on 25 May, 2015

Helen Barnes Bulley’s review of Robert Eales’ book

The Compassionate Englishwoman : Emily Hobhouse in the Boer War
by Robert Eales

The Boer War tends to occupy a fairly limited space on most modern history syllabuses in high schools and universities, in this country at least, and yet its role in the gradual demise of the British Empire, and its impact on the development of modern Africa have been significant. Many readers will associate the war with the film Breaker Morant, which proved to be very popular in Australia. He was tried and executed for war crimes committed while he was fighting for the British in South Africa. And it is the subject of war crimes that is central to the story of Emily Hobhouse.

 There was a substantial group of British citizens opposed to the war from the beginning, in 1899, which resulted in frequent demonstrations and the development of an anti-war campaign. Emily Hobhouse, a single woman from a well-to-do English family, was opposed to the war from the start but as information flowed from South Africa about the plight of Boer women and children incarcerated in makeshift camps under appalling conditions, she felt compelled to go to the war zone and see for herself what was happening. She was not keen to see her particular concern allied to the politics of the anti-war movement, but inevitably the revelations about conditions in the camps provoked an alliance between the two.

Emily possessed a philanthropic nature and an admirable determination to contribute as far as she was able to a peaceful and humane solution for the Boer families. Because of her background she could rely on connections to people in power and with influence to establish a presence in Cape Town. Her first task was to collect information; she needed to see for herself what was happening. And when she eventually did travel to various camps and see how the women were living, and how many children were dying, she threw all her efforts into trying to persuade government and charitable organisations to assist her in relieving their misery.

Many readers may be aware that these were the camps that were designated as “concentration camps”. When they learn about the squalid conditions and the number of babies and small children who died at the hands of a nation that considered itself to be highly civilised, they may find themselves, as I did, seriously questioning the values of the country to which we have long looked as being “civilised”. Eales’ writing, without ever being political in a biased sense, nevertheless provokes questions about the definition of “civilised” behaviour. Not just of the British, of course, but of every nation which finds it convenient to incarcerate civilians and allow them to die of cold, of illness, of starvation.

It was impossible for me, at this point in time, not to think about the way we treat asylum seekers who arrive on our shores. Policies of both major political parties seem to me to raise serious questions about our own culpability in allowing desperate people to be locked up, to become ill, to attempt self-destructive acts.

Because Eales does not engage in ideological arguments on the issue the book is finer for this restraint. His interest is in Emily as a quite remarkable woman, and in the humanitarian questions raised by war. He writes with care, with attention to detail and he presents the reader with a fine portrait of a woman who deserves to be better known than she is for her courage, her endurance, and the immense effort she put in to help all those women and children who became innocent victims of the war.

It’s a book that raises many questions, and – something I always love about any book that does it – sends me off to find out more, about Emily, about Africa, and about the war itself.

It is an important and quietly provocative book.

The Compassionate Englishwoman: Emily Hobhouse in the Boer War is published by Middle Harbour Press, Sydney

Helen Barnes Bulley

Click here for full details in Alumni Books

For more information see www.middleharbourpress.com.