22 March 1958: Barbara Castle, Father Hooper and justice in South Africa

From our correspondence.

22 March 1958

Sir, - Among the many letters I have received arising out of my recent articles on South Africa there is one from Father Hooper, which I feel I must share with your readers. Father Hooper is the Anglican priest and missionary at Zeerust, in the North-West Transvaal, near the borders of Bechuanaland. I have already described in a New Statesman article the fearless way in which he has identified himself with the resistance of the local African people to the government’s attempt to impose passes on the women. Now he writes:

Things are very dire here: much more so than at the time of your visit. In reply to your request for news I shall outline one or two salient matters:

1. On the Friday of the week after you were here (24 January) four people were shot dead and several wounded in Gopane, 35 miles from Zeerust. The wounded who could run did so; some have not been seen since. Those who could not run were taken into custody and kept under guard in the Zeerust hospital. The official version is that the police were attacked. The unofficial version differs from the official version – diametrically. Among the four dead were a youngster and the village simpleton. At the time of the shooting the police are said to have been assaulting an old man – his youngest son ran, and bystanders and this son were shot. None of the bodies fell nearer than 75 yards from the scene of police action. Quite a civilising mission, really. Sten guns; and a lot of pieces of person on the grass. We had been expecting this for months.

2. Three to five thousand refugees have left the area for Bechuanaland – figures are uncertain. They are being well looked after there. I was told in Lobatsi that they are scattered from the border to the Kalahari, and from Mafeking to Serowe. A similar number have left for Johannesburg, many passing through this rectory. One woman had a miscarriage here at the rectory.

3. Police and pro-government chief action continue to be less than benign. A large number of illegal fines have been levied, and the people are in a terrible condition – their cattle having been seized in most instances. As a direct result of police action we face a major famine – no ploughing, or no weeding of crops means that this year this district is going to produce almost nothing. This will doubtless be represented as a visitation from the White Man’s God. For this reason, and because now we can no longer afford legal defence (in one instance 80 people are facing a charge of murder for the death of one man) we desperately need money. Can you help?

4. Banishment of local people to Natal has begun.

5. Last Friday the government (i.e., Vermoerd) made it illegal for anybody to enter these reserves without a permit from the Native Commissioner – penalty three years or £300. This means (a) refugees cannot return if they wish to; (b) nobody has access to observe what is going on behind our local iron curtain; (c) exempted people such as myself can be banned from entering – I have no received notice of such banning – yet; (d) husbands from the towns can no longer visit their wives or children. Further any statement, verbal or written, which is “likely to subvert the authority of the state, chief or headman”, carries a penalty of £300 or three years. Most of the people are of course ignorant of this proclamation.

6. Our own position is more or less impossible. When I go to visit church members in the reserves, police vans (riot cars) accompany me. Nobody wants to see his priest in such company.

7. In spite of all this, three villages have again refused to take reference books for their women. I don’t know what it is about these people, but they are both courageous and stubborn. They say: “The elephant is now stamping us into the ground”. And then they get up and defy the elephant all over again. In the end the elephant will have to depart or tire, and then we may expect all hell to break loose. Guns just can’t subdue the spirit; or not for long.

Father Hooper has risked a great deal to make these evils known. In this he is typical of many brave spirits in South Africa. In return we owe them our support – moral, political and – above all in the immediate future – financial.

Barbara Castle
House of Commons

Barbara Castle in 1974. Photo: Getty Images.

Letters, articles and notes from the New Statesman's centenary archive.

© THE TRUSTEES OF THE BRITISH MUSEUM
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How Native American culture fought back against the colonisers

The British Museum's new exhibition reveals the resilience of First Nations culture.

In the Great Court of the British Museum stand two enormous cedar totem poles, acquired in the early years of the 20th century from the north-west coast of North America. One was made by the Haida peoples and the other by the Nisga’a, two of the nations that make up the many-layered society stretching through Alaska, British Columbia and Washington State in the lands which, today, are called the United States and Canada. These peoples, whose history dates back at least 9,000 years, have been remarkably resilient in withstanding European and Russian incursion from the 18th century onward. Besides the Haida and Nisga’a, there are the Tlingit and Kwakwaka’wakw, the Tsimshian, the Coast Salish, Nuu-chah-nulth and Makah groups.

Now, for the first time, the British Museum is bringing together objects from these cultures in an exhibition that showcases one of the world’s most recognisable artistic traditions, and demonstrates how cultural identity can endure even in the most terrible circumstances. First Nation rights and identity are still very much under threat, as protests against the Dakota Access Pipeline in North Dakota show.

The exhibition takes its title from the legendary Thunderbird, who uses his strength and power to hunt whales – a skill he is said to have given to some of these communities. His legend persists into the present day. The Thunderbird can be seen here on a club collected by Captain Cook in the 18th century, and on a 1983 print made by the contemporary Kwakwaka’wakw artist Tony Hunt.

The objects on display are set in cases painted with a pale green wash to evoke the colour of fresh cedar bark. Some – such as the totem poles in the Great Court – evoke the power and majesty of these societies, while others are domestic items that combine beauty and usefulness in equal measure. In the first category are two potlatch “coppers”, shield-shaped plaques about a metre in height, made from what was an exotic and valuable metal. The potlatch is a ceremony, often days long, of feasting, dancing and giving of gifts. Such copper plaques, patterned with spruce gum in the sinuous “formline” design, which is as distinctive to the north-west coast as intricate knotting is to the Celtic tradition, were a significant part of the ceremony.

Equally intricately worked is a basket made of cedar twigs and cedar bark, used to catch fish. The bark on the basket is wrapped in an alternating sequence around the twigs: a technique that brings not only beauty but strength to what is, in effect, a delicate net. From these two objects alone, one can begin to grasp the sophistication of life on the Pacific north-west coast. The people of these cultures built highly complex and rich societies, all without the benefit of agriculture – evidence of the bounty of the bays and islands. In this lush geography, artists and craftsmen made works that are a source of wonder today: look for the joins at the corners of the elaborately decorated Haida box on display and you won’t find any. The chests are made from a single plank of red cedar, which is steamed until pliable; the two ends are then pegged together. They can be used for the storage of clothing, also as drums, or for cooking – or even for burial. They are a good symbol for the adaptability of the cultures of the north-west coast.

The new exhibition is laid out over a single room. One side of the room spans the earliest stone tools and historic weapons made in the region, up to objects from the time of Captain James Cook’s arrival in the 1770s; the other features art and regalia from the museum’s collections, including contemporary work and examples from the modern era. The latter addresses what might plainly be called cultural genocide: the often willed destruction of First Nation populations, in both Canada and the United States, by disease; by the residential school system, under which children were taken away from their families to be “educated” out of their culture and beliefs; and by the attempted eradication of languages and religious practices.

One of these banned practices was the potlatch itself, outlawed in Canada from 1880 until 1951 – long enough for a culture to vanish. Yet it survived, the curator Jago Cooper told me, as a result of “people going into museums and studying, or grabbing a grandparent and asking questions. People were incredibly industrious when it came to restoring their culture.” The show opens with a video of a vibrant potlatch.

There is evidence of that restoration and revival in the regalia worn by Chief Alver Tait in 2003 when the Nisga’a totem pole was first raised in the British Museum after decades of storage. He and his wife, Lillian, performed a spirit dance “to bring life back to the ancestors in the totem pole because they had been resting for so long”.

Much of the material here has been seen less frequently than it might be. In Missing Continents at the British Museum, a BBC Radio 4 programme made last year (and still available on iPlayer), the artist Antony Gormley, a former British Museum trustee, argued that the cultures of Africa, Oceania and the Americas are overshadowed there by those of Europe and Mesopotamia, which take the lion’s share of permanent displays at the institution.

Temporary shows such as “Where the Thunderbird Lives” allow a glimpse of the museum’s hidden holdings, some of them simply too fragile to be seen very often, or for very long. At least one of the objects, a gorgeous yellow cedar cloak, collected in the last years of the 18th century on George Vancouver’s North Pacific voyage and painted with an oystercatcher and two skate figure images, is a “once in a lifetime” object – it can’t be exposed to light for long, so now’s your chance to see it. We don’t know who made it. Some of the others, such as the “welcome figure”, carved with open arms, can’t even be attributed to a specific culture. That is, of course, true of many items in the museum’s vast collection: we don’t know who made the Sutton Hoo Helmet, or carved the Rosetta Stone.

The past cannot be changed: it can, however, be acknowledged, as this exhibition gracefully does – for in the work of the contemporary artists here, one sees, in diverse ways, the continuation of their ancestors’ traditions. What looks like a traditional Tlingit spruce root twinned basket is made of glass, by the contemporary Tlingit artist Preston Singletary; a copper pendant echoes the great potlatch coppers but the image printed on its face shows a detail from a US$5 bill (this was made by the Tlingit artist Alison Bremner). Ownership of culture and definitions of culture are questions more hotly debated than ever before. “Where the Thunderbird Lives” is a thoughtful – and beautiful – addition to that debate. 

“Where the Thunderbird Lives: Cultural Resilience on the North-west Coast of North America” opens on 23 February and is at the British Museum, London WC1, until 27 August. Details: britishmuseum.org

Erica Wagner is a New Statesman contributing writer and a judge of the 2014 Man Booker Prize. A former literary editor of the Times, her books include Ariel's Gift: Ted Hughes, Sylvia Plath and the Story of “Birthday Letters” and Seizure.

This article first appeared in the 24 February 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The world after Brexit