Magazine article History Today

Diary of a Liberal Pioneer

Magazine article History Today

Diary of a Liberal Pioneer

Article excerpt

As South Africa today strives to come to terms with its past, many outside the country find it hard to understand how it is that the country had not long ago dissolved into irreconcilable racial conflict. The roots of apartheid go deep, long before 1948 when Afrikaner nationalists first came to power. Yet concern for constitutional democracy, racial tolerance and social justice in South Africa has an equally long history which underpins Archbishop Tutu's present hopes for the future of a `Rainbow Nation'.

One example of the liberal pioneers from the last century was James Butler. In December 1876, he arrived as a young man by horse-cart in Grahamstown, a trading and farming centre on the eastern frontier of the Cape Colony. Butler suffered from an illness, probably tuberculosis, and it was hoped that the warm climate of the Cape would restore his health. His recuperation was to last two-and-a-half years. During that time Butler kept a diary for his family back home in London (see `Jim's Journal' The Diary of James Butler edited by Jane Garner, Witwatersrand University Press, 1996). The diary is a remarkable document because Butler tried to be as honest as he could about his experiences of colonial life. In fact, he once commented that he had written `nothing but the truth so far as he knew'.

So who was this James Butler, and why is he of particular interest to historians? Butler was born in 1854 to Mary and John Butler of Hackney, London. An otherwise ordinary middle-class Victorian family, the Butlers were notable for their firm Quaker beliefs. In the Butler household entertainments such as singing (except hymns), dancing and cards were all forbidden, and the young James was sent to Croydon Friends' School where discipline was strict and children were encouraged to understand life in terms of service to others.

The Quaker ethic stuck. By the time he was apprenticed as a watchmaker in his father's firm in 1870, James Butler was deeply involved in Quaker evangelical and philanthropic work in London's East End. At the Bedford Institute in Spitalfields, a mission house set up by the Society of Friends (Quakers), Butler took Sunday School classes and also supported the educational work of the Temperance movement as a leader of a `Band of Hope'.

The Temperance movement remained important to Butler all his life, and was an early expression of his political sympathies. Temperance, as represented by lobby groups such as the UK Alliance, sought to ban the widespread sale of alcohol -- and with it a raft of social ills such as crime and poverty. But its supporters were probably doomed to failure as the British Government was complicit in the liquor business. In 1879 alone Government income from the sale of alcohol amounted to some 43 per cent of total tax revenue. Although Temperance never really achieved its aims, it can be seen as part of a wider movement for social reform which was more successful.

Born out of the twin forces of religious revival and industrialisation, a new social conscience arose in Britain during the nineteenth century. Temperance, missionary and humanitarian pressure groups (such as the Aborigines' Protection Society) all made their mark on British and Imperial political life. The campaigners recorded many victories, ranging from penal reform to better treatment of the mentally ill, but probably the most significant was the abolition of slavery (1838). As an active Quaker, Butler was a part of that essentially philanthropic movement in British society.

When he arrived in South Africa aged twenty-three Butler already held firm beliefs, and within the stiff collar of Quaker and Victorian values, he was liberal in his political outlook -- at least when it came to issues of social justice. But the colony he came to was in a very different frame of mind.

As far as the Cape Colonists were concerned central government in London was at fault on many issues, not least in relations with neighbouring African tribes. …

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