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Boer War

Boer War

BIBLIOGRAPHY

The Boer War (or Anglo-Boer War) was a conflict in which the British Empire fought the forces of two Boer Republics from 1899 to 1902 in southern Africa. The Boers lost the war, but resistance gained them concessions even in defeat. One of many conflicts that heightened international tensions before 1914, the war accelerated patterns of violence that came to mark twentieth-century warfare, especially violence toward civilians.

The Boer populationmostly of Dutch Calvinist backgroundoriginated with a Dutch East India Company colony planted at the Cape of Good Hope in the seventeenth century. Britain acquired the Cape Colony during the Napoleonic Wars. After clashes with the British administration, many settlers migrated northward in the Great Trek between 1835 and 1841, establishing two Boer republics: the South African Republic (or the Transvaal) and the Orange Free State. The term Boer means farmer in Dutch and in the related language that developed among these settlers, which today is called Afrikaans.

The earlier war associated with the terms Boer War and Anglo-Boer War (18801881) was the result of British attempts to establish control over the republics. The British lost militarily but gained Boer agreement to nominal British rule over the autonomous republics. The conflict more commonly called the Boer War began in 1899 and was connected to the discovery of gold in the territory of the Transvaal in 1886. Europeans poured in to run the mines and recruit African labor. In the nineties, colonial authorities pushed to gain the vote for resident foreigners (uitlanders ), a measure that would have enabled the uitlanders to vote the republics into dissolution. Transvaal President Paul Kruger (18251902) opposed the plan vehemently. The Jameson Raid of 1895, sponsored by Cecil Rhodes (18531902; Cape Colony premier), was an effort to establish British control by force. After the defeat of the filibuster, German Emperor Wilhelm II (18591941) sent a telegram congratulating Kruger, to the irritation of the British. More concretely, the Germans also sent arms to the Boers in an attempt to counter their imperial rival, Britain.

Assisted by mining interests, in the late 1890s British Colonial Secretary Joseph Chamberlain (18361914) and British High Commissioner Sir Alfred Milner (18541925) pressured the republics to give full citizenship to all resident British subjects. An attempt at reconciliation at the Bloemfontein Conference in mid-1899 failed, and the sides exchanged ultimata. The Boers struck first, invading the Cape Colony and Natal with a force based on the militia-like pattern of Boer defense, the commando system. The keys to their powerful blows against professional British units were expert marksmanship, good weapons, and mobility (mostly on horseback). From October 1899 to February 1900, Boer forces enjoyed success, defeating larger British units in a series of conventional battles, climaxed by the Battle of Spioenkop (earlier, Spion Kop), where British troops failed to carry the Boer lines after assaulting them for two days and losing 1,683 men, compared to 198 on the part of the Boers.

The tide of the war turned in February 1900, when British Field Marshall Lord Frederick Sleigh Roberts (18321914) arrived with reinforcements. Though the British continued to sustain high losses, they were now able to overpower Boer forces, which retreated back to the Transvaal and the Orange Free State. Roberts followed and captured the Boer capitals by early June. The largest remaining Boer force was defeated in August 1900. Yet the Boers had already decided to move away from conventional warfare and adopt a guerrilla war of raids and ambush; by June this campaign was in full swing. Several capable commanders emerged, especially Christiaan de Wet (18541922) and Jan Smuts (18701950). The British columns were deadly, but the Boer commandos were frequently elsewhere by the time the British were ready to strike.

Hence, although they nominally occupied the republics, British forces seemed stymied. Soon 250,000 British troops were engaged, but this number still represented a relatively low ratio of troops to area: The territory of the Transvaal alone (111,196 square miles) almost equaled that of the British Isles. The British military compensated for this low density of troops with a network of hundreds of blockhouses, outpost structures giving protection to small garrisons and linked by barbed-wire fences, designed to disrupt Boer movements.

Lord Roberts resigned in November 1900 because of sickness, and Herbert Lord Kitchener (18501916) took command. Kitchener intensified the scorched-earth policy that Roberts had already begun, which paralleled similar strategies in other contemporary colonial conflicts. His plan was to destroy Boer homes and crops and appropriate their livestock to deny the commandos food, supplies, and hiding places; in two years the army burned some 30,000 Boer dwellings.

A byproduct of the scorched-earth policy was the creation of concentration camps to house those made homeless. Among the refugees were Boer women, children, and elderly, but also black Africans associated with Boer farming economies, or simply those displaced by military operations. British commanders also hoped that holding the refugees in tent camps surrounded by barbed wire, with limited food and rough hygiene, would bring about Boer surrender. Kitchener built forty concentration camps containing 116,000 prisoners, most of them women and children. Malnutrition and disease killed a high percentage. In a year and a half, well over 26,000 Afrikaners died, over 20,000 of them children under sixteen. The British also rounded up black Africans into camps, where as many as 17,000 died of disease and poor conditions. Some 12,000 of those seem to have been children. The total of black African deaths caused by the war is unknown. Nearly all the relevant mortality figures have been disputed, but it is not in dispute that the primary killer, even in the case of military deaths, was disease.

Whatever the effect of British tactics on the outcome of the war, it is clear that the Boers did not have the resources to fight on indefinitely. Several larger-scale battles in 1902 led to losses that thinned the already sparse commando ranks. The Boers surrendered in the spring of 1902, and the war ended with the Treaty of Vereeniging, signed on May 31, 1902. The two republics became undisputed British possessions, but they emerged with considerable autonomy, allowing for self-government and continued use of the Dutch (later redefined as Afrikaans) language in schools, courts, and other institutions. The British agreed to pay a large sum for reconstruction in compensation for war damage. On the question of the enfranchisement of black Africans in the region, the treaty stipulated that no discussions of the issue would be held until after the region had been granted self-government.

Historians generally understand the war to have promoted and accelerated social trends marginalizing black African and racially mixed populations in South Africa. Hence, the institutionalization of apartheid (separateness) after World War II is seen as a later stage in developments resulting from the settlement of the Boer War. New legal restrictions based on race appeared in South Africa in the following decades. The Boer War also seems to have set in motion or intensified dislocation and the breakup of traditional cohesions among black South African ethnic groups, trends that shaped later racial relations in South Africa.

The war was an international affair, particularly on the British side. Some 22,000 soldiers of the British Empire died, and hundreds of thousands served. Yet, thousands were not from the British Isles. Africans served in various capacities. Many Indians living in South Africa likewise served in the war (Mohandas Gandhi [18691948] was a stretcher-bearer in the volunteer Indian Ambulance Corps). Australias involvement in the Boer War became a significant part of Australian history and identity. Over 10,000 Australians served in Australian units alone, and many others in British units. Some 500 Australians died in the war, about half from disease. Nearly 7,500 Canadians served, with deaths totaling 219, and New Zealand sent some 6,500 troops, with 229 resulting deaths. The war was, after all, an imperial effort.

The unity implied by these contributions did not reflect universal support back home. In Britain pacifists, liberals, socialists, and others were outspoken opponents of the war. Among the best known was political activist Emily Hobhouse (18601926). Opposing the war forcefully, she organized the Relief Fund for South African Women and Children in 1900 and traveled to South Africa to visit the concentration camps. Her efforts led to official inquiries and eventually a lowering of the mortality rates in the camps. Another prominent opponent was economist John A. Hobson (18581940), who produced a critique that far outlasted the events he observed. Covering the war for the Manchester Guardian, he wrote in The South African War: Causes and Effects (1900) that the war had been foisted on Britain by a small confederacy of international mine-owners and speculators lobbying for the war to support their own investments in South Africa. Hobson later generalized these and other arguments to apply to the whole of European imperialism in Imperialism (1902). Vladimir I. Lenin (18701924) adapted some of Hobsons ideas in writing Imperialism: The Highest Stage of Capitalism (1916).

SEE ALSO Apartheid; Concentration Camps; Imperialism

BIBLIOGRAPHY

Judd, Denis, and Keith Surridge. 2002. The Boer War. New York: Palgrave Macmillan.

Nasson, Bill. 1999. The South African War, 18991902. New York: Oxford University Press.

Pakenham, Thomas. 1979. The Boer War. New York: Random House.

Reitz, Deneys. 1930. Commando: A Boer Journal of the Boer War. New York: C. Boni.

Warwick, Peter, and S. B. Spies, eds. 1980. The South African War: The Anglo-Boer War, 18991902. Burnt Hill, U.K.: Longman.

Wilcox, Craig. 2002. Australias Boer War: The War in South Africa, 18991902. South Melbourne: Oxford University Press.

T. Hunt Tooley

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Boer wars

Boer wars. The first Boer War (1880–1) was hardly more than a skirmish, won by the Boers (Dutch-origin South African farmers) after a famous victory over a British force at Majuba on the northern frontier of Natal. That gave the Boer republics of the Transvaal and Orange Free State the independence they craved from the British empire, in most things except foreign policy. Britain accepted this while they were poor and backward. That soon changed, however, when the vast Witwatersrand goldfield was discovered in the Transvaal in 1886, offering untold riches to whichever power controlled it. In 1899 Britain went to war again against the Boers, and got it back. It would be too simplistic, however, to assume that this was out of mere cupidity.

Britain had other reasons for noticing the Boers' new wealth. One worry was that if it made them too powerful, they could threaten her supremacy in the rest of South Africa, possibly in league with Germany. The aftermath of the Jameson Raid fuelled that fear. The kaiser sent a telegram congratulating the Boer president for repelling the raid. Britain regarded that as unwonted interference in the one aspect of the Transvaal's affairs she had not surrendered control over. The republic was behaving cockily in other ways too. A lot was made of its slightly less liberal ‘native policy’ by comparison with Britain's, which had been one of the reasons for setting up the independent Boer states in the first place. There were also complaints of mistreatment of immigrant diggers (‘uitlanders’) in the goldfields, though these were mostly invented or exaggerated. Britain negotiated to ease these grievances, but possibly not genuinely. Her main agent in South Africa, Milner, seems to have wanted war. British troops were poured in. In the end, on 10 October 1899, it was the Boers who issued the ultimatum, but under provocation. Most foreign opinion saw Britain as the aggressor, an evil Goliath against the David who was pluckily standing up to his bullying.

David did surprisingly well initially. The first months of the war went disastrously against Britain, with the Boers advancing deep into Natal and holding several British garrisons under siege. Only in May 1900 did the tide begin to turn, mainly through the sheer force of the numbers Britain could deploy. By October the Transvaal had been largely reconquered, Kruger, its president, had fled, and both republics were annexed to the British flag. Back in London the government used the opportunity to call a snap ‘khaki’ election, which it won. But the war was not over yet. The Boers continued a ‘guerrilla’ kind of warfare, which was only crushed in the end by a policy of methodical land-razing, farm-burning, and herding non-combatant Boers—mainly women—into unhealthy ‘concentration camps’. In June 1901 Campbell-Bannerman, the Liberal leader, publicly attacked all this as ‘methods of barbarism’, which shocked patriots, but seemed to touch a wider chord.

When the last Boers eventually surrendered, in May 1902, most Britons were heartily sick of the war. They had won, but at a price. 5,774 Britons had been killed (more than on the other side), and 22,829 injured. The Boers had been beaten, but not bowed. In the treaty of Vereeniging (31 May) they stuck out in defence of their racial policies, and got their new masters to back down on that. Resentment continued to simmer, contributing to more Boer rebellions later, and South Africa's withdrawal from the Commonwealth in 1961. In Britain, the army's poor showing proved salutary, leading to a cessation of aggressive imperialism for a while, and a great national self-examination, especially of her ‘decadence’. The war also boosted anti-imperialism. Overall, therefore, the Boer War was probably not a good one to have won.

Bernard Porter

Bibliography

Nasson, B. , The South African War 1899–1902 (1999).

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Boer War

Boer War: see South African War.

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Boer Wars

Boer Wars See South African Wars

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