This book is just right as a ‘coffee table’ book! The pictures are amazing and the page layout uses the illustrations to good effect to give an overview of the British Empire over a hundred year period from 1850. Each chapter has a theme exploring the century when the Empire was at its height. Actually, the book does touch on the declining years as well, in part because Imperial attitudes continued long after the Empire had metamorphosed into the Commonwealth. Sport, the role of British public schools, the military and trade all have chapters which show how the Empire was built and sustained.
I am fascinated by British Empire history, not just the idea of a small nation crossing the world and building countries in its own image but also the idea of a country that was influenced and altered because of its fascination with far away places.
Ashley Jackson has written a very good overview of the century when Empire was at its height. The sense of entitlement can be seen in the selection of images; advertisements, book covers and magazine articles all show that the Empire attitude felt itself to be beyond question. It is striking to see the attitudes of some of the subject people who view Britain (or England) as a child views a parent. Coffee table book by nature and probably design, the book is still worth reading in its entirety. The text is as illuminating as the pictures.
My favourite chapter was the one that covered popular culture. Many of the books were ones I read as I grew up with the imagery and messages of Empire even though I was born after the period covered here; the books were still here on the shelves in the London libraries I frequented in the 60s searching for a wider world I longed to visit. It took a long time for Empire attitudes to fade away.
‘Mad Dogs and Englishmen’ is in my hinterland. What’s in yours?
This novel by Andre Brink is the ultimate crossing borders story, telling, as it does, the journey of an upstanding member of the Afrikaans community in South Africa to an activist on behalf of down trodden blacks. The fact that his transformation is accidental makes the story more gripping. Ben Du Toit is a pillar of the community. He is a teacher and church deacon and the sort of person young people turn to for help because they see him as wise and steady.
When a black man known to Ben comes to him for help he finds himself drawn into protests against a system he always thought was fair. The son was beaten by police and Ben is encouraged to help get justice. Yet the law exists for the white man and Ben starts to see how everything is stacked against the blacks. His conscience does not allow him to stay quiet but, in raising questions, he feels the force of displeasure by the regime’s security services. Family, his career as a teacher and his standing in the community are all threatened. The novel shows Ben Du Toit as a man of courage but the cost is high.
I saw the film version many years before reading the book so the images in my head were set by the movie version. The book is more detailed and nuanced, though, so that some of the twists are unexpected and the characters do not always act as I expected. Overall, the book was the more satisfying experience.
Andre Brink, himself, was an activist using the Afrikaans language to raise questions about the apartheid regime. His work was banned many times. It may be a ‘white’ book about race issues but the power comes from the fact that, like his protagonist, Brink would not stay quiet about injustice.
‘A Dry White Season’ is in my hinterland. What’s in yours?
The Ruth and Seretse Khama story was told comprehensively in this book by Susan Williams. The sub-title ‘The Triumph of Seretse Khama and His Nation’ points to the happy ending but the book details the lengths the British went to to avoid embarrassment over an African Prince marrying a white British woman.
There is greater depth here than in the previous book I mentioned, ‘A Marriage of Inconvenience’. Her access to records not released when the earlier book was written gives Williams an advantage which she uses well. She details the struggle the couple had to get married. The church does not come out well in terms of living up to Christian principles but it did reflect accurately the values and attitudes of the time.
Of most concern is the role of the British government. The Empire was fading after the Second World War and many Labour politicians played an honourable role in campaigning for freedom for former British colonies. Yet it was a Labour government that worked with South Africa to prevent Seretse Khama from taking up his rightful leadership role. When the Conservatives won the election in 1951 things became even harder for the couple. They were kept away from Africa in exile in Britain.
An enquiry was held to see if he was a fit person to rule. The outcome was that South Africa’s objection was enough to keep him from home. In Britain, Ruth and Seretse were insulted in the streets. It was not until 1956 that they were allowed to return to Bechuanaland and then only on the condition that Seretse renounce his claim to be Chief.
The story may have a happy ending since the first President of Botswana, democratically elected, was none other than Seretse Khama. He remained President until his death in 1980. It is an amazing love story; love is where it falls. It is also a story of diminishing empires and the way people are mistreated when nations seek to protect their self- interests.
‘Colour Bar’ is in my hinterland. What’s in yours?
I read this book and saw the associated television documentary when they were released in the 90s. I had not previously heard the story of Ruth and Seretse Khama until I saw the two part television documentary. I then read the book for more detail and became fascinated by the story of a white British woman and the black man who met in central London and fell in love.
As this was the 1950s, their relationship was unusual but love is where it falls and the story of their determination to be together was, and is, inspiring.
They met in 1947 at a dance in London organised by the London Missionary Society. Seretse Khama was sent by his tribe to England to study, first at Oxford and then in London. He was an African Prince and heir to the Chieftanship in Bechuanaland in Southern Africa. They fell in love and planned to get married. They had to contend with disapproval from all sides.
South Africa was the main barrier to their happiness. The apartheid regime did not approve of a mixed marriage of a prominent leader of a country on their border. The British government sought to appease the South Africans and the elders of Seretse Khama’s tribe were also unhappy.
The fact that, with all the forces of powerful governments against them, they still got married is an inspiring story. His uncle who was acting as regent recalled him to Bechuanaland, expecting the marriage to be annulled. Instead, Seretse appealed to the tribe at village public meetings.
The British government recalled Khama and then refused to allow him to return to his country. It was to the shame of the Labour Party in Britain that this took place under a Labour government that had so many members who expected to see the dismantlement of the British Empire after the second world war. Yet South Africa was powerful and had reserves of gold and oil that Britain needed. Ruth and Seretse Khama were unimportant in the scheme of things.
‘A Marriage of Inconvenience’ included interviews with Ruth Khama. She died in 2002. Seretse Khama had died twenty years before her. In a final scene in the documentary, she stood on a hilltop near his memorial stone looking out over the plains. It was a moving end to a great love story.
This exhibition in London at the V and A’s Museum of Childhood in Bethnal Green was a poignant reminder of how good intentions can go wrong. Between 1869 and 1970 about 100,000 British children were sent to countries of the Empire (and later Commonwealth) as part of migration schemes run by religious groups and other charities.
The offer of a better life overseas was an appealing one for some, but the truth is that not all children were given a choice and not all parents knew what had happened to their children. As a result, families that could have been reunited were not and a lot of pain that could have been avoided was not.
Working through the exhibits here, photographs and letters being the most affecting, I was struck by the appeal of the message. Who would not have wanted to give the poorest and most desperate children a better life? The countries of the Empire, particularly Canada and Australia needed people. The combination of needy children and countries in need of a workforce proved too powerful to resist. Governments supported these schemes.
However, as the schemes developed it seemed that protecting organisations became of higher importance than protecting people, as often happens. There is evidence here that church leaders did their best to obstruct parents and children finding out information that would have helped them get back together. Decisions made at the point of highest desperation could have been undone when circumstances improved other than this may have brought the scheme into doubt or, worse, allowed stories of mistreatment to escape.
Behind the scheme were stories of farmers who wanted servants and farm hands, not new family members. Mistreatment of children was rife and the children were powerless in a church run, government backed system.
This was a powerful exhibition. The photographs, always of smiling children looking optimistic about the journey they were about to take, did not match the content of many the letters.
‘On their Own’ is in my hinterland. What’s in yours?
I am working my way back through films that were significant in my childhood. My parents were not keen cinema goers so my own habit developed when I gained the freedom to go by myself or with friends. This means that some films from my past had greater significance by virtue of being one of the rare times I went to the cinema in the 60s.
The film was released in 1964 but I think I saw it a few years later. I may be wrong but I think the gap between cinema releases and showing them on television was longer back then, allowing some films to resurface at cinemas.
It depicts the Battle of Rorke’s Drift when soldiers from a Welsh regiment of the British army fought Zulus in January 1879. This was a period when the Zulus regularly fought each other, not surprising when you consider the British were in their country! There were 150 British soldiers at a rest station, many of the soldiers were sick or wounded. Against them were about 4,000 Zulu warriors. The odds were stacked against the British but they held off the attacks and won out in the end.
As a boy, I thought the British were heroic and I was very proud to see them win. My views have shifted over the years but I can still see the heroism involved. Eleven Victoria Crosses were awarded to soldiers engaged in this Battle. This was the most awarded for a single event up to that time.
The best scene and the one that stuck in my mind over the years was when the British soldiers sang ‘Men of Harlech’ in response to the ominous Zulu chanting and foot stamping in the distance.
‘Zulu’ is in my hinterland. What’s in yours?
This novel by South African Ivan Vladislavic is an interesting take on the transformation of a nation from its Apartheid years to the Rainbow Nation of today. Told in three distinct sections we follow Neville Lister at three points in his life. In the first, he is the university dropout looking for a purpose and unsure of what he believes in other than he knows he is disgusted by the country he lives in, and the attitudes of the entitled whites. He is desperate not to be like ‘them’ but unsure where to put his energies.
His father suggests he spends a day with celebrated photographer, Saul Auerbach. Tagging along he sees the work of the artist and his British journalist friend up close. They sit on a hill above Johannesburg and pick three houses. They will knock on each door in the search of a story. The photographs from the first two become famous in the body of work of Auerbach while the third house is missed because of fading light.
Years later, Nev is drawn back to the new South Africa and to the house they never visited. Here he gains entry by telling an untruth and uncovers the story they missed years before. Vladislavic tells us about the transformation of a country through the story of the young man who went away and the woman in the house who never left. In the third section of the novel, in a modern country, Neville is now a photographer in his own right making pictures and developing projects that tell us something of what it means to be a South African today.
At the heart of this novel is the idea that the photographer selects what to capture and what to ignore… or maybe what has to be left out.