Buckle Up

Chapter 14

“We have no eternal allies, and we have no perpetual enemies. Our interests are eternal and perpetual, and those interests it is our duty to follow.” — British Prime Minister Henry John Temple, 3rd Viscount Palmerston, KG, GCB, PC, FRS.

My father was born 99 years ago in the peak month of the greatest medical holocaust in history. Spanish Flu ended up killing one in every four of the half a billion people it infected, causing more deaths in 24 weeks than AIDS caused in 24 years, and more in a year than the Black Death killed in a century. By the time it was over the only populated region on earth that hadn’t been infected was the isolated island of Marajó in Brazil’s Amazon River Delta.

Many of its victims were new born babies. My paternal grandmother always claimed that it was thanks only to the lemon juice she squeezed down his little throat that my father survived while so many other neonates were dying on the neighbouring farms and in the towns and townships of that region of the Eastern Cape.

Another neonate who survived the pandemic was Nelson Mandela, born 52 days later in the village of Mvezo, only a stone’s throw from my father’s natal town of Dordrecht. I mention this not because it’s a politically significant coincidence, nor because I later came to see so much of Mandela in my father and so much of my father in Mandela, but because it supports my theory that there was something peculiarly British in the air or the water or the lemon juice of the Eastern Cape at that time.

The region stretches between the cold mountains of Lesotho in the north and The Windy City of Port Elizabeth in the south, bounded in the west by the Great Karroo and by the warm Indian Ocean in the east. It is home to the AmaGcaleka, AmaRharhabe, ImiDange, ImiDushane and AmaNdlambe, the original tribes that came to be united by the Xhosa language and the Xhosa way of life. Among the several smaller tribes that were absorbed into the Xhosa nation were the AmaThembu, which counted among its several clans one known as the Madiba.

The Afrikaner farmers and townsfolk of the Eastern Cape are the descendants of earlier Dutch settlers or of the Afrikaner diaspora that spread across southern Africa in the Great Trek of 1936.

The English-speaking white population of its cities, towns and farms are descended for the most part from the 1820 Settlers, that first great wave of English migrants sent to South Africa after the Cape was secured by the British in 1805.

They didn’t set out to seek their fortunes, nor, unusually, were they sent further British aggrandisement in Africa. They were shipped out by a government trying to save its political skin by reducing the vast numbers of unemployed roaming the streets of Britain in the aftermath of the Napoleonic wars.

They would have had to exchange their English slippers for British boots the moment they set foot on shore. The local Xhosa people had been displaced and antagonised by the intrusion of the Voortrekkers and by the Frontier Wars (which were still being called the Kaffir Wars when we were taught their history in the 1960s) between the indigenous people and British imperial interests north of the Fish River, the longest-running military action in the history of African colonialism — exactly a hundred years from 1779 and 1879.

The Hundred Years’ War between the House of Plantagenet, rulers of the Kingdom of England, and the House of Valois, rulers of the Kingdom of France, over the succession to the French throne lasted from 1337 to 1453. It concluded with the loss of all of England’s Continental possessions apart from Calais.

The hundred years of the Frontier Wars gained the British Empire 50,000 square miles of territory, or roughly eighty percent of the land area of the Xhosa nation.

During the 4th Frontier War, eight years before the bulk of the settlers arrived, the first Governor of the Cape Colony, Lt-General John Cradock, sent a force under Colonel John Graham to drive the Xhosa beyond the Fish River. Cradock’s brief to Graham was to inflict no more bloodshed “than was necessary to impress on the minds of these savages a proper degree of terror and respect.”

The look of the lush grass on the green hills had deceived the 1820 English settlers into thinking the land would be amenable to intensive English farming methods. When it turned out to be suurveld, the sour grasses suitable for grazing only over on a vast scale, their vulnerability to retributive attacks by the Xhosa was compounded by the threat of imminent starvation.

So many Westerns have been produced that Wikipedia divides them into seven sub-genres. Wikipedia lists more than 150 films about Native Americans.

It’s remarkable, then, that it’s impossible to call to mind a single film set in the Eastern Cape in the early 19th century when these families of English settlers faced the same dangers faced by the English settlers who hitched their wagons to the stars above the wild, hostile west. Nor is there a single film set in the Eastern Cape that portrays the terrors of an indigenous people confronted for the first time by gunpowder and greed.

One of Wikipedia’s seven Western sub-genres is the “Cavalry and Indian story” where “the plot revolves around ‘taming’ the wilderness for white settlers.” The Western wilderness that required taming included America’s own version of Cradock’s “savages”, some coyotes, some bears, some rattlesnakes and a few outlaws. The Eastern Cape version had lions, leopards, cheetahs, African buffalo, elephants, baboons, two dozen species of scavengers and all but one or two of the world’s most dangerous snakes to complement the likelihood of death by hunger, disease and the native horde.

A popular holiday destination in the Eastern Cape, a vast territory of white beaches and indigenous forests, is still called The Wilderness.

Hollywood has revised America’s history and redeemed some of its moral disgrace by inviting us to see frontier life through the eyes of the men, women and children on both sides of the racial divide who lived through the perils of those times.

The stories of the Eastern Cape men, women and children, English, Afrikaner and Xhosa, are largely untold, and always uncelebrated. They are equally heroic, equally horrific, equally deserving of narrative redemption. We have turned our backs on them out of the shame at our complicity.

Historians will point to the Congo and say that the conquerors of the Xhosa weren’t Belgian, they were British, as if a world of difference lay in that word. I certainly grew up thinking that it did. Benjamin Smith had helped King George to defeat the Kaiser, so Benjamin Smith must have been British. And my father and his brother had helped Churchill defeat Hitler, and no one could be more British than Churchill.

So if my notions of the tolerance, wit and kindness of the English temperament were derived from my mother and her literary inheritance, it was from the living example of my father that I came to associate the British character with fair play, common sense and a stoic good humour.

In 1944 he writes from Cairo to his parents and Dorothy, the eldest of his two younger sisters, as he does every week without fail. It is the 19th of March, the second anniversary of the death of his only brother, taken prisoner at Tobruk and succumbing to his injuries in a POW camp in Puglia, Italy.

Dearest Mom, Dad & Dowie,

It would have been old Jock’s birthday to-morrow. I guess we’ll all be thinking of him all day. Sure to be many other chaps’ birthdays too who can’t be with their people or celebrate by having a nice cake with ‘happy birthday’ written in pink icing on it.

Oh well these things can’t be helped now, but we sincerely hope there’ll never be another war…

Before he signs off with his affections he adds:

Please don’t think I’m having an easy loaf up here. I know you don’t of course. But then when one is kept busy, time passes so much quicker. Fortunately I manage to get a lot of sport in so am perfectly happy & as fit as anything, only I’d love to get back to good solid farming.

Along with the fair play, the common sense and the good natured stoicism there’s also that very British characteristic of deflecting personal sentiment away from oneself and onto others — the selflessness of sacrifice that the King expects and the subject freely gives. The twenty-five year old upper lip is stiffening towards maturity.

Never once in his wartime letters back home to Ossa does he reflect on the moral righteousness of the Allied cause or on the injustices of the Axis. In Egypt he is more impressed by the ingenuity of the local farmers than he is by the pyramids. On a visit to Jerusalem he worries about the drought. From Florence he writes, “We’ve had a bit of rain up here too & there are sure indications that spring is knocking at the door. Some of the fruit trees are starting to bloom already & the good old peasant folk are really getting stuck in to turning over their soil with spades & sowing just about anything they can lay their hands on.”

He’s not there to defend democracy and freedom. He’s there because it’s the honourable and decent thing to do.

The lives of my father and Nelson Mandela had nothing in common apart from the coincidence of their time and place of birth.

At the age of ten one of them is chasing goats down the side of a koppie to get them into the kraal before sunset. Less than sixty miles away the other is reading this:

The sun does arise,

And make happy the skies.

The merry bells ring

To welcome the spring.

The skylark and thrush,

The birds of the bush,

Sing louder around,

To the bells’ cheerful sound,

While our sports shall be seen

On the echoing green.

At the age of twelve one of them is riding a horse through a blizzard to get to school. The other has moved on from the early poems of William Blake to the stories of Mary Lamb, of which the following is a typical opening:

My name, you know, is Withers; but as I once thought I was the daughter of Sir Edward and Lady Harriet Lesley, I shall speak of myself as Miss Lesley, and call Sir Edward and Lady Harriet my father and mother during the period I supposed them entitled to those beloved names. When I was a little girl, it was the perpetual subject of my contemplation that I was an heiress, and the daughter of a baronet; that my mother was the Honourable Lady Harriet; that we had a nobler mansion, infinitely finer pleasure-grounds, and equipages more splendid than any of the neighbouring families. I am ashamed to confess what a proud child I once was.

1939 finds one of them seeing his brother off to war. The other is listening to the principal of Healdtown Comprehensive School making his customary introduction to morning assembly: “I am the descendant of the great Duke of Wellington, aristocrat, statesman and general, who crushed the Frenchman Napoleon at Waterloo and thereby saved civilization for Europe — and for you, the natives.”

While Dad looks watchfully at the Tuscan sky, Nelson Mandela is helping to found the Youth League of the African National Congress.

Just as there’s a clear line of descent from the Allahakbarries of Edwardian Plymouth to the stories we grew up with at New Dell and Drakesleigh, I can trace my father’s Britishness from the good solid farmer to the young British officer in Cairo, to Queen’s College (not the Cambridge one), to his father in the Eastern Cape, and all the way back through the Robert Torr of the second British occupation of the Cape to his good solid 12th century British stock.

It is one of history’s great ironies that Nelson Mandela will defend his right to life by appealing to the institutional values of the nation that has knowingly abandoned him and his people to their fate.

His pride was Xhosa but his education was British. At the very British Clarkebury Boarding Institute he is fed on the 19th century diet of Chamber’s English Reader, the repository of possibly the most sentimental verse and prose in English literature. He learns his British code of honour on the playing fields of Healdtown. He says of the University of Fort Hare, “For young black South Africans like myself, it was Oxford and Cambridge, Harvard and Yale, all rolled into one.”

In 1964 he will explain the development of his political philosophy to the Pretoria Supreme Court in these words:

“From my reading of Marxist literature and from conversations with Marxists, I have gained the impression that communists regard the parliamentary system of the West as undemocratic and reactionary. But, on the contrary, I am an admirer of such a system.

“The Magna Carta, the Petition of Rights, and the Bill of Rights are documents which are held in veneration by democrats throughout the world.

“I have great respect for British political institutions, and for the country’s system of justice. I regard the British Parliament as the most democratic institution in the world, and the independence and impartiality of its judiciary never fail to arouse my admiration…”

Nor can you read Long Walk to Freedom without hearing the self-deprecating Britishness and the stoic good humour in Mandela’s voice.

Their lives could hardly have been more different, and their Eastern Cape Britishness may have been an accident of fate, but in the person of the Mandela we got to know in his last years, and in the person of my father, I saw one quintessentially British trait that united them: not their espoused or unespoused belief in fairness and justice, but an unfeigned joy in the company of others, a selflessness without guile, judgement or expectation — the terribly innocent, tragically flawed assumption that their values of fairness and justice were universally ingrained in the fibre of every human being of every hue and of every political stripe.

In this respect, neither of them were English.