What the Boers looked like

Dan Jacobson

  • To the Bitter End: A Photographic History of the Boer War 1899-1902 by Emanoel Lee
    Viking, 226 pp, £12.95, September 1985, ISBN 0 670 80143 7

Now that Dr Lee has produced a pictorial history of the Anglo-Boer War, one wonders why no one had thought of doing so before. This, of course, is how we are always inclined to greet an unusually good idea. The text accompanying the photographs informs us that the war coincided almost precisely with the birth of photography as a popular hobby. Hostilities between Britain and the Boer republics of the Transvaal and the Orange Free State broke out just two years after George Eastman of Rochester, New York, had produced the Folding Pocket Kodak, the first camera to use ‘cartridge film’. In 1900 Eastman brought out the Brownie, which had originally been intended for the children’s market. By the end of the war more than two hundred thousand of these two cameras had been sold to markets outside the United States. Of the almost half-million British and Colonial troops who served in South Africa, Dr Lee estimates that several thousand must have brought a camera with them. In addition, numbers of professional photographers, following in the footsteps of those who had taken their cameras to the battlefields of the Crimea and the American Civil War, got to work.

In the earliest stages of the war there was a rush by publishers in London to produce photographic records, not of the campaigns as such, but of the people – chiefly on the British side, naturally enough – who were taking part in them. One still comes across such compilations in second-hand bookshops from time to time. The market they aimed at seems to have been mainly the families of serving men: thus, as well as presenting pictures with captions like ‘What the Veld looks like’ and ‘Cape Mail Train in the Karroo’, the books abound in carefully composed group and individual photographs of soldiers, mostly but not invariably officers, who are carefully identified by name: ‘Colonel Gunning and officers of the 3rd Battalion King’s Royal Rifles; Top Row (standing) – Capt. R.W. Lord Manners, Lieut. A.R. Mildmay ...’ etc. The example just quoted is taken from a volume entitled The Transvaal in War and Peace by Neville Edwards, which was published by the splendidly named H. Virtue and Company. (Almost as good a name as that of Colonel Gunning.) The letterpress includes such articles as ‘Who are the Boers?’ and ‘The Mining Native and his Ways’; its general intellectual level, as well as its by no means uncommon attitude towards the enemy, can be gauged from a quotation:

The Boers will calmly tell you that in the field of battle one Boer is equal to ten Englishmen. It would be a little difficult for anyone to swallow, even if not an Englishman, but especially so when one sees a body of Oom Paul Kruger’s faithful burghers on parade. It looks more like an assembly of old clo’ men, and I have even known some of these ‘Land’s Fathers’ when serving as a bodyguard to ‘His High Honour the State President’ (as Oom Paul loves to term himself), turn up holding umbrellas over their heads. It is said, however, that the accumulated grime of ages keeps them warm. It is certainly a distinctive uniform. There is a legend that a Boer was once brought to the washtub, and after going through six waters was found to have an old flannel shirt on him!

Ironically enough, the figures given by Dr Lee suggest that it did indeed take more than a ten-to-one advantage on the British side to crush the resistance of the Boers. Long after the capitals of the two republics, Pretoria and Bloemfontein, were in the hands of the Imperial troops, Boer commandos continued to wage against them a fierce guerrilla campaign. At its most extensive, this campaign affected not just the territories of the republics themselves, but also reached into areas of the Cape Colony which the more conventional battles and sieges of the earlier period of the war had left untouched. To counter the guerrillas, the British commander-in-chief, Kitchener, covered large tracts of the country with blockhouses and barbed wire; more fatefully, he embarked on a policy of destroying Boer crops and farms (in order to deprive the guerrillas of sustenance) and of herding their women and children into concentration camps. By the end of the war, much of the countryside had been turned into a wasteland, and more than twenty-five thousand of the inmates of these camps had died of various diseases – an enormous figure, when one considers that the total Boer population of the republics was not much more than a couple of hundred thousand. The inflamed national consciousness which these events were to foster among many of the Afrikaner descendants of the Boers thus acquired a double dimension. In the decades after the war the Afrikaner nationalists could hold up for reverence, not only the active heroism of the guerrilla fighters – the ‘bitter enders’, as they were called – but also the passive martyrdom of their womenfolk. As for the reaction of the British authorities to the terrible mortality rate in the camps, that is perhaps best conveyed by the words of Sir Alfred Milner, Governor General of the Cape Colony, who was able to write in good conscience: ‘We were suddenly confronted with a problem not of our making.’ By which he meant that they had never intended the results they achieved.

Dr Lee gives a rapid, clear account of the main events of the war. Since he is a consultant surgeon at the John Radcliffe Hospital in Oxford, as well as an amateur historian and a collector of photographs, he comes into his own in his account of medical consequences both of the fighting and of the handling of the civilian population. There are graphic descriptions of treatments available for the injured; of the typhoid epidemics which swept through the ranks of the British troops, far more of whom died of the disease than were killed in battle; and of how it was that the ailments of childhood (scarlatina, whooping cough, measles) turned into such killers within the camps. However, the book will obviously be most prized for the photographs brought together in it. More than half have not been published previously; those of people on the Boer side are perhaps of especial interest and novelty. One has, after all, seen many pictures of the British Tommies of the time, in their puttees and strange, swathed-looking helmets, going about their business: marching across those plains whose treeless, featureless extent dismayed them so much; carrying their wounded on stretchers; standing by their fieldguns; even lying in their heaps after the battle of Spion Kop. But the Boer fighters and civilians strike the eye in a more surprising manner.

Solemnly bearded, ferociously bandoliered, rifles clasped close to them, they do not look like ‘old clo’ men’. Certainly one gets the sense of a peasant poverty: their clothes are cheap and ill-cut; their farmsteads are paltry shacks of earth and iron (a sequence of pictures shows some British soldiers blowing up one of these tiny homes with an almost Vietnam-like thoroughness and matter-of-factness); a Boer ‘hospital’ turns out to be literally nothing more than a yard outside a stable. But the faces of the men are on the whole stern with defiance and self-importance, or grim with the humiliation of defeat. The women, too, have a dignity which is not derived solely from their voluminous skirts and elaborate bonnets.

History has many cunning passages, contrived corridors. It is hard for the reader, looking at pictures of Boer women being bundled into carts with their tin tubs and a few sticks of furniture, and of Boer houses being blown to pieces, not to be reminded of what the descendants of those women have done to hundreds of thousands of blacks in ‘squatter townships’ and ‘black spots’ all over South Africa, who were put into lorries and carried away to remote areas of the country, while their homes were bulldozed to the ground. The blacks played a very limited role in the Anglo-Boer War (though they were more involved in it, and many of them suffered more from it, than Dr Lee’s text and pictures perhaps suggest). They had been so fragmented and demoralised by their unsuccessful 19th-century wars against Britons, Boers, and each other, that they were quite incapable of trying to take advantage of the battle for supremacy between the two white groups occupying the country. Today one might remark that it is the turn of the blacks to stand in relation to the Boers where the Boers had once stood in relation to the British.

Like the history of many other countries which are the subject of irreconcilable territorial claims by the peoples who live in them, South African history sometimes seems to resemble a huge echo-chamber. Or perhaps one might think of it as a hall of distorting mirrors facing one another in perpetuity. When the Boers had finally surrendered to the British, their conquerors behaved generously towards them. There were many reasons why they comported themselves in this fashion, not least among them the belief that the devastating defeat of the republics had crushed for ever the Boers’ aspirations to political independence. Fifty years later, after ceaseless political and cultural campaigning among their own people, the Afrikaner nationalists revenged that defeat by taking over the government of the country. They declared a kind of tacit truce or stand-off with its English-speaking inhabitants (while proceeding, of course, to spend huge sums to strengthen exclusively Afrikaner institutions of all kinds). At the same time, they set about trying to divide and humiliate the blacks, and to pulverise utterly their political aspirations. The results of that policy we see today. Who can say what South Africa will look like after yet another fifty or a hundred years, or what particular reversals or compoundings of ancient errors and inhumanities may by then be afoot?