Australians and Africans

I’ve just sent off the final version of an article that has been accepted by History Australia, and will appear in its next issue I believe. It speaks about the ways Australian saw Africans during the South African War.

I should note that although I say ‘Africans’, here this term incorporates so many separate cultural groups – Zulu, Sotho, Xhosa, Pedi, among many others. Australians rarely differentiated between the African inhabitants of South Africa, except in a couple of cases, so it is impossible to know who exactly to refer to.

When the Australians first left for South Africa in late 1899, many had been exposed to newspaper depictions of the predominantly Dutch Boers, against whom the British were fighting, which spoke about their barbaric natures and their unclean habits etc. These were, of course, not true, but a facet of dehumanisation, which is always deemed necessary for a government going to war to ensure that soldiers are motivated to kill and civilians will support the war. Initial impressions of the Boers from their letters and diaries are similar, with references to the Boers in animalistic terms – ‘their race is an animal, healthy one’, calling them ‘cunning as rabbits’, comparing combat against them as ‘shooting kangaroos’ – or direct references to their being ‘wild, ‘uncouth’, ‘dirty’ or ‘sullen’.

But the fact was that most Australians who fought in South Africa were ‘bush workers’ (as I have spoken about earlier in reference to military psychiatry), so after being on the war front for a while some started feeling a sense of kinship with the Boers in terms of lifestyle and general demeanour. Also the Boers were skilful fighters, taking advantage of the terrain to mount an effective guerrilla campaign, which the Australians frequently commented on and clearly admired. Guerrilla fighting formally started after the first year of the war, but Boer strategy and tactics were more in line with guerrilla combat throughout the war, particularly in comparison with the British.

In contrast, the Australians reached South Africa assuming that they would be joining the greatest military power in the world, Britain, with troops to match, but found the soldiers themselves lacking (there are some reasons for this, based on enlistment policies, but I won’t go into those here. Richard Price and Stephen Miller talk about that very well). There are some great quotes by soldiers about the British – Trooper Herbert Conder of the 3rd Queensland Mounted Infantry wrote: ‘The…“Tommies” are terrible afraid of lightening [sic], cover over the steel and hide the looking glass…I told them they ought to live in Australia, “thunderstorms” there, are what you might call “thunderstorms”’.

Private RJ Byers, of the 1st Victorian Contingent was even harsher:

‘The Boers can generally tell when they are fighting Australians, as the bullets whistle     ever so much closer than the Tommie’s [sic] bullets do. And also when our troops are advancing, he says that the Australians ride like wildfire…the Boers reckon they would rather meet 100 Tommies than 20 Australians. One wanted to know why the Horsetralians were called Horsetralians; and the only conclusion they could come to, was, that it was because they were all so used to horses. I do not know what part they are came from, but they did not know very much’.

Anyway, I’ve written about all of that here, if you’re interested, and in my book also of course.

So Australians had been told the Boers were bad/unclean/undesirable in the popular press of the time – which followed the British press very closely. The British press, though, to justify the war in South Africa, had depicted the Africans in a protectionist light. What I mean by that is that they insisted they had to fight the Boers so they could save the Africans, in a way, from seemingly unqualified colonialists. They needed to take the land so they could save the Africans from Boer headship. Yes, they were stretching, but it seemed to work. These ideas also filtered down to Australia, which would have reached the men enlisting in the South African War (the article goes into detail about literacy rates and newspaper distribution, demonstrating that they really would have heard about all of this).

The Australians really made up their own minds, based on their own lives in Australia, about the Boers when they saw themselves how they fought and lived, as I mentioned above, and it seems that they did the same regarding the Africans. Australia at the time viewed Indigenous Australians in protectionist terms, as in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, protectionist policies were introduced and strengthened in the colonies (which were known as states after Federation of 1 January 1901). Also, there was a huge emphasis on the need for civilisation, or taking civilisation to the Indigenous people, in line with Social Darwinist beliefs.

The Australians’ references to the Africans echo widespread beliefs regarding Indigenous Australians that refer to both protection and civilisation. The clearest example of this is in the diary of Private James Smith of the Queensland Imperial Bushmen. On 6 January 1901 he spoke of some Africans dressed for church: ‘It being Sunday, most of them very well dressed too, & looking as if the war had not troubled them much’. However, on 16 April he wrote of some African ‘beehive villages’ near his unit’s camp at Oliphant’s Kloof: ‘Unlike those nearer civilisation they are only partly clothed large numbers being almost naked. Their amusement & wonder at the sight of the Queensland Bugle Corps was worth witnessing’ (PR85/170, Australian War Memorial). It is apparent here that the ‘civilisation’ of the former group made them more worthy of praise.

Following protectionist discourse that appeared throughout the British Empire in the years surrounding the war, including in Australia, the soldiers often referred to the Africans they encountered – whether as fellow soldiers, their servants or other civilians – as child-like caricatures. For example, Private Henry Betts wrote: ‘After tea we had some amusement with the [African] boys. Large pieces of bread and butter were thrown to them out of the port holes. One boy secured a loaf and two halves, but he did not give any to his mates’ (PR82/91, AWM). Private John Cripps similarly wrote: ‘We passed through a Kaffir village. The antics of the Kaffirs and the row they made was the fun of the world’ (PR00971, AWM). Many men evidently believed that Africans were unable to care for themselves in the same way as whites, again mirroring nineteenth century colonial protectionist policy in Australia. I don’t want to include too many quotes as they are all in the article, but what is clear is that Australian soldiers did not view Africans as British allies at the same level as were the Canadians or New Zealanders, for example.

It really is fascinating, and so interesting that the soldiers took these views towards Indigenous Australians with them although of course South Africa was a totally new world, with over 90% of the population African (like the polar opposite of Australia in colour distribution).

I hope this post has not become too much of a rant. I have laryngitis and am trying to occupy my mind by writing this, but I’m not sure if I’ve been successful.

(Below is an image of some African soldiers fighting on the British side. Not all African groups worked with the British, some fighting with the Boers, but what is clear that the rule established and agreed to by both sides in 1899 re: it being a ‘white man’s war’ was not followed)




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