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 killed during the Boer War epitomises that humanity.
Main picture: Horses being offloaded at the Port Elizabeth harbour during the Anglo Boer War
Port Elizabeth is home to South Africa’s Horse Memorial, an impressive life-size bronze statue built to honour the thousands of horses that lost their lives in active duty during South Africa’s three-year-long Second Boer War.
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.
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.
Moved from its original position in Park Drive where it was used as a drinking trough, today the memorial stands in Cape Road, admired by commuters heading into and out of the city.
During the war years Port Elizabeth served as the main port of entry for remounts for the British forces. As a consequence, the townspeople were very aware of the suffering endured by thousands of horses and mules during the hostilities.
Community member Harriet Meyer initiated a drive for the creation of a memorial to the horses, with the support of members of the Metropolitan Drinking Fountain and Cattle Trough Association, who designed it.
Also known as the Anglo-Boer War or 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.
The 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 against Paul Kruger’s Transvaal Republic.
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, landing in Port Elizabeth from where they were despatched to the front.
People had been particularly aware of the horses, of their bravery and uncomplaining suffering. 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, iron railing was put around it in 1994.
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 perceived perverted idea that it celebrates something linked to the Apartheid era and pushed the soldier giving the horse water over. The monument wasn’t about the soldier but about him showing the animal compassion. Compassion these hooligans didn’t show the memory of these horses.
A final vignette relates to horses in Port Elizabeth.
On a Sunday evening between six and seven o’clock during the Anglo Boer War, the inhabitants of the town were startled by the thunder of horse hoofs, caused by a large mob of riderless horses rushing madly through the main road on the hill, illuminating the darkness with sparks which flashed out as the iron shoes struck the hard ground
These beautiful remounts and artillery horses had charged the camp enclosure situated at the North End, 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 City House [sic]; charged the jetty gates, which withstood the impact, then some swerved to the right of the railway lines to the South End, and others down the line to the North.
Many of these beautiful horses were horribly injured, and some killed. Others wandered far afield, and were never recovered, finding home, no doubt, where they were saved the suffering fro fatigue and starvation which befell so any of their less fortunate fellows in the war. ……great credit to Mrs Meyer of Mavis Bank House who was responsible for the idea of raising the money.
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
Photographs: Recent photos are by Jonker Fourie