Journal Volume 6 2010

Sir William F. Butler (continued/6)

South Africa High Commission in Natal

In February 1875 Butler in Kerry received a telegram from Wolseley inviting him to accompany him to South Africa where he had been appointed as Governor and High Commissioner of Natal. This was a political initiative.

The situation in South Africa at the time was that the British controlled Cape Colony and Natal, the Afrikaners having withdrawn to the Orange Free State and Transvaal. Natal with 4000 white settlers operated as a quasi-independent entity with its own Legislative Council. The British Government wanted to bring Natal under direct control of the Colonial Office and create a federal constitution embracing Cape Colony and Natal. Butler joined his four colleagues on the Council as protector of the Indian community.

As part of his task Butler travelled extensively all over South Africa, to Kimberley to see the diamond mines, to Bloemfontein to meet the Boer president Brand and meet and note the situation of the Boers, the Basutos and Zulus. The received wisdom of the time was that the Boers were no match for the British and that the Africans should be dominated. Butler instinctively rejected both premises. He saw the Boers as tough and effective potential guerrillas and he recognized that the native Africans were a different proposition from the Indians of North America. They would not be exterminated and their treatment at the hands of the white man would eventually provoke them to savage retaliation. He had gained valuable firsthand experience of the situation in South Africa and he perceived the remedies which might avert the tragedies which were to come. Unfortunately the prevailing current of opinion saw no need to adopt fair or commonsense policies to meet the aspirations of the various parties. Wolseley’s mission ended in Sept 1875 and Butler returned to a War Office Job in London. It was not as attractive to him as the active life in the great outdoors but there were compensations.

London 1875 - 1878

Lady ButlerOne of these was his encounter with Colonel Charles ‘Chinese’ Gordon recently returned with an heroic popular reputation from his two year service as Governor of Equatoria, including mostly the Sudan and Darfur. There was an instant rapport between the two men: both professional soldiers; both scions of great families – the Butlers of Ireland and the Gordons of Scotland - and both intensely religious and humane in character. The major difference between them was that Butler enjoyed the life of the barracks and the mess when duty imposed it. Gordon detested the regimental life and his earlier experiences in China and Africa came about as a result of his seeking secondments to overseas administration which the British Government wished to influence without actively participating. They were never to meet again but eight years later Butler was to take part in the great effort to rescue Gordon besieged in the fortress of Khartoum.

The other great event of this period was Butler’s marriage in 1877 to Miss Elizabeth Thompson, a renowned artist and already an exhibitor at the Royal Academy. Their marriage was presided over by Cardinal Manning and attended by Wolseley and all of Butler’s senior colleagues. They spent their honeymoon in Ireland. It was Elizabeth’s first visit but she was enchanted by the country and its people, an enthusiasm which persisted for the rest of her long life.

Elizabeth Thompson was born in Lausanne, Switzerland in 1846. She achieved some fame at twenty-seven years-of-age when Queen Victoria bought her painting, ‘Calling the Roll after an Engagement, Crimea', more commonly referred to as ‘The Roll Call'. Such crowds came to see The Roll Call at the 1874 Royal Academy Summer Exhibition that a special policeman was engaged to protect the picture and keep public order. Lady Butler spent much time talking to soldiers and studying military uniforms in order to achieve accuracy in even the smallest details. She painted at Bansha Castle, in ‘the wilds of Tipperary', from 1905 to 1922. Lady Butler lived at Gormanston Castle, County Meath, with her daughter Eileen, Viscountess Gormanston, from 1922 until she died in 1933.


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