Our First Foreign War: Q&A with historian Nigel Robson
For years, the sheer enormity of the two world wars relegated New Zealand’s role in the South African War (1899–1902) to little more than a prelude to the main events. However, historian Nigel Robson believes the impact of the conflict on New Zealand society is overdue closer scrutiny, and addresses this in Our First Foreign War (Massey University Press).
New Zealanders were enthusiastic supporters of the war that pitted the forces of Britain and its colonial supporters against those of the South African Boers. The country welcomed the chance to prove itself and its loyalty to the British Empire. While our contribution was small — approximately 6500 troops were sent to fight — our response to the conflict was on a grand scale.
In an outpouring of patriotic sentiment, many thousands followed the stories of the sieges of Mafeking, Kimberley and Ladysmith. There was memorabilia everywhere, and it seemed as if everyone was either raising funds or joining volunteer or cadet corps, including many women and girls.
Our First Foreign War is not a military history; it examines the economic and social impacts of the conflict on New Zealand, including opposition to the war, the realities of New Zealand troops’ behaviour, both in New Zealand and in South Africa, and the way the conflict affected Māori.
Through the generosity of families whose forebears played an active role in the South African conflict, Robson has had access to information not previously part of New Zealand’s historical record. To further illuminate this period of history, Our First Foreign War contains over 50 colour and black and white photographs, many of which have not been published before.
We asked Nigel some questions about the work.
Has the South African War 1899-1902 been overlooked in our history?
While the war itself has not been overlooked, it has long existed in the shadow of the First and Second World Wars and, to a lesser extent, the internal New Zealand Wars. This can possibly be attributed to the sheer scale of the world wars. The losses sustained in those conflicts eclipse New Zealand’s comparatively minor South African casualty toll, but do not diminish the South African War’s importance as the first foreign conflict to which New Zealand, as a nation, contributed troops.
What was your motivation in writing this book?
Since I was a boy, I have been interested in what I then knew as the Boer War. Though it predated modern, mechanised warfare by little more than a decade, the conflict seemed to be, both socially and militarily, uncomfortably lodged between the Victorian era and the twentieth century. My Master’s supervisor, Dr James Watson, focussed my initial vague thesis ideas by recommending I explore the war’s impact on New Zealand. The more I researched, the more I appreciated the number of untold stories — accounts of individuals and events that deserve their rightful place in New Zealand’s historical narrative.
Were there gaps in our understanding of the South African War’s effects on New Zealand?
Perhaps the most pronounced omission was a fine-grained analysis of the conflict’s economic impact. To a greater or lesser extent, the war’s economic effects rippled through New Zealand society, and this book documents these effects in detail. Other areas that I felt warranted closer examination included opposition to the war, the reaction of the various religious denominations and trade union groups within New Zealand to the conflict, an examination of New Zealand troops’ behaviour, both in New Zealand and in South Africa, and the manner in which the conflict affected Māori.
Was there anything in the research that surprised you?
The extent to which men and women with connections to New Zealand moved freely about the Empire during the pre-war period surprised me. As part of a colonial diaspora, these people resurfaced across the Empire in some of its more remote outposts. Individuals like William Miles, Dannevirke sisters Hettie and Florence Tansley, the Melville brothers, Wanganui Collegiate Old Boys Edward Jollie and Rupert Hosking, and Thomas Tanner from Napier all followed different paths but found themselves in various parts of South Africa either when war broke out or shortly before.
The origins of the ANZAC tradition are usually considered to be found on the battlefields of Gallipoli and the Western Front, but were there signs of this at the turn of the 20th century?
An aspect of the South African War that has not been fully appreciated is the number of New Zealanders who served in Australian forces, and the number of Australians in New Zealand contingents. Added to this, Australian and New Zealand military units served side by side in South Africa during some of the most hotly contested and costly engagements, such as Langverwacht. I would suggest that while the term ‘ANZAC spirit’ did not exist at the turn of last century, evidence shows the ANZAC phenomenon had its genesis not on the battlefields of the First World War, but over a decade earlier on the South African veldt.
Coming only decades after armed conflict between Māori and Pākehā in Aotearoa New Zealand, were Māori universally opposed to British actions in South Africa?
For Māori the war proved a divisive and polarising issue. Lord Ranfurly reported Māori in the Hokianga region harbouring pro-Boer sympathies, while influential members of iwi that had assisted the Crown militarily during the New Zealand Wars supported the war effort and lobbied the government in an attempt to actually fight in South Africa. These divisions were, however, not always so clear cut. A small, but not insignificant, number of Māori did join contingents under European names, at least one of whom was Ngāti Maniapoto, an iwi that had fought against Crown forces during the New Zealand Wars.
What was one of the most significant economic impacts of the war on New Zealand?
Due to the highly mobile nature of warfare in South Africa, horses played an important role in military operations. Maintaining these animals in the field required vast quantities of fodder that could not be obtained in South Africa, and New Zealand farmers able to grow the crop sold hundreds of thousands of bushels of oats. Though export returns from oats did not equal profit, the money New Zealand received from oat sales far surpassed the funds the New Zealand government expended on the war.
This is not strictly a military history, but rather a social history of the war’s impact on the country. Is this an area generally neglected in our nation’s history, or just around this period?
I don’t consider it is an area that has necessarily been neglected, though I think it is true to say that more books focus on the purely military aspects of the other major conflicts in which New Zealand forces have taken part. There are publications that consider social aspects of New Zealand’s involvement in those wars, but until now the impact of the South African War on New Zealand society has escaped the same level of in-depth examination it so rightfully deserves.
What sources were you able to draw on for your research?
The war received extensive coverage in the New Zealand press as well as in Australian and British newspapers. New Zealand newspapers also published letters from men and women in South Africa, which were useful, though their reliability varied. The Otago Witness and Wanganui Collegiate publications included a rich photographic record. Reports tabled in parliament also provided extensive research material, as did imperial records, material held at Archives New Zealand, the Alexander Turnbull Library, the Hocken Library, Auckland War Memorial Museum and, in particular, Waiouru Army Museum. However, there are also significant gaps in the official records. For example, only the Sixth Contingent crime and punishment records appear to have survived.
What are you reading or watching at the moment?
I have just completed William Dalrymple’s excellent The Anarchy: The Relentless Rise of the East India Company, and recently reread Steve Coll’s equally impressive, Pulitzer Prize-winning Ghost Wars: The Secret History of the CIA, Afghanistan and Bin Laden, from the Soviet Invasion to September 10, 2001. As far as my current viewing goes, I am following with interest the political situation in the United States; it is history in the making.
Our First Foreign War, Massey University Press ($55 RRP), available now. More info here.