Tuesday, April 10, 2012

In the embarrassing words of my ancestor...

I recently read a travel journal written by my great-grandfather on my mother's side, and published in 1906.

Cecil Rhodes: imperialist
I've been aware of the book for a few years now, but been unable to lay hands on it. Thanks to advances in online publishing, the document has been digitally captured, and I was able to download the thing on a site called scribd.com.

For years I thought I was going to have to special request the book on an inter-library loan, but these days you can find long-out-of-print books on any one of half a dozen sites. The book is Briton, Boer And Black: Ten Years Travelling, Trading and Prospecting In South Africa.

Having got all excited about finding this artefact from my family history, my excitement was soon replaced by trepidation. What was in this thing? The title is self-explanatory, it's a tale of derring-do,  gold-prospecting, swashbuckling battles, intrepid journeys and savvy business-dealings in some pretty remote outposts across South Africa.

But what about the politics! Great-gramps was a British imperialist in the heyday of colonial conquest of our subcontinent. One couldn't be sure, but it was likely he had participated in establishing a global empire by exploiting, double-crossing and exterminating indigenous populations worldwide. It was quite possible that 105 years of hindsight would do him no favours. So it was with some nerves that I loaded the document onto my iPad and opened page one.

Shakespeare, Dickens and Twain all showed the bigotry of their time in their work, so there was no reason my grandfather should be immune. Indeed he was not!

The book made harrowing reading for a white liberal who's always fancied himself an enlightened soul. Great gramps peppers his account with k-bombs, n-bombs and paternalism, before segueing incidentally into the most benighted racism one could imagine. At one point a group of BaSotho gun runners await their colleagues, "squatting, like so many baboons". Later on, in what was either present-day Zimbabwe or Zambia he encounters all manner of "savages". He remarks, almost anthropologically that the "blacks always beat about the bush, especially when they have something important to discuss." There's worse too.

The Boers don't escape my tribesman's gimlet eye either. They get off quite lightly though, being found "a very hospitable race, friendly to the English as individuals, especially if one can speak their language."

Disappointed as I was with the tone and the attitudes displayed, there was hope. As I say, the bigotry is almost incidental, unquestioned. In fact, the dealings of the protagonist with the other characters (almost all either black or Dutch) are almost uniformly positive. Even a spell he spends held captive by a tribe in darkest Matabeleland is a fairly polite experience.

We're hardly talking Mein Kampf here. The narrative is not a conscious justification of white supremacy. The right of the British to rule the world and look after its primitive inhabitants is simply taken as a given.

It's just bizarre how the penny never drops. He spends weeks lost in the desert, saved from certain death only by the ingenuity of his black companion, and the guy is paternalistically deemed "a decent sort of fellow". In fact almost all the adventuring is made possible only by the assistance of the locals, who consistently bail the Brits out just when all seems lost. In one case they're lent a new span of oxen when theirs have all died, another time, Mac is given a set of clothes once his kudu-skin suit starts falling off his body. His gun-running exploits see him smartly out-negotiated by a Basotho chief. And the book concludes with the abortive Jameson Raid ending in ignominious failure.

Mac, the protagonist, speaks Dutch and a couple of black languages, and he seems in the process of becoming Africanised, but throughout there is an unquestioning faith in colonialism.

Africa seems to be the white man's playground, as well as a place that must be managed on behalf of its wretched inhabitants.

So ultimately Briton, Boer And Black gives a decent insight into the colonial mindset. There's some brave adventuring as well. Lions are slain, Boer maidens are met, guns are run, deserts, forests and swamps are traversed.

The book was published in 1906 in London by T Sealey Clark, and one can sense that it was tailored to reinforce the attitudes of its intended market. Perhaps in the years following the Boer War, the climate was not quite right to cast aspersions on imperialism.

My discovery of my ancestor's book has helped me get to know a family member who died decades before I was born – warts and all. Mr Handley appears to have a written a couple of other books and those will be the target of my next trawl through the internet, even if I read them with one eye, flinching with embarrassment.

You should have a look too. Quiz your family elders and google the names of your ancestors. That's what I did, and I struck gold. The writings of one's elders give you a level of self-knowledge far deeper than any photographs or family trees.

It's not always pretty, but it does bring the evolution of our cultural values into relief and underline the distance that we've come. It's also an incentive to question the values we take for granted today.

There's no doubt that our current daily scribblings, our tweets, updates, blogs and posts will far outlive us. So it would probably pay to look deep and interrogate our personal values, lest we embarrass our descendants a hundred years from now.

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