CHURCHILL OUT OF HIBERNATION, WEEK 7
Our stroll through the works of Winston Churchill downshifts into a march with LONDON TO LADYSMITH, the first of two books that Churchill would write on the Boer War in South Africa. As always, the nuance of Churchill’s thinking proved just as enthralling as the blood and guts details of his war reportage, which here included a thrilling account of his capture by and escape from the Boers, an escape that would help launch young Churchill’s political career.
Winston Churchill arrived in Capetown on October 31, 1899 to cover the Boer War for The Morning Post as the highest paid war correspondent in British journalism. Account receipts survive for the provisioning of Churchill’s South Africa expedition. Along with his telescope, field glasses, saddle and a bronzed needle compass, the 24-year-old Churchill took with him six bottles of vin d’Ay sec, eighteen bottles of St.-Émilion, six bottles of “light port,” six bottles of French vermouth, and eighteen bottles of Scotch whiskey (“10 years old”).
Churchill was soon persuaded to ride out on an armored train dispatched to reconnoiter the Boer positions. Within hours, the train was ambushed and Churchill captured, though not before he had taken the lead in rescuing many of the wounded under fierce fire. He was imprisoned with other officers at the States Model School in Pretoria, marking his 25th birthday there. Then, after twenty-five days of captivity, he escaped, launching himself over the wall on the night of December 12.
Churchill’s flight across South Africa was a young boy’s adventure yarn come to life; a tale he would soon vividly tell to the world. He scrambled aboard a slowly moving freight train, was secreted by a British-sympathizing farmer in a mine pit for three nights and days, and then—with a £25 reward now on his head (“Dead or Alive”) — at last reached Durban to find that he had become famous overnight. The news coverage of his capture and escape was international, hyperbolic and hero-struck. Characteristically, the young hero reacted to his newfound celebrity by undermining it immediately with unsolicited honesty. Writing in the Morning Post, Churchill delivered his own candid, highly critical opinion of British fighting mettle in South Africa and his conversely complimentary view of the Boers as fighters. “The individual Boer, mounted in suitable country, is worth from three to five regular soldiers,” he proclaimed. “Are the gentlemen of England all foxhunting?”
London to Ladysmith (Via Pretoria) was published on May 15, 1900 and became an instant best-seller. The Conservative Party quickly invited its author to run in the upcoming general election. Despite Churchill’s less than popular criticism of the very need for a Boer War, he won, at last taking his place in the House of Commons.
“What is the true and original root of Dutch aversion to British rule?” Churchill asked in London to Ladysmith. “It is the abiding fear and hatred of the movement that seeks to place the native on a level with the white man. British government is associated in the Boer farmer’s mind with violent social revolution…the Kaffir is to be declared the brother of the European, to be constituted his legal equal, to be armed with political rights.”
So wrote Winston Churchill, the anti-racist, in 1900.
We wish you, in his spirit, safety and health.