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General/Sir William Frances Butler

William Francis Butler (1838 - 1910) was a British army officer and author. Of Irish birth he joined the British army in 1858 and went on to serve in Burma, Madras, Canada and in 1873, in Asante, West Africa. By 1874 he had been promoted to major. He subsequently spent two brief periods in South Africa; in 1875 as British protector of Indian immigrants to Natal and member of the legislative council, and then again in 1879 as assistant adjutant-general on lines of communication at Durban during the Anglo-Zulu War. In 1877 Butler married Elizabeth Southerden Thompson, who as Lady Butler became a well-known military painter. He held the position of assistant adjutant-general in the western district at Devonport (south west England) from 1880 until 1884.

Butler was part of the British force that famously relieved General Gordon at Khartoum in 1884 and by mid-1885 he had risen to the rank of brigadier-general. As an Irish Catholic his rise to prominence in the British Army was unusual. In October 1898 Butler was offered command of the British troops in South Africa, a post that immediately saw tensions develop between him and Alfred Milner. Butler disapproved of Milner’s aggressively expansionist attitude towards the Transvaal, and when Milner took a short leave of absence and Butler was temporarily acting High Commissioner, he failed to send on to the British government an ultimatum he received from the Uitlanders (foreigners living and working in the Transvaal) demanding intervention in the shooting of an Uitlander, Tom Edgar, by a Boer policeman. Butler felt, correctly, that the ultimatum was merely a ploy to manufacture British intervention in the Transvaal, and ultimately to provoke a war. After Milner’s return in February 1899, he felt Butler had acted irresponsibly and Butler was suspected of sympathizing with the Boers and of being too peace-loving. Under pressure from Milner, Butler resigned in July 1899 and left South Africa.

Before leaving, Butler wrote to Will Schreiner, at that time Prime Minister of the Cape, to strongly support Will’s political tactics of peace-making. This was a private letter between two senior military/political figures operating under British rule, while Olive Schreiner was an outspoken public supporter of the Transvaal. Will, however, sent Butler’s letter to his sister, writing on its back his hope the Transvaal could avoid being provoked into declaring war, something probably seen as treasonous were it known about. What followed these events was a major increase of political tension and then war, largely because of Milner’s determined intransigence.

In spite of these controversial events in South Africa, after the war Butler received a knighthood in 1906, and was called to the Irish Privy Council in 1909. It is clear from her letters that Schreiner corresponded with Butler from time to time - she certainly refers to receiving letters from him - and that she held him in high regard. In a 1912 letter to Merriman, for example, Schreiner mentions that Butler, her “dear old friend”, wrote to her just three weeks before his death, although she did not manage to reply before he died. In 1908 she commented to Edward Carpenter, on the occasion of Butler’s visit to South Africa that year, that he is the “one Englishman we South Africans really love”, and in a later letter to Caroline Murray she remarked that his 1911 autobiography was “an ideal autobiography to me; so artistic & impersonal, & yet one comes so close to his dear broad personality”.

For further information see:
Ian F. W. Beckett (2004) ‘Butler, Sir William Francis (1838-1910)’ Oxford Dictionary of National Biography Oxford University Press http://www.oxforddnb.com/view/article/32219
William Francis Butler (1911) Sir William Butler: An Autobiography London: Constable & Co.
Edward McCourt (1967) Remember Butler: The Story of Sir William Butler London: Routledge & Keegan Paul
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collection icon Greene Family: A sub-set of Schreiner’s letters to Alice Greene is held in the private collection of the Greene family heirs, (while o... Show/Hide Collection Letters
collection icon National English Literary Museum, Grahamstown: The National English Literary Museum is the leading location for collections pertaining to the imaginative and creative writi... Show/Hide Collection Letters
collection icon National Library of South Africa, Cape Town: Special Collections at the NLSA provide one of the leading locations for archival papers across many periods, organisations a... Show/Hide Collection Letters
collection icon University of Cape Town, Historical Manuscripts: Manuscripts & Archives at the University of Cape Town is a leading location for accessing archival papers across many per... Show/Hide Collection Letters
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