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The Salon

South-South Gothic: A haunting tale of suspense featuring a cemetery in the punjab, boer prisoner of war graves, cold war neo-medievalism and much more

Isabel Hofmeyr - South-south Gothics
© Photo: Courtesy Isabel Hofmeyr

Isabel Hofmeyr

(University of the Witwatersrand, South Africa)


Isabel Hofmeyr goes in search of an intentional monument: a Boer prisoner of war memorial cenotaph. She finds an unintentional memorial haunted with contradictions that address multiple pasts and presents.


At first glance, the words ‘Boer' and ‘Punjab' have little in common. Imperialism perhaps, but not much else. In the popular imagination, Boers belong in South Africa and the story of Afrikaner nationalism. The Punjab belongs to British India and the north-west frontier.

A recent trip to Ambala, five-hours-drive north of Delhi, to locate the graves of Boer prisoners of war proved otherwise and realigned my sense of time and space.

Ambala (Umballa in the colonial lexicon) was a garrison town and one of 17 sites in India in which the British interned POWs taken in the Anglo-Boer war of 1899-1902 (or South African war as it's now known). Having expected a quick three month engagement or ‘tea-time war' (as Fleet Street dubbed it), the British had made no provision for holding captives. The hostilities of course dragged on; numbers of captives mounted. Reluctant to tie up their soldiers guarding POWs and wary of the security risk such camps would pose, the British turned to a well-worn solution - the empire as gulag. In India, many of the POW camps were in cantonment areas (permanent military stations), the enemies of empire interned in a controlled imperial space.

Over the course of the war, the British military authorities shipped some 24,000 POWs to camps in Bermuda, St Helena, Ceylon and India. In South Africa at least, the case of Ceylon POWs has always been well-known. The case of India, less so. I had been half-aware of it, having first encountered it doing work in the early 1980s on Gustav Preller, the visual architect of Afrikaner nationalism. In going through his papers, I realized that he had been held as a POW in India but I had bracketed this off as separate from my investigation into the invention of Afrikaner nationalism. Preller was held in Bangalore and thanks to daily parole conditions was able to join the local library.

Isabel Hofmeyr - South-south Gothics
© Photo: Courtesy Isabel Hofmeyr

The expedition to Ambala to find the POW graves comprises myself and historians Nonica Datta and PK Datta from Delhi University. Nonica is a noted historian of the Ambala region, and through her contacts has had made arrangements for us to visit the cemetery of St Paul's church. PK is an astute historian of transnationalism and has written a remarkable piece on the reception of the Anglo-Boer War in India. Zaheda Mohamed a film-maker from South Africa and a cameraman accompany us to film the outing.

The picturesque ruins of St Paul's, a colonial neo-Gothic church stands alongside the Ambala Airforce School. The ruins of the church resemble a site of romantic contemplation and could be straight out of southern England. The remains are however of more recent provenance, the church having been bombed in the Indo-Pakistan war of 1965.

An agitated guard at the gate insists we can't enter without formal permission.We are referred to the airforce headquarters down the road but meet with no success. We retreat and return to the church to await its pastor, Rev SM Bhatty.

Isabel Hofmeyr - South-south Gothics
© Photo: Courtesy Isabel Hofmeyr

After showing us around the old manse, which now functions as the church, Rev Bhatty takes us to the 23 acre cemetery, much of it overgrown. It's rather like looking for a needle in a haystack; we have no ideas where the Boer POW graves might be. We wade increasingly disconsolately through the waist-high grass. I am all for giving up but Nonica, our angel of history urges us on.

I know we are looking for a small cenotaph, a memorial authorized by the Smuts-Botha government of 1910. Under pressure from the Boer war veterans, cenotaphs were erected wherever Boer POWs had died. In the parlance of South Africa's first Union government, it's a gesture of reconciliation.

Across the undulating grass, I spot two cenotaphs. The first yields nothing. I wade towards the second. The vegetation covers most of the plinth but peeking above the grass-line I see the name ‘Van Aswegan'. I know we've found the graves.

The cenotaph itself carries the names of 20 Boers who died in the Ambala camp. It records their names, town of origin and date of death. An inscription in English and Dutch records that 20 Boer POWs have been buried in the vicinity of the cenotaph. Virtually all of the original graves have disappeared. Only one small headstone remains, inscribed in Dutch.

For South Africans, reading a roll of Afrikaans names (De Jager, Van der Merwe, Cronje, Fourie, Pienaar) in the Punjab (present day Haryana) is bizarre, estranging and nostalgic. Zaheda spots the name HJ Pienaar from Bethulie. Her grandmother was a Pienaar from the same town and the monument unexpectedly becomes part of her family archive.

For me, the monument evokes memories of hearing about the war as I grew up in high apartheid South Africa. In public the war had been a yawn-worthy staple in the school syllabus, part of the arsenal of Afrikaner nationalism. Yet, the war also haunted private spaces. Many South African homes contain objects associated with the war: purses, brooches, boxes made in the POW or civilian concentration camps, or plates and ornaments said to have been buried to save them from the depradations of advancing Boer or British forces.

Isabel Hofmeyr - South-south Gothics
© Photo: Courtesy Isabel Hofmeyr

© Photo: Courtesy Isabel Hofmeyr

My earliest sense of the war was associated with a narrow-necked white vase (bearing an English country scene) which was said to have been buried. I endlessly used to scrutinize the vase to see if I could find any dirt on it. Another source of Boer war narrative came from my maternal grandmother who had been interned in a concentration camp as a child. Like all war stories, hers emerged at odd and unpredictable moments, bizarre and jagged shards whose repetition could never smooth their violent edges. One story told how British guards had gathered up everyone's pets and bayoneted them. A Pekingese dog managed to crawl back, its entrails dragging behind it.

This Boer war ‘stuff' was generally mentally boxed and consigned to the domain of Afrikaans and Afrikaners, ‘their war' and ‘their history'. For most white Anglo-South Africans, this distance was easy to maintain: Englishness signified cultural confidence and class superiority from whence one could snigger at the crass ways of Afrikaners.

The world in which I grew up was slightly different: half-English, half-Afrikaans with the English part gaining the upper hand through urbanization and ‘verengelsing' (anglicization). The Afrikaans side of family life was both loved and hated. Bodily humour and jokes were expressed in Afrikaans. Pleasurable farm holidays took place with Afrikaans relatives. Back in the English city, things Afrikaans were ambivalent and soiled: associated with a lower social order, treated as a proxy for the apartheid order, subject to patronization, satirization or contempt. Internally, it produced a dance in which one had simultaneously to patronize and satirize part of oneself. To read the Boer names in Ambala Cantonment was to revisit these semi-forgotten private and public histories from a radically different angle.

In The Future of Nostalgia, Svetlana Boym makes a distinction between an intentional and unintentional monument. Intentional monuments recuperate single strands and single events in history and seek to rise above time and mortality. Unintentional memorials are about uncertainty, the unpredictability of change, unexpected juxtapositions, and colliding time schemes.

To see the cenotaph in St Paul's cemetery was to witness the beginnings of an unintentional memorial. The people and war it records now mean almost nothing in Ambala. In 2005, the Archeological Survey of India which oversees the St Paul's graveyard reported ‘discovering' the Boer POW graves. In India, they have become ruins on the border of recorded time, passing into an archive of opaque ancientness severed from the present.

Yet, our visit re-inaugurated them into the present, even if only briefly. My interest in the graves emerges from growing academic connections and projects between South Africa and India. As we head towards a post-American world, links across the Indian Ocean and the global south more generally have become ever more important. Some of the more obvious lateral linkages (third worldism, anti-colonial solidarity, non-alignment) have long been studied. Yet, there are many more obscure or off-centre connections that are less known.

the graves offer a perspective from which to configure the shards and wreckages of many pasts

Isabel Hofmeyr - South-south Gothics
© Photo: Courtesy Isabel Hofmeyr

The histories they open up are discordant, unpredictable, quirky. For Nonica, the graves raised the question of what the Boer presence might mean in the memory of Ambala town and cantonment. Also, as she asked, what fragments of Ambala travel back to South Africa? (Some clearly do - at least one building and a farm in South Africa get named Umballa). For PK, the cenotaph spoke of connected histories, of the role of the Boer war in Indian nationalism. For me, the graves offer a perspective from which to configure the shards and wreckages of many pasts. In St Paul's cemetery, British imperialism, anti-colonialism, Afrikaner nationalism and apartheid become embedded in a landscape shaped by Partition, the Cold War and their consequences. None of these histories are over; instead their spectral after-effects continue to accumulate in different parts of the world. In a moment of unforgettable south-south gothic they become visible in a cemetery in what was once the Punjab.