BOOK REVIEW: ‘Ghandi, Smuts and Race in the British Empire’

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Reviewer: Michael Keith

Title: Ghandi, Smuts and Race in the British Empire

Author: Peter Baxter

Total Number of Printed Pages: 280

Rating Scale (1: Very Poor, 10: Excellent): 7


The well-known proverb states that ‘Great Oaks from little acorns grow’. This is the story of two such Oaks – Jan Smuts and Mohandas Ghandi and the encounters that they had with each other as they grew; encounters that were at times tests of wills, yet encounters that were, ultimately respectful, if only for the abilities that each possessed.  This is a multi-level tale that moves from South Africa, to Great Britain, to India, and again to South Africa, and does so over several decades and for a variety of reasons.

This book is essentially two biographies running in parallel, and is well-researched and written. Understandably, the narrative is primarily concerned with the main protagonists (Ghandi and Smuts). However, it also acquaints the reader with those who influenced, encouraged and worked with both men, and provides historical background for the countries and events that formed them.  Although at times some of the ‘background narrative’ appears to owe more to the  stream of consciousness writing-style than verifiable-fact (the description of Dadabhai Naoroji’s receiving of Ghandi’s petition being but one of several examples), the overall story is well-written and holds the reader’s attention.

A two-sentence Acknowledgments section follows the two pages comprising the Contents section. In it, the author thanks those who assisted him in the volume’s development and publication. This is in turn followed by a List of Illustrations which replicates the captions applied to the 30 Photographs and single cartoon appearing in a 16-page section near the centre of the volume.  An Introduction follows. This focuses on events in Great Britain that are pertinent to the narrative that follows, and introduces the reader to Mohandas Ghandi and his associates. The 31 Chapters which comprise the bulk of the volume then follow. An Epilogue provides closure to the narrative. It details the protagonist’s actions subsequent to going their separate ways. Endnotes are used throughout the book to provide additional information; their citations appearing in a dedicated Notes section placed after the Epilogue. A Further Reading section follows. This acts as a Bibliography and lists the literature used during the volume’s preparation. An Index completes the work.  No Maps are provided.

Although this volume is well-written and researched, this reviewer believes that it is very badly let down in two key areas; Quotes and the Index. Numerous quotes appear within the book. However, these have not been provided with verifiable source-citations. As a result, (and in the absence of such information), their authority and accuracy must inevitably be questioned, irrespective of their relevance to the narrative being presented. The Index is also disappointing. While examining it, this reviewer randomly looked for references to Australia, New Zealand (p.14) and Canada as well as for the British Aboriginal Protection Society (p.56), and for Hottentots and Ireland. These items appear within the volume’s pages as part of the narrative, yet this reviewer looked in vain for them, eventually giving-up the search. If these items could not be found, then what else may be missing? There is no way to know, and the authority of the Index suffered accordingly. Whether such matters are important will depend on the reader.

This volume may appeal to several groups of readers. Those with a specific interest in the history of ‘White’ South Africa are likely to find it of great interest. As it provides a detailed background to what subsequently occurred in India, readers with an interest in the British Empire, ‘British’ India, Imperialism and Colonialism may also find it of worthy of their attention. Readers specifically interested in either Ghandi or Smuts may also learn more about these individuals. As it covers the various conflicts that occurred within South Africa, the military aspect of the narrative may also be of interest to military historians.

On a Rating Scale where 1: Very Poor, 10: Excellent, I have given this volume a 7.




BOOK REVIEW: ‘Ghandi, Smuts and Race in the British Empire’