During the second half of the 19th century a tradition developed in Britain to erect war memorials to those who had died in foreign wars and had no grave at home. So it was not surprising that New Zealanders put up about 50 war memorials to those who died in the South African war, most of which are still known to exist. All but one were completed within six years of peace. The memorials preserve in stone the imperial sentiments which inspired New Zealand's involvement in the war.
The moment news of peace reached New Zealand on 2 June 1902, the Governor, Lord Ranfurly, suggested that instead of local memorials, there should be one national memorial in the form of a home for veterans of the empire's wars. Ranfurly was clearly anticipating that there would be future wars for the empire and he saw the home as New Zealand's equivalent of the Chelsea Home for Pensioners. Ranfurly visited towns and cities throughout New Zealand encouraging the raising of funds and there were a series of fundraising gatherings and floral fetes in the main centres. An event at Wellington College attracted 3500 people for the fortune-telling, electric shocks, rides in motor-cars, a competition for businessmen to trim women's hats and a cricket match in which 15 girls from Pollard's Opera Company played nine local cricketers wearing dresses and playing left-handed! Through such means over 8000 pounds was raised. On 10 December 1903 Lord Ranfurly opened a handsome wooden building on a prominent site in Onehunga, Auckland, as the Ranfurly Veterans' Home. It still stands there today.
Ranfurly had seen the Veterans' Home as an alternative to local memorials in stone. As a result there are no civic memorials in Wellington and Auckland; and in Christchurch they were content with adding one memorial panel to the back of the Queen Victoria memorial which had been ordered for the province's 50th jubilee. But elsewhere the sense of local pride demanded war memorials and most provincial centres such as Thames, Napier, New Plymouth, Wanganui, Nelson, Timaru, Invercargill and Dunedin erected one. A few small communities such as Shannon and Ross also put up memorials - usually in honour of a much-loved local boy who had fallen on the veldt. Funds for the drinking fountain in honour of Trooper Stanley Scott at Ponsonby were collected by the custodian of the public lavatories at Three Lamps, who took up a collection around local pubs where Scott had been well known.
But even these local memorials expressed as much a pride in the achievements of local boys as sorrow at their deaths. They were designed to 'keep alive for all time the memory of New Zealand's brilliant record', as the Southland Times wrote. Premier Richard Seddon was a special enthusiast for local memorials and his home area of the West Coast has quite a number. Three of them include the name of the same fallen trooper, Oscar Bottom.
The inscriptions on the South African War memorials show how their intention was primarily to commemorate the achievements of the New Zealanders in the war rather than mourn the dead. The Waimate memorial is 'In commemoration of the South African War in which New Zealand represented by her 6500 volunteers for the first time took part in the battles of the Empire and assisted to maintain the prestige of the British flag.' Only belatedly are the dead mentioned. Taranaki erected its monument to locals 'In Admiration of their Patriotism in Volunteering to join the Motherland Forces to uphold the Empire'. For this reason many of the memorials pay a tribute to those who served as well as those who died. In this sense the South African War memorials, unlike those of the First World War, were not primarily surrogate tombs.
Few of the memorials are to be found in cemeteries where the dead might be remembered, but are more often in the main street where pride in the troopers' achievement could be proclaimed. As regards the statuary, the most unusual figure is that of Zealandia which is to be found on both the Palmerston and Waimate memorials - expressive of the nationalistic pride which lay behind their erection. In nine other places the memorials include a trooper and only in one case, at Napier, is he in a pose of mourning. Elsewhere, as at Oamaru, he is standing aggressively, rifle at the ready, while at Dunedin the trooper stands over a wounded comrade, an image of mateship in action. There are also three memorial fountains, and the memorial in Paeroa to George Bradford, the first soldier to die in South Africa, is a large boulder. In other places are to be found gas lamps, a band rotunda (in Greymouth) and Hokitika's remarkable memorial clock.
Also expressive of the imperialist sentiments which are captured in the monuments is the pride of British lions which prowl around the base of South African War memorials. They appear in a great variety of guises but are always symbolic of British imperial power. Lions are to be found at Napier, Oamaru, Rotorua, Westport, Palmerston and Albert Park in Auckland.
The final irony of New Zealand's South African War memorials is that the finest of these symbols of colonial achievement in the cause of the British Empire were actually designed by an Italian migrant to New Zealand, Carlo Bergamini. Most of New Zealand's memorials were ordered from local monumental masons and imported from overseas, usually Italy. They were usually sculpted in the mass production studios at Carrara. Carlo Bergamini was himself from Carrara and had migrated to Dunedin as a young man when he set up as a sculptor and monumental mason. He entered a competition for the design of the Oamaru memorial, and subsequently won competitions for the Waimate, Dunedin and Riverton memorials. Without a doubt they represent the finest South African War memorials in the country.
Information and photographs, unless otherwise stated, derived from C. Maclean & J. Phillips The Sorrow and the Pride, Wellington, 1990
A biography of Carlo Bergamini can be found on the DNZB website.
Next page: Further information