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.

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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

Gender bias in Bloemfontein

Prior to 1968, I’d passed through Bloemfontein’s railway station six times on the way to or from somewhere else.  In that year I got off the train to spend a week in South Africa’s judicial capital, on account of my inaugural appearance at senior level swimming competition.  I was entered in the 100, 200 and 400 metre freestyle events; in the two shorter distances I would run up against Karen Muir who, by now, was setting records in any stroke or distance she turned her hand to.

The venue was the recently completed Stadium Swimming Bath, built to the new metric standard.  Like its aquatic cousins in Kimberley and Newlands (in Cape Town), the Stadium pool was a typical outdoor complex of the time, with a 10-lane competition pool, a separate diving pool, and a covered grandstand flanking one side; all topped off with a generous parking lot out the front.

This pool was different from the rest in one significant respect: depth.  The first thing I noticed in the warm-up sessions was that I could stand anywhere along the pool’s length.  Shallow pools are notorious for creating turbulence and it wasn’t long before whispers started circulating that no records would be broken at this meet.

A few weeks earlier Dad had put me on a course of medication to ‘rearrange’ my menstrual cycle.  Knowing that I’d have a clear run in Bloemfontein took some of the edge off the pool depth issue.

After having taken out the 200 metre title on day one, Karen Muir withdrew injured from the rest of the tournament.  I should have taken comfort from this even though there were several others between me and a berth in the final of the 100 metre event on day four.  As it was, I fluffed the heat, my 1:11 well outside the qualifying time for the event and a whopping three seconds off my personal best.  The following day my period arrived; either Dad hadn’t calibrated the dosage correctly or the drugs had failed in their task.

Towards the end of 1972 I returned to Bloemfontein for an intervarsity competition.  The pressure to swim fast had gone and I couldn’t care less about pool depths or menstrual cycles.  I was more interested in getting the boys to notice me.  I thought I could do this through my drinking prowess, matching it with them in boat races.  I didn’t even like beer back then.

The swimming teams were billeted at the university residences.  Unlike in Durban the year before where we’d been allowed to come and go at any time, the women’s residences at the University of the Orange Free State were governed by a strict 10 pm curfew.  At that hour, one of the stern-faced matrons locked the front door and no-one could get in or out until the door was opened the following morning.  It seemed unfair that the men weren’t subject to the same restriction.

On the third night a physiotherapy student from Zimbabwe – we’ll call her Alice – decided that she’d had enough. Sliding open the window on her first-floor room, Alice dropped onto the tin roof of the lean-to below and from there to the ground.  On her return, she shinned up a drain pipe and had just enough height to lever herself through the window and into her bedroom.  Every night she repeated this manoeuvre.  The rest of us were in awe but too scared to try the same trick.  The matrons, tucked up in bed, never knew about Alice.

On the last night of competition – the penultimate of our stay in Bloemfontein – a University of Cape Town student had arranged a party at his parents’ house.  They had also organised, with the full knowledge and consent of the matrons, that those of us who wanted to party on beyond 10 pm could sleep at the house.  The taste of freedom was so delicious that we knew we could never go back to the curfew.  The only solution was to spend the last night in the men’s residence.

I don’t know how I came to be in Hugh Bradlow’s room but I remember not sleeping at all and not because of the hard floor or the risk of Hugh making a pass; I knew that he wouldn’t.  In the morning, I slunk back to the women’s residence.  I wasn’t alone.  I’ve always wondered if the matrons knew.

By the time I was finished with Bloemfontein, I’d transited through its station a few more times.  I should have paid more attention to it.