Trooper Peter Halket of Mashonaland, by Olive Schreiner

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Olive Schreiner’s 1897 allegorical novella Trooper Peter Halket of Mashonaland is an excoriating exposé of the activities of Cecil Rhodes’ British South African Company in the exploitation of the mineral wealth in what would become Rhodesia, and the crushing of resistance it entailed.  Trooper Peter Halket is an ordinary Englishman, aged only 20, not long in Africa and possessing attitudes typical of the colonisers towards the indigenous population, which he has absorbed without questioning them.  Subduing the locals on behalf of the ‘Chartered Company’ involves burning settlements, destroying or expropriating food supplies and livestock, and deporting their inhabitants.

Shooting and raping ‘niggers’ means nothing to Halket, like his fellow colonialists not seeing them as fully human.  His concern, one shared by others who have come out from Europe, is to make money – dreams of enormous wealth being a common fantasy – and the only person he really cares about, apart from himself, is his mother back in England, living a hard and impoverished life.  He is indifferent to others’ suffering in his quest for personal enrichment, not because he is intrinsically cruel but rather because he is thoughtless and happy to share assumptions of white racial superiority.

One day he becomes separated from his troop and finds himself lost out on the veld, and is forced to spend a night on his own.  The plains are vast, enough to unsettle a man even if all the kraals have been burned for 30 miles around.  During the night Peter’s mind begins to wander as he mulls over his time in Africa so far, and the atrocities he has witnessed.  As he ponders, he hears someone approaching his campfire and a tall man dressed in a loose linen tunic appears.

Naturally suspicious, Peter soon finds himself falling under the spell of this stranger, as he is always called, though obviously it is Christ, apparent from scars on His hands and feet and the compassionate way in which He speaks.  Initially patronising towards this newcomer, bragging of his bold but naive ambitions of wealth, he shows himself completely behind Rhodes’ plans:

‘“Now he’s death on niggers.” Said Peter Halket, warming his hands by the fire; “they say when he was Prime Minister down in the Colony he tried to pass a law that would give masters and mistresses the right to have their servants flogged whenever they did anything they didn’t like; but the other Englishmen wouldn’t let him pass it.  But here he can do what he likes.  That’s the reason some fellows don’t want him to be sent away.  They say, “If we get the British government here, they’ll be giving the niggers land to live on; and let them have the vote, and get civilised and educated, and all that sort of thing; but Cecil Rhodes, he’ll keep their noses to the grindstone.” I prefer land to niggers, he says.  They say he’s going to parcel them out, and make them work on our lands whether they like it or not – just as good as having slaves, you know: and you haven’t the bother of looking after them when they’re old…. they say if we had the British Government here and you were thrashing a nigger and something happened, there’d be an investigation and all that sort of thing.  But, with Cecil it’s all right, you can do what you like with the niggers provided you don’t get him into trouble.”’

As they converse Peter gradually becomes more thoughtful and trusting.  The stranger asks simple but probing questions, asking Peter about the legitimacy of European force in Africa, the right of England to authorise and allow the activities of the Chartered Company, the way the locals are being treated, and the role of Cecil Rhodes in the enterprise.  He tells parables showing how righteousness must confront hypocrisy and self-interest.

During their conversation, as the stranger gently leads Peter to re-examine his life and actions, a change comes over the previously bullish trooper as he achieves an awareness of what is going on and his role in it, and he begins to call the stranger ‘Master’.  He asks what he can do to assuage his guilt for what he had done and become one of His company, but when the stranger makes increasingly modest suggestions, effectively to publicise the horrors being perpetrated in Mashonaland, Peter cries out each time that the task would be too much for him.  Eventually Peter agrees to lead a virtuous life, and the stranger leaves, ending the first part of the story.

Peter does not have long before he can put his new-found resolutions into practice because the second, shorter, part sees him back at the troop’s temporary camp after his transformative experience in the wilderness.  A wounded native who was unable to follow his people when they fled the genocide being perpetrated by the Company is found hiding nearby and the Captain is keen to execute him as a spy.  When Peter intervenes on the man’s behalf with a lengthy speech about justice and various unwelcome Christian virtues, not least universal brotherhood, the Captain is incensed and threatens to force him to conduct the execution himself.  In the meantime Peter is ordered to keep guard all day in the blazing sun.

In the night there is a disturbance in the camp and it transpires that the prisoner, who had been tied to a stunted tree in a pose mimicking a crucifixion, has escaped and Peter has been shot dead.  Peter was responsible for the escape, for which the Captain murdered him, but inevitably the act is covered up.  Peter, having achieved a kind of martyrdom, is buried under the stunted tree as the camp is struck and the soldiers move on.

Peter’s pleas may have fallen on deaf ears with the Captain, and others believe his mind went after spending the night on the veld, leading to an irrational religious fervour; but certain of his comrades are disturbed by the incident, and his sacrifice may have lit a spark that will lead to some good.  An English member of the troop says after Peter’s death, ‘there is no God in Mashonaland’.  Schreiner is arguing that rectifying the woeful situation cannot be left to God but must be carried out by ordinary people seeking greater justice, and paying lip service alone to a deity is worse than useless if it is not backed by virtuous acts, the stranger’s point to Peter.  It is possible Schreiner pricked the consciences of those happy to benefit from the situation in southern Africa, forcing them to confront the brutality upon which their comfortable standard of living was based.

Schreiner lets the British off relatively lightly, while implying the government was acting negligently – her fire is directed more at a situation in which England, ostensibly in charge, had ceded control to Rhodes and his Chartered Company, allowing his expansionist project to proceed with no meaningful oversight, than at any direct acts by the colonial power itself:

‘The Englishman rested his elbows on the ground.  “And the Union Jack is supposed to be flying over us.”

‘“Yes, with a black bar across it for the Company,” laughed the Colonial.’

One does not need a detailed knowledge of the complex political situation in the region in the 1890s to appreciate the anger Schreiner felt at what was happening in the greedy rush for profit, to the detriment of the black population but also of those whites who, like Peter Halket when he arrived, felt that riches would be there for the taking, but who in their own way, if less brutally than their black victims, were also exploited by cynical corporate interests.

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