BLOOD BULLION: A BOER WAR ORIGINAL PHOTOGRAPH ALBUM FROM THE JEAN S. AND FREDERIC A. SHARF COLLECTION IN THE WOLFSONIAN LIBRARY.
Earlier this semester, I was invited to make a presentation to Professor Elizabeth Heath’s class. Professor Heath had spent a month with us here as a Wolfsonian Fellow and had been hired by Florida International University’s History Department. Her class is studying European history from the First World War through the Second World War, and naturally she wanted her students to have the opportunity to explore our own extraordinarily rich collection of primary source materials from Fascist Italy and Nazi Germany. As class presentations come due next week, the librarians and registrars here have been inundated with student requests for research appointments on such subjects as WWII German and Italian home front propaganda, the cult of the leader and popular culture, sports and the Nazi Olympic Games in Berlin 1936.
GIFT OF STEVE HELLER
GIFT OF NICHOLAS BLAGA
In speaking with Professor Heath after my visit to her class, we also discussed future classes that might focus on the Boer War and other European colonial contests in the lead-up to the First World War as the hundred year anniversary looms. Thanks to the generosity of Frederic A. Sharf, the Wolfsonian library holds a very impressive collection of original photograph albums, diaries, journals, sketchbooks, and other primary source materials that students will be able to draw upon for these subjects. Here is the report of our Sharf Associate Librarian Rochelle Pienn on some of those materials she has been processing, cataloging, and preparing for digitization.
Treasure is in the eye of the beholder. For an archivist, it can be an original photograph album compiled in 1901 by a clerk named Charles Clark in the Army Service Corps during the South African (Second Boer) War. During this period in history, however, for the British Army, treasure consisted of gold ready for mining, suddenly discovered in Boer (Afrikaner) territory. The uneasy relationship between the British and the Boers of South Africa became inflamed by the clash over the rights to these mines.
When the Boers resisted British advances with successful gunfight, the British resorted to burning and clearing Boer villages, decimating their homes and food supplies. The British Army then herded women, children and unarmed citizens into refugee camps. While the term “concentration camp” is commonly associated with Nazi Germany’s practice of interning Jews and other citizens of fringe groups for eventual execution, the first use of the term was actually by the British, during the Boer War. Upwards of forty thousand South Africans died in concentration camps.
The British mobilized their forces, using the latest and most powerful portable artillery. Most of the original silver and platinum photographic prints in this album are credited to either H. Oppenheim or E. (Edward) Rosslien. Handwritten captions in pencil are presumably by the album’s compiler, Charles Clark.
After battling the Boers in staggering victories across the South African landscape, British Field Marshall Lord Roberts stopped in recently conquered Bloemfontein, resting his troops. This image shows Clark and his companions readying to join him.
In a moment of respite during the melee, the British managed to organize a social diversion at Winburg. According to Clark, it was a “very congenial gathering at picnic.”
In fact, Winburg was the site of another concentration camp, where many captured Boer women and children died of disease and malnutrition.
War began earlier on October 11, 1899, when Great Britain refused to remove its troops from the borders of Transvaal. Transvaal and Orange Free State, the two areas populated by Boers, natives, and established burghers and farmers who rejected British rule in the Cape Colony and further domination by Great Britain, joined forces.
Christiaan de Wet, the son of a Boer farmer in the Orange Free State, became a formidable enemy of the British when he commanded Boer guerilla troops in bloody battles. Great Britain’s “Scorched Earth” policy, concentration camp system, and military reinforcements finally brought war to an end. General de Wet, in spite of his “desire to leave Africa for America,” as written here by Clark, remained politically active in the Orange Free Colony until the British imprisoned and threatened him toward the end of his life. Christiaan had a falling out with his brother, Piet, also a Boer general. Piet surrendered to the British, having decided that the war could not be won after the loss and devastation to the Boer population and lands.
Bethlehem, South Africa, became the Orange Free State’s wartime government location. Its strategic position was enhanced by being linked through railway lines to other destinations of import in Pretoria.
South Africa’s diverse Jewish population included farmers, bankers and merchants. Nevertheless, common stereotypical attitudes toward Jews persisted. Here Clark points out the “Ford Hotel” in this photo, “conducted by a shrewd Jew.”
Charles Clark, the album’s compiler, appears to be the man seated to the right in this group portrait.
The Boers possessed tremendous marksmanship, and took early advantage of the technologically cutting-edge British guns. As a result, Clark questions the surrender of their substandard weapons, noting “Guns rather obsolete and British suspect new guns hidden.”
While the Boers were the descendants of early Dutch settlers, the Zulu people were natives to the African continent. Zulus would be ravaged by the breadth of the war, many of them also ending up in concentration camps. Clark describes this scene as harboring “Zulu village inhabitants all a [sic.] healthy, vigorous and clean, morally and physically.”
As was the case with other ventures of imperial colonialism, the Second Boer War did not end conflict on contested lands. South Africa would be the setting for political unrest for many generations to come. While the country eventually broke from the United Kingdom, and apartheid policies were abolished in recent history, South Africa still struggles on the world stage over a hundred years after Charles Clark placed his pictures in this album. To page through the rest of the images and read Clark’s captioned commentary, come visit the Wolfsonian Library. All the photographs in the album are also available digitally online in the Wolfsonian Library catalog.