Pleasures of history – David Hilton-Barber

Talk delivered to the Society on 19 March 2016 in Cape Town.

History (from Greek historia, meaning “inquiry, knowledge acquired by investigation”) is the study of the past, specifically how it relates to humans.  Herodotus was an ancient Greek historian who has been called “The Father of History” and was the first historian known to collect his materials systematically, test their accuracy, and arrange them in a well-constructed and vivid narrative.

Social history was contrasted with political history, intellectual history and the history of great men.  English historian GM Trevelyan saw it as the bridging point between economic and political history, reflecting that,

“Without social history, economic history is barren and political history unintelligible.  While the field has often been viewed negatively as history with the politics left out, it has also been defended as “history with the people put back in.”

I studied history at Rhodes University under the inspirational Winnie Maxwell.  The two decades from 1954 to 1974 might well be described as the age of Winifred Maxwell, who occupied the chair during those years.  She had obtained a first-class honours in modern History at Oxford.  In her inaugural lecture at Rhodes she lamented the fact that the teaching of history, the story of men and women and how they responded to events in their lifetime, has given place to social studies.

“We make a sieve with strands of many kinds of wire – ecclesiastical history, art history, constitutional history, history of literature, of political ideas, economic ideas and institutions – but at no point are they woven into a good, strong life-saving cable.”

What particularly bothered her was the claim that our awareness of the past depends on our contemporary experiences.

So my purpose in writing The Saint, the Surgeon and the Unsung Botanist was to give some perspective to the times in which my various ancestors lived, and to gain some recognition for their achievements and their contribution to the society of the day.

I owe a great deal to Ivan Mitford-Barberton.   His painstaking research in compiling the Barbers of the Peak, a task that took him fourteen years, was a challenge to me to continue the work.  I echo his sentiments when he wrote:

I do not know what really prompted me to write this history of the clan, but I know that if I had to start again, I should think twice about it, and I would try very hard to persuade someone else to do it. 

But I know that deep down his loved every minute of it

The Atherstones and the Barbers go back a long time – over two centuries in fact – when Thomas Barber married Mary Atherstone in Nottingham.  Her grand-nephew, Guybon Atherstone, was indeed a remarkable man.  He made a profound contribution to medical science, geology and natural history placing him firmly in the forefront of South African pioneers.  He performed the first operation in South Africa under anaesthetics.  He identified the first diamond discovered near Kimberley.  He co-discovered the first dinosaur fossil in South Africa.  He was given the freedom of London.  In Grahamstown, he was the originator of the Botanical Gardens and the founder of the Scientific and Literary Society, later the Albany Natural History Society and now the Albany Museum.  He was also an artist, a musician and an astronomer of no mean repute.

What is not generally known is that he almost acquired the harbour of Delagoa Bay, having arranged with

“the native chief for the purchase of the whole territory for the Queen of England, the price being 15 000 head of cattle, and the chief saying he would be glad of British protection.  The deed of sale was duly signed by him and witnessed, and I endeavoured to obtain the provisional sanction of the Government representative for six months to enable us to throw the onus of refusal on the British Government, but this was refused, the influence of the Little Englander faction was too correctly gauged, and my efforts failed.”

My mother was a St Leger, and her grandfather, Frederick York St Leger, was the founder and first editor of the Cape Times.   He was swathed in an atmosphere of learning which led to an enduring love of the classics.  A scholarship provided him with the entree to Corpus Christi College, Cambridge where he distinguished himself as the gold medallist in the Classical Tripos.

FW (sic) and his young wife were fired with the dream of starting a new life in the colonies.  He must have harboured some religious zeal in his bosom as he sailed to the Cape in 1856 at the age of 24 with his young wife, responding to the urgent call from Bishop Gray for missionaries to strengthen the Anglican Church.   His first diocese was Grahamstown where part of his duties was the headmastership of the infant St Andrews College.  Here, in a short time, he had transformed the school to one which “in which boys may now receive an education such as in England can only be obtained in the best grammar schools”.

Nobody knows why he left the Church at the age of 38 and joined the multitude of fortune seekers at the diamond fields in Kimberley.  The bad water, the filth, the dust storms and the vermin brought on discomfort and sickness.  It may have been a blessing that Frederick’s constitution was unable to cope with these conditions and after a spell as a diamond buyer he turned to writing articles for the newspapers and was able to move his family to more civilised habitation.

In an ambitious – some might say foolhardy – venture, he founded his own newspaper, the Cape Times.  The first edition, a modest four-pager of small format, was published on 27 March 1876.  Strong in idealism and scholarship but singularly lacking in capital and financial acumen, Frederick York was surely embarking on a risky venture. 

The popularity of the newspaper grew rapidly.  It was the first in the country to make use of the telegraph to gather news, until then carried by mail steamer or post cart.  The policy to which

FW (sic) adhered faithfully throughout his career was based on his conviction that

“liberty indeed is so far a law of nature to us, individually and nationally, that once the state of dependence is passed, there can be no moral or political health without it.”  

From the outset he aimed at making the newspaper an honest record of public opinion, “not the journal of a particular party, but of colonists as a whole.”

Edmund Garrett paid the following tribute to his late comrade:

This is not the place to dwell on his political teachings – a high-minded Imperialism with a strong vein of Christian socialism – but of his public work let me say this: not a newspaper writer among us but is the better for it, the better able to rise above all that is tawdry or servile or unchivalrous.  It means much for the broadening river of South African journalism that it flowed near the source with so pure a stream.

The Baronet and the Matabele King was inspired by the adventures of the two brothers, Fred and Hal Barber.   Yes, Barberton was named after them.  The Transvaal Mining Commissioner, Mr David Wilson, who had come to establish some sort of Government control, officiated at the christening ceremony.  This was marked with the swilling of a good deal of Portuguese gin, the consumption of Swazi tobacco, much noise and good fellowship. 

Some years later, in 1877, the two brothers equipped with a wagon, oxen and a quantity of trade goods, travelled to Bechuanaland, where they were received by Paramount Chief Khama at Bamangwato.  They asked his permission to capture wild ostrich chicks at Lake Ngami but this was not forthcoming.  So they pressed on northwards.  They visited the ancient gold mines of the Tati and “Blue Jacket” which were in the process of being opened up.  There they ran into Selous on one of his hunting trips.  They camped at Makobie’s Kopje while runners were sent on to obtain Lobengula‘s permission to enter Matabeleland, and when this was granted, trekked on to Bulawayo.

The word ‘Tati’ grabbed my imagination.  It was scene of the first gold rush in Southern Africa in 1868, is a distant memory.  However, this forgotten corner of the sub-continent encapsulated a chapter of our history involving five countries, powerful men, much subterfuge, a gold rush, a botched invasion, a rebellion, land annexation, prospectors, hunters, traders and adventurers.  It was a story begging to be told.

How incongruous was it that Tati Concession was an agreement between Sir John Swinburne, a British aristocrat and Liberal politician and the the king of the Matabele, Lobengula.  And the area to be mined, under this concession, was not even in Lobengula’s country.  It was in the territory of the Bamangwato under Khama, whence the Makalali who had been driven out by the Matabele under Mzilikazi, sought refuge.

Lobengula, variously described as exceedingly well-made (in height well over two metres), corpulent, with a commanding presence, and when in a good temper, having a kind heart and a full appreciation of humour.   British imperialists called King Lobengula a “savage king” and a “native despot” in many of their colonial dispatches.

The book describes the characters involved, the missionary Robert Moffatt, who had formed a close friendship with Lobengula; the explorers Henry Chapman and artist Thomas Baines; the hunters, Selous , Hartley and others, and the gold miners, Samuel Edwards and Daniel Francis.

The founding kingdom of the Amandabele comes into the picture, as does the land of Chief Khama and the Bamangwato.

Tati lay in the path of Cecil Rhodes’s dream of a continuous tract of British imperialism from Cape to Cairo.  Close by is Tuli where the Pioneer Column crossed over the Limpopo en route to Mashonaland following the signing of the controversial Rudd Concession.

The annexation of Bechuanaland was a direct result of the conflicts between the tribes within the area and the threats from President Kruger and from Germany which had recently colonised Angra Pequena.

The Jameson Raiders entered the Transvaal from Macloutsie, down the road from Tati.  Tati had a role to play in the Anglo-Boer War that followed.

The thread that runs throughout this narrative is contribution made by the Tati Company to the founding of Francistown, the general economy of the economy of the south-eastern region of Botswana and the well-being of its inhabitants.

I have endeavoured as far as possible to relate the events through the eyes of the observers at the time in order to reflect the prevailing attitudes of the period.

My various visits to Francistown led me to my next book, Kalahari Dreaming.  For hundreds of years the vast territory of the Kalahari remained a blank on the map.  Yet it gripped the imagination of poets, painters, writers, dreamers, adventurers and some charlatans.  This book is a whimsical anthology of those who were inspired by this desert, those who lived in its bitter confines and those who died in its dry embrace.

I wrote about the legendary Lake Ngami, the disastrous “Thirstland trek”, the myth of the Lost  City of the Kalahari, the strange origin of the Caprivi Strip, the lonely cattle-ranching outpost of Ghanzi,  the teller of many tales, Laurens van der Post, the San people and their battle for survival, the flora and fauna of the Kalahari and much more to inform and entertain.

The first book was Footsteps, on the trail of those who made history in Tzaneen.  And of course the area is steeped in history.  The greater Tzaneen area is an example to the rest of the country.  Apart from its scenic beauty, its splendid mountain ranges, forests, waterfalls and mighty rivers, its various peoples have a proud culture.  You need only look at the legendary Lovedu and their Rain Queen, the Xitsonga and their erstwhile Gaza empire, the Sepedi and the once-powerful King Sekhukhuni, the Bishops of the Zion Christian Church and their huge congregations.

Who can forget the role of the early missionaries, the gold seekers of Leydsdorp and the Murchison Range, the Magoeba campaign, the skirmishes that ended the Anglo-Boer War.

I am currently working on Matabele Rising, a book about the plight of the Matabele people and their plea for the recognition by the international community of their right to autonomy in their own country.  The manuscript is based on a file compiled by Ernest Mtunzi, resident in London and personal assistant to Joshua Nkomo, until the latter’s death.  This comprises documents, reports, correspondence and analysis of the history of the Matabele people from their occupation of the territory in the mid-19th century until recent times, much of which is original and previously unpublished.

They are a proud nation descended from the Zulus.  They have little in common with the Shonas.  They enjoy no political representation in Zimbabwe.  Their language is no longer been taught in schools in Matabeleland.  The teachers are now Shona.  The local government offices in their province are now all Shona.  The businesses in Bulawayo which have not been moved to Mashonaland are managed by Shona.  The town itself is a shell of what it was – water is restricted, services are erratic, infrastructure is neglected.

The Kingdom of Matabeleland was once a sovereign state.  It was recognised by England and treaties were signed between the two countries.  The occupation of Mashonaland by the Pioneer Column was a fraud.  Lobengula, who had succeeded his father as King, was duped into signing the Rudd Concession.  The subsequent invasion of his territory by regiments of the British army was unjustified.  Following the flight of Lobengula and his death, his capital, Bulawayo, was destroyed.  When the Matabele rose in revolt, they were defeated and their territory was ceded to the occupying forces by a British Order in Council.

When a referendum was held in 1923 as to whether the territory should become a province of the Union of South Africa, or a British colony with self governing rights, the voters chose the latter.  The Matabele were not consulted.  And the people continued to be marginalized through subsequent political developments – the creation of the Federation of Rhodesias and Nyasaland, the Lancaster House Agreement that ended the Bush War, the creation of an independent Zimbabwe.

The inclusion of Nkomo and his lieutenants in the government was a deception.  There followed the terrible atrocities of the Ghukuruhunda.

What is needed is massive coverage of the state of affairs in the UK and SA to create awareness and to construct a platform for fund-raising amongst sympathetic supporters.  There will never be a political acceptance by the Zimbabwe Government unless there is massive pressure from the outside world.  The most that can be achieved is some form of autonomy for the province following a referendum.  This could lead in the years ahead to some form of constitutional monarchy under the Zulu King.

In conclusion, I quote from the historian, whose name has been given to a section of the Rhodes University Library, George Cory:

It is no more than the grateful duty of a succeeding generation to revere the memory of those who bore the heat and burden of the days long gone.  But better than merely holding in one’s individual mind the memories of departed heroes is the placing on permanent record the account of their lives and works.  

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