It’s almost inevitable, whenever I blog about Smuts, somebody comes out the woodwork and immediately holds up Smuts as somehow accountable for the British concentration camps of the South African War (1899-1902) and by creating Union between the Boer Sates and British Colonies Smuts has the blood of 28,000 Boer woman and children on his hands. It’s a wild bit of logic and completely unfounded. So I’m going to challenge it, not with long boring historic missives, this logic is so stupid I’m going to bonk it on the head with a tree … yup .. a tree!
My weaponised choice of tree … a Magnolia Grandiflora – part of the Rubber Tree family, and this particular one is planted right outside the entrance to Jan Smuts’ house in Irene – now a museum. Here’s my photo of it.
How did it get there? It was given to Jan Smuts by none other than Emily Hobhouse, the same person held up in South Africa as a sort of modern saint. Hobhouse was to become the champion of Afrikaner women and children in the concentration camps. Hated by the British establishment, this “bloody woman” as they often referred her, continued a crusade to expose British maladministration of the camps back in the United Kingdom. At her insistence commissions were put in place to look into the problem and stop the unusually high death rates and she went on a fund raising mission in the UK to help Boer woman and children. Her retort to her criticism “I’m not pro Boer, I’m British and this not our way”.
What was Smuts doing at this time? Well, he was a ‘bittereinder’ – he was engaging guerrilla tactics, and very effectively at that. He was fighting to the bitter end – proving that actions whist governing and fighting in the field could actually work. As to concentration camps he was adding to the problem and he knew it, he needed to stop it quick so he did something about it. Whist Kitchener was seeing successes as his scorched earth policy drove other Kommandos into submission, Smuts’ Kommando was having none of that, his Kommando is one of the few Boer success stories during this phase of the war.
Smuts had taken his Kommando into the Cape Colony and right towards the end of the war he very successfully captured the copper mining town of Okiep and its surrounding towns – he did this as a last ditch effort to force the British to re-negotiate peace, and Smuts was again at that peace table to get a better deal for the Boers, he even drafted part of the Treaty of Vereeniging – the bits guaranteeing future self-governance. Instead of the political emancipation of Blacks, which the British wanted as peace term, Smuts was able to steer the peace agreement to put this thorny issue to a future independent South African parliament instead. By doing this Smuts guaranteed the survival of Boer culture, governance and identity, an inconvenient truth often glanced over by his modern day detractors.
Did Smuts and his family escape the horrors of the concentration camps? No they did not, Isie Smuts, his wife, found herself under house arrest but insisted on being taken to a concentration camp. Other members of the Smuts family were not so lucky and landed up in the camps good and proper only to suffer the ravages of the system. Smuts in suing for peace said “Comrades, we decided to stand to the bitter end. Let us now, like men, admit that that end has come for us, come in a more bitter shape than we ever thought.” One man in his Kommando shouted out ‘veraaier’ (traitor), the rest got Smuts’ point.
After the war, of all the Boer leaders it was Smuts and Emily Hobhouse and who became the strongest of friends. Hobhouse had previously been out to South Africa as part of the contingent to open the Women’s Monument in Bloemfontein. Here she called on the Boers and their leaders to ‘forgive’ the British in the Old Testament manner of forgiveness ‘because they could’, to some this resonated, to many it did not. However of all the Boer leaders it was in Smuts that she found her biggest fan, and if it was not for Smuts, Hobhouse would be all but forgotten – bold statement I know, but here’s why.
Emily Hobhouse was a tireless ‘liberal’, by today’s standards she would be considered a radical ‘libtard’, her protests and activities did not stop at the Boer War – she was a tireless campaigner of causes and an endless critic of British governance. During WW1, Hobhouse was an ardent pacifist. She organised the writing, signing and publishing in January 1915 of the ‘Open Christmas Letter’ addressed ‘To the Women of Germany and Austria’. In an attempt to initiate a peace process, she also secretly met with the German foreign minister Gottlieb von Jagow in Berlin, for which many in Britain branded her a traitor.
Her popularity in her own country very damaged, but it was in Smuts that she found a confidant. So, back to the tree – She sent the seeds to Smuts and wrote to him:
“It is the Magnolia Grandiflora – my favourite of them – and I feel sure it would do well in Pretoria and if you give it a warm place it should also grow at Doornkloof, I think. Raised from seed the trees would be strong and hardy – do try it – do. You know the flowers, I suppose, large and white and powerfully sweet, if you touch them anywhere they turn brown. The leaf is also very handsome.”
Not just a pen pal, in all the correspondence Smuts found a kindred spirit in Hobhouse, Hobhouse would even advise Smuts on how to deal with things like the Maritz revolt and sometimes the relationship would even get to a very personal level, to the point that one could even raise a eyebrow or two. Smuts would call her the true warrior and he just a simple man that if left alone would just enjoy his surroundings. Hobhouse would lament that it was Smuts’ curse to be a warrior leader when he was really just a philosopher and botanist. Hence the tree, she really got Smuts and understood him.
So back to the world of Emily Hobhouse, she had become generally despised by the British pubic and, not altogether surprising, by the governing elite, but she was also rejected by her own family. She died in London on the 8th June 1926 at the age of 66, alone and penniless. There were no mourners at her cremation, no clergymen even.
It was merely the undertaker who placed her mortal remains in a casket. The casket was later shipped to South Africa and four months after her death thousands gathered to pay tribute to this tireless campaigner for human rights. And who was there to bury her? – None other than Jan Smuts.
At her funeral at the Vrouemonument (Women’s Monument) in Bloemfontein, Smuts stood up and gave her obituary and in his tiny, high pitched voice said to the thousands who had gathered “We stood alone in the world, friendless among the people, the smallest nation ranged against the mightiest empire on the earth. Then one small hand, the hand of a woman was stretched out to us. At that darkest hour when our race almost seemed doomed to destruction she appeared, as an angel, as a heaven sent messenger, and strangest of all she was an Englishwoman.”
Did Smuts contribute to the concentration camp crises, as a ‘Bittereinder’ alongside all the Boer generals taking the government and fight ‘to the veldt’ it would be hard to say he did not. Is he responsible for a ‘holocaust’ by ‘selling out to the British’ for creating the Union of South Africa – I’m afraid that’s pure hogwash.
So, back to the point, we just have to look at a simple tree to know that Smuts was no big fan of the British policy of ’empire’ in South Africa and he certainly was not a fan of their concentration camp system. The proof stands at Jan Smuts’ house, healthy to this day, over 100 years later and it is pure testament to that fact.
Written and Researched by Peter Dickens
References: The Jan Smuts House Museum – Irene. Documentary by DSTV ‘Scorched Earth’. The Story of Emily Hobhouse, Pacifism and Hope Joshua Krook – New Intrigue. On Smuts’ role in the Treaty of Vereeniging reference: Meredith, Martin Diamonds, Gold and War. The Making of South Africa. London, Great Britain: Simon & Schuster.