The compassionate Englishwoman who fought a war to save the Boer
Review of ‘The Compassionate Englishwoman: Emily Hobhouse in the Boer War’
By Robert Eales
Middle Harbour Press, 298pp, $29.95
IT was a terrible war with atrocities, war crimes and concentration camps but it had nothing to do with the Nazis. This was the Boer War, 1899-1902, and the camps were set up by the British, of whose empire Australia was an integral part. It was also a war that blooded Australians for the catastrophe to follow.
The British Army, led by the likes of Lord Horatio Kitchener of Khartoum fame, not only burned most of the enemy’s farmhouses but herded thousands of people, in particular Boer women and children, into what Kitchener called concentration camps. What is sometimes overlooked is the camps also contained many blacks, including servants and their children.
It was this appalling situation that an upper-class Englishwoman, Emily Hobhouse, travelled alone to South Africa to investigate. She soon discovered that in most of the camps the conditions were atrocious, with inmates dead or dying. In his provocative book, ‘The Compassionate Englishwoman: Emily Hobhouse in the Boer War’, Robert Eales explains how Hobhouse arrived with glowing references of introduction to the high commissioner for South Africa, Sir Alfred Milner. In turn Milner recommended her to the local military authorities, which saw her gain access to the camps.
As Eales aptly puts it: “If Milner recommended her, if she had come with an introduction from her aunt, Lady Mary Hobhouse, it meant that she was one of them, an Englishwoman of social standing, a person who could be expected to say and do what was best for the establishment, best for England, best for the advancement of the Empire.
Well-mapped, thoroughly researched and clearly indexed, ‘The Compassionate Englishwoman’ charts the development of Hobhouse’s initially humanitarian mission to one increasingly encompassing political agitation and advocacy. This occurred not only in southern Africa but also with the British government, including Kitchener’s avid supporter, colonial secretary Joseph Chamberlain.
After having unsuccessfully urged people of influence in South Africa to provide better care and support for those in the camps, in May 1901 Hobhouse returned to London to plead the case that immediate action be taken by imperial authorities. But she was in for a rude surprise. As Eales explains, she not only met with studied indifference by the British government but, initially at least, was attacked in the press as a disloyal do-gooder.
Although, ultimately, Hobhouse’s courageous advocacy saved many lives, while she was in England thousands of camp inmates were suffering and dying. The exact number of fatalities remains in dispute, but it seems likely that at least 42,000 died: almost 28,000 whites and 14,000 blacks. Of the white deaths, about 22,000 were children and 4000 were women. More than 80 per cent of the black deaths were children.
To put the effects of the war into perspective, at the start of the conflict the total Boer population of the two republics was about 195,000. The grim reality is that about 14 per cent of that population died in the camps. The fatality rate for younger children was horrific. In the Orange River Camp, for example, hardly any in their first year of life survived.
In the white camps, the highest mortality rate occurred during Hobhouse’s brief second voyage to South Africa. In the terrible month of October 1901, 2.9 per cent of camp occupants in Cape Town died. This represented an annual fatality rate of more than one-third. The situation in the black camps was even worse.
All of this might not have happened if, at the end of May 1901 when Hobhouse returned to England to raise the alarm, the British government had listened. Indeed, it is hard to disagree with the author of this compelling book that this “is where the deepest tragedy lies and from which the greatest culpability arises.
Eales’s thoroughly researched book is beautifully written, with a grand sense of geography. In particular, it evokes powerfully and precisely what it was like for a courageous EngÃ‚Âlishwoman to travel on her own in South Africa’s vast, sparsely populated veldt, often while warfare was raging.
Notwithstanding the 1980 Australian movie ‘Breaker Morant’, the South African war is largely forgotten. But there are some of us who can recall people who served in the conflict. My maternal grandfather, George Beecher, was one of the first batch of Australian soldiers injured fighting against the Boers. Poppa told me that, one day in the veldt, he was so hungry that he ate a goose and 26 oranges. He also confided that, while in hospital, he took out his false teeth and snapped them at the blacks (though he used a more derogatory word) who ran away in fear. As a young child, I found this highly amusing. Yet Poppa’s anecdotes hid some terrible truths. This fine book helps us to face them.
Ross Fitzgerald is emeritus professor of history and politics at Griffith University.
The Weekend Australian, March 14-15, 2015, review, Books p 22.