When the South African (Boer) War was declared in 1899 between Britain and the Boer-ruled republics, colonies from across the British Empire rushed to participate in a wave of excitement; it went without saying that New Zealand would be contributing soldiers. New Zealand differed from its allies in that it had its own semi-official female troops. With Government approval, well-connected girls and women put on uniforms, held military titles and were trained by soldiers.
These female troops indicated relatively high gender equality in comparison with other parts of the world, and patrolled, wielding real weapons, just like their male compatriots. They did not, however, serve at the front like other New Zealand women who taught and nursed. Instead, they served as a singing, fundraising public face of support for the upholding of Empire, and to demonstrate a newly emergent New Zealand identity.
Different regions had their own groups, grabbing media attention due to their unusual attire. For a short time “khaki girls” could be found all over New Zealand, appearing in overseas newspapers and books. One of the largest groups was formed in Whanganui in around June 1900. The Wanganui Amazon Carbineers were initially created to perform as characters in a fundraising pageant titled The Birth of the Empire.
Following the trend set by Wellington’s Young Ladies Contingent, local women created their own group. For months they rehearsed every Thursday afternoon into the evening under the training of a male drill instructor, Sergeant-Major Anderson. He appointed “most popular lady in the corps” Captain Manson as commanding officer. Members bought uniforms from local retailer J Paul and Co for 17s 6d (around $163) each. The high cost ensured that members came from comfortable and socially aspiring backgrounds.
The Birth of the Empire was a great success, running for eight consecutive nights in September 1900, and as the Wanganui Chronicle reported, “the severe tax on the performers is beginning to tell its tale”. The Amazon Carbineers became the stars of the show, performing military manoeuvres and demonstrating their bayonet skills. Their advertised “weird war cry” was a “haka, which had to be twice repeated in response to vociferous encores”.
The Amazon Carbineers kept up their drills after the pageant ended and became a regular feature of the community. In the subsequent media frenzy there were only limited spaces for new applicants. Recruits were elected in a popularity contest by existing members. They became, however, too popular for their own good. After offering to hold a garden party for the 1901 New Zealand Band Contest they were ordered by the Contest committee not to appear in uniform at any of the associated events in fear that they would outshine the bandsmen. While frustrated and disappointed, members agreed to wear mufti instead.
By the end of the war in 1902, uniformed women had disappeared from New Zealand streets as the conflict had grown unpopular. Only one khaki uniform is known to have survived, in the Te Papa collection. The uniforms were probably recycled for other uses including later conflicts. The women’s groups of the South African War are now largely forgotten. Nevertheless, New Zealand’s ladies-at-arms were well ahead of their time and may have inspired future auxiliary women’s groups during the wars to come.
Scott Flutey is a student of Museum and Heritage Studies at Victoria University of Wellington. He is working as a summer intern at Whanganui Regional Museum.