The people of South Africa were always dreaming of a unified country. They wanted all its states to unite as one peaceful country, but they wanted this to come from within the confines of their own people and not by means of other countries taking over. The only way to keep the outsiders out of their states was to unify the country. If this goal could be accomplished, then their country would become one great nation united by their own South African flag instead of any other flag. This seemed to be the motive of South African authorities at the time the Britain armies were conquering and colonizing other lands. However, there was one obstacle that seemed to be in their way of unification. The British government was at that time a barrier and a stumbling block to the Boers; a stumbling block that was not so easy to get rid of. The British army and navy were among the best and well-trained soldiers during the 19th century. Because the South African army was not as advanced as the British soldiers, they were very much threatened by the government of Britain.
In 1886, the discovery of gold at Witwatersrand in the Transvaal began the doom of the Boer pioneers. Gold and diamonds attracted many foreigners like a magnet. Around this time, British adventurers sought to make a good living in South Africa because of these newfound treasures and market opportunities. Among these adventurers, were Alfred Beit, a well-known businessman from Germany, and a millionaire from England namely Lionel Phillips. These two prominent men were important figures during this period because of their ability to provide financial support if needed by the British government to back up any of its troops. Beit and Phillips together controlled the H. Eckstein & Co., which at that time was the largest South African mining business. Few years after the discovery of the gold, the Boers sensed that there was something wrong with some of the adventurers. Mark Weber, in his article, put it in his own words:
...adventurers tried to seize control of the Boer republics by staging the 'unofficial' Jameson raid into the Transvaal. Rhodes organized the venture, which Beit financed to the tune of 200,000 pounds. Although the raid failed, it convinced the Boers that the British were determined to take away their hard-won independence. (2)
As a result, the Transvaal authorities arrested Phillips because of his contribution to the raid and found him guilty. If it weren't for British protestors begging for his pardon, he would have been put to death.
Despite the raid, the British High Commissioner for South Africa, Sir Alfred Milner, secretly planned a destructive war against the Boers. Michael Foot, author of From the Boer War to the Cold War, said that Milner had a dream of his own new South Africa, but his dream became a nightmare when negotiations started. He said, "Milner was a great administrator, but no statesman and no diplomatist. He hated inefficiency and delay; most of all, he hated compromise" (37). Of course, this attitude was probably also consistent with the president of South Africa. Weber commented on this when he said that Milner wanted a war that would bring the richness of the Boers completely to the British Empire (2). It seemed pretty clear that Milner's motive for this conflict was to control these newly discovered gold mines.
The British Commissioner did not want to make his plan known to the public for fear of more protests. He quietly tried to negotiate with the president of South Africa at the time, President Paul Kruger. Alfred Milner knew that the majority of the outlanders were British living as foreigners in South Africa. He then devised a plan in which the British new comers could get citizenship in a shorter period of time. He knew that it would help him out politically, but more importantly, he knew there was money to be made and political popularity to be gained off of these new comers. The foreigners were all somehow financially stable regardless of their unfair treatment by the South African government, and could therefore support Milner's campaign. A. Conan Doyle in his book, The Great Boer War, explained the prosperity of the outlanders in his own words,
" . . .in spite of this prosperity which they had brought, they, the majority of the inhabitants of the country, were left without a vote, and could by no means influence the disposal of the great sums which they were providing. Such a case of taxation without representation has never been known" (Doyle 24). This representation was what Milner asked from President Kruger. However, knowing that the number of outlanders would exceed the total number of their own population he angrily refused it. Weber quoted Kruger when he said, "It is our country you want"(2). The negotiations lingered on, but finally broke down with no peaceful agreement. This seemed to favor Milner because he wanted to avoid any peaceful compromise between the two sides. The British commander, Lord Kitchener, knew that the Boers were afraid of being controlled by the empire because of their lack of a greater military power.
The conflict was finally exposed to the British public by some of the leading newspapers, especially those that were owned by imperialists. In these newspapers there was a clear indication that the British authorities were pushing for war. Some of these papers were The Daily Telegraph, Oppenheim's Daily News, and Mark's Evening News. Even some of the leaders in Britain criticized those that were supporting Lord Kitchener back in South Africa. Weber mentioned this in his article
The Social Democratic Federation(SDF), led by Henry M. Hyndman, was especially outspoken in its opposition to the war preparations. Justice, the SDF weekly, warned its readers in 1896 that 'Beit, Barnato and their fellows' were aiming for 'an Anglo-Hebraic Empire in Africa stretching from Egypt to Cape Colony,' designed to swell their 'overgrown fortunes. (2)
While the negotiation was underway, Lord Kitchener, with the help of Wernher, Beit and Co. secretly financed an army of about 1500, which later grew to ten thousand. The negotiation was not over yet but the Secretary for the British colonies, Secretary Chamberlain, was getting very impatient. The negotiation was described by Thomas Pakenham in his book entitled, The Boer War, he said, "The only way to make him [Kruger] disgorge the franchise was to put a pistol to his head . . . the longer Kruger delayed, the higher the price he must pay for a settlement"(Pakenham 91). The British officials tried earnestly to approve the five-year franchise, but unfortunately Kruger saw it as a scheme to try to steal his country's independence and therefore rejected it. The two sides could not come to an agreement with each other, and as a result of British aggression, the Boers declared war.
On the 11th of October 1899, after Britain failed to comply with the order to remove its troops, the South African Republic and the Orange Free State took advances to start a battle against Great Britain. The combined forces of the two republics had a successful invasion in the two British colonies on their borders, namely Natal and the Cape of Colony. In December of 1899, the British commander in chief, Sir Redvers Buller, and his men were defeated on the Natal front. He was again defeated on the border between the Orange Free State and the Cape Colony. This upset the leaders back in Britain, so they sent Lord Fredrick Sleigh Roberts, the new commander in chief for the South African field force, to replace Buller. His men fought hard and were be able to break through the Boers defense in Natal. After breaking through Natal, Roberts continued on and captured Johannesburg and Pretoria, the capital of the South African Republic, on 5th of June1900. At this time Sir Roberts thought that the war was well taken care of and so he returned to England.
Unfortunately, it was not over yet. The Boers, who had believed that they were fighting for a greater cause, resorted to guerrilla warfare. They broke up into smaller groups and destroyed the British supplies, disconnected the railway tracks, and ventured to take over the small British units.
Leonard Thompson in his book A History of South Africa, explained how Roberts's successor responded when he said, "To crush this resistance, . . .Lord Kitchener, adopted the scorched earth policy that imperial troops and Afrikaner commandos had been accustomed to using against Africans. He burned Afrikaner crops and destroyed thirty thousand farmsteads . . . "(Thompson 142-43). Moreover, others said that the new warlord, Lord Kitchener, had declared a war of total destruction. As explained in the source "South African Yearbook", "This conflict involved the entire population of South Africa in one way or another. Boer women and children, who were evicted from farms or villages put to the torch by the British, were either sent to concentration camps where many of them died from disease . . . " (1). These factors describes how merciless Kitchener was.
To some people, it seemed as though the war was not against men and soldiers, but instead it was against women and children. The British armies drove thousands of women and children out of their homes. They did not have enough time to remove any of their valuable possessions before the British soldiers burned down their homes. A future Prime Minister, Henry Campbell-Bannerman, once touched on this matter when he said, "When is a war not a war? When it is waged in South Africa by methods of barbarism"(Weber 4). It is clear that some of the prominent members of the British government knew that Milner was wrong. But why did they let it happen?
Many people suffered as a consequence of Milner's selfish actions. In his book, A History of South Africa, Leonard Thompson said that about twenty-eight thousand civilians suffered from this terrible tragedy. Most of them were children who died from diseases caused by an overcrowded environment in the concentration camps. He also mentioned that the Boer army had declined due to some illnesses and lack of nourishing food. He said that President Kruger traveled to Europe where he died before he had a chance to see his native people again (143).
After this massive destruction from the British troops, the Boers decided to back off because they knew that the war would ultimately cost them the lives of all their children, wives, animals, and their crops. There did not seem to be another way out except to sacrifice their independence.
On 31 of May 1902, just before midnight, the two parties signed the peace treaty known as the "Treaty of Vereeniging". Thomas Pakenham made a comment on this when he said,
The vote was taken in the great marque at Vereeniging, soon after 2.00 p.m. on Saturday 31st May. A motion was drafted, summing up the six main reasons why the governments must accept the British terms: no food for women and children, and no means to continue the war; the concentration camps (this was for propaganda purposes) . . .The delegates voted for Kitchener's peace by an overwhelming majority: fifty-four to six. (603-604)
Even though the Boers fought hard to preserve their land and their country, they could not escape from defeat. Fortunately for the Boers, Britain thought that they should also have part of the wealth from war compensation. The two sides talked it over and came to yet another dead end. The two sides simply went to war to solve a disagreement when instead they acquired many casualties.
After the war, the Boers were forced to sign the peace agreement. It was a costly war especially for the British because they did not expect the war to last for three years. Pakenham summarized this when he said, " . . . Milner's little 'Armageddon', which was expected to be over by Christmas 1899, had cost the British taxpayer more than $200 million. The cost in blood was equally high" (607). The cost of war to the Boers was much more because of all the fatalities, loss of good land, and loss of any military power. Pakenham explained in his book, "On the Boer side, the cost of the war, measured in suffering, was perhaps absolutely as high; relatively, much higher. It was estimated that there were over 7,000 deaths among the 87,365 Boer . . ." (607). However, these statistics did not include the number of women and children who died in the concentration camps.
One may have asked what was the real cause of the Boer War? Some have suggested that it was because of Sir Alfred Milner; some have said it was because President Kruger was a stubborn leader, and some claimed that it was because of the gold. At any rate, the war caused was a war that was unnecessary. Just because two sides could not negotiate a fair settlement, war became the only solution. This was hardly a fair outcome because as we all know, whoever has the most money, wins. Britain was the strongest world power, and was colonizing very rapidly. The more colonies they possessed, the more money they were able to acquire. The Boers were, unfortunately, no match for the British. This simple fact is what made the Boers so upset when they lost; they didn't back down because they knew what was fair. Britain never backed down because they knew who would always prevail. The Boer War is a prime example of British attitudes in the 18th century. Of course, the British government never heeded those that opposed the war, and those that supported the war were somehow made to believe that Britain was at the center of the universe. Although people were suffering, the British just included it as one of their victories over another country, but the Boers included it as the single greatest tragedy that ever swept over their land.
Doyle, A. Conan. The Great Boer War. New York: McClure, Phillips & Company, 1900.
Pakenham, Thomas. The Boer War. New York: Random House, 1979.
South Africa. "The South African Yearbook." Government. 7 Feb. 1999. 30 May 2000
Taylor, A.J.P. From the Boer War to the Cold War. London: Penguin,1996.
Thompson, Leonard. A History of South Africa. Revised ed. New Haven and London:
Weber, Mark. "The Boer War Remembered." Research Paper. 30 May. 2000