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On-line version ISSN 2309-8392
Print version ISSN 0018-229X

Historia vol.54 n.1 Durban  2009




The Indian War Memorial: National memory and selective forgetting - Connecting public histories


Die Indiese Oorlogsgedenkteken: Nasionale geheue en selektiewe geheueverlies



Eric Itzkin

Eric Itzkin is Deputy Director: Immovable Heritage in the Directorate Arts, Culture and Heritage, Department of Community Development, City of Johannesburg He is the author of Gandhi's Johannesburg: Birthplace of Satyagraha and has worked extensively on South African Indian history and heritage




The article uncovers the neglected history of the War Memorial commemorating thousands of Indian Army soldiers involved as non-combatants in the Anglo-Boer War. Erected in 1902, the monument in Observatory, Johannesburg, overlooks the site of a large remount camp staffed by Indians. Excluded from official accounts of the time which viewed the conflict as a "white man's war", the Indian auxiliaries have likewise been overlooked in more recent historiography aimed at creating a more inclusive view of the War. Revisionist scholarship focused on African involvement in the conflict, while the role of the Indian auxiliaries remains largely forgotten. By comparison, the role of Gandhi's Stretcher-Bearer Corps in the War is well known. Commemorations to mark the centenary of the War, although intended as an inclusive anniversary, failed to recover the public memory of these auxiliaries. Reviving their memory may not fit into a narrow nation-building concept, but is important to acknowledge the varied, transnational elements which have shaped South Africa's past. After the War, most of the Indian soldiers returned to India. Only a few of these veterans remained in South Africa, notably including Captain Nawab Khan who joined Gandhi's Satyagraha movement.

Keywords: Anglo-Boer War; Anglo-Boer War Centenary; Captain Nawab Khan; Indian Army auxiliaries; Indian auxiliaries; Indian War Memorial; international contingents; Johannesburg; military history; Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi; monuments and memorials; Natal Indian Ambulance Corps; Observatory; remount camps; South African War; war memorials


Hierdie artikel openbaar die vergete geskiedenis van die oorlogsgedenkteken wat hulde bring aan duisende soldate van die Indiese Weermag wat as nie-strydendes aan die Anglo-Boereoorlog deelgeneem het. Dit is opgerig in 1902, in Observatory, Johannesburg, met 'n uitsig oor die terrein waar 'n groot perdevoorsieningskamp beman deur Indiërs eens was. Nie alleen is die Indiese hulptroepe uitgesluit uit offisiële tydgenootlike verslae wat die konflik as 'n "witman se oorlog" beskou het nie, maar hulle is ook op soortgelyke wyse in meer onlangse historiografieë wat gepoog het om n meer inklusiewe beeld van die oorlog weer te gee, behandel. Revisionistiese navorsers het op swart betrokkenheid by die oorlog gefokus, en steeds het die rol van die Indiese hulptroepe grotendeels vergete gebly. In vergelyking hiermee is die rol van Gandhi se Ambulanskorps in die oorlog deeglik bekend. Die eeufeesviering van die Anglo-Boereoorlog was bedoel om n inklusiewe herdenking te wees, maar het insgelyks nie daarin geslaag om die openbare geheue aan hierdie troepe te herinner nie. Om op hulle bydrae te wys, mag miskien nie pas in n enggedefinieerde nasieboukonsep nie, maar dit is tog belangrik om erkenning te gee aan die uiteenlopende transnasionale elemente wat Suid-Afrika se verlede help skep het. Na die oorlog het die meeste van dié soldate na Indië teruggekeer. Slegs enkele van die veterane het in die land aangebly, waaronder kaptein Nawab Khan, wat by Gandhi se satyagraha-beweging aangesluit het.

Sleutelwoorde: Anglo-Boereoorlog begraafplaas; Anglo-Boereoorlog; Indiese hulptroepe; Indiese Oorlogsgedenkteken; Indiese Weermag hulptroepe; internasionale kontingente; Johannesburg; Kaptein Nawab Khan; militêre geskiedenis; Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi; monumente en gedenktekens; Natalse Indiese Ambulanskorps; Observatory; oorlogsgedenktekens; perdevoorsieningskampe; Suid-Afrikaanse Oorlog



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* An earlier version of this article was published in New Delhi: Africa Quarterly, 43, 2, 2003
1 The highest ridge in Johannesburg, Observatory Ridge, rises 1 808 metres above sea level Access to Observatory Ridge, approached from Steyn Street or Gascoyne Street, is complicated by a series of road closures around the Urania Village, a suburban enclosure heavily fortified against urban decay and feared criminality spreading out from the periphery of the inner city In the 1980s, Observatory Ridge was incorporated as part of the Mervyn King Ridge Trail, a now defunct hiking and picnic trail stretching from Hillbrow to Bedfordview African church groups who worship along the hillside are the main users of the pathways, as they have been for many years
2 E Brink and S Krige, "Remapping and Remembering the South African War in Johannesburg and Pretoria", South African Historical Journal, 41, November 1999, p 406         [ Links ]
3 B J Barker, A Concise Dictionary of the Boer War (Francolin, Cape Town, 1999), pp 68-69         [ Links ]
4 The Republic of India, formed of a union of states and territories, came into existence in 1947
5 Among those who played a crucial role in the defence and relief of Ladysmith, was a unit of the Indian Army - an Indian Ordinance Field Park which included Indian lascars (camp followers), some of whom lost their lives This Ordinance Field Park consisted of 81 tindals and lascars, 30 artificers and 5 clerks (all of them Indians), as well as 3 ordinance officers, 6 warrant officers and 9 sergeants (all Europeans)
6 G Dominy and L Callinicos, "'Is There Anything to Celebrate?' Paradoxes of Policy: an Examination of the State's Approach to Commemorating South Africa's Most Ambiguous Struggle", South African Historical Journal, 41, November 1999         [ Links ]
7 L Witz, G Minkley and C Rasool, "No End of a [History] Lesson: Preparations for the Anglo-Boer War Centenary Commemoration", South African Historical Journal, 41, November 1999, p 372         [ Links ]
8 Captain M Grant, History of the War in South Africa, 1899-1902 IV (Hurst and Blackett, London, 1910), Appendix 13
9 Grant, History of the War in South Africa, 1899-1902
10 See, for example, JB Brain, "Indians and the South African War, 1899-1902", Africana Journal, 15, 1999 In attempting to give an overview of Indian participation in the war, Brain touches briefly on the contribution of Native soldiers of the Indian Army Much of the article is, however, devoted to Gandhi's Ambulance Corps and to the Anglo-English volunteers of Lumsden's Horse
11 T G Ramamurthi, The Indian Army in the Anglo-Boer War (General Palit Military Studies Trust, New Delhi and London, 1996) This monograph is only available in mimeo from the author         [ Links ]
12 P Warwick, Black people and the South African War 1899-1902 (Cambridge, 1983)         [ Links ]
13 P Labuschagne, Ghostriders of the Anglo-Boer War, 1899-1902 (UNISA, Pretoria, 1999)         [ Links ]
14 G Cuthbertson and A Jeeves, "The Many-Sided Struggle for Southern Africa, 1899-1902", South African Historical Journal, 41, November 1999, p 11         [ Links ]
15 Some of the terms, such as nalbands (farriers), used to describe Indian auxiliaries were transliterations of words from Indian vernacular languages These terms cannot always be translated exactly However, to convey an idea of the work done by these men, some of the terms roughly cover the following:
Dhobis: washermen;
Lascars: camp followers;
Tindals: Native petty officers of lascars;
Syces: grooms
16 Johannesburg Town Council Minutes (Meeting 71), 29 October 1902
17 Observatory Park was included in the Johannesburg Town Council's list of parks from as early as 1910
18 AC Craig, "Letter dated 1989 to Johannesburg Municipality" Strange Library of African Studies, Johannesburg Public Library
19 In the absence of any comprehensive records or statistics of casualties suffered by Indian troops, one has to rely on scattered reports of actions in which Native followers were involved Here and there an Indian is reported as having been killed or wounded in action, or more commonly as having died of disease, such as pneumonia or enteric fever, directly traceable to active service In the case of the Indian Ordinance Field Park there were no deaths and only one lascar was wounded The overall picture of Indian casualties remains hazy and incomplete and the true number of deaths may never be known
20 M K Gandhi, The Collected Works of Mahatma Gandhi VIII (Publications Division, Delhi, 1958),         [ Links ] Document 1: Trial of Ex-Soldiers
21 Jamadar (sometimes spelt Jemadar) denotes a rank used in the British Indian Army, being the lowest rank for a Viceroy's Commissioned Officer (JCO) Typically, a Jamadar commanded platoons containing thirty to fifty soldiers, or assisted their British commander

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