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Researching the South African War in South Africa.

My commission from the Australian War Memorial to write a new history of Australians and what used to be called the Boer war took me to South Africa last year. I went primarily to read records that historians before me had lacked the opportunity to read, but also to see a little of the country where fifteen thousand or more Australian soldiers fought a century ago and five hundred or more died. I timed the trip to coincide with the centenary of the war's outbreak so I could watch how a new, post-apartheid South Africa would remember an event that until recently had been a key building block in Afrikaner identity and the history of minority rule.

I considered taking a ship to South Africa, perhaps one to Biera in Mozambique where most of the bushmen contingents of 1900 landed, and like the bushmen taking a train through Zimbabwe and into what used to be called the western Transvaal. Fear of deadlines and love of comfort led me to travel by air instead, and in any case research in Zimbabwe was off -- I learned that the country's cash-strapped and authoritarian government requires you to submit to a three-month application process and pay a US$200 fee to use its archives. So I arrived at Johannesburg after 9 hours in the air rather than 4 to 6 weeks on the water and another day or two on a train. If I was barely aware of the 10,000 kilometres that Australian soldiers had to cross a century ago to reach the fighting, I was at least able to look loftily down on the Indian Ocean and see it as the imperial lake it once was, a vast and secure highway across which soldiers, horses, food and fodder could pass safely from Australia, India and New Zealand to wherever the British empire was being challenged.

The highveld, the hard plateau a kilometre and a half above sea level on which much of the war was fought, has a testing climate and topography that are best experienced personally to understand how the harsh sun and blanched grass debilitated so many horses during the war, how hidden dongas (dry river beds) and abrupt kopjes (stony hills) offered the Boers natural trenches and fortresses, how the vast distances between any settlement allowed the Boers to vanish into thin air. But when you return to your hotel room and cool yourself down in front of the fan with a drink you start to think how familiar it all is to an Australian, or at least how tediously predictable. And in that predictability, perhaps, lay some of the value of the Australian soldier. Whether or not he could ride and shoot, regardless of whether he truly possessed the brutal will needed to crush a people's resistance to imperial rule, he accepted that it might take a day to ride from one farm to the next, that you would drip with sweat while you rode, that you hid from the sun when you could, and that water was a rare gift. Less familiar to an Australian, though, are the highveld's freezing nights and bitter winters, two uncomfortable products of elevation and distance from the sea.

I walked over a few Australian battlefields, the best known being on the Elands River west of Pretoria where three hundred Australians and two hundred Rhodesians resisted a Boer siege for two weeks in August 1900 and, some said at the time, kick-started an Australian military legend. The hard shale clinks like glass beneath your boots as you tramp, one reason why Australians were reluctant to entrench before the shelling started. Like most South African battlefields, Elands River remains largely farmland. Only a railway line, a highway, a dam and a house or two interrupt vistas that have changed little in a century. And a house, if approached with a local guide and in the right frame of mind, can add to your understanding of the Australian experience of the war. It might still contain a pious, cautious, hospitable white farmer and his family whose English isn't perfect -- much like the people whom Australians fought. The graves of Australian soldiers and their black labourers who died at Elands River are well preserved, largely due to the efforts of Lionel Wulfsohn, a local businessman and second world war veteran who developed an interest in the South African war and an affection for Australians. Wulfsohn and a fellow enthusiast, John Pennefather, would like to develop the grave site and its surrounds, which during the siege formed the heart of the Australian defences, into something that Australian tourists might like to seek out when visiting South Africa. They've received no encouragement. Local and provincial governments have more pressing demands on their funds, and the Australian high commission in Pretoria prefers to make Diamond Hill, a short drive from the capital but hardly the site of any sustained Australian heroism, into the focus of Australian commemoration.

When in Johannesburg I began to understand the uitlanders, those mostly British and Greater British immigrants (including many Australians) who built the city on gold in the 1880s and 1890s and whose agitation against the Transvaal government was a cause of the war. To scan the official pages of a city directory from the 1890s and, page after page, find no British surnames is to start to understand how these prosperous, pompous, seditious immigrants nevertheless considered themselves to be deprived of their rights and vulnerable to attack -- expecially when, in retaliation for the botched coup known as the Jamieson raid, the government built a fortress on Hospital Hill whose guns pointed down into the city. To sit at the lonely Rand Regiments Memorial, a neglected, indeed unfinished monument to uitlander soldiers in the war (again, many came from Australia), with most of its grounds lost to a zoo, a museum and to car parks and with much of its stone cracked and defaced, is to see the hopelessness of the uitlanders' cause in spite of British victory in 1902. They had to do more than bring their Boer enemies to sign a surrender document; they had to outbreed them, or at least out-believe them, if they were to consolidate their victory and rule the Transvaal. In the end the uitlanders proved unable to do either. They could not outface others forever -- unless those others were black. Gradually they fell in behind the Afrikaner call to unite, under Afrikaner leaders, against the black majority.

South Africa's libraries and archives can be a delight to use. Not only do they hold material unavailable elsewhere; they've also profited from decades of government attempts to foster national identity through historical consciousness, first among Afrikaners and now among black South Africans. Thus much of the holdings of the National Archives of South Africa, which include hundreds of kilometres of pre-federation (1910) official records created before named files were kept, have not only been itemised in paper lists but also on a computer database -- something no Australian state archive has done despite mission statements proclaiming all the virtues of accessibility. Official action leads popular opinion, though. Few black South Africans have sufficient education to lead them to want to spend time learning through what must in any case seem the detritus of white rule. This confers further benefits on researchers. I saw just one other serious researcher in the five days I spent at the Harold Strange (formerly Africana) Library in Johannesburg, probably the best repository of books on the war, and the two librarians there had little else to do but fuss over me. A less happy reason for their under-employment was their library's location in downtown Johannesburg, an ugly, decaying and violent district which anyone avoids if they can. Reports of crime in South Africa are often exaggerated, though, and it was only outside this library that I ever weighed up whether a day's research was worth the risk of robbery or assault.

The major National Archives of South Africa repositories, located in the old state capitals of Cape Town, Pretoria, Bloemfontein and Durban, hold few military records from the war, the small Frederick Carrington collection in Pretoria being an exception. Military records were the property of the British army, an imperial enterprise and a rival to civil government, and of its officers. Nor are there many official wartime records from the Boer republics, which in any case are in Dutch and so are unreadable by most Australians. But what remains is vast and fruitful if you want to understand the Australian soldiers' part in the war. The large civil series -- executive council and governor, colonial secretary, treasurer, attorney general, district commissioners and magistrates, military police, land settlement departments -- reveal the war and the army through civilian eyes, whether of imperial officials who sought to trim the army's jurisdiction and administer the newly conquered republics, or of ordinary South Africans who sought to profit from the war and avoid its destruction. Australian soldiers are most commonly mentioned in files on the military police, which passed to civil control and to which many Australians were attached during the war, and from land settlement agencies, as thousands of soldiers settled after the war in what seemed a land of rich promise, and from public works departments, which cared for war graves or corresponded with those who did. At the close of this article I list the most valuable series and their location, and also useful private papers kept in the major libraries.

Probably no Australian interested in the South African war can hold back from visiting what has become an Australian sacred site -- the grave shared by Harry Morant and Peter Handcock in Pretoria's Church street cemetery. Not that the grave is easy to get to. Cemeteries in South Africa are popular targets for vandals, sometimes politically motivated ones, and Church Street cemetery seems to be locked most of the time. It was when I was there one Saturday morning despite a sign suggesting I'd arrived well within open hours. Fortunately the tennis club next door had a key to one of the gates and allowed me to use it. Having died in disgrace, Morant and Handcock lie not in the cemetery's military section but near it, next to a soldier killed in a rail accident. I approached the grave in much the same mood as 19th-century English tourists visited Napoleon's tomb -- curious to see the remains a romantic villain, and satisfied to reflect that his villainy had been punished, however harshly. I quickly saw that my mood was out of step with other Australian pilgrims before me. The grave was the only one with a wreath on it, and some visiting Queenslanders have reverently fixed a plaque to it. So the legend of Morant as an Aussie victim of British bastardry lives on. I turned instead to the grave sites of men whose sense of duty I can understand, whose ability to distinguish war from murder was uncorrupted, who died in tragic circumstances not of their own devising -- men like Edwin Knox, the young Victorian bushman who drowned during the Great De Wet hunt in February 1901 and was widely mourned back in his suburb of St Kilda, and Keith Mackellar, brother of poet Dorothy, shot down in July 1900 after mistaking Boers for Britons. Mackellar's father was anguished enough, and rich enough, to have his son's body exhumed after the war and rebuffed in Sydney. It was the only Australian body thus repatriated.

The approaching centenary of the war's outbreak generated much media analysis, not to mention opportunism from regional tourist authorities. How would the new South Africa remember the war? It could easily have been dismissed as white man's dreaming, of no concern to the black majority. But the conciliatory mood of the country ran against such a line, as did the hard spadework by historians like Peter Warwick which showed how non-whites had been caught up in the war. The black middle class, from which the government is largely recruited, and white liberals, in which camp probably most of South Africa's historians stand, agreed that since the war had touched nearly all South Africans a century ago it ought to be commemorated by all, though in a way which emphasised the suffering of the black majority. The truth suffered slightly with this agreement. In order to make sense of the war within the old Afrikaner narrative of freedom and the new black narrative of liberation, the official view of the war, enunciated at public commemorations during the October 1999 centenary was that South Africans had been united in a shared struggle against British imperialism -- ignoring that far more South Africans, black and white, had served the imperial cause. It was probably a politically necessary fudge, even if it left some South Africans wondering how talk of the bravery of the Barolong people under Baden Powell at the siege of Mafeking fitted in.

There was no mention during the centenary about the Australian part in the war. That was understandable. Australians made up less than five percent of the British army, their enemies rarely distinguished them from the rest of the `English', and their comrades were more aware of imperial unity and common British ancestry than any nascent national differences. Still, I expected some rural Afrikaners to blanch when I mentioned Australian soldiers, especially if I mentioned Breaker Morant and his crimes. But decades of anti-British sentiment and the release of Bruce Beresford's film Breaker Morant had long ago turned enmity into fraternity. I was invariably hailed almost as a cousin, a fellow colonial rebel against the British empire, a fellow critic of British foppishness, British condescension, British incompetence etc. I have bad news for my well-meaning Afrikaner hosts. My history of Australians and the South African war is going to show how keenly Australians fought for the imperial cause, and how many of them looked up to British generals and statesmen. I might even call the book A new brand of sahib, as Rudyard Kipling characterised those Australians who joined in the crushing of the Boer republics from 1899 to 1902.

Useful records in South Africa on Australia's part in the South African war (Excluding records held in Durban)

National Archives of South Africa, Transvaal Archives Repository.

(Pretoria, telephone 0011 2712 323 5300)

A1225 Sir Frederick Carrington papers 1884-1901 (for bushmen contingents in)

CS Transvaal Colonial Secretary 1901-1910 (for Bushveldt Carbineers)

GOV Secretary to Transvaal Governor 1901-1910 (for Arthur Lynch, who fought with the Boers)

IOP Intelligence Officer to Transvaal Military Governor 1900-1901 (for Lynch)

MGP Transvaal Military Governor 1900-1902 (for crimes, military police)

PMO Provost Marshal Army Headquarters 1900-1903 (for Bushveldt Carbineers)

SAC Chief Staff Officer South African Constabulary 1900-1908 (for South African Constabulary staff diaries)

TPS Transvaal Provincial Secretary 1900-1954 (for graves and their care)

National Archives of South Africa, Cape Archives Repository

(Cape Town, telephone 0011 2721 462 4050)

1/CBG Coleberg magistrate (for Australian soldiers, graves in district)

1/DGS Douglas/Herbert magistrate (for Australian soldiers in district)

1/MDB Middelburg magistrate (for Australian soldiers in district)

1/PKA Prieska magistrate (for Australian soldiers in district)

AG Cape Attorney General 1661-1923 (for crimes)

GH Cape Government House 1896-1910 (for Witton petition following Bushveldt Carbineers affair)

National Archives of South Africa, Free State Archives Repository

(Bioemfontein, telephone 0011 2751 522 6762)

CO Free State Colonial Secretary 1901-1911 (for applications for civil jobs, postwar settlement)

DLS Free State Director of Land Settlement 1902-1913 (for postwar settlement)

MCC Free State Military Claim and Compensation Board 1901-1903 (for looting)

PMP Officer Commanding Provisional Mounted Police 1900-1901 (for military police)

South African Library

(Cape Town, telephone 0011 2721 246 320, email

MSB 398 Reform Committee 1895-1916 (for Australian uitlanders)

MSB 946 Arthur Davey's Breaker Morant collection 1900-1991 (for Bushveldt Carbineers affair and historiography)

Harold Strange Library of African Studies

(Johannesburg, telephone 0011 2711 836 3787, email

Walter Karri Davies' Imperial Light Horse collection (for Australian uitlanders)
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Author:Wilcox, Craig
Geographic Code:6SOUT
Date:Mar 1, 2001
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