David Saks
David Saks

Forgotten voices from another ‘stop the war’ campaign

So deep seated was the unpopularity of the last war against Saddam Hussein’s Iraq that it was strongly in evidence even within the US and UK, the two main countries that waged it. Interesting, one finds parallels between this contemporary anti-war sentiment and what took place in South Africa a century previously when the British Empire set about extinguishing the independence of the two Boer republics of the ZAR (Transvaal) and Orange Free State.

Obviously, there are significant differences between Britain’s conquest of the Boer republics and its part in the overthrow of Saddam, but one clear and intriguing parallel is how in each case strenuous anti-war sentiment emerged not just in the wider world (which in the main was motivated by resentment of and jealousy over British imperial hegemony) but within British society. As a significant new publication has demonstrated, pro-Boer sentiment existed to a considerable extent within even the Anglophone sector of the Cape Colony during the war.

In 1902, shortly after peace was concluded, the liberal British journal The New Age printed an anthology of poems protesting against the war that had previously been published in the journal. This appeared under the title of Songs of the Veld and other Poems. The poet, journalist and intellectual C Louis Leipoldt evidently had an important role in the publication, and was among the (anonymous) South African contributors. Most of the poems were written by opponents of the war in Britain itself and elsewhere in the English-speaking world.

Despite the fact that war was over, the book was banned in South Africa (as The New Age had been during the conflict). Only 106 years later has it become available in the country whose events had inspired it. In October 2008 Songs of the Veld and other Poems, now including the subtitle “English poems on the Anglo-Boer War”, was brought out by Cederberg Publishers, with a preface and lengthy introduction (in Afrikaans and English) by cultural journalist Marthinus van Bart.

Van Bart, who has long taken an active interest in the role played by non-weapon-bearing citizens of the Cape Colony on behalf of the Boer cause, discovered a copy of the original in the archives at Stellenbosch University and set about resurrecting this rare and significant work of Africana from the undeserved obscurity in which it had been languishing. The result is an impressive piece of scholarship, with the important input of various experts on South African, and in particular Anglo-Boer War poetry, such as Malvern van Wyk Smith and Stephen Gray.

For the duration of the war, the Cape Colony was under martial law, resulting in, among other things, strict censorship, numerous arrests and a fair number of (public) executions. This was why the South African contributors to The New Age had to be published anonymously, and without the fine historio-literary sleuthing of Van Bart and other contemporary scholars involved in the project their identities would still be unknown. In addition to the above mentioned Leipoldt, they included Anna Purcell, Betty Molteno, Alice Greene, Albert Cartwright and Friedrich Carl Kolbe. All were prominently involved in the cultural and intellectual (and in the case of Kolbe, a Roman Catholic priest, religious) life of the Colony. Rare photographs of the poets concerned are included.

Will this book be of any interest to anyone today, aside from historians of the period and possibly students of literature? Put another way, do these finally resurrected voices of protest have anything relevant to convey today, particularly to South Africans, well over a century after the events they describe?

Scholars working in the field of South African literary history will also no doubt welcome the resurrection of these long-forgotten poems by local writers. In assessing their relative merits, they would naturally have to take into account the fact that they were intended as being vehicles through which to convey a moral and political message rather than as purely aesthetic creations.

The Anglo-Boer War (or South African War, to give it its politically correct if bland title) is essentially understood as an Anglo-Afrikaner struggle, fought between the forces of British imperialism and Afrikaner republicanism. The book helps to qualify this somewhat simplistic understanding by demonstrating how many English-speaking South Africans roundly opposed what they regarded as an unjustified war against a sovereign nation.

Also from a South African point of view, it is useful to be reminded that it was not only during the apartheid era that voices of protest were silenced. In this respect, the importance of Songs of the Veld extends beyond its being just another, albeit worthy, addition to the canon of Anglo-Boer War literature. It has something to say to all South Africans by showing how principled men and, particularly, women refused to be swept up in the tide of Jingoism and instead, at no small risk to themselves, took a stand against an unjust and progressively more barbarous war against a sovereign nation.

Songs of the Veld and other Poems is available in all major bookshops or directly from Trevor Emslie of Cederberg Publishers of Cape Town: [email protected]