I missed posting a blog on Boxing Day, the day when servants used to be given Christmas Boxes or presents. (I wonder how much of the day’s origins also refers to those packers of boxes (boxers) with unwanted or unneeded gifts?)

Although Boxing Day is a traditional British day, it has found its place in ex-British territories such as the Dominions including South Africa. I remember the garbage collectors coming round in the week before Christmas asking for a ‘Christmas Box’ and being given a few coins as a thank you for the work they did during the year.

But that is not what inspired this blog. It was rather being struck by how many books and accounts I’d recently been reading that mentioned boxers, of the traditional kind and naturally, given its links to the Boer War and Lettow-Vorbeck, the Boxer Rebellion of 1900.

Ever wondered how the Boxer Rebellion of 1900 came to be called such? I had and discovered it derived from the Chinese secret society called “The Harmonious Heavenly Fists”. This group objected to European intervention and did something about it.
Involved in quelling the rebellion were a few soldiers who went on to serve in Africa, notably the German commander Paul von Lettow-Vorbeck who next served in German South West Africa against the Hereroes before ending up commanding the German forces in East Africa during World War 1. Some accounts place Lettow-Vorbeck in Africa during the Anglo-Boer War but this is incorrect. He was reporting on the war from a desk in the German Colonial/War Office before he went to China. Another soldier to see service in both the Boxer Rebellion and Africa was the British Jimmie Stewart who served with the Gloucesters, Sikhs and Gurkas on the Indian Frontier before going to China and then to East Africa in command of Indian Expeditionary Force ‘C’ in September 1914.

Talking of World War 1 and the arrival of IEF C, brings to mind the references to the sport on board ship as mentioned in the memoirs I’m currently working on and in Floris van der Merwe’s Sporting Soldiers (review due February). Boxing seems to have been a common sport to help while away the hours between ports and invariably involved some sort of betting to keep the spectators interested. International boxing bouts were to increase in frequency during 1918. Shadow boxing too seemed popular as a means to keep fit.

However, Bill Nasson refers to shadow boxing in his WW1 and the people of South Africa (review due April) in a different context. Here, he describes the time after war was declared but before the rebellion of 1914 broke out. During this time, those who were in favour of supporting Britain during the war entered into verbal boxing against those who saw the opportunity for breaking away from British control.

Boxing has played a significant role in South African society post World War 1 too. In my hometown, the name Gerrie Coetzee was big news in the 1980s when he won the WBA Heavy Weight Title. And perhaps more famously, was Nelson Mandela, now immortalised in a statue posing as a boxer.

Mandela explained what he saw as the value of boxing – not for the violent element but for strategic and tactical reasons as well as the health benefits from training. The strategic and tactical nature as well as mind over heart was strongly brought home in the book, The Power of One by Bruce Courtenay – a book whose legacy remains with me at least six months after having finished it. This is similar to the film, The fighting spirit, which tells the story of a young Ghanaian women who becomes a boxer and which has a Boksburg (Gerrie Coetzee ref) South African link – the music composer, Erik Windrich.

I’m no fan of boxing because of the physical damage it can bring but appreciate the tenacity and focus it can and does bring. As with anything, the value is in the hands of the boxer…

One thought on “Boxers

  1. Pingback: Encounters – of different kinds | Anne Samson - Historian

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