Winston Churchill and the Great Escape

“TAKE a community of Dutchmen of the type of those who defended themselves for fifty years against all the power of Spain at a time when Spain was the greatest power in the world. Intermix with them a strain of those inflexible French Huguenots who gave up home and fortune and left their country for ever at the time of the revocation of the Edict of Nantes. The product must obviously be one of the most rugged, virile, unconquerable races ever seen upon earth. Take this formidable people and train them for seven generations in constant warfare against savage men and ferocious beasts, in circumstances under which no weakling could survive, place them so that they acquire exceptional skill with weapons and in horsemanship, give them a country which is eminently suited to the tactics of the huntsman, the marksman, and the rider. Then, finally, put a finer temper upon their military qualities by a dour fatalistic Old Testament religion and an ardent and consuming patriotism. Combine all these qualities and all these impulses in one individual, and you have the modern Boer-the most formidable antagonist who ever crossed the path of Imperial Britain. Our military history has largely consisted in our conflicts with France, but Napoleon and all his veterans have never treated us so roughly as these bard-bitten farmers with their ancient theology and their inconveniently modern rifles. Look at the map of South Africa, and there, in the very centre of the British possessions, like the stone in a peach, lies the great stretch of the two republics, a mighty domain for so small a people. How came they there? Who are these Teutonic folk who have burrowed so deeply into Africa? It is a twice-told tale, and yet it must be told once again if this story is to have even the most superficial of introductions. No one can know or appreciate the Boer who does not know his past, for he is what his past has made him.” – Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, the Boer War


When I was in Grade 8, I had the privilege of being taught by an amazing history teacher. I only had him for a year, but he made a lasting impression on me. My folks in later years pointed out that he was a raving alcoholic and his daughter had a mental breakdown at our matric farewell, but these are sidebars. He said once: “We need to understand history in order to learn from our mistakes, and to not make them again.” Well. Clearly the bunch running South Africa do not prescribe to this notion. Social engineering as its best is still the order of the day, only the players have changed. But I digress. What I really wanted to talk about is the stuff we rarely talk about in terms of SA history. Ie the late 1800’s, the wars between Zulu and imperialists and colonists, the big fat tug of war over the gold mines between boer and brit and the not-so-incidental elevation of Winston Churchill as a national hero in the process.


The reason all the shit went down in that small stretch of land on the border of Kwazulu Natal, Free State and the Transvaal – the Natal Midlands? Well it was the promised land, of course, and when the Boers got there and realized that at 1000m of altitude it was blissfully devoid of disease, musquitos and other cattle killing pestilence, they settled in blissfully. As ordained by God in the book of Exodus. Only the Zulus had different gods who reckoned it was THEIR promised land, they were there first, and the white men with their flashy sticks were evil wizards anyway. Commence all the warring, posturing and infighting between Boer and Zulu, subsequent propaganda and an uneasy peace come the latter part of the 19th century.


Once the boers and the Zulus have had their wars, they settled into an uneasy peace. Luckily, Bartle Frere and his imperialist itches put paid to that, and as the might of Imperial Britain enroached on the sovereignity of both Zulu and Boer, there were the famous British reverses at Isindlwana and Majuba, and the even more famous British heroics at Rorke’s Drift (thanks Michael Caine). When the dust had settled in the mid 1890’s, the Zulus were a divided and spent force, the Boers had won back independence and Great Britain was more or less comfortable with leaving the interior the hell enough alone. Then the Boers discovered gold smack in the middle of their territory. It took Sir Cecil and his cronies less than a decade to try to take the smaller sovereign state of the Transvaal by force (Jameson Raid) and subsequent to that disastrous attempt, to orchestrate a war with the “rebels”.


1. October 11, 1899: The Boers invade the neighbouring British Territories in Southern Africa. I’m not even going to try to explain how they thought this was a good idea. But a combination of historical success (they did after all repel the hated Brits only a decade earlier at Majuba), religious zeal (as sanctioned by the holy Covenant) and lack of options were the main ingredients. As my guide Simon Blackburn from Three Tree Hill put it: “If you know there’s going to be a fight, better throw the first punch…”

2. November 15, 1899: A young journalist, thirsty for danger and adventure, is “thrust into the limelight” when he is captured during a raid by the Boers on a British military supply train. Young Winston is only captured after he heroically manages to save most of the other passengers and facilitates the train’s escape. His subsequent (shortlived) imprisonment, daring escape from captivity, audacious journey on enemy trains to the Mozambican border and the port of Lourenzo Marques,  and his subsequent heroic return to the British territory consitutes his finest hour.

3. 15 December 1899: Battle of Colenso. The final battle of Black Week, and another humiliating defeat for the British against vastly inferior numbers of supposedly underequipped Boer farmers. Contextually, the pride of the British national consciousness was severely bruised, and the public were desperate for good news out of South Africa.

TIMING IS EVERYTHING So Winston Churchill has an amazing, heroic adventure. He writes about it at a time when positive, good news stories are incredibly needed. He follows it up with more accounts of heroics and landmark battles at the start of the Boer War. His stories make him a national celebrity in Britain, and paves the way for him to launch his political career upon his return. He would go on to be arguably the most important leader of the 20th century, as his leadership of Great Britain helped stem the Nazi tide. So we’ll claim him. Along with Gandhi and Sixto Rodriguez. They might not be South Africans, but boy did we put them on the map…

I give special thanks to Simon and Cheryl Blackburn for their amazing offering at Three Tree Hill. It was a rare privilige to learn and visit with you folks. You can book the tours and accommodation as part of your greater South Africa experience through Luxury Safaris, or contact them direct through their website


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