Saturday, March 20, 2010

A Boer War Florence Nightingale

Another woman who was also described as a "Florence Nightingale" (of South Africa and/or the Anglo-Boer War) is something of an enigma and considered to be a borderline "adventuress" which, in the parlance of the times in which she lived, meant that either her morality or social status was questionable and certainly the latter in the case of Melina Rorke.
She was born Melina da Fonesca in South Africa c. 1873. During that era, the colonising British were notoriously snobby and racist towards anyone with Portuguese ancestry so she would have already been marked as something "other" with her mother being a descendant of the famous 1820 Settlers who had unfortunately made the social faux pas of marrying a man who was at one time the Portuguese Consul to what is now Mozambique.
In 1887, Melina married an accountant, Frederick Niland Rorke, in Kimberley. According to the Western Cape Archives, the groom was 23 and she was 19, but Melina states in her memoirs that she was much younger, only 15, and admits to lying about her age to the Registrar. And that's not the only time she was guilty of doing so. She became a mother within a year and also alleges she was promptly a widow, which was total fiction. In fact, she, her husband and her brother, Sebastian, were among the early pioneers to Rhodesia in 1894, where they pegged gold-mining claims. It seems she then went to London in 1896 to complete a nursing qualification but that Frederick "shot through" to Western Australia in her absence. She later obtained a divorce in 1899 on account of his desertion. It is no wonder this is not mentioned in her memoirs as to be a divorced woman as well as of Portuguese extraction wouldn't have enhanced her reputation. 
Her 1938 memoir was originally published in New York by Greystone Press as The Story of Melina Rorke R.R.C. [Royal Red Cross] The Florence Nightingale of South Africa. In it, she tells us about her pioneering life, the Matabele Rebellion and Boer War, and name-drops many famous figures in Southern African history such as Cecil Rhodes, Dr Jameson, Barney Barnato and Robert Baden-Powell.
But Melina was unable to shake off a sceptical reception in Rhodesia where the book was declared to be full of historical inaccuracies and her own wild imaginings, with possibly even some plagiarised sections. However, on the plus side, it remains one of the few first-hand accounts written by a woman who lived in that region of Africa and witnessed important events during the late 19th and early 20th Centuries and it is still worth reading today for that background - albeit with the proverbial pinch of salt.
The book was republished as part of the Rhodesiana Reprint Library in 1971 with an even more florid title of Melina Rorke. Her Amazing Adventures in the Stormy Nineties of South Africa's History. Told by Herself. 
Melina is reputed to have left Africa for the United States around 1908, where it is alleged she became an "actress" - not a choice career move for anyone wanting to avoid the dreaded "adventuress" tag. Her son Edgar was supposedly involved in the insurance industry, but what she was really doing those thirty years until she published her memoirs remains a mystery. This closing reference from the dust jacket of the 1971 edition:
"Melina carried on a correspondence with various members of her family in Rhodesia and South Africa until 1940 when a letter was returned marked "deceased". Her husband [Frederic Rorke] who went to Australia is said to have died there in the early 1920s.
During 1950 and 1960 a number of Rhodesians who visited Rhodesia House in London met a Mrs Margaret Meredith who claimed she was Melina Rorke and that she had remarried twice. She died in March 1964, aged 98. Available evidence does not support her claim which serves only to heighten the mystery surrounding Melina Rorke after her departure from Rhodesia."
Romantic, poetic or fabricated memoirs aside, there is no doubt that Melina Rorke was involved in nursing men under awful and challenging conditions during the Boer War, as the Royal Red Cross is not an award given without due merit, its first recipient being, of course, the real Florence Nightingale. (Image )
If Melina had to embroider or juicy up the facts of her life in order to sell a book at a profit many years later, she would only be doing what many people have resorted to since autobiography began.
Images are from Rhodesia Reprint edition (copyright Books of Rhodesia Publishing Co. (Pvt.) Ltd., Bulawayo.) The first shows Melina wearing her medal, with the caption, "As the author appeared in 1902 after receiving her decoration from Edward VII". The second is a Testimonial dated 17 May 1900 acknowledging her nursing efforts at both base and field hospitals at Mochudi, Gaberones, Lobatsi and Mafeking. Two of the regiments bearing signatures are British South Africa Police and Southern Rhodesia Volunteers. There are no signatures under the heading of Rhodesia Regiment, and again Melinda's veracity is drawn into question as although her caption informs us that "Not a single man was left alive in the Rhodesia Regiment to sign it," subsequent historians have debunked this as in fact the Regiment had been disbanded and all the men gone their separate ways by the time the Testimonial was prepared.


A Doggie's World said...

I don't dispute the facts presented in this blog and would guess that some of it was researched from my own online postings. After all, there's only one person who has every published to the web regarding the true life of Melina Rorke after 1908. It definitely wasn't Rhodesian Reprints' dustjacket! I assure readers that I, as her great granddaughter, do have the accurate details of her life. I'm most proud of the speeches she made in America during WWI to encourage women to support the war efforts. She did indeed act on the London stage and in America on Broadway. She was a working actress for over a decade living in New York and Hollywood. Her second husband was the noted British stage and American screen actor Charles Wellesley, who made more than 50 American films during the silent screen era. He suffered a stroke and could no longer support his wife and himself in the 30s. The book was an attempt at income by Melina and does contain exaggerated events. She died of cancer in 1944. She was a glorious women who grabbed life on her terms. She raised an amazing son who created an amazing life for his descendants in America. We remember her as Nan and Charles as Pop.

Regina of Arbeia said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Regina of Arbeia said...

Please be so kind as to provide links to the online postings you mention as I took my research from books in my possession.

If descendants like yourself don't tell the true story and put the public records straight, errors in fact will continue to be made by future researchers.

A Doggie's World said...

I concur with your blog article and only wish to add to the record where I can. I can name the titles of the sources not references as I too have them in my collection. However, there is also ample mention of my research available through web search, including the posted gen., compiled from original source documents, tracing both of Melina's parents. Best to you and keep it up. I like your blog.

Regina of Arbeia said...

Thanks ... I assume by "gen." you mean genealogy? I would be happy to publish the link or URL to your research if you would provide it as I can find nothing via Google or, etc.