This book, subtitled “The Boer War, a Daring Escape and the Making of Winston Churchill” is a history of Winston Churchill’s early life, with a focus on the years 1899-1900. It was during this time that Churchill traveled as a journalist to the Boer War in South Africa, ended up a prisoner, and effected a daring escape.
Churchill believed that he was destined for power and fame. In fact, his self-confidence and belief in his special destiny were quite remarkable. It is true he came from a powerful family; his father, Lord Randolph Churchill, had served as Secretary of State for India and later Chancellor of the Exchequer and Leader of the House of Commons. His mother, Jennie Churchill, was considered to be one of the most beautiful and influential women of her time. But the extent of Churchill’s belief in his singularity was still astounding. As just one of many examples, while taking part in 1897 Siege of Malakand in colonial British India’s North West Frontier Province, he wrote his mother he wasn’t worried about bullets: “I do not believe the Gods would create so potent a being as myself for so prosaic an ending.”
What he wanted most though, was to gain a reputation for personal courage, and by all accounts, he consistently acquitted himself well in that respect. As Millard writes: “Although Churchill had been called many things – opportunist, braggart, blowhard – no one had ever questioned his bravery.” He didn’t have much of a chance to evince it however until the Second Boer War broke out in South Africa in October of 1899.
The Boers had lived in the region relatively unmolested until they discovered diamonds and gold. The area was previously occupied by the San, Khoikhoi, Xhosa, and Zulu peoples. When the Dutch and German Huguenots arrived, later known collectively as Boers, their diseases wiped out a large number of the natives. The whites thought the surviving native people only suitable for slavery. The British had outlawed slavery; although they believed whites to be superior to darker races, and that these darker races might merit abuse and social scorn, they drew the line at enslaving them outright.
But the Boers persisted in doing what they wanted, and thus the British became convinced that the “insolent” Boers must be curbed. Churchill in particular had argued that “war was the only answer.” [Whether the British umbrage was over the outrage of slavery or over the outrage that the Boers, rather than the British, had control of the gold and diamonds is not entirely clarified. It seems as if it were a bit of both.]
When Churchill arrived in South Africa, he gushed over the land: “All Nature smiles, and here at last is a land where white men may rule and prosper.” Although, as Millard points out, “the white men Churchill had in mind for ruling and prospering in South Africa were certainly not the Boers . . . ”
Nevertheless, she reports:
“. . . the [Boers] had had the same rush of desire and deep sense of entitlement when they first laid eyes on Natal. Since the earliest days of the war, both the Boers and the British had held an unshakable belief in the righteousness of their cause and the unworthiness of their enemy. Neither group, however, had given a moment’s thought or would have cared if they had, to the fact that the land over which they were fighting did not belong to either one of them.”
On November 15, 1899, a month after Churchill arrived in South Africa, champing at the bit to see action, he joined a reconnaissance mission on an armored train. Louis Botha and his Boers successfully attacked the train, and took some sixty captives, including Churchill.
Although the officers, with Churchill among them, were housed in surprisingly good accommodations, Churchill could not bear not being the master of his own fate, and became obsessed with escaping. He was supposed to be a part of a group of three escapees, but after Churchill climbed over the fence, the others had no opportunity to join him. Thus he was on his own, with hardly any food and not much of a plan.
In spite of these negative odds, the incredible luck he had always experienced continued to favor him, and the author details how Churchill traversed the 300 miles from Pretoria to freedom in what is now Mozambique. She manages to outline the journey in a way that is full of suspense and excitement, even though we know the outcome.
Discussion: It’s hard to warm up to Churchill. He was spoiled and full of a sense of entitlement, both from being born to a rich noble family and just from being a white male. He insisted that whites were “a stronger race, a higher-grade race, a more worldly wise race,” and thus believed deeply and ardently in Britain’s right to rule over others. His confidence and “chutzpah” knew few bounds.
Yet he also had many admirable qualities, and this book in particular highlights his fortitude, and how he proved himself to be “resilient, resourceful and, even in the face of extreme danger, utterly unruffled.” The book also provides a good analysis of the situation in South Africa and the Second Boer War.
The hardcover edition includes maps and photos.
Evaluation: This is a very entertaining, informative, and perhaps lesser-known (at least in the U.S.) story about someone considered to be one of the great leaders of the 20th Century.
Published in hardcover by Doubleday, a division of Penguin Random House, 2016
A Few Notes on the Audio Production:
Simon Vance performs up to his usual impeccable standards, and is especially convincing when he speaks in the voice of Winston Churchill.
Published unabridged on 8 CDs (10 1/2 listening hours) by Penguin Random House, 2016