For me the inscription on the granite statue, “The greatness of a nation consists not so much in the number of its people or in the extent of its territory as in the extent and justice of its compassion” is apt. That Port Elizabeth chose to honour our equestrian friends who were slaughtered during the Boer War epitomises that humanity.
Main picture: Horses being offloaded at the Port Elizabeth harbour during the Anglo Boer War using the sling-hoist method.
Port Elizabeth is home to South Africa’s only Horse Memorial, an impressive life-size bronze and stone monument built to honour the thousands of horses that perished whilst on active duty during South Africa’s three-year-long Anglo Boer War.
Born in the crucible of war
This war was precipitated by conflicting imperial and republic ideologies, the discovery of gold on the Witwatersrand, tension between political leaders, and the infamous Jameson Raid by the British renegade Rhodes against Paul Kruger’s Transvaal Republic.
Also known as the South African War, the conflict raged from 11 October 1899 to 31 May 1902 between British forces and those of the South African Republic – a combination of the then Transvaal Republic and Orange Free State.
During the war years, Port Elizabeth served as the main port of entry for remounts, as horses were referred to, for the British & Colonial forces. As a consequence, the townspeople were very aware of their contribution made by thousands of horses and mules during the hostilities. The reason for the continual importation of horses was necessitated by the high rate of death of these beasts.
Estimates of the day put the loss of Anglo horses at 300 000, at a cost of £7 000 000 to the British. The horses were shipped to South Africa from the United Kingdom and other nations such as Argentina, landing in Port Elizabeth from where they were despatched to the front.
The great stampede
On a Sunday evening between six and seven o’clock during the war, a tragedy occurred which may have been one of the influences leading to the erection of the monument. A large depot for remounts and artillery horses was situated at North End and on that particular evening, church-going citizens were startled by the sound and sight of stampeding animals. Nobody knows what caused the panic, but the horses had charged and broken out of the enclosure, scattering in all directions through the town. The thunder of horse hoofs, caused by a large mob of riderless horses rushing madly through the main road on the hill, together with the darkness being illuminated with sparks which flashed out as the iron shoes struck the hard ground, unnerved the residents.
Some horses rushed up the hills and careened madly down Cape Road, Western Road and White’s Road, crumbling up a stout iron railing which used to surround the drain at the corner of the Town Hall. Others charged the jetty gates, which withstood the impact, then some swerved to the right of the railway lines to South End, and others down the line to the North. Some even attempted to force their way along the jetty. Many of these beautiful horses were horribly injured, and some killed, while others were never found again. Others wandered far afield, and were never recovered, finding home, no doubt, where they were saved the suffering from fatigue and starvation which befell so any of their less fortunate fellows in the war. …
An idea conceptualised
Whether this event influenced public opinion or not, a Community member, Harriet Meyer of Mavis Bank House, initiated a drive for the creation of a memorial to the horses, with the support of members of the Metropolitan Drinking Fountain and the Cattle Trough Association. It was this body that was responsible for the design of the Memorial but the origin of the inscription upon it was, for a long time, obscure.
It was only decades later that the origin of this profound maxim was revealed. Dr. R.M. Leith expressed the opinion that the words are based upon passages occurring in the work “A Crown of Wild Olives,” written by the Victorian writer and philosopher, John Ruskin. Not that these words appear in the succinct, crisp form as the Memorial’s inscription but in a more verbose form. The final proof that these words were indeed purlioned from John Ruskin’s erudition, was the fact that Harriet Meyer’s copy of “A Crown of Wild Olives” naturally falls open at certain pages. This proves, without a doubt, that it was these words of inspiration that swirled and coalesced in Meyer’s mind to emerge succintly stated by Meyer.
Form of the memorial
The memorial, a provincial heritage site, comprises life-size bronze figures of a horse and kneeling soldier holding a drinking bucket. The bronze statue stands on an inscribed stone plinth and its base forms a water trough. In the days when the horse traffic was frequent on the roads, the trough must have rendered good service, especially for the animals which had to toil up the steep Hill from the Town below.
Designed by Joseph Whitehead and cast in bronze by Thames Dillon Works in Surrey, the memorial was unveiled on 11 February 1905 by the then mayor of Port Elizabeth, Alexander Fettes.
The motivation for the relocation of this monument from its original position in Park Drive is unclear, but there are two plausible explanations. At its initial site, the monument also served a practical purpose as it was used as a drinking trough. With the horse being phased out as a mode of transport, this was no longer a consideration. Probably of greater import was that new location was more prominent as it was at the junction of Cape, Russell and Westbourne Roads where it could be admired by commuters heading into and out of the city.
The memorial was moved to the bottom of Cape Road in 1957. It was declared a national monument in 1983 and restored by Anton Momberg in 1993. Because of repeated vandalism, an iron railing was erected in 1994.
For more than sixty years, questions swirled around the authorship of this inspiring inscription:
The greatness of nation
Consists not so much in the number of its people
Or the extent of its territory
As in the extent and justice of its compassion
The mystery of who composed the inscription on Port Elizabeth’s famous Horse Memorial has been solved at last. It was John Ruskin, the great popular philosopher of Victorian times.
An intensive search for the origin of those moving 29 words took about four years ago, when an enquiry about the authorship reached Port Elizabeth from Aberdeen , Scotland. It was one of many such queries which still comes periodically from scattered parts of the world. This Port Elizabeth elder citizen the wrote to the Herald saying that he believed the author was Ruskin but he could not pinpoint the quotation.
In the years since, he had searched Ruskin’s books and had at last found that the inscription is a composite paraphrase of these three successive paragraphs in “A Crown of Wild Olives”, Chapter III in war: “…… and then observe further this true power depends neither on multitude of men nor extent of territory………”. “Neither does strength depend on extent of territory any more than on number of population. Remember, no government is ultimately strong but in proportion to its kindness and justice”. In “A Joy Forever” Ruskin wrote, “Execute true judgement and show mercy and compassion”.
Clearly the inscription on the Horse Memorial is simply a more positive and concise statement of Ruskin’s words in “A Crown of Wild Olives”.
Caught in the political crossfire
The final indignity to this statue was when it was made riderless by supporters of the #RhodesMustFall Campaign last year. In April 2015 the Economic Freedom Fighters, Julius Malema’s EFF, decided to vandalise the memorial because of their convoluted and distorted idea that it celebrates something linked to the Apartheid era and pushed the soldier, supplying the horse with water, over. The focus of the monument was not about the soldier but about his showing the animal compassion, empathy that these hooligans did not show for the memory of these horses.
Other equestrian casualties of war
British mounts were not the only equine casualties of the war. The South African Boers lost large numbers of their legendary boerperde (“farmer’s horses”). The heritage of these horses dates back to 1652, when Jan van Riebeeck arrived in the Cape with Berber-Arabian ponies from Java.
Not many years after Van Riebeeck, a ship carrying 14 Arabian horses to Persia ran aground near Cape Town. The horses made it to shore, only to be captured and added to Van Riebeeck’s stables.
Around 250 years later, during the South African War, the boerperde contributed to the Boer soldier’s international fame as a skilled horseman.
Book: “The Collegiate Church and Parish of St Mary Port Elizabeth” by AT Wirgman and CE Mayo
“The Horse Memorial” by Margaret Harradine
“Port Elizabeth’s most famous statue: the Horse Memorial” by Christine Marot
Looking Back, Vol V No 3 (September 1965) pages 17 – 18
Photographs: Recent photos are by Jonker Fourie