Tuesday, January 21, 2014

Emily Hobhouse - a Great Nuisance

Let's be honest all sides in the Syrian conflict are capable of starving, torturing and killing their opponents.  It's also no surprise to find a big atrocity story surfacing on the eve of the Geneva conference - a conference that, with the exclusion of the Iranians, the West must think are negotiations aimed at Syrian government surrender rather than finding a lasting peace.

Listening to this lunchtime's BBC reporting of the Syrian atrocity photographs the casual observer might be impressed with the Corporations's impartiality.  Seemingly hard questions were asked - were the photographs photo-shopped or faked, did the fact that the project was funded by the Qatari government mean that the forensic experts had been bought off?  Of course these were meaningless questions, no doubt the pictures are genuine and the experts completely professional and unbiased in their work.  The most important questions weren't asked though  - who were the victims shown in the photographs and who abused them?

It's the type of question the Cornishwoman Emily Hobhouse would probably have asked.  Largely remembered for exposing the British Boer War concentration camps - responsible for the death of 24000 Boer children -  her Wikipedia entry doesn't really do Hobhouse justice.  For example it doesn't mention her role in the creation of the Save the Children charity (neither does the charity's website) and it ignores her journey to occupied Belgium in the First World War to ascertain the truth of the atrocity stories being used to rally young men to the colours.

Today Emily Hobhouse is something of a hero in South Africa with streets and even a town named after her.  Anglophone historians criticise Hobhouse because she only visited Boer camps and not the black concentration camps also established by the British.  In reality she was only allowed to visit a handful of camps and that was curtailed as soon as the authorities realised what a great nuisance she had become.  Revisionists, relying on British government reports, even claim that the deaths of the Boer women and children were the result of their inate ignorance and lack of hygiene rather than the scorched earth policies of an Empire humiliated by the successes of the Boer fighters.  It smacks of the Blue Books familiar to us in Wales.

Unlike those Malthusian ancestors of today's politically correct elite Hobhouse spoke plainly of the need for black rights.  Her speech at the dedication of the memorial to the Boer women and children victims of the British Empire was recalled by Thablo Mbeki in a 2004 speech:

"At an earlier time, 90 years ago, the speech of an English woman, Emily Hobhouse, who opposed the cruel war waged by her country against the people of South Africa was read at the ceremony to unveil the Women's Monument in Bloemfontein. On that occasion, she said: 

'The old watchword 'Liberty, Fraternity, Equality' cries from the tomb; what these women, so simple that they did not know they were heroines, valued and died for, all other human beings desire with equal fervour. Should not the justice and liberties you love so well, extend to all within your borders?'

She went on to say: 'We too, the great civilised nations of the world, are still but barbarians in our degree, so long as we continue to spend vast sums in killing or planning to kill each other for greed of land and gold. Does not justice bid us remember today how many thousands of the dark race perished also in Concentration Camps in a quarrel that was not theirs? Did they not redeem their past? Was it not an instance of that community of interest, which bonding all in one, roots out racial animosity? And may it not come about that the associations linked with this day will change, merging into nobler thoughts as year by year you celebrate the more inspiring Vrouewen-Dag we now inaugurate?'

It is a tragedy for the Afrikaner people - for a majority of those speaking the language as a mother tongue are not categorised as white - that her plea was ignored.

It seems to me that unlike so many present-day human rights activists Hobhouse was not motivated by support for one side against another.  She campaigned against the concentration camps because of the disgraceful conditions pertaining there, not because she supported the Boer war effort.  In 1916 Hobhouse crossed the Swiss border into Germany and went on to visit the Belgian city of Louvain and the German camp for British internees at Ruhleben even meeting with the German foreign minister. Again not because she supported Germany but because she wanted to see for herself if the atrocity stories in the British press were true and investigate avenues for peace.  Hobhouse reported what she saw while making clear the restrictions placed upon her visit by the German authorities.  Like Gareth Jones in 1930s Ukraine she was that rare thing, an honest reporter.

For her troubles Hobhouse was condemned as a traitor and the law quickly changed to make such future visits illegal.  Emily replied to her critics in a letter to the Times:

"I went to Germany quite simply and openly, contravening no law: I went under my own name with a 'humanitarian pass' in the interests of truth, peace and humanity; and I am proud and thankful to have done so."

The British state has seen fit to celebrate Kitchener - architect of the scorched-earth policy that saw some 30000 Boer farms destroyed, the women and children placed in concentration camps and the men shipped off to the more remote corners of the Empire - by placing his portrait on the £2 coin.  It's said that a new coin will be produced each year to commemorate the centenary of the Great War, perhaps Hobhouse might be a suitable candidate for 2016?

After all as one historian states "in the entire course of the deadliest conflict the world had ever seen, she was the sole person from any of the warring countries who actually journeyed to the other side in search of peace."  It's worth remembering.

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