JT Bain – 9 February 2023


Reading “The Notorious Syndicalist” by Jonathan Hyslop I was minded of Professor Tom Devine’s recent comments about the danger of judging our ancestors by current standards, referring to Burns and slavery.

But what of James Thompson Bain, born in Dundee in 1860. As with many joining the army as an escape from poverty, lying about his age and enlisting when 16. Serving in Africa he fought in the Zulu wars before returning to Scotland and becoming a skilled engineer. In that new role he became an activist both in the Engineering Union and the fledgling socialist movement.

When unemployment rose, he emigrated firstly to South America and then South Africa that he knew. The Transvaal became his adopted land and when war with the British Empire broke out, fighting with the Boers against his former comrades. Captured at one stage he faced being charged with treason and execution, but his Transvaal citizenship was accepted and he was imprisoned instead in Ceylon.

Released when the conflict ended and returning to his adopted land, he became a trade union leader and one of the founders of the first socialist party in Southern Africa. When major strikes occurred in 1914, he was deported to Britain where he was feted by British Labour leaders. Returning to his new land once again, he died there in 1919.

But what are we to make of him. Sympathy for the Boers was shared by Keir Hardie and the broader Labour Movement. More complex is that he represented “white labourism”. His and his colleagues were long before apartheid institutionalised racism, but this wasn’t the brotherhood of man. The union and party were for whites only. But it wasn’t just a South African policy but applied across the British Empire, and indeed elsewhere whether in the USA or France. Much came in from Australia and it was views more often shared in Britain.

Segregation and racism are to be condemned. He certainly isn’t to be equated with John Vorster or his ilk. Was he any different from revered Labour leaders in Britain or his fellow Scot Andrew Fisher the Australian PM at the time? Is he a hero or a villain depends I suppose if he’s to be judged by contemporary standards or those of his time?