Emily Hobhouse: a passionate advocate for human rights


Elsabe Brits with her book on Emily Hobhouse.

TheLuvvie.com’s ESTELLE SINKINS chats to Elsabé Brits, author of the new boography, Emily Hobhouse: Beloved Traitor.

EMILY Hobhouse defied the conventions of her sheltered life in Victorian England, to travel the world and stand up to oppression.

A passionate pacifist and a feminist, she opposed both the 1899-1902 Anglo-Boer War and World War One, leading to accusations of treason. And, despite saving thousands of lives in two wars, she died alone – an unsung hero in her own country.

In her biography, Emily Hobhouse: Beloved Traitor, journalist Elsabé Brits, explores the life of this extraordinary woman, considered by some Afrikaners to be a Boer heroine and by many of her countrymen and women as treasonous.

“Emily should be a world renowned figure but she isn’t because she acted against her own country,” says Brits, who worked at Die Burger for 17 years, and now writes for Netwerk24. “She was also a whistleblower and, let’s be honest, people who stand up to power are never popular.

“She might have been recognised more if she had been a man. She should have received an OBE and been celebrated like the other heroes of her time. Emily was the one who pointed out what was happening in the concentration camps and it was she who came back after the [Anglo-Boer] war to help feed people.”

One of the features of this new book is that Brits was granted access to Hobhouse’s handwritten notebooks, scrapbooks and letters in a chest. These had been handed down to Jennifer Hobhouse Balme, who lives on Vancouver Island in Canada.


“When I saw the mass of stuff on my first day it was mind-blowing,” she says. “There was some material in the Free State archives which I had read, but what really stood out, in this collection, was Emily’s own scrapbooks and the things she collected herself.

“Her diaries are very profound and she even started an autobiography but was not able to finish it.

“It was amazing to see what she herself had put into the scrapbooks – there were two from her time in South Africa and one from her time in Germany. The fact that she went to Germany seems to have faded into obscurity.

“The truth is she stood up for what happened to people in two different wars. She should be up there with Emily Pankhurst because she saved many lives.”

Brits’ interest in Hobhouse began in earnest when she found Rykie van Reenen’s book, Heldin uit die Vreemde, published in in the 1970s.

“In it is a mention of the fact that ploughing land was one of the plans she made after travelling through South Africa and seeing the result of Britain’s scorched earth policy. She wanted to plough up land in the Transvaal and the Free State. I found this fascinating and decided to write an article for the newspaper,” she says.

It was the first of several articles on the subject of Emily Hobhouse including one on the centenary of the speech she gave in 1913.

“I read more books and new material… I looked at Ghandi and the Boer War leaders… and I learned that she had been rather passed over for recognition by the National Party because some of her thoughts were very liberal.

“In South Africa, Emily has been adopted as a heroine by the right wing fringe for the wrong reasons. She was not pro-Boer but rather anti-war. She was a true pacifist. She was a woman who was out of her time and I think completely misunderstood. She was a human rights activist, a woman who stood up and fought against everything that she thought was wrong. Her speech in 1913 is very, very poignant.”

Brits took a sabbatical from her job for three months to write, but the task proved to be bigger than she had initially thought and eventually took 11 months to complete.

“It was hard. When you write a book like this, you have to like the character of the person. I think it would be very hard to write a book about someone you didn’t like. I got completely obsessed with Emily… I think I sort of fell in love with her intellectually. I think there are lot of forgotten women in history, but not many who compare to Emily. I want to write another book, but I feel, right now, that I need to let go my infatuation with Emily before I start a new project.

“I am glad that the book has been published in both English and Afrikaans because it means her story will reach a much broader audience. I want more people to have the chance to explore Emily’s history.”

  • Emily Hobhouse: Beloved Traitor by Elsabé Brits is published by Tafelberg.






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