Quakers and the South African War

by | 2 Mar, 2021

Peter D. Jones, Tasmania Regional Meeting

The South African (Boer) War – an introduction

 Europeans – the Portuguese – first reached the Cape of Good Hope in 1488 but the Dutch laid their claim to the region in 1652 as a supply station on the way to the East Indies, and the first settlers – a mix of mostly Dutch families but with some French Huguenots and Germans – became known as the Boers or “farmers” while their language evolved into Afrikaans.  When the British took over after the Napoleonic wars, the Boers moved up country to what became the Orange Free State and the Transvaal while British settlers arrived in the Cape Colony and Natal.  In the late nineteenth century, diamonds and then gold was discovered so thousands of “Uitlanders” (“foreigners”) poured in to disrupt the lives of the Boer settlers in the Transvaal.  Cecil Rhodes, who had become Prime Minister in the Cape Colony, cast envious eyes on this new source of wealth. He lent his support to Dr Lender Starr Jameson in his raid on the Transvaal in 1895 with the hope of provoking a rising of the Uitlanders in what became known as the Jameson Raid.   The raid was a failure but tensions between the British and the Boer republics continued to rise as the Uitlanders resented their status in the Transvaal, and the situation was further complicated by the support given by Germany to the Boer cause and their President, Paul Kruger. Humanitarians were also alienated by Boer treatment of “the native races” in their republics. When war finally broke out in October 1899, there was great enthusiasm for the cause in Britain and throughout the Empire, including the Australian colonies, where volunteers soon enlisted to head for South Africa.
One of the books that I got for Christmas, was a new book on Breaker Morant and the Boer War (1899-1902)[1]. This reminded me of another armed conflict where Quaker opposition to an imperialist war made them very unpopular at home. It’s also interesting to note that the Boer War has now been added to the list of wars we have recently started to “commemorate” here in Hobart, with the focus on the Boer War statue on the edge of the Domain – despite the fact that the war started before Australia became an independent nation state. The Boer War memorial in Bellerive reminds us of what the war was really about, “Not for self but Empire,” but the war has been drummed up to promote the military myths about the creation of the Australian nation and its support for “our great and powerful friends.” There were a few Quakers in South Africa at the time of the Boer War, mostly of course from the British community in the Cape Colony, although Friends’ House in London has two letters dated 1728 written by a British Friend from York Monthly Meeting who was in touch with Dutch Quakers there. We are not sure when the first Quakers arrived at the Cape though we know that Backhouse and Walker visited there (1838-40) and held Meetings for Worship in Cape Town as well as travelling inland. There were also visits by the Quaker Nantucket whaling ships and the crew apparently held Meetings for Worship as they used the Cape as a base for operations in the South Atlantic. Apparently local Methodists used a Friends’ Meeting House to worship there as well. British settlement in South Africa began after 1820 and one early Quaker – originally a Wesleyan Methodist – was Richard Gush who settled near Grahamstown, and was known locally as Quaker Gush, and there is a plaque in his memory at Salem where he lived. London YM was in a dilemma as tensions developed in the late nineteenth century, as the Anti-Slavery Society disapproved of the way that the Boers treated “the natives” in their territories, but on the other hand, they sympathised with the Boers suffering injustice at the hands of Imperial Britain. We know too that Mahatma Gandhi had contact with Friends while he lived in Natal (1893-1914), particularly Michael Hunter Coates from Lancaster, but Quakers living in South Africa were few and scattered, though visiting Friends often came through on their way to and from the Australian colonies. The Manchester Conference was held at the same time as the Jameson Raid (November 1895) and there was a lot of correspondence in The Friend about what was happening in South Africa as tensions rose. London YM recorded around 60 or 70 Friends in South Africa in 1898, mainly in the Cape Colony and Natal, so few in the Boer republics of the Orange River Colony and the Transvaal. When war finally broke out in 1899, Friends were very divided and confused, as this was a new kind of war, “Christian White races” fighting each other and using new destructive weapons, while the press was whipping up a patriotic fervour for the war so that any doubters were immediately labelled “Pro-Boer”.  Friends did become active in the South African Conciliation Committee but the Peace Society, chaired by the Quaker, Edward Pease, was divided, and so was the Liberal Party which many Friends traditionally supported. Reynolds Weekly News recorded in March 1900 that the “sect is on longer to be regarded as a strenuous and united peace organisation”. George Cadbury got into hot water with a letter in The Friend (2nd March 1900) when he wrote that he was now convinced that the war was caused by the self-interested motives of the great financial companies and not by the behaviour of the Boers. He was supported by Joseph Rowntree whose family was later to suffer from mob violence at public meetings in Yorkshire when the crowds also smashed the windows of Rowntree family homes. As the war deteriorated with Kitchener setting up “concentration camps” for Boer families after the Boers had resorted to guerrilla warfare, Friends set up the South African War Victims Fund, receiving reports from South Africa about conditions in the camps. In all, 43 camps were set up, housing 116,500 white people, of whom 26,000 died, with 20,000 of them being children under 16. African camps were set up for the farmworkers where over 13,000 died while captured Boer male prisoners were sent into exile on islands like St Helena and Ceylon. Joshua and Isabella Rowntree visited South Africa for three months in 1901 to see for themselves and met Mahatma Gandhi there, though they were unable to visit the Boer republics. The situation was complicated by a patriotic outpouring when Queen Victoria died in January 1901, but on a personal note, I was cheered to read that A.E, Theobald of Bath Meeting (where I first attend Meeting and joined the Society) had sent a letter to the City Fathers criticising the honours heaped on Lord Roberts (of Kandahar) when he returned to England after handing over command of the war to Lord Kitchener. George Cadbury got into further trouble for refusing to tender for orders of chocolate and cocoa for the troops, but when commanded by the Queen to supply chocolate for her Christmas present to the troops, he obeyed, but on terms which eliminated personal profit for himself. Many Friends worked with Emily Hobhouse whose reports of the appalling conditions in the camps caused great distress in Britain although they infuriated the military. These reports were publicised by The Friend which kept Meetings informed around the country, though Friends got into some rather divisive and unsavoury arguments over interpreting the mortality statistics. It was certainly an interesting period in Quaker history with the theological debates in the aftermath of the Manchester conference and subsequent gatherings, the emergence of new young leaders, and then the rising tensions in the lead up to the Great War. Many of the issues faced by Friends 120 years ago resonate today, and I still recall the jingoism unleashed by the tabloid press in England when I was spending a term at Woodbrooke, after Margaret Thatcher decided to go to war with Argentina over the Falkland Islands. Hardly anyone knew where they were and the only reason I did was because I was a stamp collector and stamps from the Falkland Islands and Dependencies were much sought after. Nonetheless the parallels with the Boer War were much the same, with Friends caught in a cleft stick over opposing the war but not supporting the Right Wing military junta in Argentina. First published in the Tasmania Regional Meeting newsletter.

NSW Bushmen in South Africa, 1901

[1] Fitzsimons, Peter: Breaker Morant . Hachette, 2020
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