/ 23 September 2016

New life recalls ‘mad’ SA hero

Emily Hobhouse
(John McCann)


How will history judge you? Emily Hobhouse, reviled and repudiated by most of her British contemporaries, as well as loyal “colonists”, would have been gratified to know how her reputation and work have been rehabilitated and recognised a century later.

In this rich and comprehensive account of her life, Hobhouse is described by the author as “enigmatic and indomitable”. Soldier, politician and naturalist Jan Smuts called her “tactless” and “a little mad”, and failed to speak up on her behalf when it was needed.

But Olive Schreiner wrote to her: “I consider you did more useful and effective work in the cause of humanity and justice in South Africa than any other individual has been able to do. You saved not hundreds but undoubtedly thousands of lives.”

Schreiner and Smuts were her friends, despite later differences over pacifism in World War I.

Hobhouse (Brits uses her first name throughout) is most famous for the work she did to improve conditions in the concentration camps into which Boer women and children were forced during the South African War as a consequence of the scorched earth policy of the British military commanders. In 1901, during the war, she undertook a dangerous journey to inspect the camps south of Bloemfontein. Her reports were largely ignored or dismissed as the work of a hysterical and whining complainer.

Eventually, however, the matter was discussed in the British Parliament and a group of English women, the Ladies’ Commission, was sent to inspect the camps, travelling on a luxurious train. They found that Hobhouse was correct in everything she’d said. But, in the interim, thousands more women and (mainly) children had died while waiting for the British to save face when they could no longer deny the truth of what they had done. Opinions vary on how many people died, but Brits’s figures show that more people, both black and white, died in the camps than in battle.

These events take up only one third of the book. Brits recounts in great detail — also with an excellent map — Hobhouse’s second journey in 1903 through the areas devastated by the war, seeing the burned farmhouses, the kraals full of bones of senselessly slaughtered stock, the starving survivors. As before, Hobhouse had food, clothes and money donated mainly in Britain that she distributed as she went, bringing some relief and often going hungry herself. She also listened to and made notes on the war stories people told her, which she put into a book, The Brunt of the War and Where It Fell.

She investigated the disbursements of the reparations money supplied by the British, finding that a huge amount had disappeared in administration and corruption. Once again she was up against officialdom until she gained the ear of Patrick Duncan, then the colonial treasurer at the Cape, who put matters right so that claims were honoured properly.

One of Hobhouse’s most practical schemes was the funding and establishment of ploughing schemes. She herself bought oxen in Tulbagh and had them sent to the Orange Free State. She also set about learning the crafts of spinning and weaving so she could set up schools and home industries among the destitute. She had her first school in Philippolis and her second in Langlaagte (Johannesburg).

It was during this time that she met the second man she might have married, Jaap de Villiers, former state attorney of the Orange Free State. (The first was a chancer and adventurer she met in her 30s in the United States.) Though she even bought a house in Bellevue, Johannesburg, to be closer to De Villiers, their friendship did not mature into marriage. But at that time she did also have the companionship of a wonderful St Bernard dog she named Caro, after her first unworthy suitor.

Brits’s book is rich in photographs, not only of Hobhouse but also of many others, as well as facsimiles of many handwritten and typed notes, telegrams and official letters. In addition to these there are several different texts running concurrently: the main narrative, notes on how information was come by (in italicised paragraphs), detailed annotations of the photos as well as maps. A design decision to integrate each page with bands of colour is initially distracting, but it does work. But some of the colour is too dark, making the text difficult to read in places.

Some of the most dramatic of these documents are drafts of letters she wrote to Horatio Kitchener, commander of the British forces, and Alfred Milner (colonial governor of the Cape), when she had been prevented from visiting the camps again by being forcibly deported to Britain. To Milner she wrote a scathing missive that begins: “Your brutal orders have been carried out and thus I hope you will be satisfied. Your narrow incompetency to see the real issues … ”

What sets this biography apart from previous accounts is the rich detail made possible by Brits’s extensive research, which took her to the home of Jennifer Hobhouse Balme, a descendant of Hobhouse’s brother, Leonard, in Vancouver. There she made use of Hobhouse’s hitherto unseen papers, including diaries and scrapbooks, in which she found Hobhouse’s accounts of her work with suffragettes, Quakers and pacifists.

These include her diary of her work in Germany after World War I, where she set up feeding schemes, saving many children, but once again scandalising the British.

Of all Hobhouse’s many South African friends, the closest was Tibbie Steyn, wife of the former president of the Free State, Marthinus Steyn. She wrote her autobiography in the form of a letter to Tibbie.

And though Hobhouse took on some of the most powerful men of her day, and befriended some (she did not hesitate to advise Smuts once he became prime minister), Brits’s intimate study shows her most sustaining friendships were with women.

Intellectual and aristocratic though she was, she was capable of living in simple, rough conditions such as railway trucks, wagons and the crudely housed spinning schools. A favourite image is of her having a much-needed bath in a hole in the ground, lined with sailcloth and filled with cold water.

Brits has melded the personal with the political in a highly readable narrative that might well achieve the status of a treasured heirloom on the bookshelves of those who buy it.