/ 11 March 2011

A dry reminder of the other struggle

A Dry Reminder Of The Other Struggle

Boer Boy: Memoirs of an Anglo-Boer Youth by Chris Schoeman (Zebra Press)

The pathos shines through the faded photograph on the cover of this book: a 10-year-old among the bearded Boer patriarchs, his man-size pith helmet — protection against the fierce Indian sun — on the ground beside him.

Alas, Charles du Preez’s diary, written after the Anglo-Boer War, is a rather dry affair that only intermittently captures the drama of his plight as a refugee and child prisoner of war. Du Preez, who died in 1970, was no Deneys Reitz: his recollections have neither the white-hot personal intensity nor the literary qualities of Commando, perhaps the best-known Boer memoir of that brutal conflict.

What Boer Boy does do, however, is fill some of the gaps left by Reitz’s account of the military campaign. Supplemented by excerpts from other contemporary sources, including Christiaan de Wet and the pastor to his troops, JD Kestell, they bring to life the massive social disruption caused by imperial Britain’s scorched-earth policy.

This was the lasting legacy of the Anglo-Boer War, the first modern conflict in which civilians were deliberately targeted as a way of shutting down the popular support networks of a guerrilla army.

By mid-1902, 200 000 whites were homeless and destitute and a further 100 000 blacks economically uprooted.

‘They destroyed over again what had already been destroyed,” Kestell wrote, describing the Boer experience of Pax Britannica. ‘Large flocks of sheep were collected everywhere and stabbed to death — in heaps of thousands upon thousands.

‘The floors [of the houses] were broken up, the panes of glass smashed with the sashes and all, the doors broken to pieces, the doorposts and window-sills torn out — On one occasion they hanged cats in a barn, and on another shot a horse inside a house and then covered it up with a table.”

Flight and dispersion

Du Preez poignantly describes the family’s return, after months of flight and dispersion, to their farm at Wonderkop in the Free State: ‘Around the ruins the weeds stood the height of man; everything was destroyed.

‘Suddenly from the ruins stormed old Waltman, the donkey stallion, with a thundering braying, as if he was saying ‘Welcome back! Welcome back!’ He was the only animal left on the farm.”

How could Field Marshal Lord Roberts, a sensitive man devastated by the death of his son at Colenso, sanction a policy that required the destruction of all farms in the vicinity of Boer attacks and all food sources in a 25km radius?

Boer Boy offers the paradox that the conditions of the 30 000 Boer captives held in India, Ceylon, St Helena and Bermuda were markedly better than those of their wives and children in the concentration camps back home.

Anti-imperial solidarity

Charles and his father, Philip, interned first at Ambala in the Punjab and then at Solon at the foot of the Himalayas, were adequately fed — meat, potatoes and rice, but no fruit or vegetables — made pocket money from the sale of curios, enabling them to pay Indian domestic servants and were even allowed out of the Solon camp.

Perhaps in a mark of anti-imperial solidarity, the local people seem to have been fascinated by the prisoners ‘of whom they had heard and read so much, a people that had dared to fight mighty Britain and at times gained famous victories, despite being greatly outnumbered”.

An imprisoned Boer clergyman, Reverend Viljoen, recorded ‘the many gestures of friendliness and sympathy” among the spectators who crowded the Bombay docks to see them disembark.

A persistent theme of Schoeman’s book is the bitterness of the Boer combatants towards fellow Afrikaners who sided with the British. De Wet, for example, records his disgust at the ‘sweepings” who fought against him at the siege of Brabant’s Horse, while hensoppers are accused of shopping fugitives — the Du Preez’s cave hideout was betrayed by a certain Van Rooyen — and looting abandoned farmsteads.

Harvest of suffering
Divisions between what Eugene Terre’Blanche called ‘Boere” and ‘Cape Dutch” were to dog Afrikanerdom until the 1948 election and beyond, but that legacy of the Anglo-Boer War now seems to have run into the sand — with the tensions between Boer and Briton that dominated South African politics for half a century.

To that extent, Boer Boy has little contemporary resonance. But it does remind us that there is another struggle against national oppression buried in our history, with its own harvest of suffering and heroism.