Len Taunyane and Jan Mashiani participated in the 1904 Olympic marathon in St. Louis. Their story is far bigger than that, tainted by an unanswerable silence

Words by Sean O'Toole | 20 Sep, 2015

The first Africans to participate in the modern Olympics were not athletes but battled-hardened soldiers: Boer commandos proficient in horse riding and nascent guerrilla warfare techniques, machine gunners in the British imperial forces, and Tswana dispatch runners, all of them brought to a Midwest US city by the imperative to earn a living after a protracted war of attrition. On 1 March 1904, two years after the end of the South African War (1988-1902), an advert appeared in Johannesburg’s Rand Daily Mail. “Boer War Exhibition,” it declared. “A chance for the unemployed! £4 per month and deductions.” The takers for this US-bound spectacle, spearheaded by a Canadian scout who had served with the British during the recent war, included two Tswana men, Len Taunyane and Jan Mashiani—the first Africans to compete in the Olympic marathon.

Ethiopia’s Abebe Bikila is celebrated as the first black African to win an Olympic gold. Bikila, who has a stadium named after him in Addis Ababa, won the marathon at the 1960 Rome Olympics, a fete he would reprise in Tokyo four years later. The first African nation to participate in the modern Olympics was South Africa, in 1908, followed by Egypt in 1912. However, four years before Durban-born athlete Reggie Walker won gold in the 100-yard dash, a ragtag group of South African men brought to St. Louis under the auspices of the South African Boer War Exhibition Company informally participated in the third iteration of the summer Olympics.

Chicago originally won the bid to host the Olympics, but using threats and bullying rival industrial powerhouse, St. Louis, eventually secured hosting rights. In 1901 St. Louis had began work on a large-scale exposition linked to the centennial of the 1803 Louisiana Purchase Treaty. In the manner of today’s city-branding projects, the Louisiana Purchase Exposition was a self-aggrandizing affair. “City visions of glamorous growth danced before the eyes of St. Louis boosters,” writes American historian James Primm. The $20 million project saw the Native American mounds in Forest Park flattened to make way for the summer-long spectacle, which was pitched to audiences as a “university of the future”. A total of 43 nations participated in the fair.

A ragtag group of South African men brought to St. Louis under the auspices of the South African Boer War Exhibition Company informally participated in the third iteration of the summer Olympics

Amongst the displays at the 1904 St. Louis world’s fair there was the skeleton of a large whale, an Inuit village complete with tents and huskies, a real-life model of a cramped Cairo street scene and twice-daily re-enactment of key scenes from the South African War. Conceived by A.W. Lewis, an artillery captain with battle experience in South African, he called on South African circus impresario Frank Fillis to choreograph the spectacle. Two key battles, at Colenso and Paardeberg, the former a Boer victory, were re-enacted twice daily in a large, purpose-built pavilion able to seat 15 000 visitors. Cost of entry: 50 cents. The programme additionally included displays of swordsmanship, circus acts, musical shows and horse racing.

Billed as “the greatest and most realistic military spectacle known in the history of the world”, a street procession through St. Louis the day before the concession opened on 17 June 1904 reveals the scale of the enterprise. The 600-strong group of performers included two real-life Boer generals, Benjamin Viljoen and Piet A. Cronje, and demobilised soldiers from both sides, many of them recast as wandering opportunists. Two Hollywood heavyweights started their careers with the “Boer War spectacle,” as it was popularly known: J.P. McGowan, an Australian-born diamond prospector who had served with the British in South Africa and later went on to pioneer the railroad action genre; and William Boyd, the circus “rough rider” who achieved fame for his role as cowboy Hopalong Cassidy.

The street procession also included the participation of 50 Boer women in wagons and ox carts, two brass bands and a contingent of black South Africans in traditional dress. The latter included Mashiani and Taunyane, who, after their participation in the Olympic marathon, were identified as despatch runners in the original war being re-enacted in St. Louis — although for which side exactly local newspapermen were in disagreement.

Mashiani and Taunyane, after their participation in the Olympic marathon, were identified as despatch runners in the original war being re-enacted in St. Louis

Mashiani and Taunyane first garnered notice during an event series organised by the fair’s Department of Anthropology. The “Anthropology Days” formed part of a trilogy of exhibitions that also included “Barbarian Days” and “Philippine Tribal Contests”, racially and culturally defined sporting events in which people of various nationalities and ethnicities competed against one another for the amusement of white audiences. “Pygmies” from central Africa were, for instance, set up in an intramural mud fight. The hypothesis was, as the header of the American Olympic Committee put it at the time, “that the average savage was fleet of foot, strong of limb, accurate with the bow and arrow and expert in throwing the stone”. A headline from the St. Louis Post-Dispatch suggests the mores of the intellectual compass of this crackpot university: “Barbarians meet in Athletic Games”. Writing about the fair, in particular its oddly Victorian anthropology exhibitions, one American commentator decades later remarked: “It was as if [circus legend] P.T. Barnum had been put in charge of the 1904 Olympics.”

Taunyane, who was the taller of the two unremembered athletes, did well in the “intertribal games”, as they were also known, placing third in the marathon behind runners from Syria and India. On Tuesday, 30 August 1904, a hot summer day, the pair took part in the official Olympic marathon. Their participation was largely motivated by the fact that the St. Louis Olympics was a washout. Despite its ostentatious styling, St. Louis was an unattractive destination. Few foreigner competitors arrived. “Except our own athletes, practically nobody came except some Canadians, two Greeks and Felix Carvajal, the quaint little marathon runner from Havana,” recalled a New York Times reporter in 1932 of the marathon event. He had already forgotten about the three South Africans who competed in the race.

R.W. Harris was from Aliwal North, a remote Eastern Cape town near Lesotho. The local St. Louis press described him as “the best long-distance runner of the country from which he hails”. Harris however dropped out of the race shortly after the halfway mark. Mashiani and Taunyane, who were billed as Zulu men, both completed the race. There are various press accounts of how their run went, most of them contradictory and garbled. Both athletes had their names butchered by reporters struggling to phonetically render the far-away names. Taunyane, who placed ninth, is variously named as “Leentonro”, “Letorew”, “Letouw”, “Leentouw” and “Leetouw”. For his part, Mashiani, who came twelfth, is quoted as “Yamasina”, “Yamasani”, “Yamasaria”, and “Yamasini”.

Writing nearly a century after the race, in a 1999 edition of the Journal of Olympic History, sport historian Floris van der Merwe restored a modicum of dignity to these unremembered athletes by correctly naming the two Tswana men as Jan Mashiani and Len Taunyane (their westernised first names might not necessarily have been their birth names). Both men are reported to have run barefoot. Thomas Hicks, a doped-up Briton running for the United States, eventually won the race. Strychnine cocktails and brandy shots did the trick.

The 1904 Olympic marathon was far from an orthodox affair. Held on a hilly course, its dusty roads used by cars, the urban route enabled one participant to hitch a ride in a car for a quarter of the race. Carvajal, the Cuban competitor, was a former mail carrier who had lost all his money in a crap game in New Orleans and hitchhiked to St. Louis. “He swiped some green apples from an orchard as he ran, got a stomach ache and finished fourth,” reported the New York Times. Mashiani could have done far better had he not been chased off course by a dog.

A newsman with the St. Louis Daily Globe-Democrat reported on the incident. He mistakenly identified Mashiani as “Lentauw” (Taunyane), whose Tswana surname is a compound: tau denotes a lion. Perhaps their names were simply switched to allow the journalist to indulge in some purple prose. “The ‘Lion’ was cavorting wildly across a stubble field, after the manner of the original African cakewalker, with a plain yellow cur of an American watchdog running a close second, with prospects of a speedy union between the cavernous display of canine molars and the rearmost portion of the ‘lion’s’ garments,” reported the bemused journalist. The confusion of identities and racist punning is revealing. The larger fair was not only a showcase of modern technology, of “new standards, new means of comparison, new insights into the condition of life in the world,” as educator William F. Slocum wrote in Harper’s Weekly, it was also statement in imperial pomp and cultural jingoism

The fair was... a statement in imperial pomp and cultural jingoism

During the run of the Boer War circus, a group of black participants “escaped” from the encampment. They were later “captured” in a black neighbourhood in St. Louis. Lester Walton, a prominent black journalist and later US diplomat in Liberia, reported on the incident. “The negroes had visited their untutored brethren in their huts and kraals in the Boer War camp,” he wrote. “They learned that they were being held as prisoners. They thought that if they assisted their South African relations to escape they would only be exemplifying the doctrine of the emancipation proclamation.”

In her 2008 biography on Walton, Colored Memories, historian Susan Curtis writes that the circumstances of the black South Africans in St. Louis “stirred memories of their own struggle” amongst African-Americans, who also reluctantly endorsed the larger fair project. Moved by the plight of the South Africans, some African-Americans offered food to eat and places to stay, even jobs so that they could set themselves up independently. Curtis quotes a further snippet from Walton’s article in which he states that local African-Americans were “very much excited over the holding in bondage of their brethren by the Boer War concession, and another attempt at their liberation would not be unexpected”.

Walton’s article however also quotes the South African Boer War Exhibition Company’s response: “The Boer officer states, however, that hereafter the savages will be constantly under heavy armed guard, both night and day.” The record is silent about further escapes.

The noisy Boer circus continued to intrigue and delight white audiences until 1 December 1904. Loud action-driven entertainment aside, the appeal of the exhibit owed a great to its ideological basis. Framed as a “libretto” in which two white warring nations are able to eventually reconcile, the programme keyed into a familiar post-Civil War theme of estrangement and reconciliation, a dynamic theme that glorified conviction, bravery, and whiteness—“without having to consider what their struggle meant to men and women over whose land they fought,” adds Curtis.

After a successful run in St. Louis, the circus decamped and headed for a run in Kansas City. In January 1905, after stopping in Chicago, it moved to New York, where it settled in at suburban development owned by promoter William A. Brady’s Brighton Beach Development Company in Coney Island. Recognising profit in the entertainment-as-suburban-landscaping paradigm deployed in St. Louis, Brady underwrote the spectacle and 150 other minor amusement features. The show proved a hit. “Twice a day,” reported the New York Times in May 1905, “rain or shine, an understudy for [General] de Wet makes his marvellous escape through a cordon of 50 000, more or less, British soldiers, while the multitude cheers, just as it will again cheer a few moments later when fickle fortune has transferred the good fortune of war to the other side ... It is not an unpleasant way, this, to enjoy a conflict; not too exciting; not the least bit dangerous, and very, very noisy.”

Public interest however soon waned and by summer’s end the costly spectacle was seized by a court-appointed sheriff. One of the show’s big names, 69-year-old General Piet Cronje, had sued to recover an unpaid salary of $2429. Cronje was a disgraced figure in South Africa following his surrender at the Battle of Paardeberg. Showmanship was the last play for this defeated man. With the Boer War spectacle shuttered, Cronje swallowed his pride and returned to South Africa, where he is today remembered as a “circus Boer”. Others, like McGowan and Boyd, continued in entertainment and eventually ended up in Hollywood. Still others reverted to what they new best: opportunist enterprise and war.

Ben Viljoen, the other prominent soldier involved in the spectacle, founded a Boer colony in Chamberino, New Mexico, with the aid of US president Theodore Roosevelt. Sympathy for the Boers was quite widespread in the US, where they were likened—sometimes unfavourably, notably by black journalists—to Southerners. The smallest of the many Boer diasporas, Viljoen’s settlement formed part of a political play by Roosevelt’s government to expand US territory in the New Mexico border region. In 1911, a year before New Mexico became part of the US, Viljoen fought in the Mexican Revolution, on the side of wealthy landowner and future Mexican president Francisco Madero González. The force of pro-Madero “foreign legionaries” also included the grandson of Italian revolutionary Giuseppe Garibaldi and A.W. Lewis, the man who had originally hatched the idea of a travelling Boer War circus. There is however a massive silence around the fates of Len Tau and Jan Mashiani. Who were they? Were they, as Floris van der Merwe speculates, farm labourers employed by Cronje? Or, were they not perhaps part of the troupe of “thoroughly traditional rural-traditional dancers” mentioned in a belated 1915 letter to liberal politician W.P. Schreiner as having been abandoned by choreographer Frank Fillis in New York? Why did these two men participate in the Boer War spectacle? There subjectivity intrigues. What were their thoughts about the florid neo-classicism of the newly emergent American empire being staged in St. Louis? Did they see Geronimo, the Bedonkohe Apache leader who was invited to the fair and allowed to sell photographs of himself in an ill-fitting suit for 25 cents? What did they say amongst themselves about the dizzying verticality of Chicago and New York?

History is for the most part silent about these queries. There was no heroic welcome for Taunyane and Mashiani, only the belated and imprecise accolades of historians. Their lives possess the quality of fleeting pencil sketches. But there is a photo. It asserts that, long ago, two men wearing cut-off trousers pinned the numbers 35 and 36 onto their button shirts and entered a running race. This photo, this proof beyond words, is a fragile archive against forgetting. It affirms what cannot fully be told in words