The Frontier Partisans bookshelf is groaning under the load of new books from 2016 that are right in the wheelhouse. This year has been an exceptional one for really high-quality work — a new bio of Frederick Courteney Selous, and one of Frederick Russell Burnham; Paul A. Hutton’s magisterial study The Apache Wars (Book of the Year for me).
I just ordered a new one, which published in the fall. The first book I downloaded for my brand new Kindle Fire over Christmas 2015 was The If Man, Chris Ash’s biography of the South African Frontier Partisan Leander Starr Jameson. Ash is an apologist for the late Victorian/Edwardian British Empire, and it makes for most entertaining reading. Ash is very much on the side of the Pioneer Column in their smasher slouch hats and bandoleers, an admirer of the rogues and adventurers that mined the diamonds and gold of southern Africa and dreamed grandiose dreams about the expansion of an Anglo-Saxon Imperium. By Jingo!
Chris Ash grew up in the Shetland Isles and studied at Aberdeen University. After a brief and undistinguished dalliance with the British Army (Lovat Scouts and Gordon Highlanders), he drove his Land Rover to South Africa and decided to stay. Since then, he has worked in oil and mineral exploration all over Africa and the Middle East. His interest in South African history was sparked by watching Zulu and Breaker Morant as a child, ameliorated by countless drunken arguments over the years. He is a regular speaker on the remarkable life of Dr. Leander Starr Jameson, the subject of his first book, The If Man. His second book, Kruger, Kommandos & Kak, continues to fuel Boer War controversy. Away from work and history, Ash enjoys cricket, rugby, upsetting the politically correct, J&B and messing about in Landies. He commutes between Johannesburg and Iraq.
Ash is not producing measured, dispassionate history, he’s arguing his corner. It can get excessively tendentious, and I find his swipes at ace historians like Thomas Pakenham and Martin Meredith foolish and tiresome. I haven’t read his Boer War tome, but it’s generated its fair share of controversy. People tend to love it or revile it, depending on their tolerance for a pen-warmed-up-in-hell defense of the British Empire’s aims and conduct in South Africa (and, apparently, frequent groin punches to the Boers).
As long as you recognize that you’re reading a neo-triumphalist tally-ho version of history, there’s a lot to be enjoyed in the man’s work. Ash obviously truly loves the crazy-quilt assortment of imperial characters that populated the African frontier — a mix of gentleman-eccentrics, fevered imperial schemers and capitalists, prospectors and speculators, wild colonial boys and a seasoning of American frontiersmen seeking to relive an experience that was fading in North America. And to that I can relate. I love ’em, too, with all of their foibles and faults.
Ash’s latest covers The Matabele Wars of 1893 and 1896. Two of the Frontier Partisans I profile in Warriors of the Wildlands fought in these small but nasty conflicts in what is now Zimbabwe. I expect his usual vivid treatment:
Sandwiched between the glamour and heroism of the Zulu War, and the controversy and bitterness of the Boer War, the Matabele Wars of the 1890s have long been southern Africa’s forgotten colonial wars. There is no denying that the Matabele Wars are a lot less romantic and photogenic than the Zulu War. The wonky, unreliable Gatlings and ludicrous rocket batteries of the Zulu War had given way to the highly effective Maxim guns that were seeing major action for the first time. Nevertheless, the Matabele warriors showed every bit as much heroism, determination and élan as had their kinsmen in the Zulu War.
With oft-claimed links to the infamous Jameson Raid, the origins of the second Matabele War are as fascinating and controversial as those of the first, and it was a dirty, hard-fought guerrilla war, more akin to the African bush wars of the 1960s and ’70s than those waged at the height of the colonial period. The brutal murders of women and children committed by the insurgents and the widespread use of dynamite to entomb rebels in their subterranean hiding places both sparked fury and condemnation at the time, but aside from the butchery, actions such as the Mazoe Patrol were as heroic as anything of the age.
This is the first history, which covers both wars in a single volume, allowing the reader to see how they flowed seamlessly into one another and how they impacted on the southern Africa. Written in Ash’s typical no-holds-barred style, the book thunders along rather than tiptoeing round modern political niceties. Special attention is given to the many outlandish characters of the period: old-school savage tyrant Chief Lobengula, the ambitious and ever-scheming Cecil Rhodes, and the rascally Dr Jameson, of course … but also men like Captain Lendy, one of very few men in history to have died from putting a shot, Frederick Selous, the archetypal great white hunter, Kagubi the infamous witch doctor who whipped up so much trouble during the rebellion, not to mention the likes of Plumer, Forbes, Wilson, Colenbrander, Burnham, Baden-Powell, Gifford and the extraordinary ‘Maori’ Hamilton-Browne. Indeed, the cast is probably the most fascinating part of the tale: adventurous young Anglo-Saxons from every corner of the empire and a few old Indian fighters from the American West, who all found themselves thousands of miles from home facing a valiant and terrifying enemy.