Sunday, June 06, 2010

The Boer War Memorial

I sometimes walk through Ottawa's Confederation Park on my way from the Rideau Centre to Elgin Street or vice versa. Whenever I do, I pass the Boer War Memorial, with its mustachioed hero doffing his cap. He's smiling, his rifle butt resting on the ground, and I'm left pondering whether I like this chap.

With no control over its foreign policy,Canada was drawn into the war as soon as Great Britain declared war. Canada's Prime Minister, Wilfrid Laurier, was not enthused by the war and was left in a difficult position because of the sharp divide between English and French Canada. English Canada was fervently behind the British in South Africa. Over 7,000 Canadians served in South Africa, with 89 being killed in action and 130 dying of diseases.

Now, despite my last name being den Boer my ancestors were not at all involved in the 1899 Boer War (also known as the Second Boer War). I would wager that, like most Dutch (and much of the world, for that matter), their sympathies lay with the Afrikaners rather than the British. In fact, popular opinion was so strong that the Dutch government sent a cruiser to South Africa to pick up the Afrikaner president, Paul Kruger. Two small Dutch-speaking Republics were fighting against a world power; a world power that seemed motivated entirely out of a lust for diamonds and gold.

Canadians don't seem to know a lot about the Boer War. When people have trouble pronouncing my last name, as they often do, I tell them that it's pronounced "like the Boer in the Boer War." Reactions range from blank nods to a vague look of recognition. I doubt very many Canadians know that the Boer War was the birthplace of the first concentration camps, made for Afrikaner families and their black allies, or that some of the Canadian troops had a reputation as a rough, undisciplined lot prone to excesses.

For these reasons, I find it difficult to pass the Boer War Memorial without a little cynicism. This was not a just war. Admittedly, the Boers were far from angelic in their treatment of the local African populations or their annexation of African land, and it was the Boers who pre-emptively attacked the British in the Second Boer War. However, this does not justify their treatment at the hands of the British or the British annexation of the Boer Republics.

War is a tragedy, especially when it is waged unjustly. Still, the men who died in the Second Boer War deserve to be remembered - whether they were African, Boer, British, or Canadian.

So when I pass the Boer War Memorial I think of all the needless lives that were lost, the greed, anger, and hubris that humanity will never lose, and the emptiness of so many of the wars around the world.

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