The Cleverest General: the Life and Death of Sir George Pomeroy Colley

When I was a child my parents had on their bookshelves an old red-bound nineteenth century tome called The Life of Sir George Pomeroy Colley by one W.F.Butler, published 1899.

Sir George Pomeroy Colley was a Victorian general who met his death on 27 February 1881, whilst fighting the Boers in South Africa.

(The author of the book, William Francis Butler, was the husband to the famous military painter, Lady Elizabeth Butler).

The title fascinated me because here was a book about a man that shared my family name, and an important one at that (he had to be important to have had a book written about him). I always assumed we were related because we were both Colleys. And, to add to the excitement, he was a ‘Sir’. Perhaps some great-great-grandfather.

To this day I still don’t know. It might be just a coincidence of name but then why would my father have this book on his shelves rather than a more famous Victorian general?

Colley was an all-round clever man and well thought of. He passed through his military school with the highest ever recorded marks, was fluent in various languages and was a dab hand with the paint brush. But like many a British general of the time, he underestimated his enemy – and that proved his undoing.

The First Boer War

In 1877 the British had annexed the South African state of the Transvaal, and two years later made it a crown colony. The Boers naturally resented this, and in December 1880 revolted. At the time there were only 1,700 British troops dotted around the Transvaal in small, isolated garrisons. Colley, recently appointed governor in neighbouring Natal, was ordered to deal with the situation.

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The Sharpeville Massacre – a brief outline

The Sharpeville Massacre of 21 March 1960, which left 69 unarmed black South Africans dead and more than 180 injured, drew the world’s attention to the evil of the apartheid system practiced within South Africa.

Pass Laws

The protest at Sharpeville, a black township about forty miles south of Johannesburg, on 21 March 1960 was part of a campaign against the so-called Pass Laws. The law required South Africa’s black population to carry around at all times an identity book which contained pertinent information about themselves, such as name, address, employer details and even their tax code. Those caught without the books were liable to immediate arrest.

The demonstrations against the Pass Laws were organised and led by the PAC (Pan-Africanist Congress), an off-shoot of the ANC (African National Congress). The march on Sharpeville was to be the first in a series of non-violent actions due to take place over a five-day period. Participants on the march were to present themselves at the police station at Sharpeville without their pass books and demand to be arrested. If enough blacks were arrested and kept from going to work, the country’s economy would collapse. That, at least, was the theory according to Robert Sobukwe, leader of PAC.

Sobukwe fully informed the police beforehand of the Sharpeville demonstration, emphasising the non-violent intention of the marchers.

Down with the passes

And so on the morning of 21 March 1960, a Monday, 5 to 7,000 people (although cited numbers vary) converged on the police station at Sharpeville. Many, according to witnesses, were cajoled by PAC members who threatened to burn their passes unless they joined the march. Nonetheless, most joined the demonstration willingly and the march was good-natured, with the unarmed marchers singing songs, dancing and chanting ‘Down with the passes’. Continue reading

The Mau Mau Uprising – a brief history

Half a century on, Kenyans tortured by the British colonial authorities during the Mau Mau Uprising received from the UK government payouts totalling £20m. The High Court had previously rejected the government’s claim that too much time had passed for there to be a fair trial. But what was the Mau Mau Uprising? 

After the Second World War, Britain had begun the difficult and lengthy process of decolonisation. In African countries that were entirely black in population, such as Ghana, the process was relatively straightforward. Where it was more difficult were the nations that had sizeable population of white settlers. Rhodesia being an example of this latter category, as was Kenya.

The Crown Colony

Kenya’s official association with Britain had started in 1895, when the country became British East Africa. The British government encouraged the settlement of Kenya’s fertile highlands by Europeans, utilising the labour of the very peoples they had dispossessed, such as the traditional tribes of the Kikuyu. In 1920, British East Africa became an official crown colony of the British Empire, renamed the Colony of Kenya. The white settlers were given preference in all spheres of politics, administration and society, and Africans were barred from political involvement until 1944 when a small number were appointed (not elected) onto the legislature.

Resentment of white expansion and settlement deepened. During the late 1940s, the Kikuyu established a secret society bound by oaths whose aim was the eventual expulsion of the white settlers by means of force. The society was known as the Mau Mau.


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