Today’s blog post come to you courtesy of Sharf Associate Librarian Rochelle Pienn, who works exclusively with the Jean S. & Frederic A. Sharf Collection materials donated to the Wolfsonian library. In addition to having assembled a vast and important library of rare books, photograph albums, and unique diaries and journals, Mr. Sharf has published numerous scholarly books dealing with the various conflicts and wars of the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, colonial expeditions in Africa and the East. Here is Rochelle’s report on some of the materials she has recently catalogued: 

My first yoga teacher, a six-foot-five, red-haired South African man, used to talk about growing up during Apartheid.


It was terrible, he told me, to live in a place where injustice ruled. South Africa was a country much contested by different nationalities, races and faiths. My teacher’s home has a turbulent history, where several groups clashed in their attempts to claim this beautiful country’s land for themselves.

The Jean S. & Frederic A. Sharf Collection in the Wolfsonian library contains a treasure trove of books and original documents, over a century old, which give tantalizing insights into motive and conditions for the settlement of South Africa during the times of British colonialism. The South African War of 1899-1902, also known as the Anglo-Boer War, even now resonates as a bloodbath comparable to any current war of today.

The opposing forces were the Afrikaners, or original Dutch settlers known as the Boers, and their conquerors, the British. The Boers possessed a die-hard desire the free themselves from the British. The British, in turn, refused to give up their colonies, rich with lucrative diamond and gold mines. This stubborn standoff made for uncompromising, exhausting battles.

Eager to defend the crown and perhaps find glittering fortune, young English men rushed to enlist in volunteer regiments. A remarkable collection of objects originally belonging to Sergeant Edwin Taylor brings to life the story of a young British man longing for adventure and heroism in the strange African frontier.

Taylor enlisted in a regiment of Great Britain’s army called the City of London Imperial Volunteers (CIV).

In his pocket diary, which begins in January 1900, Taylor describes the celebratory atmosphere in Bunhill Row where the new enlistees marched. He is then quickly initiated into military life on a ship bound for Africa:

“14th: The motion of the boat made me feel sick at first … I managed to get a drop of Brandy”

He eventually does settle in camp at Cape Town, where the CIV joined forces with Lord Roberts, who successfully defeated the Boers in a string of battles. Taylor writes,

“I saw a few men that were wounded in different battles … One of the men … has had 12 bullet wounds & he is anxious to get back to the front again.”

“Everywhere you walk you see people of every nation. There are a lot of Malays, Jews, Kaffers, Germans and Zulus & a lot of others you do not seem to see many English people out here. Cape Town is a filthy place in most parts. I don’t like it at all.”

Taylor did like renowned author Rudyard Kipling, whom he met in his travels. Altogether the experience was colored by difficult weather, dangerous combat, lack of food, and bouts of illness. Taylor kept with him a much-thumbed-through “Knapsack Bible,” proffered upon him by the Chaplain of the 1st Middlesex Royal Engineers.

This collection also includes an original all-purpose army knife, engraved “Edwin Taylor, City of London, Imperial Volunteer (Lord Mayor’s Own). Presented by Fellow Workmen, 1900.”

Letters by Ronald Charles, a Royal Engineer, give richer details about military engagements during the South African War.

Copies of his letters to family in a handwritten journal elucidate action at key locations, such as Bloemfontein:

“16th March 1900, Friday … The Boers … had taken up a strong position across the River; simultaneously the Infantry attacked from the front and the other flank, so the Boers fled in confusion”

Original clippings from the London Times report on the challenging conditions of the South African landscape, which the mounted Royal Engineers wrestled with when setting up camp for the cavalry:

The Royal Engineers Journal posthumously published this photo of Lieut.-General Sir James Ronald Edmondston Charles, who also served in World War I.

William Mortimer’s handwritten letters, dated 1899-1902, are addressed to his sister, Mrs. Edmund Vallance, and her husband, back in Sussex, England.

Mortimer, Chief Paymaster of Natal forces, was primarily concerned with money matters, as expressed in his opinionated letter dated October 16th from the H.M.S. Johannesburg:

“I suppose I am not blessed with a taste for card playing, but to drop money in this sort of way appears to be nothing short of silly, & is taking money out of parents’ pockets for which there can never be any return save disgust.”

Later he is stationed in Pretoria, and writes of the comings and goings of dignitaries:

“21 Sept. 02 … General French is really about the most successful general we have had out here, and one his old corps way well be proud of.”

Melton Prior, a special artist-correspondent for the Illustrated London News, actually witnessed General French prepare for combat with the Boers.

Prior recounts the episode in his book, Campaigns of a War Correspondent:

“at Elandslaagte … the order was given that … all our troops were to charge the enemy’s position … as the infantry advanced the fire became hotter and hotter, until it rose in a crescendo of hissing vehemence … General French afterwards owned to me that it was the hottest fire he had ever been under.”

George Crowe’s book, “The Commission of H.M.S. ‘Terrible’ 1898-1902,” recounts the engagements of this Royal Navy warship.

In his narrative, Crowe admits, “The discovery of rich goldfields on the Rand, about 1886, attracted a cosmopolitan congregation of wealth-seekers from the most civilized nations.” Crowe counts the British as among the civilized, and accuses Transvaal President Kruger as having “assumed an arrogant attitude … totally at variance with modern ideas of civilized government.” In other words, the Boers were not at all happy about the onslaught of gold seekers where they lived. Crowe further claims, “The common Boer populace was insulting … to British subjects in particular.”

War is born, and the H.M.S. Terrible heads to Durban in a defensive position.

The Siege of Ladysmith resulted in one of the most horrific scenes of the South African War. A standoff between the Boers and the British resulted in a Boer blockade of British reinforcements—leaving the supply route stifled and British soldiers starving and dying of typhoid. Eventually the British broke through and defeated the Boers, after much suffering and death.

Irish soldier William St. John Carr wrote journal entries to his wife Sarah while serving in the British Imperial Light Horse Regiment at Ladysmith.

Accompanying his journal is a red flag, with a British Army emblem of South Africa. The flag appears to be browned with tea or coffee stains—the drinks would have been rationed tightly, as the Boers had cut off the British supply delivery line during the Siege of Ladysmith.

Before the war, Carr had moved from Ireland to Johannesburg, where he became a businessman. Due to the Sharfs’ most recent donation, the Wolfsonian-FIU Library now owns a rare set of books from 1905 and 1906 entitled “Men of the Times.” These volumes are biographical encyclopedias of successful and renowned citizens who made their fortunes in South Africa.

Industries include gold and silver mining, animal husbandry, farming and banking. Residents belonged to social clubs and charitable organizations. A prominent Jewish community emerged as well.

After extensively cataloging over 600 pages of the 1906 volume, “Old Colonists of the Cape Colony and Orange River Colony,” I came across this entry for a Mr. P. J. Kolbe:

“Evidently endowed with a charmed life,” Kolbe survived numerous near-death encounters on the Boer War front with hardly a scratch.

While my yoga teacher Jordan has a different last name, his physical resemblance to this possible ancestor is downright eerie. I only wonder if Mr. Kolbe, in a moment of enthusiasm for post-war survival 106 years ago, ever did a one-armed handstand under the South African sun.

~ by "The Chief" on March 8, 2012.

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