In the popular imagination, the archetypal British imperialist is the kind of daring young adventurer portrayed in the stories of Rider Haggard and Rudyard Kipling. But, reveals Will Jackson, those who settled the Empire were far more diverse than stereotypes allow.
‘On 11 August 1923 I started walking.’ So began a letter sent by a Mrs Winifred Caldwell to the Earl of Athlone, Governor General of South Africa, in July 1925. We do not know where Caldwell was born or when she migrated to South Africa, only that she was British. With her husband struggling to find work, 10 children to support and no means of making a living, Caldwell decided to leave her home in the village of MacLear, on the banks of the River Mooi in South Africa’s Eastern Cape, and walk.
For two years Caldwell and her children walked across South Africa, giving ‘an entertainment’ to the locals at every town they reached in order to earn food and shelter. ‘We walked’, wrote Caldwell, ‘for 3,014 miles. We suffered hunger and misery. My feet were often soaked in blood.’ It was heartbreaking, she said, to see her little children living such a bitter life. Caldwell begged the government not to take her children from her. Instead she asked for land. If she only had a small plot, a cottage and perhaps some poultry with which to make a start, she was sure she could make good. ‘My husband is a sober, honest and hardworking man’, she wrote. ‘I too am willing to work hard.’