I wrote this family history twenty years ago. Someone might be interested in reading it. It was about how my British ancestors coped in Africa and remained British and proud of it despite great suffering.
Bringing the Standard Home
“In the 1820’s, just after the Napoleonic War, Britain gained the Cape from the Dutch. England was seething with war veterans making trouble in every town and village, itching for something to do. Because of mass unemployment and a small problem on the Eastern Cape Frontier of Xhosa raids into now British territory, the British Government came up with a cunning plan. Offer a farm to the restless and unemployed and ship them out to the Eastern Cape. This would kill two birds with one stone – it would reduce unemployment in the home country – and make a nice filling in the middle of the Dutch/Xhosa sandwich that would, hopefully, buffer the activities of the marauding Xhosas that threatened Cape settlements, Britain’s war booty.
Well, They were right. The new settlers did become the filling in the sandwich – a dangerous place. That’s how my ancestors arrived in South Africa. The fact that they survived long enough to produce any progeny is a miracle in itself – but I have brought the standard home again that they so bravely took out and am here to prove that some of them – many of them – most of them – survived. I, as a representative of our 1820 family have ‘come home’ to Britain.
None of the new settlers were farmers in any way at all. The first few months they lived in army issue tents listening to the roar of lions in the night and by day they learned to avoid elephants and venomous snakes. For this alone they should have been awarded medals. Their ignorance of farming, and paucity of support, financial or educational, from Britain caused them to plant their crops upside down, too deep, too shallow, too thick, too thin, too exposed to the vicissitudes of African weather. They had no idea about animal slaughter, hunting, husbandry – or the tropical diseases that attacked their population at various times. And there was no recourse to hospitals, nurses or doctors – even when the Xhosa attacked.
They were victims of Government Policy.
One Christmas when great, great, great Grandmother had just prepared the most British feast of roast fowl, roast potatoes, vegetables, “plum” pudding and custard, the neighbour rode over to warn them that the Xhosa were about to flow down over them and they must get to the nearest fort pronto. Great, great, great grandfather loaded the wagon speedily and called for the family – but great, great, great grandmother was missing. They found her in the kitchen packing all the cooking pots with the Christmas dinner she had so lovingly prepared. “They can have the house, they can have the farm – but they can’t have our Christmas dinner!” she is reported to have snapped.
The Dutch farmers observed the newcomers’ farming activities with amusement. Their stupidity might have set the underlying scorn of “being British” in the Boer mind that came to the fore during the Boer War, when another of my ancestors arrived in South Africa.
My grandfather, Harry, was only fifteen. He’d run away from home in Somerset where it is accepted his father was not at all kind to his children. When Harry arrived in Trafalgar Square and reported to the army-recruiting officer sitting at the table at one end, the officer asked him his age. “Fifteen.” announced Harry. “Too young.” said the officer. “You have to be sixteen.” Without blinking, he looked at the child and said “If it were your birthday today, and you went round the square and you happened to turn sixteen on the way, you’d be the right age.” Harry took the hint and being a quick-witted lad, he arrived back at the table where the officer looked at him as if he was a total stranger. “Age?” he asked. “Sixteen.” said Harry and found himself in the army.
The ship voyage was so protracted that by the time he saw the outline of Table Mountain looming over Cape Town, the Boer war had ended. There was nothing much “back home” so Harry stayed on when given the choice.
My ancestors were very proud of their contribution to South Africa. Not only did their standard fly on all Government buildings until 1961 when the Boers eventually won the Boer War and declared South Africa a Republic, but they brought in the normal British Colonial order, built roads, bridges, hospitals, institutions and encouraged industry and businesses. Harry’s was never successful so perhaps we should leave him out. He went into hardware like his Dad but the profits were small and the hours long. Bankruptcy finally got him in the Great Depression. But by that time he had another calling – the Salvation Army.
It was in The Army (a different kind now) that he had met my grandmother. They worked tirelessly in the slums on the Cape Flats. My Nan had had faith in God and life after death because of miracles she’d seen in the slums. One night she was doing a deathbed watch at the side of an old man, dying. Suddenly, she saw a tendril of wispy light withdrawing itself from his forehead, which she had been bathing with a cloth. It slowly detached itself and wafted up, very slowly, like a smoky plume to the darkened ceiling of the little hovel. It hung there for a few moments, gathering itself together, and was gone. She was convinced she had watched the soul leaving the body – it gave her faith – for life. I think Grandpa and Grandma learned more working in the slums than they taught.
My other grandparents were school chums from the Isle of Wight. Grandpa had married someone else though, and immigrated to Natal. When his new wife died very soon after their arrival, he wrote home to grandma offering her marriage and a ticket out. Surprisingly she accepted.
The fabric woven in the minds of my ancestors’ children was always about Britain and “home”. We practised all the British traditions on all the traditional days – roast stuffed turkey, Christmas ham, puddings with flaming haloes, bread and brandy sauces, custards, mulled wine; Father Christmas in a red woollen suit and artificial beard, trees with lights and glass baubles And this in temperatures of 100 degrees in the shade. Easter bunnies hid chocolate eggs in the garden – and, my best – we celebrated Guy Fawkes night with wondrous fireworks and burning the home made Guy on a bonfire. We read all the Enid Blyton books (even when she fell into educational dis-favour – what do educators know about child delight?) Arthur Ransome, Beatrix Potter and above all, every word of A.A. Milne.
We could quote reams of rhymes and asked “What IS the matter with Mary Jane?” when one of the children was truculent – or the Emperor’s Rhyme when someone didn’t know their arithmetic tables.
Winnie the Pooh wasn’t the only Winnie we followed. When Winston Churchill died we collected in little groups to listen to the subdued voice of the commentator describing the funeral procession on the wireless. He was a symbol to us of Britain’s Finest Hour – the war.
Uncle Ernest (named after Shackleton) was shot in the shoulder in the war. Our eyes used to dilate in horror listening to him describing the maggot treatment he underwent. The clock in my Nan’s house stopped at exactly the moment the shrapnel entered – that’s what she said, anyway. And Uncle Morris had been a prisoner of war and he had made the most elegant pair of shoes out of bread, which stood on our mantlepiece – the ladies high heeled shoes on one side and the gents shoes on the other.
I grew up in a place nicknamed “the last Outpost of the British Empire” because of its very Britishness. We were that Britishness. I used to stand under the statue of Queen Victoria and study the intricate decoration of her gown and the orb and sceptre in her hands. She seemed so regal. I used to admire the green copper dome of the old Parliament Buildings. It seemed so solid, standing there. These experiences introduced me to a feeling of pride in my history and the idea that my ancestors had struggled and worked in the past so that I could have a future better than theirs.
The clock that stood on my Nan’s mantelpiece is now on mine – I brought it back to its home – to England. My ancestors took it out in 1820 as part of their very special luggage for their African adventure. I wonder if it stood in the corner of the tent as they listened to the sounds of the bush or if it stayed packed in a trunk waiting for their first wattle and daub home to be built? It seems far too elegant for that. Sometime soon after they arrived someone shot a small buck and the back of the dried hooves were stuffed with silk as a pincushion. The little hooves were placed on top of the clock. It became a family tradition that they should never be separated –– and they never have.”
But when we arrived back in England, twenty plus years ago, feeling proudly British, I discovered my pride was in something very old fashioned, not real. No one in Britain seemed proud of Britain. Britain was ruled by the European Union. Britain was blamed for colonialism, for abusing their colonies, for being proud, for imposing Britishness on the world. For being white.
Britain was multicultural, not white. It seemed to despise its own culture in veneration of others. And respect every other culture except its own. To one so proud of one’s ancestors, this attitude of self denigration is painful. No matter what culture you are, being British is something to be proud of. It is desired by so many, appreciated by too few.
On Friday, the whole country will be bringing the standard home. The Union Jack will fly again. We will become a proper, independent country once more.
Maybe now, we can be proud of our nationality, no matter where we came from, no matter what our ancestors did, or even, in spite of what they did.
Britain will be a sovereign nation once again. And its my home.
Long live Britain. I’m proud to be here.
And proud of the British people, who voted LEAVE.