PUBlic Professor Series | Dr. Amy Shaw

'A Devil-May-Care Sort of Swagger’: A Case for Remembering Canada in the Boer War

 Dr. Amy Shaw, Department of History

The first time the new Dominion of Canada sent troops overseas, the first time it fought in a war against another country, was on the veldts of South Africa. This would seem, among those who associate military firsts with national maturity, to be a significant milestone. But Canadians, by and large, don’t remember their participation in the Second Anglo-Boer War (1899-1902).

Why? Why do we remember some wars and let others fade? The Boer War’s relative absence in our national memory is a shame because having it as part of our narrative could help us understand several elements of late-Victorian Canadian society, including ideas about gender roles, perceptions of duty, and how imperialism was understood on an individual level.

One particular aspect of this that I’m interested in is how many commentators of the day talked about the bodies of the Canadian soldiers, and the Afrikaners they were fighting. The Second Anglo-Boer War was seen by many Canadians as an opportunity to showcase British imperial righteousness and unity, as well as the distinctive national strengths of the young Dominion. Much of this debate was inscribed upon the physical bodies of those who participated in the war.  The bodies of these volunteer, white, colonial men, were the empire incarnated, made flesh. Examining how the soldiers were represented, and what this might mean about normative manliness and the qualities and behaviour of ideal citizens, offers useful insight into the society of the day, and of Canadians’ relationship to imperialism at the turn of the twentieth century.

ICYMI: Watch the video