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Churchill as Escaped Desperado: Chieveley to Durban, South Africa, 1899
Featured Image: Press photograph of Churchill holding forth in Durban, after his escape from Boer captivity in December 1899.
Many are familiar with the significance of 15 November 1899 in the life of Winston Churchill. It was, of course, the day that he was captured by the Boers at Chieveley, during the second Anglo-Boer War. That event, and his subsequent escape, were immortalized in newspaper headlines around the world.
Several American newspapers reported the story. A front-page headline in the San Francisco Examiner of 20 November 1899 read: “Winston Churchill a Prisoner at Pretoria.” The story focused on Churchill’s capture and jailing in the Boer capital.
Two days earlier, the more obscure Watertown, New York, Watertown Reformer headlined: “Trapped by Boers; An Armored Train Wrecked and Riddled with Shot and Shell; The British Lose 100 Men; Lieutenant Churchill Probably Taken Prisoner.” Young Winston’s fate was then still uncertain. Another paper, the St. Louis Republic, reported on 1 December: “Young Winston Churchill, Shot in the Hand, Is at Pretoria”.
Churchill garnered even more attention when, on 12 December, he escaped from the State Model Schools Building, which I had the good fortune to visit just over a decade ago. The wall over which he climbed has long since disappeared into an asphalt parking lot but you can still sense the history. Already known for his brazenness and cheek, the 25-year old escapee left a brash note on his pillow for Louis de Souza, Boer Under-Secretary for War:
I do not consider your Government was justified in holding me, a press correspondent and a non combatant, and I have therefore resolved to escape.… But I wish, in leaving you thus hastily and unceremoniously to once more place on record my appreciation of the kindness which has been shown to me and the other prisoners by you…. Regretting that circumstances have not permitted me to bid you a personal farewell, Believe me, Yours sincerely, Winston S. Churchill
The escape assured Churchill’s political future. Having earlier failed to get into Parliament in a July 1899 by-election, Churchill returned home a hero. Fifteen months later he triumphed at Oldham, a constituency in Greater Manchester. He later reflected: “If I had not been caught, I could not have escaped, and my emprisonment [sic] and escape provided me with enough materials for lectures and a book which brought me in enough money to get into Parliament in 1900.”
Just over a week passed between Churchill’s escape from Pretoria and his arrival in Ressano Garcia, the first station in Portuguese East Africa, now Mozambique. Overjoyed, he “sang and shouted and crowed at the top of [his] voice.ˮ Excitedly, he discharged his revolver into the air.
While details of Churchill’s escape are widely described in the literature, there is little account of his enthusiastic reception in Durban on Saturday, 23 December. And there is hardly a trace of the two impromptu speeches he gave after setting foot on the Durban quayside. What follows is the transcript from the Natal Mercury of 25 December. (By todayʼs standards, it is curious that the newspaper was published on Monday, Christmas Day rather than Sunday the 24th.)
The war had not been going particularly well for Britain, and Churchill’s escapade was a panacea to residents of Durban. The Natal Mercury provided both Churchill speeches. The first was given from a rickshaw (I have retained the Mercury’s anachronistic spelling “riksha,” as well as the original punctuation, paragraphing and headlines.) Churchill’s second speech was delivered on the steps of the Durban Town Hall. I have also included the earliest interview with Churchill on the subject of his escape. To my knowledge, this has not been published anywhere since Christmas Day, 1899.
Natal Mercury, 25 December 1899 (p.5)
Winston Churchill’s escape.
His arrival in Durban.
Enthusiastic tribute to his pluck.
Mr. Winston Churchill, the special correspondent of the Morning Post, arrived in Durban on Saturday afternoon after his escape from Pretoria, where he had been detained as a prize of war as a result of his gallant conduct during the armoured train disaster at Chievely. News of the intrepid correspondent’s escape, and of his safe arrival at Delagoa Bay, was received here on Friday night with feelings of general satisfaction, and the announcement that he would arrive at this port by the Rennie liner Induna attracted a large crowd of well-wishers to the Point, determined on giving him a British welcome. The fact that the Induna was steaming under Transvaal coal made it impossible to say with any degree of certainty the hour at which she was expected up, but from 1 o’clock in the afternoon the people began to gather in the neighbourhood of the passenger jetty in the hope of catching a glimpse of the young man whose exploits had evoked such unanimous praise.
By 4 o’clock the crowd had swollen to considerable dimensions, and shortly after that hour the Induna steamed inside; but instead of making for the passenger jetty, as was expected, she swung round outside the Inchanga, which was moored at the main wharf alongside another vessel. Over the two vessels the crowd rushed in a hurry scurry, and, swarming on every portion of the Inchanga, waited to lionise the one passenger above all others – the only passenger so far as they were concerned – which the Rennie liner had brought from the Portuguese port away from danger and difficulties into freedom and once more on to the British soil he had so reluctantly quitted a few weeks before.
As the Induna came nearer, the object of quest was descried on the captain’s bridge, his round boyish face shaded by a large brimmed hat. The instant he was recognised,
A ROUSING CHEER
went up from the assembled people, and as Mr. Churchill bowed his acknowledgments he became the cynosure of all eyes, and all voices joined in one loud acclaim of welcome. The cheering was continuous and enthusiastic, and amid it all could be heard voices shouting, “Well done, sir,” and such like complimentary exclamations. No sooner were the engines of the steamship stopped than the more demonstrative units of the crowd sprang on to the deck of the Induna, and, without waiting for the gangway to be unshipped, seized the gallant liberty-lover and hauled him on the ship alongside. Thence he was lifted shoulder high, and, amid a scene of much excitement, carried to the main wharf. Reaching terra firma Britannica, he was immediately taken in charge by Mr. James Cumming, Reuter’s special correspondent at the front, who happened to be on a hurried visit to Durban, and seated in a riksha: but the crowd would not permit his departure in peace. They cheered him, and crowded round to shake hands and congratulate him, and, finally, would not be content till he had favoured them with a speech, crowding round him near the African Boating Company’s offices, and hemming him in.
Speech at the Point.
Addressing the assembled and excited crowd from the riksha, the hero of the hour said: – I need not say what a surprise it has been to me on arriving at this port to find such a hearty and pleasant welcome awaiting me. (Cheers, and a voice: “It’s a British colony.”) I need not say it is a source of great satisfaction and pleasure to me. (Hear, hear.) We are in the midst of a fierce struggle with a vast military power, which has grown up in the heart of this country, which is resolved at all costs to gratify its reckless ambition by beating the British out of South Africa. (Cries of “Never,” and a voice: “Never, while we have such fine fellows as you.”) It is for the people of South Africa, for those of the Cape Colony, and those in Natal to say whether or not the British flag is going to be hauled down in this country. (“Never.”) When I see around me such a crowd as this, such determination and enthusiasm, I am satisfied that, no matter what the difficulties, no matter what the dangers and what the force they may bring against us, we shall be successful in the end. (Cheers, and a voice: “God bless you, my boy.”) Because our cause is a just and right one, because we strike for equal rights for every white man in South Africa, and because we are representing the forces of civilisation and progress, in the end we must bear down these reactionary Republics that menace our peace – (cheers) – and when this war is over, and the British arms shall be victorious, you will see in this country the beginning of a new era, when peace and prosperity shall reign, so that the Cape may be in fact as well as in name a Cape of Good Hope. (Tremendous cheers.)
Mr. Churchill is a ready speaker, and he has withal an acute appreciation of the fitness of things as was shown by his words of thanks for the heartiness of his welcome. He has all the splendid dash and fire that would be expected of a man who has made himself so brilliantly conspicuous at the Chieveley fight and so full of resource in Pretoria. He has a pleasing suspicion of a lisp in his speech, and there is just a touch of Americanism – not about his accent, for that is perfect; but about the forcible rounding of his sentences; yet there was too sterling a ring about all he said to leave any doubt that he is a Marlborough and a Britisher to the backbone. The speech over, he was hauled in the riksha up the Point Road. Opposite the Point Station the enthusiastic pullers of the riksha espied Mr. Cawthra Woodhead, managing editor of the Mercury, and, presumably because of journalistic association, promptly called a halt, commanding Mr. Woodhead to enter the riksha, a command he obeyed, the while heartily saluting, and, as a journalist, congratulating Mr. Churchill. Away went the hero with his two companions. The crowd followed in a state of wild excitement, pressing on the riksha and shaking hands and congratulating him, cheering the while and growing more enthusiastic, if possible, at every fresh outbreak. The procession had not proceeded far before two Union Jacks made their appearance, and with one of these, Mr. Harcourt Stuart, of “Ally Sloper” fame, preceded the gallant fugitive, and waived [sic] it as a token of British unison and determination. It was Mr. Churchill’s intention to call upon Capt. Percy Scott, the commandant, at his office in West Street, but the crowd, who had “commandeered” the riksha, would not hear of him getting out at the Courthouse. They insisted on his proceeding to the Town Hall steps, and there giving them another of his stirring addresses.
Reception at the Town Hall.
Arriving at the Town Hall, Mr. Churchill good-humouredly consented, and, mounting a jaunting car, which had been drawn up, he stood up to speak; but before he could get in a word the enthusiasm of the people found vent in continuous cheers, which were succeeded by the singing of “Rule Britannia.” Quiet having been restored,
Mr. Churchill said: “I need not say how grateful I am for the great kindness you have shown in your welcome to me. When I see this great demonstration I regard it not only as a personal kindness to me, and as a demonstration of hospitality to a stranger – (Voices: “You’re not a stranger”) – but as a token of the unflinching and unswerving determination of this Colony to throw itself into the prosecution of the war. (Cheers.) I am delighted and glad to think I have had the honour of seeing so many gallant Colonists here to-day, some of whom have been at the front fighting, and others of whom have relations or friends at the front, but all of whom, of whatever sex and whatever age, have thrown their hearts into the struggle which we mean to wage to the bitter end. (Cheers.) This is not the time for a long speech. We have got outside the region of words; we have got to the region of action. We are now in the region of war, and in this war we have not yet arrived at the half-way house. (Hear, hear.) But with the determination of a great Empire surrounded by Colonies of unprecedented loyalty we shall carry our policy to a successful conclusion, and under the old Union Jack there will be an era of peace, purity, liberty, equality and good government in South Africa. (Cheers.) I thank you once again for your great kindness. I am sure I feel within myself a personal measure of that gratitude which every Englishman who loves his country must feel towards the loyal and devoted Colonists of Natal. (Tremendous cheers.)
Capt. Scott, the well-known town Commandant, then came to the rescue, and, followed by the still cheering crowd, escorted the young Briton to the Commandant’s office, where he was handed a number of telegrams and received the congratulations of many prominent people, amongst whom were Lieut.-Col. McCubbin, of the D.L.I., Major Bousfield, Mr. James Hunter, assistant manager of railways, Supt. Alexander, and others.
HOW HE ESCAPED.
An Interview with Mr. Churchill.
Mr. Churchill had only a few minutes to spare before catching his train for Maritzburg, but in these few moments, while he partook of refreshments provided by Capt. Scott, he furnished the newspaper reporters with a running account of the adventures which led up to his successful escape.
He said that he was confined in Pretoria in the State Model School prison. On the afternoon of the 9th inst. he asked the Transvaal Secretary of War whether there was any prospect of his being released. He replied that there was not, “and” continued the intrepid correspondent, “seeing that there was no other way of getting out, I decided to make my escape. By continual watching, I noticed that there was a certain spot in the wall which was shaded at night, and that when the sentries were at certain parts of their beats they could not see this bit of shade. I chose my moment, and about 7.15 in the evening, when the officers were at dinner, I climbed over the wall, which was about 10ft. high. This dropped me into the garden of Lucas Meyer’s house and I hid in the garden for a time, waiting for another officer who had made up his mind to escape with me. The officer, however, whispered to me over the wall that he could not come, for the sentries would not stay at the right places. Next morning I walked through the streets of Pretoria without exciting any attention. Nobody seemed to take any notice of me, and I didn’t do anything out of the way to attract attention. I proceeded as far as the N.Z.A.S.M. station, where I learnt that a train left for Delagoa Bay at 11.10 at night. I waited about the station buildings till the train was ready to start, and after it was under way but before it had got up any speed, I jumped on a coal wagon and rode with the train till daylight, when I thought it would be better to hide. I jumped off and waited till the next night, when I boarded another train and came on a further distance towards the Transvaal border. From this point, however, I found that no train passed during the night, and for the next five days I struggled on, walking at night and lying hidden during the day. I had plenty of money with me, and I managed to scrape up a little food from the kafirs, though I was obviously at a disadvantage in not being able to speak Dutch or kafir. However, I got round the kafirs very well, and following the railway line by night I reached Middleburg, and waited my time for a suitable train, knowing that there was a through service to Delagoa. At last I met with a coal train full of sacks. I boarded this at night, hoping it would take about 36 hours to get to Komati Poort. Instead of that, it took 60 hours. I secreted myself amongst the coal sacks, and in this manner I reached Delagoa Bay. The train was searched, the sacks being turned over, but not deep enough.
At 5.40 Mr. Churchill left for Maritzburg, where he was to stay as the guest of the Governor till Sunday morning, when he proceeded to the front. The enthusiasm of the crowds of people was the same on the station platform as it had been all along from the Point, and he was sent away amid frantic cheers and wishes for “good luck,” and a Merry Christmas.
About the Author
Ronald I. Cohen MBE is the author of Bibliography of the Writings of Sir Winston Churchill (2006) and the editor of The Heroic Memory: The memorial addresses to the Rt. Hon. Sir Winston S. Churchill Society, 1990-2014 (2016). In 2014, Mr. Cohen was invested as a Member of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire for his services to British history. A co-founder and president of the Sir Winston Churchill Society of Ottawa, he writes and speaks regularly about Churchill.