A colonial legacy: An officer and an icon

The image of a guardsman enjoying a brew has endured for 121 years - but 'Fighting Mac' has been forgotten. Cahal Milmo reclaims the hero who rejected a Victoria Cross, saved an army from massacre and was then driven to suicide by accusations of homosexuality
Click to follow
The Independent Online

When the inventors of Camp Coffee needed an image to market their new product 121 years ago, it seemed little could do the job better than a doughty Scottish warrior sitting down for a brew in a far-flung corner of empire.

To ensure Victorian consumers got the message that they were drinking the same treacly caffeine concentrate designed to fortify soldiers subduing the colonies, the kilted Gordon Highlander was shown being brought his drink by a Sikh manservant.

Over the past century, the relationship between the turbaned domestic and his moustachioed master - armed with a white porcelain cup and saucer - has slowly changed to reflect attitudes towards the colonial era.

By the 1980s, the Indian servant had lost his tray and now, to spluttering from traditionalists about the perceived scourge of political correctness, he has finally achieved parity.

The Oxfordshire-based makers of Camp Chicory and Coffee Essence have unveiled a new label for their traditional beverage showing the Sikh soldier sitting beside his former boss - and with a cup and saucer of his own.

But, while much has been written about the changing appearance of one Britain's most enduring brands, there has been an uncomfortable silence about the British officer whose coffee break was immortalised on the bottle. The image, from 1885, of a Highland guardsman sitting outside his canvas tent far from home was based on perhaps the foremost military hero of his day - Major General Sir Hector Macdonald, scourge of Afghans, Boers and the Dervishes of Sudan.

He was the low-born soldier who turned down a Victoria Cross in favour of a commission, telling his superiors he would earn his medal later. He single-handedly saved the imperial Egyptian army from massacre.

Such was his prowess, that German propagandists of the First World War tried to convince British soldiers that he staged his death at the turn of the 20th century in order to change sides and fight for the Kaiser.

That few have now heard of the man who became known to millions as "Fighting Mac" is proof of a comprehensive fall from grace which ended in him taking his own life after a whispering campaign inspired, according to supporters, by the jealousy and prejudice of the empire builders he came to epitomise. Macdonald, the son of a crofter, shot himself in the head in his bedroom in the Hotel Regina in Paris on 25 March 1903, minutes after reading a front-page story in the New York Herald suggesting he faced a "grave charge".

The accusation was one of homosexuality, an offence considered so serious under Victorian military law that those "convicted" were shot. In keeping with the mores of his era, Macdonald decided even the allegation was a death sentence.

Aleister Crowley, the Victorian occultist, who met Macdonald the day before he took his life, wrote: "He was a great, simple, lion-hearted man with the spirit of a child; with all his experience in the army, he still took the word honour seriously and the open scandal of the accusation had struck down his standard."

But, behind the events in the Parisian hotel room, where Macdonald was staying while making his way back to face a court martial in Ceylon, lay a complex tale of unsubstantiated rumour and opportunism by the enemies of the Camp Coffee hero.

What is left of Macdonald's military record (most of the papers were lost or destroyed after his suicide) suggests he had been dogged by claims of gay affairs. These included a relationship with a Boer prisoner of war and another while stationed in Belgium.

When he was sent back to London from Ceylon in February 1903, a message to the commander-in-chief of the Army, Lord Roberts, whom Macdonald had saved some 20 years earlier in Afghanistan, referred to a "habitual crime of misbehaviour with several schoolboys" in a railway carriage.

None of the claims appears to have been substantiated with evidence. Indeed, it is possible that the generals may have been acting on (or the inspiration of) nothing more substantial than newspaper gossip columns.

A letter, printed in The Times of Ceylon shortly after Macdonald arrived to become modern-day Sri Lanka's military commander in 1902, said: "You know, we heard a whispered rumour that he does not like ladies, and possibly may have been pleasantly surprised to find he had dropped on a spicy little isle where ladies are few and far between."

Modern biographers of the general have suggested his real "crime" was to be a successful officer from a modest background in an army dominated by aristocrats born to their rank and disdainful of subordinates.

Macdonald was born in 1853 in Dingwall, some 12 miles from Inverness, to a crofter and a dressmaker. He was an apprentice draper when he persuaded a recruiting sergeant from the Gordon Highlanders to accept him for training at the age of 17.

Well-loved and respected by his subordinates, it is suggested that the jealousy of his superiors boiled over in Ceylon in 1902 when he yelled at the Governor, Sir West Ridgeway, to get off his training ground during manoeuvres.

It was Ridgeway's reports back to London which resulted in the decision that he should face a court martial. Others suggested that Lord Kitchener, leader of the British Army Sudan, ordered a whispering campaign against the general after he was humiliated by Macdonald's brilliant rearguard action in the Battle of Omdurman in 1898.

But such was the Fighting Mac's status back home in Britain that news of the circumstances of his death brought an immediate backlash from a doubting civilian population.

The establishment was forced to offer the family of the dead general a full state funeral when his previously unknown wife, Edinburgh-born Christina Duncan, arrived in Paris with their young son to collect her husband's body.

A private commission, supposedly secretly financed by a Scottish-born American philanthropist, stated: "The inhuman and cruel suggestions of crime were prompted through vulgar feelings of spite and jealousy in his rising to such a high rank of distinction in the British Army."

In a letter to Macdonald's father, the novelist Marie Corelli wrote: "We judge your noble relative to have been the victim of infamous slander, started through contemptible jealousy and envy that attends brilliant success with high position."

The debate over what motivated Macdonald to reach for his pistol in his Paris hotel room has continued to rage. A firm of solicitors caused excitement two years ago when it revealed it held previously unseen documents, rumoured to include a suicide note, provided by a Scottish doctor who had spent years researching Macdonald's death. Eventually, the solicitors refused to disclose the documents, but insisted they cast no new light on his demise.

That a professional soldier who spent most of his 33 years in the Army in the outer reaches of the empire was held in such esteem by some of his compatriots was proof at least of a popular reputation built on stories of his talents as a military tactician and bravery as a commander. While serving in Afghanistan in 1879 as a regimental sergeant, he distinguished himself in battle to the extent that he was given the choice of a Victoria Cross, the ultimate military accolade, or a rare commission as an officer. He is reputed to have accepted the commission with the words: "I shall win the medal later."

After fighting with such ferocity in the Boer War that an opposing general gave him back his sword when he was taken prisoner, Macdonald was credited with saving Lord Kitchener's imperial army at Omdurman - the Dervish stronghold across the Nile from where General Gordon of Khartoum was killed.

At the head of his highly trained brigade of Sudanese troops, Macdonald repelled a counter-offensive by 20,000 Dervishes with the loss of only 48 men and 382 wounded. A young Winston Churchill, reporting on the battle, wrote how, at one point in the battle, Macdonald called his officers around him and rebuked them for "having wheeled into line in anticipation of his order and requested them to drill more steadily".

Through what supporters of Macdonald said were gritted teeth, Kitchener said of the battle: "Macdonald had handled his troops with masterly skill and had snatched victory from the jaws of peril."

It was with this reputation in mind that Robert Paterson & Sons, a Glasgow food company which had perfected a coffee-based drink for use by soldiers on campaign in India, chose the image of Major General Macdonald for its new beverage - reputedly named after the owner's first son, Campbell. The company maintained its link with Macdonald by contributing £50 to the construction of a memorial to the general in Dingwall.

Even after death, the besmirched general continued to have a hold on the popular imagination. Rumours swirled around that, tired of his treatment by the Army, Macdonald staged his suicide to assume the identity of a German cousin, August von Mackensen, who was of a similar age and reported as being "gravely ill" at the time of the suicide attempt.

Von Mackensen, who rose to the rank of field marshal in the Prussian army, miraculously recovered and suddenly discovered military skills he had not previously possessed. German propagandists wasted little time in perpetuating the idea of a betrayal by Macdonald in leaflets dropped behind British lines during the First World War.

McCormick Foods, which now owns the Camp Coffee brand and still manufactures it in Paisley, insisted yesterday that the decision to redesign its label was not a response to criticism from campaigners that it perpetuated racial stereotypes. A spokeswoman said: "All these evolutions have been purely driven by marketing considerations in order to make the logo and label designs more modern and attractive."

The irony remains that it was the white man and tool of imperialism in the picture, rather than his Sikh subaltern, who suffered most from the prejudice of his race. Aware perhaps of his fate after death, Macdonald once said: "Let people be honest, and while I live they shall never have a speck to put on life, morally or otherwise."