The following is an interview I conducted with Heather Vallance, an exemplorary historian and co-founder of the Pen and Spindle historical blog http://penandspindle.blogspot.com/ This blog is an excellent source for specialist historical information and research, promoting lesser known aspects of history and obscure yet significant characters of the past. My interview focused on her new e-book, "An Unconvential Solidier", which appears to be the embodiment of the Pen and Spindle's mission.
Jamie Clubb: Where did you first hear about John Young Filmore Blake?
Heather Vallance: I first came across John Blake around 1997 or 1998. I was helping Cathy Barrett with some research on Texas Jack, the Wild West Show proprietor who gave Will Rogers his entertainment break in South Africa in 1902. As you know, Cathy has spent the last 12 or so years trying to piece together the real Texas Jack because he left us with no memory of himself. Every once in a while she calls on me for research back up. This was one of those occasions. I was scanning material from the early 20th century and I happened on John Blake's book, *A West Pointer With The Boers*. I remembered the stories that had been handed down to me about the Boer War, and the Irish and Americans who fought for the Boers. I was intrigued, but at first I accepted what everyone else said, that John Blake was a bit of a loser and a mercenary.
Jamie Clubb: Outside (and inside) America, the South and the Confederates are often presented as the suppressors. In many ways "An Unconventional Solider" turns this on its head, both in the way that Blake's Confederate family are persecuted and in the way that Blake fought for the suppressed. Please could you elaborate on this?
Heather Vallance: The Civil War symbolizes two clear-cut viewpoints. For those who still embrace the Confederate flag, it represents a very deep cut. For the remainder of Americans, the Civil War and the period prior to it represent the struggle to return dignity to an enslaved people. But, wars are complex and messy things, and at the time they happen the reasons for fighting are very personal and often unrelated to the causes we later associate with them. For a body of Southerners the Civil War was not about the right to own slaves, it was about the right to own the land that they, their fathers and grandfathers had been awarded in government treaties when Indian ancestral lands became fair game for settlers and prospectors. This has been forgotten. General Stand Watie led his volunteer Native Americans into battle during the Civil War because he believed that the Union government was once again going to strip Indian land from the Five Civilized Nations.
Even those Native Americans who fought for the Union were fighting for the same reason. The Indian factor in the Civil War was about protecting what little they had left of their share of America. Stand Watie was Cherokee and most of his men were Cherokee, the rest came from other Indian Territory nations. The letters from well-placed Arkansas men pleading with Watie to lead the Cherokee into battle were not about slavery. These letters were about the preservation of Indian Territory lands. What the Native Americans perceived in the run-up to the war was yet another betrayal, another whole scale land theft in motion. Some may have conjoined racial prejudice to their land struggle, but in the story I am telling, this was not the case.
Jamie Clubb: The Clan-na-Gael was a Masonic/terrorist organization that is virtually unheard of today, but at the time they were clearly a feared and influential group, comparable to the "Scowerers" in Arthur Conan Doyle's 1914 Sherlock Holmes novel "The Valley of Fear". Could you provide a little background on them and the role they played in the South African gold mine situation in the late 1800s?
Heather Vallance: The Clan-na-Gael, like all Irish rebel organizations, was created as a response to the British imperial confiscation of Ireland. Members saw themselves as exiles whose only way to get at their enemy was to take the other side, no matter what that 'other side' was. The Irish rebellion motto was *England's disadvantage is Ireland's advantage*. Of course, this is the idealism that drives rebel membership. Beneath the membership lies the politics. The Clan-na-Gael was an incredibly powerful political organization, as you say. It was powerful because its executive was made up of Irish Americans with formidable networks and often high profile positions in government and in the military and it was tied, in many ways, to the early rise of America as an imperial power. For a period of thirty years, from the 1870s through to the turn of the 20th century, the Clan-na-Gael dictated policy internationally.
The intriguing thing is that British Intelligence only recognized the threat the organization posed in the 1880s. Before that, the Clan-na-Gael seems to have been lumped into the same pot as the 'Fenians' who were perceived as a bunch of loose but controllable Irish canons. I am not even sure if the financial and advisory contribution made by the Clan-na-Gael to the first Anglo-Boer War registered as a warning signal. It seems that those in the British government responsible for security issues were somehow blinded by confidence in their own ability to read the Irish. That, of course, was a huge mistake. They weren't technically dealing with the Irish. They were dealing with Americans some of whom were first generation Irish. Southern Africa was mineral rich and all organizations whether they are government or rebel organizations need money to stay afloat. Gold had been discovered in the 1850s on Boer lands known as the Transvaal Republic. The Boer executive did everything short of murdering those who mentioned 'gold' to keep the discovery under wraps.
The British annexed the Transvaal Republic at the end of the 1870s but their surveyors could find no trace of gold. So, try to imagine a chess board with randomly animated pieces and a gaggle of players with hands raised in anticipation, waiting from any sign of movement on the board. That is what conditions were like before the official discovery of gold in the 1880s in the Transvaal Republic. The Clan-na-Gael was one of the players at the table.
Jamie Clubb: You say the material was "hard-to-access". Do you feel that it was suppressed in some way or is this so much "conspiracy theory" for the "buffs"?
Heather Vallance: *Suppressed* is a loaded word. Information about this period in history was written by those who took control of African gold under the banner of an Anglo-American alliance. By the very laws that govern the nature of information, sources that do not support the dominant written history of an epoch carry little or no value. Information that carries little or no value, in turn, is 'weeded' – a perfectly legitimate archival process of keeping for posterity documents that are important and perceived as beneficial to our knowledge of the past. Of course, perspectives change, histories are re-evaluated and re-written, and the flaws in the methods of knowledge preservation are again highlighted. The act of *suppressing* information, if you will, is more often than not unintentional, almost knee-jerk, and dictated by the worldview of epochs, cultures, rulers, ideologies, and even the supposedly neutral archivists who are custodians of the past. Should they all be lined up and shot before dawn? Not if you are of the opinion that your decisions are as fallible as theirs.
When we research a subject or event we need to be rational about how we look at the context in which the information came into being, and then trace how this information was shaped by the contexts of each era of hands through which it has passed. If we fail to do this we start subjecting our ancestors to some very weird accusations. Conspiracy theory, on the other hand, and those who keep crying conspiracy theory are, for me, a little like those who insist that everything is the fault of the Devil. There is either no real thought going on in the heads of both groups, or they are somehow in on the scam. I have a nasty feeling that a cry of 'conspiracy theory' is just another way of beating researchers into submission, discouraging them from asking really hard questions. It's a wonderful catch-all. Don't believe what he or she says because it is conspiracy theory stuff that isn't valid. The only so-called gain from attitudes like this lies in the fact that important research often lands up on the trash heap and, you have to ask yourself, who exactly benefits from this?
Jamie Clubb: *An Unconventional Soldier* is about the war for gold in Africa. Where do Wild West Shows fit into this story?
Heather Vallance: What does Hollywood have to do with oil in the Middle East? Politics rides on the back of what works. What works is what blurs the boundary between reality and fiction, and keeps the masses from questioning the motives, direction and deeds of the governing classes. The British royal family and government benefited from association with the Wild West Show and its performers in the same way they benefit from the iconic cult of Diana. Theodore Roosevelt created the Rough Riders straight out of the pages of the Wild West, and he fought a war powered by the myth of good versus evil. Go as far back as the earliest expressions of an epoch, as far back as the first rune or glyph and you will find that popular culture is both the drug of the masses, and the impetus which drives the political will of a nation or an empire.
The 'Wild West' was the international standard in popular culture from the 1870s into the era of silent movies. In the same way Hollywood defines our vision of the world as we know it, Wild West Shows defined the vision of America and the world as John Blake knew it. If we want to understand the epochs we research we have to understand these in the context of their popular culture. *An Unconventional Soldier* takes place at the time Africa became the new frontier in the 1880s and 1890s. Americans flocked to subSaharan Africa, taking with them all their preconceptions of their world which had been shaped by American popular culture. Wild West Show performers, like movie stars today, metamorphosed into expressions of the politics of the time. John Blake was often referred to as not unlike Buffalo Bill. Stars themselves over-stepped the boundaries between their fictional world and the real world, placing their mark directly on the political truth of the day. No different, to any number of actors and actresses who rise through the political ranks or become outspoken critics of ideologies today. We simply can't ignore their influence on or their presence in history. The same can be said about the Wild West and the shows it spawned.
Jamie Clubb: Why do you say that the term "cowboys" entered our vocabulary as a result of the Civil War?
Heather Vallance: The Civil War destroyed the South. It left a lot of men and women scraping about for a living. Among these were some of the future artistes of Wild West Shows. They used what they knew to create a story that would bring in enough money to pay the bills. Buffalo Bill popularized the 'cowboy' in his Wild West Shows. He created the 'universal protector of good against evil' with his guns by his side, riding into the sunset. This icon in real life was a humble cattle driver who, before the rise to fame of the Wild West Shows, had never been heard of by British queens or Danish princes, and certainly not by Boer farmers.
Jamie Clubb: When we think of Wild West Shows we think of Indians as people who attacked stage coaches while wearing headdresses, people who lived in tepees and remote places. You claim that this is not the whole picture in *An Unconventional Soldier*, why?
Heather Vallance: Native American culture has been hugely misrepresented in popular culture, and in the history of 19th century politics. Native American society throughout history has been as diverse in its political ideologies and attitudes toward things as any other culture. Popular culture was allowed, in a sense, by the political pundits of the day, to pack this diversity into a single image – the feathered barbarian. The single image facilitated the aims of those who wanted to annihilate the Indians as a political force in American society – to assimilate them. *An Unconventional Soldier* contains stories of Native Americans who were indistinguishable from their settler neighbours, not only in dress but in daily life and activity.
Jamie Clubb: Without revealing too much of your material, just how did the American Indians end up fighting for the Boers?
Heather Vallance: *An Unconventional Soldier* is all about gold, yes, but it is also about the struggle to save land from those whose intention it was to claim that land as their own. Evidence suggests that the struggle for land rights was a universally shared ideology at the turn of the 20th century, much in the same way that you get associations of labour unions today. This is a part of history that really has to be excavated more fully. I say 'excavated' because here is a classic example of the destruction of historical sources because those who weeded information thought that Indians were irrelevant to the history of their own culture, whatever that culture was at the time.
Jamie Clubb: What has attracted you to the material that we see mainly promoted on the Pen and Spindle Blog?
Heather Vallance: The vision behind the Pen and the Spindle is to provide a virtual home for stories that have either been weeded out of traditional history or stories that are too humble to be considered important by the keepers of documents. I am also attracted to these stories because they reveal more about the truth of the times in which they play out than the written-to-order histories that perpetuate the same tedious themes and ideologies we are fed from birth. The world is, and was, a far more exciting place than we're led to believe.
Jamie Clubb: When I first corresponded with you, you and Cathy Barrett were on the trail of Texas Jack who was yet another figure who was famous in his time, but yet almost forgotten today. What attracts you to these figures? Cathy still has some unravelling to do on Texas Jack. She hopes to have his story out to pasture within a few more years. And, as you ask, what is it that draws me, and other researchers like Cathy, to characters who have essentially lost their history?
Heather Vallance: The answer is quite straightforward, actually. We are attracted by the challenge of reconstructing lost histories from the shadows that remain behind, shadows that tell us that something once existed in that spot. 1. Another topic I have seen reoccur in your writing is the subject of platonic relationships and how, all too often, modern day historians jump to assumptions regarding the friendship people have with each other. How do you feel this obscures history? I think that the popular culture of our own era is to blame for the contemporary approach to perceiving historical and present day relationships as sexual only.
We're trapped in a sort of fifteen-year-old, giggly girl approach to deciphering the complexity of human nature and interaction, and that disturbs me. Knowledge building is not a plaything. It is the method of survival of identity, of culture, and nationhood. By adopting a Butterfly Express method to our intellectual asset building for the future, we treat learning as a superficial, self-gratifying game that takes us down the road to our own obscurity. I suppose I've never understood people who are consciously and deliberately self-destructive, and part of that self-destruction is to water down the interaction between and among people to its most basic form. We're a bit more complex than that and a bit more interesting, and so I always look for the power of collective and platonic friendship in history and in life. There is just so much more to explore.
Ultimately, from an historical perspective, we have replaced the *Who's Who*study of Great Men with the *Who Slept With Whom* study of social history. Neither furthers our understanding of past epochs or of ourselves as a species trying to survive under increasingly difficult conditions.
Jamie Clubb: *An Unconventional Soldier* will form part of a larger piece of work you hope to finish in two years time. Can you give me more information on this book and will be published in a hardcopy format?
Heather Vallance: *An Unconventional Soldier* is a stand-alone story whose core research will play a role in a more complete story about the politics and popular culture of the late 19th and early 20th century. It was published initially as an eBook because the cost of hard copy and shipping these days discourages many potential readers whose international currency exchange is horrible. eBooks can retail for half the price of a hard copy but contain exactly the same information. I will probably produce a hard copy in early 2008 which will include verbatim copies of public domain sources important to the story. This hard copy will be for the serious researcher, but anyone simply interested in the story will benefit from the eBook, for the exact reason I gave in the beginning, - cost.
Jamie Clubb: Where do you see the Pen and Spindle blog going? It certainly seems to be gathering steam.
Heather Vallance: I would like to see it become a respected resource and a touchstone for people who are truly curious about the past.