Boer War

views updated Jun 08 2018

Boer War


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


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

Boer Wars

views updated May 23 2018

Boer Wars

The Boer Wars were a series of conflicts fought between the descendants of Dutch settlers and British troops in South Africa in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. The conflicts stemmed from Britain's attempts to expand its South African colonial empire.

Dutch colonists had settled the Cape region of South Africa since the seventeenth century, where they became known as Boers, meaning "farmers" in Dutch. After Great Britain acquired control of the Cape in 1806, many Boers felt harassed by British colonial policies, especially the abolition of African slavery, and they began migrating inland to escape British rule. The Boers eventually established two landlocked independent republics: the South African Republic (also known as the Transvaal Republic) and the Orange Free State. The Boers were conservative, deeply religious, and practiced an agricultural way of life; they spoke a form of Dutch later called Afrikaans, and called themselves Afrikaners, meaning "Africans" in their language.

By the 1870s the British had annexed most of southern Africa with the exception of the two Boer republics, and they now hoped to incorporate the two republics into a larger South African federation. The discovery of diamonds at Kimberley in 1867, and British annexation of the diamond region near the border with the Orange Free State, also brought the British into conflict with the Boers.

FIRST BOER WAR (1880–1881)

The first war between the British and Boers was short and resulted in little loss of life. In 1877 the British annexed the Transvaal, claiming the territory as their own. In 1880 the Boers revolted, and the Transvaal declared its independence from Great Britain. The Boers attacked British army garrisons in the Transvaal and defeated the British at the Battle of Laing's Nek on January 28, 1881; this was followed by other Boer victories. On February 27, 1881, the Boers defeated the British in the decisive Battle of Majuba Hill.

At this point the British government under Prime Minister William Gladstone (1809–1898) decided to recognize Boer independence, and the Convention of Pretoria was signed on April 5, 1881, confirming the sovereignty of the Orange Free State and the South African Republic (Transvaal). To the Boers, the war became known as the First War for Freedom; it is also known to historians as the First South African War and the First Anglo-Boer War.

SECOND BOER WAR (1899–1902)

The Second Boer War is also known to Afrikaners as the Second War for Freedom, and as the Second South African War and the Second Anglo-Boer War. Though the end of the First Boer War restored peace in the Transvaal, it did not end the disputes between the British and the Boers. The discovery of gold on the Witwatersrand in the Transvaal resulted in a huge influx of new settlers, most of them British or from British colonies. Gold mining began apace and the city of Johannesburg became the center of the gold mining region.

The rise in new settlers, known in Afrikaans as Uitlanders, or "foreigners," disturbed the Boers; the Uitlanders appeared to have little respect for Boer culture and were instead focused on profiting from the Transvaal's resources. The Boers therefore required a long period of residency—fourteen years—in order to acquire Transvaal citizenship and voting rights in the republic, but Uitlanders were still taxed. These conditions angered the Uitlanders, most of whom supported British colonial expansion into the Transvaal.

In 1895 Dr. Leander Starr Jameson (1853–1917), with the backing of the Cape Colony's prime minister, Cecil Rhodes (1853–1902, who had his own commercial interests in the region later to be called Rhodesia), staged a raid on the city of Johannesburg, a nearly farcical event that was a dramatic failure. The failed raid embarrassed the British government, as it made Britain appear to be engaged in aggression against a republic whose independence it had guaranteed. Rhodes was forced to resign as prime minister of the Cape. To the Boers, the event revealed British imperial designs. Paul Kruger (1825–1904), the Transvaal president, was especially effective in rallying his people against the British, as was President Marthinus Steyn (1857–1916) in the Orange Free State. The Transvaal and Orange Free State formed an alliance, and both republics began importing arms from Germany. Germany had given verbal support to the Boer cause, but never intervened when war began.

The British continued their scheming to acquire the Boer republics. The Cape high commissioner, Sir Alfred Milner (1854–1925), as well as the colonial secretary, Joseph Chamberlain (1836–1914), both wanted war against the Boer republics on the grounds of poor treatment against the Uitlanders, but really as part of their imperialist design for the expansion of empire, as well as the desire for gold. At a conference between British and Boer leaders in 1899, the British demanded citizenship and voting rights for Uitlanders, while the Boers demanded that British troops withdraw from the borders of the Transvaal. When the British failed to withdraw their troops, President Kruger ordered the Boers to attack British positions in the Cape Colony and Natal.

War was declared on October 12, 1899. Initially, the Boers had the advantage, besieging the cities of Ladysmith, Mafeking, and Kimberley, and defeating British troops at the battles of Magersfontein and Colenso. Nevertheless, the British prime minister, Lord Salisbury (Robert Arthur Talbot Gascoyne-Cecil, 1830–1903), of the Conservative-Unionist Party, was optimistic and expected the war to last only a few months. British troops led by Sir Redvers Buller (1839–1908) arrived in Cape Town at the end of October, with reinforcements under Lord Frederick Sleigh Roberts (1832–1914) arriving in February 1900, helping to relieve the besieged cities. Robert Baden-Powell (1857–1941, founder of the Boy Scouts) also led a raid against the Transvaal. The British captured the Orange Free State's capital of Bloemfontein in March 1900 and the Transvaal capital of Pretoria in June 1900. The fall of the two capitals led the British to believe that the war would now be over.

At this point, however, the war entered into a guerilla stage as the Boers continued to resist the British onslaught. Unlike the British, who wore uniforms and were organized into hierarchical and highly structured military units, the Boers wore civilian clothes, and were organized into self-governing commandos led by such generals as Jacobus Hercules (Koos) De la Rey (1847–1914), Christiaan de Wet (1854–1922), Louis Botha (1862–1919), and Jan Smuts (1870–1950). Boer commandos continued their attacks on British garrisons and communications lines. The British replaced their earlier command with more able leaders, including Lord Roberts and Lord Horatio Herbert Kitchener (1850–1916), both military heroes. About 80,000 Boers fought against about 450,000 British troops, including colonial troops from Australia, New Zealand, and Canada. Africans fought for both sides, though most fought for the British, believing that a British victory would bring them greater rights.

The continuance of war in South Africa prompted an antiwar movement in Great Britain, supported by parliamentary opposition parties, including most of the Liberals (such as David Lloyd George [1863–1945]) and the various smaller Labor parties. The British antiwar movement was also motivated by British treatment of Boer prisoners. The Boers themselves tended to release captured British soldiers after a few days because they had no place to imprison them. The British sent their prisoners of war out of the country to such places as Bermuda and Ceylon. The British also employed a scorched earth policy, burning crops and farmhouses (about 30,000 homes were burned), and evicting Boer families, placing women and children in concentration camps. Over 116,000 Boers were imprisoned in about forty-five concentration camps, where 27,000 of them, mainly children, died. Over 120,000 Africans were also imprisoned in concentration camps. Though Africans were important participants in the war and were substantially affected by it, there is relatively little documentation about their experiences and most historians have focused on the British-Boer conflict, rather than on the African role.

Faced with overwhelming force as well as the destruction of their farms, the Boers considered surrendering. Boer generals disagreed among themselves; some, such as Botha, argued for surrender with better terms, while others, such as de Wet, wanted to hold out until the bitter end. Eventually the Boers came to an agreement and surrendered. The Treaty of Vereeniging was signed on May 31, 1902, with the Boers recognizing British annexation of the Transvaal and the Orange Free State, which now became British colonies. These colonies would be merged into the new Union of South Africa in 1910, with Louis Botha becoming the first prime minister of a united South Africa.

The British were active in reconstructing the former republics in an attempt to gain Boer confidence. Africans gained little from the Second Boer War. Many had supported the British in the belief that they would obtain voting rights with a British victory. With the exception of the recognition of some preexisting rights for Africans in the Cape Province, the war did little to help them.

The Boer Wars were significant in defining modern South Africa. The peace treaty in 1902 brought the British and Boers together in an uneasy alliance, allowing the formation of a unified South Africa. Afrikaner feelings about the war are still strong, helping to define Afrikaner nationalism in a way similar to how the American Civil War defines southern political culture. The Boer Wars have been compared by some historians to both the Vietnam and Gulf Wars, in which smaller independent nations were attacked by imperial forces.

see also Afrikaner; Cape Colony and Cape Town; Kruger, Paul; Rhodes, Cecil.


Beck, Roger B. The History of South Africa. Westport, CT: Greenwood, 2000.

Davenport, T. R. H., and Christopher Saunders. South Africa: A Modern History, 5th ed. New York: St. Martin's Press, 2000.

Jackson, Tabitha. The Boer War. Basingstoke, U.K.: Channel 4 Books/Macmillan, 1999.

Judd, Denis, and Keith Surridge. The Boer War. Basingstoke, U.K.: Palgrave Macmillan, 2003.

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. Cambridge, U.K.: Meridor, 1990.

Reitz, Deneys. Commando: A Boer Journal of the Boer War. London: Faber and Faber, 1929.

van Hartesveldt, Fred R. The Boer War. Stroud, U.K.: Sutton, 2000.

Boer War

views updated Jun 08 2018


anglo-boer crisis and the onset of war
transition to guerrilla warfare
forcing boer surrender
costs and outcome

The origins of the Boer War (1899–1902), also known as the Anglo-Boer War or South African War, lay in British empire-building in the African subcontinent toward the end of the nineteenth century. Comfortably in control of the coastal colonies of the Cape and Natal by midcentury, imperial authorities adopted a mostly complacent view of their regional hegemony. Boer republicans who wanted freedom from crown authority were allowed to migrate to the northern interior and establish independent settler states (the Transvaal and Orange Free State) through conquest. Thereafter, except for a brief period of failed British federation pressure in the 1870s, these skinny agrarian republics were left largely to their own devices.

But the discovery of colossal gold deposits in the South African Republic (Transvaal) in 1886 soon transformed this picture. Within little more than a decade, the Witwatersrand mines had become the world's largest single source of gold, and the economic hub of South Africa had moved from British territory to a free Boer republic. Meanwhile, London was also growing increasingly uneasy about Germany currying diplomatic and commercial favor with the Republic government of Paul Kruger (1825–1904). Previously, British coastal supremacy had meant control of the whole of South Africa. This was all changed by the rise of a wealthy Transvaal with continental European friends. Anxious British politicians now saw the threat of a possible loss of strategic Cape naval facilities to a European great-power rival in league with an expansionist and upstart Boer ally.

Concerns about the challenge to British regional hegemony posed by the robust development of the Republic were accompanied by a no less pressing worry. With London the financial core of world trade, and the supremacy of British sterling backed by gold, City financial markets had an interest in ensuring not only that Transvaal bullion went to London rather than Berlin or Paris, but also that mining conditions were as favorable as possible. On this latter front, British mining magnates (or Randlords) were disgruntled.

anglo-boer crisis and the onset of war

Through the 1890s there were allegations that the Kruger state was too lethargic in its response to the needs of the mining industry, was incapable of grasping the modernity of capitalist industrialization, and was too deeply in the pocket of agrarian

Boer notables. Some mine owners argued that tilting the balance of power in the Republic in favor of the primary needs of long-term gold production required the toppling of its government. British policy did not require actual control of the Transvaal mines, as informal capitalist influence could assure London's position. But it did require the upholding of British supremacy in South Africa, and that could be held to include a decisive say in the strategic needs of its vital mineral production. Within the capitalist and imperialist political elite a loose common purpose emerged to bring the republicans to heel.

The 1895 Jameson Raid, a botched coup against the Transvaal, fanned anti-imperialist Boer sentiment and alerted Kruger to the imperative of war preparedness. Meanwhile, tactical British demands for Republican citizenship reform to ease access to the franchise for mainly English uitlanders (foreigners) on the Witwatersrand grew increasingly menacing. Pushed to the end of its tether, the South African Republic, in a military alliance with its sister republic of the Orange Free State, declared war on Britain in October 1899. It was a desperate first-strike gamble by Boer republicanism to preserve its independence against intensifying imperial aggression.

In the ensuing colonial conflict, Britain anticipated a short war and an easy victory. Instead, it experienced a shock. Before badly organized and indifferently led imperial forces could be reinforced, well-armed and skillfully deployed Boer burgher (citizen) armies lunged deep into British colonial territory, inflicting several major defeats in set-piece battles at the end of 1899. Knocked back on their heels, the British were expected to make terms, especially given popular pro-Boer pressure from European capitals. But the Boers were wrong. For a determined London, there could be no loss of face anywhere in the empire. With British forces reorganized, stiffened by massive reinforcements, and strengthened by more competent general command, the tide began to turn early in 1900. Slowly breaking the regular Boer armies through sheer weight of numbers, increasingly adept use of ground, and improved mobility, the British pushed north inexorably. By June 1900, the republican capitals of Bloemfontein and Pretoria had been pocketed, Kruger had decamped to exile in the Netherlands, and Boer armies were disintegrating. With the Republics conquered, the British commander-in-chief, Frederick Sleigh Roberts (1832–1914), declared the war at an end.

transition to guerrilla warfare

Now it was the turn of the British to be wrong. Down, but by no means out, younger and more agile Boer generals like Christiaan Rudolf de Wet (1854–1922) and Jacobus Hercules ("Koos") De la Rey (1847–1914) rallied the remaining fighting rump of their forces, made a tactical switch to highly dispersed guerrilla warfare, and for nearly two more years sustained an effective irregular campaign against an occupying imperial army. Living off the countryside, mounted Boer commando bands delivered destructive glancing blows, raiding British garrison posts, cutting communication lines, sabotaging enemy supply depots, swooping on convoys, and riding deep into the Cape Colony to conquer vulnerable outlying districts. As the whole axis of the war swung toward guerrilla struggle, die-hard republican patriots kept the British bleeding in the hope of forcing a peace that would not entail the political ignominy of unconditional surrender.

Imperial generals responded by waging a fierce campaign of attrition. To deprive roving commandos of the lifeline of food supply, intelligence, and moral sustenance provided by rural homesteads, Roberts's successor, Horatio Herbert Kitchener (1850–1916), expanded a punitive scorched earth policy, destroying livestock, incinerating crops, and looting and burning thousands of farms in the Boer states. Displaced Boer women and children, as well as African farm tenants and laborers were penned into a network of unhygienic concentration camps, where thousands died mainly from epidemic diseases. For Kitchener, the camps served the purpose of keeping civilian enemy families hostage: only by surrendering would commandos ever again be reunited with their kin. Thousands of Boer republican prisoners-of-war were shipped off to internment in other imperial territories, including India and Ceylon, and the property of prominent war leaders was either confiscated or destroyed. By 1902, roughly half the small white settler population of the Boer states were either incarcerated in camps or being held as war prisoners. For the Boer republicans, the experience of 1899–1902 was close to that of total war.

forcing boer surrender

The British also laced the countryside with thousands of blockhouses around which their forces, mustered into flying columns, mounted sweeping drives against commandos, systematically squeezing resisting guerrillas into pockets of the countryside that could be cordoned off. As their belligerent capacity was throttled, Boer war unity evaporated. Numerous desperate, poorer republicans lost faith in their struggle, and either scrambled to surrender or turned against their former compatriots, serving in the imperial forces as armed National Scouts.

Britain's implacable resolve to grind its enemy into surrender, sliding republican morale in the field, deepening economic misery, and the suffering of women and children eventually eroded the

will and capacity of remaining Boer resistance. By 1902, shrewd commanders like Jan Christian Smuts (1870–1950) and Louis Botha (1862–1919) were coming to terms with the futility of their position. It was one that was also being made increasingly perilous because of African and Colored involvement in what was supposed to have been a "white man's war," either through collaboration with British forces, partisan resistance to Boer authority, or hostile intervention to reclaim lost agricultural land. Facing the disintegration of society as they had known it, and responsive to British willingness to strike a negotiated peace settlement, republican military leaders accepted what became known as the Peace of Vereeniging on 31 May 1902. Although its terms required the Republics to sign away their independence, Britain footed the bill for the Boers' war debt, and made available massive reconstruction resources. Having drawn the teeth of its republicanism, Britain now needed to conciliate Boer society as its power in South Africa rested on the collaboration of white settlers. Where their supremacy over the black majority had been eroded by Anglo-Boer hostilities, the postwar effort was to restore authority.

costs and outcome

By the end, the British had put almost 450,000 imperial troops into the field, the Boers at most around 80,000 combatants. In the largest and most costly war fought by Britain between 1815 and 1914, it had taken the world's greatest empire nearly three years to defeat two of the colonial world's smallest agrarian states, with a combined settler population of under 250,000 inhabitants. About 28,000 refugees, or over 10 percent of the Boer population, died in camps, as well as some 20,000 displaced Africans. Although officially depicted as a war between European powers by both sides, the republicans conscripted around 10,000 trusted black retainers as fighting auxiliaries, while the black labor contribution to the British war effort topped 100,000 men, as many as 30,000 of whom bore arms.

With Boer society fractured between die-hard republican patriots and those who had thrown in their lot with the British, and with hundreds of thousands of the region's black majority entangled in its campaigns, the war was never a straightforward Anglo-Boer confrontation. It also took on the character of a civil war between segments of South African society. Peace brought to an end not merely bloodletting, but also the social and political crisis spawned by this bitter colonial conflict.

See alsoAfrica; Colonies; Great Britain; Imperialism; Jingoism.


Gooch, John, ed. The Boer War: Direction, Experience, and Image. London, 2000.

Judd, Denis, and Keith Surridge. The Boer War. London, 2002.

Lowry, Donal, ed. The South African War Reappraised. Manchester, N.Y., 2000.

Nasson, Bill. The South African War 1899–1902. London, 1999.

Omissi, David, and Andrew S. Thompson, eds. The Impact of the South African War. London, 2002.

William Nasson

Boer wars

views updated May 21 2018

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


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

Boer Wars

views updated May 29 2018

Boer Wars See South African Wars