BY MICHAEL HUDSON
In early September 1899, 111 years before South Africa’s World Cup and with the Boers and Britain manoeuvring back towards war, 16 black footballers – captained by a grocer and accompanied by four officials from the whites-only Orange Free State FA – arrived by steamship at Southampton for the start of a 49-game continental tour. Just two years after the Corinthians had won 21 and drawn two of 23 fixtures against the likes of Cape Town Civilians, Military and the Orange Free State, the inaugural South African squad to play in Europe were greeted with open ridicule, prejudice and unabashed racial stereotyping. “What sort of football will these dark beauties play?” pondered the Football Echo; the Athletic News carried a caricature of a player wearing a single boot and brandishing a spear, while the Evening News fatuously hoped the visitors would “dress in proper football costume, and not be allowed to carry assegais while charging.”
The players had travelled under the name of the Orange Free State Bantu Football Club, though the Southampton Football Echo and Sports Gazette heralded the arrival of “eleven little n*gger boys from Savage South Africa” and the squad was commonly promoted elsewhere as the Kaffir Touring XI. A delay in reaching Britain had already caused the postponement of a match at Aston Villa, which meant the Bantu Club’s opening tour game was against Newcastle United, just three days after they’d disembarked at the other end of the country. The Magpies were beginning only their second season in the first division and had never previously come up against foreign opposition, the novelty drawing a crowd of 6,000, including what the Newcastle Evening Chronicle – who had earlier suggestively touted the visitors as “a fine lot of men…reputed to possess remarkable staying powers” – described as “a sprinkling of the fair sex”. Unused to playing on grass pitches, the South Africans wore studless boots throughout the game. “(It) was something of a farce with a vast difference in ability between the two sides,” sniffed one contemporary scribe. “Newcastle gave the opposition two goals in a 6-3 walkover.” The Football News called the tourists “alleged footballers” while “the spectators in fact laughed more than they would do at the most successful comic opera”.
The Bantu players continued to attract curiosity and condescension, a report on their 7-3 loss at Middlesbrough describing how “from a corner just on the interval, the Kaffirs amidst loud laughter were permitted to score”. Beaten heavily by three-time Football League champions Sunderland and Scarborough, who were then a mid-table amateur side in the Northern League Division Two, the South Africans were more narrowly defeated 3-2 by Hibernian in front of 3,000 spectators at Easter Road, though the Scottish Sport’s correspondent thought the score line belied the gulf in ability between the two sides. “To treat the game…seriously would be one door off sacrilege,” he railed in print, suggesting “that the Kaffirs and the ‘lady footballers’ should combine their forces – and stump some less civilised part of the world than Great Britain – France for instance”. Five further matches in Scotland included a 2-0 loss at Celtic – the only fixture in which the tourists failed to score – before games in Belfast and Liverpool, where the team of masons, tailors, carpenters and clerks went down 9-3 to First Division runners-up Everton in what was already their 12th outing in 22 days.
While white-only clubs had existed in the Orange Free State since the mid-1870s, the squad selected for the tour had little prior experience of playing together. “Any junior team in the country would beat them,” the Football Evening News thought. “The professional teams which they have met have invariably played exhibition games, simply getting a lead of two or three goals and then playing about to amuse the crowd and not give the strangers too severe a drubbing,” mused the Sporting Life. The press was no better in their own country. “The whole affair is as farcical as it is unsportsmanlike,” the Cape Argus had fumed when the trip was first announced. “Probably the enterprising financiers will rake in the shekels, but every white man south of the Zambesi not directly interested in the venture will regret the whole proceedings”. For their part, the organisers insisted that the matches – funded by the promise of a half share of gate receipts – had been arranged “to do an immense amount of good.,,and help spread the game.” “It is not a speculative game at all,” an unnamed official told the Scottish Sport. “In fact, we expect to be out of pocket, but the exhibitions will bear fruit…surely Scotsmen and Englishmen will not begrudge to sow a few seeds of the game”. In the wake of the Everton game, the latter was a theme picked up by the Liverpool Daily Post in a piece which also reflected the more ominous political situation: “They want to discover the art of British athleticism, as probably others on the continent will soon solve the secret of another kind of British proficiency”.
On October 11th 1899, the Bantu side were on a rest day between games at Northampton Town and Nottingham Forest and the second Boer War began with the British refusal to withdraw their troops from the borders of the South African Republic. With the Orange Free State now fighting against Britain, the remainder of the tour was thrown into doubt. “It will be rather a joke if we keep on playing against the enemy,” the Football Echo and Sports Gazette remarked. Nonetheless, five weeks and 13 fixtures later the Orange Free State XI played their delayed game at Aston Villa, having publicly donated the £61 gate receipts to a Boer War fund and added red, white and blue ribbons to their usual orange shirts. “If Queen Victoria fights we fight for her,” Twayi promised. “I like England very much for its freedom. The people are so good to us, and they treat us splendidly”.
Unsurprisingly, the reporting of the team’s matches had by now acquired an explicitly political tone, with newspapers increasingly less scornful of the tourists’ play and their goalkeeper (identified only as Adolph) in particular singled out for praise. “Several of the men showed excellent staying power and speed,” wrote the Tottenham and Stamford Hill Times after the 6-4 loss at Tottenham Hotspur at the end of November. The report of the 8-4 defeat to Richmond Association two days later mentioned “the goalkeeper who saved brilliantly at times and who, we understand, has been approached with a view of enlistment with one of the First League teams”.
By mid-December the Boers were inflicting successive defeats on the British at Sormberg, Magersfontein and Colenso, while the Bantu squad were preparing for the only victory of the entire tour. Following single-goal losses to Gravesend and Sheppey United – the opposition “was certainly superior to the German team that visited Sheerness three years ago,” one local paper thought – the tourists crossed the English Channel to play Sporting Club Tourcoing at Roubaix. In front of a crowd swelled by amateur footballers from Belgium and France, the South Africans triumphed 3-1. The game was described as “excellent and sensational” in one report, with Adolph identified as the best goalkeeper many of the spectators had ever seen.
After Tourcoing there would be eight games and eight defeats, the tour closing with losses to Bristol City and Aberdare in the first two days of 1900. The South Africans had played 49 games in five countries in just four months, but finances and visa requirements led to the cancellation of fixtures against Coventry City, Walsall and Ilkeston Town as they prepared to travel home. “Considerable disappointment has been caused to Coventry officials,” wrote the Midland Daily Telegraph, “the tourists explained that ticket restrictions meant they were only permitted to be out of the country for a six month period”. On January 6th 1900, the squad sailed back for Cape Town. Not all of them were lost to history: fifteen years later, Joseph Twayi, captain and grocer, was made treasurer of the newly-founded South African National Congress, better known today as the ANC.
United: The First 100 Years by Paul Joannou, Polar Print Group 1995
The Victorian Football Miscellany by Paul Brown, Superelastic 2013
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The Founders: The Origins of the ANC and the Struggle for Democracy in South Africa (Andre Odendaal), Jacana Media 2012
The 1899 Orange Free State football team tour of Europe: ‘Race’, imperial royalty and sporting contest (Chris Bolsmann) International Journal of the History of Sport 2011 http://eprints.aston.ac.uk/16771/1/The_1899_Orange_Free_State_Football_Team_Tour.pdf