The Boer War


At the onset of the 20th century, war was raging across the countryside of South Africa. The Dutch farmers of the area were locked in conflict with the soldiers of the British Empire. The Boer War, as it came to be called, was sparked in 1899 and ran through 1902. Lured by diamonds and gold, imperialistic Great Britain invaded in an attempt to gain control of the area. For several reasons, the Boer War was an important focal point in the history of the world.

To understand the nature of the Boer War, one must know the background of the Boer people. According to the Historical Boys’ Clothing website, “The Boers, or Afrikaners which is the more common term today, are the descendents of the Dutch who founded Cape Colony in southern Africa (1652).”[1] In the 17th century, the Dutch wanted to establish a colony on the southern tip of Africa to be used as a checkpoint for ships traveling around the continent of Africa on their way to the East Indies. When the Edict of Nantes was revoked and Protestantism became outlawed in France, the persecuted Huguenots needed a place to flee to, and the Dutch colony at the Cape of Good Hope needed experienced farmers, which they found in the French emigrants. The official language of the colony was Dutch, but it slowly evolved into a new language, which came to be called Afrikaans. The Boers established a distinct culture, and were very religious. Their days of peace and happiness were numbered, however.

British settlers, known as Uitlanders, began to occupy the area in the early 1800s, and parts of South Africa fell under the rule of the British Empire. Unwilling to live under the crown, the Boers were pushed inward by the expanding empire. They left their homes in the 1830s to move out of the hardships of British rule. The Empire, however, viewed the Boers as its subjects, and all lands they occupied as British land. After being pushed inland far enough to escape the most powerful navy in the world, they enjoyed freedom from British rule in Natal for quite a while. With the discovery of diamonds in the area, however, Great Britain quickly stepped in and took over the land of the Boers once again. Fighting broke out, and the farmers managed to push the British out of the land. Large amounts of gold were soon discovered in Johannesburg, rekindling the desire of Great Britain to control the land. Under the influence of Cecil Rhodes, Dr. Leander Jameson organized an invasion of the Transvaal in1886, which proved unsuccessful, but confirmed the fears of the Boers, who declared war on Great Britain in 1899.

In the last few months of 1899, the Boers moved southwest and achieved several victories over the Uitlanders, who expected, as always, the war to be over “by Christmas,” in Ladysmith, Kimberly, and Mafeking. The British, under the leadership of Lord Horatio Kitchener and Lord Roberts, soon recaptured all three cities, however. The Orange Free State was taken by the British and renamed the Orange River Colony. Johannesburg and Pretoria also fell, and the Transvaal was annexed to the British Empire in 1900.

At this point, the war seemed, for the most part, over. The Boers realized the war would not be won if it were fought in the traditional fashion, which was the specialty of the queen’s army. Highly effective guerrilla tactics were employed by the Boers, which helped to disrupt English military actions and avoid capture due to the small size of the military units. By this time, the notorious Lord Kitchener had become commander in chief of the British army. He set up concentration camps, which were used to hold the civilians whose towns were looted and destroyed in Kitchener’s scorched-earth campaign. It is estimated that over 40,000 people died in these camps, mostly women, children, and African natives. According to Etienne Marais, “Almost 28,000 Boer civilians, mainly children under the age of 16 and women, died in British concentration camps, along with a reported 14,154 Africans dying in separate camps.” [2] It was these camps that marked the first use of the term “concentration camp,” derived from the Spanish camps in Cuba during the Spanish-American