Today, Holmes and I are honored to host author K.B. Owen for a guest blog about the social perspectives of the Second Boer War. Formerly a college instructor, with a Ph.D. in 19th century literature, she now applies her background and interests to historical mystery writing and blogging. You can find her blog on mysteries and the 19th century at K.B.Owen, Mystery Writer. Also, she loves to chat on twitter. Follow her at @kbowenwriter. Thank you, Kathy for this excellent contribution to the series.
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
The fracturing of Empire: two perspectives on the 2nd Boer War
By K.B. Owen
Holmes has provided a wonderfully in-depth historical account of the second Boer War (1899-1902). As a former 19th century British Lit teacher and scholar, I found it especially interesting. The 2nd Boer War, although “won” by the British, revealed some of the fracturing that was going on within the British Empire at the turn of the century. During this time, Britain’s colonial sovereignty was being questioned more intensely than ever before; its territories were continuously challenged by rival European nations. Although no one knew it at the time, Great Britain was experiencing the beginnings of its death throes as an imperial presence in the world.
The British people themselves stood on either side of this crack. There were those who clung to the British imperial mind-set, whose ideals that they had always cherished: noble wars, honorable enemies, and a beloved Empire’s mission to bring civilization and law to the “dark” corners of the planet. This was where notable figures such as doctor/writer Arthur Conan Doyle stood, when he wrote The War in South Africa: its Causes and Conduct in 1902, a defense of the British actions in the war. Doyle had volunteered as a doctor at a field hospital in Bloemfontein in the spring of 1900, and drew upon eyewitness accounts from wounded soldiers, along with his own analysis and research later, back in England. He collected meticulous reports and affadavits, all of which were included in the book. Doyle was knighted in August of 1902 (less than three months after the Treaty of Vereeniging was signed) as a result of his work.
Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, image from georgeprice.net
But there were those who saw the ideal of Empire through a different lens. In their view, the philanthropic ideal rang hollow as capitalist venturers and politicians exploited colonies for their resources, seeking the next rich mining region or cushy political appointment. Although Great Britain prided itself upon its fair treatment of all races, having abolished slavery in its colonies and territories back in 1833 (well before the United States had ended slavery in its own country), there was no avoiding the unsavory nature of running an empire. During the second Boer War especially, the British people were to learn more about the “dirty work of Empire at close quarters,” as Orwell once put it.
Emily Hobhouse (discussed in Holmes’ post), a young Englishwoman with Liberal Parliamentary connections, and secretary of the South African Conciliation Committee (women’s branch), discovered this for herself, as she engaged in relief efforts at the South African concentration camps set up by the British. Her committee reports (with The Guardian also publishing extracts) were the most emotionally-charged component of what Arthur Conan Doyle was responding to in his book; in fact, he devotes an entire chapter to the concentration camps and mentions Miss Hobhouse by name several times. Here’s a particularly snarky comment by Doyle about her:
Early in the year 1901 a painful impression was created in England by the report of Miss Hobhouse, an English lady, who had visited the camps and criticised them unfavourably. The value of her report was discounted, however, by the fact that her political prejudices were known to be against the Government. Mr. Charles Hobhouse, a relation of hers, and a Radical member of Parliament, has since then admitted that some of her statements will not bear examination. With the best will in the world her conclusions would have been untrustworthy, since she could speak no Dutch, had no experience of the Boer character, and knew nothing of the normal conditions of South African life.
Emily Hobhouse, image from spartacus.schoolnet.co.uk
Of course, one wonders how much Dutch is needed to comprehend the sight of emaciated children, spoiled food, or overcrowded tents. Yet Doyle wasn’t Hobhouse’s only detractor. Joseph Chamberlain (Secretary of State for the Colonies) referred to her as “the hysterical spinster.”
But you can decide for yourself. Here are excerpts from Hobhouse and Doyle, head-to-head, laying out the concentration camp issues of the second Boer War in their own words.
Excerpts of Hobhouse’s reports and Doyle’s rebuttals:
…regarding forming the camps in the first place:
I call this camp system a wholesale cruelty. It can never be wiped out of the memories of the people. …Thousands, physically unfit, are placed in conditions of life which they have not strength to endure. …There are cases, too, in which whole families are severed and scattered, they don’t know where.
When considerable districts of the country were cleared of food in order to hamper the movements of the commandos, and when large numbers of farmhouses were destroyed…, it became evident that it was the duty of the British, as a civilised people, to form camps of refuge for the women and children, where, out of reach, as we hoped, of all harm, they could await the return of peace.
It was not merely that burned-out families must be given a shelter, but it was that no woman on a lonely farm was safe amid a black population, even if she had the means of procuring food.
The rations were extremely meagre and when, as I frequently experienced, the actual quantity dispensed fell short of the amount prescribed, it simply meant famine.
I have in my possession coffee and sugar which were described as follows by a London analyst: In the case of the first, 66% imitation, and in the case of the second, sweepings from a warehouse.
the British [were] straining every nerve to feed the women and children of the enemy, while that enemy was sniping the engineers and derailing the trains which were bringing up the food.
…regarding crowded conditions:
Imagine the heat outside the tents and the suffocation inside! …the sun blazed through the single canvas, and the flies lay thick and black on everything…. In this tiny tent live Mrs. B.’s five children and a little Kaffir servant girl. Many tents have more occupants.
It is well known that the Boers in their normal life have no objection to crowded rooms, and that the inmates of a farmhouse are accustomed to conditions which would be unendurable to most.
Boer family in concentration camp, image from history-net.com
…regarding disease and death of children:
…the nurse, underfed and overworked, just sinking on to her bed, hardly able to hold herself up, after coping with some thirty typhoid and other patients, with only the untrained help of two Boer girls–cooking as well as nursing to do herself. Next tent, a six months’ baby gasping its life out on its mother’s knee. Two or three others drooping sick in that tent. Next, a girl of twenty-one lay dying on a stretcher.
Had the deaths come from some filth-disease, such as typhus fever, or even from enteric or diphtheria, the sanitation of the camps might be held responsible. But it is to a severe form of measles that the high mortality is due. Apart from that the record of the camps would have been a very fair one.
[perhaps referring to the photo of Lizzie Van Zyl]: It is worthy of record that the portrait of an emaciated child has been circulated upon the Continent and in America as a proof positive of the horrors of the concentration system. It is only too probable that there are many emaciated children in the camps, for they usually arrive in that condition. This particular portrait however was, as I am credibly informed, taken by the British authorities on the occasion of the criminal trial of the mother for the ill-usage of the child. The incident is characteristic of the unscrupulous tactics which have been used from the beginning to poison the mind of the world against Great Britain.
Soap also has been unattainable, and none given in the rations.
There seems to be a consensus of opinion from all the camps that the defects in sanitation are due to the habits of the inmates, against which commandants and doctors are perpetually fighting.
…says Dr. Kendal Franks, ‘the death-rate is attributable not so much to the severity of the epidemic as to the ignorance, perverseness, and dirty habits of the parents themselves.’ But whatever the immediate cause, the death of these numerous children lies heavy, not upon the conscience, but upon the heart of our nation. It is some mitigation to know that the death-rate among children is normally quite remarkably high in South Africa, and that the rate in the camps was frequently not higher than that of the towns near which the camp was situated.
Photo of Boer concentration camp, image from UK National Archives
So, what’s your opinion of these two sides of the imperialist divide? Both Hobhouse and Doyle had been to the region during the war (Doyle was in Blomfontein longer than Hobhouse, but not by more than a month or so); each had witnessed the suffering going on; each felt equally passionate about his/her point of view.
Links for more info:
Anglo-Boer War Museum: http://www.anglo-boer.co.za/role-players/emily-hobhouse.php
Article: “The “Hysterical’ Emily Hobhouse and the Boer War Concentration Camp Controversy”: http://www.allbusiness.com/specialty-businesses/1025605-1.html
The War in South Africa, by Arthur Conan Doyle [Project Gutenberg]: http://www.gutenberg.org/catalog/world/readfile?pageno=62&fk_files=1538431
The Guardian “From the Archive” Blog: http://www.guardian.co.uk/theguardian/from-the-archive-blog/2011/may/19/guardian190-south-africa-concentration-camps
Thank you, Holmes & Piper, for inviting me to guest post today!
Kathy, aka K.B. Owen