July 4, 2013





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In a story on the dedication of the new Nelson Mandela statue in Parliament Square (Times Online, 29 August 2007), Mr. Richard Dowden offered these remarks on Churchill and Jan Smuts, whose statues already stand there:

“…I wonder what the statues will say to each other when the crowds have gone and the square is deserted. Nelson Mandela’s most interesting conversations would be with Winston Churchill and Jan Smuts, who stand close together near the northeast end of the square…We remember these two men, contemporaries and friends, for other reasons. In South Africa Smuts and Churchill laid the foundations of what was to become the Apartheid state, the state Mandela dedicated his life to destroying.

“Churchill had been a journalist during the Boer War. He was captured, then escaped from the Afrikaners. But he became convinced of the justice of their cause and after the war, argued ferociously in favour of self-rule for South Africa. The man who should have spoken up for the non-racial franchise was Churchill. Instead Churchill supported the aspirations of the Afrikaners. He described South Africa as a ‘war-torn country, still red-hot from race hatred.’ In 1906 Smuts came to London and proposed self-rule based on a white population. Churchill accepted this. In a House of Commons speech in 1906 he said: ‘…it is undoubted that the Boers would regard it as a breach of that treaty if the franchise were…extended to any persons who are not white.’

“Only the Indians in South Africa managed to keep some of their rights. But not thanks to Churchill or Smuts. Proposed restrictions on Indian immigrants in South Africa were only blocked when Gandhi—then a young lawyer there—launched a mass protest movement. Although not the Prime Minister, Smuts was the most influential man in the new Union of South Africa. Under his direction South Africa became a race-based state.”

To quote Churchill, “I should think it was hardly possible to state the opposite of the truth with more precision.” Times Online restricts reader comments to 1000 characters, and ours were duly published. But here there are no limits on words in defense of Winston Churchill—or for that matter his old friend Jan Smuts…

As Undersecretary for the Colonies in 1906, Churchill fought for Indian rights in South Africa. It was one of the reasons he and Gandhi parted friends (yes, friends). In 1935, after losing his campaign against the India Bill, Churchill sent Gandhi a message of encouragement through a mutual friend. Gandhi replied: “I have got a good recollection of Mr. Churchill when he was in the Colonial Office and somehow or other since then I have held the opinion that I can always rely on his sympathy and goodwill.” (Gilbert, Winston S. Churchill, vol. V, 617-19; Finest Hour 130, posted here.)

Smuts ran for President of the Union of South Africa opposing Apartheid—and lost: “As Prime Minister, he opposed a majority of Afrikaners who wished to continue and further the de facto Apartheid of the inter-war years. After the Second World War, he established and supported the Fagan Commission, which advocated the abandonment of all segregation in South Africa. However, Smuts lost the 1948 general election before he could implement the suggestion, and died in 1950, just as de jure Apartheid was being implemented.” 

By arguing that Churchill in the early 1900s should have “stood up for the non-racial franchise” (thus blowing apart the fragile peace that Britain had just negotiated with the Boers, who still ran the country), Mr. Dowden committed what William Manchester called “generational chauvinism”: judging the actions of our forebears by the standards in place today.

What is perhaps more interesting than the facts Mr. Dowden reveals are those he ignores: that Churchill engaged in arguments on behalf of native Africans as early as 1899, when he was taken prisoner by the Boers following the famous attack on the armoured train, in which Churchill was traveling and tried to defend. The following is from Churchill’s book, London to Ladysmith via Pretoria (1900), reprinted in The Boer War (New York: Norton, 1990, 60-61):

[Boer captor:] “Well, is it right that a dirty Kaffir should walk on the pavement—without a pass too? That’s what they do in your British Colonies. Brother! Equal! Ugh! Free! Not a bit. We know how to treat Kaffirs in this country. Fancy letting the black filth walk on the pavement!….Educate a Kaffir! Ah, that’s you English all over. No, no, old chappie. We educate ’em with a stick. Treat ’em with humanity and consideration—I like that. They were put here by the God Almighty to work for us. We’ll stand no damned nonsense from them. We’ll keep them in their proper places.”

[Churchill:] “Probing at random I had touched a very sensitive nerve. We had got down from underneath the political and reached the social. What is the true and original root of Dutch aversion to British rule? It is not Slagter’s Nek, nor Broomplatz, nor Majuba, nor the Jameson Raid. Those incidents only fostered its growth. 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 farmers mind with violent social revolution. Black is to be proclaimed the same as white. The servant is to be raised against the master; the Kaffir is to be declared the brother of the European, to be constituted his legal equal, to be armed with political rights. The dominant race is to be deprived of their superiority; nor is a tigress robbed of her cubs more furious than is the Boer at this prospect.”

Such a remark by a Victorian Englishman 108 years ago is an stonishing commentary on Churchill’s enlightened views about race at a time when few of his society shared them. Perhaps this is why, when Nelson Mandela was about to address the United States Congress, he asked us for a copy of a Churchill speech to that body—for Mandela, you see, is a also a Churchillophile. You can look it up!

None of the foregoing is to whitewash the record, or to deny, for instance, that Churchill’s Victorian attitudes toward native Africans were other than paternalistic, typical of the most enlightened thinkers of his own time. But the key to understanding Churchill is the single word “Liberty”—of which he remained a consistent advocate.

In early World War II Eric Seal, one of the Prime Minister’s private secretaries, remarked that he “intensely disliked, and reacted violently against all attempts to regiment and dictate opinion….He demanded for himself freedom to follow his own star, and he stood out for a like liberty for all men….”

In that respect at least Mr. Dowden is correct. Mandela’s statue will indeed have a lot to say to Churchill’s. 

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