Book review: Tribute to a fierce woman

2016-10-02 06:03
Emily Hobhouse – Beloved Traitor by Elsabé Brits.

Emily Hobhouse – Beloved Traitor by Elsabé Brits.

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Emily Hobhouse – Beloved Traitor by Elsabé Brits


336 pages

R279 at


This beautifully illustrated and designed full-colour book – a visual cross between a picture book, a photo album and a historical novel – is about a stubborn, courageous Englishwoman who broke not only the boundaries of class and country, but defied the hidebound conventions that constrained Victorian women.

It’s also the story of a treasure hunt, and how – after months of research and subterfuge – author Elsabé Brits finally arrived at a small Canadian fishing village, where to her delight and astonishment she found a treasure trove of hitherto unpublished letters, handwritten documents, scrapbooks and photographs of Emily Hobhouse, the remarkable woman who became a Boer heroine, an English “traitor” and who is still the only foreigner to have been given a South African state burial.

Familiar with the mines near her hometown in Cornwall, Hobhouse had already pushed the conventional female limitations of her day by travelling to the US and setting up a library, a church school, a recreation hall, a church choir and Sunday school among the hard-living, hard-drinking mine workers of Virginia, Minnesota.

The mine workers loved and respected her, but she often came into contact with people in positions of authority who saw her as a nuisance and a threat. “And they were nearly always men.”

This gender conflict was to be central to Emily’s story.

She faced off male opponents fearlessly all her life, including formidable ones like Lord Kitchener, “the Hero of Khartoum”, whom Emily despised as a leader and a man, while to him she was “that bloody woman”.

But what did she do that made her a South African heroine yet a despised Englishwoman?

She highlighted to an unwilling and unresponsive colonial world the plight of the Boer women and children in concentration camps dotted all over the country that had been set up by the British during the South African War of 1899 to 1902.

One particular scene that she witnessed at a railway line on her way to Mafeking (Mahikeng) haunted her for the rest of her life.

“Crowds of human beings, both black and white, milling around.

“Captured women and children.


“Thousands of animals of many kinds… The animals were bellowing for food and water.

“The faces of the women and children wore grimaces of pain as a result of exposure, hunger and exhaustion.

“The scene represented the cruelty and horror of war in its clearest form.”

Emily worked tirelessly in the camps, travelling throughout the country’s interior, trying to help the victims daily, but at the same time insistently relaying the truth to the British authorities and the press in South Africa and the UK. But they didn’t listen.

Camps were segregated according to colour, but starvation, disease, filth (no soap was ever issued) ruled regardless of race.

It’s estimated that 30 000 white and 25 000 black people died in tent camps that accommodated some 285 000 inhabitants.

After the war, the British grudgingly admitted that perhaps their scorched earth policy and the concentration camps had been a mistake.

Emily returned to South Africa in 1903 in the aftermath of the war and set up self-help projects for the still-starving communities. Back in the UK, she was reviled as a traitor.

She continued to fight oppression until the end of her life, taking up the issue of votes for women when she finally settled
in London.

One of her handwritten letters of 1913 contains a prophetic warning.

“We in England are ourselves still dunces in the great world-school, our leaders still struggling with the unlearnt lesson, that liberty is the equal right and heritage of every child of man, without distinction of race, colour or sex.

A community that lacks the courage to found its citizenship on this broad base, becomes a city divided against itself, which cannot stand.”

The evocative Women’s Monument in Bloemfontein, commemorating the suffering and deaths of the women and children who died in British concentration camps during the South African War, is a provincial heritage site.

Emily’s ashes are buried at its foot.

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