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Dispatch from Angus Hamilton, London Times correspondent in Mafeking
Simon J. Potter
National University of Ireland, Galway
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London Times dispatch

I teach a course called Media and Empire that looks at how empire influenced the development of the British media (newspapers, radio, cinema, television). It also examines images of empire projected by the British media. An essential component of the course is a focus on the analysis of primary sources. My aim is for my students to develop an awareness of the range of factors that influenced, and continue to influence, media coverage of world affairs, and to hone the skills required to critically examine a range of media sources.

I use this dispatch to the London Times sent by Angus Hamilton, dated January 3, 19001, as part of a mid-term essay. Hamilton was the Times’ war correspondent in the town of Mafeking in the Cape Province, where a British garrison had been besieged by Boer forces during the early stages of the South African War of 1899-1902 between the British and the two Boer Republics (Transvaal and the Orange Free State). The war began when the British attempted to force the Boers (descendents of Dutch settlers) to merge their states with the British Cape Colony and accept British rule. Rather than submit, the Boers attacked the British, setting off a three-year war that ultimately resulted in the Boers agreeing to British rule in exchange for promises of eventual self-government. Boer forces had been besieging Mafeking since the first weeks of the war.

The aim of the essay I assign is to give students the opportunity to examine a range of primary sources and to relate their analysis to wider historical debates. For many years historians have argued over the role of the media in precipitating the Boer War, and have examined how the media covered the conflict once it was in progress. Did it provide the British public with a distorted picture that helped generate support for an inglorious conflict? Analysis of the part played by the media during the South African War also relates to broader debates about how audiences were provided with news about colonial (and other) conflicts.

I ask my students to grapple with these important questions as they analyze this and other sources, including the famous “Helots Dispatch” sent to Britain by Sir Alfred Milner, the British High Commissioner in Southern Africa, with the intention of generating popular support for war; a section from John A. Hobson’s The Psychology of Jingoism (1901), describing how the press had been used to present British readers with an inaccurate picture of events in the region; and an account written by a filmmaker, W. K-L. Dickson, recounting his exploits during the war. Students use this primary material, along with selected secondary sources, to answer the question “How far can the South African War be described as a ‘media war’?”

At this point, my students have background knowledge of the issues from lectures and readings on the basic debates about media and empire, historical writing about press coverage of colonial conflicts, and the controversy over the role played by the media during the South African War. I also show them a video documentary entitled The South African War—The First Media War? that presents a range of contemporary source material and the opinions of a number of modern historians.

Hamilton’s dispatch proved to be a particularly interesting source, and raised a number of issues that students had to tackle in their essays. In his report, Hamilton provided a character sketch of the “Defender of Mafeking,” Colonel Baden-Powell, the head of the besieged British garrison. Hamilton’s report was glowing, praising Baden-Powell for almost superhuman organizational abilities and qualities of determination and self-control. Hamilton’s report was part of a broader media frenzy that established Baden-Powell as one of the celebrities of the war. Baden-Powell famously went on to establish the Boy Scouts and the Scouting movement.

In their essays, many students treated Hamilton’s report purely as a piece of propaganda, an example of how the British media provided distorted coverage of the South African War and presented a more positive picture of the conflict than could be justified. While this was undoubtedly true, some students made more subtle points. Hamilton was bottled up in Mafeking for months, in a siege that involved very little actual fighting. The tedium of everyday life, threatened by fever, artillery bombardments and other such humdrum menaces, provided little in the way of material from which exciting dispatches could be crafted. It was perhaps understandable that Hamilton should thus turn to analysis of an enigmatic figure such as Baden-Powell to provide interesting copy, and that he should seek to find at least one inspiring element in an otherwise depressing situation. The nature of Hamilton’s report in part reflected the limits imposed on him by external circumstances.

The source thus brought home to my students the need to be aware of the influence of such external factors on media coverage. It also highlighted the importance of exercising their powers of empathy in understanding why a particular reporter should provide a particular sort of dispatch—the historian needs to ask how a particular source was generated and what pressures were placed on the author at the time.

This source is very useful for teaching. Students could be guided through the source, perhaps in conjunction with a number of similar dispatches, and encouraged to think in a group about the factors that shaped this and other examples of war reporting.

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1 London Times Dispatch from Angus Hamilton, dated 3 January 1900.

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