Douglas Blackburn (1857-1929)


Blackburn portrait cropped

Douglas Blackburn, 1897

This page gathers together information on the journalist and novelist Douglas Blackburn (6 August 1857 – 28 March 1929).  I will expand it as time allows, including notes on his publications.


Douglas Blackburn bibliography
Prinsloo of Prinsloosdorp: A Tale of Transvaal Officialdom
‘The Bottom Boy’


Douglas Blackburn bibliography

This is a work in progress.  Much of Douglas Blackburn’s journalistic output was anonymous and was produced on two continents, so it is unlikely a full record will ever be compiled.  It is divided into two sections: books, articles and stories by Blackburn; and publications which discuss him and his work.  Stephen Gray’s 1984 bibliography divides Blackburn’s work into novels, factual works and selected articles, ordered alphabetically, but I have combined these categories and ordered the works chronologically.  I have a number of newspaper references, and more secondary sources, which will be added later.

Additions, corrections and clarifications are welcome.

Publications by Blackburn

‘Thought-Reading Extraordinary’, Light, 26 August 1882 (partially reprinted in Proceedings of the Society for Psychical Research, vol. 1, 1882, p.63).

Thought Reading: or Modern Mysteries Explained, London: Field and Tuer, 1884.

‘The Revolution – and After: Being the Secret History of a Failure’, Johannesburg: George Thompson, 1896, 15 pp.

‘If There Should be War’, Transvaal Sentinel (Krugersdorp) 1, no. 33, 19 June 1897, 6 pp.

Prinsloo of Prinsloosdorp: A Tale of Transvaal Officialdom [by Sarel Erasmus], London and Johannesburg: Dunbar Bros., 1899; London: Alston Rivers, 1908.

Kruger’s Secret Service, by One Who Was in It, London: John Macqueen, 1900.

‘Preliminary Causes’, Times of Natal War Number (Pietermaritzburg), 1900.

‘The Marvels of Loteni: A Voice from the Dead’, Natal Witness, (Pietermaritzburg), 19 June 1902.

‘Some South African Prejudices’, Chambers’s Journal (London), 22 November 1902, pp. 813-15.

‘Natal and the Native Question’, Star (Johannesburg), 27 December 1902.

A Burgher Quixote, Edinburgh and London: William Blackwood & Sons, 1903.

‘Animal Superstitions Among the Zulus, Basutos, Griquas, and Magatese, and the Kafirs of Natal’, Man (London), December 1904, pp. 181-83.

Richard Hartley, Prospector, Edinburgh and London: William Blackwood & Sons, 1905.

‘Transvaal Treasure-hunts’, Chambers’s Journal (London), September 1906, pp. 661-63.

I Came and Saw, London: Alston Rivers, 1908.

Leaven: A Black and White Story, London, Alston Rivers, 1908.

‘The Safeguard of Kafir Socialism’, New Age (London), 3 October 1908, p. 448.

‘Rand Magnate’s Latest Plot’, New Age (London), 12 November 1908, p. 47.

‘Confessions of a Famous Medium: Story of the Great “Scientific” Hoax’: 1 – ‘How Telepathy was Proved to the Satisfaction of the Psychical Research Society’, John Bull, 5 December 1908 , p590; 2 – ‘The Inadequacy of Scientific Precautions’, John Bull, 12 December 1908  p628; 3 – ‘Flukes and Physiognomy’, John Bull, 19 December 1908, p671; 4 – ‘Private Versus Professional Humbug’, 26 December 1908, pp.706-7; 5 – ‘My Masterpiece’, John Bull, 2 January 1909 , p7; 6 – ‘The Master Key’, John Bull, 9 January 1909, p.39.

and Waithman Caddell. The Detection of Forgery: A Practical Handbook For the Use of Bankers, Solicitors, Magistrates’ Clerks, and All Handling Suspected Documents, London: Charles & Edwin Layton,1909.

and W. Waithman Caddell. Secret Service in South Africa, London: Cassell, 1911.

‘Confessions of a “Telepathist”, Mr. Douglas Blackburn & the Scientists. 30-Year Hoax Exposed. How the Deception was Planned and Worked’ Daily News, 1 September 1911  (reprinted in JSPR, Vol. 15, October 1911, pp.115-19, A Skeptic’s Handbook of Parapsychology, Paul Kurtz (ed.), Buffalo, New York: Prometheus Books, 1985, pp. 235-39).

Love Muti, London: Everett & Co., 1915.

The Martyr Nurse: The Death and Achievement of Edith Cavell, London: Ridd Masson, 1915.

‘The Middle Stump: An East African Story’, illus. Stanley L. Wood, The Boy’s Own Annual, vol. 41, 1918/19.

‘Ghosts and Mediums I Have Met’, Tonbridge Free Press, five parts, 13 February – 5 April 1920.

‘Treasure Tales’, Daily Mail (London), 24 April 1923.

‘The Bottom Boy’, The Triumph Book for Boys, London: Collins, n.d. [c. 1929], n.p.

Blackburn issue. English in Africa (Grahamstown) 5, no. 1, March 1978, pp. 8-47.

Publications which discuss Blackburn and his work

Johnson, Alice. ‘Mr. Blackburn’s “Confession”’, privately printed for the Society for Psychical research, 1909.

[Appreciation of Douglas Blackburn], Tonbridge Free Press, 5 April 1929.

Taylor, Ken.  Adaptation of The Strange Case of Edmund Gurney, broadcast on BBC2 Theatre 625, Sunday 29 October 1967.  (Richard Todd: Edmund Gurney, Anthony Bate: Frederic Myers, Ray Brooks: G. A. Smith, John Barcroft: Douglas Blackburn, Lynda Baron: Alice Smith, Diana Fairfax: Kate Gurney, Norman Shelley: Sir James Crichton-Browne).

Hall, Trevor. The Strange Case of Edmund Gurney, London: Duckworth, 1964.

Gray, Stephen. ‘Douglas Blackburn: Journalist into Novelist (1857-1929)’, English in Africa, Vol. 5, No. 1, March 1978, pp. 1-48.

Gray, Stephen. Douglas Blackburn, Boston, Mass: Twayne, 1984.

Rice, Michael. ‘Douglas Blackburn’s A Burgher Quixote’, Kunapipi, Vol. 8, No. 1, 1986, pp. 70-86.

Shum, Matthew. ‘The Content of the Form: Romance and Realism in Douglas Blackburn’s Leaven’, English in Africa, Vol. 21, No. 1/2, July 1994, pp. 93-102.

Gray, Stephen. Free-Lancers and Literary Biography in South Africa, Amsterdam: Editions Rodopi, 1999.

Luckhurst, Roger. The Invention of Telepathy 1870-1901. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2002.

Wiley, Barry. The Thought Reader Craze: Victorian Science at the Enchanted Boundary, Jefferson, North Carolina: McFarland, 2012.

Hamilton, Trevor. ‘Smith and Blackburn’, Society for Psychical Research Psi Encyclopedia,, 2015. Retrieved 10 July 2018.

(Last updated 31 July 2018)


Kent & Sussex Courier. 5 April, 1929

Kent & Sussex Courier. 5 April, 1929


Prinsloo of Prinsloosdorp: A Tale of Transvaal Officialdom

Blackburn cover

Douglas Blackburn was a versatile writer and a colourful character – you might say he was a schelm (a rogue, a rascal) but also slim (cunning, artful, tricky), to employ a couple of the Afrikaans words he uses in this hugely enjoyable tale set in nineteenth-century South Africa.  Blackburn himself can write about the dubious transactions of Piet Prinsloo with affection because he also was not averse to sailing close to the wind.  Having learned his trade as a journalist in Brighton in the 1880s, he was involved in various scandals, and found himself in trouble for libel.  It was during this period that he became briefly associated with the Society for Psychical Research, before he emigrated to South Africa (possibly after a visit to China).

In his new home, where he lived from 1892 until 1908, he again worked as a journalist and editor, while making his name with a series of novels that have become highpoints of South African literature.  The earliest of these was Prinsloo of Prinsloosdorp, published in 1899, and it was the first of what Stephen Gray in his monograph Douglas Blackburn (Twayne, 1984) calls Blackburn’s ‘Sarel Erasmus trilogy of satires’, the others being A Burgher Quixote (1903) and I Came and Saw (1908).  Together Gray considers these ‘his finest achievement’.  Bearing in mind how little time Blackburn had spent in the country when he produced Prinsloo, it is an assured debut.

Prinsloo of Prinsloosdorp is narrated by said Sarel Erasmus, Piet Prinsloo’s son-in-law and occasional associate, after the old man’s death.  It is an attempted defence of Piet’s schemes, his life being full of ploys to make money, and ruefully losing it.  The result is a humorous and unflattering portrait of the corruption underpinning Boer society.  They are typically unsophisticated and ignorant, susceptible to verneukery (cheating, knavery) both between themselves and by the perfidious British, those Outlanders proving themselves unscrupulous in business transactions.  One, Scotty, is essentially a bandit, and Blackburn uses him as a metaphor for the ruthlessness of outsiders’ desire for acquisition at the locals’ expense.

Piet’s schooling was rudimentary and his illiteracy is a drawback in conducting business, though not an insuperable one, as even when he is appointed a magistrate he is able to rely on others to do the reading for him, and in any case bribes are more significant than case law when adjudicating a dispute.  His main complaint about not being able to read is that he has to rely on others, who then know as much as he does.  Power is achieved not by merit but by hypocrisy, nepotism, bribery and if necessary blackmail.  Even with his educational disadvantages Piet manages to climb to significant positions of power, sometimes by guile, but often because it suits others’ purposes.  There is no sense of public service as every position is assessed in terms of its financial rewards.

Added to this unflattering account, Piet is a bully, particularly where his black workers are concerned.  Apart from being shown at the bottom of society, only there to be exploited by the whites, the black population is largely invisible.  Blackburn drily has Sarel bemoan the fact that Piet’s year of birth (1835) was also the year the British ‘wickedly’ freed the slaves, the result of which (after being cheated by the ‘rascally Englanders’ out of the compensation money) was that the family had to hire ‘kaffirs’ (a term used throughout the novella) ‘and even had sometimes to work themselves’.  Sarel sees this as a sorry state of affairs.

Yet it is not a completely negative portrait of Piet – Gray notes that Blackburn balances as much sympathy as censure.  Piet is sinned against as much as sinning, and having to survive in such a society forces anyone to be self-serving if they want to prosper.  The cynicism he exhibits runs throughout all levels of government.  When Piet goes to Pretoria to see Paul Kruger, the President of the South African Republic, Kruger does not criticise his methods but instead upbraids him for being stupid because he is always getting the State into the newspapers.

Justice cannot be expected from the government: a running theme is Piet’s anger that loans he had made were never repaid, though undercutting his indignation is the fact that he had made the loans in lieu of taking up arms on behalf of the Transvaal.  Here, as throughout the novel, Blackburn shows how selfish acts are spun to appear patriotic, Piet repeatedly declaring that he has ‘bled’ for the regime.  The only checks on greed are provided by other officials who themselves want to use any given situation for their own gain, not a state of affairs conducive to good governance.  The book’s frontispiece is a bunch of disembodied hands reaching up for South African Republic coins, suggesting that avarice will be a major theme.

While Piet is a significant figure within his community, Blackburn leaves broader political developments vague, partly because he would have assumed his original readership to be familiar with them, but also because Piet, while intent on personal gain, is never involved in the destiny of the country.  In his small way he does well because, despite his illiteracy and proneness to make bad judgements, eventually he founds a town (the Prinsloosdorp of the title), though even here he finds himself cheated out of its full potential when he is outmanoeuvred in purchasing the best plots.  Eventually it all gets too much for him, and with an increasingly vigilant press (the only brake on the general roguery it would seem) exposing his dubious practices, he decides to move to Rhodesia, where he dies of dropsy.

In the preface to the 1908 edition, the first to bear his name (and issued the year he returned to England), Blackburn distances himself from the satirical treatment of official institutions by arguing that the incidents portrayed in the book had in the course of the intervening decade already receded into history and would eventually pass to the realm of myth.  At the same time he stresses, because he insists there are no contemporary examples, that his depiction of Piet, ‘a Transvaal official of the old regime’, is not a caricature, and somewhat disingenuously that the book contains no invention because all characters and incidents are based on reality.

This, he argues, was demonstrated by the difference between English and local reviewers: the former saw it as political satire, the latter as ‘a matter-of-fact narration of familiar commonplaces’.  One suspects that Blackburn must have exaggerated his source material because the satire is often rather blunt, such as the drunken jailer who ‘was punished by being removed to Boshoff, where he was made Chief of Police’.  The book is full of similar improbable ironies, so while Blackburn claims that he has merely assembled anecdotes, it is hard to believe that he has not embellished them with his own sardonic view of the political culture in his new home.

The cover illustrated above is from the 1989 edition, a facsimile reprint of the 1908 edition, published by Hans Strydom, Melville, South Africa.  The first edition is incorrectly dated to 1898.  The back cover shouts: ‘Entire first edition bought up by Paul Kruger’s government to save themselves embarrassment!’  The source for this allegation is Blackburn’s 1908 preface but Gray, while noting that the tale has been repeated frequently and is unverifiable either way, suggests that ‘judging by the quantities of the book still in circulation in South Africa today, any attempts to limit its sales were unsuccessful.’  Blackburn, as he showed in other areas of his life, prized a good yarn, even if not true.

(25 August 2015)


‘The Bottom Boy’

Triumpb Book for Boys

Douglas Blackburn’s short story ‘The Bottom Boy’ would probably be called something else now.*  Actually, it wouldn’t be published today as it is very much a product of colonial South Africa.  It is contained in a chunky collection, The Triumph Book for Boys, published by Collins.  It is undated (and for some reason unpaginated), but it probably appeared in the late 1920s, around the time of Blackburn’s death in March 1929.  Apparently the story was repackaged by Collins in The Best Book for Schoolboys, also undated, but I have not been able to examine a copy to compare to the Triumph Book for Boys.

Fourteen-year old Charlie Barton is the bottom boy – actually the bottom of his class, kept back with younger children, to his parents’ dismay. He lives on the family’s sugar plantation on the Zululand coast and one day stumbles on the owner of the next-door plantation, Paton, on the beach with a stranger bringing ashore a cargo which turns out to be illegal rifles.  These it transpires are for a native uprising against the whites.  Charlie is captured by Andrade, Paton’s business partner, but escapes by using purple ink to mimic the symptoms of smallpox, fooling the credulous natives.

Unfortunately he injures his foot and is mistaken for a water sprite (referred to as a togolosh but known nowadays as tokoloshe) by some locals because the purple ink has run, and he is taken to their kraal.  Andrade turns up and tells Charlie he has to help in the sale of the guns – which are actually useless – or be killed.  The local witch doctor claims that Charlie is indeed a togolosh, come as a sign that the tribe will prevail over the white men, and tries to take credit for his presence.  Resourceful Charlie though, belying his place at the bottom of the class, demonstrates to the chief that the bullets are fake, thereby disgracing the witch doctor and causing Andrade, who has murdered Paton, to take an early bath in the crocodile pool.  The chief gives the diamonds intended for Andrade to Charlie, and back home Charlie’s father, unfazed by his abduction, is pleased with his achievement.  In fact Charlie’s indifferent scholastic achievement is now a cause for levity (unfortunately Mr Barton is referred to as Mr Paton in the penultimate line, spoiling the effect).  Upon being questioned, Charlie explains that he knew the bullets would not fire because ‘a rascally German’ had once sold him and his friends some, which were made of wax and silver paper, and filled with weak powder.

Blackburn had an interest in Zulu beliefs.  He supplied notes on ‘Animal Superstitions Among the Zulus, Basutos, Griquas, and Magatese, and the Kafirs of Natal’ which appeared in the journal Man in 1904, in which he discusses the mischievous ‘Togolosh’.  In his 1908 novel Leaven he refers to ‘the Togolosh that carried off maidens’.  The shrewd Charlie is able to turn this superstition to his advantage, telling the chief that he did so to establish his superiority to the witch doctor.  Charlie prevents a conflict that would have seen many tribesmen killed, preserving the peace now minus its disruptive elements.  To do so, the bullets are shown to be useless empirically, by having tribesmen shoot at a goat which remains uninjured.  At a stroke Charlie proves the Europeans’ superior wisdom compared to the indigenous population’s reliance on magic and inability to recognise ersatz ammunition.

*Having said which, in 1918/19 Blackburn published a story called ‘The Middle Stump: An East African Story’ in The Boy’s Own Annual, so it is possible he mischievously assigned risqué titles to his children’s fiction.

(28 July 2017)

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