Kipling in South Africa

Dan Jacobson

The first piece of verse by Rudyard Kipling I committed to memory – without even knowing I was doing so – was incised in large Roman capitals on a wall of the Honoured Dead Memorial in Kimberley, South Africa. During the Anglo-Boer War, Kimberley was besieged for some months by forces from the two Boer republics, the Transvaal (De Zuid-Afrikaansche Republiek) and the Orange Free State. Among those trapped in the city during the siege was Cecil Rhodes, former prime minister of the Cape Colony and the most prominent among the mining magnates drawn to South Africa by the discovery of diamonds in Kimberley and subsequently of gold in Johannesburg. Rhodes had deliberately moved from Cape Town to Kimberley once it became clear to him that war between Britain and the two ‘Dutch’ republics was imminent: this he did out of a sense of noblesse oblige to the city in which he had made his first and greatest fortune, and which he felt to be peculiarly ‘his’ thereafter. (Many other people, the Boer leaders among them, felt the same way about it, which was why they had made Kimberley one of their prime targets.) Once the siege was lifted, Rhodes returned to his house and estate outside Cape Town, and immediately commissioned his favourite architect, Herbert Baker, to find a prominent site in Kimberley and to design for it a memorial to the imperial troops and local militiamen who had died defending the city.

Built out of ruddy-yellow granite brought down from Rhodesia, and complete with a massive cannon manufactured locally during the siege, the Honoured Dead Memorial is an imposing, flat-topped affair, half fortress and half Doric temple. It stands in the middle of a grassed-over traffic circle just outside the grounds of Kimberley Boys’ High School, which I attended for a full ten years, so I had ample opportunity to study the memorial and its inscription as I trudged back and forth between school and home. Much later I learned that the words had been composed by Kipling at Rhodes’s request. The names of both men had been familiar to me almost as far back as I could remember. In Kimberley – then still a ‘company town’ dominated by De Beers Consolidated Mines – Rhodes continued to be regarded as a kind of demi-god; Kipling I knew chiefly as the author of ‘Rikki-Tikki-Tavi’, a story about a mongoose battling cobras in an Indian garden, which, like an addict, I felt compelled to reread at frequent intervals over many years. But I knew nothing of the close friendship that had sprung up between the writer and the empire-builder; nothing of the three short visits Kipling had made to Kimberley (during one of which he had enjoyed watching the city hall burn down); nothing of the fact that Rhodes had formally passed to Kipling a house (also built by Baker) in the exquisite grounds of the estate he had laid out under Table Mountain. It was in this house – dubbed The Woolsack, to which Rhodes had granted Kipling a ‘life tenancy’ – that Kipling resided with his family during all but two of the lengthy annual visits he made to South Africa between 1898 and 1908.

The alliance between the two men was to be of brief duration, however: Rhodes died (of heart failure, at the age of 49) some months before the surrender of the Boer republics in November 1902. Thus he never had the opportunity to see in its completed state the memorial he had commissioned for Kimberley, though he would almost certainly have read the inscription Kipling composed for it:

This for a charge to our children in sign of the price we paid
The price we paid for freedom that comes unsoiled to your hand
Read revere and uncover for here are the victors laid
They that died for the city being sons of the land

These chiselled, unpunctuated words made a great impression on my schoolboy mind: not least because of their obscurity. I did not know what ‘a charge’ meant here; plainly it did not refer to something that people did on battlefields or in games of rugby. And who exactly were the ‘you’, ‘we’ and ‘they’ that the lines evoked with such confidence? Most mysterious of all was the command to ‘read revere and uncover’. Uncover? At school the boys sometimes talked in spooky voices about the massive, never-to-be-opened steel door lodged in one of the monument’s walls, behind which (it was said) there was a flight of stairs leading down to a place where all the ‘honoured dead’ from the siege were interred. But if that were the case, who would think of going down there to ‘uncover’ them? To what end? And what gruesome spectacle would meet their eyes if they did it?

By the time I left school some of these puzzles had been resolved; but others had taken their place. I knew, for instance, that the ‘freedom’ proclaimed in the inscription had nothing to do with the ambitions of the Nationalist Afrikaners, the ‘children’ of the Boers, of whom relatively few had been living in Kimberley when I entered school, but who in the ten years since then had grown to be a significant minority of the city’s white population. (Just a few years later, there were enough of them, countrywide, to vote the Afrikaner Nationalist Party into power.) I also knew by then that neither the English-speaking nor the Afrikaans-speaking whites had any intention of extending the ‘freedom’ they enjoyed to the black-skinned ‘sons of the land’, who had always outnumbered both white groups put together. Considerations like these had for me already turned the inscription on the monument into a kind of ponderous joke, a warning to all monument-builders never to take for granted anything about the future they would not live to see.

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[1] Umr Singh constantly parrots the official line that the Anglo-Boer war was ‘a white man’s war’, with the local blacks – and Umr Singh himself – excluded from combat because of the colour of their skin. Hence the title, and various developments of the story’s plot. The fact is that throughout the war both sides used large numbers of blacks as spies, scouts, porters and personal servants; and, more to the point here, the British also put significant units of armed blacks into the field. This the Boers never dared to do, lest the guns they distributed be turned against them.

[2] In Following the Equator (1897), Mark Twain wrote: ‘In the opinion of many people Mr Rhodes is South Africa; others think he is only a large part of it. These latter consider that South Africa consists of Table Mountain, the diamond mines, the Johannesburg goldfields, and Cecil Rhodes … I admire him, I frankly confess it; and when his time comes I shall buy a piece of the rope for a keepsake.’

[3] Lion’s Head is a peak guarding the western flank of Table Mountain; the ‘Line’ refers to the equator. Though he did not revisit South Africa after 1908, in later years Kipling declined the executors of Rhodes’s estate’s repeated requests to return The Woolsack to them – presumably because he could not bear to make this symbolic break with his friendship with Rhodes and his memories of the time he and his family had spent in the country. After Kipling’s death in 1936 The Woolsack did finally fall into the hands of the executors, who passed it on to the University of Cape Town. Today it is used as one of the many administrative buildings on the campus.

[4] Presumably the blacks were simply too far outside the realm of politics, as the term was commonly understood, to be brought into consideration. More than twenty years after the end of the Anglo-Boer War, Roy Campbell, who remains the finest lyric poet in English that South Africa has yet produced, and who was as sensitive to the local idiom as anyone could be, wrote a lengthy satire in rhyming couplets about the country’s political and intellectual life. Entitled The Wayzgoose, it focuses on two typically South African simpletons, Johnny (the English-speaker) and Piet (the Afrikaner). ‘Think not that I on racial questions touch,’ the refrain of the poem runs, ‘For one was Durban-born, the other Dutch.’ (Durban in those days was the most British, the most true-blue-Tory, of South Africa’s cities.)

[5] When T.S. Eliot went public with his admiration for Kipling by producing A Choice of Kipling’s Verse (1941), readers who regarded Eliot as the high priest of an austere, highbrow Modernism were surprised to learn of his enthusiasm for a poet written off by most intellectuals of the day as little better than a music-hall balladeer. In fact, Kipling’s influence on Eliot (himself far more of a deliberately self-made Englishman than Kipling ever was) had already shown itself in two of his own ‘historical’ or ‘country-house’ poems, ‘Burnt Norton’ and ‘Little Gidding’.