Bloemfontein

You know a place may be less than inspiring when even Lonely Planet, a publication that can sometimes make Milton Keynes sound like the Hanging Gardens of Babylon, says (of Bloemfontein) “….no reason to go out of your way to visit …”

Well, in our crazy, mixed up, see how many days we can waste driving around the country itinerary we went to Bloemfontein TWICE and stayed over both times. Still, you find interesting stuff anywhere if you look. We spent a  morning at the National Women’s Memorial & Anglo-Boer War Museum (which to be fair is featured in LP)

Another interesting example of the rose tinted version of history you receive in your own country. One of the most famous escapades of the Boer War from the perspective of English History was the daring escape from captivity of a certain Winston Churchill. There have been documentaries which laid out objectively what the British side did during the Boer War (Andrew Marr’s recent history of the 20th century springs to mind) but in general we like to remember the good bits and gloss over the less desirable elements.

I had read already about the concentration camps that the British set up for the Boer women and children as they adopted a scorched earth policy to force the Boer guerilla units off the land. This is by no means a unique tactic in military history but it was still chilling to see in so much detail, especially the artefacts, photos and grim details of all these camps.

What was surprising (at least to me) was the number of nations involved in a conflict I had assumed was mainly the British Empire vs some plucky settlers. Soldiers from several British Empire countries (Australia, New Zealand, Canada) fought there for the British and POW camps were set up in  places like Bermuda, St Helena, Sri Lanka & India to keep enemy combatants out of the way. That was understandable in a way but the number of different countries that were represented on the Boer side was a big surprise; Germany, France, Belgium, Russia, Sweden, Finland, Norway, Denmark and several others). Now more accurately these were not official armies of these nations but were well meaning volunteers who came because they believed in the cause (similar to what happened in the Spanish Civil War).

Indeed, there are many people in South Africa who insist this should be known as the South African War rather than just the Boer War because it wasn’t just against the Boers. There was also the question of Black i.e. local tribe participation. The local tribes fought mainly, but not entirely, on the side of the British apparently on the belief that the British would afterwards grant them autonomy, land etc. Unsurprisingly this didn’t work out entirely and there were several Black concentration camps set up as well. So, as usual, no-one really comes out of the war looking good.

Actually there was one person, a lady called Emily Hobhouse. She was a British welfare campaigner who devoted her life to bringing attention to the appalling conditions that the women and children faced in the concentration camps. In many ways she played a similar role to that of Florence Nightingale in the Crimean War. Not only that but Hobhouse went back to South Africa after the war and helped the women (many of whom were widows by now) establish weaving and spinning industries so that they could become self-sufficient and actually leave the camps. Although Emily died in London, her ashes are buried at the National Womens Memorial, next to the Museum. It is very moving.

Florence Nightingale is a revered figure in the UK and everyone studies her at school. I wonder how many schoolchildren or even people in the general population could name Emily Hobhouse or what she did.

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