Boer War

The war between the British and the Boers of the Transvaal, South Africa, in 1880-81 came to a head by the proclamation of the Transvaal as a republic. The most notable event of the war was the defeat of the British at Majuba Hill in 1881. Peace was made shortly afterwards, and Britain recognized the independence of the Transvaal.

The second Boer War between Britain on the one side and the Transvaal Republic and the Orange Free State on the other lasted from 1899 to 1902. The British at first suffered reverses, and British troops were besieged at Ladysmith, Kimberley, and Mafeking. All three towns were ultimately relieved. Pretoria, the capital of the Transvaal, was occupied by British troops under Lord Roberts on 5 June 1900. The Peace of Vereeniging was signed on 31 May 1902. The conquered countries were given self-government, and in 1909 were included in the Union of South Africa by the Act of Union of that year.

Boers, or Afrikaners, the white Afrikaans-speaking descendants of the Dutch, German, and Huguenot settlers of southern Africa. They form 60 percent of the white population of South Africa. Most prefer the term Afrikaner, meaning "African" in Afrikaans, which is derived from 17th-century Dutch. But some, proud of their frontier herdsmen ancestors, prefer boer, meaning "farmer". Most adhere to a strong nationalism, which arose in the late 19th century.

The first white colony in southern Africa was established in 1652 at Capetown by the Dutch East India Company. In 1806, Great Britain annexed the Cape area, and soon British settlers arrived. Tensions developed between the Boers and the British, who lived and thought differently, and when slavery was abolished in the British Empire many Boers, being slaveholders, escaped from British rule. From 1835 to 1845 they made the Great Trek north from the Cape to the Transvaal and Orange Free State areas. Discovery of gold in the Transvaal in 1886, however, attracted British settlers to that region. Hostility between Trek Boers and British uitlanders, or outsiders, mounted, culminating in the Boer War. Britain won the war and annexed the Transvaal and Orange Free State as colonies. In 1910 the British colonies in southern Africa were merged into South Africa.

Outbreak of Hostilities

The war, declared in October 1899, was the culmination of friction between the Boers, or Afrikaners, descendants of the Dutch settlers who founded Cape Colony in the 17th century, and the British, who had annexed the Cape in 1814.

The Boer War (also known as the Anglo-Boer War or the South African War) between Great Britain and the two Boer republics: the Transvaal (then called South African Republic) and the Orange Free State.

Britain had annexed the Transvaal in 1877, but after the Boer victory at Majuba (1881) the State was restored to independence, subject to a suzerainty, which was mainly nominal.

After the discovery of gold in the Transvaal in 1886, thousands of British and other foreign prospectors settled in the Transvaal. Although heavily taxed, they were denied the vote by President Paul Kruger because they threatened to outnumber Boer voters. Great Britain supported the new settlers' demands for equal rights.

The gold rush to the Rand renewed British interest in the Transvaal, which was greatly increased by the complaints of the Uitlanders, whom the Boers taxed heavily, and to whom they denied the franchise and other civil rights. Neither petitions by these foreigners, nor remonstrances from the British government prevailed in obtaining concessions from Kruger, the President of the Transvaal, who was suspicious of British intentions towards the Republic.

The fiasco of the Jameson Raid, further inflamed Dutch hatred of the British Empire. From December 1895 to January 1896 about 600 British immigrants and supporters tried to overthrow Kruger in the unsuccessful Jameson Raid. Months of futile negotiations followed. Britain reinforced its troops in the Cape and called up 50,000 men for duty in South Africa.

In October 1899, Kruger demanded that Britain remove all border troops. When the ultimatum went unanswered, the Transvaal and the Orange Free State declared war. At first the Boers were successful. Although untrained, they were expert shots, good horsemen and familiar with the countryside.

From October 1899 until January 1900 the Boers did well. British forces were besieged in Ladysmith, Mafeking and Kimberley. In December, during 'Black Week', the Boers won three battles.

By February 1900, reinforcements, commanded by Field Marshal Lord Roberts and General Kitchener, had been sent from Britain. Now with much larger armies, the British drove the Boers away from Ladysmith and Kimberley and defeated them at Paardeburg. Mafeking, where Colonel Baden-Powell had organized heroic resistance, was saved after a siege lasting 217 days. Pretoria, capital of Transvaal, was in British hands by September 1900.

The Boer soldiers fought on in small groups ('commandos'). They were well led by Generals De Wet, Botha and Smuts. They attacked camps, derailed trains and seized equipment. General Kitchener replied by burning farms and crops. The countryside was cleared of civilians who were placed in concentration camps, where 20,000 died because of unhealthy conditions. The remainder of the war was occupied in wearing down the guerrilla tactics adopted by the Boers.

The Boers gave up the struggle in 1902, and peace was signed at Vereeniging. The Boers became British subjects, but with certain privileges, such as the teaching of Dutch in the schools. Throughout the war, European opinion had been violently anti-British, but the naval supremacy of the British made intervention impossible. The importance of sea power was thus impressed upon the Kaiser and his advisers, and the construction of the German navy dates from this period.

In 1910 they became part of the self-governing Union of South Africa. Britain, who had earned hatred abroad for the methods used to win the war, paid £3 million towards the rebuilding of Boer farms.

British war casualties were 28,000 killed, wounded, or missing. The Boers lost about 4,000 men in combat and 26,000 women and children through disease in noncombatant concentration camps.

Australian Involvement in the Boer War

Leading up to the Boer War of 1899-1902 between Britain and the Republics of the Transvaal and Orange Free State, were followed closely in Australia. Even before the outbreak of hostilities in October, some Australian governments had pledged armed support for Britain, and immediately after the invasion of the Cape Colony by the Boers, recruiting of volunteer infantry and 'mounted bushmen' began. Although by that time federation had been agreed to and the birth of the Commonwealth was only a few months away, the first contingents were organized separately by the various colonial governments. However, not long after their arrival in South Africa some of the men from Victoria, South Australia, Western Australia and Tasmania were combined to form the Australian Regiment. After federation the Commonwealth government began recruiting, and early in 1902 the first battalion of the Australian Commonwealth Horse was dispatched.

A total of over 16,175 men sailed to South Africa and about the same number of horses were sent. The Australian contingents were drawn from military reserves. Further forces were bush cavalrymen, hand-picked volunteers sought for their ability to ride and shoot in rough terrain. These mounted regiments proved an effective strategic force against the Boers who had managed to rout the stronger British forces by utilizing guerrilla tactics. Australian troops won a high reputation for courage and for their ready adaptability to South African conditions.

By early 1900 Australian forces comprised cavalry and infantry units from each of the States, although many others found their way to South Africa and privately joined volunteer Cape Colony and Natal regiments. The Bushveldt Carbineers were specially formed in 1901 to combat the unconventional Boer tactics; they operated in a wild northern area of the Transvaal known as the Spelonken. One column rode under the command of Lieutenant Harry 'Breaker' Morant, who was later court-martialled and executed in connection with the controversial shooting of several Boer prisoners and a German missionary.

In general, public opinion in Australia supported Britain enthusiastically, although some prominent people, including Professor G. Arnold Wood of Sydney University, criticized her strongly. The general support sprang not only from feelings of loyalty to the mother country and the Crown, but also from commercial and strategic considerations, as noted by Edmund Barton, addressing the House of Representatives, when he said that if Britain ever lost control of the Suez Canal, the route around the Cape of Good Hope would once again be of vital importance to Australia.

By the cessation of hostilities in May 1902 total Australian casualties were 120 officers and 1280 other ranks. Six Victoria Crosses were awarded to Australians in the campaign.

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Comments 9 comments

dahoglund 6 years ago

Interesting history


Denno66 6 years ago

Until now, I must confess, I never knew the specifics of the Boer Wars. Thank you for a detailed, but easy-paced narrative. I tend to abandon arid, slow-paced accounts. This, I found, to be quite the reverse. Great Hub.


scarytaff profile image

scarytaff 6 years ago from South Wales

Very well explained. Interesting and informative.


dusanotes profile image

dusanotes 6 years ago from Windermere, FL

Thanks, darkside, for reminding us of this part of world history. Those of us who have British ancestry can imagine or find out through genealogical records that our people probably fought in those wars. Thanks, Don White


tonymac04 profile image

tonymac04 6 years ago from South Africa

Interesting, as a South African, to get an Australian perspective on this war. Interesting also that you don't mention the story of Breaker Morant?

Thanks

Love and peace

Tony


Freeway Flyer profile image

Freeway Flyer 6 years ago

Do you know how much of the white population of South Africa today is of Afrikaner descent and how much is British? (Can they still even be easily distinguished?) I was also wondering which descendants played the bigger role in the future development of apartheid.


Mike Holden 4 years ago

Extremely well and succinctly explained many thanks


parabat 4 years ago

Soldiers generally obey orders. Even if they are the type of rubbish that Morant was. The British knew of the crimes the BUshveld Carbineers committed. Freeway Flier clearly does not know that apartheid was a British invention as was the murder of innocent men women and children in concentration camps. The only reason the British got up on the moral high ground and executed Morant was because they did not want a war with the Germans. The British only came to South Afica to steal gold by way of their businessmen. They are still doing it and now have competition from China and India. Does the name Emily HObhouse mean anything to you Freeway Flier?


stopalltheclocks profile image

stopalltheclocks 3 years ago

Very useful for my history exam. Thanks.

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