The Boer War was a major conflict between Britain and the Boer states of Transvaal and Orange Free State. The Boer War occurred in South Africa from 1899 until 1902 and was a significant event in the later years of British imperialism in Africa. In fact, historians consider the Boer War as a major event in the final years of the Scramble for Africa. Regardless, the Boer War was won by the British in 1902 and resulted in the Union of South Africa. Other nations of the British Empire also participated in the Boer War, including: Australia, Canada and New Zealand.
CAUSES OF THE BOER WAR
As stated above, the Boer War of 1899 was fought between the British Empire and the Boer states of Transvaal and the Orange Free State. In fact, tensions between the British and the Boers increased dramatically in the years leading up to the start of the Boer War. This was due to several factors, but primarily centered on the control of land and differing ways of life.
The Boers were the descendants of the original Dutch colonizers of South Africa. For instance, the first to establish a permanent settlement in South Africa was the Dutch East India Company, which hoped to create a base from which they could support European trading ships that were travelling to Far East of Asia. The Dutch East India Company established the settlement in South Africa in 1652 at the Cape of Good Hope, which is a rocky outcropping on the Southern tip of Africa that is on the side of the Atlantic Ocean. The modern city of Cape Town, South Africa is located at the Cape of Good Hope.
The Dutch Cape Colony continued to expand throughout the 1700s and became incredibly diverse, but was primarily based on the culture and practices of the early Dutch settlers. Furthermore, The Dutch Cape Colony carried on until the late 1700s when British colonization in the region began. In fact, Britain was the most dominant European empire in all of Africa.
The British gained control over the Cape Colony in the early 1800s, following the bankruptcy of the Dutch East India Company and several significant battles, such as the Battle of Blaauwberg in 1806. Regardless, Britain’s control over the Cape Colony in South Africa was first recognized as part of the Congress of Vienna in 1815. The British takeover of South Africa created deep tensions in the region between the original Dutch settlers and the new British immigrants.
Almost immediately after gaining control over the Cape Colony in 1815, Britain began promoting their own settlers to move into the colony. This resulted in a wave of British immigrants moving to South Africa and led to British colonization of the region. The British government also created new policies for the colony, including the use of English over Dutch and the abolition of slavery in the Cape Colony. This caused frustration among the original Dutch settlers, who resented the new wave of immigrants. In fact, it eventually led to the migration of Dutch settlers to the northeastern interior of South Africa, in an event referred to as the ‘Great Trek’.
The Great Trek first began in 1835 and continued until 1840. During this time, approximately 12,000 Dutch settlers, who were mostly farmers, migrated and created the Boer republics of Transvaal and the Orange Free State. The term ‘Boer’ is used in reference to these Dutch farmers, since the word means ‘farmer’ in Dutch and Afrikaans. ‘Afrikaans’ is a language that emerged in the 17th and 18th centuries in the Dutch-controlled Cape Colony of South Africa. It is based heavily on Dutch but includes other words and sounds from local dialect. The Dutch farmers were also referred to as ‘Voortrekkers’ which has roughly the same meaning as ‘pioneer’.
Regardless, the Boers’ migration northeast from the Cape Colony eventually led Boers established two new independent republics: Transvaal (South African Republic) and the Orange Free State. The Transvaal Republic was established in 1852 and the Orange Free State was established in 1854. For their part, the British continued to support the immigration of British citizens into the territory and made the Cape Colony an official colony of the British Empire. As well, British interests in South Africa expanded as they took control over regions north of the Cape Colony, including the Colony of Natal, which had previously been a Boer colony referred to as Natalia.
Next, the discovery of diamonds and gold in the northern regions of South Africa in the late 19th century, led to British entrepreneurs taking an increased interest in South Africa, including the Boer states of Transvaal and the Orange Free State. The increased rule of the British in South Africa was worrying for the Boers, who felt threatened.
By the 1890s, the conflict between the British and the Dutch had expanded significantly and many of the original Boer settlers had established two new Boer states: Transvaal and the Orange Free State. As such, during Cecil Rhodes’ time as the Prime Minister of the Cape Colony, he oversaw and had to deal with the tensions and growing crisis. In fact, this eventually led to his end as Prime Minister in 1896 with the failed Jameson Raid.
The Jameson Raid took place from December 29th, 1895 until January 2nd, 1896. In short, the raid was carried out by British colonial administrator Leander Jameson and troops from Cecil Rhodes' British South Africa Company, against the Transvaal State. The goal of the raid was to cause an uprising in the Transvaal State in hopes of overthrowing President Paul Kruger and allowing the British to gain control over the region. Instead, the raid was a failure and no uprising ever occurred. As a result, the British authorities, including Cecil Rhodes, were highly embarrassed by the raid. In fact, the embarrassment of the failed raid led to the end of Cecil Rhodes as the Prime Minister, and he resigned just ten days later on January 12th, 1896. Further to this idea, the Jameson Raid also played a role in the outbreak of the Boer War of 1899. For this reason, historians consider the Jameson raid a major cause of the Boer War.
MAJOR EVENTS OF THE BOER WAR
The Boer War unfolded as a series of major events from 1899 until 1902. The war was officially declared on October 2nd, 1899 when Boer forces crossed into the Cape Colony and Natal Colony. The Boers had nearly triple the forces of the British at the start of the war, and as such were much more successful early on. More specifically, the Boers mobilized over 33,000 troops while the British were only able to counter with approximately 13,000. Besides their advantage in numbers, the Boers were also a formidable foe for the British due to their skills with horses and rifles. For example, the Boers were masterful riflemen and hunters. As well, they were accustomed to the terrain of South Africa more so than the British Army. Regardless, the British were able to pull soldiers from across their cast empire and each of the following countries sent soldiers to the Boer War to fight for the British: Australia, Canada, New Zealand, Rhodesia and South Africa.
The first battle of the Boer War was the Battle of Kraaipan, which took place from October 12th to the 13th in 1899. This battle involved hundreds of Boer forces attacking a British garrison and railway near the town of Kraaipan. In just over five hours of fighting, the Boers were able to capture the garrison, along with British prisoners following their surrender.
The Boers carried out several siege’s that spanned the next few months of the Boer War. These included: Siege of Ladysmith, Siege of Mafeking, and the Siege of Kimberley. All three sieges were carried out by the Boers against British-held towns. The Boers used guerilla warfare tactics and artillery shelling in their attack against these towns. With that said, the Boer sieges were not successful, and the British were able to withstand the assaults. In fact, in some cases the warfare of the sieges became a stalemate of trench warfare. For instance, trenches were used throughout the Siege of Mafeking, which extended from October 13th, 1899 to May 17th,1900. In general, this early Boer strategy of besieging British-held positions proved to be a failure since they lacked a larger strategy for the overall Boer War. In fact, historians have argued that it allowed the British time to send more forces to South Africa.
British reinforcements arrived in South Africa in February of 1899 under the leadership of British commander Sir Redvers Henry Buller. While the British reinforcements led to some initial victories for Britain, the Boers were able to hold then own due to their modern weaponry. For instance, the Boers made use of the Krupp Field Gun and Mauser rifle. The Mauser was a bolt action rifle that proved to be an excellent weapon for the Boers and often outmatched the British rifles of the time. For instance, December of 1899 was a devastating period for the British in the Boer War. More specifically, December 10th to the 17th in 1899 is referred to as the ‘Black Week’ in reference to major British losses during that time against the Boers. In fact, during this time the Boers defeated the British at the Battle of Stormberg, Battle of Magersfontein and the Battle of Colenso. The losses for the British resulted in a total of 2,776 British soldiers killed.
The losses suffered by the British pushed them to send more reinforcements to South Africa. For instance, by January in 1900, the British had 180,000 soldiers stationed in the regions, which made it the largest force that Britain had ever sent overseas to this point. Frederick Sleigh Roberts replaced Sir Redvers Henry Buller as the commander of the British forces in South Africa, and Roberts set straight away to push back against the Boer sieges on British garrisons.
Roberts organized the British forces and pushed them north to relieve Mafeking, following the siege there by Boers in 1899. The British were able to easily overpower the Boers due to their overwhelming numbers, which sent the Boer forces into retreat. Following a series of successful battles including the Battle of Poplar Grove on March 7th, 1900, the British were able to capture and maintain control of the Orange Free State. The former Boer state was renamed the ‘Orange River Colony’ on May 28th and held under British command.
Next, the British pushed their forces into the Transvaal region and captured its capital, Pretoria, on June 5th, 1900. The Boers present in Pretoria surrendered the city to the British, due to a lack of forces and little to no defenses. Roberts declared the war over on September 3rd, 1900 and annexed the Transvaal State (also known as the South African Republic). While the British believed the war to be over, the Boer leadership regrouped and planned a new phase for the war based on guerrilla warfare.
In general, guerrilla warfare is a different type of fighting compared to more formal war. For instance, in guerrilla warfare, the attackers use surprise and irregular troop movements to overwhelm their enemy in smaller conflicts. During the later phase of the Boer War, the Boers used guerrilla warfare to attack railway lines, and storage facilities of supplies. While the Boers were vastly outnumbered and overpowered by the British forces, they hoped to use the guerrilla tactics to damage British war efforts. For example, they targeted transportation routes and supply lines. This strategy was successful for the Boers at first, and allowed them to maintain a certain level of control over areas in South Africa. In fact, the British were annoyed by the quick and surprise attacks by the Boers, and were unable to effectively respond to them.
In response to the Boer guerrilla attacks, the British reinforced their hold on the territory of South Africa through a system of ‘blockhouses’. Blockhouses were small fortified structures that allowed the British to maintain control over important transportation sectors of South Africa. Typically, between 6 to 8 soldiers lived in the blockhouse and used it as a base from which they protected British interests in the area. In all, it is estimated that British built as many as 8000 blockhouses across South Africa at the time. The blockhouses allowed the British to more easily divide the territory and watch for Boer guerrilla attacks.
Another strategy used by the British during this time was a ‘scorched earth’ policy. In short, a ‘scorched earth’ policy is a military strategy in which anything that may be useful to the enemy is destroyed. The British deployed the use of a scorched earth policy in response to the guerrilla warfare tactics of the Boers. Since the British were unable to adequately identify and attack the Boers, the British forces responded by burning and destroying Boer-owned properties. They did this in hopes of ruining hiding places and supply stores for the Boers. However, this strategy by the British led to horrible outcomes for thousands of Boers and Africans. First, many South African people lost their farms, homes and livelihoods. Second, the British established concentration camps to intern thousands of people. These camps had terrible conditions and caused the awful treatment of the people it contained.
The British concentration camps of the Boer War were tent camps that were first used for refugees displaced by the ongoing Boer War. However, as time passed, the camps were used to intern Boers and Africans that were considered hostile towards the British efforts in South Africa. More specifically, the camps were usually used for women and child because most of the interned men were sent overseas. The Boer and African prisoners suffered terrible treatment in the concentration camps, with many dying from disease and malnutrition. In all, there was 45 camps for the Boers and another 64 for the Africans. It is estimated that as many as 26,000 women and child died in the camps. The British were widely criticized for their inhumane treatment of people in the camps. In fact, Emily Hobhouse, who was a British feminist and pacifist, famously campaigned for improved conditions in the camps and brought the issue to the attention of the British public.
END & SIGNIFICANCE OF THE BOER WAR
The Boer War continued throughout the first years of the 20th century with Boer guerrilla warfare and British countermeasures. While the Boers mounted a respectable fight, British victory was obvious due to their overwhelming strength and power. As such, the final Boer fighters surrendered in May of 1902. The war was officially over the with signing of the Treaty of Vereeniging signed on May 31st, 1902. The terms of the treaty allowed the Boers some form of self-government but also eliminated the previous Boer states. The Union of South Africa became a dominion of the British Empire in 1910.
In the end, the Boer War was a devastating conflict at the height of European imperialism in Africa. As a result, historians view the Boer War as an example of European colonialism and the conflicts that emerge as a result. The war led to the deaths of approximately 22,000 British (including colonial armies such as: Australia, Canada, New Zealand, Rhodesia and South Africa) and over 6,000 Boer commandos. Thousands more were casualties of the conflict, with civilians suffering terribly from war, disease and concentration camps.