Thursday, September 30, 2010

Wars and Battles: The Boer War

I'm not sure how much space in British history schoolbooks is devoted to the Boer War. I'm not even sure the British even attempt to teach all their history, come to think of it. One thing I'm sure about though, there is even less space in American history books devoted to the Boer War. So, read this little blog post, and the next time the British equivalent of Jay Leno stops you on the street and sticks a microphone in your face and asks you who was PM during WWII, tell him, "First, tell me who were the participants in the Boer War." I'm sure the pest will leave you alone.

Actually, there were two Boer Wars. There was a short one in 1880 and a longer, bloodier, one 20 years later.

The Boer Wars took place in Africa.

The Boer Wars were connected to something called "Colonialism." That means if you want to understand the Boer Wars, you must first understand what Colonialism was. Is.

The little movie "Stuff" sort of explains it. First, you have stuff in your own country which you use and abuse until it is mostly gone; then you begin to think of the stuff that is located in OTHER countries as if it were yours and then you just go get it at will, as if that country were just your warehouse. This works best when you have guns and the other people only have spears.

And so it came to pass, over time, that several countries began to visit Africa and draw boundary lines and start carting the stuff back home. One of those Colonizers was NOT the USA, I hasten to add. Not in Africa. That I know of. Later the USA played the popular "Cold War Bidding-For-Temporary-Fair-Weather-Friends Game," but that was after the Boer Wars.

Many of the boundary lines for countries in Africa got drawn by these colonizing countries. Before that, all of the people on the African continent were just one big family and sort of just milled around as they pleased, loving and helping their brothers and sisters as they pleased, building pyramids and weaving baskets and like that. With the Europeans came boundary lines. And plantations. Mustn't forget plantations. And illegal immigration - don't forget the squatter-farmers. "Boer," incidentally, is the Afrikaans word for "farmer."

Well, the point is that many of these boundary lines between African countries have remained, even though many of the names of cities and countries have been Africanized and the colonialists pretty much bounced from power. Other words you should know:

Vaal. This is a river in South Africa. Land above that river is the Transvaal. There was a British colony called Transvaal, and other things were and are also called Transvaal. Even the South African Republic is often called the Transvaal Republic.

The first Anglo-Boer war (1880-1881) was between the Boers (descendants of earlier Dutch "settlers") and the British, who were also settled there to take stuff. This short first war resulted in the Boers winning their independence from the British in that area, and being allowed to keep their Dutch/Boer stuff.

Sadly (for the colonialists, at least) the African people who lived in the area didn't agree that all the stuff belonged to the newcomers. Quite the opposite, you might say.

Okay, the SECOND Anglo-Boer War, the one that is in the movies and history books, lasted from 1899 to 1902 and was very very bloody and contentious, and didn't end NEARLY as well for the Dutch folk. Farmers. Boers. Whatever. Their "Boer Republics" suddenly became known as "British Colonies." British troops were brought in from other colonies and possessions. The British suffered great loss from disease, as they were largely untrained and unaccustomed to the climate and terrain, but they did eventually squash the semi-huns after a few years. But the bloodletting was fearful and so were the British concentration camps for the Boers, but we'll save that story for another post.

Trivia: Afrikaans still is spoken and is in fact one of the eleven official languages of South Africa today. If you would like to try your hand at reading Afrikaans, my friend Frosty Girl posted in that language in her last blog entry.


  1. I probably don't need to point out that Boer and Boar are not synonymous?
    I don't know to what extent the Boer War is taught in british schools now, but it was certainly taught during my schooldays. Along with the Zulu Wars, I could tell you about the siege of Mafeking, the relief of Mafeking... Lord Baden-Powell, founder of the scouts, who based his organisation on the principles and virtues of military scouts, who might be seen as the "special forces" of their day was the military commander of the town.
    I could tell you that the relief of Mafeking was celebrated so raucously, around the Empire, that it gave rise to a new slang term for crazy celebrations, leading to drunken-ness and riotous misbehaviour, all in a joyous manner, "mafficking".
    So important was this town's salvation that a public holiday was declared for its anniversaries, "Mafeking Day".
    During the siege, came the first serious use of balloons, enabling movement of the enemy to be descried at greater distances, and accurate plotting of the fall of artillery shells.
    Ladysmith, Colenso, Spion Kop, Janne Smuts, Kruger...
    .... The Jameson Raid..
    No mention of the Boer War would be complete without Winston Churchill....

    Ohhh. Why the Boer War?
    South Africa and Rhodesia were rich in gold and diamonds, and South Africa was also of immense importance to british sea power. The passage toward India, the orient, Australia and New Zealand was arduous, most of Africa was inhospitable to ships, tropically feverish or desert, South Africa had a better climate, was rich in all the supplies ships needed, it was vital to secure the empire's sea routes.
    Concentration Camps. Hm. Internment camps, they called them concentration camps, because the scattered dutch-speaking settlers were fervently against the british, and were very effective in forming small, fast-moving mounted bands of guerilla fighters. Any small boer settlement would support these men, provision them, remount them, so the military command adopted a trick learned from the Roman empire via Napoleon Buonaparte.
    Scorched Earth.

  2. Part II.

    Scorched Earth. Deny assistance and sustenance, clear a wide swath of the country of cover and sympathisers. The british interned all the boer civilians they could find in the combat areas, they burned the farms and the crops, confiscated livestock, poisoned wells....
    (A bit like the U.S. did in parts of Viet-Nam and Korea).
    The displaced people were concentrated in tented camps. Disease was rife, as sometimes was starvation. The object of the camps was not to exterminate the enemy, but the colonial powers were not too troubled by the reduction in numbers of the enemy.
    Concentration Camps took on a new and different meaning when the Nazis used them, with a clear intention to eradicate and exterminate.
    California used concentration camps against U.S. citizens of Japanese origin.

    Um. Britain was triumphant, and there was a peace treaty. De Beers... Kruger-rands, Paul Kruger.
    Transvaal, Orange Free State, Voortrekkers, Outspan...

    In the village where I work there's a war memorial to the local boys who died far from home in the South-African War.

    Okay. I'll stop now. No googling or reference material was used.
    All this stuff inhabits dusty spaces in my head. Barnato, Rhodes. Maxim guns. Armoured trains.

  3. Rhodes was a man who wanted a railway line from South Africa to Egypt. he also wanted anything he wanted and bears, er bares, responsibility for much of the land grabbing.
    Black men, of various tribes were used as slaves by the Boers, but not the Brits. The Brits just treated them badly. Both sides used black men in the fighting, neither
    gave them a reward for their work.
    Memorials to the war are everywhere are is was a precursor to the emotion of the Great War.
    Jingoism comes from a popular song at the time. It began earlier during the troubles with the Russians.
    We don't want to fight but by Jingo if we do
    "We've got the ships, we've got the men, we've got the money too
    We've fought the Bear before, and while we're Britons true
    The Russians shall not have Constantinople."

    Nationalism was rife then, and was dented badly with the Great War.

  4. Ah yes, you has it there, Adullamite, Rhodes had a lot to do with it. He's a subject of many books. A man whose ambition knew no bounds, he'd ally himself with the devil if he could see a profit in it.
    There's a tendency, with latter-day revisioning if history, to get a bit touchy-feely about it, ignore the big picture and "Write a diary of one week as if you're a young Boer woman whose husband is out on commando, and who gathers up her children as she sees redcoats approaching her farmstead"

    It's true, the boers were famed for being harsh masters and slave-drivers. South Africa's apartheid came from the boer descendants, the Africaans, not the british empire.
    The brits were more prepared than the boers to make treaties with the owners of the country and trade with them. However, both sides used them terribly, and took proud warriors, men of the open veldt, and break them in the dirt of the mines.
    As for Jingo, can I point outt you missed out half of the first line, I think it was
    "We don't want to fight, or go to war,
    But by Jingo, if we do,
    We've got the ships, we've got the men, We've got the money too"

    Whilst the subject of concentration camps is up, I seem to recall that the total boer losses were no greater, or little greater than british losses.
    Disease and hunger affected the troops as well as the prisoners.

    It's worth mentioning, however, that Rhodesia, later renamed Zimbabwe, was in many ways the model african state, with industry and agriculture, and a far less divisive culture.

    Under Mugabe, it's collapsed, and whilst Mugabe's wealth is in swiss banks, people are starving.

  5. Hi Max, Thanks for the plug about my Afrikaans post on my blog (xxxx).

    Wars are always terrible times and make people do terrible things to one another, it would be good to have a world without them but mankind is greedy and covetous so I supose it will continue. Take care! Frostygirl

  6. @Soubriquet - No, you didn't need to point that out. But you did, didn't you? :)

    But you covered the war much better than I did. From a British standpoint at least.

    @Adullamite - I see you've been doing a bit os history studying as well. Speaking of Rhodes (and Rhodesia), did you know that Ian Smith died only fairly recently? He was in his 90s, I think. And still in Rhodesia/Zimbabwe to the end. I had thought him dead 20 years ago.

    @Frosty Girl - How nice to see you again! I hope you can find it possible to begin blogging again. I really miss your stories.

  7. Hopefully one day soon Max! Frostygirl



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