Yesterday, Tim wrote an item about the monument to the Boer War on the grounds of Province House:

I don’t care about the parking one way or the other, but can we discuss that damn Boer War monument?

[Jean] Laroche goes on to interview Joe Ballard, president of the Heritage Trust of Nova Scotia, who says something ridiculous:

“We often forget about the South African campaign and it gets lost with more recent wars, but it was significant and I think it deserves greater honour than having cars parked around it,” said Ballard.

Please. The Boer War exemplified everything horrible about humanity, about imperialism, about the British Empire, about Canada, about Halifax, and about the boys and men who fought it. It was shameless slaughter conducted by vile people for despicable reasons.

The Boer War monument outside Province House. Photo: Halifax Examiner

I’ve written before about the use of concentration camps during the South African War (formerly known as the Boer War). This site has an extensive timeline of the British atrocities in the camps, which led to the deaths of 10 per cent of the Afrikaner population (22,000 of them children) from disease and starvation. Some 115, 000 were imprisoned in these camps. The British did not keep numbers on how many Black South African workers interned in the camps also died, but estimates suggest around 20,000 out of the approximately 100,000 Blacks in the camps were worked to death.

Yves Engler describes the role of Canadian troops in the war, and the mythologizing of Canada’s military prowess in this article for Rabble:

In Another Kind of Justice: Canadian Military Law from Confederation to Somalia, Chris Madsen points out that, “Canadian troops became intimately involved in the nastier aspects of the South African war.” Whole columns of troops participated in search, expel and burn missions. Looting was common. One Canadian soldier wrote home, “as fast as we come up the country…we loot the farms.” Another wrote, “I tell you there is some fun in it. We ride up to a house and commandeer anything you set your eyes on. We are living pretty well now.” There are also numerous documented instances of Canadian troops raping and killing innocent civilians. 
Picture from www.angloboerwar.com

I walked over to the monument at lunch yesterday and took some photos of the panels. What’s notable to me about the scenes depicted is that Black South Africans are absent from any representations.

The scenes on the panels depict the Afrikaners surrendering to the British forces. Here is a closeup on them:

Check out those beards! There is a particular interest in the panels in depicting the corpses of horses. I’m not sure if this is an attempt to realistically portray the horrors of war and the brutal effects of siege warfare of starvation, or if it’s the war monument equivalent of when the police display mounds of drugs and money. Haha, we got y’alls horses too.

A focus on prone horses seems to be a feature of British war propaganda. Presumably because the Afrikaners successfully fought a guerrilla war from horseback, showing the dead horses strips the Afrikaners of their power and emasculates them.

The imagining of an African landscape empty of Africans speaks to the imperial nature of this war. Sherene Razack explains:

A white settler society is one established by Europeans on non-European soil. Its origins lie in the dispossession and near extermination of Indigenous populations by the conquering Europeans. As it evolves, a white settler society continues to be structured by a racial hierarchy. In the national mythologies of such societies, it is believed that white people came first and that it is they who principally developed the land; Aboriginal peoples are presumed to be mostly dead or assimilated. European settlers thus become the original inhabitants and the group most entitled to the fruits of citizenship. A quintessential feature of white settler mythologies is, therefore, the disavowal of conquest, genocide, slavery, and the exploitation of the labour of peoples of colour.

Yves Engler, author of several books including Canada in Africa, observed to me in a Facebook message about the monument:

As with the scramble for the continent, which was justified in large part by saying we want to stop slavery, the Boer War was justified by they are treating Blacks poorly. And then they of course are brutal to Africans during the war and implement racial apartheid after. While they kept records on the Boer of who died in the concentration camps, they completely ignored the Africans. I think I discuss it in Canada in Africa book, there is quite impressive racial solidarity with the Boer within only a few years after the brutal conflict. The Boer go from the devil to the British supporting [Boer] self governance.

During the war, the British in South Africa were portrayed as “suffering servants of empire besieged by cruel and crafty people” in “bold headlines, sensational and often fabricated news stories, incendiary editorials, carefully selected letters to the editor, poems and cartoons” according to Carman Miller in Painting the Map Red

Despite this propaganda smear campaign against the Afrikaners, ultimately white racial solidarity allowed them to gain British support after the war. Black South Africans, the ostensible victims in need of British protection, ended up subjected to the Apartheid state with the approval of Britain and the other Western nations, including Canada.

Image from cdnhistorybits.wordpress.com

Black people are thus a convenient propaganda tool when Black suffering furthered British aims, but as the lack of interest in Black people on the monument illustrates, surrendering Boers were still white humans, unlike irrelevant Black bodies.

In reality, Black African troops did serve in the war. As Martin Plaut notes:

From the outset both sides in the conflict attempted to portray it as a ‘white man’s war.’ In theory the British as well as the Afrikaners rejected the idea that Africans or even Coloureds or Indians would play in role in their dispute. The Cape government maintained that arming Africans would create an unfavourable effect on the African population; a stand endorsed by the British government. This did not exclude the use of labourers or transport employees, but Africans were not meant to be armed and used in conflict.

When the going got tough, however, it was a very different story. In April-May 1900, during the siege of Mafeking, Colonel Baden Powell, who was leading the defence, ran out of troops. He had little option but to turn to Africans, who had been recruited to dig trenches and act as spies. The Colonel armed three hundred Africans; called them the ‘Black Watch’ and set them the task of manning sections of the perimeter.

When his opposite number, General Cronje discovered what had happened, he was furious. “It is understood that you have armed Bastards, Fingoes and Barolong against us,” he wrote in a letter to Baden-Powell. “In this you have committed an enormous act of wickedness…reconsider the matter, even if it costs you the loss of Mafeking…disarm your blacks and thereby act the part of a white man in a white man’s war.”

Black African troops in the Boer War.

In the (thoughtful) discussion about the Boer War in the comments on Tim’s article yesterday, Tim Jaques raised the interesting question of whether modern Afrikaners complain about these statues.

The suggestion I am making here is that even as the war featured incredible atrocities towards the Afrikaners, unlike colonial conflicts between the British and “natives,” they were still white. And as white people, they are, even in depictions of their defeat, accorded a dignity and even respect denied Black and brown colonized people. Robert Baden-Powell, founder of the Boy Scouts, for example, admired the skills of the Afrikaners, and attributed to them the hardy masculinity that English boys, endangered by soft cosmopolitan urban living, were in danger of losing. The Scouting movement intended to re-instill these manly outdoor skills in English boys.

Yves Engler points out that the Boer War “ultimately reinforced British/European control over South Africa, which led to racial apartheid.”

Unlike the Boer, the plight of black South Africans didn’t improve much after the war. In Painting the Map Red: Canada and the South African War, 1899-1902, Carman Miller notes, “Although imperialists had made much of the Boer maltreatment of the Blacks, the British did little after the war to remedy their injustices.” In fact, the war reinforced white/British dominance over the region’s Indigenous population.

The peace agreement with the Boer included a guarantee that Africans would not be granted the right to vote before the two defeated republics gained independence. In The History of Britain in Africa, John Charles Hatch explains: “By the time that self-government was restored in 1906 and 1907, they [the Boer] were able to reestablish the racial foundations of their states on the traditional principle of ‘No equality in church or state.’” Blacks and mixed-race people were excluded from voting in the post-war elections and would not gain full civil rights for nine decades.

Unlike the Mi’kmaq victims of Cornwallis, or the African victims of William Stairs, or the “uncivilized tribes” against whom Winston Churchill was in favour of using poison gas, white Afrikaners rose to govern the Apartheid state. Whereas for Mi’kmaq people, the Cornwallis statue was not just a celebration of past genocide, but a constant reinforcement of current injustices suffered by Indigenous people, I might submit that it is easier for a people not to be too bothered by statues when they ended up with the farms, diamond mines, and banks.

Black woman in British concentration camp. From SA military history.

Just as after the war white solidarity ultimately trumped conflict for the British and Boer, FW De Klerk defended statues of Rhodes during the Rhodes Must Fall campaign of 2015 — of course, the interests of white Afrikaners lie in excusing colonial atrocity and defending white perpetrators.

Mr De Klerk, in a letter to the Times newspaper, said that “for better or worse,” Rhodes had made an impact on history, which included the positive contribution of his scholarship scheme.

“If the political correctness of today were applied consistently, very few of Oxford’s great figures would pass scrutiny,” he said.

He pointed out that Rhodes had been “the architect of the Anglo-Boer War that had a disastrous impact on our people, yet the National Party government never thought of removing his name from our history.”

The response from the Rhodes Must Fall movement identified De Klerk’s erasure of Black South Africans:

In a statement, the Rhodes Must Fall Oxford (RMFO) movement told the BBC it considered it “despicable that someone who claims to be an ‘icon for reconciliation’ uses apartheid’s National Party as a model for how to deal with colonial symbols.”

It added: “His comment that white Afrikaners ‘have greater reason to dislike Rhodes than anyone else’ embodies precisely the distortion and whitewashing of colonial history that we at RMFO are challenging.” 

Black women in concentration camp. Image from samilhistory.com

Of interest in relation to contemporary discussions of these statues glorifying colonial conflicts and figures is the British cover-up of the atrocities committed. Defenders of monuments to white supremacy will often argue that was just the way things were back then, and that we should’t judge these things with the modern eye.

However, as Paul Harris argues in this article in The Guardian, the British immediately began attempting to manipulate media coverage of the concentration camps.

An archive of letters and photographs owned by Major Sir Hamilton Goold-Adams, a colonial official in South Africa, has come to light. The documents, to be auctioned this week, contain hitherto unknown confidential letters from Lord Milner, the man charged with sorting out the disastrous South African camps after news of their conditions had been exposed in Britain.

The letters reveal that the black arts of media manipulation were not just a feature of the modern political age. In one letter, Milner appears to suggest that ways of playing down the horror of the camps.

‘It is impossible not to see that, however blameless we may be in the matter, we shall not be able to make anybody think so, and I cannot avoid an uncomfortable feeling that there must be some way to make the thing a little less awfully bad if one could only think of it,’ he wrote.

In another letter Milner talks about trying to gather as many sympathetic statistics and figures as possible and passing them promptly back to the government to use in a media campaign.

Women in children in Boer concentration camp.

In 1901, Milner was “lamenting” the “fact that the death rate among young children in the camps was still not dropping. ‘The theory that, all the weakly children being dead, the rate would fall off is not so far borne out by the facts,’ Milner wrote. ‘The strong ones must be dying now and they will all be dead by the spring of 1903.’”

On October 14, 1901, the cornerstone for the monument was laid at Province House.

There are, of course, no depictions in the images of sieges on the monument panels of dying children and starved women.

Tim Jaques in his comment also asked another interesting question about what modern Black South Africans think about the war and about this monument. When I contacted Ntombifikile Nkiwane, who previously wrote for the Examiner about the Western propaganda about South Africa’s land redistribution policies, she drew attention to how atrocities committed by white people are excused and accepted as the realities of war, while Winnie Mandela is being trashed.

Winnie Mandela (Gille de Vlieg).

And so it is that any discussion (particularly by Black people) of removing the monument, or honestly reckoning with the blood-soaked history of the British Empire will be met with vigorous resistance about “revising history” and “that was the way things were” and “political correctness,” but if any Black, Indigenous or brown people engaged in struggle commit a single act of violence, then they are “tarnished” forever. As Afua Hirsch points out:

Britain’s heroes are allowed to have waged war. The warriors against white supremacist oppression, on the other hand, are not. When, for instance, I questioned Piers Morgan over the appropriateness of having a 50-metre column in Trafalgar Square to commemorate Admiral Nelson, he spat that Nelson Mandela has a statue despite being a “terrorist.” When I debated with a renowned naval historian over his adulation of the admiral, the argument wound its way to Haiti — the only example in history of slaves successfully overthrowing their masters and establishing their own republic — and whether this was a victory for the enslaved over their oppressors (my view) or a tragedy for the plantation owners who were killed in the process (his).

Shree Paradkar similarly argues that:

When P.W. Botha, the former South African prime minister and president, died in 2006, the newspaper slipped in the fact that he presided over the killings of 4,000 people and holding of 50,000 others without trial as an afterthought toward the bottom of the obituary. The words “combative,” “irascible,” “ability to charm” led the story.

Just the facts; no judgment. Botha wasn’t “tarnished” by his violently racist reign.

In this way, “tarnished” also tells a story of perfection expected from the marginalized.

The burden of non-violence and the consequences of deviating from it fall disproportionately on the oppressed.

And so it is that even as Western newspapers purport outrage at torture or killing when allegedly committed by a Black African woman (and any evidence to the contrary is overlooked), our government happily works on only feet from a monument celebrating the glorious British concentration camps and slaughter of children that thankfully made us a contending nation on the world stage.

After all, that kind of violence is just normal and the only problem is people noticing it and complaining.

The Boer War memorial outside Province House. Photo: Wiki Commons

El Jones

El Jones is a poet, journalist, professor, community advocate, and activist. Her work focuses on social justice issues such as feminism, prison abolition, anti-racism, and decolonization.

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  1. Thank you El Jones for the history lesson on the Boer War and a new perspective (supported by evidence).
    Please keep on challenging the settler views of history. As subscribers, as Halifax residents, as people who live in Nova Scotia, and hopefully as Canadians we will gain an insight and understanding in the reality that what we are taught in books about history is simply a perspective that can be challenged with proven facts.

  2. The reexamination of history is surely a hallmark of an open society. Unfortunately many people are terrified of that. They want leaders like Trump and Ford to reinforce old perceptions.

    El keep recontextualizing history. It may not be popular but it certainly is necessary.

  3. The Boer War history lesson was great El, but was the statue erected solely to glorify the Boer War or give recognition to those men and women who died or were injured as a result of doing their duty in the service to Canada (perhaps both, but I hope not)?

    Interpretive signage at the site of the statue can change the outlook and perception for what a statue should represent. We have war memorials in almost every significant community in Canada and it is an insult to those who served to possibly insinuate that these war memorials were erected to solely glorify the conflicts.

    Appropriate signage at all statue and memorial sites would set the record straight to its purpose, and curb unintended or false perceptions. Appropriate signage educates the public, that are interested enough to read the script… those that do not read the signage probably do not care and walk by oblivious to the historical structure nearby.