Churchill’s Escape from the Boers, 1899

Churchill’s Escape from the Boers, 1899

Escape from the Boers, 1899:

Please can you com­ment on, the “Dutch­man, Bur­gen­er by name,” men­tioned by Churchill in his account of his escape from the Boers in his auto­bi­og­ra­phy, My Ear­ly Life? Is he one and the same per­son as the Charles Burn­ham men­tioned by Sir Mar­tin Gilbert in Churchill: A Life? Per­haps the sur­name was changed to pro­tect Mr Burnham`s posi­tion in South Africa? Yet thoughthree decades had elapsed by the pub­li­ca­tion of My Ear­ly Life. It seems cer­tain that Churchill knew of Burn­ham and the role that he had played. The lat­ter had writ­ten to him in 1908 (Vol. 1 of the Offi­cial Biog­ra­phy, 502-04). He was one of those to whom WSC sent an inscribed gold watch in appre­ci­a­tion of their assis­tance. —W.A.

“Burgener” was Burnham

You are right. “Bur­gen­er” was in fact Charles Burn­ham. Whether Churchill  dis­guised his real name in My Ear­ly Life I am not sure. In that book, Churchill divulged the name of the mine man­ag­er, John Howard. Per­haps he had sim­ply mis­tak­en Burnham’s name.

At any rate, “Dutch­man Bur­gen­er” was the name WSC assigned to the man who helped Churchill stow away in a con­sign­ment of wool on a rail­way car bound for Lourenço Mar­ques, now Maputo, Mozam­bique. Fur­ther on, Churchill adds that “Bur­gen­er” met him in Delagoa Bay and led him to the British Con­sulate, which enabled his return to Dur­ban and the British lines.

Burnham Identified

Ran­dolph Churchill divulged Burnham’s iden­ti­ty in the offi­cial biog­ra­phy doc­u­ment vol­umes. Ran­dolph received a let­ter from John Howard’s son, which cor­rects Churchill’s own account. (Re Burn­ham, see the para­graph in bold face below).

Howard fils added that the Boers came to arrest Howard some time lat­er. Cap­tain Hal­dane (who lat­er also escaped) tipped them off about Howard’s role. But Howard enter­tained them with drinks. Then, with pis­tols in his pock­ets and stand­ing over rifles they’d stacked in a cor­ner, he con­vinced them to go away.

Churchill him­self did not let out Howard’s name until My Ear­ly Life. But one John Hulme pub­lished an account of the escape in The Tem­ple Mag­a­zine in 1901. He men­tioned Mr. Dews­nap of Old­ham (as did Churchill in his first polit­i­cal cam­paign, but Dews­nap was not harmed). Hulme also implied that the min­ers had killed a Boer who had learned they were hid­ing the fugitive.

From the Official Biography

The Churchill Doc­u­ments, vol. 3, Ear­ly Years in Pol­i­tics 1901-1907 (Hills­dale Col­lege Press, 2007), 1132-35:

L. C. B. Howard to RSC


31 May 1963 10 Coro­na­tion Build­ings, Ger­mis­ton, Transvaal

… First of all, on read­ing through your Father’s nar­ra­tive I see he does not men­tion the fact that while down the mine at the T. and D. B. Col­lieries, a few days after he was low­ered into the mine, he took ill and had to be brought to the sur­face again, where he was ensconced in a room in the mine office build­ing, which was used for stor­ing office equip­ment; of course big emp­ty pack­ing cas­es and bun­dles of grain bags etc, were intro­duced into the room to make his con­ceal­ment more secure, and so safe­guard his pres­ence there; how many times didn’t my old Dad relate these facts to me, and how he arranged spe­cial sig­nals for your Father, so that he would not be tak­en unawares should any unwant­ed per­son hap­pen to knock at the door….

Sec­ond­ly, your Father in his writ­ings, talks about the Trans­vaal Col­lieries, the cor­rect name of the mine is the Trans­vaal and Delagoa Bay Collieries.

Third­ly, he says, our house where he first met my Dad that mem­o­rable evening many years ago, was a dou­ble storey build­ing, it was only a sin­gle storey struc­ture; how­ev­er, no one could blame your Father for these mis­takes, under these very try­ing cir­cum­stances, and what is more it was very dark at the time.

“A fine type of man”

Fourth­ly, the name of the man whom my Dad had to intro­duce into his plans for your Father’s safe­ty, in help­ing him out of the coun­try, because of the wool which was urgent­ly required, was a Mr. Burn­ham and not Bur­gen­er as your Father has it. Burn­ham was also a fine type of man.

And last­ly, your Father men­tions the cor­ru­gat­ed iron fence at the Staats Mod­el School in Pre­to­ria, which he scaled in his escape from there as being about ten feet in height; it was only 6 ft and is there to this very day. I went and had anoth­er look at it, on the after­noon of our gath­er­ing of the 20th instant. The house which stood on the oth­er side of the fence, I see, has been demol­ished. Too bad; it should have been pre­served as well….

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