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The Boer War
by DeBoer-Langworth, Carol


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The armed conflict between Britain and the two Boer republics of Transvaal and Orange Free State in South Africa, often called the Boer War, began on 11 October 1899 and ceased on 31 May 1902. Depending on one's point of view and point in time, this war is also known as the Boer Insurrection, Second Anglo-Boer War, Second War for Freedom, South African War, Second South African War, Boer War II, or English War. At the time of The New Age, it also was called the “last gentleman's war” and “a white man's war.” By whatever name, this was England's last great colonial conflict and an important precursor for its participation in World War I.

Britons still argue about what went wrong in its execution, even though they were ultimately victorious. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, who experienced the war as a volunteer doctor, wrote that its events “stirred the minds of our people more than anything since the Indian Mutiny, and humiliated our arms as they have not been humiliated in this [nineteenth] century” (Conan Doyle 21). The fact that some 450,000 British and Empire troops were needed to defeat a population of half that size (of whom only a fraction, 50,000, were in arms as part-time soldiers) put England on notice about its state of military preparedness. For the defeated South Africans the war has remained a rallying point for nationalistic sentiment.

The centenary of this conflict has prompted new considerations of the war's causes, results, and implications for the British Empire. These studies indicate that the conflict was, in fact, a civil war that involved the entire population across the length and breadth of South Africa and caused fissures in the Afrikaner and African societies. People of color fought on all sides, sometimes under duress and sometimes from conviction, and suffered. Diamonds and gold played large roles in the conflict's beginnings, along with race, nationalism and international power politics—all of which were nuanced by gender and class.

Three people have been held, on occasion, responsible for starting the war: Joseph Chamberlain, then Britain's Colonial Secretary; Paul Kruger, president of the South Africa Republic; and Alfred Milner, British High Commissioner in the Cape Colony from 1897-1905. It now appears that the British forced the war in 1899 to gain control of the Transvaal, the independent republic where Boers had political control and where gold mining was a major new industry. Since the latter part of the 19th century gold had been the major underpinning of the world's expanding commerce. By 1890 London was the financial center of the world's trade, and a steady supply of the world's stock of gold was critical for maintaining this position. Nearly 100,000 migrant black workers from the subcontinent were working in the gold mines of the Rand, along with 12,000 whites.

Rivalry between the Boers and British settlers in these areas had been going on for some 50 years as Britain sought to consolidate its control and the Dutch-descended settlers strove to maintain their autonomy and culture. At the time of onset of hostilities, there were about 500,000 people of British extraction in the Cape Colony and Natal and fewer than 250,000 people of Dutch extraction in the Transvaal, which was independent, and in the Orange Free State, which had partial independence. The Cape Colony also had approximately 500,000 Coloureds. There also was an Asian community of 100,000—most of whom lived in Natal. So this war was fought in a region where white people made up only one-fifth of the population. In 1899 there were approximately one million whites in South Africa, compared to four million black Africans. During the last three decades of the nineteenth century, Britain had subdued and incorporated the remaining independent African chiefdoms and states in the subcontinent.

Dutch people had been in South Africa since 1652, when they first settled at Cape of Good Hope to supply ships to and from the Dutch colonies in the East Indies. By 1814, when the Cape Colony was added to the British Empire as the result of the Napoleonic wars, some 30,000 Dutch, French and German colonists were in South Africa. In 1820 5,000 British emigrants landed there, settling on the eastern border of Cape Colony.

To escape what seemed to be English encroachments, as well as the freeing of their slaves in the 1830s, some 5,000 Dutch settlers, or about a quarter of its population, left the coastal areas with an equivalent number of slaves. They migrated in Conestoga-style wagons into the hinterlands, ostensibly to maintain their way of life as herdsmen, hunters, and farmers. This Great Trek soon became part of the national saga, with its participants called voortrekkers (pioneers). They moved into what became Transvaal and Orange Free State, leaving the coastal areas of Cape Colony to British settlers and a substantial number of remaining Dutch settlers. Soon Natal became a British colony, and pushed out many of its Boers into the two Boer republics in the north. Thus was set the pattern of two English-speaking provinces in the south and two Afrikaans-speaking provinces in the north. By time of the war, some Dutch families had been in South Africa for seven generations.

Diamonds were discovered near Kimberley in 1872. In 1877 Britain took over the Transvaal, declaring it a British crown colony. The Transvaal Boers protested, finally rising in rebellion in 1880: the First Anglo-Boer War or Transvaal war. The Boers humiliated the British in the Battle of Majuba Hill, and Gladstone sued for peace. The Transvaal was handed back to the Boers. The Boers established alliances with Germany; this made Britain nervous.

Then gold was discovered in the Transvaal hills in 1886. A gold rush ensued, with engineers, miners and merchants from England, America and European countries flocking to the scene. The Transvaal was delighted with its overnight wealth, but reluctant to grant political power to the “Uitlanders” who were needed for the industry but perceived as ready to overwhelm local culture. Frustrated, the Uitlanders orchestrated an ill-fated uprising, masterminded by Cecil Rhodes himself and led by his physician, Dr. Leander Starr Jameson, in late 1895-early 1896. This invasion of the Transvaal with an armed force, Jameson's Raid, failed and confirmed the Dutch-descended Africans' suspicions about Britain's motives. After a series of bluffs orchestrated by Chamberlain and Boer ultimatums in response, the two Boer provinces declared war on 11 October 1899.

There were three distinct phases to this war of two years and eight months. Initially, the Boer republican fighters were successful in three major offensives. Their commandos (militia-like groups of informal mounted fighters) occupied northern Natal and besieged Ladysmith, invaded the Cape, and struck westwards to lay siege to the British garrisons in Kimberley and Mafeking. On all three fronts—at Colenso, the Stormberg and Magersfontein—the Boers achieved serious defeats of British forces during the “black week” of mid-December 1899.

In the second phase, heavy imperial reinforcements and changes in command (Lord Roberts of Kandahar as Commander-in-Chief and Lord Kitchener of Khartoum as his chief of staff) turned things around. Imperial troops were able to relieve the besieged towns of Ladysmith, Kimberley and Mafeking. On 13 March 1900 Roberts's soldiers occupied Bloemfontein, the capital of the Orange Free State, and on 24 May the province was annexed, to be known as the Orange River Colony. On 31 May British troops entered Johannesburg, and on 5 June, Pretoria. On 1 September 1900 the Transvaal was annexed to the British crown and the war seemed over. Roberts returned to England.

Then the guerrilla war began in earnest. Under the leadership of Louis Botha, Christiaan de Wet, J. C. Smuts and J. H. de la Rey, the Boers stepped up their use of small mobile military units. These were able to capture supplies, disrupt communications and inflict casualties on the army of occupation and largely escape capture themselves. Their success induced draconian measures in response, especially after Kitchener replaced Roberts as Commander-in-Chief.

The first response was a scorched earth policy designed to deny guerrilla fighters the sustenance and supplies provided by the civilian population. This involved burning some 30,000 farms, savage treatment of the civilian population, and a system of war that the twentieth century soon recognized as the policy of “total war.” It caused havoc with African farming methods and dispossessed untold numbers of families. After March 1901 the British developed a gigantic grid of some 8,000 blockhouses and 3,700 miles of wire-mesh fencing guarded by 50,000 troops. This system allowed British troops to “drive” the commandos into corners, much like hunting quail. It also further displaced Boer and African families alike and soon there was the problem of what to do with the refugees.

The answer was concentration camps, a technique developed by the Spanish in Cuba during the Spanish-American war. In all, there were 18 such camps before the end of the war, including four separate camps for women and children of black Africans. Almost 28,000 Boer civilians, mainly children under the age of 16 and women, died in British concentration camps, along with a reported 14,154 Africans dying in separate camps. Altogether, at least 42,000 people died in the camps. By comparison, a total of 22,000 imperial soldiers and over 7,000 republican fighters were killed in the conflict.

The reformer Emily Hobhouse (1860-1926), sister of Leonard Hobhouse, exposed the horrors of the concentration camps to an unwilling British public. Eventually Kitchener had to revise this policy and Milner took over administration of the camps. In many ways, the camps now serve as the war's most memorable legacy.

Hobhouse was not alone in attempting to influence public opinion in the conduct of this war. New technologies made it possible for members of the press to cover the war in ways unavailable in the Crimean War. Photography and telegraphy had improved, printing technology was more available, and moving picture film provided the British and world public a front-row view of the British exploits. Thanks to improved transportation, war correspondents and other writers looking for material were able to travel with the troops. Rudyard Kipling, Winston Churchill, Rider Haggard and Arthur Conan Doyle enhanced or—the case of Churchill—their reputations on the war scene. The three long famous sieges (Ladysmith, Kimberley, and Mafeking) as well as the slow pace of the war allowed many participants to maintain diaries and write letters. Personal narratives such as diaries, memoirs, letters and after-the-fact histories abound.

Not all people in Britain accepted the necessity of this war to maintain the empire or to ensure the safety of southern Africa for British culture. W. T. Stead, editor of the Review of Reviews, was one of the most outspoken dissenters on this topic. G. K. Chesterton was another, arguing that the Boers had the right to defend their farms. That fiery young Liberal MP, David Lloyd George, was one of the few speaking in Parliament against the war. And even Henry Campbell-Bannerman, whose rather offhand comment in 1901 deploring “methods of barbarism” in reference to the concentration camps—for which he was severely criticized—was able to become Prime Minister eventually. A lot of British people perhaps sensed, beneath their “jingoism,” that humanitarian concerns trumped empire in the greater order of things.

The European press was largely anti-British. In South Africa and Britain, the writer Olive Schreiner criticized Boer and Briton alike for this nasty little war. In Italy, the writer Ouida (Louise De La Ramée) exhorted the expatriate community to protest the war.

In the field, both sides used the latest long-range, high velocity, small-bore repeating rifles and machine guns. Yet horses played a more important role in the ranging over the countryside and in supply lines. Britain had to scour its empire for the 400,346 horses, mules and donkeys that it “expended” in supply lines, pulling artillery, moving soldiers and machinery. The Boer commandos were excellent horsemen and crack shots, able to live in the saddle, and were operating on their home turf with horses that could survive on tough veldt grass. Railroads played a huge part in supply and troop movement, while steam engines and oxen were used to haul wagons and guns.

With the Treaty of Vereeniging on 31 May 1902, Britain assumed final control over Cape Colony and put the Afrikaner provinces on a schedule for inclusion in what, in 1910, became—with Natal—Union of South Africa as a British colony. Historians have largely claimed that the British negotiated away fair treatment of Africans in hammering out an accommodation with the Boer provinces. This assessment has been recently challenged, claiming instead that the British liberal, sometimes missionary, impulse regarding indigenous native claims was just as racist and perhaps as destructive to native cultures as was the Boer caste system. These issues merit further exploration.

Under whatever name, the Second South African War forced Britain to overhaul its defense apparatus, reform its administrative structures, and reform the army itself—all of which helped prepare it for World War I in 1914.

Sources Consulted and Cited

  • Conan Doyle, Arthur. The Great Boer War. London:Smith and Elder, 1903 .
  • Hartesveldt, Fred R. van. The Boer War: Historiography and Annotated Bibliography. Wesport, CT: Greenwood Publishing Group, Inc., 2000.
  • Keegan, Timothy. Colonial South Africa and the Origins of the Racial Order. Charlottesville: UP of Virginia, 1996.
  • Kruger, Rayne. Good-bye Dolly Gray: The Story of the Boer War. London: Cassell, 1959.
  • Pakenham, Thomas. The Boer War. New York: Random House, 1979.
  • Plaatje, Sol. T. Mafeking Diary: A Black Man's View of a White Man's War. Ed. John Comaroff with Brian Willan and Andrew Reed. Cambridge, U.K.: Meridor Books in association with James Currey, London, and Ohio U Press, Athens, 1990.
  • Roberts, Brian. Those Bloody Women: Three Heroines of the Boer War. London: John Murray (Publishers) Ltd., 1991.
  • Smith, Iain R. The Origins of the South African War, 1899-1902. London and New York: Longman Group Limited, 1996.
  • Warwick, Peter. Black People and the South African War, 1899-1902. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge UP, 1983.