Letters from Kimberley

Eyewitness Accounts from the South African War

Edited by Edward M Spiers

front cover - Letters from Kimberley

What better way to truly understand an historical event and how it affected the people involved than to read the accounts of those very people? This is the approach taken in "Letters from Kimberley: Eyewitness Accounts from the South African War" edited by Edward M. Spiers.

The rich mining town of Kimberley was besieged by the Boers almost as soon as war was declared in October 1899 and remained so until relieved over 120 days later. During this time the people of the town suffered the inevitable hardships of food shortages, shelling and the constant threat of attack. Throughout the siege a power struggle was played out in full public glare between the commander of the garrison, Lieutenant-Colonel Kekewich, and Cecil Rhodes, founder of the De Beers Mining Company and leading citizen of Kimberley. The town was finally relieved by forces under Major-General French following a spectacular and ambitious cavalry charge across Klip Drift.

The story of the siege of Kimberley has been told many times before. The difference here, and indeed the whole point of this book, is that here the story is told by the people who were actually there. The book comprises excerpts from 261 letters written by town residents and British troops that were published in national and provincial newspapers, often as the siege was ongoing. Several of the correspondents are featured regularly throughout the book and the reader can easily determine a sense of their personalities. This further adds to the depth and colour of the accounts. These letters give a fascinating description of how events unfolded, as they unfolded. Crucially of course, many of the correspondents did not have the benefit of hindsight and consequently many of the accounts reflect the uncertainty that must have been prevalent throughout the siege. These people did not know if they would even survive the siege, never mind emerge from it victorious.

A further consequence of the nature of the book is that the accuracy of the details given in the accounts is often questionable. This is to be expected of course, given that many of the correspondences were fuelled by speculation and rumour. Obviously the town residents or troops in the relief column had no access to official records. Indeed the value of the writing is not in the facts and figures reported; rather the emotional responses and the human details that are conveyed. To me this enhances the book, ironically providing a kind of authenticity - these people were reporting what they believed to be true at the time. That said, wherever details of troop numbers or casualties are significantly inaccurate, corrections are provided in the footnotes.

This book is well worth reading even if you are already familiar with the Boer Wars in general and the siege of Kimberley in particular. As well as providing detail of day to day life in the town and the relief column that may be absent from other references, it affords readers a glimpse into the thoughts and feelings of the protagonists. This is the most valuable aspect of the book and one which most others cannot boast.

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