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British Empire: Battle For South Africa

Updated on December 10, 2013

During the 19th century, South Africa was a nation divided. Tribal conflict and a lack of unification shattered the region into fragments of sectioned off tribes and divisions, leaving themselves vulnerable to outside forces of European imperialism. When the British Empire succeeded in taking control of the Cape and the South African region, they ensured the profitable conditions of their trade route to India and Asia, as well as the beneficial gain of new land, resources, and the expansion of trade. The political and societal structure of South Africa was extremely weak and unstable, and because of this, the British sought it upon themselves to help the natives restore the debilitating cracks within their civilization, whilst at the same time, taking land and resources from them for their own personal gain. Their continued expansion of South Africa was claimed to be motivated by the desire to civilize and give aid to the natives of the troubled and war-filled region. However, through the Empire’s actions, it is shown that their motivation to assist the country is used through methods of racism, paternalism, and ethnocentrism, in which the Empire’s best interests are placed above the interests of the commonwealth. Although the initial interactions of colonialism between the British and the South Africans were governed through specific agreements and sanctions, the Empire, Boers and African natives quickly turned violent and manipulative as the wants and needs of each faction began to oppose and conflict. The British Empire's colonization of South Africa was not motivated by a desire to aid South Africans in their instability and vulnerability, but by fear of losing control of India, and in that fear, the Empire used their weakness against them, committing crimes against humanity, ethnocentrism and mass genocide against the South African natives and Afrikaners.

The bare motivation of the British Empire was survival, as it was necessary to maintain power over India in order to survive as an Empire. Before 1869, there was barely any competition or threat in regards to African territory. Germany and Italy were not unified. France was occupied in war with other feuding countries. Several other European powers were occupied with mending the political instability within their own governments, and did not have the time or the means to involve themselves in foreign affairs such as these. This was beneficial for the British, as it was always favorable to ensure that other powers at play held no focus on the political and economic assets of the Empire. Before 1869, the motivation to place British imperialism in South Africa was to bring Christianity and the brand of European civilization to the people of the region. Europeans began exploring the country, carrying the belief that the religion, values, and traditions of the British Empire were the only way to convert and civilize the Africans, taking it upon themselves to govern them and aid them in acquiring wealth, as well as reaping the benefits and wealth from their charity as well.

David Livingstone, a Scottish missionary, lived for over thirty years in Africa, along with many other missionaries, immersing themselves in African culture. Livingstone was a strong proponent of bringing civilization and Christianity to the natives, and the British Empire allowed it, until they realized the opportunity to industrialize and colonize. Even as these missionaries attempted to help the Africans, they were still essential in a much larger, economical game, as they were given the additional task to determine the African policy of the climate in order to decide which best way to implement British rule within the region. Now, the British did not hold much economic interest in Africa, as the slave trade was abolished in the 1930s and the unstable conditions of the country's political structure were not fit for profitable commerce. However, once the 1870s began, the country that was perceived to be broken and vulnerable now had something to offer, and that instability and weakness was no longer a call to give aid and repair, but a convenient asset to manipulate and exploit in order to protect British interest.

By the time 1869 came around, the French completed their work on the Suez Canal in Egypt, creating a more accessible trading route to India and Asia, proving advantageous to the British Empire, as India was their most profitable colony. But suddenly, the British Empire was faced with competition. Germany and Italy were now unified, and the two countries, along with France, were interested in conducting imperialism in Africa. The British mentality was soon based in fear, afraid that if they did not begin claiming land for themselves, other European powers would take it for themselves, and steal their markets and opportunities for economic trade. Not only was their economic conditions at stake, but the threat of losing colonies to Germany and France became apparent as well, bringing in the ultimatum of expand, or die. British expansion became motivated by a fear of decline, rather than the interests of the African people, and once the threat of the French commanding complete control of the Suez Canal route and forcing the British out of its profits became apparent, they took preemptive action. The Empire decided to eradicate the possibility of being barricaded from access to the trade route and, through the gain of shares in the Suez, took sole control of the region in 1875, and then the entirety of Egypt in 1882. Despite the fact that Africa was not entirely of use to the Empire’s economic needs, once it was realized that the Suez Canal was a lifeline of trade to their colonies in India and Asia, and subsequently their navy, the fear of losing that lifeline caused them to take action and expand.

During the Napoleonic Wars, in 1806, the Cape was taken by the British, as they transformed the area into a naval station for the benefit of the British navy. Cape Town was one, if not the foremost priority of the British Empire, as it was an essential component of travel to India, and proved a significant base for the British navy, providing access and resources to those that would conduct business in and out of the area. The significance of this region should indicate how much they had to lose if they were to be banned access to the Cape, and Empire’s fear of losing India and losing access to that essential value and trade drove them to annex land in South Africa, despite conflicts that arose between the Boers and the African natives. Now, the reasons for moving in on South Africa are apparent, but the justifications for those actions are dealt more in the ideals of racism and paternalism. The Boers, who were also known as Afrikaners, were descendants of the Dutch settlers in South Africa. Both the British and the Afrikaners were white, however, the Empire discriminated against the Dutch settlers, placing them in a social class beneath them, thus creating a difference between them that would be used to justify their intrusive colonialism on their land. The relationship between the British and the native Africans was, of course, rooted in racism, as they felt their duty was to govern the natives as they were inferior and could not govern themselves, as well as implementing the oppressive ideal of paternalism, attempting to provide for the needs of the natives, in which they did not succeed, while refusing to give them any civil rights or liberties.

Now, coming back to the conflict between the Boers and the British Empire, there was an enormous body count by the end of these wars, both the Boers and the natives held as victims of several crimes and injustices committed by the Empire. The British came in, with intentions to help the natives, and through their aid completely transforming them. The Dutch settlers were not content with their imperialism along with the natives, as the rule of the East India Company was already constricting their rights and profits, making their perception of the British Empire even worse.

When the British began annexing land in South Africa in 1877, they did so in fear of losing India and their power of the colony to other countries, especially in Cape Town. In 1899, the Boer Wars began. During the course of these brutal wars, British began claiming Afrikaner territories, and in reaction, the Boers implemented guerrilla warfare on the British, which heightened the intensity of conflict between them. The British sought out to find and destroy the guerrilla units, and so they began the destruction of farms, homes, and crops in 1901, and by 1902, they had completely eradicated the threat of the Boer Resistance. Their fear of losing India to the Boers was a driving factor in their persistence in fighting for the land of South Africa, killing thousands of men, women and children in the process.

The additional appeal of gold and diamonds discovered in Transvaal in the early 1870s only added to the Empire’s desire for wealth. The British quickly seized some of the wealth, of course, with opposition from the Transvaalers, in which they annexed the Boer State in order to reap the full benefits of the area. Their justification is closely linked to the concept of British industrialization. They had gained the wealth and the gold in areas such as Witwatersrand and Transvaal because they believed they had the right to the minerals and resources because of the work they had done towards the people of the country. However, the recurring cycle of giving aid to the Africans, and then manipulating that aid to gain benefits from it, whether it be through labor, control, or economic value, was incredibly oppressive, as they held their justification through ideals of inferiority, race, and social class.

Paul Kruger, who was the president of the South African Republic at the time attempted to develop a railroad route to East Africa in order to lessen the strong dependence on Cape merchants and profits. This did not sit well with the interests of the British Empire, and threatened their commercial and trade profits, once again bringing back the fear of losing power and control of wealth. They could not allow the Boers to attain direct access to naval routes and subsequently other European powers, and so they did what they thought was necessary, and stopped its production immediately, as these recurring conflicts sparked the second Boer War, lasting until 1902. Therefore, as soon as the needs of the country’s people were self-sufficient and beneficial for the land’s inhabitants, the autonomy was seen as a threat and as competition to the monetary wealth of the Empire. Their original intention to civilize and industrialize the land was not forgotten and was still being implemented through the course of this colonization. The British developed transportation and railroads, procuring profitable resources such as coal, iron, and steel, and began to form political stability in the region. However, the railways and canals built were for the British Empire to claim wealth and access to trade from Africa to India and Asia. The good resources they found were used to build ships for the British navy and further expand on the British Empire, and used native Africans and Boer laborers to attain those resources, without the laborers reaping most, if not all, of the profits. In the midst of the Boer Wars, around 30,000 native Africans were employed by the British as soldiers, the other natives forced to conduct labor and transportation for the war effort. When the Empire enacted the scorched-earth policy between 1901 and 1902, the British burned the homes of more than 30,000 farms in the South African Republic and Orange Free State, as well as native Africans in reply to their resistance. Thousands of native Africans and Boers died at the hands of the British Empire while they improved the land and social structure of the region not for its inhabitants, but for the good and best interests of the Empire.

There was a significant disparity of power within the African tribes, weakening the country as an entire nation. Because of this weakness, the British were able to defeat the natives in battle quite easily, despite the large numbers of Africans against a smaller number of soldiers. Their weaponry was much more advanced, and the unorganized strategies of the African natives made it easy for them to be defeated. When the British came in to colonize South Africa, they stepped into a region that was embedded in chaos, disunity, and immense opposition within internal social structures. Through the ideals of Livingstone and other missionaries, they perceived this as an opportunity to repair the broken nature of the country, but as the needs and conditions of the Empire shifted, this became one of the biggest advantages to the British when taking and maintaining control.

There was, of course, tribal resistance to imperialism, but due to the disunity, the attacks were unorganized and sloppy in execution, resulting in an absolute slaying of African natives, as their spears were no match for the guns and ammunition of the Empire. One of the instances that were successful, however, was when the Zulu nation in South Africa unified themselves with other tribes to create an army full of warriors against the British Empire. Although the British took a profound defeat at the hands of the Zulu, due to underestimation of the natives, and a lack of preparation for the unified and coordinated attack, they still managed to regain strength and break apart the Zulu tribe at the Battle of Rorke's Drift. Despite the Zulu victory, the native African kingdoms and tribes were in too much disarray to face the immense power of the Empire. As a result, the British treated the natives as disposable functions of labor both before and after the Boer Wars, and were held in such a low regard as an inferior race, that they were thrown aside to deal with the real threat of the Afrikaners, intruding on their land in order to satiate their fear of losing India and their status as an Empire.

There was a strong native African presence in these wars despite the misconception that the Anglo-Boer War was a white man’s war, as the Africans engaged in combat alongside the British, oftentimes enlisting and forcing the natives to fight in the brutal battles of the war. During the Boer Wars, the British army set up several concentration camps in which 100,000 Africans were held there along with the Boers. The natives were caught in the middle of this brutal war, and families of women and children were herded into the concentration camps along with the Boers. The intention of these camps was to provide habitation for those who no longer had viable areas to live, as their homes were destroyed as collateral in the war by the British.

Despite this initial intention, the camps soon became stations set for labor in which Africans were forced to do work for the British army, one of those positions of labor being to grow food to feed the militia. Despite these camps becoming the center for agriculture and food, the Africans ate very little and lived in highly populated, diminutive conditions in which up to 20,000 African natives died due to the poor living situation. The sheer state of these camps are a clear indication of inhuman treatment, and racism, and considering the ways in which the Dutch were treated being of the same race, the blacks were treated with even more abuse and injustice.

Both the British and the Boers used the Africans for labor positions, hiring the natives as chefs, drivers, assistants, guards, and scouts in order to gain their aid during the war, as they utilized their labor in order to prepare themselves for battle against the opposing side. They were paid extremely poorly, placed in destitute living conditions that they couldn’t afford with work that they could barely perform. On June 13, 1901, a ranking officer of the militia ordered his militia to shoot both armed and unarmed natives, if convicted of passing information on the Boer actions, movement, or locations along to the British. Soon after, the Boers began shooting Africans on the basis of suspicion of espionage, resulting in numerous native deaths. For a majority of the killings based solely off of suspicion, the Africans were unarmed as non-combatant natives, and were not allowed to carry weapons, unable to defend themselves against the judgment and execution of the Boers and British. A significant number of Africans were shot and killed working as scouts for the British army, with detailed records listing the shootings, as the natives were utilized in a war whose outcome would not benefit them, but only further hinder their civil rights and liberties. An example of these casualties is when Ian Hardnick and Michael Holster, two Africans working as scouts for the British, were captured and killed by a group of Boers on September 15, 1901. The natives were expendable to use when it was convenient, and were treated slightly better than slaves, their voting rights and means of representation void, existing only as means to further protect the Empire from decline and ensuring trade and commercial interests to India and other British colonies.

Under the newly formed regime, race was divided, and the blacks and whites were given their specific reservations of land. The blacks were given a small fraction of the entire land, despite the fact that the native population outnumbered the whites 6:1. The natives living on the land were not considered citizens, as they weren't given rights to vote or the means of any representation. The government held complete control over the land and despite the natives given land to live on, the soil and environment had poor conditions, making it difficult to survive, the living quarters small and shoddy, with an unhealthy amount of residents aggregated in one household. The natives weren't given proper medical care, education, or equal rights, as a complete segregation was enacted between them.

The British Empire’s every action, every political move; every act of industrialization was firmly based on the best interest of the commonwealth, motivated by a fear of decline, and justified by racism and white chauvinism. Despite all the change that the Empire had done, from the restructuring of the political climate to industrialization to the reformation of African culture, their actions were oppressive in nature to both the Boers and especially to the South African natives. The fear of Empire degradation and decline quickly changed the thoughts and actions of the Empire from charity and progressive advancement to monetary greed and self-preservation, resulting in mass genocide, racism, discrimination, and crimes against humanity.


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