It’s often difficult to pinpoint seminal moments in sport. This is especially the case in football. Ask people when the first football match was played and the answers will range from the fifteenth-century to the recent 1800s. History teaches us to be weary of ‘first ever’ occasions in a sport with such a long past.
Luckily the birth of Black football in South Africa is a much less fraught affair. Brought to Southern Africa in the mid nineteenth-century, the beautiful game quickly spread across the country among settlers and natives alike. By the 1890s, African football boasted a host of tournaments and had begun to attract the attention of British teams. In 1897, the revered English amateur gentlemen side Corinthians toured South Africa for a 23-match tour. The purpose of Corinthian’s tour had been to test the mettle of the South African sides and raise the sport’s popularity even further. Little did the English side know that two years later a representative African side would travel to England to return the favour. Remarkably this team was made of native African players, as opposed the whites only teams Corinthians faced two years prior.
Their name was Orange Free State Bantu F.C and they were the first black South African football team to tour the world. Their story is one of politics, race and of course, the beautiful game.
A Novel Idea
OFS Bantu’s trip to England was unique in more ways than one. Although foreign sports teams had travelled to Great Britain for sporting contests as early as 1860s, football tours were a relatively new phenomenon in a sport still in its infancy. This perhaps explains the great interest shown by English football fans in Bantu’s arrival. The other defining element of the tour, as perhaps can be guessed, was that the Bantu side were composed of entirely black footballers. Amongst the 20-man squad, each was a native of South Africa. The only white settlers attached to the tour were M. D. ‘Toffy’ Roberts, Lionel Nathan, Percy Day and Arthur Moss, all of whom were active members in of the footballing community in the Orange Free State. In the build up to the tour, it was players’ skin tone, as opposed their ability which unfortunately seemed to garner the most attention.
One journalist pondered “what sort of football will these dark beauties play?”, while many others littered their pre-tour musings with terms offensive to the modern ear. Nevertheless, despite such writings, British newspapers appeared to be respectful of their visitors. At least initially. In June 1899, the Manchester Times reported on Bantu’s physical prowess in the most glowing terms; “the team is said to be strong, the players being of splendid physique”. Similarly, The Scottish Sport noted that the team possessed “big, powerful men, with a rare turn of speed” and “considerable individual skill.”
The reaction in South Africa proved considerably more divisive. While the press in the Orange Free State was generally supportive in the endeavor, at least in the meager column inches devoted to the tour, the reaction of the Cape press was less so. This, as historian Chris Bolsmann argued, was perhaps to be expected. In 1894 the Cape Argus newspaper argued that “the races are best socially apart, each good in their own way, but a terribly bad mixture”, following the inclusion of black cricketer ‘Krom’ Hendricks in a touring South African team. Five years after Krom’s controversial inclusion, it was clear that little has changed when the Cape Argus argued “The whole affair (the Bantu tour) is farcical as it is unsportsmanlike, and smacks very much of hippodrome.” Such divisions were made clear to English fans as G.A. Parker, manager of the 1897 touring Corinthian side, told The Football Evening News prior to the arrival of OFS Bantu that there was a “strong line of distinction between the white and black population in South Africa and consequently the membership of athletic clubs is strictly confined to whites.”
When OFS landed in England, interest in the side, both at home and in South Africa was high.
The Tour Itself
Bantu’s first match of their 49 game tour was scheduled for early September 1899 against Aston Villa, the reigning English Football League Champions. Displaying the game’s importance, Joseph Chamberlain, British Secretary of State for the Colonies, would ‘kick off’ the game. Even at this early stage, it became clear that the tour would not be an apolitical affair. Tensions between England, the Orange Free State and the neighbouring South African territory of the Transvaal were increasing during this period. October 1899 would see the outbreak of the South African war between England and these territories, a conflict which would greatly influence Bantu’s football tour. Returning to the tour’s planned game against Aston Villa illustrates this nicely. Commenting on Chamberlain’s planned appearance at the match, The Scottish Sport humorously quipped that Chamberlain would probably prefer “to kick Kruger”, the leader of the rebellious South African forces, than the ball at the Villa-Bantu game.
Fate intervened and Bantu were delayed, causing the first game of the tour to be played against Newcastle United instead. Dressed in orange shirts and black shorts, Bantu’s enthusiasm and athleticism was sadly failed by their ability. Within minutes it was clear that Newcastle were the better side. The Magpies comfortably ran out the game 6-2 winners and in the game’s aftermath, newspapers couldn’t help but comment on Bantu’s ‘very peculiar’ style of play. The Richmond and Twickenham Times later revealed the ‘peculiar’ nature of Bantu’s style,
Whatever the cause, it appeared almost impossible for them to kick a ball properly, even under the easiest of conditions. And then when a man was going to kick, his fellow-blacks usually rushed jabbering at him and spoiled the effort. And how they appeared to enjoy stealing the ball from one another … For instance, they were not afraid of using their heads, but usually did so to the advantage of their opponents…
To be fair to Bantu, they were a hastily prepared amateur side sent to play some of the strongest teams in football. Many of whom had been playing the game for decades. It was less a case of David and Goliath and more a case of lambs to the slaughter. Despite the cards being stacked against them, Bantu performed admirably, scoring in all but one of the games played on the tour, even finding the net four times on one occasion. If their English competitors treated the games more as practice than anything else, the South Africans did not. Furthermore, the South Africans displayed an intense loyalty to their host nation, then at war with the Orange Free State.
Sport and the South African War
The outbreak of the South African, or ‘Boer War’, in 1899 had the potential to derail Bantu’s image in England. The relationship between sport and politics is a highly delicate affair and complex affair. Indeed one only need remember the reaction to Ossie Ardiles in England on the outbreak of the Falkland’s War to see that footballers are often targeted during and after times of political unrest. Returning to OFS Bantu, prior to the War’s outbreak, The Football Echo and Sports Gazette argued that “it will be rather a joke if we keep on playing against the enemy.” Bantu soon made clear however that they were not the enemy. If anything they were allies to the British cause.
In one interview, Bantu captain Joseph Twayi claimed to like
England very much for its freedom. The people are so good to us, and they treat us splendidly. Their kindness makes me rejoice, for we have no freedom allowed by the Boers … If the British fight we fight for them, for we would like our revenge…
This was not an isolated occurrence as Twayi later told reporters that ‘if Queen Victoria fights we fight for her.” Similarly in a post-match dinner against Hamilton, Twayi told the hosts “that although their skin was black, they were all loyal subjects of Her Majesty the Queen.” Further solidifying their British loyalties, Bantu’s rescheduled match against Aston Villa saw Bantu donate the gate receipts, £61 in total, to the Birmingham Daily Mail Reservists’ Fund in support of the British war effort. Coupled with this, the South Africans wore red, white and blue ribbons on their orange shirts during the game “as a manifestation of their loyalty to the Queen.”
In addition to being the first Black South African football team to play abroad, OFS Bantu were also perhaps the first football team to use the beautiful game to oppose the apartheid regime existing in South Africa. While such opposition was kicked into overdrive in the 1960s, Bantu were forerunners in this regard.
An Unmitigated Failure or Underappreciated Success?
On their return to South Africa, OFS Bantu stopped in Northern France for one last game against Sporting Club Tourcoing in Roubaix. Spurred on by a large crowd, the South Africans displayed remarkable cohesion and purpose as they relentlessly attacked the Tourcoing goal. When ninety minutes was up, the scoreline read OFS Bantu 3 – Sporting Club Tourcoing 1. It was the first and only victory Bantu experienced on their 49 game tour and coming in the tour’s final match, was long overdo. For many contemporaries in South Africa, the tour had been a failure as Bantu failed to defeat a single English team. Coupled with this the tour had made a loss and led by Twayi, Bantu had supported England in the Boer War. By any metric, sporting, financial or political, Bantu’s tour had damaged South African football. This at least was the reaction from the South African papers to the returning side.
Looking back on OFS Bantu’s tour in 2016 provides a different picture. Plucked from an amateur set-up, OFS Bantu were sent to the home of football to compete against the best that the game had to offer. They, like many other foreign teams, proved no match for the English at that time. Given that England’s international team only experienced its first defeat outside of Britain in 1929, there is little shame in Bantu’s results. Bantu were placed several leagues ahead of their ability yet never complained. They relished the chance to rub shoulders with the English players and it is telling that no matter how poorly they viewed Bantu’s abilities, English newspapers almost always commented on their unfailing effort. Similarly Bantu’s tour was a benchmark for teams seeking to use football to battle social injustices. Twayi regularly reminded English audiences of the social inequalities rampant in South Africa. Part of his love for England was the freedom afford to him and his teammates across the British Isles. A freedom he hoped to secure in his own land. On the pitch OFS Bantu’s tour may not have been successful yet away from the field of play, Bantu’s tour gave hope to their countrymen that black men could be viewed as equals in the arena, and in the streets. Although this freedom did not come right away, Bantu’s tour was one step on that journey.
The quotations and photographs taken for this post come from Chris Bolsmann’s 2011 Article from The International Journal of the History of Sport. See Chris Bolsmann (2011): The 1899 Orange Free State football team tour of Europe: ‘Race’, imperial loyalty and sporting contest, The International Journal of the History of Sport, 28:1, 81-97.