Hero of the Empire: The Boer War, a Daring Escape, and the Making of Winston Churchill by Candice Millard
My rating: 5 of 5 stars
In 2016 I was delighted to learn of the third book from New York Times best-selling author Candice Millard. Her first book Destiny of the Republic, about President Garfield's death, is one of my favorites. Ohio, an obscure President. That's right up my alley. Her second book River of Doubt on Teddy Roosevelt's post Presidential exploration of a river in the Amazon rainforest was like an adventure novel.
I just love her writing style. She really brings history to life in a highly readable fashion. If more teachers taught like she writes, we would have more students interested in how the world came to be, which to me is one of the major points of studying the past.
I will admit I was a bit hesitant to read the new book as the topic is outside my normal historical focus. It definitely has nothing to do with Ohio. It's not American or Presidential and it takes place at the turn of the 20th century. Hmmm.
Based on my love of her first two books I ended up getting the Kindle version and also checked out the audiobook from the library to listen to on my work commute.
This book turned out not to be just a biography on Churchill as a young man, it's also a primer on a war I suspect most people outside England or South Africa don't know anything about, the Second Boer War which implies there was a First I also never heard of. I didn't even know what a Boer was before I read this book. It turns out they are descendants of the Dutch-speaking settlers of southern Africa. They grew to hate British rule and also treated the indigenous people such as the Zulu terribly. All of this tension resulted in armed conflict with all of those groups. As a student of American history, this sounds familiar.
Given my interests, I saw some parallels. The Boers as the Americans, the British as...well the British imperialists trying to retain a colony, and the Native Africans as the Native Americans caught in the middle trying to hang on to what they had before the Europeans showed up.
Churchill arrived in South Africa in 1899 at age 29 as a war reporter and was captured by the Boer after two weeks during a train ambush. This was a setback for a man who was convinced greatness was his destiny. He remained a Boer prisoner for several months always observing and plotting his escape. It was amazing to me that POWs like Winston and captured officers unlike the average captured soldier here were allowed quite a few luxuries by their captors. They had access to haircuts, a camp store, decent food, and a degree of freedom within the camp. As the book states, this was more due to the Boers trying to show the world that they were not the curs the British made them out to be. They wanted respect in the eyes of the world. This desire certainly was an enabling factor in Churchill's successful escape. Millard covers in exciting detail how young Winston would make that escape alone over hundreds of miles in a hostile land with only a few meager provisions, his wits, and a few sympathetic South Africans.
My overall impression of Churchill from this book was that he was a blue-blooded overly confident and sometimes reckless and selfish man. We see this a lot in history. Men doing things for honor to gain a better station in life. We still see it but now but it's hardly ever at the risk of one's own life in war. He was a product of his time and heritage. Churchill's world would soon need a fearless leader like this. Those unrefined traits were sharpened during this period and came in handy later in helping win WWII.
I have an interesting takeaway mentioned in the epilogue, I had no idea that the term "concentration camp" was introduced by this war. Thousands of homeless Boer civilians perished in horrible conditions after their farms and towns were burned as part of a systematic British scorched Earth policy. It reminded me a bit of the regretful Trail of Tears in the US as well as the horrors of US Civil War campaigns such as Sherman's March. Regretfully we sometimes repeat the worst of history as we would also find out in Nazi Germany in WWII.
Millard really did it again with Hero of the Empire, another New York Times bestseller and a riveting page-turner on how a legendary historical figure got to be that way.
According to her Twitter account @candice_millard, the next book is about the discovery of the source of the Nile. Anything she writes is pretty great so I am definitely looking forward to it from the author of Amazon’s number one history book of 2016.
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