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Posts tagged ‘Christmas’

Christmas in a Camp

Earlier this year I went to the launch of Elizabeth van Heyningen’s The Concentration Camps of the Anglo-Boer War: A Social History at the Book Lounge in central Cape Town. The result of years of hard work in archives scattered around South Africa and Europe, this book has become – and will remain for some time – the standard history of the camps established for Boer and black civilians during the South African War (1899-1902).

Instead of the usual collection of hipsters in search of free food, academics in need of free wine, and people from the publishing world, this was attended by a largely elderly, white and Afrikaans audience. (I was easily the youngest person there. I am 31.) When Elizabeth and Albert Grundlingh, who hosted the event, opened the floor to questions, she received question after question about why she does not describe the deaths of so many Boer women and children in the camps as genocide.

There were 14,154 officially recorded deaths in the camps for black civilians, but it is likely that the number was closer to 20,000. Estimates of deaths in Boer camps range from 25,000 to 34,000. In these camps, 81 per cent of deaths were children. Despite these incredibly high numbers, as Van Heyningen explained, the camps were not part of a deliberate British policy to exterminate the Boer population. (In contrast, for example, to the genocide of the Herero in German South West Africa between 1905 and 1906.)

The tragedy of the camps was that people died as a result of chaotic and negligent mismanagement and poor provisioning. Inmates arrived usually in poor health, and were victims of the epidemics of measles and typhoid, for instance, which swept the camps. In fact – and this is one of the most important arguments in Van Heyningen’s scholarship on the camps – the British saw them as a means of transforming the white populations of the two Boer Republics into the future subjects of a united South Africa firmly under British rule.

Concentration-Camps

This interpretation of the camps almost caused a riot in the Book Lounge. I was almost, but not entirely, surprised. Firstly, because it underscored – again – the gulf between debates among guild historians and the reading public. And, secondly, because Boer suffering in the concentration camps was one of the most powerful strands within a historiography constructed in the 1920s and 1930s to bolster Afrikaner nationalism.

The point is not to deny that people – both black and white – suffered both physically and psychologically in the camps, but, rather, to argue that camps deserve more detailed and nuanced study as a result of the fact that British authorities saw them as being crucial to the making of a modern South Africa. Hospitals and schools, in particular, were used to pull Boer families into what Alfred, Lord Milner, and other officials believed to be the light of British rationality, order, and civilisation.

Which brings me to Christmas parties. In December 1901, around a year after the first camps for civilians were established and when mortality rates had begun to stabilise and decline in response to a raft of reforms, camp superintendents were ordered, and were provided with the means, to organise treats and celebrations for the inmates of the Boer camps. During the weeks leading up to Christmas, at the Belfast Camp, women in sewing circles and schoolchildren were encouraged to make ‘toys and useful articles’ for presents. On the 25th:

the tree was erected in a large room, and, after partaking of refreshments, the little ones were filed through the room containing the Tree and each drew a number from a bag on entering and received small garment or toy – and on leaving each got in addition a bag containing cake, sweets and dates.

At the Heidelberg Camp, ‘all children in the Camp under the age of 12’ were given ‘1 small jam-tart, 1 parcel sweets dates and biscuits.’ There were sports days with prizes, and lots and lots to eat – in contrast to the usually monotonous rations of camp living. The Irene Camp’s Christmas picnic – held for the schoolchildren – was particularly lavish:

On the day fixed, that is Friday the 20th December, all the Teachers and all the children assembled on the School grounds at 5.30 in the morning and the roll was called, when 900 answered their names. All the wagons in Camp has been requisitioned and every available ox, mule and donkey was inspanned and these wagons with their respective teams conveyed all the School children with their Teachers to the spot where several large Store tents had been pitched the day before, and where 100 men and women helpers were waiting in readiness at the 6 large Army Camp boilers and various numbers of large pots and kettles etc. to do the necessary waiting and cooking. A huge supply of bread and cakes had been baked… An ox had been killed by me the day before and the whole of it was cooked during the day on the spot. The children were served three meals during the day, exclusive of sweets and fruit and coffee, tea etc. and enjoyed themselves by playing games of all kinds and competitive sports amongst themselves.

In other camps, there were full Christmas dinners, with roast chicken, plum puddings, and fruit.

So how to interpret these Christmas parties? All superintendents reported (unsurprisingly) that children appreciated the parties and presents, and games and sports days were well attended. It also appears that some officials went out of their way to provide dinners and picnics which inmates would enjoy and remember. But interpreting these Christmas parties as a moment of happy wartime friendship across enemy lines – as a kind of South African version of the 1914 Christmas truce – would be glib. Although not denying the genuine altruism of some superintendents, these Christmas parties had a series of political and cultural functions.

Funded handsomely by the British administration, the parties were an attempt to foster goodwill: to demonstrate to Boer civilians that the camps were being run in their best interests by a benevolent administration. They were also intended to show to an international media – and newspapers did report on the parties – that the camps for Boers had improved since the outcry abroad earlier that year over the high mortality rates.

Perhaps more subtly, these parties also introduced Boer civilians to a tradition which officials believed to be entirely British: to a Christmas with a tree, a roast dinner, plum puddings, and games. Ironically, though, the Christmas traditions replicated in the camps had been invented as recently as the 1840s. Decorated Christmas trees, crackers, and cards had all become popular during the middle of the century, helped along by the increasing buying power of the British middle classes. Carol singing was revived; the Christmas dinner as we know it today emerged in this period. Although some of these rituals were already present in the British religious calendar – gift giving, for instance – they were moved closer to Christmas, and were augmented with borrowed traditions, most notably the tree, from Germany. Christmas was associated with the Victorian cult of domesticity: it was the moment of the year which celebrated the closeness of the family.

This supremely invented tradition was introduced to the camps for Boer civilians as one strategy – among many – for remaking them British. There were no such parties in camps for black civilians – or, at least, there are no records of them. Most of the reports on these camps were destroyed shortly after the war, but it is probable that British authorities balked at the thought of spending more money on black camps, which were already run on the cheap. Their inmates were made to grow their own food, for instance. Whereas Boer children were sent to school, to be educated to be future subjects of the British Empire, black children were to be taught how to work – and performed manual labour alongside their parents, while some were hired out as domestic servants in towns and cities. In this way, Christmas parties assisted in the moulding of white, imperial identities.

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Tangerine and Cinnamon by Sarah Duff is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.

Bouchées, Litchis, and Carmina Burana

I spent December 2002 in Réunion, a small Indian Ocean island near Mauritius. I had won a scholarship from the French government, one of several offered every year to South African students, to improve my language skills and knowledge of French ‘civilisation’ in this outpost of lHexagone. Réunion, which is part of the Eurozone and is the outermost region of the EU, is an overseas department of France, meaning that it’s as integral of a part of the country as, for example, Loire and Haute-Savoie. But with an active volcano.

2002 was one of the rare years when Christmas, Hanukkah, and Eid al-Fitr were celebrated within a few days of one another. With its large Christian and Muslim populations, Réunion was particularly festive that December. On Christmas Eve, I was taken to a performance of Carl Orff’s Carmina Burana in a cathedral built from blackened volcanic rock in Saint-Louis, a town in the southwest of the island. Given the cantata’s less-than-pious subject matter, it seemed at first an odd choice of seasonal choral music, but by the end of the performance, it was the obvious – the best – music to celebrate Christmas in Réunion.

The cathedral in Saint-Louis

The cathedral in Saint-Louis

Although the tenor and soprano had flown in from France, the members of the choir and orchestra were locals, most of them amateur performers whose families were seated in the audience. Small children ran to kiss parents and siblings in the string and woodwind sections; and the altos waved to grandparents seated in the back row, beside the plastic statue of the Madonna with the halo made of pink flashing fairy lights.

The conductor’s role was less to assist in the interpretation of the music, then to marshal his varied and enthusiastic performers into a coherent orchestra, with each section reaching the end of the cantata at more-or-less the same time. But he was also aware of the context in which Carmina Burana was being performed. About halfway through the third section, the muezzin in a nearby mosque began the sunset call to prayers. As his appeal to the faithful drifted in through the cathedral’s open windows – it was a hot, muggy evening – the conductor raised his hands to orchestra and choir, and the performers fell silent. We waited, quietly, for the call to end. The conductor picked up his baton, and the performance continued. Anarchically, joyously.

In Le Tampon (yes, really), the town where I stayed.

In Le Tampon (yes, really), the town where I stayed.

Officially claimed by France in 1642, Réunion – first called Île Bourbon after the French royal house, and then Réunion after 1793 (to commemorate the reunion of revolutionaries from Marseille and the National Guard in Paris), and then Île Bonaparte between 1801 and 1810, and then Bourbon again until 1848 (this included the short period of British rule, 1810-1815), when it reverted to Réunion after the fall of the Bourbon monarchy during that year’s revolution – was settled by free and enslaved peoples from three continents.

The first settlers arrived from Europe in 1665, assisted by the French East India Company. The vast majority of those from Africa and Asia were brought to the island as slaves, between 1690 and 1848, when slavery was abolished. Chinese, Indian, Malay, Indonesian, and east African slaves worked on Réunion’s sugar plantations, usually in appallingly cruel conditions, an aspect of Réunion’s history which figures strongly in the island’s thriving bandes desinées culture. It still exports sugarcane and some alarmingly powerful rum.

Piton de la Fournaise

Piton de la Fournaise

Réunion’s cuisine reflects the variety of the islanders’ origins particularly well, but is nevertheless also shaped by the produce and climate of the island. Its landscape is as varied as its people. At its centre is an active volcano, the Piton de la Fournaise – which was erupting when I arrived – and three calderas, or cirques (collapsed, extinct volcanoes). Reached on winding, narrow roads, the towns in the Cirque de Salazie and the Cirque de Cilaos are at high altitudes, with tall forests, where I found wild strawberries. In contrast, the west of the island is all palm trees, azure sea, and white sand. There are black, volcanic beaches near Saint-Denis, Réunion’s capital at the north of the island, and to the east are the tropical plants grown for the essential oils used in the perfume industry.

Cirque de Cilaos. If you look carefully, you'll spot the wild strawberries.

Cirque de Cilaos. If you look carefully, you’ll spot the wild strawberries.

I returned home with bunches of vanilla pods in my luggage. I have also never since eaten quite as many litchis as I did in Réunion. They were enormous and perfumed and sweet – and sold by the branch by groups old ladies laden with plastic shopping bags of fruit. I made the – apparently dire – mistake of smiling at these women when I passed them in the town where I stayed. Only much later did I realise that this signalled my interest in buying their produce, and on four or five occasions, I was pursued – relentlessly – by an increasingly angry and rude collection of old women, all determined to sell me bags and bags of litchis.

Litchis for sale outside a supermarket

Litchis for sale outside a supermarket

Usually, I took refuge in the enormous local supermarket while they circled outside. The Hypercrack (yes, really) sold amazing croissants and bread, and I ate millefeuille at one party, and an excellent croque monsieur at a café in Saint-Gilles les Baines. But I also ate a range of different curries, and versions of Peking duck with pancakes. I ate pad thai at a music festival, and bought samosas stuffed, unusually, with pork mince from a street vendor in Saint-Pierre.

Saint-Pierre

Saint-Pierre

As someone coming from newly-democratic South Africa, I was struck by how easily the island’s very heterogeneous population appeared to get along. The performance of Carmina Burana in Saint-Louis seemed only to confirm this willing tolerance of other traditions and religions. But Réunion does have profound social problems: there were riots in 1991, and it has a widening gap between the island’s wealthy and very poor – Réunion’s unemployment rate sits at around 40 per cent.

Cirque de Salazie

Cirque de Salazie

Instead of glibly understanding Réunion’s varied cuisine – drawn from Europe and around the Indian Ocean, and influenced by the island’s climate and ecology – as an example of happy multiculturalism, it seems to me that its dishes show the ways in which people from different cultural, religious, or ethnic backgrounds negotiate ways of living with one another.

Hellbourg, Cirque de Salazie

Hellbourg, Cirque de Salazie

One of the best examples of this process in Réunion is the bouchon. There are other bouchées in French cuisine, both sweet and savoury, but their similarity lies in their cork-like shape (‘bouchon’ means ‘cork’). The bouchées of Réunion are golf ball-sized, stubby dumplings of minced meat – usually pork or chicken – wrapped in rice paper and then steamed until cooked through.

I first ate a bouchon at a party which had been thrown for our group of South African students. One of our lecturers had spent the preceding week waxing lyrical about the feast of bouchées which awaited us, so I was curious to try them. I confess that I thought they tasted like meat-flavoured glue. While it’s entirely possible that our hostess was a substandard bouchon-maker and that I had the misfortune to try the island’s worst examples of the delicacy, the only way I managed to eat them was by dousing them liberally with soy sauce.

Saint-Denis

Saint-Denis

The reason why I think that I was unlucky in my bouchon-sampling experience was that they’re based on the dumplings served as part of dim sum. Indeed, bouchées were developed by Cantonese immigrants to Réunion, and are now made and eaten by most of the island’s population. I think the best example of their hybridisation is the pain bouchon – a popular lunchtime choice sold at Chinese take-away restaurants. These are sandwiches made of baguettes split in half, stuffed with bouchées, and garnished with soy and chilli sauce, mayonnaise, ketchup, or melted cheese.

Cirque de Cilaos

Cirque de Cilaos

During much of the debate over the current mania for ‘authentic’ cuisine, I think often of the bouchon. It’s based on dim sum – one of the most recent additions to the foodie hall of authenticity fame – but modified by a varied group of immigrants to a small island in the Indian Ocean. Sandwiched in a baguette and slathered in mayonnaise, it’s no longer particularly ‘Chinese’, nor terribly ‘French’, but particular to Réunion. It’s this messiness – literally – that demonstrates the futility, and snobbery, around the quest for ‘authentic’ cuisine.

More of Piton de la Fornaise

More of Piton de la Fornaise

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Tangerine and Cinnamon by Sarah Duff is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.