This year I have taken full responsibility for the teaching of the History with English foundation degree module ‘The Reluctant Handover’ (taught at University Centre South Devon). The module covers 20th Century foreign relations between a falling power (Britain) and a rising power (the USA). Over the past couple of years I’ve taught one half of the module, focusing of the rise of American imperialism, however, now I’ve found myself having to stretch further to outline Britain’s trajectory. At first, I was fairly dismissive of this; after-all, who wants to tell the tale of decline and degeneration? However, this element of the module has taken me by storm: the British empire come the 20th Century provides an incredible arena of debate.
One such debate centres on the key reasons – and when – for the decline of the empire. It is commonly believed that at the start of the 20th Century the empire itself was at its zenith and most powerful, and that it was only the world wars that brought it crashing down. However, a closer examination of the start of the century provokes questions: perhaps the empire was already collapsing at the very end of Queen Victoria’s reign.
Which leads us, in a round-about way, to the focus of this post: the Boer War (or rather, the Second Boer War). It is a war that is often overlooked by the public, perhaps because of the significance of the later First World War which happened only a handful of years later. The war itself holds an odd place in the popular imagination of Britain today; there are plenty of memorials and monuments to the Boer War (mainly forgotten generals), but despite this visual reminder it is often dismissed with the (rather terrible) “joke” of: ‘how boring was the Boer War’?
Putting aside the fact that many people pronounce the Boer War as the “Boo-ah War” rather than the “Boar War”, the joke highlights general ignorance about the war and its place in British history. However, deeper evaluation of the war tells us much about the state that the empire was in at the end of the Victorian era.
So, who were the Boers? They Dutch colonisers who settled in the south African region in the late 1600s. This was a period in which the Dutch expanded across the planet, amassing a significant trading and naval empire. The Boers remained in this region, and over time developed their own colonies and institutions, all of which was threatened by the arrival of the British empire in early part of the 19th Century. The greedy British absorbed the Cape Colony of the Boers, which resulted in the Boers completing the so-called ‘Great Trek’ in the 1830s to remove themselves from British control. Two new independent republics were established: Transvaal and the Orange Free State. And that would have been that. However, Britain cast a covetous eye on these Boer republics because of what was present there: gold and diamonds.
In 1880-81 the British attempted, for the first time, to annex Transvaal. This led to the fighting of the first Boer War (1880-81), which concluded with a peace treaty with Britain recognising the sovereignty of both republics. But this wasn’t to be the end of Britain’s interest. After-all, this was a period of great expansion for the empire on the African continent, with the Berlin Conference of 1884-85 dividing up the land between the main European states. Furthermore, the British thirst was increased with the growth of mining operations in the republics, leading to a “Gold Rush” of sorts with the immigration of thousands of British subjects to help harvest the resources there. This influx of foreigners – what the Boers called uitlanders – increased tension between the different ethnic groups. More importantly for Britain, it provided them with a foothold in the Boer republics that they could push in further and further.
Dreams of British expansion were added by Cecil Rhodes, a leading politician in Cape Colony. Rhodes is the ultimate “go-to” example in terms of finding someone who fully endorses the concept of the “White Man’s Burden”, and it is easy to cherry-pick comments from him regarding the racial superiority of the English:
The Anglo-Saxons were ‘the first race in the world’.
‘The more of the world we inhabit the better it is for the human race.’
‘Africa is still lying ready for us, it is our duty to take it’.
Rhodes had plans to incorporate Transvaal and the Orange Free State into a larger federation under British control. The ultimate ambition was the domination of Africa which would be demonstrated with the construction of a Cape-Cairo railway that cut through the entire continent. During the 1890s, Rhodes was at the centre of fresh plots to put pressure on the Boer republics, most notably seen in the Jameson Raid of 1895. This failed attempt to raise a rebellion in the republics was highlighted as an act of British aggression, but the humiliation was not enough to deter the British. The empire’s main platform appears to have been the rights of the uitlanders themselves: they did not have full voting rights in the republic, and the British used this to continue to put pressure on Transvaal and the Orange Free State.
By 1899 tensions were running high. The President of Transvaal – Paul Kruger – had enough of the British dis-respecting the sovereignty of his republic, which resulted in the issuing of an ultimatum for the withdrawal of the British troops. This was the perfect reason that the empire needed to start the war: the Second Boer War.
For a short war of a handful of years, the Boer War had a couple of significant shifts. The outbreak of war in 1899 saw the Boers outnumbering the British, with the British-held Cape Colony put under siege. Then a second shift with the coming of 1900: the arrival of British troops to relieve sieges and to secure Cape Colony. By the summer of June 1900 Transvaal was invaded and its capital – Pretoria – was captured. Such an onslaught would have seen the end of hostilities, but the war itself entered a third phase which the British were not fully prepared for: from 1900-02 the Boers continued a guerrilla campaign that the British army found hard to counteract.
The frustration of these tactics led to the increase of brutal measures, including use of a scorched earth policy and the development of concentration camps to contain the Boer people. The concentration camps saw the death – through lack of food – of 30,000 people, the majority of whom were children. Images of those who had to endure such conditions forces an instant connection to the Nazi operated camps of the 1930s-40s. Whenever I hear or read of people gushingly promoting the positive aspects of the empire’s legacy my mind tends to consider other things, such as slavery, the massacres, and these camps that led to the deaths of thousands of children.
This brutal approach led to the surrender of the Boers, with both of of their republics now absorbed into the British empire. The impact on the Boers was incredibly significant, with the loss of population, erosion of their culture, and destruction of their sovereignty. However, for Britain the victory proved to be illusory: the war had exposed the army as unfit (40% of recruits were not ready for service) and the conflict shattered the notion of British superiority. Domestically, there was an impact in Britain: the New Liberals utilised the war to criticise the Conservatives (leading to a landslide election in 1906), and campaigns to assist public health gathered momentum.
In many ways I tend to consider the Boer War as the British empire’s own version of America’s Vietnam. Both empire’s had reached a status of hubris with both wars providing a crude shock due to the resistance of the attacked population. For Britain, they would never have things as good and as accessible again as they once enjoyed in the Victorian period. The 20th Century had arrived and it would witness the decline and dissolution of the British empire.
All of this hopefully demonstrates that the Boer War was not “boring”. It is a conflict that remains important for study and more importantly in terms of remembrance of those who were victim to the crimes committed.