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Blogcritic Culture (07/Feb/2009) - From Hitchcock to the Boer Wars

(c) Blogcritic Culture (07/Feb/2009)

From Hitchcock to the Boer Wars

The Film

Of course the name Alfred Hitchcock will instantly suggest films — Suspense! Horror! — all the vital elements for total, spine-chilling thrills occasioned by other people's involvement in unspeakable situations, while we sit on our soft seats, secure in the temperature-controlled darkness of the theatre, savouring our wine gums or chewing liquorice all-sorts.

At the conclusion of the performance, nine out of ten of us will leave there perhaps discussing the genius of the producer or the actors, but without giving another thought to the writer of a book which might have precipitated the film - if such were the case. In years to come it will be the names of the former that come to mind, if and when, the title is mentioned.

The Book

Such has been the case with The 39 Steps, an adventure novel by the Scottish author John Buchan, first published in 1915. Upon this book four major film versions have been based – the first being a 1935 British production directed by Alfred Hitchcock.

It was remade, in colour, in 1959, a version that was more faithful to the story. It was also produced in 1978, and most recently, in 2008, another version was made for British television. In 1999, the Hitchcock movie came 4th in a BFI poll of British films, rated one of the best of all time – right up there with The Third Man (1949), Brief Encounter (1945) and Lawrence of Arabia (1962).

How the Title was Chosen

Buchan, who greatly admired the writings of Sir Walter Scott, is thought to have published some 100 books, but not all are fiction, and an interesting story is associated with his choice of a title for the one in question. For most of his adult life John Buchan suffered repeatedly with a duodenal ulcer, and it was his son, William, who revealed that that the name of the book originated when his young sister was counting the stairs at a private nursing home in Broadstairs, where his father was convalescing.

"There was a wooden staircase leading down to the beach,” he explains. “My sister, who was about six, and who had just learnt to count properly, went down them and gleefully announced, ‘There are 39 steps.’ " When, in time to come, the building was demolished, a section of the stairs, complete with a brass plaque, was sent to Buchan.

Connecting with South Africa

Like the endearing character, Richard Hannay, South Africa generally comes into all Buchan’s novels. In a series for which the author is best known, Prester John was the first of his adventure novels set in South Africa, and Hannay, narrator of The 39 Steps, just happens to be an expatriate Scot who returns to his new home in London - after a long stay in Southern Africa.

The connection is not accidental. After pursuing a successful career as a barrister, John Buchan became the private secretary to the High Commissioner for South Africa, Lord Milner, between 1901 and 1903. He had worked as a war correspondent for The Times newspaper before joining the army.

The spy-catching character in The Thirty-Nine Steps, Richard Hannay, is based on a real-life person with whom he, himself, had served in the British army. Hannay was introduced in his most famous thriller, published in 1915.

That was before the author left South Africa to serve on the Headquarters’ Staff of the British Army in France as a temporary Lieutenant Colonel – and that is where he comes into my story. That was when he befriended my father.

Two ‘Boer Wars’

South Africa was then slowly recovering from the second of two of what have become known as the ‘Boer Wars’. The British had ratified the two new Boer Republics in two treaties: the Sand River Convention of 1852, which recognized the independence of the Transvaal Republic; and the Bloemfontein Convention of 1854 - which recognized the independence of the Orange Free State.

Transvaal representatives and commissioners of the British Government attended the convention and it seemed that Britain wanted to disengage itself from any problems relating to the far interior of South Africa, as well as being rid of further responsibilities in the area. Yet, within little more than a decade and half, the Orange Free State and the 'Zuid Afrikaansche Republiek’ would be subjugated in the course of the bloody South African War of 1899–1902.

I find it tragic that information contained in a letter written to the Transvaal President was not taken more seriously. Informing him that a hunting party that included a German with knowledge of minerals had discovered a rich gold reef near Vliegepoort, it also provided particulars about which that Government should take immediate steps.

It was, without a doubt, a warning that should be connected more definitely with the re-awakening of Britain’s interest in the Transvaal. Soon, every other country in the British Commonwealth was aligned against two small republics with a total Boer population of 200,000.

The Holocaust

By mid 1900, the Second Anglo-Boer War had been raging for well over a year. The overwhelming British force had occupied all the major towns and centres of the Boer Republics of the Orange Free State and the Transvaal, and the Boers had been forced to resort to hit and run guerrilla tactics in the open veld. Somehow they continued to inflict defeats upon the British in this way - to an extent that eventually the war was to cost the British government a fortune by 1901 standards.

The British became so exasperated with the military situation and the manner in which the Boers seemed to be able operate with impunity in the veld that a new course of action was devised. In the last months of 1900, they began to build what eventually became 45 separate concentration camps, established for the purpose of systematically removing women and children from their farms to prevent them from aiding and supplying the Boer soldiers in the field.

This rounding up of thousands of women and children was justified in a memorandum issued on December 21st, 1900, by a ruthless British commander, General Kitchener, at his headquarters in Pretoria, by an explanation that it was to “protect them from the Blacks” and the relevant quotes are to be found in the Penguin Book To the Bitter End: A Photographic History of the Boer War 1899 - 1902, Emanuel Lee."

Death Rate of 'Genocidal Proportions'

So it was that the British started not only rounding up as many Boer women and children as they could, but also destroying the farms, which were their only source of survival. The evacuation of the farms was accompanied by the burning and dynamiting of all farmhouses and buildings.

Poultry, sheep, and cattle were slaughtered, the houses looted and all fruit trees, grain, or other crops were burned down. This is not to say that all the British undertook this task with relish: many ordinary British soldiers were themselves appalled at what they were ordered to do.

The death rate was of 'genocidal proportions'. No war is ever fought without loss of life, but the greatest tragedy of the Second Boer War (1900-1902) was the internment of women and children in concentration camps, which led to massive loss of life. Of the interned who died, half were children.

Among the 27,927 Boers who died in the camps, 4,177 were adult women, and 22,074 were children under the age of 16. It was nothing short of diabolical that by October 1901, the number of inmates in the 45 camps had increased to 118,000 whites and 43,000 non-whites. The death rate was 344 per thousand amongst the whites and, at one stage, in the Kroonstad camp, it was 878 per 1,000. In addition, 30,000 farmhouses and 21 villages were destroyed.

A Queen Apologizes

If the fact that Queen Elizabeth made a formal apology to the people of South Africa in 1999 has not been enough to set at rest the doubts of any skeptics who might read this, eyewitness accounts, provided not only by Boers but also by appalled British people, are numerous and harrowing. Most compelling among them are the writings of an indomitable Cornish humanitarian and welfare worker by the name of Emily Hobhouse, and two other women, a Mrs Badenhorst and a Mrs Botha, in whom Emily found friends and allies.

In her book, which is a veritable a mine of information, Emily Hobhouse would write: “It was late in the summer of 1900, that I first learnt of the hundreds of Boer women who became impoverished and were left ragged by our military operations … the poor women who were being driven from pillar to post, needed protection and organized assistance."

The Hobhouse books are now obtainable online, and a riveting, if shocking book written by the Afrikaans woman, Alida Badenhorst, under the pseudonym of “Tant Alie of Transvaal” is also available. Her Diary 1880-1902, translated by Hobhouse, conjures up images that are enough to give the most hardened reader nightmares.

John Buchan Arrives in South Africa

Before coming to South Africa, the Scotsman who was to make that country the scene of so many of his novels, had won a bursary to study at Glasgow University, later studying classics at Brasenose College, Oxford. After graduating, he had read for the bar and worked as an author and journalist, before joining the staff of Lord Milner, High Commissioner to South Africa, in 1901. He spent the next two years dealing with the reconstruction of South Africa following the Boer War. I was delighted recently to be sent this reference:

“One of the young men teaching at the school Buchan started in Potchefstroom was a young Boer soldier, Wilhelm Van Zyl, and it was on the banks of the river that flows through the town, the Mooi River (the “Lovely River”) that Wilhelm met met a lovely girl called Joey, who had come out of the Braamfontein Concentration Camp.”

The girl to whom he refers became my mother.

A Superlative Governor-General

In 1935 Buchan moved to Canada where, as Baron Tweedsmuir of Elsfield and the 35th Governor General of Canada - he is reputed to have been one of the best of Canada’s governors-general. He held this position until his death in 1940.