The Boer War

A War Between the British and the Boers in South Africa (1899-1902)

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British colonial troops burning a rebel Boer's farm, Second Boer War. (Photo by Ann Ronan Pictures/Print Collector/Getty Images)

From October 11, 1899 until May 31, 1902, the Second Boer War (also known as the South African War and the Anglo-Boer War) was fought in South Africa between the British and the Boers (Dutch settlers in southern Africa). The Boers had founded two independent South African republics (the Orange Free State and the South African Republic) and had a long history of distrust and dislike for the British that surrounded them.

After gold was discovered in the South African Republic in 1886, the British wanted the area under their control.

In 1899, the conflict between the British and the Boers burgeoned into a full-fledged war that was fought in three stages: a Boer offensive against British command posts and railway lines, a British counteroffensive that brought the two republics under British control, and a Boer guerrilla resistance movement that prompted a widespread scorched-earth campaign by the British and the internment and deaths of thousands of Boer civilians in British concentration camps.

The first phase of the war gave the Boers the upper hand over British forces, but the latter two phases eventually brought victory to the British and placed the previously independent Boer territories firmly under British dominion -- leading, eventually, to the complete unification of South Africa as a British colony in 1910.

Who Were the Boers?

In 1652, the Dutch East India Company established the first staging post at the Cape of Good Hope (the southernmost tip of Africa); this was a place where ships could rest and resupply during the long voyage to the exotic spice markets along India’s western coast.

This staging post attracted settlers from Europe for whom life on the continent had become unbearable due to economic difficulties and religious oppression.

At the turn of the 18th century, the Cape had become home to settlers from Germany and France; however, it was the Dutch who made up the majority of the settler population. They came to be known as “Boers”’—the Dutch word for farmers.

As time passed, a number of Boers began migrating to the hinterlands where they believed they would have more autonomy to conduct their daily lives without the heavy regulations imposed on them by the Dutch East India Company.

The British Move Into South Africa

Britain, who viewed the Cape as an excellent staging post on route to their colonies in Australia and India, attempted to take control over Cape Town from the Dutch East India Company, which had effectively gone bankrupt.  In 1814, Holland officially handed the colony over to the British Empire.

Almost immediately, the British began a campaign to “Anglicize” the colony. English became the official language, rather than Dutch, and official policy encouraged the immigration of settlers from Great Britain.

The issue of slavery became another point of contention. Britain officially abolished the practice in 1834 throughout their empire, which meant that the Cape’s Dutch settlers also had to relinquish their ownership of black slaves.

The British did offer compensation to the Dutch settlers for relinquishing their slaves, but this compensation was seen as insufficient and their anger was compounded by the fact that the compensation had to be collected in London, some 6,000 miles way.

Boer Independence

The tension between Great Britain and South Africa’s Dutch settlers eventually prompted many Boers to move their families further into South Africa’s interior—away from British control—where they could establish an autonomous Boer state.

This migration from Cape Town into the South African hinterland from 1835 to the early 1840s came to be known as “The Great Trek.” (Dutch settlers who remained in Cape Town, and thus under British rule, became known as Afrikaners.)

The Boers came to embrace a new-found sense of nationalism and sought to establish themselves as an independent Boer nation, dedicated to Calvinism and a Dutch way of life.

By 1852, a settlement was reached between the Boers and the British Empire granting sovereignty to those Boers who had settled beyond the Vaal River in the northeast. The 1852 settlement and another settlement, reached in 1854, brought about the creation of two independent Boer republics—the Transvaal and the Orange Free State. The Boers now had their own home.

The First Boer War

Despite the Boers’ newly won autonomy, their relationship with the British continued to be tense. The two Boer republics were financially unstable and still relied heavily on British help. The British, conversely, distrusted the Boers—viewing them as quarrelsome and thickheaded.

In 1871, the British moved to annex the diamond territory of the Griqua People, which had previously been incorporated by the Orange Free State. Six years later, the British annexed the Transvaal, which was plagued by bankruptcy and endless squabbles with native populations.

These moves angered Dutch settlers throughout South Africa. In 1880, after first allowing the British to defeat their common Zulu enemy, the Boers finally rose up in rebellion, taking up arms against the British with the purpose of reclaiming the Transvaal. The crisis is known as the First Boer War.

The First Boer War lasted only a few short months, from December 1880 until March 1881. It was a disaster for the British, who had greatly underestimated the military skill and efficiency of the Boer militia units.

In the early weeks of the war, a group of less than 160 Boer militiamen attacked a British regiment, killing 200 British soldiers in 15 minutes.

In late February 1881, the British lost a total of 280 soldiers at Majuba, while the Boers are said to have suffered only one single casualty.

Britain’s Prime Minister William E. Gladstone forged a compromise peace with the Boers that granted the Transvaal self-government while still keeping it as an official colony of Great Britain. The compromise did little to appease the Boers and tension between the two sides continued.

In 1884, Transvaal President Paul Kruger successfully renegotiated the original agreement. Although control of foreign treaties remained with Britain, Britain did, however, drop the Transvaal’s official status as a British colony. The Transvaal was then officially renamed the South African Republic.

Gold

The discovery of roughly 17,000 square miles of gold fields in Witwatersrand in 1886, and the subsequent opening of those fields for public digging, would make the Transvaal region the prime destination for gold diggers from all over the globe.

The 1886 gold rush not only transformed the poor, agrarian South African Republic into an economic powerhouse, it also caused a great deal of turmoil for the young republic. The Boers were leery of the foreign prospectors—whom they dubbed “Uitlanders” (“outlanders”)—pouring into their country from across the world to mine the Witwatersrand fields.

Tensions between Boers and Uitlanders eventually prompted Kruger to adopt harsh laws that would limit the general freedoms of the Uitlanders and seek to protect Dutch culture in the region.

These included policies to limit access to education and press for Uitlanders, making the Dutch language obligatory, and keeping the Uitlanders disenfranchised.

These policies further eroded relations between Great Britain and the Boers as many of those rushing to the gold fields were British sovereigns. Also, the fact that Britain’s Cape Colony had now slipped into the South African Republic’s economic shadow, made Great Britain even more determined to secure its African interests and to bring the Boers to heel.  

The Jameson Raid

The outrage expressed against Kruger’s harsh immigration policies caused many in the Cape colony and in Britain itself to anticipate a widespread Uitlander uprising in Johannesburg. Among them was the Cape Colony’s prime minister and diamond magnate Cecil Rhodes.

Rhodes was a staunch colonialist and thus believed Britain should acquisition the Boer territories (as well as the gold fields there). Rhodes sought to exploit Uitlander discontent in the Transvaal and pledged to invade the Boer republic in the event of an uprising by Uitlanders. He entrusted 500 Rhodesian (Rhodesia having been named after him) mounted police to his agent, Dr. Leander Jameson.

Jameson had express instructions not to enter the Transvaal until an Uitlander uprising was underway. Jameson ignored his instructions and on December 31, 1895, entered the territory only to be captured by Boer militiamen. The event, known as the Jameson Raid, was a debacle and forced Rhodes to resign as the Cape’s prime minister.

The Jameson raid only served to increase tension and distrust between the Boers and the British.

Kruger’s continued harsh policies against the Uitlanders and his cozy relationship with Britain’s colonial rivals, continued to fuel the empire’s ire towards the Transvaal republic during the waning years of the 1890s. Paul Kruger’s election to a fourth term as president of the South African Republic in 1898, finally convinced Cape politicians that the only way to deal with the Boers would be through the use of force.

After several failed attempts at reaching a compromise, the Boers had had their fill and by September of 1899 were preparing for full war with the British Empire. That same month the Orange Free State publicly declared its support for Kruger.

The Ultimatum

On October 9th, Alfred Milner, the governor of the Cape Colony, received a telegram from authorities in the Boer capital of Pretoria. The telegram laid out a point-by-point ultimatum.

The ultimatum demanded peaceful arbitration, the removal of British troops along their border, British troop reinforcements be recalled, and that British reinforcements who were coming via ship not land.

The British replied that no such conditions could be met and by the evening of October 11, 1899, Boer forces began crossing over the borders into Cape Province and Natal. The Second Boer War had begun.

The Second Boer War Begins: The Boer Offensive

Neither the Orange Free State nor the South African Republic commanded large, professional armies. Their forces, instead, consisted of militias called “commandos” that consisted of “burghers” (citizens). Any burgher between the ages of 16 and 60 was liable to be called up to serve in a commando and each often brought their own rifles and horses.

A commando consisted of anywhere between 200 and 1,000 burghers and was headed by a “Kommandant” who was elected by the commando itself. Commando members, furthermore, were allowed to sit as equals in general councils of war to which they often brought their own individual ideas about tactics and strategy.

The Boers who made up these commandos were excellent shots and horsemen, as they had to learn to survive in a very hostile environment from a very young age. Growing up in the Transvaal meant that one often had protect one’s settlements and herds against lions and other predators.  This made the Boer militias a formidable enemy.

The British, on the other hand, were experienced with leading campaigns on the African continent and yet were completely unprepared for a full-scale war. Thinking that this was a mere squabble that would soon be resolved, the British lacked reserves in ammunition and equipment; plus, they had no suitable military maps available for use either.  

The Boers took advantage of the British’s ill-preparedness and moved quickly in the early days of the war. Commandos spread out in several directions from the Transvaal and Orange Free State, besieging three railway towns—Mafeking, Kimberley and Ladysmith—in order to impede the transport of British reinforcements and equipment from the coast.

The Boers also won several major battles during the early months of the war. Most notably these were the battles of Magersfontein, Colesberg and Stormberg, which all occurred during what became known as “Black Week” between December 10 and 15, 1899.

Despite this successful initial offensive, the Boers never sought to occupy any of the British-held territories in South Africa; they focused instead on besieging supply lines and ensuring that the British were too undersupplied and disorganized to launch their own offensive.

In the process, the Boers greatly taxed their resources and their failure to push further into British-held territories allowed the British time to resupply their armies from the coast. The British may have faced defeat early on but the tide was about to turn.

Phase Two: The British Resurgence

By January of 1900, neither the Boers (despite their many victories) nor the British had made much headway. The Boer sieges of strategic British rail lines continued but the Boer militias were rapidly growing weary and low on supplies.

The British government decided it was time to gain the upper hand and sent two troop divisions to South Africa, which included volunteers from colonies like Australia and New Zealand. This amounted to roughly 180,000 men—the largest army Britain had ever sent overseas to this point. With these reinforcements, the disparity between the numbers of troops was huge, with 500,000 British soldiers but only 88,000 Boers.

By late February, British forces had managed to move up strategic railway lines and finally relieve Kimberley and Ladysmith from Boer besiegement. The Battle of Paardeberg, which lasted nearly ten days, saw a major defeat of Boer forces. Boer general Piet Cronjé surrendered to the British along with more than 4,000 men.

A series of further defeats greatly demoralized the Boers, who were also plagued by starvation and disease brought on by months of sieges with little to no supply relief. Their resistance began to collapse.

By March 1900, British forces led by Lord Frederick Roberts had occupied Bloemfontein (the capital of the Orange Free State) and by May and June they had taken Johannesburg and the South African Republic’s capital, Pretoria. Both republics were annexed by the British Empire.

Boer leader Paul Kruger escaped capture and went into exile in Europe, where much of the population’s sympathy lay with the Boer cause. Squabbles erupted within Boer ranks between the bittereinders (“bitter-enders”) who wanted to keep fighting and those hendsoppers (“hands-uppers”) who favored surrender.  Many Boer burghers did end up surrendering at this point, but about 20,000 others decided to fight on.

The last, and most destructive, phase of the war was about to begin. Despite the British victories, the guerrilla phase would last more than two years.

Phase Three: Guerrilla Warfare, Scorched Earth, and Concentration Camps

Despite having annexed both Boer republics, the British barely managed to control either one. The guerrilla war that was launched by resistant burghers and led by generals Christiaan de Wet and Jacobus Hercules de la Rey, kept the pressure on British forces throughout the Boer territories.

Rebel Boer commandos relentlessly raided British communication lines and army bases with swift, surprise attacks often conducted at night. Rebel commandos had the ability to form on a moment’s notice, conduct their attack and then vanish as if into thin air, confusing British forces who barely knew what had hit them.

The British response to the guerrillas was three-fold. Firstly, Lord Horatio Herbert Kitchener, commander of the South African British forces, decided to set up barbed wire and blockhouses along the railway lines to keep the Boers at bay. When this tactic failed, Kitchener decided to adopt a “scorched earth” policy that systematically sought to destroy food supplies and deprive the rebels of shelter. Whole towns and thousands of farms were plundered and burned; livestock were killed.

Lastly, and perhaps most controversially, Kitchener ordered the construction of concentration camps in which thousands of women and children—mostly those left homeless and destitute by his scorched earth policy— were interred.  

The concentration camps were severely mismanaged. Food and water were scarce in the camps and starvation and disease caused the deaths of over 20,000. Black Africans were also interred in segregated camps primarily as a source of cheap labor for gold mines.

The camps were widely criticized, especially in Europe where British methods in the war were already under heavy scrutiny. Kitchener’s reasoning was that the interment of civilians would not only further deprive the burghers of food, which had been supplied to them by their wives on the homestead, but that it would prompt the Boers to surrender in order to be reunited with their families.

Most notable among the critics in Britain was Liberal activist Emily Hobhouse, who worked tirelessly to expose the conditions in the camps to an outraged British public. The revelation of the camp system severely damaged the reputation of Britain’s government and furthered the cause for Boer nationalism abroad. 

Peace

Nevertheless, the strong-arm tactics of the British against the Boers eventually served their purpose. The Boer militias grew weary of fighting and morale was breaking down.

The British had offered peace terms in March of 1902, but to no avail. By May of that year, however, Boer leaders finally accepted peace conditions and signed the Treaty of Vereenigingon May 31, 1902.

The treaty officially ended the independence of both the South African Republic and the Orange Free State and placed both territories under British army administration. The treaty also called for the immediate disarmament of the burghers and included a provision for funds to be made available for the reconstruction of the Transvaal.

The Second Boer War had come to an end and eight years later, in 1910, South Africa was united under British dominion and became the Union of South Africa.