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The Boer Republics AND British Rule

The First Anglo-Boer War 1881-1882

The Boer Republics were primarily agriculturally based, and also, compared to the British ruled Cape, comparatively poor. The discovery of diamonds in the interior - in a region claimed by both the British and Boers, called Griqualand West, caused a fresh wave of White immigration from Europe, mainly British but also small numbers from other European nations, including a group of European Jews who were soon to wield great influence in the affairs of the region.

The influx of British settlers caused the already strained relations between the Boer Republics and the British to deteriorate. The Boers were not only politically weak but also militarily divided, with the result that the British were able to annex the Transvaal Republic in 1877 with a tiny force which met no resistance at all.

Within a few days, the British flag was hoisted in the Transvaal capital, Pretoria, (named after the Boer leader at the battle of Blood River) and British rule was extended into the interior without a shot being fired.

It took three years and a Herculean effort on the part of three young Boer leaders to organize their people and to motivate them into fighting the British occupation of the Transvaal: eventually in 1881, a Boer rebellion finally broke out. The British were unexpectedly badly beaten by a Boer army at the battle of Majuba in February 1881, and the British then announced that they were prepared to restore self-government to the Transvaal. One of the young Boer leaders of the rebellion, Paul Kruger, was elected president of the once again independent Boer republic in 1883.

The British Race War with the Zulus

The British had in the interim found themselves plunged into the race war which the Zulus had started against the White Boers. In 1872, the White population of Natal was put at 17,500 - while the Zulu population was estimated at some 300,000; with the Indian laborers, who had come to the country voluntarily and who were paid for their labor, numbering some 5,800.

Above: Lieutenants Coghil and Melville die trying to save the Colors of the British 24th Regiment after the Zulu victory at Isandhlwana. The Colors were never found.

In the eyes of the Zulus however, the White British were no better than the White Boers: both were invaders. The presence of the Indians was also resented by the Zulus, creating a tension between these racial groups which was to sputter on for over a century, with a great Zulu-on-Indian massacre occurring in 1948.

In 1878, the Zulu king, Cetshwayo, assembled an army estimated at 60,000, with obvious intent of attacking the Whites in Natal. The British were aware of his intentions, and on 12 January 1879, White British troops formally invaded Zululand with the intention of forcing the Black army to disband.

On 22 January, around 20,000 Zulu warriors crept up on British soldiers camped at an isolated place called Isandhlwana. By the afternoon, after a fierce battle, the Whites had been all but wiped out - 1500 White soldiers had been killed, with only six surviving out of the entire regiment. Later on the same day, a force of about 4,000 Zulus attacked the small British outpost of about 140 soldiers at Rorke's Drift, expecting a swift victory. Hours of bitter hand-to-hand fighting followed, and the Blacks were eventually defeated, being forced to retreat with heavy losses. It was not until 29 March at the Battle of Khambula, that the tide finally turned in favor of the British, and in July 1879 that the Zulus were beaten at the Battle of Ulundi, a defeat which finally broke their power.

The British found, to their anger, that the Zulus had acquired White firearms, despite official measures and laws making it illegal to provide Blacks with firearms - it later turned out that individual Boers had supplied the Zulus with weapons in the (correct) hope that they would use them against the British.

Second Boer Republic in Natal

In the far north of Natal, in land previously agreed as belonging to the Zulus, a small Boer population established themselves after providing military assistance to one of the Zulu factions which came to dominance in Zulu politics: this republic of Northern Natal was eventually to join up with the larger Boer Republic of the Transvaal, giving the latter access to the coast for the first time.

The Second Anglo-Boer War 1899-1902

The discovery of gold in the southern Transvaal in 1886, caused a new wave of British and European Jewish immigrants to come flooding into the Transvaal. The number of immigrants swelled: in certain areas like Johannesburg, the city founded at the center of the gold bearing reef, British and other non-Boer elements greatly outnumbered the Boer population.

The Boer Republic refused to grant the new immigrants voting rights, correctly foreseeing the loss of political power, and this "Uitlander" ('Foreigner") question was to serve as the spark for the Second Anglo-Boer war of 1889 - 1902, the one that is most often remembered in the annals of history.

After protracted negotiations between the British government at the Cape, headed by one Cecil John Rhodes, and the Boer president, Paul Kruger broke down, a small Uitlander rebellion broke out in Johannesburg. Simultaneously a small private English militia under the leadership of one of Rhode's adjutants, actually invaded the Transvaal Republic. The invasion and rebellion were quickly suppressed by the Boer forces, but the die had been cast; war between the Boer Republics and the British was thereafter inevitable.

Boers Strike First

Sensing that war was near, the British began moving troops up to the borders of the Orange Free State and Transvaal Republics, and started preparations to ship out further troops from Britain. The Transvaal President, Kruger, sent an ultimatum to the British administration in the Cape to stop the troop build up or the Boers would regard it as an act of war (which it of course was).

The British ignored the ultimatum, and in October 1899, the Boers went over to the offensive, launching two pronged invasions in British ruled Natal and the Northern Cape. The White population figures of the Boer Republics at this stage of the proceedings make interesting reading: in total the White population of the Transvaal and Orange Free States State was just over 200,000, and together with 2,000 Boer sympathizers recruited from Natal and the Cape, the Boer armed forces in total were never more than 52,000 at any one stage in the three year war which followed.

The British in the other hand had 176,000 soldiers alone in the Cape by the end of 1899, and by the end of the war itself had deployed 478,725 soldiers in the field: nearly twice as many military personnel as the entire Boer population, men, women and children included.

Initial British Defeats

At first the war went well for the Boers: several British defeats followed one another in quick succession, created by the skillful use of trenches by the Boers and unconventional mobile tactics. Another advantage, exploited to the hilt by the Boers, was their modern semi-automatic Mauser rifles - a gift from the German Kaiser - while the British still had manual loading Lee-Enfield rifles as their main infantry armament.

The Boers laid siege to three towns inside British held territory: Mafikeng and Kimberley in the Northern Cape and Ladysmith in Natal. It was however in besieging these three towns that the Boers lost their chance of winning the war. Initially the plan had been to strike down into Natal and seize the port of Durban, whilst simultaneously seizing the large ports in the Cape (Port Elizabeth and eventually Cape Town itself) thereby preventing the British from sending in more troops.

However, the main Boer force became bogged down besieging what were in reality relatively unimportant military targets, and the British were able to land many thousands of troops in the country unmolested.

Inevitable British Victories due to overwhelming numbers

Eventually the sieges of all three towns were lifted and the British then pressed home their military superiority, occupying Bloemfontein, the capital of the Orange Free State, and Pretoria, the capital of the Transvaal, in quick succession.

The British then expected the Boers to surrender after the fall of their major cities: but instead the remaining Boer forces - now numbering only some 26,000 - started a hit and run guerrilla war which was to last from 1900 to 1902. Operating in the open veld, the Boer guerrillas could rely on provisions and support from the rural Boer community, and as a result the British occupation only extended as far as the range of their guns: as soon as they moved out an area it was quickly re-occupied by Boers, who then waged a highly effective campaign of sabotage and raids against British columns.

Scorched Earth and Concentration Camps

By mid 1900, the Second Anglo-Boer War had been raging for well over a year: the overwhelming British force had occupied all the major towns and centers of the Boer Republics of the Orange Free State and the Transvaal, and the Boers had been forced to resort to hit and run guerrilla tactics in the open veld.

The Boers continued to inflict defeats upon the British in this way: so much so that eventually the war was to cost the British government £191 000 000 (191 million Pounds - a fortune by 1901 standards, and many hundred times that amount today).

By mid 1900, however, the British had become exasperated with the military situation: the Boers seemed to be able operate with impunity in the veld: a new course of action was decided upon. In the last months of 1900, the British began to build what eventually became 45 separate concentration camps, established to systematically remove women and children from their farms to prevent them aiding and supplying the Boer soldiers ("burgers") in the field.

The British ironically justified rounding up thousands of women and children - something unprecedented before in any other war which the British Empire had fought - in a memorandum issued by the British commander, General Kitchener, on 21 December 1900. In the memorandum issued at his headquarters in Pretoria, Kitchener explained the rounding up of the women was to protect them from the Blacks (!), stating that "seeing the unprotected state of women now living in the districts, this course is desirable to assure their not being insulted or molested by natives." (Circular Memorandum No. 29, from the archives of the Military Governor, Pretoria; as quoted in "To the Bitter End: A Photographic History of the Boer War 1899 - 1902," Emanoel Lee, Penguin Books, Harmondsworth, Middlesex, England, 1985; page 163).

Kitchener was very clear that this was a war against the White Boers, and not the Blacks. The exact language he used in the 21 December 1900 memorandum may seem antiquated, but it reflects not only the style of the time but also the deliberate policy of causing as much damage as possible to the Whites and as little damage as possible to the Blacks: "With regard to the natives, it is not intended to clear Kaffir locations but only such Kaffirs and their stock as are on Boer farms. Every endeavor should be made to cause as little loss as possible to the natives removed and to give them protection when brought in. They will be available for any works undertaken, for which they will receive pay at native rates." (Circular Memorandum No. 29, from the archives of the Military Governor, Pretoria; as quoted in "To the Bitter End: A Photographic History of the Boer War 1899 - 1902," Emanoel Lee, Penguin Books, Harmondsworth, Middlesex, England, 1985; page 163).

So it was that the British started not only rounding up as many Boer women and children as they could, but also destroying the farms, their only source of survival. The evacuation of the farms was accompanied by the burning and dynamiting of all farm houses and buildings. Poultry, sheep and cattle were slaughtered, the houses looted and all fruit trees, grain or other crops burned down. This is not to say that all the British undertook this task with relish: many ordinary British soldiers were themselves appalled at what they were ordered to do. This revealing insight into how the farms were cleared comes from a soldier who took part in such an operation:

". . . (O)nly the women are left. Of these, there are often three or four generations: grandmother, mother and family of girls. The boys over thirteen or fourteen are usually fighting with their papas. The people are disconcertingly like the English, especially the girls and the children - fair and big and healthy looking. These folk we invite out into the veldt or into the little garden in the front, where they huddle together in their cotton frocks and big sunbonnets, while our men set fire to the house . . . Sometimes they entreat that it may be spared, and once or twice in an agony of rage they have invoked curses on our heads. But this is quite the exception, as a rule they make no sign, and simply look on and say nothing. One young women at the farm yesterday . . . went into a fit of hysterics when she saw the flames breaking out, and finally fainted away.'

"I wish I had my camera. Unfortunately it got damaged and I have not been able to take any photographs. These farms would make a good subject. They are dry and burn well. The fire bursts out of windows and doors with a loud roaring, and black volumes of smoke roll overhead. The women, in a little group, cling together, comforting each other or holding their faces in each others' laps. . . . while on the top of the nearest high ground, a party of men, rifles in hand, guard against a surprise from the enemy, a few of whom can generally be seen in the distance watching the destruction of their homes."
(LW Phillips, "With Rimmington", Edward Arnold, London, 1902).

From the victims' point of view, the removals were bewildering and terrifying. This extract from the diary of Alie Badenhorst, translated by Emily Hobhouse, reveals the panic and fear which accompanied these removals:

"I packed, and took bedding and tried to pack that also, but I was so crushed I did not know what I was doing, and they (the British) kept saying 'quick, quick' so I gathered a few necessities together and thus was I driven forth from my home. It was the 15th April 1901 never to be forgotten. My children cried; the two youngest boys were pale as death and held me fast; the little one kept crying for his chickens. I had to give him courage; and so we were carried, all of us, away." (Alida Badenhorst, translated E, Hobhouse, "Tant Alie of Transvaal: Her Diary 1880-1902", George Allen and Unwin, London, 1923).

Filson Young of the Manchester Guardian wrote an account of the actions as follows:

"...(T)he burning of the houses that has gone on this afternoon has been a most unpleasant business . . . in the course of about ten miles we have burned no fewer than six farmhouses. . . . in one melancholy case the wife of an insurgent, who was lying sick in a friend's farm, watched from her sick husband's bedside during the burning of her home 100 yards away. I cannot think what punishment need take this wild form; it seems as though a kind of domestic murder were being committed while one watches the roof and furniture of a house blazing . . . I stood till late last night before the red blaze and saw the flames lick around each piece of furniture - the chairs and tables, the baby's cradle, the chest of drawers containing a world of treasure; and when I saw the poor housewife's face pressed against the window of the neighboring house, my own heart burned with a sense of outrage." (F Young, "The Relief of Mafeking", Methuen, London, 1900).

Transported in open wagons, and sometimes in open flatbed trains, the Boer women and children so evacuated were taken to the camps which were scattered all over the country, from Howick in Natal through to Kroonstad in the Orange Free State. The terrain upon which the camps had been built was poorly chosen: exposed to the elements and under supplied. Too many people were assembled in too short a time without adequate preparation. The administrative personnel and medical services were inadequate, the rations unsatisfactory; there were dishonest contractors and inefficient officials who were unable to cope with the epidemic of measles and pneumonia which broke out. The wave of evacuees soon overwhelmed the inadequate preparations the British had taken. In December 1900, Milner, the Governor general of the Cape Colony, wrote:

"We were suddenly confronted with a problem . . . which it was beyond our power to properly grapple, and no doubt its vastness was not realized soon enough. The first of the suffering resulted from inadequate accommodation, it was originally meant to house the refugees in wooden shelters, but there was not sufficient material for enough of them to be made." (SB Spies, "Roberts and Kitchener and Civilians in the Boer Republics, January 1900 to May 1902", D.Phil. thesis, University of the Wtwatersrand, 1973, as quoted in "To The Bitter End: A Photographic History of Boer War 1899 - 1902", Emanoel Lee, Penguin Books, Harmondsworth, Middlesex, England, 1985; page 177).

Internee Alie Badenhorst described the conditions in the camps so:

"...(O)ne had to make little fireplaces in front of the tents - tents that must serve as sitting room, pantry, bedroom and dining room in one, and they were of a size that were but one small bed and a table therein, there was no room to turn; and then there were a number of children as well! Most of the poor women had not even brought a bedstead with them because they were seized in such haste."

"When we came, the women received eatables three times a week. Tuesday, meat; Wednesday, meal, sugar coffee, salt; and on Saturday, again meat. The food stores were not near the camp, quite ten minutes walk, and they had to carry it all. For each person there was 7lbs of meal a week, no green food and no variety; the sugar was that black stuff we would have given our horses on the farm to stop worms . . . the coffee was some mixture, no-one could rightly say what coffee it was, some said acorns, others dried peas - but it was all a very sore trial for us to bear, we, who were so used to good food, vegetables, milk and mealies." (Alida Badenhorst, translated E. Hobhouse, "Tant Alie of Transvaal: Her Diary 1880-1902", George Allen and Unwin, London, 1923).

The winter of 1901 was particularly severe: even British troops in the field froze to death. In the camps, the damp and cold conditions played havoc amongst the tents: sickness began to spread amongst the children, and soon reached the adults. The death toll began to mount dramatically: the camp at Brandfort had the highest death rate during the worst months.

Alie Badenhorst wrote: "Worst of all, because of the poor food, and having only one kind of food without vegetables, there came a sort of scurvy amongst our people. They got a sore mouth, and a dreadful smell with it; in some cases the palate fell out and the teeth, and some of the children were full of holes or sores in the mouth. And then they died . . . the mothers could never get them anything . . . there were vegetables to be bought outside, but the head of the camp was strict and did not allow them to go out of the camp . . . For it was this day, the 1st December, that old Tant Hannie died . . . I never thought with my eyes to see such misery . . . tents emptied by death.

"I went one day to the hospital and there lay a child of nine years to wrestle alone with death. I asked where could I find the child's mother. The answer was that the mother died a week before, and the father is in Ceylon (a prisoner of war) and that very morning her sister of 11 died. I pitied the poor little sufferer as I looked upon her . . . there was not even a tear in my own eyes, for weep I could no more. I stood beside her and watched until a stupefying grief overwhelmed my soul . . . O God, be merciful and wipe us not from the face of the earth." (Alida Badenhorst, translated E. Hobhouse, "Tant Alie of Transvaal: Her Diary 1880-1902", George Allen and Unwin, London, 1923).

Above and below: The Boer Holocaust: Boer children, emaciated through disease, photographed in British concentration camps in South Africa, 1900-1902. Eventually 27,927 women and children were to die in this way.

Up to October 1901, the number of inmates in the 45 camps increased to 118 000 Whites and 43 000 non-Whites. The death rate was 344 per thousand amongst the Whites; at one stage in the Kroonstad camp the death rate was 878 per thousand.

Eventually 27,927 Boers died in the camps, of whom 4177 were adult women and 22,074 were children under the age of 16. Since the entire Boer population in both republics was just over 200,000, the mortality rate meant that just under 15 percent of the entire Boer population was wiped out. Such a figure is of genocidal proportions.

These figures are even more revealing when the actual combat fatalities for the entire war are reviewed: some 7091 British soldiers died, while on the Boer side some 3990 burgers were killed, with a further 1081 dying of disease or accident in the veld. Twelve percent of Boer deaths were battle related; six percent died from other causes while on commando; 17 percent were adults in the camps and 65 percent were children under the age of 16 years.

It has been estimated that without this loss, the White population of South Africa would have been as much as a third larger than what it eventually became.

Boer Surrender

Although the guerrilla war itself was reasonably successful - with one Boer commando under the able guerrilla leader general, Jan Smuts, raiding so deep in the Cape that they came within sight of Table Mountain in Cape Town - the pressures brought to bear by the concentration camp issue forced them to eventually surrender or face total extermination. In 1902, the Treaty of Vereniging brought the war to an end, and Britain formally annexed the Transvaal and Orange Free State.


Although the Boer Republics had denied citizenship or voting rights to the Blacks, they were not alone in this policy: the British strictly enforced similar policies in their parts of Southern Africa, with the only exception being granted to a small number of Cape Coloreds who could meet very stringent property requirement stipulations.

After occupying the Boer republics, the British actively proposed keeping the Blacks voteless. Segregation was accepted as a perfectly normal and desirable state of affairs, and it was not even considered necessary to make laws in this regard, so universally was the practice accepted. It was not a case of the Blacks being disenfranchised: they had never had the vote, so they were un-enfranchised and remained so.

In this way the administration of the four colonies - the Cape, Natal, the Orange Free State and Transvaal - was carried out exclusively by Whites, with in many cases in the former Boer republics even by former Boer civil servants returning to their pre-war posts.

The Union of South Africa

This policy of keeping the Blacks un-enfranchised was carried over into the next important political development in South Africa: the union of the four colonies in 1910. In 1909, talks were started between the administrations of the four colonies over the idea of union, and after protracted negotiations, the Union of South Africa formally came into being in 1910, a dominion under the British monarch.

A clause in the legislation which created the Union stated that the constitutional position of the Blacks - un-enfranchisement - would remain and could be changed only by a two-thirds majority vote of parliament. Thus it became so that the only non-Whites who had any vote were the handful of Coloreds in the Cape: but even they themselves were prohibited from standing for parliament, and could only vote for White candidates (another law introduced by the British when the Cape was still ruled as a separate colony). These limited voting rights were themselves abolished in the 1950s.

The British also actively kept the Indians out of the political pot by denying them voting rights as well. In addition to all of this, by the time of the Union it had also been de facto accepted that certain regions of the country were dominated by Black tribes and that as a general rule these areas were to be left alone, although in most cases these regions had a White governor over them.

Black Homelands

In this way the territories of Lesotho, Swaziland and Botswana came into being (all British owned territories and carved up on a racial basis: the Tswana Blacks in Botswana, the Sotho Blacks in Lesotho and the Swazi Blacks in Swaziland.)

The other territories, earmarked for Black tribes, were, in exactly the same way, split according to where the majority of each tribe lived: the Xhosas in the Eastern Cape, the Zulus in Natal and so on. These other territories (the Eastern Cape, parts of Natal etc.) were later to be formalized as tribally owned Black homelands - and it remains one of South African history's supreme ironies that the Black tribal homelands created by the British (Lesotho, Swaziland and Botswana) were given perfectly legitimate international status, while the identically created Black tribal homelands given independence by the later White government of South Africa, were rejected as being racist - even by the British government.

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