Even before New Zealand sent troops to the South African War in 1899 a new fashion for building memorials had begun, so communities were quick to put up memorials to the war. All but one of the 50 or so memorials were erected within six years of the declaration of peace in 1902.
Money was raised for the Ranfurly Veterans’ Home through elaborate public occasions. In February 1903, 3,000 people went to the grounds of Wellington College to enjoy such varied entertainments as fortune-telling, electric shocks, motor-car rides, a competition for businessmen to trim women’s hats, and a cricket match in which 15 women from Pollard’s Opera Company defeated nine local cricketers wearing dresses and playing left-handed.
The Governor, Lord Ranfurly, was also quick to suggest a national memorial, a home for returned veterans, modelled on London’s Chelsea Home for Pensioners. The Ranfurly War Veterans’ Home duly opened in Onehunga, Auckland, in December 1903.
Ranfurly’s suggestion that the home be an alternative to local memorials was not followed outside the main centres. Auckland and Wellington had no South African War memorial, and Christchurch merely added a list of the fallen to the back of its Queen Victoria jubilee statue. But most provincial centres and small towns were keen to put up memorials.
Imperialism in stone
In the South African War 228 New Zealand men died, so those who had lost loved ones were not numerous. Memorials were less about honouring the dead and consoling grieving relatives than expressions of pride in the community’s contribution to the empire. They were designed to keep alive ‘the memory of New Zealand’s brilliant record’1, and were also seen as moral examples to a younger generation. These purposes were reflected in the character of the memorials.
- Only four were located in cemeteries as surrogate tombs. Most were given prominence in main streets.
- There was only one memorial cross. More common were troopers, often in heroic poses. The most unusual figure was Zealandia, who represented the coming of age of the young nation, daughter of Britannia. She appeared at Palmerston and at Waimate, where the inscription runs: ‘In Commemoration of the South African War in which New Zealand … for the first time took part in the battles of empire and assisted to maintain the prestige of the British flag.’
- The iconography of the memorials expressed imperial sentiments. There were many Union Jacks, crowns, oak leaves and a pride of British lions that stalked around the base of the memorials.
Most memorials were imported from Carrara, Italy, but a local Italian sculptor, Carlo Bergamini, was responsible for the design and erection of impressive memorials at Waimate, Ōamaru, Riverton and Dunedin, with sculpture done by his family in Italy.