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King Looy and the Duke of Bilgewater and Modern Democracy

Coen van Wyk

Posted on February 21, 2019 13:34

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We seem to be susceptible to people who seem to us to be authoritative, feeding us nonsense. Is it that we hanker after someone else taking responsibility for our thinking? That we surrender our critical faculties to the right formulas?

I must have been fourteen when the librarian at our traveling library pushed a book over the counter and said: “You’ll like this.” She was right: Huck Finn entranced me, and I literally read it to shreds over the next four years.

A few days ago I discovered it again, in a moment of boredom, in Gutenberg’s excellent archive. It is such fun re-reading it after all these years. Apart from the plot, I also appreciate the different voices: Huck’s inventive grammar (I clumb up a tree…) and the almost incomprehensible rendering of the slaves’ patois. But then we get the two arch-conmen, the Duke of Bilgewater and the hidden Dauphin, who should have been Looy the Seventeenth of France, brought low by circumstances. They con their victims in good, even Shakespearian English.

From Mark Twain's Huckleberry Finn, Gutenberg.org


Synchronicity brought, in the same week, a mini-eruption of choler in the Afrikaner community: A BBC debate on the fringes of the ongoing Brexit circus had the arch-Brexiteer, Jacob Rees-Mogg, referring to the British concentration camps at the time of the Anglo-Boer war as having been erected for the good of the internees, who were sent there to be fed, he said, in cultured, Oxbridge tones.

While this might have convinced a fellow-brexiteer, it was like a red rag to the South African political class: the Sunday Times, known for its scandal-mongering and scantily-clad ladies, was first off the mark. Pointing out that the camps were part of a scorched-earth campaign to defeat the Boers, a systematic war against civilians, they quoted Rees-Moggs’ fellow guest, Grace Blakely: “… I know exactly what happened during the Boer wars - Rees-Mogg's measured tone and deep self-confidence made me second-guess myself. The deep-rooted urge in British culture to defer to aristocratic authority is truly terrifying." 

Scorched earth policy required burning of homesteads. 


Academics were next. Fransjohan Pretorius, emeritus professor of history at Pretoria University, pointed out that 30 000 Boer homesteads were razed and their livestock killed, 28 000 white and 20 000 black people died of malnutrition and disease in these camps, many of them children. In comparison about 4 000 Boer soldiers died.

... to be fed. Wikimedia commons


The Boer War is still deeply symbolic, and Reese-Mogg would be advised not to visit South Africa soon.

But there is a deeper point: Investment bankers are held accountable for the promises they make to investors. Politicians are not. Telling British voters that Brexit is there for their safety and to ensure that they are fed is a lie in the same order as the comments on the concentration camps. Should politicians not be held accountable for their proposals?

Disclosure: My ancestors escaped the camps. With most of the menfolk in POW camps, the family fled by ox wagon and on horseback. My 10 year old grandfather's horse was confiscated by the British against a 'goodfor' chit, but escaped every time. 

Coen van Wyk

Posted on February 21, 2019 13:34

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