In Brief

When Bloom's coronation and apotheosis in Circe devolve into regicide and immolation, a group of "IRISH EVICTED TENANTS" holding shillelaghs threaten to beat him with a different kind of rustic weapon: "Sjambok him!" The sjambok is a stout South African whip made of rhinoceros or hippopotamus hide. The appearance of this highly exotic word represents one more way in which the events of the Second Boer War were still resonating in Irish consciousness in 1904. In particular, the incident suggests a parallel between the British scorched-earth policy against the Boers and the waves of eviction that drove Irish peasants off the land in the 19th century.

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Sjambok is the Afrikaans name for short leather whips used for driving cattle in parts of southern Africa. They were essential tools for the Voortrekkers who migrated from the Cape Colony toward new grazing lands to the northeast in the 1830s and 40s. This so-called Great Trek produced self-governed Boer republics, the Orange Free State and the  South African Republic (the Transvaal), that became objects of British imperial coveting starting in the early 1870s, leading to two wars in 1880-81 and 1899-1902. In addition to driving cattle, sjamboks were effective at killing snakes, repelling attacking dogs, and administering punishment to slaves and other natives. Their use by policemen in modern South Africa has become notorious.

Joyce's knowledge of the word suggests that he was aware of an incident during the Second Boer War involving Arthur Griffith. Griffith lived in South Africa in 1897-98, supported the Boers in their resistance to British imperial domination, and greatly admired Paul Kruger. Upon his return to Ireland in 1899 he brought a sjambok with him, and in 1900, as a leader of Dublin resistance to the now full-blown war, it figured in his political activities. In Forgotten Protest: Ireland and the Anglo-Boer War (UHF, 1989), Donal McCracken reports that one Ramsey Colles, editor of the Irish Figaro, viciously attacked Griffith's ally Maud Gonne in print on April 7. "The next day Arthur Griffith took the sjambok he had brought home from South Africa, and visited Colles in his office. A fight ensued, the outcome of which is uncertain, both sides later claiming to have 'thrashed' the other. The final upshot of the incident was that Griffith, on refusing to undertake to a magistrate to keep the peace toward Colles, was sent to prison for two weeks" (70).

As hard-working and pious (albeit Calvinist) pastoralists defending their way of life—and their homes—against a modern war machine bent on handing the region's mineral resources over to industrialists and bankers like Cecil Rhodes and the Rothschilds, the Boers became even more popular in parts of rural Ireland than in Dublin. There is a clearly discernible logic, then, to Joyce's homeless peasants assaulting Bloom with a Boer truncheon. They may be headed for America rather than concentration camps, but they have a common enemy.

John Hunt 2021
An antique sjambok fashioned from animal hide. Source:
A modern sjambok fashioned from flexible plastic. Source: