Guest Post: Sarah Emily Duff on Dangerous Girls

Sarah Emily Duff is a Researcher at WiSER, and holds a PhD from Birkbeck, University of London. Her research is on histories of childhood, sexuality, and medicine in nineteenth- and twentieth-century South Africa. Funded by a prestigious, five-year Research Career Advancement Fellowship from the National Research Foundation (NRF), her current project investigates histories of sex education in twentieth-century South Africa. Before joining WiSER, Sarah held an NRF Postdoctoral Research Fellowship at Stellenbosch University, and lectured at Goldsmiths, University of London. She has published in the Journal of Southern African Studies, the South African Historical Journal, and the Journal of Colonialism and Colonial History, as well as in several edited collections. She has articles forthcoming in the Journal of the History of Childhood and Youth and Kronos. Her monograph, Changing Childhoods in the Cape Colony: Dutch Reformed Church Evangelicalism and Colonial Childhood, 1860-1895, will be published in 2014 by Palgrave Macmillan, in a new series on global histories of childhood.

In September 1901, a little more than six months before the conclusion of the South African War (1899-1902), John Fourie, a resident of Aberdeen in the rural eastern districts of the Cape Colony, noted in his diary:

Mrs. Niel P. Fouche and family (women and children only) had to appear before the Commandant this morning, because they did not open the door on Saturday night, when the Tommies were hammering at it. When Mrs F. asked who it was, they would not answer, and when they broke the door a little daughter of Mrs F. about 12 years of age through [sic] at them with an axe.

A few months previously, Anna Cummings, the headmistress of a girls’ school in Wellington, a small, prosperous town about forty-five miles outside of Cape Town, wrote to her brother in the United States, describing an incident related to her by a friend. A British officer had been tasked with removing a mother and daughter from a farm to a refugee camp. Moved by their ‘tears and entreaties’ he agreed to return later, so that they could pack a few possessions for the journey, and properly shut up their house for what would be an indefinite stay in the camps:

so he rode around to their door a few days after and was cordially invited to enter. He was about to accept their invitation, when his suspicions were aroused and he remounted, saying he would come again and asking the girl to show him the road to a certain place which required her to keep between him and the house. When she no longer covered him and so was out of danger, a volley of shots was fired at him from the open door.

The soldier managed to escape.

In my article, “‘Capture the Children’: Writing Children into the South African War, 1899-1902,” I include Fourie’s diary entry as an example of children’s own violent encounters with British and Boer forces in the conflict. It is on its own an arresting account of a child’s response to a group of soldiers whose motives were, clearly, construed as threatening. But read alongside Cummings’ letter – which I do not refer to in my essay – it takes on a different quality. How many girls – Boer or otherwise – took up arms to defend their households?

I think this question is worth asking because Cummings’ account could fairly easily be described as rumor. She reports information passed to her by a friend who, quite possibly, may have heard the story from someone else. Rumors did certainly circulate during the South African War – as in any conflict – and they involved the experiences of civilians. If there were stories circulating about young women’s responses to soldiers – British in these cases – then it is worth considering them more closely.

In Speaking with Vampires: Rumor and History in Colonial Africa (2000), Luise White draws historians’ attention to the value of rumor, gossip, and lies as sources. Her goal, she explains, was to

reverse many of the methods with which we write history. I argued that historians could read in the inaccurate, the fantastic, and the constructed a world of colonized peoples we would not otherwise see. And that world, glimpsed through the fantastic and constructed accounts, was a more specific version of events than we’d had before. It was a world we couldn’t see if we labeled accounts true or false and stopped there, or if we simply threw out the accounts we deemed false.[1]

She makes the point that however much rumor and gossip may invent or distort what is ‘truthful,’ they also draw attention to a range of anxieties and concerns that would otherwise go unarticulated. After all, in order to be believable, ‘make-up and make-believe’ must be ‘constituted by what is credible.’ They must be ‘constructed out of what is socially conceivable.’[2]

The South African War involved civilians on an almost unprecedented scale. After the capture of the capitals of the two Boer Republics in June 1900, Boer forces resorted to guerilla tactics: small groups of fighters (called commandos) used their knowledge of the landscape of the Orange Free State and the Transvaal, as well as the two British colonies, the Cape and Natal, to drag the conflict on until May 1902.

Britain’s scorched earth policy implemented from December 1900, aimed to cut off Boer commandoes’ supply lines by imprisoning the inhabitants of rural farms – Boer women and children and black laborers – who provided them with the provisions which allowed them to continue fighting. The first refugee camps were established in early 1901.

Boer commandos conducted raids into the Cape and Natal. They had been particularly successful in the area around Aberdeen, and, as a result of this, martial law was particularly harshly implemented there. The Tommies referred to in Fourie’s diary were probably searching farms for Boer fighters, and the Fouche family could expect harsh penalties for harboring enemy combatants.

The Fouche girl’s act sheds light, then, on why rumors would circulate around young women finding ways of attacking enemy soldiers: this was a war being fought even in domestic spaces. Although only fourteen British soldiers – nine of whom were acquitted – were charged with rape during the conflict, it is likely that the figures were considerably higher. Boer women testified at court martial trials during the War that they had been the victims of attempted rape and sexual assault, but the majority of these allegations were dismissed as misrepresentation or lies.[3]

The leadership of the British army was at pains to describe in local and foreign publications its soldiers as adhering closely to codes of chivalry, and of gentlemanly behavior. In these terms, it was impossible for them to rape. But it is clear that they did rape. The usefulness of these kinds of fragments and rumors is that they bring to the surface that which could not be spoken or articulated in public.

But other than allowing civilians, particularly women, to express fears that would otherwise be dismissed or considered inappropriate for polite conversation, these rumors about dangerous girls could also have functioned as a fantasy of revenge: a suggestion that it was possible for women to take up arms against their enemy.


[1] Luise White, “Telling More: Lies, Secrets, and History,” History and Theory, Theme Issue 39 (Dec. 2000), p. 13.
[2] White, “Telling More,” pp. 12-13.
[3]Stephen M. Miller, “Duty or Crime? Defining Acceptable Behavior in the British Army in South Africa, 1899-1902,’ Journal of British Studies, vol. 49, no. 2 (April 2010), pp. 322-324.

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