© Maxwell Adams 2007
Version 25 May 2007
The background is this. In 1895-1896 the quarrel between the Boers and British in South Africa flared up again and fighting looked likely. At the tail end of December 1895 and beginning of the January 1896 some British tried unsuccessfully to seize control of the Transvaal from its Boer government. An uprising was planned in Johannesburg, which never happened, and six hundred Britons rode to the Transvaal and defeat to support the aborted uprising. Among those arrested by the Boers after the failure was William Hosken, formerly of Hayle (West Briton 23 January page 3). Three years later the Boers and British would be at war in what we mostly call the Boer War.
There were miners from Cornwall in the Transvaal and in December 1895- January 1896 some of them responded to the threatened but unrealised fighting by coming back to Britain, some with their wives and children. The newspaper reports in Cornwall are largely based on what the South African newspapers and correspondents reported.
The charges are straightforward and explicit: the attempted rebellion and take-over of the Transvaal by some of the British prompted some Cornishmen to leave hurriedly because they were cowards, frightened at the prospect of fighting (Cornish Telegraph 23 January page 4, West Briton 23 January page 3).
The West Briton (30 January 1896) carried startling second-hand accounts of their departure from Johannesburg to the sea at Durban. We are told that a railway carriage at Johannesburg which the Cornish miners packed at the start of their long journey home had "Cowards van" chalked on it and as they left the railway station they were "vociferously hooted and hissed" - another account says they were "hissed and jeered." Apparently they were presented with white feathers at the Johannesburg railway station. The paper quoted a report from the Daily Chronicle which said that the "Cornish miners, afraid that they might be called upon to fight, bombarded the train, and secured standing room." The report went on to say that at Maritzburg people had put out food and drink for the women and children on the crowded train. "Imagine their horror and disgust when these Cornish miners leapt from the train, seized everything on the table, and drank every drain of tea before a woman or child could taste a drop." Everything, every are perhaps exaggeration but the accounts are damning.
When the train reached Durban, in British South Africa, a large crowd had gathered to "hoot them on their arrival" and the authorities, fearing a hostile mob, disembarked the Cornishmen "in secret" and billeted them away from people.
As they later left the jetty for the boat for Britain they were "hooted"again and hostile comments about cowardice and craven-heartedness were displayed on the walls (West Briton 30 January page 4).
Those people from Cornwall who did not depart were keen to distance themselves from those who did. A man from Cornwall who had been seven years on the Rand in Transvaal and had stayed in Johannesburg in the crisis wrote angrily to the Cornwall paper about his departed compatriots. Presumably speaking for those who had hooted and hissed and jeered, he said that those departing Cornishmen were common cowards, people who "sneak cowardly away" and who had "caused quite a slur on Cornishmen generally."
An unsavoury aspect of the reports is the casual racism and stereotyping revealed. Comments which are rightly unacceptable today were made and I put them here so that we have a more complete picture of that time and the events. I think there are no heroes in this story. In the West Briton reports the angry Cornishman from the Rand sneered that the departing miners "left the station in cattle trucks with Kaffirs, Coolies, Hottentots, and every mixture of the low and despised" and one of the Cornishmen, interviewed on his landing in England, said that he did not want to fight and that Jews "pretty well own Johannesburg" (West Briton 30 January page 2). Even a report supportive of the departing Cornishmen in the Cornish Telegraph (30 January 1896, page 4e), in a rational attack upon unthinking aggressiveness, referred disparagingly to the "Donnybrook Irishman whose cry was 'Here's a head, hit it!' " Donnybrook fair sounds pretty much like Lelant fair sometimes was.
To counter the apparent damage to reputation caused by the departing men a Cornish Brigade was formed in the Transvaal, ready to fight, under James Hosking (West Briton 30 January page 2). Three hundred Cornishmen enrolled immediately. It marched through the streets, a brass band playing 'Trelawney.' And it was carefully explained to the world that three men from Lelant who were in South Africa, Donnithorne, Haly, and J Millett, "were under arms in Johannesburg, protecting the mines they are respectively employed in" (Cornish Telegraph 30 January 1896 page 8c). About a dozen men from Lelant took part in the eventual Anglo-Boer War.
Cornish people in South Africa clearly took differing views of the crisis and their part in it. And a Cornishman who left Johannesburg for Cape Town not Durban wrote to say the Cornishmen on his train behaved well and deferred to the women and children (West Briton 20 February 1896 page 2).
The Cornish Telegraph rationally and persuasively defended the departing miners and said, "They are not cowards because they refused to fight to fill the pockets of a gang of speculators" (23 January, page 4). They had been accused of cowardice by "individuals who seem to judge a man's value as a citizen by his willingness to fight on all occasions and without reference to the justice of the quarrel" (30 January page 4). The departing miners were described by the newspaper as "shrewd, respectable, law-abiding workers" (30 January page 4) and the charge of cowardice as a "silly and spiteful slander" (23 January page 4). The justice of the Transvaal quarrel, like the war that followed, was contended. The paper's liberal points were well made but spoiled by the Donnybrook reference. Amusingly, the newspapers here in Cornwall in 1896 write freely about "capitalists" and "speculators" in a way that nowadays would be seen as odd outside the esoteric leftwing media.
What are we to make of these reports? Are they true? Some people in Cornwall, reading them, wrote to say they did not believe them. The Cornish Telegraph wondered whether the reports of untoward behaviour were "reliable."
We cannot say at this distance whether the reports are accurate in every detail - one which says some Cornish miners escaped from Johannesburg in women's clothes seems fanciful - but the multiplicity of similar reports, the scornful details in the letter from the Cornishman who stayed in South Africa, and the eager formation of a fearless Cornish Brigade by those who stayed in Johannesburg suggest that the reports are basically true.
Some Cornishmen did return to Britain from South Africa and we know from the evidence of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries what a scramble to leave looks like. It is clear that they left to avoid the fighting, which did not happen then but in which they would have been caught up - they said so. Some stayed. People will differ on what they make of that.
Incidentally, a report a few years later shows an interesting view by some miners on the Boer War. It was reported that many miners in west Cornwall were discontented with the prolongation of the war in South Africa because they had had to leave their work in the Transvaal Rand, at £20-£30 a month, and were working in Cornwall at only £3 a month (St Ives Weekly Summary 2 November 1901).
Cornish Telegraph 23 January 1896 page 4; 30 January 1896 page 4e, 8c
West Briton 20 January 1896 page 2e; 23 January 1896 page 3; 27 January page 2b; 30 January page 2f, and page 4b