Category Archives: Empire History

South African native labourers buried in Portsmouth

Steamship SS Mendi, which sank on 21 February ...

The SS Mendi (Image via Wikipedia)

While I’ve been looking at the Australian Great War troops buried in Milton Cemetery in Portsmouth, I have also come across other foreign nationals who are buried in military war graves in the city. Servicemen from Canada, the Netherlands and Belgium are buried in Milton, Kingston and Highland Road. But by far the largest contingent are South Africans, of the South African Native Labour Corps. They were killed in one of Britain’s worst ever maritime disasters.

Thousands of black south african natives were recruited to provide a non-combatant labour pool for the vast BEF on the Western Front. The intention was to free-up infantry from fatigue duties to allow them to concentrate on front-line duties. Black South Africans were not obliged to perform war service, but could volunteer to work on a contract basis. Historians have argued that using black native labour in an inferior support role was acceptable, given the prevailing ideology at the time. It was also deemed acceptable to contain the natives in their camps at all times, and to not let them anywhere near the front line.

A total of eight men from the Native Labour Corps are buried in Milton Cemetery. They were all killed when their troopship the SS Mendi was sunk off St Catherines Point, on the Isle of Wight. On the night of 21 February 1917 the Mendi was transporting 823 men and officers of the 5th Battalion of the Native Labour Corps from Cape Town to Le Havre, via Lagos and Plymouth. At 5am she was hit by the SS Daro, a meat ship travelling to Argentina.

Legend has it that when the Mendi sank, Reverend Isaac Dyoba rallied the men calling;

“”Be quiet and calm my countrymen, for what is taking place now is what you came here to do. We are going to die, and that is what we came for. Brothers, we are drilling the death drill. I, a Zulu, say here and now that you are all my brothers… Xhosas, Swazis, Pondos, Basotho and all others, let us die like warriors. We are the sons ofAfrica. Raise your war cries my brothers, for though they made us leave our assegais back in the kraals, our voices are left with our bodies.. Let us die like brothers.”

616 South Africans were killed, 607 of them black labourers. The 30 British crew were also killed. The majority of those killed were lost at sea, and are remembered on the Hollybrook War Memorial in Southampton. Presumably the few bodies that were recovered were brought to Portsmouth, being the nearest port and the location of military hospitals. 200 men survived. It is estimated that up to 140 men may have died trapped in the hull.

Looking at the information we know of the natives, we can learn a lot about how just how different their way of life was. Many only have one name. In most cases there are very few of the details that we would expect with white European casualties, such as full names and addresses. People in different cultures obviously recorded their names and details very differently, and it seems also that the personnel administration for native labourers was a lot more lax than for British troops.

Other men who died on the Mendi are buried elsewhere: one at Hastings, one at Littlehampton, one at Wimeraux in France (south of Calais) and two in Holland (Wassenaar and Bergen-op-Zoom). Some of the survivors drifted ashore in their lifeboats as far afield as Dorset. It is touching to note that whilst they were treated as inferior in life, in death the native labourers whose bodies were found were all given standard CWGC war graves, under the commonwealths forward thinking policy (for the time) of making no distinction between rank, race, colour or creed.

With political developments in South Africa and elsewhere in the 94 years since the Mendi went down, 600 black labourers dying in such tragic circumstances in a ‘white mans war’ has been a subject of much discussion in South Africa, but is little-known in Britain. The Wreck of the Mendi is now a protected war grave, and has been subject of investigations by English Heritage and Wessex Archaeology.

 

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Cricket: The Empire strikes back

The British Empire in 1815, aka the Cricket World

The British Empire in 1815, aka the Cricket World (Image via Wikipedia)

Cricket. Now theres a sport that stepped in history, heritage and culture. From the evocative names such as Lords, Headingley, The Oval and the ‘G, to the origins of the game itself, Cricket is literally dripping in tradition and history.

Look at the teams that play Test Cricket – England, Australia, India, South Africa, West Indies, Sri Lanka, New Zealand, Pakistan, Bangladesh. All former British colonies. Cricket was exported as a genteel game for the well-to-do by Brits abroad in the mid Nineteenth Century, during the height of the British Empire. In the same manner, Polo became popular in the Indian-Subcontinent, and Rugby in South Africa and the Antipodes. Fine example of sport having strong cultural roots.

Empire History is even evoked in song: ‘Captain Cook only stopped for a shit’, ‘You all live in a convict colony’, and even ‘we come with rucksacks, you came with a ball and chain’. The banter even goes into national stereotypes – one Barmy Army t-shirt has on it ‘Your nation has been found guilty of being a barbecue-obsessed, Olympic-whinging, rugby-choking, mullet-sporting lazy bunch of convicts. I hereby sentence you to another 200 years of having a chip on your shoulder’. Classic.

Cricket tends to remember and cherish its history better than most games. While most Pompey fans have no idea who Jimmy Dickinson was, all English cricket fans will know hallowed names like Grace, Trueman, Cowdrey, Boycott and Botham. Stands at Cricket Grounds are almost always named after ex-players. The Pavillions hark back to the old days of the sport, reminding us of roots long before newer larger steel and concrete stands. Lords in particular is a cricketing world all of its own – the Long Room, old father time, the Museum, and even the new media centre.

The other thing about Cricket is that due to the way its played – and its long history – its a statto’s wet dream. Virtually every match sees some record or other being broken, be it individual, team, partnership, or batting, bowling, fielding or whatever. There’s even a Society of Cricket Statisticians out there. I don’t think it would be inaccurate to say that players play with one eye on their statistics – their averages and their place on the honours boards, for example. And even in a moral sense, events such as the miracle of Headingley in 1981, the infamous Bodyline tour in the 1930′s and even the story of the little urn itself… they hang over the sport like some kind of mystical cloud.

The Culture of Cricket is also legendary. Hence the phrase, ‘its just not Cricket’, implying that certain things are just not on. Such as claiming a catch when you know it didnt carry, or staying at the crease when you know the ball took a nick. These sorts of values encapsulate the old-fashioned British sense of fair play, and for many people transcend the sport. Sadly these have been less in evidence in recent years – Australian arrogance in success and bitterness in defeat (see Ricky Ponting, also see ‘worlds worst loser’), and numerous ball-tampering, match-fixing and spot-betting allegations. But there are still examples of sportsmanship – how Adam Gilchrist used to walk of his own accord, and Freddie Flintoff consoling Brett Lee after the second test at Edgbaston in 2005, for example.

Thats not to say that I agree with all things to do with Cricket. The ‘old boys club’ part of it does make me feel like projectile vomiting – especially at Lords when you have the wonderful spectacle of row upon row of portly gentleman sat in MCC Blazer, who couldn’t chase a ball across the outfield if their life depended on it. I abhor snobbery in all its forms, and especially in sport. The snobs who criticise the Barmy Army for standing up and daring to support their team should just go home and listen on the radio. They’re the same ilk who years ago held that batsmen were ‘gentlemen’, and bowlers were ‘amateurs’. Pathetic.

But yes: to cut a long story short, I’m looking forward to watching England knock the Aussies all over Sydney again, it will be particularly sweet.

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Wavell: Soldier and Statesman

 

I must confess I had probably conformed to the wider orthodoxy on British military history when it came to Wavell – everything before Monty was hopeless, surely? This perceived wisdom is partly due to efforts of both Montgomery the self-publicist and Churchill, whose history of the Second World War set the tone for the historiography of the conflict. Victoria Schofield is an authority on the Indian sub-continent, and has also written an official history of Wavell’s Regiment, the Black Watch. Therefore, she is ideally placed to try and redress Wavell’s poor treatment through history.

But reading this book has made me think differently. Prior to El Alamein the British Army and its commanders were swimming against the tide – poorly equipped, poorly prepared, and with far too much being expected of them in the circumstances. Wavell was by no means the only British General whom Churchill castigated for not moving heaven and earth in the way that he demanded, and because he did not fit Churchill’s ridiculous stereotype of what a General should ‘be’. This gives us an insight into Churchill’s failings in terms of working with his commanders – men such as Auchinleck, Dill, and even Montgomery also suffered from Churchill’s outbursts.

As a young Black Watch officer Wavell was seriously wounded on the Western Front (in common with Montgomery), losing an eye in the process. After recovering he was drafted to the Middle East, serving under Allenby during his famous campaign against the Turks in Palestine, culminating in the capture of Jerusalem. Wavell learnt much during this period, and some years later went on to author a Biography of Allenby. During the inter-war years Wavell had a much more active service than many of his contemporaries, with a number of staff and regimental postings, as well as writing on military history and theory. Prior to the Second World War he also developed a correspondence with the military theorist Basil Liddell Hart.

There were in fact some extremely bright moments in the early years of the war in the Desert – not least Operation Compass, where led by Richard O’Connor the Western Desert Force completely routed the Italians on the Egyptian-Lybian border. If it hadn’t been for a London-based directive to intervene in Greece, Wavell and O’Connor might well have been able to rout the Italians from North Africa entirely. The Italians were also completely routed in East Africa too. Yet Churchill’s constant meddling and barracking – added to the wide expanse of Wavell’s command – made his task nigh on impossible.

After leaving the Middle East, Wavell was appointed the Commander-in-Chief in India, at an important time when the Japanese were threatening the Far East. After the outbreak of war with Japan Wavell was made supreme commander of the short-lived American, British Dutch and Australian Command, co-ordinating the war in South East Asia. This task proved a thankless one, with the woeful lack of preparation and resources, combined with the relentless onslaught of the Japanese, culminating in the fall of Singapore. It is hard to apportion any blame on Wavell for these early reverses in the east, given the impossible situation in which he was placed.

After returning to India from his Far East appointment, Wavell was then appointed as Viceroy – the King’s representative in India. Although having little experience of politics, Wavell’s calm, studious personality enabled him to perform reasonably well in dealing with the extreme demands of the post – seeing India through the final stages of the war, and not least handling the growing move towards Indian independence. Wavell’s approach in this respect seems to have been for negotiation between all of the parties, over any and every potential problem. This contrasts with events that transpired after Wavell’s replacement by Mountbatten in 1947 – a pell-mell descent into independence, followed by chaos and anarchy in which thousands died.

The impression I have of Field Marshal Wavell is of a very quiet, private but very intelligent man who did the best that could be expected of him at the time. It should be no reflection on him at all that the Prime Minister of the day found it difficult to trust his subordinates, and at times showed very poor judgement of character. A much-maligned figure in British military history, Wavell seems to have suffered not only from being in the wrong commands at the wrong time, but also from his modest nature, not unlike other commanders such as Alan Brooke and Bill Slim, who have been overshadowed by publicists such as Montgomery, or dashing warriors such as Alexander. How might Wavell and Auchinleck have fared later in the war when resources were behind the allies? By the same token, how might Montgomery have fared commanding earlier in the war when the cards were heavily stacked against Britain?

Hopefully Victoria Schofield’s masterly biography will go some way to redressing the harsh treatment that Wavell has been afforded by history. Schofield makes the case for Wavell very well, which is just as well given that all the evidence suggests that he was, unjustly, one of the most maligned figures of the Second World War. I’m by no means a fan of the official military biography, but this example is very well done indeed.

Wavell: Soldier and Statesmen is published by Pen and Sword

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Zulu: Queen Victoria’s Most Famous Little War by W.B. Bartlett

I’m reading another book at the moment about Winston Churchill, and the author writes at one point that after 1945 Churchill was harking for the long peace that he knew during the latter years of the Victorian era, in the early years of his life. Which is rather strange, as Churchill himself charged at Omdurman and was a war correspondent in the Boer War.

The ‘golden’ age of the British Empire was hallmarked by a lengthy peace between the European powers (save the Crimean War and the Franco-Prussian War), which is a very British way of seeing things, pulling up the draw bridge an’ all that. But at the same time, the British Empire brought about a plethora of small wars on virtually every continent. I’m always amazed by the huge range of wars that redcoats and native contingents found themselves fighting, particularly on the North West Frontier and in Africa.

Perhaps the most famous of these ‘little wars’ was that fought with the Zulu Empire in South Africa 1879. Here W.B. Bartlett has given this well-known but oft-misunderstood war a measured and scholarly treatment. Firstly, perceptions of the war have inevitably been tinted by the battle fought at Rorkes Drift, as immortalised in the 1946 film Zulu. The Zulu Impi descended on Rorkes Drift after inflicting a humiliting defeat on a British column at Isandlwana, another battle that is well known. But these two battles overshadow the rest of the war to the extent that the final outcome is little known.

The war seems to have begun in a typically British manner – no-one could point out precisely why the British wanted to advance into Zululand. In hindsight, it seems to have been a classic case of what I think of as ‘Empire creep’ – once one realm was captured, eyes instantly turned to that next door, even if there was nothing to capture and it was only a case of securing the frontier of land already held. There was no specific reason for the British to fight the Zulus, making the war somewhat un-necessary in any case.

The British commander was General John Thesiger, who during the campaign inherited the title of Lord Chelmsford. A controversial character, his legacy has been shaped by the humiliation at Isandlwana. The war began with several British columns advancing into Zululand, and in hindsight it appears that they were woefully underprepared and underestimated the Zulus. There was no intelligence to speak of, and the Natal Native Contingent were unreliable. This is a typically British military trait – starting a war with as little resources as possible, unprepared, and trying to get away with using as few British troops as possible. After the debacle at Isandlwana the Army was shaken out of its comfort zone, and eventually defeated the Zulus and captured King Cetshwayo.

The battle at Rorkes Drift is a curious incident in British military history. Undoubtedly a very brave action fought against overwhelming odds, it is important to remember that the South Wales Borderers were armed with Martini-Henry Rifles and were behind improvised but strong fortifications. Whilst it was a brave action, did it warrant such a large number of Victoria Crosses? It has to be said, that Rorkes Drift was probably used as a publicity coup to deflect attention from the terrible news of Isandlwana. Which as a shame, as it was still a brave fight none the less.

Another interesting story to come from the Zulu War is that of the death of the French Prince Imperial. A great-nephew of Napoleon and son of the Exiled French Emperor Louis Napoleon, the Prince Imperial begged to be allowed to go to South Africa to take part in the war in some capacity. That it was not his war in the first place and that he had no conceivable use was of no consequence, somehow he managed to pull enough strings to be allowed to go to a war that was not his. He was killed in the process. Although his death became something of a cause celebre, modern historians mostly agree that he should not have been there in the first place.

This is a balanced and refreshing take on what is a well-known but oft-understood war, two traits that often go hand in hand. By not concentrating overly on Isandlwana and Rorkes Drift, Bartlett reminds us that the war was much wider than we might realise, thanks to Hollywood.

Zulu: Queen Victoria’s Most Famous Little War is published by The History Press

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Hugh Quarshie – Who Do You Think You Are?

Finally, a WDYTYA episode that one, has an imperial twist, and two, doesnt try to make us all feel guilty for the British Empire! Actor Hugh Quarshie (Ric in Holby City) is of Ghanaian ancestry. The first part of the programme shows Hugh travelling to Ghana to trace that side of his family tree.

Interestingly, the programme sheds light on the fact that Ghana – known as the Gold Coast – had imperial masters before the British, in the shape of the Portuguese, and then the Dutch. And Quarshie’s family had Dutch blood, in the shape of a Dutch imperial civil servant who married a Ghanaian woman and had children with her. The Dutchman, Peter Kamerling, founded the village where Hugh’s ancestors lived. And when he visits the village, we get a surprise – none of present day inhabitants are bothered about the imperial past. In fact, he is greeted as minor royalty, and other villages who have links with the Kamerlings are very proud of their heritage. Kinda throws new light on the liberal assumption that Empire is terrible and that the natives are always hard done by.

Then Hugh travels to Holland, and manages to trace more records about the Dutch side of his family. And, incredibly, he meets a Dutch descendant of the Kamerlings, who has researched his family tree. Although Kamerling has apparently deserted his Ghanaian family to return to Holland, Hugh finds that his will made provisions for all of his children in Ghana, and he even included their birth certificates in his will in order to prove that they were his children. Although he had left them, he had not forgotten them.

The Dutch Empire of the 17th Century is all but forgotten in the race to lay on the guilt over the British Empire. The Dutch built an impressive trading network, covering parts of North America, the west coast of Africa and the East Indies. The Dutch were methodical record keepers, which helped Hugh trace that part of his family history. But they were also ruthless. I have read an account from modern day Indonesia, where Dutch merchants caught an English rival trading in one of their ports. They chased him, and when they caught him he was cut, and ‘washed in salt and vinegar’. Lovely!

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Mother Country: Britain’s Black Community on the Home Front 1939-45 by Stephen Bourne

Its hard to overstate just how important this book is in terms of the social history of wartime Britain. Personally, I have always been quite unhappy with what I call the ‘windrush assumption’ – that the first ever black people to live in Britain arrived in the 1950′s, no-one in Britain had ever seen a black person before, and that everyone was most unpleasant to them. One national museum even staged a major exhibition that subscribed to – and no doubt helped propagate – this myth.

Stephen Bourne, however, has shattered some misconceptions here. Black people WERE part of British society long before 1939. Black people DID play a part on the Home Front, and DID even serve in the armed forces. And it is very important that their contribution to the war effort is understood and recognised. Black people faced exactly the same risks as their white compatriots, and contributed to the war effort in much the same way – serving as ARP wardens, Firemen, Foresters, factory workers, and in many other roles.

Many different countries became part of the British Empire; the Empire on which the sun never set. Many different ethnic groups came under the imperial banner – African and Carribean among them. Inevitably, black people came to view Britain as the ‘mother country’ (something that goes against the grain of apologist imperial history), and many came to settle in Britain from the Nineteenth Century onwards. In some parts of Britain there were sizeable black communities – the east end of London and Bristol, for example.

Another interesting contribution of black people in wartime was in the field of entertainment. Performers such as Adelaide Hall and Ken ‘Snakehips’ Johnson played an important part in keeping up morale, both at home and overseas with the armed forces. Johnson was killed during the war when a bomb struck the theatre in which he and his band were performing. Not only were they contributing to morale, but they were also facing exactly the same risks as their white colleagues. The BBC also produced radio programmes aimed at black people in Britain, and also in the West Indies and Africa.

Sadly, it does seem that discrimination against black people reached a height when the US Army came to Britain after 1941. US servicemen came from what was still a deeply segregated society, particulary in the deep south. The US authorities imposed the same restrictions whilst on British soil (historians have described the situation as ‘when Jim Crow met John Bull‘) which not only upset many British white people, but also had knock-on effects for British black citizens too. There were cases in my area of white GI’s attacking Black servicemen, and then being confronted by locals who were sympathetic to the Black GI’s.

Stephen Bourne has made a fine contribution to the historiography of the Home Front. Hopefully this book will shatter some myths and bring about a new understanding not only of wartime Britain, but also broader black history too.

Mother Country: Britain’s Black Community on the Home Front 1939-45 is published by The History Press

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Who Do You Think You Are? – Rupert Penry-Jones

Its not really a secret that I am not the biggest fan of WDYTYA. All too often it makes it look too easy, when in reality genealogy can be – for us mere mortals, anyway – bloody hard work. And after five series, they’re starting to run out of decent celebrities to research. But tonight’s episode was pretty damm interesting. And funnily enough, I hadn’t even heard of Rupert Penry-Jones before watching it! (he’s an actor, apparently…)

His Grandfather was a Lieutenant-Colonel in the Indian Army Medical Service, and commanded a Field Ambulance in the Eighth Army from 1943 until the end of the war, including at Monte Cassino. Penry-Jones travelled to Italy and met with a veteran of Monte Cassino to talk about the battle.

As we might expext from someone called Rupert who has a double-barrelled-shotgun surname, his family were very much ‘of the Raj’. One ancestor was responsible for the ceremonial events in Dehli in the late 19th and early 20th Centuries, including the incredible 1911 Dehli Coronation Durbar.

Going back even further, another ancestor was serving as an officer in the British Army in India during the Indian Mutiny of 1857. Penry-Jones managed to track down letters that his ancestor sent his wife while taking part in the crushing of the rebellion, before he died of Cholera whilst marching to Lucknow.

Incredibly, Penry-Jones was also able to confirm a family rumour that they had Indian blood, by going back a full eight generations, to 1817. All those generations back one of his ancestor’s married a woman who was described as an ‘Indo-Britain’. Further research established that she was the product of an Anglo-Indian marriage.

Perhaps not the kind of story that most normal people will find themselves researching in their family history (and even if we did find it, who could afford to fly to India for a spot of genealogy?), but very interesting none the less. It would be even more watchable if Rupert didn’t insist on wearing an ethnic-style scarf whilst walking rould Allahabad!

WDYTYA with Rupert Penry-Jones can be watched on BBC iplayer until Monday 20 September 2010.

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