Boer War

South African War

South African War or Boer War, 1899–1902, war of the South African Republic (Transvaal) and the Orange Free State against Great Britain.


Beginning with the acquisition in 1814 of the Cape of Good Hope, Great Britain gradually increased its territorial possessions in S Africa and by the late 19th cent. it held Natal, Basutoland, Swaziland, Rhodesia, Bechuanaland, and other Bantu lands. The Boers (Dutch), already settled in some of these areas, strongly resented British incursions. Resentment was especially marked in the Transvaal (headed by the strongly anti-British Paul Kruger), which had actually been annexed (1877–81) to Great Britain.

Anti-British sentiment was further inflamed after the discovery (1886) of gold in the Witwatersrand brought a great influx of prospectors (mainly British) into the Transvaal. Soon almost all the newly established mines as well as much of the commerce passed into British hands. The Boer government, to protect itself from the growing number of foreigners, denied these Uitlanders [foreigners] citizenship and taxed them heavily, despite British objections. In 1895 the Jameson raid (see Jameson, Sir Leander Starr), which Transvaalers considered an officially sponsored plot to seize their country, aggravated the situation, and in 1896 the Transvaal and the Orange Free State (see Free State) formed a military alliance to protect their independence.

The War

The British, after the appointment (1897) of Sir Alfred Milner as high commissioner for their South African territories, determined upon a showdown in defense of what they considered their commercial rights. Troops were dispatched from Britain, and, after Boer protestations were refused, the Transvaal and the Orange Free State declared war (Oct. 12, 1899). The Boer forces, well equipped by Germany, were larger than those immediately available to the British, and they scored impressive victories in the areas adjacent to the Boer territories. In the Cape Colony, Mafeking (now Mahikeng) and Kimberley were besieged; in Natal, Ladysmith was placed under siege. Reinforcements under the command of Sir Redvers Buller were sent from Britain.

Buller's failure to dislodge the Boers led to his replacement by Gen. Lord Roberts, with Kitchener as his chief of staff. They landed in 1900 with heavy reinforcements and soon won victories; Kimberley and Ladysmith were relieved, and General Cronje was forced to surrender. Roberts advanced into the Orange Free State, captured its capital, Bloemfontein, and occupied the entire territory by May. By the end of June, Mafeking had been relieved, the Transvaal invaded, and Johannesburg and Pretoria captured. The Boer states were formally annexed and Kruger, a fugitive in Europe, appealed in vain for help there.

Roberts, believing the war to be over, left South Africa and delegated the mopping up to Kitchener. The Boers, however, continued an extensive and coordinated guerrilla war. Under their leaders, including Smuts, De Wet, and Botha, they disrupted communications, attacked outposts and, with their intimate knowledge of the countryside, eluded capture. Kitchener decided that final victory lay only in the systematic destruction of these guerrilla units, and adopted a scorched-earth policy. Boer women and children were herded into concentration camps where unhealth conditions killed some 26,000 Boers, most of whom were children, and perhaps 20,000 or more black Africans also died. Thousands of farms were torched, some 40 towns destroyed, and untold livestock killed. Chains of blockhouses were erected that cut off large areas, and dragnets of troops went through the guerrilla country section by section. By 1902 the British force (about 450,000) had reduced to final submission the Boer troops (approximately 54,000). The Treaty of Vereeniging (May 31, 1902) ended hostilities; the military casualties included some 22,000 British troops, mainly from disease, and some 7,000 Boers.

The War's Aftermath

The Boers accepted British sovereignty in exchange for a promise of responsible government in the near future. Great Britain agreed to grant a £3 million indemnity for property destruction and promised not to assess taxes to cover the expenses of the war. Amnesty was granted to all who had not violated the rules of war and repatriation to those who accepted the British king. The war left much bitterness, which continued to affect the political life of South Africa throughout the 20th cent.


See L. Amery, ed., The Times History of the War in South Africa (7 vol., 1900–1909); D. Reitz, Commando: A Boer Journal of the Boer War (new ed. 1945, repr. 1970); E. Holt, The Boer War (1958); W. B. Pemberton, Battles of the Boer War (1964); T. C. Caldwell, ed., The Anglo-Boer War (1965); G. H. L. Le May, British Supremacy in South Africa (1965); J. M. Selby, The Boer War (1969); P. Warwick, Black People and the South African War, 1899–1902 (1983).

The Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright© 2018, The Columbia University Press.

Boer War: Selected full-text books and articles

Great Powers and Little Wars: The Limits of Power By A. Hamish Ion; E. J. Errington Praeger Publishers, 1993
Librarian's tip: Chap. 5 "The Boer War"
FREE! Three Years' War By Christiaan Rudolf De Wet Charles Scribner's Sons, 1903
A primary source is a work that is being studied, or that provides first-hand or direct evidence on a topic. Common types of primary sources include works of literature, historical documents, original philosophical writings, and religious texts.
The Militant Suffrage Movement: Citizenship and Resistance in Britain, 1860-1930 By Laura E. Nym Mayhall Oxford University Press, 2003
Librarian's tip: Chap. 2 "The South African War and After, 1899-1906"
Divide and Rule: The Partition of Africa, 1880-1914 By H. L. Wesseling; Arnold J. Pomerans Praeger, 1996
Librarian's tip: Chap. VI "Boers and Britons in South Africa, 1890-1902"
Imperial Policy and South Africa, 1902-10 By G. B. Pyrah Clarendon Press, 1955
Librarian's tip: Chap. II "South Africa: The War, and Formulation of Ideas on the Settlement"
The Boers in East Africa: Ethnicity and Identity By Brian M. Du Toit Bergin & Garvey, 1998
Librarian's tip: Chap. 2 "Events in the South"
The Founder: Cecil Rhodes and the Pursuit of Power By Robert I. Rotberg; Miles F. Shore Oxford University Press, 1988
Librarian's tip: Chap. 22 "'Equal Rights for Civilized Men': The Last Hurrah and the Guns of October"
The Imperial Idea and Its Enemies: A Study in British Power By A. P. Thornton MacMillan, 1959
Librarian's tip: Chap. III "The Impact of War: The Boer War"
The Background of Anti-English Feeling in Germany, 1890-1902 By Pauline Relyea Anderson Octagon Books, 1969
Librarian's tip: Chap. VI "Public Opinion during the Boer War, 1899-1902"
Twentieth-Century Britain By Alfred F. Havighurst Harper & Row, 1966 (2nd edition)
Librarian's tip: Chap. I "Beginnings" and Chap. III "Conservatism in Decline"
The Milner Papers By Alfred Milner; Cecil Headlam Cassell, vol.2, 1933
Librarian's tip: South Africa 1899-1905
A primary source is a work that is being studied, or that provides first-hand or direct evidence on a topic. Common types of primary sources include works of literature, historical documents, original philosophical writings, and religious texts.
Guerrilla Warfare: A Historical, Biographical, and Bibliographical Sourcebook By Anthony James Joes Greenwood Press, 1996
Librarian's tip: Chap. 6 "The Boer War"
War Stories and Poems By Rudyard Kipling; Andrew Rutherford Oxford University Press, 1999
Librarian's tip: Part Two "Boar War"
A primary source is a work that is being studied, or that provides first-hand or direct evidence on a topic. Common types of primary sources include works of literature, historical documents, original philosophical writings, and religious texts.
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