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This article is a commentary on the  National Boer War Memorial in Canberra. It appeared on the Canberra Times Online site on the day the memorial was inaugurated, 31 May 2017

42,000 died in concentration camps: Is it appropriate to glorify the Boer War?

  • Robert Eales

Today a new national memorial is being unveiled in Canberra.

It commemorates Australia's participation in the Boer War in South Africa between 1899 and 1902.

New South Wales Lancers in South Africa during the Anglo-Boer war.New South Wales Lancers in South Africa during the Anglo-Boer war.



The memorial's roots are well embedded in Australian mythology: Larger than life horsemen ride across the landscape, the Man from Snowy River multiplied by four. Only this time they are not in the business of rounding up horses.

The monument celebrates the Australian volunteers who participated in the Boer War. But is this an appropriate monument?

Australians represented around six per cent of the more than 400,000 men who fought on the imperial side in that war.

Their contribution was therefore modest, although it was occasionally important.

For example, at Diamond Hill near Pretoria (11-12 June 1900), troops from NSW made a crucial breakthrough that turned a large battle in favour of the Empire

At one level, Australians can be proud of the men and women who went to South Africa. Unfortunately, there is a wider story.

In this war, Britain, in full flight of colonial might, set out to add two small, independent countries to its grand Empire.

The republics threatened no one and wanted only to be left alone, especially by Britain.

Britain might not have bothered with them, except that the South African Republic (now part of the present-day South Africa) had the most extensive gold deposits on the planet.

The other republic, the Orange Free State, had the misfortune of being in the way. It lay between the Cape Colony and those gold deposits.

'This monument glorifies a deeply unjust and shameful war.'

Robert Eales

Sir Alfred Milner, the British High Commissioner for South Africa in Cape Town, needed the war to achieve his ambition of bringing the two republics into the British Empire and thereby consolidating all southern Africa within the Empire.

It was an achievement he perceived would bring him great honours. Some of the largely British-owned gold mining companies supported Milner and urged Britain to take control. But Milner needed a better justification for his war, and he found one.

As the existence of the goldfields became known, fortune seekers poured in, mainly from England.

The republican government, afraid of being swamped, set a 14-year residential qualification period for the franchise. Milner used this as one of the key issues to foment war, arguing, in emotive language, that British subjects were being treated as "helots". He got his war.

Britain expected a short, cheap war. But after suffering three defeats at the hands of the Boers, all in one week in December 1899, it shipped in tens of thousands of additional soldiers, eventually hundreds of thousands, and appealed to the countries in its far-flung Empire for support.

That's when Australians, New Zealanders and others got involved. With overwhelming power, the combined imperial troops then conquered the capitals of the two republics, Bloemfontein and Pretoria. But contrary to expectations, the war did not end there. The Boers fought on.

The country was vast, the population thin. The Boers had local knowledge and local sympathies and were more mobile.

The majority of the British soldiers were infantry on foot; the Boers were all mounted. For Roberts and Kitchener, successive Commanders-in-Chief, this presented a great difficulty. They did not have the means to corner and defeat their adversaries. So, instead, they attacked the static, civilian population.

This is where problems with this war get serious.

Roberts did it locally and punitively, in response to individual attacks on his men, but Kitchener was an engineer and he sought a comprehensive solution.

He decided to clear the countryside. His soldiers, including Australians, formed lines 50 to 70 km long, advanced across the land and removed everything that could sustain human life.

Farms were burnt to the ground, food and horses were commandeered, crops were destroyed, livestock was confiscated or simply killed, farm equipment was removed (especially wagons), wells were poisoned, and farm dams breached.

Small towns and villages suffered a similar fate. There were several such "drives" and each continued for months. By the end of the war, the countryside in the two republics was wasteland.

There was, of course, a complication. There were people on those farms and in the villages. While the men were mostly in the Boer forces fighting for their countries, the Boer women and children, the elderly, the sick and the disabled were still at home when the troops arrived.

And there were black people on the farms and in the villages too, men, women and children.

At first, they were simply abandoned besides their burnt-out homesteads with no food, shelter or transport. As they drifted into the towns, often in a pitiful state, a different approach was adopted.

They were rounded up and railed off to camps. Blacks and whites. The total number in the camps exceeded 200,000 by the end of the war. Kitchener called them "concentration camps".

The camps were appalling. At least 42,000 people died in them. By far the majority of the fatalities were children, especially little children. In one camp where detailed information is available, virtually no child below the age of four survived.

Which brings us back to The Man from Snowy River. Its author Banjo Paterson was over there, a war correspondent for The Sydney Morning Herald.

In the beginning, he was an ardent imperialist, writing enthusiastic stories of the great things our boys were doing. But as events unfolded, he began to think differently.

After he saw pleading women and terrified children being evicted from their house, and all their possessions going up in flames, he wrote no more from over there. He came home.

When the war was over, and the Boers had been defeated, Milner was still the High Commissioner for South Africa and his area of authority now included the former republics.

He could remedy the wrongs over which the war had supposedly been fought. But he enfranchised no one, not the transient fortune seekers nor the previously resident population.

Especially not the black population. Instead, in the ensuing years and for the duration of his term in office, he appointed every member of the legislative councils in the two former republics himself and formalised the racial segregation that would become a hallmark of South Africa in the decades that followed.

The two small, comprehensively devastated countries had to cope somehow with their own complex societies, with tensions between English and Afrikaner, black and white, complexities that were immensely more difficult in the bitter, impoverished aftermath of the war.

The social scars remain to this day. But for Sir Alfred Milner things went rather better. By the end of the war he was Lord Milner and later Viscount Milner.

It is appropriate to commemorate wars, to reflect on the great tragedy that war is, and to grieve for the dead and damaged on both sides. But this monument glorifies a deeply unjust and shameful war.

Is there a reason why we are only now erecting a national monument to the Boer War, the first war in which Australia participated as a nation?

Did intervening generations remember what happened in this war and decide to forget about a national monument?

Robert Eales is the author of The Compassionate Englishwoman, Emily Hobhouse in the Boer War.

 

© Robert Eales

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