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.

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