Out of Africa — via Teddy Roosevelt, a circus and Francisco I. Madero
The early colonial settlement of South Africa, by the Dutch puritans and religious exiles known as the Boers or Afrikaners wasn’t all that different from that of the English colonies in what became the United States. The descendants of both colonists saw themselves as the rightful (and righteous) possessors of their territory. While the later apartheid regime was odious, it was a simply a 20th century (and more efficient) codification of the same attempt to maintain a tradition after the trauma to the prevailing ethos that was seen in the United States after the American Civil War in the “Jim Crow laws”.
Both the First and Second Boer Wars were modern wars, the only difference being that the British invaders made no secret of their intentions to seize control of the regions’ mineral assets. The Second Boer War is noted today for its um…er… social innovations. Fighting an asymmetrical war against an indigenous (or indigenized) population, the British invented a new euphemism and new form of control — the “concentration camp” –for dealing with the locals. Secondly, to dispose of the military and political leadership — or potential leadership — the British pioneered the use of indefinite detention on far away islands, out of sight, and — in those pre-internet (and pre-television, and pre-radio and pre-wire service reports) days, out of mind.
By this time, the United States had, of course, become an emerging world power, and had changed dramatically, although the “original families” still largely set the prevailing social and political standards. Naturally, as fellow puritans, as republicans who had resisted colonialism (and as fellow “white men” who took up their burden) there was a good deal of sympathy and support for the Afrikaner Republics in their hopeless fight against the might of the British Empire.
Being a world power, there were restrictions on what the United States would commit itself to, and — as a new colonial power itself — it was not going to intervene politically or militarily for the Orange Free State or the Transvaal Republic. However, the elites, and much of the press, and the people of the United States, were sympathetic to the Boer cause.
When, at the end of the war, one of the stalwarts of the Transvaal forces, and a pioneer in another innovation of that war, the modern commando army, General Benjamin Johannes Viljoen was released from prison on the Isle of Saint Helena (where Napoleon was also isolated), there was nothing much for him to come home to. Before the way, Viljoen had been a dirt farmer, during the war, an expert on asymetical warfare, and afterwards, an exile in need of a job.
Viljoen wasn’t the only Afrikaner exile. A number of “enemy combatants” had been held in Bermuda, and like some of their carceral descendants today (to coin a phrase) in Guantanamo, could not be returned to their homeland for political reasons. Where to send them? Why Mexico, of course!
The early 20th century was the heyday of “white” settlement in northern Mexico. Porfirio Diaz’ cientificos had, in keeping with the Social Darwinist theories of the time, assumed that European (or European-descended) immigrants would, simply on the basis of their bloodlines, improve the stock in the largely undeveloped north. So…
Exiles from the “detention centers” in Bermuda, led by Wilhelm Snyman (who was allowed to leave Bermuda for the United States) were offered a chance to buy undeveloped properties in Mexico at cut-rate prices. The Mexican government was willing not just to take the Afrikaners, but to assist them in founding an exile colony. But, the Mexican government only had so much money available and the Boers were expected to pay something for the land. And these guys were broke.
In April 1901, Snyman met with then U.S. President Theodore Roosevelt. Roosevelt was not only an heir to the original puritan elites, he was from a Dutch puritan family. Officially (Snyman and Roosevelt met at Roosevelt’s home on Long Island, New York), the President could not over-annoy the British with assistance to what the Crown saw as terrorists, but, unofficially, there was much he could do. General Viljoen had already scoped out suitable land in New Mexico, but found the price much too high. Roosevelt contacted Porfirio Diaz about resettlement and arranged for the South Africans to meet with Mexican Secretary of the Treasury José Ives Limantour.
Limantour took the Afrikaners on a … well… Liman-tour, by Pullman coach on a government train to look at several sites, After rejecting the Yaqui Valley of Sonora (which would need repopulating, as the Yaqui were being sent to their own concentration camps in the Yucatan), the Boers found what they wanted near Carmargo, Chihuahua. Fifty thousand pesos for the 33,615 square hectares of the ex-Hacienda de Santa Rosalia was a steal.
Or, would be if the Snymans could come up with the cash. Roosevelt, a successful author himself as well as a sometime military man quietly pulled a few strings among his fellow New York elites to guarantee Benjamin Viljoen’s My Reminiscences of the Anglo-Boer War and An Exiled General would have respectable reviews and decent sales.
Furthermore, Roosevelt — who seemed to embody every American myth of his time — had been a wild west rancher and law man back in the day — was no snob when it came to raising money. And enough of a showman to recognize that the Buffalo Bill Wild West Shows of recent fame still had their audience. So, Viljoen and several other South Africans, joined by a collection of footloose British veterans of the conflict, mounted the Boer War Circus at the 1904 Saint Louis Exhibition to raise the last of the necessary funds for the Chihuahua colony. Viljoen himself, though, made enough from these enterprises to buy the land he’d previously seen in New Mexico, which apparently he liked well enough to leave his first wife back in South Africa and pick up a new bride in the Mesilla Valley.
The Snyman colony — Hacienda Humboldt — managed to hold on, although its isolation (roads were slow in reaching the colonists) made it hard to attract new blood. The Afrikaners were relatively quick to realize that the labor practices acceptable back in Africa with regard the “natives” weren’t going to fly in Mexico and quick to adjust, there were very few social problems with their neighbors. Apartheid wasn’t in the colony’s future… just the opposite. Willingness to socialize began the decline of the specifically Boer nature of the enterprise, as Snyman’s sons and other younger members of the colony quickly married into local families.
Adopting their neighbor’s political and social views — and sensing that Limantour had forgotten about them — even the unassimilated colonists were on the side of the Revolution. And one of their own — ex-General Viljoen was, in some ways, leading the troops.
Francisco I. Madero may have been an “idealist” and more than slightly eccentric, but his family were good, hard-headed business people with their own elitist, born-to-rule sensibilities. When the Maderos decided on Revolution, they didn’t just shop for guns, but for proper advisers and agents. And went shopping for experienced experts on asymmetrical warfare too. They knew of, and about, the Boer War veterans colony, and were keen followers of trends in the United States. Viljoen — whose motto in the Boer War was “God and Mauser Rifles Will Prevail” was offered the job as chief-of-staff to the Madero Provisional Government.
Although the Revolution was successful, in that Porfirio left power and Madero was elected to the Presidency, Viljoen was never an important enough figure in the Revolution to be more than a footnote.
From the beginning there were problems. Giving orders to people like Pancho Villa was always problematic, more so when the Chief-of-Staff doesn’t speak Spanish, and Villa’s English was never as good as he thought. Villa usually did what he wanted, and just claimed he hadn’t been able to understand Viljoen. Viljoen, being a commando expert himself, was wise enough to figure that as long as Villa was winning, he wasn’t going to worry too much about it, facing bigger problems with Pascual Orozco, another loose cannon, and a more immediate danger. Orozco was suspected in May 1911 of attempting to bribe Viljoen to switch sides, and — by June of that year, was openly defiant of the Chief of Staff (Viljoen wanted to move troops to the Baja, while Orozco was threatening to overrun Ciudad Juarez).
Villa and Orozco, besides able to communicate directly with their troops, also knew the countryside intimately — which Viljoen didn’t. And, his war having been in a country without railroads, and fought outside the few cities, had little relevance to the Mexican Revolutionaries, who recognized the strategic importance of the rail lines, and where even rural residents resided in towns, not on individual farms. Increasingly ignored, and distrusted by many because of his status as what was basically a foreign mercenary, Viljoet stayed on as Chief of Staff, but more as a theorist (and one that could be ignored) and media spokesman (his English was much better than most of the other Generals) than a key figure. He left the Mexican army when Madero was overthrown, returning to New Mexico to take up an active role in local politics in the new U.S. state. He died in 1917.
Hacienda Humboldt slowly disintegrated. Ironically, resolving the colonist’s original complaint sealed its demise. With access to the outside world, people left, most simply assimilating into the larger Mexican community. The more conservative Boers, looking for a South African community resettled near Viljoens in the Mesilla Valley, although during the Great Depression, most eventually moved elsewhere. Today, Hacienda Humbolt is part of Ejido Julimes, with under 300 residents, none of whom would be identified as Afrikaner.
Lawrence Douglas Taylor Hansen’s La colonización bóer en Chihuahua y el suroeste de Estados Unidos, 1903-1917 can be downloaded in PDF for those seeking a scholarly study of the Afrikaner colonies. Viljoen’s 1903 My Reminiscences of the Anglo-Boer War is available on-line from Project Gutenburg)