The War and the Prophets (2)
An Introduction by Postage Stamp
My son Tom was a stamp collector as a boy. (He is now a philatelist.) One of the South African stamps he acquired intrigued me. It was a commemorative honoring Emily Hobhouse. I’d never heard of her, but I set about reading everything I could find about her life. The more that I learned about her, the more I wanted to know.
For a long time I hoped to write her biography. Eventually Jennifer Hobhouse Balme, who had inherited a treasure trove of Emily’s letters and other papers, published To Love One’s Enemies: The Work and Life of Emily Hobhouse (1994).
Emily Hobhouse was born in 1860 in a village in Cornwall where her father was the Church of England rector. In 1895 she went to the United States to work at an Episcopal Church mission in Minnesota. Three years later she returned to England. When politicians and newspaper editors were crying up a war with the little Republic of Transvaal in South Africa, Emily helped form the South Africa Conciliation Committee. When war finally came in 1899, she continued speaking and writing against it.
Aware that women and children were the principal sufferers, Emily created the South African War Distress Fund for Women and Children to “feed, clothe, shelter, rescue and help without wounding self-respect” women and children “affected by the War, irrespective of Nationality or race.” She wanted aid to be distributed by women, not by the army or a government agency, and went to South Africa in 1900 to make arrangements herself.
What she found there changed all her plans. As the war in South Africa became a guerrilla war (like the war in Vietnam), the British army began a policy of burning farm buildings and forcibly relocating all civilians to concentration camps.
Emily Hobhouse visited the camps and was appalled by conditions there where overcrowding, poor food, and lack of sanitation led to a terrible death rate especially among children.
She worked tirelessly in South Africa and in Britain to expose and reverse this evil policy.
After the war was over, Emily returned to South Africa to set up relief for people who were repatriated only to find their homes, barns, farming equipment, and livestock gone.
Emily’s concern for the young women who were living in poverty on devastated farms led to her next idea. The South African Women’s and Children’s Distress Fund was transformed into The Boer Home Industries and Aid Society. Under its auspices she returned to South Africa to set up weaving schools. With some 26 such schools functioning by the end of 1908, she returned to England.
Emily Hobhouse was invited back to South Africa in 1913 to unveil a monument at the site of the former Blomfontein camp.to the women and children who bore the brunt of the war.
This is an introduction to the next chapters in her story.