Renewal

I saw that she had viewed my LinkedIn profile.  On the other side of the Indian Ocean, I was busy digging up whatever the Internet had to offer on Rentia Landman.

I’d networked my way to Rentia while searching for information; when I mentioned the possibility of a visit to Pretoria in September 2014, she offered to be our host for a day.  All we had to do was get ourselves to the suburb of Centurion – train from Johannesburg would be best – and the rest would be in her hands.

An arm waved through the window of a grey sedan; we needed to come quickly because Rentia was in a restricted parking zone.  We hopped in and I appraised our host: tall, lean and immaculately groomed.  If I hadn’t known better, I’d have put her in her late fifties; she was seventy.  From my investigations, I knew that she had a PhD in Education, was active in the Freedom Front Plus Party – a collection of conservative groups whose core aim is to protect Afrikaner culture, education and values – and had represented this party on the Tswhane Metropolitan Council.[1]  I’d also read that she’d been assaulted in front of her house, tied up and dragged inside while the robbers looked for cash and valuables.  While she’d feared for her life, her main concern was the mess her blood-stained body would make on the carpet and that her husband would find her.[2]

Rentia was candid about her political leanings, saving me having to tiptoe around what can be a delicate issue.  She admitted that her happiest times were when preparing policies for the education minister under the previous government.  1994 changed all that.
‘We were never able to get work again.’
It was said with no bitterness but must have been hard at the time.

Sometime later, after having presented a paper on educational funding allocation at a conference, she was approached by an eager African National Congress delegation.
‘Did they want to offer you work?’ I asked.
‘Oh no, they only wanted my ideas.’  She laughed.

She talked at length of the history of the Afrikaner people and risks to their future in a country subject to majority rule.  I was surprised to hear that her maternal grandfather was a Scot, until she mentioned that a Scottish contingent had fought with the Boer forces during the Second Anglo-Boer War.

As we drove past the Union Buildings[3], I noticed a bronze statue of a rider in its grounds.  I asked who he was.
‘That’s Louis Botha.  We don’t like him.  Too close to the English’.
Prior to the war, Botha – who would become a united South Africa’s first Prime Minister in 1910 – had taken a soft stand on Uitlander voting rights in the ZAR Volksraad.  Despite having led the guerrilla warfare phase of the conflict, he was regardede by many Afrikaners as having sold his countrymen short when negotiating the terms of peace.

Rentia was equally dismissive of Jan Smuts, state attorney under Kruger and a general in the Boer forces.  Smuts[4] is probably best known for his role in drafting the constitution of the League of Nations and served twice as Prime Minister of South Africa.  His decision to bring the country into the Second World War on the side of Britain offended many Afrikaners on both sides of the political divide.

The streets leading into the centre of Pretoria were being torn up to make way for a rapid bus transit lane, slowing the traffic almost to a standstill.  At the mention of the Culemborg Hotel, I pressed my face against the passenger window.  Now trading as the Pretoria Hof Hotel, it was shabby and dated.  Its ground floor shops were boarded up and a large sign mounted on the first-floor exterior advertised flats to rent.  I’d seen enough.

Rentia parked the car near Church Square.  Drawing inspiration from Trafalgar Square and the Place de la Concorde, the civic heart of Pretoria is surrounded by imposing buildings and its central park is dominated by a hero’s statue.  The hero is Paul Kruger and the statue was gifted by his great friend, Sammy Marks, a Lithuanian Jew whose path of travel to South Africa included a spell in Sheffield.  Marks, who made his fortune from the ZAR’s mines, donated the statue in gratitude for being allowed to build Pretoria’s first synagogue.img_8696

Most of the park visitors seemed not to notice the statue, perhaps because they’d walked past it so often or they simply didn’t care; almost all the people upon whom Kruger was fixing his stern gaze were from the group for whom he had the greatest contempt.  The pigeons were more attentive, one pecking at Kruger’s left foot while others looked for a perch on the base of the plinth.  img_8694

Many of Church Square’s buildings date back to the early days of the city.  The Palace of Justice, one of a pair of Italian Renaissance-style buildings that eye off each other from opposite ends of the square[5], is where in 1964 Nelson Mandela proclaimed from the dock that he was prepared to die for his ideal of democracy.  More recently, Pretoria’s High Court hosted the trial of paralympian, Oscar Pistorius, for the alleged murder of his girlfriend Reeva Steenkamp.

The churches after which the square was named have long since disappeared.  The last of them, the Toringkerk, was referred to by Mackenzie – perhaps a little harshly – as ‘a dreadfully ugly Dutch church, which deserves nothing better than to be pulled down and destroyed utterly,’.[6]   When it was demolished in 1904, some of its doors and windows were harvested for the Café Riche which opened on the western side of the square the following year.   img_8701

Rentia had suggested this café, Pretoria’s oldest, as our lunch spot.  ‘Your grandfather may have taken meals here.  Lots of lawyers did,’ she’d said.

Inside the double doors was a chic twenty-first century eatery with high tables, bar stools, beer on tap and a cake-filled bar fridge.  While we were working our way through our salads, a black man in a pinstripe suit walked into the café and threw his arms around Rentia.  She introduced her former Council colleague, a lawyer, and they continued a conversation in Afrikaans.  I gathered that they were commiserating over how long it took for the Council to make decisions.img_8715

After lunch, we walked the couple of blocks to Sammy Marks’ synagogue on Paul Kruger Street, last used for public worship in 1952 and as a venue for the inquest into the death of anti-apartheid activist, Steve Biko, in 1977.[7]  It was secured by one of South Africa’s favourite fortifications, a cyclone fence topped with barbed wire.  Several years’ growth of gravity-defying weeds clung to the fence; behind it, the forlorn Byzantine façade of the synagogue peered out at the street, bare brick layers exposed by flaking paint.  It would have broken Marks’ heart to see it like this, a heritage order the only barrier between his beloved synagogue and oblivion.

Rentia walked so fast I was almost at a trot trying to keep up.  After a few wrong turns, we located the magistrate’s court on Pretorius Street, a one-way thoroughfare jammed with cars and buses.  The war-era building was unremarkable but for the fact that its third floor had been gutted by fire.  That happened in 2010.  According to the billboard in the grounds, repairs had been commissioned.

Opposite the court, where Harry’s office would have been, was a police depot behind a high brick wall.  An iron-railing gate slid open soundlessly to let us in, revealing a car park and a few sheds in need of maintenance.  Rentia asked the guard on duty if he knew anything about the building that occupied the site in the early twentieth century.  He didn’t.

In a week or two the jacarandas lining the route to the Hillcrest Pool would be awash in forests of purple, refreshing Pretoria’s tag as the Jacaranda City.  A female voice delivered instructions in Afrikaans from the GPS on the car’s windscreen.
Hilda Straat draai effens na links en word Duxbury Straat’.  Hilda Street turns slightly left and becomes Duxbury Street.  I wondered how far I’d get trying to sustain a conversation with Rentia in her first language.

The pool’s red-brick-and-turquoise-trim entry vestibule, with its tunnel opening into the main pool area, was little changed.  In addition to English and Afrikaans, standard caveats about the rights of admission and use of the facilities were provided in what could have been any of Setswana, Sepedi, Sesotho, Xitsonga or isiZulu.

The spectator stand and grassy patch were still there, even if my memory had inverted their positions and given the lawn a pitch to match that of the grandstand.  On it I saw the ghosts of Maureen Ross with her turned-down mouth and my mother wearing the self-satisfied smirk she reserved for those she’d skewered.

Despite 20 years of equal opportunity, there was little evidence to challenge the perception that swimming remains predominantly a white sport in South Africa.  I counted four black swimmers in the public lanes and none in the school squad being put through its paces in the off-limits area.  But my purpose was more than one simply of observation.  Over the twenty or so minutes it took me to churn through 20 laps, Pretoria’s altitude dragging on my progress, I mulled over the events of the day.  I knew that insight would come later and not all at once.

 

[1]              Which includes Pretoria and a host of surrounding suburbs.

[2]              http://www.news24.com/SouthAfrica/News/I-thought-my-time-had-come-20060825

[3]              Seat of the government.

[4]              Smuts served as Prime Minister from 1919 – 1924, and again from 1939 – 1948.

[5]              The other is the old Raadzaal, now Tshwane City Hall.

[6]              South Africa: its history, heroes and wars.  Horace Marshall & Son, 1900.  P395.

[7]              It was also the venue for the treason trials of Mandela, Walter Sisulu and 26 others between 1958 and 1963.

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Indignation

‘If it had been up to me, I would not have approved your application.’  It was April 1981 and we had just been interviewed by a consular official – we’ll call him Barry – at Australia House in London.

A month earlier, our bags had been stolen while we were travelling with a friend in Israel.  In them were our round-the-world flight tickets, $10,000 worth of travellers’ cheques and passports with tourist visas for Canada and the US, as well as our Australian permanent residency visas.  It was a shattering experience and I remember crying for the first couple of days.  While still in Israel we managed to replace the passports, flight tickets and most of the cheques.  We decided to leave the visas until we got to the UK.  To smooth the way with the Australian High Commission, my mother had cabled ahead authority for our residency visas previously issued by the Consulate in Cape Town.

A native of Adelaide whose ruddy complexion hinted at a drinking habit, Barry had kept us waiting for four weeks.  Part of that time we’d spent travelling around England and Scotland, calling up every few days – as he had suggested – for an update on what should have been an open-and-shut case.  Each inquiry was met with a ‘not yet’ and peppered with Barry’s unique brand of vindictiveness.  ‘Why are you wasting time driving around the UK when you should be in Australia looking for work?’ he’d say.  For Barry, in want of someone to kick in the wake of Malcolm Fraser’s cuts to public sector staffing levels, we were manna from heaven.

***

When war broke out in 1899, the Transvaal gold mines were shut down.  Even after the British occupied the Transvaal, it was almost a year before the first of them, the Meyer and Charlton gold mine on the outskirts of Johannesburg, reopened in May 1901.  Having overcome the threat of sabotage – some Boer leaders wanted to destroy the mines rather than have them fall into enemy hands – Britain had had to turn its attention to a more immediate reality.  With civilian administrations in the new colonies racking up debt and the cost of the war running to £2 ½ million per month, finding new sources of funds was imperative.[1]

On the occupation of Pretoria in June 1900, Colonel J.G. Maxwell was appointed Military Governor of the Transvaal with, among others, oversight of the concentration camps included in his duties.  A graduate of Sandhurst Royal Military College, Maxwell served in Egypt with Kitchener, and then in the Sudan before leading a division on Lord Roberts’ march to Pretoria.  His second-in-command, Major J Weston Peters, also a graduate of Sandhurst, served in India and then South Africa where he occupied various positions as well as seeing action in the Orange Free State and at Johannesburg.

These men either had no aptitude for or much interest in the daily tedium of government.  Roberts left behind a muddled transport system and endless hospital red tape in Bloemfontein[2] while Kitchener was easily bored with administrative problems.[3]  For his own part, Maxwell had little empathy for humanitarian issues arising in the camps, remarking to Kitchener in May 1901 that ‘…the death rate amongst the children is higher than it should be owing to the crass stupidity and neglect by the mothers themselves.’[4]  Under the military administration, mortality rates in the camps achieved new heights for most of 1901; in an attempt to reduce them, responsibility for management of the camps was transferred to civilian authorities in November.

A report filed by the Sydney Morning Herald’s special correspondent around this time described Pretoria as a place where ‘most of the business places, as well as the public buildings, have been renovated.  Though martial law still rules, its restrictions are not severely felt, and life there passes quietly and indeed monotonously.  The business people still complain of the difficulty in bringing up supplies from the coast, but…the shops are surprisingly well stocked with necessities, the prices of which, regulated by the military authorities, are exceedingly reasonable compared with those ruling at Cape Town or Durban.’

Despite Pretoria’s agreeable character, anyone wanting news of the outside world was unlikely to find it in the Transvaal capital. ”We know absolutely nothing of what is going on,” the correspondent was told, “beyond what we learn from an occasional official summary which Lord Kitchener allows to be pasted up, and from Natal and English journals whose news, of course, is somewhat old by the time it reaches us.”[5]

At this time, Harry approached the Military Governor’s office on a business matter of an unspecified nature.

a-023

a-025If I’d been treated like that, I’d have complained too!  Although something in me does wonder, not about the content of this rather long-winded letter, but about what may deliberately have been left unsaid.

The last thing Mr Burns – a dour Scot steeped in the etiquette of late-Victorian Britain – needed was someone bursting into his office and demanding instant attention.  He had enough of his own work to do without having to field Major Peters’ rejects.  They were all the same, these impatient young South Africans with their sense of entitlement.  Whatever this man’s business was, he didn’t want to know about it.  Not today, anyway.  Hailing an office boy, Mr Burns gestured towards the door.  The lad placed a hand on Harry’s elbow and led him away.

In the interests of providing balance, I thought it fair to include Mr Burns’ point of view.  And as he doesn’t have a public profile, I’ve fashioned one for him and constructed a scene around his imagined outburst.  I had fun doing it.  So having both parties’ perspectives and putting to one side any familial obligation, who did I decide was the aggrieved party?  I didn’t.

***

After handing over our passports Barry, not content just to wave us goodbye, had some words of advice.  ‘I hope that you realise that when you get to Australia, you’re likely to be unemployed for a year or more.  Or at least one of you will be.’  Those words still ring in my ears.

We arrived in Australia on 21 June 1981.  Before the week was out, we’d landed contract work.  Both of us.  After three months we had permanent jobs.  While we’d thought about it, we didn’t write a letter complaining about Barry.  It was enough to know that he had been wrong about us.

Several years later I made friends with someone who had worked at Australia House in London during the early 1980s.  I asked if she’d known Barry.  She said that she had.  After I told her how badly he’d treated us she became defensive, noting that the High Commission had been inundated with residency and other applications, and that the pressure to get through them all with reduced staffing was intense.  Ah, yes, I said, but we already had an approval issued in Cape Town; Barry knew it, he just wanted to have fun at our expense.  She conceded that we had a valid point and then volunteered something else.
‘You know, Barry used to sneak off into the bond store in the basement and help himself to a drink.’
We both laughed.

[1]              Pakenham, T.  The Boer War Abacus London 1979 p495.
[2]              Pakenham, p384
[3]              Pakenham, p494
[4]              Schaffer, G. (ed) Racializing the Soldier Routledge Oxford 2013, p59.
[5]              Sydney Morning Herald, 12 November 1901.

White lies and mistaken identity

With the fall of their capital towns and the annexation of the Orange Free State and ZAR, British expectations were running high that the war would soon end.  The Boer leadership had other ideas.  Switching from pitched battle to the use of small and mobile military units, they were able to capture supplies, disrupt communications and carry out raids on British troops.  They were also very good at not getting caught.

After Lord Roberts returned to England in November 1900, Kitchener became Commander-in-chief of the British forces in South Africa.  Frustrated by the protracted nature of the war, on 21 December he issued a memorandum stating that the quickest way to end it was by interning all women, children and men unfit for military duty, as well as blacks living on Boer farms.

In September, ‘refugee’ camps had been established in Bloemfontein and Pretoria to provide protection for burghers who had surrendered voluntarily and their families.  By the end of the year, with increasing numbers of displaced people squashed into their confines, they had become concentration camps.  Black men deemed fit were sent to work on the gold mines and their families sequestered in separate camps.

On 24 January 1901 the British welfare campaigner Emily Hobhouse visited the Bloemfontein camp, by now home to 1,800 people.  She was appalled at what she saw.

The shelter was totally insufficient.  When the 8, 10 or 12 persons who occupied a bell-tent were all packed into it, either to escape from the fierceness of the sun or dust or rainstorms, there was no room to move, and the atmosphere was indescribable, even with duly lifted flaps.  There was no soap provided.  The water supplied would not go round.  No kartels (bedsteads) or mattresses were to be had.  Those, and they were the majority, who could not buy these things must go without.  Fuel was scanty…The ration was sufficiently small, but when…the actual amount did not come up to the scale, it became a starvation rate.[1]

There was a pecking order in the camps, with the families of neutral, non-combatant or burghers who had surrendered enjoying better accommodation and food than those whose menfolk were out on commando.  At first meat was not included in the rations given to the latter group; this was both a money saver and an inducement to the men to turn themselves in.  Rations were improved after Hobhouse’s visit, but they were still meagre.  There were no vegetables, jam, or fresh milk for babies and children.  The daily allotment was a pound of meal and about half-a-pound of meat a day, with a few grains of sugar and coffee.  It was much worse than what the British soldiers in barracks were fed or the official diet of the troops on campaign.  It was a diet so poor as to allow the rapid spread of disease.[2]

These ‘incentives’ did nothing to break the deadlock and in early March, Kitchener settled on a more radical solution.   Taking his cue from Czar Alexander 1 against Napoleon and General Sherman in the American South, he gave orders to destroy or burn Boer farms, towns, crops and livestock.  About 30,000 farmhouses and more than 40 towns were destroyed, along with livestock and horses.[3]  More concentrations camps were built to house the thousands of women and children left destitute.

A few weeks after Kitchener embarked on his ‘scorched earth’ policy, Harry applied to the Military Governor in Transvaal for a permit to return, describing himself ‘as the only Jewish lawyer in Pretoria.’

The outbreak of war had caused a mass exodus of Jews from the ZAR, with about 10,000 out of an estimated 12,000 having fled the republic.  Some left South Africa permanently while the rest were dispersed mainly in coastal towns, waiting for the opportunity to return and resume their lives.  For many the prolonged exile became an uncomfortable and impoverishing experience.  After 18 months without regular or perhaps any income, being flexible with the truth may have seemed like the card Harry could play.

a-084

 

This telegram, sent from Cape Town, suggests that Harry – in line with Dad’s account – made his way to the Cape during the war, albeit with a Bloemfontein stopover.  Dad never mentioned the concentration camps and I’ve often wondered if Harry had known and kept it to himself.  It is possible that he was still in Bloemfontein during the time frame.  But it is equally likely that, stuck out in the veld on the shady side of a koppie, the camp was as invisible to the local townsfolk as Buchenwald would be to the citizens of Weimar during World War Two.

If the Cape Town authorities took Harry’s claim at face value, the Transvaal Military Government was obliged to do its homework.  On 2 April a Detective Moodie in the Criminal Justice Department was instructed ‘to obtain any information about this man.’  Four days later he presented his report.

By what information I can gather from the residents of Pretoria, mostly British subjects, of this man, he appears to be an old and respected resident, as well as a staunch British subject and was compelled to leave this country by the Boers through his loyalty.  He had a good practice and business in Pretorius Street, which is at present closed.

Either the ‘residents of Pretoria’ had been primed by the 24-year-old law agent or they were savvy enough to know how to pull the wool over the investigating detective’s eyes.  Those higher up the chain of command were less easily persuaded.  A footnote to Moodie’s report acknowledged that the subject of inquiry was ‘an admitted law-agent (but) he is not the only Jewish lawyer in Pretoria.’  It didn’t seem to matter; on 13 April the Military Governor’s office issued the  necessary permit even if it saw ‘no particular reason for it.’

On re-examining the telegram I’d noticed the name Parwana in the sender’s box.  I’d assumed that he – given the era it must surely have been a ‘he’? – had sent the telegram on Harry’s behalf.  As I delved into Parwana’s identity I discovered that others hadn’t been treated as favourably.

YOUR TELEGRAM 21ST INST. LARGE MEETINGS OF REFUGEES HELD YESTERDAY HAVE NOMINATED MR. ABDUL GANI OF MAHOMED CASSIM CAMROODIN & MR. M. S. KAVADIA, JOHANNESBURG, MR . HAJEE HABIB HAJEE DADA, PRETORIA, MR. ABDUL RAHMAN, POTCHEFSTROOM, AS IN THEIR HUMBLE OPINION THE MINIMUM WHO SHOULD BE ALLOWED PERMITS IN VIEW OF LARGE INTERESTS AT STAKE. THEY CONSIDER ONE PERMIT TOO FEW. IF IMPOSSIBLE TO GRANT FOUR THE ABOVENAMED REPRESENTATIVES APPOINT MR. ABDUL GANI TO BE THE FIRST TO GO.

I AM REQUESTED TO SUBMIT THAT SEEING THAT HUNDREDS OF OTHER REFUGEES HAVE RECEIVED PERMITS AND ALMOST ALL EUROPEAN STORES PRETORIA AND JOHANNESBURG ARE NOW OPEN, THEY FEEL VERY KEENLY THAT INDIANS HAVE NOT RECEIVED THEIR FAIR SHARE OF PERMITS AND EVEN FOUR WOULD NOT MEET THEIR NEEDS. IF HIS EXCELLENCY CAN GRANT THE PRAYER OF THE MEETING AS TO FOUR THE FAVOUR WOULD BE MUCH APPRECIATED.

GANDHI

The above telegram was sent to Parwana from Durban on 25 March.  On the same day, another was sent to the Private Secretary to the High Commissioner in Johannesburg.

SOME BRITISH INDIANS WHO ARE AT PRESENT IN PRETORIA AND JOHANNESBURG WRITE TO INDIAN REFUGEE COMMITTEE SAYING THEY HAVE RECEIVED NOTICE TO REMOVE TO LOCATIONS. THEY ARE NOT ALLOWED WALK ON FOOTPATHS AND THAT GENERALLY ANTI-INDIAN LAWS OF THE LATE REPUBLIC ARE BEING STRICTLY ENFORCED. I AM REQUESTED RESPECTFULLY TO DRAW HIS EXCELLENCY'S ATTENTION TO THE ADMISSION OF HIS MAJESTY'S GOVERNMENT THAT SUCH LAWS ARE OBJECTIONABLE, AND THE STATEMENT THAT THEY WOULD ENDEAVOUR TO HAVE THEM REPEALED. THE LAWS IT APPEARS WERE NEVER UNDER THE OLD REGIME ENFORCED AS THEY NOW ARE AND PENDING FINAL SETTLEMENT COMMITTEE PRAYS FOR RELIEF.

GANDHI[4]

Stumbling upon this evidence of racial discrimination shows how one seemingly innocuous inquiry can lead to a significant other revelation.  If I hadn’t been curious about Parwana’s identity, I may never have learned that the new government in the Transvaal was a worse master than the previous incumbent, including in respect of its own citizens.

I found what I was looking for in the second volume of S.A.I. Tirmizi’s Indian Sources for African History.  I may have left it there if not for the context having referenced Gandhi’s correspondence of 25 March. [5]  ‘Parwana’ was the code address of the Permit Secretary to the High Commissioner in Cape Town. Nothing more.

[1]               Quoted in Pakenham, T. The Boer War 1979, p 506

[2]               Pakenham, op cit p 494

[3]               http://www.sahistory.org.za/article/war#sthash.nWGw8Ead.dpuf http://www.sahistory.org.za/article/war

[4]               The Collected Works of Mahatma Gandhi, Volume 3, 1901 – 1903.

[5]               P 157.

Wartime hospitality in Bloemfontein

My interest in Bloemfontein’s railway station had been piqued by a Wikipedia entry which asserts that in March 1900, it had been a major point of strategic fighting between the Boers and the British army.

During the early months of the Second Anglo-Boer War, Kruger and his allies had taken the upper hand, surrounding the towns of Kimberley, Mafeking and Ladysmith, and overcoming the British in other skirmishes.  Apart from being numerically superior, the Boer armies were well equipped with the latest weaponry sourced from German, French and British manufacturers.  They were also skilled marksmen.

While these early battles shook British morale, the Boer commandoes were unable to convert their advantage into wins.  Ladysmith and Kimberley were relieved after 108 and 126 days.  While the siege of Mafeking took twice as long to end, a little more than a month after it had begun the Boer leadership realised that the town would never be taken and deployed half of its fighting force elsewhere.

By focusing on three less important targets, the Boer armies provided the British with an opportunity to recover.  In December 1899 Field Marshal Frederick Sleigh Roberts, hero of the Indian Mutiny in 1857 and one of the few generals to have overcome the Afghans, was recruited to take overall command of the British Forces in South Africa, with Lord Kitchener as his deputy and chief of staff.

Roberts’ appointment, together with the arrival of almost 200,000 British troops, was a turning point in the conflict.  On 13 March 1900, he marched into Bloemfontein encountering not even a whimper from the Boer armies.  According to Thomas Pakenham’s comprehensive history of the war, ‘those men who fought so stubbornly to hold their trenches in British territory around Kimberley, abandoned the trenches around their own capital without even an apology for a fight.’[1]  So much for Wikipedia.

On 24 May Britain annexed the Orange Free State and three days later Johannesburg was occupied.  On 5 June the British flag was hoisted over the Raadzaal in Pretoria; it would take a few months before the ZAR was annexed on 1 September.  At the end of May, Kruger had said goodbye to his ailing wife in Pretoria, travelled by train to Lourenco Marques and boarded a ship for Holland, never to return.  For the seventy-five-year-old President the war was finished, even if another two years of guerrilla fighting would ensue before hostilities were formally declared over on 31 May 1902.

The Second Anglo-Boer War was notable for a change in British military apparel from the traditional red coat to the less conspicuous khaki.  It was also the first conflict to be reported in a widely read popular press in which photographs of the carnage were also circulated.  Among the news givers were a host of familiar names.  Arthur Conan Doyle served as a medic for the British troops.  Rudyard Kipling worked with the wounded and provided a newspaper for the troops.  A.B. ‘Banjo’ Paterson, the Australian solicitor and poet who wrote The Man from Snowy River and the words to Waltzing Matilda, caught the attention of the British press with his graphic accounts from the front line.

What they found on arrival in Bloemfontein was a pretty, if somewhat quiet town, ‘…a sort of oasis in the desert…the township itself is a fertile little garden, in which nearly everything flourishes with the least possible amount of trouble.  Its roses are famous, so are its vegetables, and its mealies overtop those of the surrounding country by half a foot.  The capital…is one of those happy idyllic little towns where it is always afternoon.  The stores open early in the morning, every one disappears for a couple of hours’ midday, and the early afternoon sees the shops closed.’ Despite its apparent lethargy there was a robust intellectual side to Bloemfontein’s personality: ‘there are debating clubs, where the most serious questions are settled by ingenuous aspirants of both sexes with easy fatuousness.  The public library has quite a good collection of books, and it is on record that George Meredith, Rossetti, William Morris, and even Maeterlinck are in constant demand.  Bloemfontein is nothing if not cultured and almost equal to “Upper Tooting” in its aspirations after the higher verities.’ [2]

A month later, with its population boosted by an influx of troops, Bloemfontein had acquired a certain vigour.  People crowded the pavements and the streets were bustling with army wagons.  In one month circulation of the daily newspaper rose from 400 to almost seven thousand.  Hotels were fully occupied, the clubs ‘walled in by horses, and even the hallways are blocked with officers representing all the Regular regiments and every colony.’  At supper time ‘an orchestral concert (was) given in the market square…and thereafter the town (was) as dead as a door nail,’ all thanks to the military curfew that prohibited anyone without authorisation to be on the streets at night.

With the additional population came an unquenchable thirst and ‘an immense trade…in drinks, but as yet …confined to gin, vermouth and port wine.  There is not a drop of whisky to be had owing to the military monopoly of the railway.  Even the materials for the manufacture of soda water are exhausted.’[3]

And then there was the misery of war, with none better equipped to describe the ravages of disease than Arthur Conan Doyle.

‘The greatest misfortune of the campaign, one which it was obviously impolitic to insist upon at the time, began with the occupation of Bloemfontein.  This was the great outbreak of enteric (typhoid) among the troops.  For more than two months the hospitals were choked with sick.  One general hospital with five hundred beds held seventeen hundred sick, nearly all enteric.  In Bloemfontein alone, as many as fifty men died in one day, and more than 1,000 new graves in the cemetery testify to the severity of the epidemic.’ [4]

By August 1900, the war had shifted to other battle fronts and reports coming out of Bloemfontein dwindled to a trickle.  I don’t know how he came to be there or why – Dad had never mentioned Bloemfontein – but it was from here that Harry made a pitch to the Military Governor in Pretoria to return.

a-021There are three things about this letter that caught my attention.  The first is the tone: tentative and evasive, it almost invites rebuttal.

The second is the handwriting.  This is the earliest example of my grandfather’s script, an elegant and legible cursive.  I’m puzzled that my father’s doctor scrawl and my longhand – often indecipherable to my own eyes – could have been sown from the same seed.

The third is the Temperance Hotel.  I wonder whether this was really a dry venue or may, out of necessity, have been run on temperance principles?  A similar situation had been observed at another hotel in the Orange Free State where there was a shortage of alcohol. [5]  Liquor supply issues aside, a British soldier’s account of Bloemfontein’s Temperance Hotel paints an unflattering picture of its hospitality service.

‘The party I went down with, after having a good look round, fell hungry, went into the Temperance hotel for refreshments, and, by way of a luxury, cups of tea and mutton chops.  The tea was alright, but the chops, what chops!  About the size of a five-shilling piece each, with plenty of bone in them.  Someone had a cup of tea alone, and paid up before the others had finished the chops.  His cup of tea being sixpence, we began to wonder how much the rest would be and very soon a feeble voice asked how much?  2/6 please, said the waitress.  I really believe if the chairs had not been very strong we should have gone through!  What we got for 2s 6d we could have got at home anywhere for 6d.  Then they tell us things have got back to their usual prices!’[6]

If the soldiers had known about a particular banquet on 28 March, their mouths would have watered.  On the menu was a choice of tomato soup, boiled salmon with parsley sauce, braised oxtail, roast sirloin of beef, roast turkey, salad, potatoes, French beans, cabinet pudding, blancmange, jellies, angels on horseback, cheese and coffee.  For two weeks over March and April, Rudyard Kipling had worked on the local, pro-British Army newspaper, The Friend, with Percival Landon of The Times, Howell Gwynne of Reuter’s news agency, E.W.Buxton of the Johannesburg Star, and Julian Ralph, an American correspondent reporting for the Daily Mail.  With his journalist friends, Kipling had organised a celebration for Lord Roberts at which Sir Alfred Milner – High Commissioner to South Africa – and a host of generals, politicians and journalists would be guests.

An accomplished orator, Kipling stood up to address those present.  After dispensing with the need to bring Shakespeare into his speech – a device Ralph had used to introduce his friend – Kipling proposed a toast:

‘I propose to you tonight, gentlemen, the health of the man who has taught the British Empire its responsibilities and the rest of the world its power, who has filled the sea with transports, and the earth with the tramp of armed men, who has made Cape Town see in Table Bay such a sight as she never saw before and, please God, will never see again; who has turned the loafer of the London Streets into a man, and called out him who led our fathers to Kandahar, and who knew not what he did; who has made the Uitlander of South Africa stand shoulder to shoulder with the boundary rider of New Zealand and taught the men of New South Wales to pick up the wounded men who wear the maple leaf—and all in support of the mother-country. Gentlemen, I give you the name of the Empire-builder—Stephanus Johannes Paulus Kruger.’[7]

It must have been quite a night.  And there was only one venue in town with a large enough room to host the event and which also boasted the best cook in the Orange Free State.  Bloemfontein’s stylish late Victorian railway station with its two-tone stonework and central clock tower was famous, just not in the way Wikipedia describes it.

 

[1]               The Boer War 1979 pp371-72.

[2]               Daily Mail, 13 March 1900.

[3]               Daily Mail, 14 April 1900.

[4]               Arthur Conan Doyle The Great Boer War, 1902.  Chapter 22, The Halt at Bloemfontein.

[5]               The Cumberland Argus and Fruitgrowers Advocate (Parramatta), Wednesday 30 May 1900.

[6]               http://pocklingtonhistory.com/archives/military/smallgroups/alfbuttle/index.php

[7]               Julian Ralph, War’s Brighter Side  1901, pp 206-07