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Anti-German Sentiment
during the war

Keith Tankard
Updated: 14 October 2009
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The outbreak of the South African War -- also known as the Anglo-Boer War -- led to a crisis of loyalty at East London. There were many Germans living there who found it hard to support the Imperial cause, and this invoked the ire of the imperialist supporters.

The episode which threatened to throw the cat among the pigeons was the relief of Kimberley in February 1900. East London celebrated the event by flying flags from most of the stores in the town.

A noticeable exception was the building of Hermann Malcomess, a German who had emigrated to East London in the mid-1860s. He had built a business empire at the port and the Malcomesses reputedly became one of the wealthiest families in the town.

Malcomess was also the German Consul and served as a member of the Town Council. His loyalties were therefore undoubtedly torn because, as Councillor, he was forced to support the British war effort whereas, as Consul, he had been instructed to take a neutral stance.

Nevertheless, several of the townspeople failed to appreciate his delicate position and were clearly incensed by his apparent lack of loyalty. The incident was followed by a scathing attack from John Aylward at the "disloyalty" of Malcomess and of the Germans generally.

No-one expected Malcomess to raise the flag above his building, Aylward stated, but "if he had had one spark of sympathy" with the people among whom he had lived for so long -- "and to whom he owes everything" -- he would have done so.

The correspondent believed it was "an outward sign of a very dangerous feeling" which was growing in the Colony. The Germans, he wrote, had been welcomed and had been afforded "every privilege that men of British descent and British birth enjoy".

The result, however, was that, at a time when the British were at war "with the Dutch", those same Germans had "the effrontery to express themselves in sympathy with, and do actually aid in every possible way, the enemies of the Queen".

Aylward appealed for all "loyal citizens" to boycott the Germans "in every way and under any circumstances", and to force their resignation as members of all commercial, municipal and political institutions and "never again elect them to such positions".

There was an almost complete lack of response from the Germans. With the exception of Malcomess himself, only a resident from King William's Town replied, expressing his abhorrence at the insinuations which, he wrote, were "both unjust and dangerous".

Malcomess himself wrote a lengthy reply in which he explained his position but refused to offer an apology. He identified himself as a German citizen and, although he had lived in the Colony for 34 years, he was not British.

He recognised that he had done "moderately well" but most of his trade had been pioneered with the two Boer republics. Furthermore, he was merely complying with the German Government's call for neutrality by strictly adhering to that policy.

As a neutral person and as a citizen of South Africa, he wrote, he had "many dear friends in both sides of the camp" and he therefore "deeply deplored" the war. No threat of boycotts and no financial reasons would change him. He would not "sell his soul to money".

Although emotions were clearly charged over the incident, it was to the benefit of the town as a whole that the affair quickly blew over. Steady British gains led to East London becoming less concerned with the war and more interested in capitalizing on it through financial ventures.

Malcomess himself resigned from the Council and left the country soon afterwards for a protracted visit to Europe. Although no flag was flown above his firm at either the relief of Ladysmith or of Mafeking, he was nevertheless not in town to be attacked directly.

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