Background behind the Boar War

The southern part of the African continent was dominated in the 19th century by a set of epic struggles to create within it a single unified state. While the Berlin Conference of 1884-5 sought to draw boundaries between the European powers’ African possessions, it set the stage for further scrambles. The British attempt to annex first the Transvaal in 1880, and then in 1899 both the Transvaal and the Orange Free State, was their biggest incursion into southern Africa, but there were others. In 1868, the British annexed Basutoland in the Drakensberg Mountains following an appeal from Moshesh, the leader of a mixed group of African refugees from the Zulu wars, who sought British protection against the Boers. In the 1880s, Bechuanaland (modern Botswana, located north of the Orange River) became the object of dispute between the Germans to the west, the Boers to the east, and Cape Colony to the south. Although Bechuanaland had no economic value, the “Missionaries Road” passed through it towards territory farther north. After the Germans annexed Damaraland and Namaqualand (modern Namibia) in 1884, the British annexed Bechuanaland in 1885.

“British imperialism, which often stalked its quarry with cultural and commercial feints before finally pulling down its prey through conquest and formal annexation, was for some time frustrated by the presence of the two independent Boer republics. Yet, within little more than a decade and half, the Orange Free State and the Zuid Afrikaansche Republiek had both been subjugated in the course of the bloody South African War of 1899–1902.”[2]

The Boers of the Transvaal Republic had in the 1880-1881 war proved skillful fighters in resisting the British attempt at annexation, causing several costly defeats to the British. The British government of William Gladstone had been unwilling to become bemired in a distant war demanding of substantial troop reinforcement and expense for what was at the time perceived to be minimal return. They had cut their losses, and signed an armistice to end the war, with subsequently a peace treaty with the Transvaal President Paul Kruger.

However when, in 1886, a second major mineral find was made at an outcrop on a large ridge some thirty miles south of the Boer capital at Pretoria, it reignited British imperial interests. By 1899 Britain was again at war with the Boer republics in the Second Boer War, and this time the lure of gold was more than enough for Britain to commit the substantial troops required and keep them fighting, and bear all the cost including the loss of lives, over the three years that it would take.

The ridge, known locally as the “Witwatersrand” (literally “white water ridge”—a watershed) contained the world’s largest deposit of gold-bearing ore. Although it was not as rich as gold finds in Canada and Australia, its consistency made it especially well-suited to industrial mining methods. With the 1886 discovery of gold in Transvaal, thousands of British and other prospectors and settlers streamed over the border from the Cape Colony (annexed by Britain earlier) and from across the globe. The city of Johannesburg sprang up as a shanty town nearly overnight as the uitlanders (foreigners) poured in and settled near the mines. The uitlanders rapidly outnumbered the Boers on the Rand, but remained a minority in the Transvaal as a whole. The Afrikaners, nervous and resentful of the uitlanders’ presence, denied them voting rights and taxed the gold industry. The tax on a box of dynamite was five shillings of the cost of five pounds. These mines consumed vast quantities of explosives and President Paul Kruger gave manufacturing monopoly rights to a non-British operation of the Nobel company, which infuriated the British.[3]

The so-called “dynamite monopoly” became a major pretext for war. However, one of the underlying irritants for war occurred in 1894–95 over the railway and tariffs problems. Kruger wanted to build a railway through Portuguese East Africa to Delagoa Bay, bypassing British controlled ports in Natal and Cape Town and avoiding British tariffs.[4] The Prime Minister of the Cape Colony was Cecil Rhodes, a man with a vision of a British controlled Africa extending from Cape to Cairo. Angered by these problems, the Uitlanders and the British mine owners sought to overthrow the Boer government. In 1895, Cecil Rhodes sponsored the failed coup d’état backed by an armed incursion, the Jameson Raid. Of this raid, Jan C. Smuts wrote in 1906, “The Jameson Raid was the real declaration of war…And that is so in spite of the four years of truce that followed…[the] aggressors consolidated their alliance…the defenders on the other hand silently and grimly prepared for the inevitable.” [5]

Paul Kruger and the President Martinus Theunis Steyn of the Orange Free State both understood that the failed raid was the precursor to a war and commencing in 1896 placed orders for Mauser rifles [6] and German Krupp artillery.

The failure to gain improved rights for Britons became a pretext to manufacture a case for war and to justify a major military buildup in the Cape. The case for war was justified and espoused as far away as the Australian colonies.[7] Several key British colonial leaders favoured annexation of the independent Boer republics. These figures included the Cape Colony governor Sir Alfred Milner, Cape Prime Minister Cecil Rhodes, British Colonial Secretary Joseph Chamberlain and mining syndicate owners or Randlords (nicknamed the gold bugs) such as Alfred Beit, Barney Barnato and Lionel Phillips. Confident that the Boers would be quickly defeated, they planned, schemed and organised to precipitate a war, based on the Uitlanders’ real or imagined grievances.

President Steyn of the Orange Free State invited Milner and Kruger to attend a conference in Bloemfontein which started on 30 May 1899, but negotiations quickly broke down, despite Kruger’s offer of concessions. In September 1899, Chamberlain sent an ultimatum demanding full equality for British citizens resident in Transvaal.

Kruger, seeing that war was inevitable, simultaneously issued his own ultimatum prior to receiving Chamberlain’s. This gave the British 48 hours to withdraw all their troops from the border of Transvaal; otherwise the Transvaal, allied with the Orange Free State, would declare war.

News of the ultimatum reached London on the day it expired. Outrage and laughter were the main responses. The editor of the Times laughed out loud when he read it, saying ‘an official document is seldom amusing and useful yet this was both’. The Times denounced the ultimatum as an ‘extravagant farce’, The Globe denounced this ‘trumpery little state’. Most editorials were similar to the Daily Telegraph, which declared: ‘of course there can only be one answer to this grotesque challenge. Kruger has asked for war and war he must have!’.

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3 Comments

Filed under Abou Ali, No More War

3 responses to “Background behind the Boar War

  1. fred fruglehim

    this sucks

  2. B.Smith

    You can’t fully understand where you’re going if you don’t understand where you’ve been.
    I thought this was a very informative piece shedding light on a cloudy area of history. Many of us don’t realize that the colonialism,war and political partitioning of the 19th century has set the stage for many of the conflicts the world is facing today.

  3. I would have read this but if you can’t even get the name right in the title..Boar War?..i fear for its accuracy.

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