Rethinking the life and legacy of Emily Hobhouse
‘ War Without Glamour’, at the Free State Arts Festival on 1 July, gives prominence to the politics of Emily Hobhouse’s peace activism
On March 8 2004 then president Thabo Mbeki delivered a speech at the opening of the Garden of Remembrance at Freedom Park in Pretoria, a site commemorating those who fought for “justice and liberties” in SA’s history. Mbeki quoted the British peace activist Emily Hobhouse. He cited the 1913 speech she wrote for the unveiling of the Vrouemonument (Women’s Monument) in Bloemfontein to the memory of Boer women and children who had died in the concentration camps of the 1899-1902 SA War. He pointed to her lesson for history: “The justice and liberties that Emily Hobhouse said the Afrikaner people loved have now become the common heritage of all our people.”
War Without Glamour, a new exhibition opening at the Free State Arts Festival on July 1, gives prominence to the politics of Emily Hobhouse’s peace activism and confronts her legacy. After her death in 1926 Hobbouse was interred at the Vrouemonument and celebrated as a heroine of the Afrikaner nation. In the 1970s she was posthumously co-opted as a potential recruit of the anti-apartheid Black Sash Movement and postapartheid as a symbol for the rainbow nation.
War Without Glamour exposes Hobhouse’s ricocheting place in the politics of history in SA. It does not praise her as a heroine but nor does it advocate knocking her from her pedestal. Instead, we chart her elevation from an early-20th century activist in the cause of peace to a potent symbol of national deliverance, packaged and repackaged for new audiences. We also ask what her relevance in contemporary SA is.
Hobhouse’s work during the Anglo-Boer War is well known. Her campaign to expose and alleviate the suffering of Boer women and children in British-run concentration camps — a campaign that led to a demonstrable improvement in conditions — has been central to how Hobhouse has been remembered and celebrated by Afrikaners. Less well known is her work after the war to foster reconciliation through home industries schemes and the documentation of civilians’ wartime testimony. Even less well remembered are her attempts to foster international fraternity after World War 1 (1914-1918) in a model feeding scheme for German children in Leipzig, funded with SA donations.
In War Without Glamour we showcase Hobhouse’s commitment to collecting women’s wartime testimony to foster bonds of national and international solidarity and peace. “You have shown that you can suffer” she intoned in a public letter to Boer women in 1911, “shown also that you can weigh and judge and act in the complicated task of building up a new nation”. Her publications of Boer women’s suffering would, she hoped, galvanise Boer women to do just this.
In doing so she consecrated their claims to nationhood; and for a British audience she impressed upon them the effects of the war on “enemy” women and children.
Women, she argued, suffered most in war and therefore represented one of the largest groups of potential converts to her cause. Recognition of shared suffering was important if the bonds of solidarity were to be forged, and reconciliation between former enemies affected. It was on the grounds of shared suffering during World War 1 that Hobhouse appealed again to women to unify: “On that common ground the opposing nations could meet, and crown their courage, shown in arms, by laying them aside at the call of a higher humanity.”
Our interest in Hobhouse was piqued in 2015 when a trunk of private papers belonging to her was deposited at the Bodleian Library in Oxford by her great-niece. In it were private diaries, scrapbooks, letters and an unpublished memoir wrapped in brown paper. These writings have provided the inspiration and source material for the exhibition and we have reproduced many of the items from the trunk for the first time, setting them alongside artifacts and letters on display or archived in collections in SA.
In Britain Hobhouse is little known today: a controversial figure in her lifetime who quickly passed into obscurity. In SA, especially in the Free State where the exhibition will launch, she is well known and her memory frequently invoked. Our challenge as curators has been to grapple with these two starkly different reputations and to consider audiences who will receive and contextualise this exhibition content in different ways. Also to detect Hobhouse’s own hand in the archive of her carefully ordered papers, and in the portraits and memorial sculptures she commissioned and left to posterity: how did she sculpt her own life story as a witness to suffering, and to what purpose?
In War Without Glamour we feature the story of Mathieu Molitor’s sculpture of Hobhouse, commissioned by her during her time in Leipzig, and offered to the Boer people as a testament to their suffering and deliverance. She had proposed that it be displayed at the Vrouemonument, though this never happened. It is now on show at the War Museum of the Boer Republics in Bloemfontein.
Our intention has been to call for a reassessment of her achievements. But we also wish to pose questions about the very nature of public commemoration, personal testimony and the politics of history, not least in postconflict situations. These questions remain relevant in a contemporary SA built upon the moral authority of personal testimony in claims to truth and reconciliation, and now reverberating with #RhodesMustFall, calls to decolonise the archive and democratise the curriculum.
The title of our exhibition is taken from Hobhouse’s collection of women’s testimonies of the SA War, War Without Glamour. As a pacifist Hobhouse felt that the publication of these wartime accounts, hers included, was a necessary ballast against a warmongering press and conventional military histories. It is worth remembering that in singling out their testimony Hobhouse elided her own politics with that of Boer women, many of whom supported their menfolk on commando and failed to share Hobhouse’s feminist pacifism.
In 1903 Hobhouse had carried out a tour of the “ruined areas” devastated by the war, and collected first-hand accounts from Boer women on whom, in her words, “the brunt of the war” had fallen. Postwar reconstruction for Hobhouse and many in the former Boer Republics was closely bound up with addressing “poor whiteism” among destitute Boer communities, and was as much racial and social as economic. In the towns and villages she visited Hobhouse was hosted by members of the Boer elite including church ministers and local magistrates. As a result she collected mainly the testimonies of elite Boers rather than those by either black women or less prosperous Boer women.
Her documentation of wartime suffering was selective. Though Hobhouse emphasised that the accounts in War Without Glamour were authentic, “as set down by the writers”, the examples we showcase in the exhibition indicate that she had edited and amended them. The volume was finally brought to publication posthumously in 1927 by Nasionale Pers, the publishing house of the National Party, under direction of the Steyn family.
By the 1930s women’s accounts of suffering in the SA War and especially the concentration camps were taken up as an increasingly important part of the development of Afrikaner nationalism and its underpinning history, in which suffering and triumph over adversity were central tropes. Many of these accounts were published by Nasionale Pers, and copies were bought up and distributed by grassroots women’s nationalist organisations, including Mrs Steyn’s Oranje Vroue Vereeniging.
This included the translation into Afrikaans and republication in 1939 of another of Hobhouse’s books, Tant’ Alie of Transvaal, the diary of Alie Badenhorst which documented her experiences during the SA War. Mrs Steyn’s foreword for the 1939 republication celebrated Mrs Badenhorst’s account as that of “a true Boer woman and Afrikaner mother”. By the late 1930s women’s wartime suffering was being retrospectively framed as a sacrifice for the nation.
In the postapartheid context, particularly during the centenary of the SA War, it is striking to observe how this history of suffering has persisted, with black suffering in SA history — both during the war and later under apartheid — now conflated with that of whites. At the War Museum of the Boer Republics, which is sited next to the Vrouemonument, a new Sol Plaatje wing commemorating black suffering and participation in the SA War was recently added. Alongside military displays of Boers in uniform, and a room devoted to Hobhouse and the concentration camps, hangs a sketch of the Sam Nzima photograph of Hector Pieterson from 1976.
In it these familiar symbols of the liberation struggle have been redrawn wearing traditional Boer dress. This captures in a single sketch attempts at nation-building which rest on a legacy of shared (and presumptively equal) suffering. These new nationalisms seem reluctant to problematise the political context in which suffering and its politicisation have taken place. The rise of Afrikaner nationalism, in which Afrikaner claims to suffering and victimhood were originally fashioned, and the history of black suffering under the Afrikaner state, are deliberately obscured.
In this light, the evocation of Hobhouse’s memory in Mbeki’s 2004 speech is less surprising and attests to the power and persistence of the cult of memory surrounding Hobhouse in SA. Mbeki’s endorsement of Afrikaner suffering speaks to his attempts to foster reconciliation. His reference to Hobhouse is a reflection of her central place in Afrikaner history through her recognition of Boer and later Afrikaner claims to victimhood.
After her death the suffering woman and child in the camps increasingly came to stand as a symbol of the “sacrifice” of the Afrikaner nation and Hobhouse was adopted as a useful cultural icon for the Afrikaner cause. Mbeki’s comments point to how these claims have been reframed in the postapartheid context in attempts to craft a new nationalism based on the ostensibly shared suffering of black people and Afrikaners at the hands of British imperialism.
As the SA historian Bill Nasson has commented in this regard: “If there is any irony here, it clearly comes at the historical expense of the black majority.” For us, Hobhouse's importance in SA lies not only in the light she can shed on the history of Afrikaner nationalism, especially its cultural dimensions, but also on the creation more recently of new nationalisms.
In contemporary SA an exhibition dedicated to the work of a long-dead white British woman might seem irrelevant to today’s pressing concerns to remove the symbols of imperial and nationalist politics. We are not suggesting Hobhouse be placed on a pedestal but we do argue for her relevance. The politics of suffering — of building emotional communities and solidarities —is one of the leitmotifs of the 20th and 21st century. It was animated by the networks of international mobility and communications technology of the past 150 years, whether the camera and telegraph wire, or the satellite dish and mobile phone. It has vitalised communities of shared identity and purpose, and formed a key facet of activism for national and international causes.
Hobhouse heralded the importance of eye-witness testimony and the contortions of her legacy is crucial in understanding how the politics of suffering has operated in SA history. Her sanctification by Afrikaner nationalists following her death and interment at the Vrouemomument reveals her totemic power as a symbol of the Boers’ suffering and in the SA War and their deliverance after it. The power of this symbolism is ongoing. It is revived in the perpetuation of nationalist histories and in accusations that a genocide of whites took place in the SA War, and is still occurring. Elsewhere, the sanctity she was seen to bestow on the notion of “shared suffering” is utilised as a basis for new and inclusive civil rights politics in SA.
Yet Hobhouse’s lesson for history might rather be that the strength of personal conviction is not a credential for “truth-telling” and that authenticity can be fabricated. This was demonstrated in her collection and editing of Boer women’s testimonies. Whose suffering matters? Who mediates it? Who authenticates it? These are questions that go beyond Hobhouse’s own life story to the heart of how political claiming and nongovernmental advocacy operate. Her story alerts us to the power of eyewitness testimony in the 20th and 21st centuries; it also alerts us to the fact that we need to be vigilant about how knowledge is produced in all these contexts.
- War Without Glamour: the Life and Legacy of Emily Hobhouse opens at the Free State Arts Festival in Bloemfontein on July 1 2019. Entrance is free. For further information see Vrystaat Kunstefees.
- A tie-in launch event takes place on July 5 in Bloemfontein, as part of the literature festival. This is a roundtable discussion entitled Writing War without Glamour: Does Emily Hobhouse's humanitarianism have relevance today? Panellists include Savo Heleta, author of Not My Turn to Die: Memoirs of a Broken Childhood in Bosnia; Rebecca Gill, author of Calculating Compassion: Humanity and Relief in War; Borrie LaGrange from Médecins Sans Frontières Southern Africa; and Helen Dampier and Cornelis Muller of the Emily Hobhouse Letters Project. Tickets for the event are available at Computicket