The War at Home: An interview with Bill Nasson

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The concentration camps of the Anglo-Boer War caused thousands of deaths and much suffering. But should the women and children in the camps be seen only as victims, or is there another story to be told?

The War at Home: Women and Families in the Anglo-Boer War, edited by Albert Grundlingh and Bill Nasson, deals with these questions and plenty of other fascinating aspects of the Anglo-Boer War. Naomi Meyer asked Bill Nasson about this intelligent and eye-opening book.

Bill, thank you for your time. The Anglo-Boer War seems to be an insatiable topic. Why is this the case?

It’s a war which created the basis of modern South Africa by leading to the creation of Union in 1910. And in 20th-century South Africa, with the exception of the post-apartheid elections, it’s probably the closest thing to a central national experience, in one way or another touching virtually all the country’s inhabitants.

Conversely, could the Anglo-Boer War not be seen as any war in any given country? What differentiates this war from any other?

It could be seen as the equivalent of, say, the American Civil War of 1861–65, in that it was about the future shape and direction of a country. And it was not only the largest colonial war waged by the British Empire, it was also the biggest war before the outbreak of the First World War.

Why specifically explore the theme of women and families during the time of war?

This was a war in which there was no clear distinction between a battle front and a home or domestic front, because women and families were swept into hostilities. Among historians there is also growing interest in the civilian experience of warfare – in how, for example, ordinary people have coped with enemy occupation. 

School children in other countries learn about the Anglo-Boer War. Even in Ireland there exists a small section in a museum discussing the Irish people’s (ambivalent) response to this war. What do people outside of this country find interesting about the Anglo-Boer War?

It may be that (like the Spanish Civil War) it was a war about understandable issues – rights, freedoms, independence, small countries being bullied by a big imperialist world power.

Back in South Africa: the Anglo-Boer War is often mentioned in the same breath as the Great Trek. Afrikaner nationalism is involved. Do you think the Anglo-Boer War is still seen as a white and Afrikaans topic?

No – or at least not in the way that it once was. It is no longer a “usable past” in the service of Afrikaner nationalism. It is now viewed much more as a war of South African society, although at its core it remains essentially an Anglo-Boer struggle.

The book makes the interesting point that the generation directly after a war still deals with the emotional scars of the war, rather than dealing with the war on a political level – that is left to the next generation. How is this visible to you in the South African context?

The weight of the emotional scars of war will tend to grow lighter with the passing time, in this country as much as anywhere else. It may be that in coming decades the war will become less significant to people, and become just another part the general story of South Africa’s colonial conflicts. In other words, it may come to be viewed more dispassionately. But only time will tell.

Johann Myburgh and Albert Grundlingh

How about the generation after “the next generation”? Do the younger generation, especially if they do not yet have children of their own, not experience apathy regarding a topic like the Anglo-Boer War?

I’m not entirely sure that that’s true. On the basis of my undergraduate university teaching experience in both Cape Town and Stellenbosch, the younger generation are not bored by the war if it is presented through fresh and more critical approaches. The ideas of the war that they may have absorbed as younger children are not necessarily the same as those that they encounter later.

The book discusses camp hygiene in the chapter five. “Boereraat.” A delicate topic. It is more than just a medicinal practice followed by a people. It is nearly sacrilege to criticise this practice, as the knowledge of the Boers was, in a way, always considered superior. But did the Boers really know more? And was it really only Emily Hobhouse who was sympathetic towards the Boer women and children?

It’s perhaps not a question of the Boers being right or superior, and the British being wrong. Or, for that matter, the superior British being right about medical matters and the ignorant Boers being wrong. It’s seen better as a fundamental clash between modern methods and more traditional practices, or friction between opposing habits, beliefs and other mentalities over what was thought to be best. And, of course, as a matter of urban, middle-class professionals viewing it all as a mission to improve rural people they considered to be ignorant and in need of educating. No; although Emily Hobhouse was certainly the most prominent, there were other British liberals and humanitarians who were moved by the plight of Boer women and children and tried to provide assistance, like Mary Kingsley, who nursed Boer prisoners.

Boys to men – often the case during war. But in some photos in this book some of the boys were eleven years old. Was this unique to the Anglo-Boer War or was this also the situation during times of war late in the 20th century?

You could say that the war turned boys into men very early. But the meaning of boyhood or youth is something that has changed over time. In the British Navy in the 18th century a 14- or 15-year-old could be a ship’s officer. So, the sight of 11-year-old boys in fighting lines was by no means unique to the Anglo-Boer War. At the end of the Second World War the German army was conscripting young boys. And in more contemporary guerrilla conflicts like the Vietnam War, the Vietcong included child fighters. And, of course, independent Africa’s civil wars are notorious for the phenomenon of child soldiers.

Bill Nasson, Johann Myburgh and Albert Grundlingh

There are many aspects to any war. How did you and Albert Grundlingh decide which aspects to focus on?

As editors we wished to bury some old myths (that the British invented concentration camps, or that for camp inhabitants it was all helpless suffering and nothing else) to suggest new perspectives – interaction between whites and blacks in the camp environment, for instance – and to emphasise the remarkable human capacity to endure atrocious conditions. We were privileged to have been able to work with talented and knowledgeable contributors to present such aspects.

The Anglo-Boer War added new words to the Afrikaans vocabulary: Verskroeide aarde. Bittereinders. Agterryers. Emotive words. Again, what made this war special or different? Or was it the fact that Afrikaans was a relatively new language and these words needed to be created to further promote nationalism?

Yes, those are enormously powerful words, with a sort of no-nonsense, blunt resonance. You could say that the creation of a wartime vocabulary was one of the many – the many, many, many – features which made this war so distinctive. But I don’t think you could say that at the time of their formation such words were being invented to feed a nationalist crusade. All major wars throw up new words or phrases, feeding old as well as newer languages. When you’re told not “to go over the top”, for example, that’s a language legacy of the First World War.

Your own chapter in the book is focused on black people in the camps. Loyalty and obedience are mentioned in the same breath. Black people were often servants rather than active participants – or not? What is your interpretation?

Black people were both. Some were loyal and trusted servants of Boer families, others were participants in the running of the camp system, cultivating food, guarding facilities, and so on. You could say that there were divided loyalties. Or, that for some there were no loyalties – they were just doing their best to get through the war.

Eloise Wessels

How about the black people not involved at all, the black people living elsewhere in the country during the time of war? Or was everybody in the country affected by the war?

Black people elsewhere were also caught up in the war, whether they were in rural towns, on mission stations or living in chiefdoms. Tens of thousands worked for the British, thousands rode with Boer commandos as agterryers, and others got involved on their own account in hostilities with Boer forces. The war had a very long reach, in the sense that it was a kind of total war. Very few were completely unaffected. Here in the Western Cape, for instance, mission stations supplied the British Army with coloured mule drivers and with animals who eventually ended up north of Pretoria.

Apartheid in the camps – “Aparte lewensfere of 'n gedeelde lot” as it is called in the Afrikaans version of the book: Were there separate camps for whites and blacks and were their situations similar or different?

There were segregated white and black camps. Conditions in black camps were dramatically worse – it was there that life was most cheap. At the same time, there were black servants in white camps, and there were interactions, so that separation was not always absolute.

A whole chapter is devoted to humour in the camps. The worse a situation is, the more jokes abound. But again, this is not unique to the Afrikaner; this is also visible in other colonised countries, like Ireland. Do you agree?

Yes, of course. The colonised Irish were legendary for humour, even if it was about the starvation of the Potato Famine. The worse the war, the better the jokes – it’s a shared way of coping in hellish conditions, such as those of the British, German and French soldiers in their trenches on the Western Front in 1916.

Special attention is given to the Vrouemonument in the book. You discuss its meaning and the complexities of this particular monument. You mention the fact that it never gained as much nationalistic value as the Voortrekker Monument, as this monument reminded people of failure. Has this emotion changed, or has the emphasis shifted?

Yes, the Vrouemonument is a particular focus of this book, not least because 2013 is the centenary of its opening. Historians are addicted to centenaries! You’re right about the contrast with the more stridently nationalist Voortrekker Monument. The Bloemfontein memorial represented something more mute; almost unutterable loss; a site of memory and a site of mourning, to paraphrase the historian Jay Winter. The point about such war memorials is that their meaning does not necessarily stay fixed – it can change over time, acquire a different life, or even just waste away.

The Vrouemonument focuses on women and children. Do you think the monument includes men’s experience of the war?

The men who created it had female suffering and sacrifice in view, taking little account of the robust and often combative involvement of Boer women in the republican struggle. In that sense, you could perhaps say that the monument reflects how men chose to represent their experience of the war: that in a war of men and women, it was for men to honour women through a monument, and not, for instance, through some other kind of public initiative.

Black women were always excluded in this country’s histories. Because of so little evidence of their relationships with white women and their being part of the camps, they are again silently ignored and excluded. Is there any way in which they can be included in this narrative without forcing a superficial invitation?

The book does what it can to reflect the presence of black women, starting with the extraordinarily powerful cover photograph. Especially in the domestic environment, they were intrinsically part of social life. As you say, the available evidence is unfortunately slight. But I think that the lives of black women do find some place in these chapters, and not in any imposed way. Again, the clue is in the cover.

Who is the ideal reader of this book?

We don’t have any ideal category in mind, other than to emphasise that the book is aimed at interested general readers, so it is free of jargon, clearly written and, we hope, highly accessible.

For anybody who does not care about the Anglo-Boer War, should they care?

I can answer that best by pointing out that the book’s foreword is written by  Annette Becker, professor of modern history at the University of Paris, and one of Europe’s leading historians of total war in the 20th century. If the French care about the Anglo-Boer War, shouldn’t you?     

See photos of The War at Home's book launch.

About the book:

The War at Home: Women and Families in the Anglo-Boer War

Editors: Albert Grundlingh, Bill Nasson

ISBN: 9780624058991

Buy The War at Home from

The concentration camps of the Anglo-Boer War caused thousands of deaths and much suffering. But should the women and children in the camps only be seen as victims, or is there another story to be told?

The War at Home tries to do just that. Firstly, it explores the unique strength of Boer women, who were often more vehemently anti-British than the men, and their role in supporting the Boer guerrilla fighters. There is also a chapter on the extraordinary Nonnie de la Rey (wife of General Koos de la Rey) who lived in the veld with her six children for nearly two years to avoid capture.

A chapter on everyday life in the camps again points out how some camps were run more effectively than others and how for many women the biggest challenge was keeping boredom at bay. In an effort to stay busy, many young Boer women for instance received valuable training as nurse’s assistants.

Another chapter on the clash of cultures between British doctors and Boer women explains why camp doctors started to blame the personal hygiene and mothering abilities of Boer women when they could not find ways to cure the dying children.
The book also takes the suffering of black civilians in the black camps into account with a special focus on black children. As in the white camps, the majority of the 20 000 deaths in the black camps were children.

Lastly, in the year in which the Women’s Monument in Bloemfontein celebrates its centenary, The War at Home looks critically at the meaning of the monument then and now.

 Available in Afrikaans: Die oorlog kom huistoe: Vroue en gesinne in die Anglo-Boereoorlog.

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  • Surely the issue is not whether the higiene of impoverished, downtrodden people who had survived years of brutality under British soldiers contributed to the illness in the camps, but rather that people were herded into camps in the first place? The cause of the atrocity is the fact that Britain chose to end the war by cutting off supplies to the Boers by burning their farms, stealing their livestock, and herding their families like cattle into overcrowded, poorly run camps. Blaming the victims for the crime is not an unknown tactic in life, just completely deplorable.

  • To even hint at the possiblilty that the Boer women may have contributed in any way to what could also be justified as mass murder, is to ignore a huge part of the history leading up to the war.

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