Emily Hobhouse and the limits of agency

Rebecca Gill and Cornelis Muller, ‘The limits of agency: Emily Hobhouse’s international activism and the politics of suffering’, Journal of South African and American Studies 19 (2018), 16-35

Emily Hobhouse (1860-1926), was born at St Ive, near Liskeard, and is associated with the emergence of transnational activism at the beginning of the twentieth century. She is best known for her work in exposing the torrid conditions among Boer women and children imprisoned in British concentration camps during the Second Boer War of 1899-1902. Biographies of her have emphasised her success in bringing the suffering of Boer civilians to light and her heroic persistence in speaking truth to power and confronting the forces of militarism and bureaucracy.

Emily Hobhouse

While not disparaging Emily Hobhouse’s personal qualities, this article argues that the success of her efforts are better understood by contextualising her activism and noting the convergence of wider, more structural factors that allowed her campaigns to succeed (and also forced her to change tack when they didn’t). Accounts based entirely on her agency tend towards the hagiographical and require supplementing by an awareness of ‘fluctuating political contingencies’.

Previous studies have also been based on public accounts rather than the private correspondence, both in the UK and South Africa, that Rebecca Gill and Cornelis Muller have quarried for their article. This reveals the degree of behind the scenes contacts and politicking through which Emily Hobhouse exerted influence.

Gill and Muller focus on two lesser known moments in Emily Hobhouse’s life story, her work among Cornish miners at Virginia, Minnesota in the late 1890s and her interventions during the period of reconstruction in South Africa following the end of the war, from 1902 to 1905.
In 1895 the death of her father, an Anglican clergyman and Archdeacon of Bodmin, freed her for missionary work. She set off for the States, throwing herself into good works, particularly temperance reform, under the auspices of the local Episcopalian church in Minnesota. According to the authors of this article, in this period Hobhouse was involved in ‘ladylike evangelising’. This came with its own social assumptions. They claim that Emily Hobhouse was shocked at the ‘democratic spirit’ she found in Minnesota, having expected Cornish miners to recognise her social distinction. If this was so, then it says as much about Emily’s social distance from mining communities in Cornwall as it does about American values. For a democratic spirit – ‘something American’ – had been recognised half a century earlier in Cornwall by Charles Barham.

In South Africa Hobhouse dropped the explicit Christian mission but claimed a ‘special feminine intimation of suffering’ in the role of social investigator and relief worker. Finding relief efforts chaotic and badly wanting after the war, she confronted the bureaucracy of British imperialism, lambasting it for mismanagement and corruption. Yet, in this campaign, as in the US in the 1890s, Emily Hobhouse’s influence was ‘highly dependent’ on powerful others.

On one side, she was a useful mouthpiece for Boer leaders, anxious to make the case for more relief but unwilling to antagonise the British authorities so soon after defeat at their hands. On the other, officials and politicians on the British side were prepared to engage with her on the relief question. This was partly because her reputation meant that she could not be ignored. But it was helped by her contacts with the press in the UK and support from sympathetic politicians such as Leonard Courtney, MP for Bodmin before 1900.

However, incompetence and red tape had less impact than cruel concentration camps on the public imagination and, as press interest waned in 1905, Emily Hobhouse turned her attention to encouraging attempts to establish home industries among Boer women. She also leant her active support to the women’s suffrage movement, to inject ‘purer standards into public life’, after being disillusioned by the broken promises she had experienced.
The article concludes that Emily Hobhouse should be viewed in the light of the gendered assumptions about women’s special qualities for transnational humanitarian advocacy, and upper class women in particular, that infused the early days of this movement. This also contained its own ‘hierarchical class assumptions’, assumptions within which Emily could comfortably fit. Finally, the politics of suffering could not rely on passionate agency alone; it was only possible when political circumstances converged, when the campaigning of activists like Emily Hobhouse could be heard and acted upon.

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