November 11, 2009

A War to Remember.

On November 11, they were almost halfway, having left Québec nearly two weeks earlier. Volunteers from all across Canada, heading for a theatre of war on the other side of the globe. For some of them, who'd barely traveled outside their home province, it may as well have been the end of the Earth. For some of them, it'd be the last place they'd ever go. They had signed up to defend peace, justice, progress, and civilization itself, against an enemy who — they'd been told — threatened all with his backward religious zealotry and militant aggression. They were the vanguard, the first 1,019 Canadians out of 7,368 (including 12 female nurses) who'd fight for the British Empire in South Africa over the next two and a half years.

The Second Boer War, known as the South African War in Canada, began 110 years ago. Canadians' awareness of this conflict, its causes and consequences, isn't particularly acute — though given our current involvement in Afghanistan, and the parallels between the two conflicts, we could do with a reminder. Especially as we once again find ourselves governed by reactionaries hellbent on reshaping the identity of our nation to one that better suits their jingoist stance — as evidenced by the current Conservative governments new, revised citizenship guide, and its greater emphasis on Canada's military history. Though don't rely on it for mention of Canada's "adventures" in South Africa, given that our exploits there aren't much to brag about.

That war was precipitated by the British Empire, having already annexed the Natalia Republic (today's KwaZulu-Natal) in 1843, setting its eye on the remaining independent Boer republics of the Orange Free State and the South African Republic (Transvaal). Situated between the Orange and Vaal rivers, by 1870 the Orange Free State had yielded impressive diamond deposits, while the Transvaal, north of the Vaal river, was the destination of the Witwatersrand Gold Rush in 1886, following the discovery of the largest gold-bearing deposits in the world. The South African gold may not have been as pure as that produced in Australia and Canada, but it was a lot easier to extract. As for diamonds, they wouldn't be discovered in Australia and Canada until a century later.

The only obstacle between the British Empire and this new sources of wealth were the Boer (black South Africans certainly didn't count). The Boer, descendants of Dutch, German, and French settlers were weary of the influx of mainly British prospectors into their states, and — having gained their independence — certainly not interested in becoming British subjects. The situation came to a head when British colonists launched a disastrous raid into Transvaal towards the end of 1895. Though ostensibly a private enterprise, it had been backed — until the very last moment — by the British government. The Boer successfully repelled the raid, but their predicament was exacerbated further by an unexpected expression of support from the German Emperor.

To the British this was simply further evidence of German meddling in "their affairs", and a perfect pretext for full-blown conflict. As British troops began assembling along their borders, the Boer gambled on a preemptive strike, launching an offensive in October 1899. However, by January 1900, colonial reinforcements from Australia, Canada, and New Zealand, gave the British the upper hand, and by September 1900 the Boer republics were overrun. Refusing to surrender, the Boer engaged in a protracted campaign of irregular warfare, lasting until May 1902.

Canada's Prime Minister, Wilfrid Laurier, initally attempted to steer clear of a conflict which had no bearing whatsoever on Canada's national interests. But a majority of English Canadians were rearing for a jolly good "adventure", with the sole opposition emanating from Québec, and a few vocal English Canadian labour unions and farmers' groups. French Canadians in particular were not only worried of setting a precedent for involvement in future conflicts, but could also sympathise with the Boer — small nations struggling for independece in a sea of Anglos. Laurier eventually bowed to pressure, and agreed to a compromise which saw Canada provide volunteers, equipment and transportation in lieu of conscription.

Though Canadians had participated in the Nile Expedition of 1884-85, this was the first time large Canadian contingents participated in armed conflict abroad. Many signed up beliving they'd fight alongside other Canadians, commanded by Canadians even. As it turned out, the Brits called the shots from beginning to end, minding to quickly get out of the way once the actual shooting started. A scenario Canadians would experience for much of the First World War as well. As it happened, the first significant British victory of the conflict was won by Canadians, in the Battle of Paardeberg. Though as wreaths are placed at the South African War memorial in Toronto, the Boer War Memorial in Montréal, and other points of rememberance throughout Canada, let's remember that this particular "victory" — like most of them — was the result of pure luck.

Having experienced their worst day of losses during the entire conflict (8 dead, 60 wounded) in their very first combat, and bungled a nighttime sneak attack which saw most of the Canadian battalion retreat, two Canadian companies managed to convince 4,019 Boer men and 50 women (roughly 10% of the Boer army) to surrender. The battle could've easily gone the other way. Today there aren't many obvious reminders of this specific conflict in Canada, beyond its most infamous commander — Horatio Herbert Kitchener — being the namesake of many a street, park, school, and public building throught the country, even a city in Ontario.

The Mennonite community once known as Berlin, was violently intimidated to change its name after the racist Field Marshall's death in 1916. No German name would be tolerated by the rabid pro-Empire Anglos — despite the fact that the conflict fought at the time was (ostensibly) against German Emperor Wilhelm II , the first grandchild of British Queen Victoria. But Kitchener is perhaps best remembered as the mustachioed Big Brother staring down from a recruitment poster — like a British Stalin — intimidating citizens of the Empire to go get killed in the First World War, the pointless conflict which spelled the end of the era of empires. (Though we're often told to revere those fallen in that war for their sacrifice to peace and democracy, let's remember none of the participating nations were democracies in any modern sense of the word.)

What is less known is the tactics Kitchener employed in 1900, once the British offensive had failed to subdue the Boer. Apart from a "scorched earth" policy, which saw the devastation of Boer farms and ranches, their livelihoods and livestock destroyed, as well as using Boer prisoners as human shields to protect trains, Kitchener also turned refugee camps into concentration camps. Though similar camps had previously been established in the Russian Empire prior to the first partition of Poland, in the USA to concentrate Native Americans, and by Spain in Cuba and the Philippines, Kitchener's concentration camps are distinguished for being the first to actually be termed such.

The internment of Boer women and children in 45 tented camps (and an additional 64 for black South Africans of various ethnicities who lived in the two independent Boer republics) was meant to deny the Boer "guerillas" access to supplies, food, and shelter. Those interned also served as a means to extort: families of Boer men still fighting received smaller rations than others, causing mass starvation. Combined with poor sanitation, lack of food soon made diseases — measles, typhoid, dysentery — endemic in the camps. Shortage of medicine and medical care quickly led to large numbers of deaths.

According to the Canadian War Museum's resident historian Cameron Pulsifer, any comparison of these camps with the more infamous ones established by the German Nazi-regime is "grossly exaggerated and unfair". An opinion that easily calls into question the point of said museum. Whether or not the British — with ample help from Canadian volunteers — had intended to perpetrate a genocide is beside the point. They waged a war on two independent states for the purpose of annexing their territories and forcibly assimilating their populations. Regardless of the stated intentions, the end result ultimately speaks for itself: nearly 25% of the Boer population, 50% of all Boer children under the age of 16, and an estimated 12% of the black South African populations died in Kitchener's camps.

Starvation, disease, and exposure killed 27,927 Boer — of whom 24,074 were children — and 14,154 black South Africans. Though as no attempt was ever made to keep records of black South Africans, their deaths were likely underestimated. As many as 22,000 of the nearly 107,000 black South Africans interned may have perished in the camps. By comparison, only some 3,000 Boer men were killed in actual combat. Additionally, of the nearly 28,000 prisoners of war taken by British forces, some 25,630 were sent to prisons overseas. While not as purposeful as the Holocaust, it's a genocide that's left a lasting effect on the demography and quality of life in the region.

Why does this matter to us now? Because Canadians participated fully in these genocidal actions, taking active part in the "suppressive" policies during the entire duration of the war. Military fetishists like Pulsifer and his fellows at the Canadian War Museum may lack the courage to admit it, but not one among all these people — men, women, children — ever posed a threat to Canada in any way whatsoever. The Canadian War Museum's obfuscation of the atrocities and war crimes committed by Canadian volunteers is disingenuous and dishonest.

Ironically, once awareness of the appalling conditions in camps had been raised, primarily by Emily Hobhouse, Kitchener allegedly issued a "take no prisoners" order to prevent overcrowding. This only came to light during the court-martial of three Australian soldiers — one of whom happend to be folk hero Harry "Breaker" Morant — put on trial for executing Boer prisoners. Kitchener denied ever issuing the order, promptly signing the death warrants of the Australians. This didn't prevent Canadian scouts from wearing black feathers to indicate they'd shoot any Boer captured under arms. And what do we have to show for our participation in this "grand adventure"? 267 Canadians killed in action, 252 wounded, three Victoria crosses, one scarf crocheted by the Queen, and a springbok on the cap badge of the Royal Canadian Dragoons.

Though the legacy of the Second Boer War also taints the dress uniform of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police, whose distinctive Stetson hats and Strathcona boots were first officially sanctioned for use by Canadian South Africa volunteers. Canada also "gained" a Minister of Militia and Defence in South Africa veteran Sam Hughes — a reactionary hothead who not only helped convince Prime Minister Laurier of the necessity of getting involved in the South African war, but would go on to whip up nationalist fervour in the build up to the First World War, goading Canadians to yet again sacrifice themselves in a foreign conflict that had little to do with them.

As we're asked by our parliament this year to pause for two rather than the traditional minute of silence on Remembrance Day, let us remind ourselves of the chauvinist forces that are in fact one of the leading sources of conflict in our world. Let us remind ourselves how easily we can be decieved to lend our support to armed aggression in far away places, against people we don't know and have never met, who pose little — if any — threat to us.

As the martial sentimentalists in our current government and in our society attempt to institutionalise militarism in our country, to ritualise rememberance ceremonies, and imbue them with chauvinist platitudes and historical revisionism in order to turn future generations into willing recruits, let us remind ourselves that in 1899, the (Liberal) government of Canada claimed the overseas expediton to South Africa would not be a precedent. Time has clearly proven otherwise. It is in our power to change that.

1 comment:

  1. I was in France in 2003 with a Group and visited the War cemetaries and monuments. It was very exciting and am doing this again.

    Please check out my website.



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