A Canadian in Johannesburg: Braamfontein cemetery

Boer.monuWhile wandering around central Johannesburg’s Braamfontein Cemetery, I came across an imposing monument to British soldiers who lost their lives in the South Africa’s Boer War of 1899 to 1902.

From Britain’s perspective, the war was all about the maintenence and control of empire. Meanwhile, for Britain’s Afrikaans-speaking ‘Boer’ opponents the war was fought to defend the independence of  the Transvaal Republic and Orange Free State . For both sides the ownership of the valuable diamond and gold mining territories were at stake. As for the position of the native Black Africans, unsurprisingly they barely got a look-in. In total, tens of thousands of people – soldiers and civilians – lost their lives either in battle or from disease or hunger.

Amongst at the names engraved on the monument and on nearby individual headstones are those of some of the many Australians, Canadians and New Zealanders who died in the South African war. As this was seen as a war in defence of a Greater Britain, it seemed reasonable to ask and expect the queen’s imperial subjects to do their bit.

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Beneath the shade of eucalyptus, oak, cypress and other foreign trees that were introduced to Braamfontein Cemetery and northern South Africa’s grass veld over a century ago, one particular Boer War headstone caught my attention: that of Major Harold Lithrop Borden, of the 1st Battalion, Canadian Mounted Rifles. While the other headstones typically indicate only the name and rank of the deceased, along with the date of death, Borden’s somewhat grander stone at least hints at what might have really driven him to volunteer to enlist to fight in a far-off land.

Harold Borden was born in Canning, Nova Scotia and interrupted his medical studies at Montreal’s McGill University to go to war. As Harold’s headstone states, he was the son of Sir Frederick Borden, Canada’s Minister for Militia; on 16 July 1900 he was killed during the Battle of Witpoort, fighting alongside fellow Canadians and also with Irish and New Zealand troops.

It is impossible to know whether Sir Frederick actively encouraged – or perhaps even discouraged – his only son from enlisting. Nor do we know how Sir Frederick reacted to the field report that stated that Harold was “killed while gallantly leading [his] men in a counter attack upon the enemy’s flank at a critical juncture of his assault upon our position”. Was he proud? Did he wrestle with at least a glimmer of  guilt? But he certainly managed, perhaps hiding behind a colonial Briton’s stiff upper lip, to serve another eleven years as Canada’s Minister of Militia.

Borden

See also: Death in early Johannesburg: Braamfontein Cemetery. 

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4 comments

  1. Interesting piece! I hope that whatever else he felt, Sir Frederick was grief stricken that his only son had died at age 22. And what of those whose parents couldn’t give them such a grand monument? I guess we won’t know.

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  2. Dorothy Doyle · · Reply

    You’ve made me think about the Boer War for the first time in my long life. It doesn’t get much attention in the history we study in the USA. At least it was a SHORT war (three years?) when compared to the Middle East wars which have now lasted thirteen years….and with no end in sight. Pictures and text….both excellent!

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  3. You have far more courage than me to go wandering around the Braamfontein cemetery. I know of at least three murders that have happened there. Also, the last time I was there, with an escort were were threatened by some robbers, but we managed to escape. I would not enter that cemetery or any other Johannesburg without an armed guard now

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    1. Thank you for commenting on the my blogpost. Maybe I was naive in visiting without an escort. And maybe we were lucky that we survived the visit unscathed. I certainly felt entirely safe. Perhaps the cemetery has become safer since you were last there. Yes, there were a few homeless men encamped beneath some bushes, but they were there minding their own business. The cemetery is a really beautiful place, carefully maintained as a city of Johannesburg park. We were able to drive into the cemetery and we then stopped and walked in areas that especially caught our attention. Of course had I ever had an experience like the one you described, I also might well say that it’s best to steer clear of the cemetery!

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