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Tydskrif vir Geesteswetenskappe

On-line version ISSN 2224-7912
Print version ISSN 0041-4751


ZAJAS, Pawel. Polish accounts of South Africa in the beginning of the 20th century: An Aesopian undercover. Tydskr. geesteswet. [online]. 2009, vol.49, n.2, pp.326-340. ISSN 2224-7912.

This paper focuses on the historical accounts of South Africa published in Polish at the time of the Second Anglo-Boer War. That period was marked by the most intense European interest for South Africa. The Polish response to the Anglo-Boer conflict was no less animated, with its own specific social-historical background. Between 1795-1918, as a result of the partitions of Poland by three powerful neighbours: Russia, Prussia (later Germany) and the Austro-Hungarian Empire, the country was missing from the map of Europe. It was in the Russian occupation zone in Warsaw that the support for the fighting Boers was most clearly visible. In the German and the Habsburgian sectors, the publicity of the conflict was much more balanced. A hypothetical defeat of the English posed a threat of further strengthening the political status of Germany, which would be likely to exert an adverse effect on the fate of Poland. In all three partition zones, however, the context of the attempts at the liberation of the small Boer Republics and their uprising against the British Empire was compared to the subjugation of Poland. The comparisons were conducted in a subtle and careful manner, particularly in the Russian and German zones where the preventive censorship was the strictest. Since any direct call for the preservation of the national identity would have been too dangerous, writers imposed their own restrictions on their texts, evading interference on the side of an official censor. In this way, the Anglo-Boer War became a perfect ersatz for the expression of the idea of liberation. Polish writers applied a specific code of communication, the Aesopian language, in order to depict similarities between Poles and Boers. Lev Loseff defined this specific strategy as "a special literary system, one whose structure allows interaction between author and reader at the same time that it conceals inadmissible content from the censor". The Aesopian style of writings on the Polish-South African connection will be illustrated here on the basis of two books on South Africa published shortly after the outbreak of the Second Anglo-Boer War and intended to make Polish readers familiar with the history of the Boer Republics and the background of the British-Boer conflict. The first book, Transvaal and the Boers (1899), was an adaptation based on a publication of a German philologist and specialist in the field of African languages, August Seidel, and originally printed in 1898. The introduction to this volume, which constitutes the basis for the analysis in this paper, was written by Julian Ochorowicz. The second book under scrutiny here - The Boers and Kruger: An outline of the history of Transvaal (1900), written by Zugmunt Siupski, was a response to the Polish version of the aforementioned publication by Seidel. Both authors aimed at offering a history class to Polish readers. The Polish translation of Seidel (with the introduction by Ochorowicz) and Slupski's book were published in the initial stage of the Anglo-Boer War when the Boers still had a hypothetical chance of victory. Thus an aim unattainable for the Poles, the dream of liberation was about to come true in South Africa. Siupski's book in particular utilized the South African history as a cover to a secure presentation of certain contents. The author applied some historical similarities in his interpretation of the past of both countries, thus creating a kind of a transnational, Polish-Afrikaner mythology. In line with Siupski's understanding, the subjugated, freedom-loving Poles and Afrikaners had once made a pact with God (the chosen people ideology) but they had violated it and lost its advantages through internal hostility (anarchistic nobility in Poland in the 17th century, political conflict in Transvaal after the foundation of the Transvaal Republic). Both peoples were punished for their sins and sacrificed on the altar of history, as the author puts it, using a biblical metaphor. However, there still existed, according to Siupski, a chance to retrieve the lost national identity. The chance was to be located in patriotism and the attachment to mother-tongue. In the case of Siupski's book, as mentioned above, the history of South Africa is only used as a camouflage for the author's support of the fight for the victory of certain ideals and values.

Keywords : Anglo-Boer War; history of Poland; liberation movements; accounts of South Africa; historiography; Aesopian language; national mythology; national identity; Polish-South African historical parallels.

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