Remembering the gay soldier on Camp Coffee
Tuesday 24th February 2015
PETER FROST discovers the story of a Scottish general persecuted and driven to suicide for the ‘crime’ of being gay
OK, I CONFESS. This is a story I’ve always wanted to tell but never really had good reason.
Now in LGBT History Month — and with so much attention being focused on Alan Turing and the thousands of other gay men who despite serving their country were driven to disgrace and, all too often, suicide by homophobia — I feel I need to introduce you to Major-General Sir Hector MacDonald (pictured).
Although you may never have heard of MacDonald you may once have had a portrait of him in your home. You may still have one. If you have ever had a bottle of Camp Coffee in your kitchen, he is the kilted soldier with the handsome moustache on the label.
In his time MacDonald was not just a culinary icon but also one of the greatest heroes of the British empire. Scottish regiments did a lot of the dirty work building that empire.
He was born in Ross-shire in 1853, the son of a simple crofter.
Just as with today’s Tory Cabinet the upper echelons of Britain’s imperial army thought they were born to rule. Again, like our present day posh boys at Westminster, they were the product of aristocratic birth and a few exclusive public schools.
MacDonald was the exception. He lied about his age and joined the Gordon Highlanders at 17 as a simple private soldier.
Yet this Scotsman of very humble birth would rise to become a major general — one of the army’s most senior ranks.
However his humble origins and lack of social or family connections would prove a heavy burden throughout both his life and his military career.
If the British military Establishment was snobbish and jealous of MacDonald, the common fighting soldiers and wider British public certainly weren’t. They loved this high-ranking officer who had sprung from common stock.
The newspapers gave him the name “Fighting Mac,” and the many ripping yarns of his derring-do in the brutal colonial wars of Afghanistan, Sudan and South Africa impressed the man on the Clapham omnibus far more than they impress me or, I hope, the average Morning Star reader.
MacDonald first saw action, and was commissioned as an officer, in the second Afghan war in the late 1870s. Would you believe that Britain has been at war on and off in Afghanistan for over 175 years? The first one started in 1839.
In 1879, now a colour sergeant, MacDonald was part of Lord Roberts’s advance on Kabul. He proved himself to be a skilled leader and was mentioned in despatches.
A second display of courage and leadership, this time at Charasia, prompted Roberts to recommend him for a commission. MacDonald was offered a Victoria Cross or a promotion, choosing the latter.
On January 7 1880, after nine years in the ranks and aged just 27, he became a second lieutenant in the 92nd Gordon Highlanders. He took part in the fighting at Sherpur and the 300-plus mile march from Kabul to Kandahar.
Next he was off to fight the Boers in South Africa. He distinguished himself in the battle of Majuba Hill in 1881.
Then come postings in Britain and Ireland and Egypt in 1884. In Egypt he recruited and trained a battalion of Sudanese soldiers, whom he led into several victorious battles, including the famous battle of Omdurman.
Part of his success was that he always tried to learn and speak the local language. He spoke Arabic, Hindustani, Urdu, Pashto, French and of course English, although his family were Gaelic speakers.
In 1902 the army sent MacDonald to India to take up a regional command, but he was there only briefly before being moved to Ceylon — now Sri Lanka — as overall commander of British forces.
Just under a year later MacDonald was summoned home to answer “grave, very grave charges.”
MacDonald was alleged to have committed sexual acts with four Ceylonese young men. Jealousy or class hatred led to the complaints from the army Establishment.
From London, Lord Roberts, the chief of the imperial general staff and intensely jealous of Macdonald’s popularity, ordered him to return to face a court martial. There was no question of a criminal trial as MacDonald’s alleged offence was not illegal in Ceylon.
MacDonald sailed from Ceylon to Marseille and then to Paris.
The army Establishment leaked the news that serious charges had been laid and that the general was returning to face court martial. The king let it be known, and communicated to MacDonald, that it would be best if he would do the decent thing and shoot himself.
MacDonald read the story of his disgrace in the morning newspaper over breakfast in his hotel in Paris. Back in his room he took his pistol and blew his brains out.
The suicide of the famous war hero caused great public shock. It was revealed that MacDonald had a wife and a son. In 1884, aged 31, he had secretly married a girl of fifteen. They had seen each other only four times in the subsequent 19 years.
The Establishment and the king insisted that MacDonald’s funeral should be held in secret at Dean Cemetery, Edinburgh. There were to be no military tributes.
His body came from France in a rough wooden coffin but when it was unceremoniously unloaded at Waverley Station thousands lined the route to the cemetery.
They tried to bury him secretly late at night, but the subterfuge got out and by morning there were 30,000 people queuing to pay their respects at the fresh graveside.
In the weeks following thousands more from all over the world came to say farewell to the hero.
His case file was almost certainly destroyed immediately after his death.
A government commission released a report on the tragedy on June 29 1903. It declared “that there is not visible the slightest particle of truth in foundation of any crime, and we find the late Sir Hector Macdonald has been cruelly assassinated by vile and slandering tongues.”
He is still celebrated on every bottle of Camp Coffee.
We now know that many other imperialist adventurers were gay or bisexual. The list includes Gordon of Khartoum, Lord Kitchener, Cecil Rhodes, Baron Baden-Powell and Lawrence of Arabia. High birth and influential friends kept their skeletons firmly in the closet.
As so often in these cases, Hector MacDonald’s downfall was a matter of ruling-class hypocrisy. I don’t seek to judge MacDonald on his sexuality — that doesn’t matter. But I’m afraid I do have to condemn him as a tool of some of the worst aspects of British imperialism.
Camp Coffee was the world’s first instant coffee invented at the request of the Gordon Highlanders in 1876. The soldiers needed a coffee drink that could be used easily by the army on field campaigns in India. The Scottish-made mixture of chicory, sugar and some coffee provided just that and in a bottle.
Originally the label depicted a Highland officer outside a campaign tent from which flies a flag carrying the drink’s slogan, “Ready Aye Ready.”
The sitting officer is being served coffee by a standing Sikh servant carrying a tray of coffee. Next came a label with the Sikh still standing but the tray missing.
Today’s labels still have drawing of the Gordon Highlander — Hector Macdonald — but now the Sikh is a soldier sitting down sharing coffee.