The South African War: Three Perspectives

One of the great problems faced by modern historians is the issue of national bias. It is always assumed that you will receive a different opinion on a subject from a different historian, but the narratives they might present could be influenced by their nationality. This has been the case for historians who wrote about the South African war of 1899. Each side of the war took away different ideas that would impact their countries and, eventually, their way of viewing history. In England, the narrative is often focused around the unjustified reasoning that was used to go to war with South Africa and how the war became a divisive issue at home. For Australia, the war is a story of Australian disillusionment with the British Empire as they were fighting for a side that would not see them as equals. In South Africa, the story is one of repression. Not only of the British oppressing the Boer, but the Boers and British oppression of the black South Africans. These narratives can be found in different scholarly works. Some overlap, but they are all influenced by their own nationality.

For the English, the narrative of “unjustified reasoning” is best represented in Thomas Pakenham’s The Boer War. In his book, he outlines the reasons that the war began, the horrible actions undertaken in the war, and the its ultimate pyrrhic victory. Before the war had even begun, there had been an attempted raid by a group of pro-British rebels who sought British intervention in Johannesburg. The main force was led by a man named Leander Starr Jameson, the administrative general of the British South Africa Company. The raid was ultimately stamped out by South African forces over the course of three days. The Republic of South Africa, also known as the Transvaal, would use this as grounds for war against the British, as it was a clear attempt at annexing the republic. For Britain, this war became a matter of anglicizing the Transvaal and dealing with the Boers. It was not the first time they had done such a thing, as Pakenham points out the annexation of the Transvaal in 1877. Not three years later, the first Boer War had begun. The Boers had won their independence then and planned on keeping it. Pakenham then argues that this new attempt at taking the Transvaal was simply more of the same in terms of causes. However, the actions undertaken in the war proved to be the great difference. Whereas the first war was simple guerrilla warfare versus British military doctrine, the second had a new military doctrine that emphasized general brutality towards the Boer commandos. Pakenham characterizes this new policy as British superiority being carried out by the likes of Sir Alfred Milner, who infamously said that “If we are to build up anything…we must disregard and absolutely disregard the screamers.” Here, he was referring to both Boers and pro-Boer British who were against the war. Pakenham pointed out how those who were against the war were either against it because they saw it as unjustified and backed those claims up with stories about the concentrations camps, the irregular groups committing war crimes, and the involvement of the South Africa Company. Pakenham also mentions how the British goals in the war would fall apart quickly after the end of the war. The plan was to create a British majority in the Transvaal. However, there was a conflict with the Wehrner-Beit group, who needed cheap labor for their mines. Because of that, they resorted to cheap indentured Chinese servants, which meant they would not be hiring British immigrants. Ultimately, British immigrants stopped coming to South Africa. On top of that, the British army did not learn any lessons that could have aided them in the Great War. The way Pakenham tells it, the Boers were good at confounding the Royal Army because they were able to create a hardened defensive line with trenches. Ultimately, the story presented is that of a war that had been fought over land expansion, marked both by forgotten lessons and war crimes.

For South African Historians such as Jean Van Der Pol and Bill Nasson, the issue of the Boer war was tied to a great deal of social and political issues in South Africa. Issues like the debate between becoming a united federation under Britain, becoming an independent republic, and the seemingly endless racism between White and Black South Africans all contributed to how the war played out and, ultimately, influenced South African politics for generations. To begin with, Van Der Pol, a White South African woman presented the narrative that Cecil Rhodes, the Prime Minister of the Cape Colony in 1894 and a key planner in the Jameson raid, sought to ultimately create a “South African Federation”, a federation that would encompass all of modern South Africa and would be loyal to the British Empire. Van Der Pol pointed out how this did not set well with the Dutch in the Transvaal and the Orange Free State, who largely favored remaining the independent republics that they were. Though the “Dutch elite [were] happy” to deal with British administrators, they still saw themselves as distinctly different from the British. Different enough that the idea of a British Federation was unappealing. Ultimately, Van Der Pol goes on with the ideas of the Boer War being a war between Republican Boers and pro-Federation British in South Africa. However, as the scholarship on the subject expanded, so too, did the literature. Nasson dedicated several books to explaining both the ‘Boer vs Briton’ side as well as the relatively unexplored narrative of Black involvement in the war. This was something that had gone somewhat unresearched until the 60’s. He presents the idea that the South African war was not simply a war between Boers against British and Blacks, but also a South African equivalent to “the American Civil War, the British Civil War, and the Spanish Civil War.” While that may not be true when talking about body counts, he believes it to be similar to these wars on the grounds of the great and global debates that these wars were fought on. One that would be used to justify Afrikaner nationalism as a “myth of national origin” in the years to come. He expanded on this idea further in Abraham Esau’s War, where he covers the reasons that Black South Africans went joined the war. The way he says it, the Black involvement in the war was due to frequent mistreatment of South African Blacks by the Boers, with the final straw being the murder of a Black farmer named Abraham Esau. What started from there was a war that would also divide the Black South African population, with some siding with the British and others with the Boers. There would also be a great many Blacks who, in trying to flee the Transvaal, would face similar fates to Boer civilians, including time within concentration camps. Each side believed that they other would simply bring further oppression and chose to stand in the way of that. Ultimately, they would have a British South Africa with an apartheid.

For Australia, the South African war came at an odd time. Halfway into the war, Australia would declare independence from the Empire. They had gone to war to fight for an empire and ultimately came out with a sense of general disdain for the British and a newfound interest in nationalism. One of the major driving forces for this was the demeaning way the Royal Army treated provincial soldiers. Craig Wilcox describes it in Australia’s Boer War: The War in South Africa 1899-1902, as an “affair of bush hats versus brass hats.” Then there was the issue of war criminals. Wilcox was quick to point out the trials of soldiers from the Australian contingent and how they would be tried for things the Royal Army would not be. In the infamous case of Lt. Morant, an Australian contingent had killed Boers that had tried to surrender. Wilcox pointed out that this had not been such an issue with other units. Lt. Colin Philip, of the 6th Queensland Imperial Bushman, said that “Boers caught breaking the custom of war were shot summarily” and “they had written orders to shoot Boers wearing khaki.” That last part is in reference to a commonly utilized Boer strategy of wearing British uniforms, which were khaki. He writes about how men like Morant became national heroes in Australia, despite their horrid actions. However, he does not say that the trial was rigged or that the Bushveldt Carbineers were “scapegoats” as Lt. George Witton, one of the officers on trial, would put it. Their executions were the result of new leadership in the army, one that would punish soldiers for their crimes but held animosity towards Australians. The executions were, as he put it, “a warning that the severity would apply to the army too.” It was a warning of severity that would be applied specifically to Australian soldiers, as the crimes of the Carbineers were being committed by hundreds across South Africa, yet few would see trials for them.

Historians, despite being the great source for scholarly information that they are, are still subject to bias. In this case, that bias can be based on where and what culture the historian was born into. The English focus on the war crimes committed by the Empire and the unreasonable actions that started the war. For the Australians, the Boer war highlighted problems between the Australian colony and the British Empire. They would never be equals if they stayed in, so they became more focused on the idea of an Australian nation. In South Africa, opinions are even more divided based on whether or not the historian is White or Black. They could focus on the ideas of Boers vs supposedly superior Britons or they could discuss a forgotten war; one that took a backseat to the narrative of a “white man’s war.” Culture and nationality are two of the biggest contributors to bias when discussing wars like this.

Hofmeyr, Isabel. 1987. “Building a Nation from Words: Afrikaans Language, literature, and ethnic identity, 1902-1924.” In The Politics of Race, Class and Nationalism in 20th Century South Africa, 109. London: Routledge.
Nasson, Bill. 1991. Abraham Esau’s War: A Black South African War in the Cape, 1899-1902. Melbourne: Oxford University Press.
—. 1999. The South African War: 1899-1902. NY: Oxford University Press.
Pakenham, Thomas. 1979. The Boer War. London: Random House Publishing.
Van Der Pol, Jean. 1951. The Jameson Raid. Cape Town: Oxford University Press.
Wilcox, Craig. 2002. Australia’s Boer War: The War in South Africa 1899-1902. Victoria: Oxford University Press.

An Outline of Francine Hirsch’s The Soviets at Nuremberg

The overall subject of the article covers the place of the Soviet Union during the Nuremberg trials and the way in which the trials became a way of determining the post-war order between the U.S., Britain, and the USSR. Hirsch makes the argument that the U.S. was able to dominate the International Military Tribunal and use it as a way to expose the inadequacies of the Soviet propaganda state. The sources that she utilized came from a variety of scholarly sources like Yale and Oxford while the photographs and images were provided by the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum and from collections of articles from Izvestiia. The images provided allowed for a look into what exactly the Soviet citizens were seeing during the trial. It should be noted that none of the cartoons in the article glorify the Soviet Union’s position in the trial, but rather focuses on dehumanizing the war criminals. It is evident that she choose to place the pictures at the top where they could be quickly cited, summed up, and introduce the reader to the topic on the page. Her ultimate conclusion is that the IMT served as the first “front” for the Cold War, as the U.S. was able to dominate it well enough that it became a problem for Soviet newspapers. When things like the secret clauses in the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact came to light, there was very little that the Soviets could do to control that secret, given the fact that the news teams were working with incredibly short deadlines, leaving very little time for review.

No Lamps at Angel Island and 20 Years of Irish Historiography

For our History 297 class, we had to read No Lamps Were Lit for Them: Angel Island and the Historiography of Asian Immigration by Roger Daniels. In this paper, Daniels expounds on the grim history of Angel Island, San Francisco.  This was the site where Asian immigrants to the U.S. were held. To that extent, it is similar to Ellis Island in New York. However, the European immigrants at Ellis Island and the Asian immigrants at Angel Island were treated in two horribly different ways.  Something that rather easily set this tone was the fact that, at Ellis Island, one could see the Statue of Liberty, the shining symbol of our Republic. Meanwhile, at Angel Island, one would have a good view of Alcatraz prison, the symbol of inescapable and ever present government. Altogether, very few people passed through Angel island, due in large part to the immigration quotas that restricted or often banned immigration for Asians. As for the historiography of the paper, sources like the national park service are cited, as re records from the U.S. census. He also cites interviews and autobiographies written by those who had gone through Angel Island.

We also had to read Kevin Kenny’s 20 years of Irish American Historiography.  In this article, Kenny talks about the 1988 book on Irish Immigration, Emigrants and Exiles, written by Kirby Miller which created controversy within the ethno-historic department. Specifically, other historians believed that his ideas on the Irish lack of success in North America and its ties to the Irish reluctance to leave Ireland. However, Kenny argues that, to this day, Miller’s book is still one of the more accurate telling’s of Irish-American immigration, despite these problems. Kenny defends Miller by stating that, while the Irish may not have entirely perceived their emigration as exile, “they were predisposed to see it as such.” In here, Kenny talks about one of the necessary discrepancies of historical writing, showing the difference between the rhetoric surrounding a time and the reality of it. Miller presented a pessimistic tale that many historians were unwilling to accept at first.  However, as Kenny continues, it was also not as gloomy as Miller would have described it. Evidence collected by Irish-American women’s immigration historians have shown that there were women who acted upon their own sense of agency, rather than some collective or familial one. In more recent years, historians have also expanded their research to include Irish protestants.

The Italian American Table

For History 297, we had to read excerpts from The Italian American Table, by Simone Cinotto. The introduction starts with an analysis of the thematic importance of food to Italian-Americans in shows like The Sopranos and The Godfather.  In each case, food is depicted as being something inherently tied to Italian culture. This is something echoed by Italian-American authors, directors and actors in practically every book and movie on Italian-Americans.  Cinotto sought to see why it is that  the culinary arts are seen as being a part of Italian American culture. Cinotto found quotes from people like Mario Puzo, the famed author of The Godfather, describing the importance of food during the Great Depression. It was during the depression that food became intertwined with Italian American culture. After the many diasporas experienced by the Italian Americans and the attempts to be seen as being white, cooking became the best way for the Italian Americans to differentiate themselves from the rest of the country. From this, Cinotto creates the main idea of her book, that the way food is done for each racial or migrant group in America impacts the way their culture is seen.  In this, Cinotto uses the traditions of food culture and interviews, rather than sources like government documents. This shows how historians have been seeking out newer ways of analyzing history.

History in a new Millennium

For History 297, we had to read History in a new Millenniumfrom From Herodotus to H-Net. The chapter starts with the unsettling story of white-supremacists trying to get a court to accept that the Holocaust never happened. To help with their argument, they drew from texts by historians about how certain actions in the past have often been exaggerated. This trial reaffirmed the necessity of historians to make sure that things like these are confirmed beyond reasonable doubt. The chapter continues by highlighting the importance of the internet for modern historians. I found it a bit funny how the author commented on how historians from the generations before have been having trouble with the “new technology”, whereas people in my generation are more technologically literate. However, this does present a problem, seeing as how the internet is increasingly important in most studies, seeing as how it operates as a repository for scholarly information around the world. That is something that just can’t be done with physical books. Museums across the world have begun digitizing various texts and artifacts in an attempt at preservation. Museums themselves have been increasingly important for archiving these types of things.

Selling the East in the American South

For our History 297 class, we had to read Selling the East in the American South by Vivek Bald. Bald’s chapter in this book follows the peddlers from India that came to the U.S. in the late 1800’s and early 1900’s. These Indians fell into a strange category as they were Asian, which did not sit well with American immigration policy at the time, and their skin was dark enough that the Jim Crow laws considered them as being basically black. Bald sought to follow the movements of these peddlers through the American south from state to state.  They came at a time when oriental antiques and people from the Middle East and India were viewed as exotic, while pretty much the rest of Asia was still seen as being too foreign. Owning things that came from these lands gave off an air of imperialistic dominance over them. The peddlers tended to move around quite a bit, but ultimately gathered around places like Atlantic city. However, as the men were in the U.S. working, the wives were back home, keeping things together for the men’s return. The men did not have the intention to settle in the U.S., and most of them did not. Though they did establish certain areas that they would operate from, again like Atlantic City or  New Orleans. Bald makes the argument that this group represents a change from the standard narrative of immigrants to the U.S. in the 19th century. The antiquated idea of immigrants just coming to the East or West coast and coming to stay leaves out the groups that came to work but planned on going home.

A part & Apart and Nation of Migrants

For History 297, we had to read Erika Lee’s A part and Apart. In this paper, Lee describes the differences in the ideas of two giants in the Immigration Studies field: George Sanchez and Rudy Vecoli. Sanchez made the argument that there existed a divide between the studies on immigration in terms of race. His argument stated that the experiences of the different groups of immigrants changes over the years. Specifically, he was referring to the different challenges faced when comparing the groups of immigrants that had come here before the 20th century and those who came after. He believed that the challenges faced by those who came during the 20th century, predominantly Asians and Hispanics, faced challenges that were all-together different than the European and African immigrants who came before them. Vecoli believed this to be “a caricature” of the entire department. Vecoli himself was more invested in the ideas of ethnicity than race when it came to Immigration Studies.  This, Lee wrote, constituted a divide over the ideas on whether the department should use the older ideas on immigration or to incorporate the ideas held by other disciplines. Such ideas are further indicated throughout the paper and are characterized as a divide between Ethnic Studies and the general History department that make the history of Immigration that much more conflicted.

We also had to read Adam Goodman’s Nation of Migrants, Historians of Migration. In this paper, Goodman describes how Immigration Historians have been dismantling the Kennedy theory that America is a “nation of immigrants”, in specific reference to the perceived protagonism of the European immigrants. They have also been taking down the theory that everybody who came to the US did so to escape something and to become American. Many came here just so they could work, then returned to their country of origin.  The field of immigration history has been reforming to become a migration history department, one that analyses not only those who came to stay, but those who left as they were only here to work or those left to find work. They are working to replace the idea that America is a nation of immigrants to the idea that it is the nation migrants.  The problem with this is trying to determine the various motives for each migrant, which can change depending on social group, ethnicity, and from then from person to person.

More -Trans less -National, Globalizing Migration Stories

For History 297, we had to read Mathew F. Jacobson’s More “Trans-” less “National”.  In this Essay, Jacobson highlights one of the more glaring problems that is evident in immigration historians. The main issue being that we often forget that everybody came from somewhere, yet we use that argument to glorify the European immigrants more than others. This is the nationalistic focus that had excluded non-European immigrant cultures from being researched.  This trend started to die off in later years, but the focus was still not on the “trans” in “transnationalism.” The big difference was that now Immigration studies would also include Latino, African, and Asian immigration.

We also had to read Globalizing Migration Histories? by Bruno Ramirez.  In this essay, Ramirez goes through his ideas on the meanings of the words “global” and “globalization.” From this, he looks into the histories of global immigration by Italians as well as the immigration of Canadians throughout North America. He also makes the case that migration, both emigration or immigration, benefits globalization.