Academic journal article History Review

The Boer War: A Struggle for Mastery in South Africa?

Academic journal article History Review

The Boer War: A Struggle for Mastery in South Africa?

Article excerpt

The Anglo-Boer War which broke out in 1899 and ended in 1902 was a deeply significant event in the history of the British Empire. A British imperial army, which at one stage numbered 450,000 men and was drawn from all parts of the Empire, faced a Boer population of less than 100,000 who were mostly Protestant farmers. To defeat them the British resorted to extremely brutal tactics. Farms were burned down, crops destroyed, villages laid waste. The country was divided into war zones which were separated by barbed wire fences. The captured prisoners of war and women and children were put in concentration camps. The war led to the death of over 60,000 people and cost the British government 250 million [pounds sterling]. The origins of the Boer War has been the subject of fervent historical debate ever since.

Anglo-Boer antagonism

The immediate cause of the war revolved around what would appear to have been a rather minor argument between Britain and Transvaal about the civil rights of British immigrants employed in the flourishing gold and diamond mines in the region. The British government wanted the independent Boer republic to grant full citizenship rights to this 44,000 strong, immigrant community. The Boers called these immigrants Uitlanders, which literally meant outsiders. Paul Kruger, the Transvaal President, refused to give in to British demands. He claimed the Uitlander issue was really a rather limp British excuse for gaining control of the Transvaal.

The Uitlander dispute was really part of a long standing mutual hostility between Britain and the Boer republics. At the end of the seventeenth century, the Dutch East India Company established a small trading station near the Cape of Good Hope on the southern tip of South Africa. This became known as Cape Colony, a community of Protestant farmers, predominantly of Dutch/German descent. They called themselves treboers (also know as Boers) and farmed land they had gained from African tribal peoples. This rather unique group of pilgrims described themselves as `Afrikanders' (the people of Africa) and spoke a variant of Dutch they called `Afrikaans'.

The British ended the Boers dominance in 1806 by capturing Cape Colony and turning it into a crucial naval base for British trade on the route to Asia and the Far East. Yet the independent and obstinate Boers were never to accept British rule. They were extremely outraged when the British abolished the slave trade in 1807, because they saw slavery as vital to their own farming activities. The British decision to abolish slave owning in 1834 was the last straw. Many Boers were so incensed they crossed the Orange and Vaal rivers on a `great trek' northwards in Africa to set up two independent states (Transvaal and the Orange Free State). These `Boer Republics', as they became known, enshrined their unique Protestant identity and language in their constitutions. By 1855 the British had reluctantly accepted the independence of these two rather insular regimes as a fact of life. Yet Anglo-Boer relations remained tense. In 1877 Britain took over the Transvaal at the request of its government, which felt threatened by a tribal coalition led by the Zulu people. The British helped the Transvaal defeat the Zulus in a war which began in 1879. With the Zulus out of the way, the Boers wanted Britain immediately to restore their independence. When the British refused, the Transvaal attacked Cape Colony in 1881 (the First Boer War) and gained a famous victory at Majuba Hill during the brief conflict. By two agreements in 1882 and 1884 the British government decided to restore partial independence to the Transvaal but continued to supervise their foreign policy and retained the right to intervene, in certain circumstances, in domestic matters. In the run up to war, the Transvaal and the British government argued over exactly who had overall control of domestic policy.

Beneath the surface of Anglo-Boer hostility, however, lurked harsh economic reality. …

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