The South African
Military History Society

Die Suid-Afrikaanse Krygshistoriese Vereniging

Military History Journal - Vol 4 No 5

The Identity of Major A—

By R.R. Langham Carter

Thomas John Lucas of the Cape Mounted Riflemen was born in Devonshire in 1826. He was commissioned as an ensign in the C.M.R. on 6th October, 1848, and reported for duty at the regimental headquarters in Graharnstown in 1850, just in time for the eighth Frontier War which lasted from December, 1850, till October, 1852. This war, against Sandile of the Gaika tribe and other chiefs, was waged in the Keiskamma Bush and in the foothills of the Amatola Mountains.

Lucas was promoted lieutenant on 25th January, 1853, and when Sir George Russell Clerk was appointed Commissioner of the Orange River Sovereignty in April Lucas, who was a friend of a son of Sir George’s, was placed in command of the escort. He may have remained in Bloemfontein until the territory was ceded to the Boers on 23rd February 1854, after which Clerk returned to the Cape.

Lucas reached the rank of captain on 1st July, 1859. Probably by reason of his wartime experiences he now suffered severely from rheumatism and had to retire on half-pay on 1st March, 1862, finally selling his commission two years later. Near the end of his life he stayed in France (probably at a spa to take the mineral waters for his rheumatism) and died at St. Etienne in 1879.

Lucas was an excellent artist and twenty-one of his sketches are reproduced in his book Pen and Pencil Reminiscences of a Campaign in South Africa which was published in London in 1861. A sketch entitled “We’re all a nodding” shows a very weary patrol returning to camp from a reconnaissance. A mysterious white figure, clad in a civilian white suit, is depicted riding among the uniformed soldiers. He is smoking a cheroot and seems much less tired than his military companions. And a similar white figure appears in a sketch entitled “The patrol encamped”. I wondered who this strangely garbed personage could be and what on earth he was doing in the thick of the fighting.

Major A—

In another of his books, Camp Life and Sport in South Africa (1878), Lucas mentions very few people by name, all of them brother officers, and these only briefly. Yet he gives a great deal of space to another individual who was only a visitor to South Africa and whom he can have known for a comparatively short time.

“One of my pleasantest recollections of Cape Town is connected with a visit that I paid to my friend Major A-, whose acquaintance I had previously made on the frontier. He was an old and distinguished soldier in the Indian Horse Artillery, well known not only for his wit and bonhomie but as a highly educated scientific man, whose contributions to the military journals had got him a high reputation in India .... He was one of the three persons taken captive by the Chinese in their first war with England and was, with Captain and Mrs Douglas, his companions in captivity, carried up the country. They were cooped up in bamboo cages and, after a prolonged durance, were restored to liberty only at the conclusion of hostilities .... The major was an enormous man, a good six feet high and weighing some twenty stone, with a huge red beard, a deep rich voice and a sagacious massive face, brimming over with jollity. He had a habit when not otherwise employed of pacing restlessly backward and forward to the full extent of his long saloon which was connected by folding doors and having at either end a table with a bottle of sherry at one end and a bottle of port at the other .... Imagine this enormous man fortifying himself with a glass of sherry at number one table, varied by a glass of port at number two when he reached the other end, and rolling forth one continuous stream of anecdote, fun and wisdom. He had travelled some hundreds of miles up the frontier for the purpose of making himself acquainted with the ins and outs of Kaffir warfare. Nothing could be imagined more incongruous than the presence of this stout warrior, habited in his free and easy civilian clothes, totally unarmed, puffing away at the invariable cheroot, with a binocular slung over his ample shoulders, while we were skirmishing in the bush. After his return from the campaign he had taken a pretty cottage ornée at the charming village of Wynberg. Here he was waited upon by his Indian servant Nyder who was a superb cook. His master was always calling out for brandy-pawnee* to which he applied himself as a sort of interlude between the pauses at number one and number two tables. In the courtyard of a temple (in China) he turned his artistical talent (for he was a most accomplished artist) to account by painting portraits of the Mandarins.”

(*Brandy and water in the Urdu language of India.)

The white clad figure, then, was Major A—. He was evidently a remarkable person. No doubt the author’s reason for anonymity in this single instance was his reference to the major’s fondness for liquor. But the disguise can soon be penetrated. For a perusal of an account of the first Opium War reveals that he was in fact a Major Anstruther. And after that it was not difficult to trace his whole career. For, whatever his drinking habits, Anstruther rose high in the Army, received obituaries in the Times and the Annual Register and became the subject of articles in the Dictionary of National Biography and Boase’s Modern English Biography

Anstruther’s services in India and China

Philip Anstruther was a Scotsman. He was born on 12th September, 1807, and was the second son of Sir Alexander Anstruther (1769-1819) of Thirdpart House in Fifeshire and Sarah, daughter of Thomas Prendergast of Cloane and widow of Captain W. Selby of the East India Company. He was educated at Westminster School. His father had been Recorder of Bombay and an earlier relative had been Chief Justice of Bengal. So it was natural that he too served in India. He was commissioned lieutenant in the Madras Horse Artillery on 19th June, 1824, and reached Cape Town in the Sophia en route to his first posting on 17th December in that year.

As Lucas has told us, Anstruther was a prolific writer and his first recorded book, A Proposal to increase the Strength of the Indian Army was published in 1839. He was promoted captain on 10th November, 1839, and his Memoir recommending a light eighteen-pounder gun was published in the year following. The first Opium War broke out in July, 1840. Anstruther sailed to China in command of the detachment of Madras Artillery but was taken prisoner on 16th September. H.M.S. Kate had stranded on a sandbank on the previous day and Lieutenant Douglas R.N. and his pregnant wife and some of the crew had been captured. They and Anstruther were put in bamboo cages and moved to Ningpo where they were later transferred to cells in the local prison. When British forces advanced on Ningpo in October 1841 the Chinese released their prisoners and abandoned the town. Anstruther was fit enough to be able to go out to meet the troops and to guide them into the city. Lucas was wrong in writing that he was freed only at the end of the war for in fact he remained in command of his detachment until hostilities came to an end in the following year. Anstruther had become so attached to his cage that he took it back with him to Madras where it was displayed in a museum for many years. He wrote an account of the war in a journal which I have been unable to trace and on 24th December, 1842, he was made a commander of the Order of the Bath for his China services.

Anstruther’s visit to South Africa

He was granted overseas leave in 1851. He may have known the Cape well already. Sir Robert, the Chief Justice, had spent several weeks in Cape Town in 1798 (and had been entertained there by an old Scottish friend, Lady Anne Barnard). Philip’s brother was also serving in India and they and their parents had all probably had periods in Cape Town on their voyages while ships were repaired and stores embarked. And many of his brother officers had spent leaves at the Cape. And he may have obtained his leave specifically to study the Frontier War which had begun in December 1850. At any rate he chose the Cape for his furlough. He sailed from Madras in the Duke of Bedford East Indiaman (720 tons. Captain R. Thornhill) on 15th March and arrived in Simon’s Bay on 30th May and soon made his way to the theatre of war.

He served as a volunteer with the Cape Mounted Riflemen for about a year and received the thanks of the Commander-in-Chief, Sir Harry Smith.

After his stay in Wynberg he returned to India during 1852. The second Anglo-Burmese War had started in October, 1851. This lasted until June, 1853, and he took part in its latter stages and remained in the garrison there until 1854.

Latter Years

Anstruther was promoted major-general on 4th November, 1858. He published his last book, The Theory of Gunnery, in 1871 and died at Pitcorthie in his native country of Fife on 18th February, 1884. Lucas wrote that he was an accomplished artist and could have known this only from seeing some of Anstruther’s Frontier War sketches. It is greatly to be hoped that his sketches and his account of the war can be traced. The author of the book on the Opium War confirms that Anstruther was a man of fine physique and had a red beard, and adds that he was reputed to be the ugliest man in the whole Army. All things considered, it is not surprising that he never married.

His nephew Philip Robert Anstruther saw a lot of action in a short time in South Africa. A major in the 94th Regiment of Foot, he fought at Ulundi in the Zulu War in 1879 and, later in the year against, Chief Sekhukhune in the Transvaal. When war with the Transvaal Republicans broke out in 1880 he was severely wounded in a skirmish near Bronkhorstspruit and died of his wounds on 26th December.

Return to Journal Index OR Society's Home page

South African Military History Society /