By Adam Yamey
It is not every day that a prisoner of war (a POW) is put up in accommodation as luxurious as Bangalore’s West End Hotel, but here is the story of one who was.
Many Indians travelled to South Africa in the 19th and early 20th century, but few South Africans ventured to India. This is about one of them, whom I ‘encountered’ quite by chance when I was researching the biography of my great-grandfather, a South African politician.
Senator George Glaeser Munnik (1846-1935) served on the South African Senate at the same time as did my great grandfather Franz Ginsberg (1862-1936). During the 2nd Anglo-Boer War, Munnik, who fought for the Boers, was captured by the British in 1901. Very sportingly his captors offered him the choice of becoming a POW either in Ceylon or in India. Munnik chose the latter, and was placed in a camp in Trichinopoly.
Munnik found Trichi to be an interesting place. He was allowed to roam around, and he recorded what he observed in his memoirs, published in 1934. In mid-June 1901, Munnik, an officer, was taken by train to Bangalore on what can only be described as a sight-seeing trip. He was put up at the still extant West End Hotel close to the Race Course. In his own words: “We arrived in Bangalore early in the morning and went to the West End Hotel. This hostelry stands in extensive grounds and consists of about half-a-dozen bungalows, each a hundred yards apart and holding six visitors; each has its own cook, butler, etc… The cost of living is five rupees (6s. 4d.) per day, but if you stay longer than a week, three rupees (4s.); for this you get better fare, better rooms, and better attendance than any hotel in Pretoria…”
Bangalore impressed the Boer POW: “Bangalore is an exceedingly pretty place, with the best kept streets, drives and esplanades in the world.” Sadly, this is no longer true. He wrote that the place: “… is so big, and the streets such a labyrinth, that only a gharrie wallah (cabman) can find his way about. The streets are very wide but do not run at right angles, but go off in graceful sweeps all over the place, so that one looks just like another.” And he remarked: “Another peculiarity is the elysian way in which the business places are dotted about. You have to go a great distance to find the Madras Bank, which is hidden in a large open space like a botanical garden, and this is also the case with most of the business places.”
Even today, the former Madras Bank, now a branch of the State Bank of India, is in the midst of a delightful garden. After having explored the market, Lal Bagh Gardens, and had a visit to the races. A keen lover and breeder of horses, Munnik remarked of the races: “The racing was not so good, as the fields are small, but it was enjoyable … We were given the run of the paddock, etc, and people were unobtrusively kind. I raised a big reputation by spotting several winners for a Mrs. C., whose husband lieut.-Col. Ch., was very nice to us. This was not very difficult, as I always selected an Australian or an English thoroughbred against an Arab.”
Munnik was also taken to see the goldfields at Kolar, which is 50 miles east of Bangalore in Mysore State. He represented a gold mining district in the Transvaal, and found it interesting to compare what he saw at Kolar with what he knew about mining in South Africa. When he got there in late June 1901, he wrote: “I did not go underground, but, judging from the surface works, the mines must be stale.” If the mines were not impressive, the buildings servicing them were. Munnik wrote: “There is nothing of the sardine box about the place; every building, even to the battery houses, is built of solid stone walls two or three feet thick … The managers’ houses at Johannesburg are barns to what they are at Mysore.”
Munnik and other Boer POWs being served tea after arriving at TrichinopolyOf working conditions in Kolar, he observed: “… The industry is worked in a most primitive fashion. There are no Government inspectors to worry the management, although the hands employed are 530 Europeans, 300 Eurasians, and 27,430 natives, who live on the property with their wives and families in comfortably-built quarters, which they occupy at nominal rentals. … The shifting of sand from the cyanide vats is very antediluvian. They have two streams of coolie children, each carrying a small Kaffir basket on his or her head. One stream goes up to the ‘dump’ with full baskets, empties it on to a dump, and comes back with the empty basket in another stream. On being asked why they did not put in a saw-lifting shifting plank, the manager replied, ‘Well, you can’t do it as cheap as with any other plan as I am doing it with them.”
Munnik returned to Trichi, before being transferred along with his fellow POWs to Amritsar before finally being set free at the end of the war in 1902. Back in South Africa, he became one of the leading Boers who decided to cooperate with the British to establish the new Union of South Africa. It was Boer leaders like Munnik who exerted a powerful political influence on the British, thereby laying the foundations of what would eventually become the apartheid regime. In the Senate, my great-grandfather opposed Munnik on several occasions.
My ‘discovery’ of Munnik was serendipitous. Now that I have published the biography of his fellow Senator (“Soap to Senate: A German Jew at the Dawn of Apartheid”), I hope to write a book about Munnik and Bangalore as he found it.
Note: Boer: The ‘Boers’ were people of Dutch ancestry living in South Africa. During the 2nd Anglo-Boer War (1899-1902), the fighters, who supported the Orange Free State and the Transvaal against the British, were known as ‘Boers’.