Restoring the reputation of a Brit leader at Spion Kop

Review: Archie Henderson
Charles Warren, by Kevin Shillington (Protea)

First a confession: I did know about Charles Warren but had written him off as insignificant and the man who messed up (on the British side) at the Battle of Spion Kop in the Boer War.

Of course, I should have known better because in 1996 a colleague at The Argus, Owen Coetzer, had proudly revealed that his meticulous exoneration of Warren was soon to be published. Kevin Shillington has used much of Coetzer’s work to substantiate a new defence Warren. If only Owen was with us today to share a bit of Shillington’s limelight.

Shillington has done more than just acquit Warren of the slander heaped on him by the real villain, General Sir Redvers Buller (known at the time as Sir Reverse Buller for all his retreats in that long ago war), he has given the man a fine biography.
Warren was one of those men without whom the British empire would never have existed. Unafraid to deliver a bit of cold steel where it was necessary for queen and country (he was a Victorian for much of his life), he also did good work in the colonies, something which only Helen Zille today seems willing to give credit.
Warren was an officer in the Royal Corps of Engineers, where only clever soldiers were accepted (Robert E Lee of the US was another engineer). These men were responsible for much fighting and destruction, but also a lot of building. A contemporary, Charles Jasper Selwyn, for example, was a military engineer who built bridges and roads in the Eastern Cape and encouraged a young Andrew Geddes Bain to do the same.
Warren seems to have served all over the empire and not just as a fighting soldier and engineer, but also as an archaeologist. In 1867 he was recruited by the Palestine Exploration Fund to do a biblical recce of the area. He supervised an excavation at the Temple Mount in Jerusalem where he discovered a series of tunnels under the mount and a water shaft that still carries his name.
In South Africa, he resolved the border dispute between the Orange Free State Boer republic and the Cape government that put the Kimberley diamond fields in British hands. At more or less the same time, he fought Luka Jantjie, a Batswana chief in Kuruman, who resisted all forms of colonialism, whether Brit or Boer.

Shillington, by the way, is responsible for having Jantjie’s name preserved as a genuine resistance hero by getting his name put to a building at the Sol Plaatje University in Kimberley.
After Warren’s first adventures in Southern Africa, he became a controversial commissioner of the Metropolitan Police in London. In 1887 he was responsible for the Bloody Sunday suppression of a workers’ protest with brute force, even if it was more baton than bayonet. He also dealt with the Whitechapel murders, and Shillington debunks, and ridicules, the myths surrounding the identity of Jack the Ripper.
Thirteen years later, Warren was back on the frontline, this time on the Tugela in the Boer War where his reputation was almost ruined by Buller. How it was restored is a credit to Shillington’s research, and also by that of an old colleague, dear Owen.


One thought on “Restoring the reputation of a Brit leader at Spion Kop

  1. David Bristow

    Owen was a maverick journalist and historian who did not always sit well with the bosses. I’m glad to have worked with him.


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