Lund University
4458 historisk text
“It is unusually interesting to be involved in this war”
... wrote a Lund student, who was a volunteer in the Second Boer War.
The Second Boer War broke out in 1899. Its connection with Lund University is perhaps not immediately obvious, but the fact is that at least one Lund Student went to South Africa as a volunteer in what he himself called an “unusually interesting” war.

Henrik Ullstad, Archivist at the University Archives tells his story.

On 24 January 1900, the field artillery thundered along with the salvoes of Mauser rifles. General Redvers Buller, commander of the British forces in Natal, South Africa, tried once again to breach the Boer’s lines at the Tugela River and relieve the besieged city of Ladysmith. Some 20 000 British soldiers stood against 8 000 from the two Boer republics, reinforced with foreign volunteers. One of the volunteers on the Boer side was an unexpected figure: a 20-year-old law student and Lund student nation member by the name of Sune Waldemar Christenson.

Sune Waldemar Christenson was born on 4 January 1880 in the parish of Håstad in Skåne. His parents were the brewery owner, farmer and member of parliament in the first and second chambers, Christen Christensson, and his second wife Maria Kathinka Borggren. As the son of a member of parliament and industrialist, it was not particularly surprising that Sune Waldemar went to secondary school, and in the autumn semester of 1895 he started at Lund’s private upper secondary school – now known as Spyken. In May 1898, he graduated from upper secondary school with quite mediocre grades. In most subjects he had obtained only the lowest pass grade and in a few, German and English for example, he had earned the next grade up. However, his grades did not prevent him from donning the traditional student’s white graduation cap, and in the autumn semester of the same year he was enrolled at Lund University in the Faculty of Law and the Lund student nation.
Sune Waldemar Christenson
Sune Waldemar Christenson

Our protagonist’s time at Lund University was by all accounts not particularly long. He appears in the student directories only for the autumn semester of 1898, and then disappears. Perhaps his law studies did not go very well – his absence from the student directories indicates he terminated his studies relatively quickly. According to one source, Christenson became a volunteer in Skåne’s dragoon regiment, but I have been unable to confirm this. At present, we have to note that Sune Waldemar Christenson’s activities from late 1898 until October 1899 are unknown.

Many thick tomes have been written about the causes of the Second Boer War. The Boers (Dutch for “farmers”) were descendants of the Dutch colonisers who settled in South Africa in the 1600s and 1700s. Unrest among the Boers grew after the Cape Colony came under British rule and a large number of them moved north in the 1830s. They pushed out the indigenous population and created two independent states: the South African Republic, commonly referred to as the Transvaal, and the Orange Free State. The two Boer republics’ relations with Britain became complicated and even though they succeeded in winning their independence from Britain in the First Boer War 1880-1881, the British continued to have a measure of sovereignty over the Transvaal and the Orange Free State.

The situation was complicated by the discovery of gold at Witwatersrand in the Transvaal in 1886. The Transvaal, which lacked its own means to extract the gold, now had to rely on foreign capital and labour to exploit what was one of the world’s largest gold deposits. Even though most of the labour force was made up of black Africans who worked for low wages under awful working conditions, the gold rush also entailed the extensive immigration of white miners, engineers, bureaucrats and all other occupations that were needed to maintain mining operations. The Transvaal’s government, under President Paul Kruger, had an ambivalent view of this wave of immigration. On the one hand, gold mining was of course favourable for the Transvaal’s state finances, but on the other hand these uitlanders were a foreign, and, for the Boer population, threatening, element.
A cartoon that makes fun of Transvaal President Kruger’s actions in the voting rights issue for uitlanders
A cartoon that makes fun of Transvaal President Kruger’s actions in the voting rights issue for uitlanders

It did not help that the Transvaal lacked the state bureaucracy required to satisfy the mining industry’s needs, something which the government compensated for by giving individuals monopolies for the sale of dynamite and many other necessary goods. The result was high prices and dissatisfaction within the mining industry. At the same time, most of the uitlanders did not have the right to vote. And, as President Kruger had no intention of giving them voting rights without a tough requirement for uitlanders to have lived in the Transvaal for several years, they had no chance to influence their situation.

In addition to this, the British government regarded the Boer republics as a protectorate, something that made the foreign miners’ plight a concern for Britain. In 1899, the conflict intensified in South Africa and British reinforcements began to arrive in the Cape Colony. In October, President Kruger issued an ultimatum to the British to withdraw their troops, and when this did not happen, the Boer republics declared war on Britain on the 11th of the same month. Troops from the Transvaal and Orange Free State gathered in Natal, surrounded the British troops in Ladysmith and took up a defensive position by the Tugela River to await the British counterattack.

The small Boer republics’ fight against the world’s then largest empire became, of course, a subject of interest in the rest of the world, including Sweden. Foreign volunteer corps were set up on the Boer side, and a flow of foreign volunteers – German, American, Irish, Russian, Scandinavian – started to stream in via Portuguese East Africa. Among them was the 19-year-old Sune Waldemar Christenson.

The foreign volunteers were driven by a range of motives. Some saw the Boer War as a noble struggle for small states’ independence from imperialism. Others – such as the Irish – were driven by hatred of Britain. Some others came for the experience itself – a war in exotic Africa was exactly the distraction from fin-de-siècle ennui that many Europeans were looking for. We do not know exactly what drove Christenson to become a volunteer, but his letters home indicate a certain affinity with the first-mentioned “anti-imperialist” motive. At least that was what he wrote to his family. Did he perhaps see the war as a great “adventure” and a way to escape his failed law studies? Or – if he actually was a volunteer in Skåne’s dragoons – a way to try out his new military path in practice?

Josef Hammar
Josef Hammar

On 28 October 1899, Christenson sailed from Amsterdam on board the steamer König. Among the passengers was army surgeon, adventurer and explorer Josef Hammar, with whom Christenson got acquainted. They arrived in South Africa at a time when everything seemed to be going the Boers’ way. The British, used to colonial wars against technologically inferior enemies, were not prepared to confront Boer militia units equipped with modern Mauser rifles and artillery pieces. The two Boer republics’ armies consisted of highly mobile mounted militia – men who had grown up in the saddle. They were used to severe hardship, the climate and the terrain, and had from a young age learned to use a rifle and hit the target at the first attempt. During November and December 1899, the British found themselves beaten on all fronts.

Christenson, like every foreign volunteer, was supplied with all his equipment by the Transvaal government. In a letter home, he describes how he was kitted out with “1 horse with saddle and accessories, 1 Mauser rifle with ammunition, 2 sets of clothes, 3 pairs of shoes, socks, 12 shirts, underwear and everything else required for complete field equipment”. Distasteful, but typical of the time, Christenson also wrote that his troop had been assigned “two black servants”.

At the beginning of the war, the foreign volunteers had been sent to their respective volunteer corps, but as the Scandinavian corps was essentially wiped out at the Battle of Magersfontein in December 1899, the volunteers began to be assigned to specific militia units. In Christenson’s case, he was assigned to the Lydenburg militia and sent to the Boer’s main camp at Ladysmith to take part in the siege. However, the war did not begin in a particularly glorious way for the volunteer student; he caught dysentery and spent the period around new year 1900 in hospital.  
Map of theatres of war in Natal
Map of theatres of war in Natal

In a letter home, which was printed in several Swedish newspapers, Christenson described his experience of the siege of Ladysmith. “It is unusually interesting to be involved in this war,” he wrote, “right in the middle of the burning issue of the day and be able to see it and judge for yourself”. He asserted “it is completely impossible that Englishmen will ever be masters of the Transvaal”. The letter was also full of a young man’s overconfident feeling of immortality: “The first time one is under fire is of course a little unpleasant”, as he described it, but “one gets used to it quickly [that people are killed] and doesn’t actually think about the bullets the second time”.

On 15 December 1899, General Redvers Buller made a first attempt to relieve the besieged city of Ladysmith, but his attempt to cross the Tugela River at Colenso ended in a fiasco. In a second letter home, Christenson reported on the “brilliant victory” and that he, although he did not take part at Colenso, “could […] hear the cannons’ thunder and rifle salvoes the whole day”. However, Buller did not give up so easily, and in January he decided try to cross the river again farther west. The place he decided on for the attempted crossing was mountainous, and in the middle of the Boers’ line was the highest mountain on the battlefield: Spion Kop.

Spion Kop’s strategic importance was not to be underestimated. As the highest of the mountains on the Boer side, it dominated the battlefield and if the British could take its summit and place artillery there, the Boer lines would collapse and the path would be open to Ladysmith. On the night of 23 January 1900, the British – commanded by Lieutenant Colonel Alexander Thorneycroft – attacked Spion Kop under cover of darkness and fog, drove out the Boer’s outposts with unexpected ease, and then began to dig trenches and prepare for the next day.

When the sun rose on 24 January, the British realised they had made a fatal mistake. They had not got all the way to the highest point of Spion Kop, but had instead dug in further down the mountain. Their shallow trenches now sustained devastating rifle and artillery fire from higher ground around them and, to cap it all, the Boers launched a ferocious counter attack. The battle raged the whole day back and forth on Spion Kop, until the Boers, exhausted by the day’s combat, retreated. Thorneycroft didn’t know if the enemy had retreated and made the same judgment as the Boers, with the result being that he drew back from Spion Kop towards the evening of 24 January. The top of the mountain was subsequently retaken by the Boers without any resistance.
Boer soldiers at Spion Kop
Boer soldiers at Spion Kop

Sune Waldemar Christenson had taken part in the battle for Spion Kop, but he was not among the soldiers on the Boer side who returned. It was the above-named Josef Hammar who, on 26 January, was given the deceased Christenson’s passport by a man involved in identifying the dead. In a letter home to the deceased’s parents, Hammar stated that their son tried to rescue a wounded Englishman caught between the two lines and had been shot in the head and chest. It is unclear if that is what actually happened – Hammar himself was not present and relied on second-hand accounts, and there would have been a considerable temptation to comfort the grieving parents by giving their son’s death a romantic and heroic glow. But the fact remains – the law student Sune Waldemar Christenson from Håstad in Skåne met his death on a mountain top far from home just months after he had arrived in South Africa.

In Sweden, the news of Christenson’s death evoked a considerable emotional response, almost bordering on romantic euphoria. Suddenly, he was no longer a youngster with mediocre grades who dropped out of law studies after one semester. Instead, he was “the young student [who] released himself from the Swedish law and rushed to put himself in the ranks of the Boers fighting for their rights”, who “now rests […] in South Africa’s blood-stained soil. The young heart, that beat so warmly for freedom, has now stopped beating. He gave his lifeblood for what he thought was truthful and right. In truth, a beautiful death for a standard-bearer of the light”, as the newspaper Hvar 8 dag expressed it.

Another newspaper, Båstadsposten, stated that such a

brave, noble, uplifting act of a warrior as this youngster’s deserves to be preserved alongside memories from our glory days of war […] his memory shall live indelibly in our hearts, in all Swedish hearts that are warmed by a noble deed. When Lund students meet next time for the Nordic event and list the names of the departed, then the most heartfelt tribute shall be given to one of the dead comrades, for the name of Sune Valdemar Christenson shall certainly not be omitted from the memorial stone.

The news also attracted considerable attention at Lund University. In the Lund University student directory, which of course had not included Christenson since his first and last semester in 1898, he was now listed among the students who had died. Even the vice-chancellor Magnus Blix’s chronicle for 1900 reported his death with the words: “On the battlefield in the ranks of the Boers he found a courageous young man’s beautiful death in the moment he rose from the firing line to assist a wounded man who cried out for his help”. It can certainly be said that Lund University “appropriated” the dead Christenson as its own.

The Nordic event at the AF Borgen building in 1901 (although the source states 1897, a comparison of the names on the memorial stone and newspaper reports has shown that it is actually from the 1901 event)
The Nordic event at the AF Borgen building in 1901
 (although the source states 1897, a comparison of the names on the memorial stone 
and newspaper reports has shown that it is actually from the 1901 event)

And what became of “the most heartfelt tribute” at the Nordic event in Lund in 1901? Photos of the occasion show that Christenson’s name was not on the memorial stone set up by the Academic Society at the AF Borgen building. However, the students’ union vice-president held a speech “to the departed comrades”, which concluded with the words

A man who we remember for his sincere strivings, honest mind and noble thoughts, a man who has gained a place in his friends’ hearts, he has not lived in vain. Therefore, they should not be forgotten, and memories of them are to be celebrated with sorrow, but not with lamentation.

After so long, it is difficult to decide what to think about Sune Waldemar Christenson’s life and death. On the one hand, it is a tragic story that ended in a death far from home. On the other hand, he was killed on the Afrikaner side, and anyone who is acquainted with South Africa’s history and apartheid knows that it is difficult to present that side and its champions in a morally favourable light. Another aspect is that, with hindsight, British imperialism was hardly any better. And the bombastic tributes to the fallen young blade strike a false tone in some way, preceding as they do the memory of all the wars and disasters of the 20th century. But Sune Waldemar Christenson's fate is fascinating nevertheless, so it is perhaps best in the final analysis to paraphrase Shakespeare and conclude by saying that “I come to bury Christenson, not to praise him”..?

Henrik Ullstad
Archivist at the University Archives  

The author would like to express his thanks to Lukas Sjöström for his kind assistance with proofreading, Drew Swinerd for good literature tips, and Fredrik Tersmeden for retrieving archive documents.

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