Quakers in the World

Quakers in the World

Quakers and the Boer War


Long before the Apartheid regime was finally established in South Africa in 1948, the country was  causing grave concern to Quakers in Britain and elsewhere. Back then, however, their stand ran against prevailing public opinion.

Throughout the latter part of C19, the main concern of Quakers, with their background in anti-slavery campaigning, was the welfare of the Black African population. They frequently deplored colonial policy. In 1897, for instance, John Stephenson Rowntree wrote:  “To steal their country, to debauch them with vile spirits, when they resist to call them rebels and mow [them] down with Maxim guns ... is a policy as despicable as it is wicked.”

 Friends were troubled by reports of ill treatment of African labourers on farms run by Boers (the settlers of Dutch origin). However, in the 1870s, the discovery of gold and diamonds had brought mining to South Africa and conditions for African workers in British mines were often worse than those experienced on any farms.

Diamonds and gold also brought an influx of so-called Uitlanders – foreign workers and businessmen –  to the Boer provinces of Transvaal and Orange Free State.  In 1899, the rights accorded (or not) to these (largely British) Uitlanders became one of the trigger points for the Boer War.

Oliver Schreiner (author of An African Farm) and her husband Samuel Cronwright-Schreiner were among the few who spoke out against the war, and Quakers rallied to their support. The British Press, much of which was controlled by those with interests in South Africa, was overwhelmingly pro-war and succeeded in creating a jingoistic atmosphere deplored by the Quakers.  Stop the War meetings were frequently broken up by riots.  When Cronwright-Schreiner came to Scarborough as a guest of the Rowntree family to speak on “Conditions for a Durable Peace,” an angry mobbed attacked and damaged the Rowntree factories, as well as several of their family homes.

When British military commanders introduced a ‘scorched earth’ policy, Quakers were quick to condemn it. Boer farms were burnt to the ground, and women and children thus left destitute were herded into vast, overcrowded ‘concentration camps.’  John Stephenson Rowntree wrote, “It is beside the point to ask whether Boers are exemplary towards their coloured servants ... What is relevant is to ask whether Britain ... has the right to crush, burn and starve the people of the Transvaal and the Orange Free State.”

In 1900, Quakers established the Friends South Africa War Victims Relief Committee. Joshua and Isabella Rowntree travelled to South Africa and reported back on conditions in the camp. Clothing was badly needed and British Quakers supplied six cases of three thousand garments. The Rowntrees had the imagination to suggest that a proportion of the clothes should be delivered unfinished, in order to provide occupation and industry for the Boer Women.

It was an Anglican, Emily Hobhouse, who did most to bring the attention of the British public to the conditions of Boer women and children in the concentration camps, but many individual Quakers supported Hobhouse’s efforts, providing her ‘backroom’ committee in London.  Others, including three Quaker women, Frances Taylor, Anna Hogg and Helen Balkwill Harris, travelled independently in South Africa to carry out relief work in the camps.

When the war ended in 1902, Hobhouse established the Boer Home Industries, a network of cottage industries that provided an income for Boer women released from the camps.  Here again, she was supported by many individual Quakers.  When Hobhouse visited the Clark family of Street to ask for a donation of shoes for the children from the camps, Margaret Clark became a lifelong friend and travelled with her to South Africa. Another Quaker, Ruth Fry, became the treasurer for the organisation.

Many Bibles had been looted from Boer homesteads.  Quakers placed adverts in papers as far afield as Australia, New Zealand and Canada, seeking to recover them, and spent patient hours tracing their owners. They also purchased three thousand new Bibles for Boer families.

Quakers continued to worry about the welfare non-white races in South Africa.  In the years following the war, they wrote vociferously about a franchise for the indigenous population, conditions in the mines, and about the importation of indentured labourers from China and Central Africa under conditions of near-slavery.

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Further Reading and Credits

further reading

  • Hedge of Wild Almonds by Hope Hay Hewison, 1989