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John Buchan's Richard Hannay

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Stranger than Fiction - the undercover spying mission of a British officer disguised as a Boer in German South-West Africa provided John Buchan with inspiration for his most famous character.

Memory Hold The Door, the autobiography of John Buchan, later the first Baron Tweedsmuir and Governor-General of Canada, tells how he came to write what he called his 'shockers' so as to raise much- needed cash. In the first of these profitable books, The Thirty-Nine Steps, published in 1914, he invented, as he put it, 'a young South African called Richard Hannay, who had traits copied from my friends, and I amused myself in considering what he would do in certain circumstances'. Amongst these friends was a young regular subaltern of the gunners, Edmund Ironside, whom Buchan had first met whilst working as a member of Lord Milner's famous 'kindergarten' of talent, engaged on reconstructing South Africa at the end of the Boer War. That a British officer could have accompanied a German military expedition in their South-West African colony – now Namibia – disguised as a Boer transport driver, and in this role deceive not only his German employers but his Boer companions as well, against whom he had been fighting the year before, seems incredible. But this the future field-marshal Ironside succeeding in doing.

German South-West Africa was a sparsely populated land of rock, stone and sand, a rugged plateau of grassland encircled by desert, the home of no more than a quarter of a million Africans, most of them cattle-raising herdsmen. Only in the north, along the Portuguese Angolan border, was there enough water for the Ovambo agriculturalists to scratch a living. In the centre of the country lived the Hereros, bitter enemies of the Ovambos, and in the south numerous small tribes of Hottentots, who had also, for most of the nineteenth century, waged intermittent war against the Hereros.


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