“BRICS: in the Mirror of Times” First contacts and formation of mutual perceptions of Russia and South Africa
The eleventh episode of the joint project by TV BRICS and GAUGN is dedicated to the opening of South Africa to the Russian Empire
In the eleventh episode of the joint project by the TV BRICS International Media Network and GAUGN “BRICS: in the Mirror of Times”, dedicated to the establishment of the first contacts between Russia and South Africa, Aleksandr Voevodsky, PhD in History, Senior Researcher at the Centre for African Studies of the Institute of General History of the Russian Academy of Sciences, spoke about the interaction between Russia and South Africa in the 19th century.
The project was supported by a grant from the Russian Ministry of Education and Science as part of the federal project “Popularisation of Science and Technology”.
Russia and South Africa have been interacting in BRICS for more than a decade, but the history of relations between the countries goes back much further. Why did Africans at one time ask the Russian emperor for support and what was the correspondence between Leo Tolstoy and Mahatma Gandhi about?
The first European expeditions landed opposite the Cape of Good Hope as early as the mid-seventeenth century. From that time onwards, South Africa became one of the centres of colonialism. What was going on in there anyway?
South Africa was not originally a target for colonisation. If we look at the map, first of all it is the most important point between the Indian Ocean, the Atlantic Ocean, East, West, so the main importance is some kind of a staging point, a berth for ships, a place where they are supplied with water, food, where sailors can rest. The Dutch originally established their fort on the Cape of Good Hope, a town of Capstadt, for this very purpose. Employees of the Dutch East India Company themselves began to settle here, colonists from Holland, Northern Germany and French Huguenots, persecuted by Louis XIV after 1685, began to migrate here. This is how this early colonial community begins to take shape.
At the end of the 18th century, the British arrived here: in 1795, England first seized the Cape Colony in Holland. It was finally established here in 1806. Here the British brought Indians as labour, and an Indian community emerged. It is worth mentioning that even earlier the Dutch had brought in the inhabitants of Java as servants, slaves. In addition, rebels who opposed their authority in Indonesia were exiled here. This is how this unique palette of people came into being, as they now call it, the rainbow nation. So it really is a cast of the entire world – that’s the uniqueness of South Africa.
And when did the first contacts between Russians and the people or peoples of South Africa arise?
The first Russians to set foot on South African soil were usually travelling to the Far East. The most famous, significant figure is Vasily Golovnin, the famous Russian sailor and traveller. On his way to the Far East he visited South Africa, lived there for several months and left interesting notes about the early period of Dutch and English colonisation, about the people who lived there, about Cape Town, which is now beginning to be called in the English manner.
We could mention the writer Ivan Goncharov. We all know him as the author of “Oblomov”, but he was also a traveller. On the frigate Pallada he circumnavigated the globe in the 1850s; in 1853 he was at the Cape of Good Hope for a month. These are some of the first testimonies that Russians read, that Russians knew, that were reviewed in journals. And what is important, then it was translated into English and published in South Africa in the 20th century.
In the second half of the XIX century, the struggle of European powers for South Africa intensified, and Great Britain began its game there.
How was Russia behaving at the time and what was its relationship with South Africa?
The Russian Empire was one of the main rivals of the British Empire. Apparently some rumours and news reached South Africa. In 1856, a belief spread among the Xhosa people that their dead ancestors should return from across the sea, with the help of which they could drive the whites back across the sea and regain possession of their country. To do this, however, they had to kill all their cattle and destroy their grain reserves – to perform such a collective rite of purification, and then these ancestors would return to them. The belief that the ancestors would return, among other things, was shaped by the news of the Crimean War. That is, the Russians fighting the English were perceived by them as those ancestors who were on their way.
Another interesting episode: my colleagues found a unique document in the archive – a letter from a South African chief, the ruler of the Pondo ethnic group (this territory was then called Pondo Land), who appealed to the Russian Emperor Alexander III with a request to patronise and protect his territory, his land from the British, who were planning to seize it, to take it under their control. Why he turned, what his motives were, we don’t know. Most likely, there was no answer, but rather a historical trace that has been miraculously preserved.
You and I have now come to the Anglo-Boer War, when South Africa fought against Britain. What role did the Russian Empire play at that time?
It was a landmark event for Russia, and the whole of Europe was following it. It is known that all European continental countries sympathised with the Boers, two small republics founded by the descendants of Dutch settlers, who were called Boers in Europe. They themselves became subsequently known as Afrikaners, i.e. Africans.
So these are actually farmers?
Yes, peasants, immigrants from Europe. Of course, when the first news of the beginning of this war came, even Nicholas II closely followed these events, in his letters he noted that everyone was absorbed in this, his entire family, his closest relatives. Volunteers went to South Africa, in particular the future leader of the “Union of 17 October” party Alexander Guchkov and his brother also went to fight with England on the side of the Boers.
We don’t know exactly how many volunteers there were in total. The best estimate is 225 people. The war lasted two and a half years, there was a very long partisan phase. It ended with the signing of peace. In the end the Boers lost their independence, but Britain compensated even the material costs, that is, there were provisions in the treaty that provided compensation for destroyed farms, because Britain fought a very brutal war. The Union of South Africa, which was established in 1910, united the former British colonies and the two Boer republics. It was part of the British Empire as a dominion and became a member of the British Commonwealth of Nations in 1931.
It is widely known that Leo Tolstoy corresponded with Mahatma Gandhi. What was the main topic of their correspondence and what did South Africa have to do with it?
Gandhi travelled to South Africa to represent Indians, both Muslims and Hindus, as a lawyer. And here he began his political activity, what is now called activism. At the same time, in South Africa, his first thoughts on non-violence and how political rights should be fought for begin to form. When he sought inspiration for his ideas and his philosophical system was taking shape, he turned not only to the origins of Hinduism, Hindu religious and philosophical thought. He read a lot of European thinkers and turned to Christianity (e.g., Christ’s Sermon on the Mount).
And Tolstoy was close to him in his rejection of violence. The idea of “non-resistance to evil by violence” and Tolstoy’s critical attitude to modern civilisation are well known. Tolstoy praised above all the simple life, peasant labour. In his opinion, a man should live by labour, his own labour, craft or farming.
And Gandhi had similar thoughts, so he sent Tolstoy his book “Hind Swaraj” in which he systematised his views. It made a great impression on Tolstoy. In response, shortly before his death, he sent him a large message. And strangely enough, one of the themes of this correspondence is the love of man. Therefore, it can be said that they corresponded about love. The power of love in humanistic understanding: love of neighbour, love of person. According to Leo Tolstoy and according to Gandhi, love can defeat evil, contribute to the rebirth of man and the awakening of the good beginning in him. Gandhi was convinced that at the heart of human nature lies a good, divine beginning, the main thing is to reach it.