The Boer War – ten things you didn’t know!

The Boer War – a huge and bloody conflict that dominated the news at the turn of the 20th century. The biggest military conflict since the wars against Napoleon Bonaparte. And a grim foreshadowing of the two World Wars that lay ahead. Yet today, it’s large forgotten. Why?

Below, I’m going to list ten things you need to know about the Boer War.

But first, let’s go through some background so the story makes sense. Why this war meant so much to the British Empire. The famous people who got involved. And how the lure of gold and diamonds led to a bloodbath in southern Africa.

It’s quite a tale…

DISCOVER: Ten weird facts about Hitler

The Dutch arrive in South Africa

Let’s go back to Europe’s first contact with the southern tip of Africa…

The Portuguese got to the Cape of Good Hope in 1488 and for decades fought and traded with the local Khoekhoe people. Then in 1652, the Dutch East India Company (Vereenigde Oostindische Compagnie or VOC for short) established the Cape Colony. Like the Portuguese, they wanted to protect the lucrative spice trade routes to the east.

The Dutch initially traded with the Khoekhoe but tensions rose as the new settlers decided to sink firmer roots and seized land for agriculture. The Khoekhoe were introduced to the notions of private property and capitalism – and they didn’t like what they saw. Violent conflict arose but posed no threat to Dutch control. Worse was to follow. The Dutch took to coercing local Africans into slave labour on their estates.

One result of this was outbreaks of smallpox in the 18th century that thinned out the Khoekhoe population. The Dutch tackled this problem by importing slave labour from Portuguese controlled Angola and Mozambique, Madagascar, and even the Dutch East Indies – hence the “Cape Malay” population of Cape Town today.

The growing white population in the Cape was predominantly Dutch but also included Huguenots (French Protestants fleeing Catholic persecution) and Germans. A variant of Dutch, Afrikaans, became the lingua franca and the Dutch Reformed Church was the main religion. The economy was land-based and relied heavily on slaves. Together these white settlers became known collectively as the Boers, the Afrikaans word for ‘farmers’.

Britain seizes the Cape Colony

In 1795, France invaded the Netherlands. This was revolutionary France that had just guillotined its king Louis XVI, his wife Marie Antoinette, and declared itself a republic. Relations with Britain were souring rapidly and very soon a Corsican general, Napoleon Bonaparte, would take power in France and lock the two European imperial powers into a prolonged war.

The last “stadtholder” (ruler) of the Netherlands, Prince William of Orange, fled to England and begged the British government to protect the Dutch colonies from the French. London didn’t need a second invitation. The Dutch said protect. The British heard invade. In 1806, a decisive battle wrested control of the Cape Colony from the Dutch Boers, placing it in British hands. The following year Britain prohibited the slave trade followed by a total ban on slavery in 1833.

All of which was too much for the slave-owning Boers. They upped sticks embarking on the Great Trek northwards into the African interior to create new republics free from British interference. This exodus, for about a decade from 1835, became part of Boer folklore. A stream of kakebeenwoens (covered wagons) crossed the rugged landscape. These Boers became known as the voortrekkers (pioneers). Dressed in dopper coats and kappies (bonnets), fighting the Zulu and Ndebele peoples, and stricken by malaria and hunger. All of which stiffened their resolve.

Once in their new homeland, they established the Orange Free State, Transvaal, and the short-lived Natalia republic. From the start the British made it crystal clear they would not be recognising these new Boer-run homelands. At some point, the writ of Queen Victoria would extend across the whole of South Africa.

And two things motivated Britain to crush Boer independence: gold and diamonds. Once it became clear that these minerals lay in abundance under the surface of South Africa, British voices urging all-out war dominated.

Below is a centenary celebration in 1938 of the Voortrekker covered wagon movement (article continues below).

Diamonds unearthed in the Transvaal

In 1867, a sparkly rock was picked up by the daughter of a poor labourer working on the farm of a Boer, Schalk van Niekerck. Contemporary newspaper reports stated that the girl took the strange, shiny stone to her mother who gave it a quick glance, shrugged her shoulders, and returned the find to her daughter as a plaything.

Sadly for the family, eagle-eyed Nikerck was riding by and offered a little money to the girl suspecting the stone was of considerable value. She laughed, saying who had ever heard of selling a stone and handed it over for free. He sold it on for £500 – or nearly £50,000 at today’s value. Once the news was out that large diamonds were present in the area, the prospectors swarmed in.

The Boers had imagined that leaving the southern coast of South Africa and setting themselves up in the interior would guarantee their peace and independence – barring a bit of hostility from the African tribes they had dispossessed. But sniffing a minerals-led bonanza, the British began encroaching. In 1877, they brazenly annexed Transvaal.

The Boer leader, Paul Kruger, complained to the British government in London but there was little sympathy for a people seen as uncouth and vulgar. Descriptions by British diplomats of Kruger are highly unflattering with the implicit assumption that everybody in South Africa would be better off united under Queen Victoria and her civilised empire upon which the sun would never set.

The disagreeable Kruger pictured below.

The First Boer War breaks out

The greasiness of Kruger’s hair and his constant spitting were detailed in the pages of the posh British newspapers to the horror of imperial decision makers in the gentlemen’s clubs of Pall Mall. How could these backwards farmers be entrusted with so much territory – under which sat so much wealth?

Kruger and the Boers could see where this was all heading. In 1880, they gave up attempts at peaceful negotiation and revolted.

Not everybody in London thought the empire should be immersing itself in South Africa. One member of parliament calculated that the cost of controlling the Transvaal would be like sending a million soldiers to subdue Ireland. The empire was already in the throes of violent conflict in Afghanistan and had the vast expanse of India to pacify. Why on earth trigger yet another war?

But the British war party had a more compelling argument: think of the diamonds! Britain had just won a war against the Zulus. It could mop up the Boers. Those rustics were no match for soldiers fresh from fighting in the Khyber Pass. Then the mining companies would roll in to extract the diamonds and gold sitting under the Transvaal.

But…that was not how things turned out.

The first Boer War of 1880 to 1881 was a three month skirmish in which the guerrilla tactics of the Boers bested the well-trained British troops. Prime Minister William Gladstone in faraway London ordered a truce to be negotiated. The Boers would continue running the Transvaal under nominal British oversight.

Then years later, the biggest gold find in history occurred at Witwatersrand making a second Boer war inevitable.

The Second Boer War

Africa was rapidly carved up by the European powers in the last quarter of the 19th century. To either side of South Africa, the Portuguese ruled Mozambique and Angola, the Belgians were in the Congo and Germany was staking claims to part of south-west Africa. Plus there was always the French.

Britain strove to carve a corridor through eastern Africa starting in Egypt, absorbing Sudan, Uganda and Kenya, but then running into what was German-controlled Tanzania (without Zanzibar) until the First World War – when Britain took it. After Tanzania, the corridor continued with Northern and Southern Rhodesia (Zambia and Zimbabwe today) until it hit the Boer controlled republics of Orange Free State and the Transvaal. That blocked the corridor again, cutting off the Cape Colony.

However, things were moving rapidly in Britain’s favour. So-called Uitlanders (“foreigners” in Afrikaans) flooded into Transvaal digging for gold and diamonds. The demographic balance tipped away from the governing Boers. As many of these prospectors were British, the empire supported their calls for greater political representation and the vote. Imperialism and economic greed could be presented as a struggle for civil rights and universal suffrage.

Paul Kruger wasn’t falling for it. Although keen to avoid fighting the British, hotter heads prevailed among the Boers. The Second Boer War was fought on a grander, bloodier scale to the first conflict and lasted from 1899 to 1902. It drew in hundreds of thousands of soldiers from across the British Empire – Canada to India and Australia. The Boers, however, proved to be a formidable and terrifying enemy.

So – here’s ten facts you need to know about this incredibly bloody conflict.

FACT ONE: British and Boers agreed it would be a “white man’s war” – no Africans allowed

Both Boers and British were determined to ensure that the other side would not use African warriors in their ranks. South Africa’s black population should be mere bystanders. One obvious reason for this was to avoid arming the Zulus and other peoples who might rise up to reclaim their stolen lands.

The Boer general Coenraad Meyer even wrote to the son of the last Zulu king, Dinizulu, telling him to stay away – this was would be a whites-only affair. Yet despite this, there’s estimated to have been about 20,000 black African deaths during the Second Boer War. Two reasons for this – black Africans were enlisted by both sides but also got involved when they could see an opportunity to advance their cause.

Political activists from many of South Africa’s communities took an interest in the Boer War. The Indian nationalist Mahatma Ghandi was practising as a young barrister in South Africa and urged fellow Indians living in the Cape to back Britain. He believed this would advance their struggle for civil rights. Ghandi even formed a battlefield stretcher carrying service, the Natal Indian Ambulance Corps, to help the British war effort.

FACT TWO: Boer PoWs were sent to Saint Helena – where Napoleon died

Controversially, the British set up the first ever concentration camps to imprison Boers and their families – often far from home. Including camps on the remote island of Saint Helena. The very place where Napoleon Bonaparte was finally exiled and died.

Between 1900 and 1902, Saint Helena had to deal with an influx of six thousand prisoners of war (PoWs). This included the Boer general Pieter Arnoldus “Piet” Cronjé who was noted for both his courage and taking his wife with him on to the battlefield. The couple ended up being shipped to Saint Helena after defeat at the Battle of Paardeberg. Once freed, he joined a circus troupe in the United States that re-enacted scenes from the Boer War as entertainment.

The inhabitants of Saint Helena and British colonial authorities were under strict instruction to treat the PoWs well. They would not be subjected to the cruel conditions witnessed in the concentration camps in South Africa. But, prisoners soon fell out with each other. Separate camps had to be created for those who now wanted to get British citizenship and others who felt that was treachery. And to cope with animosity between Boer soldiers from the Orange Free State versus the Transvaal.

Below is a picture of Boers gathered at Saint Helena.

FACT THREE: Both white Boers and black Africans died in British concentration camps

Despite the declared intent from both sides that the war would be whites-only, it’s estimated that 12,000 black Africans died in the concentration camps set up by the British. These camps were primarily intended to imprison Boer troops and their families.

Numbers vary but it’s estimated there were about 40 camps holding 150,000 Boers. Another 60 camps may have imprisoned up to 115,000 black Africans who were servants to Boer soldiers or played a role in the Boer army.

The conditions were horrific with poor nutrition, unbearable heat, and disease. British humanitarian and campaigner Emily Hobhouse exposed what was going on in the concentration camps. This led to the formation of an investigative commission chaired by the women’s suffrage activist Millicent Fawcett.

But Hobhouse divided opinions in Britain between those who commended her work and those who viewed her as a traitor. She has also been criticised in recent years for never visiting a black African camp – though she alerted the public to their existence.

Below is a distressing image of a child starving to death in a Boer War concentration camp.

FACT FOUR: The younger brother of Vincent van Gogh died fighting with the Boers

Cornelis Van Gogh – brother of the famous artist Vincent Van Gogh – fought in the Boer armed forces. Before journeying to South Africa, Cornelis was a metal worker in the English city of Lincoln. Unhappy with the weather in England, he emigrated to the Transvaal to work on the construction of the Delagoa Bay railway line from Pretoria to Mozambique. His brother Vincent was already dead by this point.

Toiling alongside Cornelis on the railway was a struggling Dutch painter, Frans Oerder. Short of money, he was reduced to painting poles along the railway.

Both men enlisted for the Boer army but Oerder’s talent was recognised and he became the official war artist. Cornelis had no such lucky break. He was captured by the British and died at a field hospital in 1900. Some historians suspect he committed suicide. Below is one of the few surviving images of Cornelis Van Gogh.

FACT FIVE: Sherlock Holmes author Conan Doyle served as a British army doctor

Several years before the Boer War, a medical doctor gave up his clinical career to become a full-time novelist. That man was Arthur Conan Doyle – creator of the fictional detective Sherlock Holmes and his assistant, Dr. Watson. In 1899, however, Doyle reverted to being a doctor providing battlefield help to injured British soldiers on the front in South Africa.

Many in England believed the Boer War had been provoked by a lust for gold and diamonds, especially on the part of the former Prime Minister of the Cape Colony, Cecil Rhodes. But Doyle saw only a noble cause and the need to defend the disenfranchised Uitlanders. So enamoured was Doyle of the conflict that he wrote a swashbuckling account in a book titled simply: The Great Boer War.

The experience clearly energised him as an author because a year after returning, Doyle brought out his greatest Sherlock Holmes novel, The Hound of the Baskervilles. And he became a lifelong campaigner for vaccination having been inoculated for typhoid while on military service.

FACT SIX: Many Irish supported the Boers

While Canada and Australia rallied to the British cause in the Boer War, Ireland was divided. I’m half Irish and in my own family, two of my ancestors fought in the British army against the Boers while my grandmother’s uncle, William McEnhill, joined an Irish-American brigade on the side of the Boers. He had emigrated from Ireland to New Jersey years before and like many who had left their homeland, harboured a bitter hatred towards the British Empire.

In Ireland, an 1899 rally in favour of the Boers saw the Mayor of Kilkenny propose sending two maxim guns to those fighting the British. They would be named after the Irish nationalists, Parnell and Wolfe Tone. The Irish poet and author WB Yeats also spoke in favour of the Boers, who were viewed as brothers-in-arms fighting the same foe.

The Irish Transvaal Committee was set up in 1899 and warned fellow countrymen that enlisting in the British army to fight in South Africa was an act of treason. The Irish tricolour, still banned in Ireland at the time, had been raised in the Transvaal. Some Protestant Ulster Loyalists sarcastically suggested that Irish nationalists, mainly Catholic, should be given free passage to the Transvaal “for their country’s good”.

Among Irish nationalists, pro-Boer sentiment was strong. When the leading British politician Joseph Chamberlain turned up at Trinity College, Dublin to receive an honorary doctorate, he was met by a pitched battle outside the college where the flag of the Transvaal was raised.

FACT SEVEN: About 300,000 horses died during Boer War

The death rate among horses was truly alarming in the Boer War. Australia sent 43,000 horses to the conflict. Not a single one returned. During the notorious sieges by the Boers of the British held towns of Ladysmith and Kimberly, horses were slaughtered for their meat. The animals weren’t rested. There wasn’t enough food. And the terrain was unfamiliar. In battle the average attrition rate was 60%.

The toll was so noticeable that after the war, a Horse Memorial was unveiled at Port Elizabeth where most of the horses had been disembarked after along voyages from Europe, Australia, and even the United States.

FACT EIGHT: The grandson of Italy’s founder Giuseppe Garibaldi fought in the Boer War – with the British

Decades before the Boer War, Europe had been wowed by the charismatic leader in the fight for Italian unity and independence: Giuseppe Garibaldi. His fan club spanned Abraham Lincoln to Friedrich Engels, the associate of Karl Marx. While on a visit to Tyneside in northern England in 1854, local industrial workers gave him a specially inscribed sword. This found its way to the Boer War in the hands of his grandson, Peppino Garibaldi, who fought with the British.

Confusingly, Garibaldi’s son Ricciotti was refused when he offered his services to the British along with a corps of Italian volunteers. He was already an honorary member of an English volunteer regiment but was told that “British law forbade the employment of foreign officers in time of war”.

FACT NINE: Winston Churchill’s aunt was besieged at Mafeking

The town of Mafeking in the Cape Colony was besieged early on by the Boers. Its defence was led by Colonel Robert Baden-Powell. The man who would go on to found the Boy Scouts movement. The proximity of Mafeking to Boer-controlled areas made it very vulnerable with British forces outnumbered and Mafeking’s defences not up to scratch.

Baden-Powell allowed 300 black Africans to be armed, calling them the “Black Watch” and ordering them to patrol the perimeter. Boys aged 12 to 15 were recruited into the Mafeking Cadet Corps acting as messengers and other non-combat functions. This corps is believed to have inspired the idea of the scouts.

The Victorian public back in England was gripped by the fate of Mafeking. Within the encircled town were Lord Edward Cecil, son of the British Prime Minister in 1899, Lord Salisbury, and Lady Sarah Wilson, the aunt of the young Winston Churchill and daughter of the Duke of Marlborough. This added massively to the drama. When Mafeking was relieved in May 1900 and the Boers repulsed, London erupted into an orgy of Union Jack jingoism the likes of which had never been seen before.

FACT TEN: Jungle Book author loathed the Boers

The author of The Jungle Book, Rudyard Kipling, and the future British prime-minister Winston Churchill were both newspaper correspondents during the Boer War. And both reminisced on the war in their later autobiographies. Even though their experiences in South Africa were very similar, they had entirely different views of the Boers.

Churchill regarded the Boer enemy as plucky opponents who had earned respect. Kipling viewed them as treacherous scum deserving every last bullet that could be fired in their direction. Kipling was a creature of empire, born in India, whose writings perfectly captured imperial attitudes and anxieties.

By the time he died in 1936, he was already viewed as a quaint anachronism and yet he’s had the last laugh. His works of fiction remain massively popular and the Jungle Book was immortalised by Walt Disney.

A Nazi footnote…

In the last years of the Third Reich, a movie biopic of Paul Kruger’s life was released titled Ohm Krüger. It was a crude propaganda film intended to portray the British Empire as evil and oppressive. Queen Victoria was depicted as a borderline alcoholic and Britain as gold-obsessed and lacking in any morals and decency. The Boers were, like the idealised Aryans of Nazi ideology, pure of heart and attached to blood and soil. Kruger was the Boer Hitler sticking it to the British Empire.

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