he tried to start a business conveying goods by ox cart.  But he ran into endless problems.  The steep roads through the mountainous jungle weren’t suited to ox convoys.  The heavy wagons tumbled off precipitous paths and broke through the planks of rickety bridges.  The enterprise became a financial disaster, and he couldn’t pay the wages of his wagon drivers.

Madagascar highland plateau

He was also suffering from severe malaria.  Quite often he had to rest in the jungle for days, drenched in sweat, his teeth chattering with fever.  Pursued by creditors and wracked by illness, he decided to flee Madagascar.  On a strange and delirious journey, aboard a succession of boats that bumped along the African coast, he finally resolved to go home to South Africa, though none of his family were there.  His father had gone to Texas—having read admiringly of George Washington successfully fighting the British—and his brothers were scattered far and wide.  He was barely alive by the time he got back.  When at last he arrived at the Pretoria train station, he collapsed unconscious on the platform.  A former comrade, Ben Coetzee, recognized him, and he was taken to the home of his former commando leader, Jan Smuts.

He was back in Pretoria by December 1903, according to information I have obtained from his family, but Reitz seemed later embarrassed at having abandoned his decision to go into exile in a fairly short time.  He was vague about the timeframe in his account in Trekking On, and in his third book, No Outspan, he referred to “eking out a precarious existence for some years” in Madagascar.  He needn’t have been embarrassed.  It was financially and physically impossible for him to stay in Madagascar or to strike out on a new course anywhere else.

Jan Smuts in the Boer War

It took him several years, convalescing at the Smuts household, to fully recover from the malaria.  Eventually he took up the study of law, and he left Pretoria in 1908 to start his own practice.  During those years in Pretoria, he had contact not only with Smuts but with Louis Botha, who had been Commandant-General of Boer forces during the war.  Botha would become the first prime minister of the newly created Union of South Africa in 1910.  Smuts and Botha took the stance that South Africa could only move forward in a changing modern world by way of cooperation between citizens of English and Dutch descent.  (Blacks were of course invisible in this picture and would remain so for many years.)  During the peace talks in 1902, those two had maintained a more conciliatory position than their crusty compatriot Christiaan De Wet.  By that final stage in the war, the Boer population was literally starving and many of the women and children had been put in concentration camps.  In the face of this reality, the stubbornness of De Wet was something like an impossible, mystical state.

Louis Botha in the Boer War

When Reitz returned from his exile, the malaria became a barrier that separated two parts of his life.  From the adventures of war and exile, he didn’t go into a different mode of activity but actually into unconsciousness.  Out of this time of shapeless existence, new ideas were able to form.

In looking for the reasons for his change of heart, some might say that in those years he “came under the influence” of Smuts and Botha.  But that isn’t really quite right.  Of course he listened to what they said, and it’s clear from his writings that he agreed with the substance of it.  Yet there was something already in him that predisposed him not to live in the past—not to live out his years wishing the old days of the Boer republics could come back.  He’d always been a skeptical person, unsentimental, having no taste for the mystical, the emotional, the hysterical.  He risked his life for abstractions like independence, but once he’d made up his mind on any course, his approach became quite practical.  He was an interesting combination of things: an idealist with a lot of common sense who was willing to put up the ultimate fight.

# # #

The sheet music shown below is for a song called “Farewell to the Vierkleur,” written by Francis William Reitz, the father of Deneys Reitz and formerly the state secretary of the Transvaal Republic.  The Vierkleur was the four-colored flag of the Transvaal. On the occasion of the signing of the Treaty of Vereeniging, F.W. Reitz had ceremoniously buried the Transvaal flag, tears in his eyes.  (The illustration shows the Transvaal flag on the right and the Orange Free State flag on the left.)

"Varwel aan de Vierkleur"