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28th February - Transnational Soundscapes of Boer War Suffering

26 Feb 2019
Transnational Soundscapes of Boer War Suffering

Under the recurring headline ‘the Concertina’s Deadly Work in the Trenches’, several British newspapers reported in early 1900 that, during the ongoing siege of Mafeking, British army concertina players were capturing enemy soldiers by simply playing strains of the concertina to distract them out of their hiding places.

‘One is sorry to learn that the art of music should be pressed into service to lure persons to destruction’, a commentator in the Musical News noted, but then, it was rationalised, ‘all’s fair in war’. This hybrid use of the concertina during the Second Boer War was further employed as a metaphor for the decay of the physical body itself: as noted by van Heyningen (2010), food in Boer War concentration camps was so meagre that the meat served to prisoners was once described as coming from a ‘carcase [who] looks like a concertina drawn out fully with all the wind knocked out’. Likewise, Krebs (1999) has discussed the presence of the concertina in the trenches as an example of contemporaneous stereotypes about the susceptibility of Boer soldiers to music in relation to perceived notions that they were backwards and easily manipulated. Drawing upon references to music – particularly the ubiquitous, anthropomorphised, instrument of the concertina – in concentration camps during the Second Boer War, this paper will situate the use of British military music at the dawn of the twentieth century within the framework of trauma studies, proposing that the soundscapes of imperial war were implicitly tinged with traces of physical suffering. The musical attitudes of and towards Irish regiments within the Boer War will also be investigated.

Erin Johnson-Williams is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Music at Durham University. Her research interests include nineteenth-century British music and empire, music and education, theories of the post/colonial archive, and the relationship of musical institutions to colonial and imperial culture. Ongoing research projects include a forthcoming monograph that examines how constructions of imperial authority have influenced the writing of music history. Erin also has articles in press on the history of missionary music as a means of social control in nineteenth-century South Africa and British musical education and empire, and is currently embarking on a project about music in colonial concentration camps during the Second Boer War.

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