by Mark Weber
It took the mighty British Empire nearly three years, 1899-1902, to crush the Boers, a pioneering people who tried to build an independent nation for themselves in South Africa.
The Dutch, Huguenot and German ancestors of the Boers first settled the Cape of South Africa in 1652. After several earlier invasions, Britain took over the colony in 1814. Refusing to submit to foreign colonial rule and the takeover of their farms, 10,000 Boers left the Cape in 1836. They moved northwards in the Great Trek, first to Natal and then to the highlands where they set up the Orange Free State and the Transvaal Republic. The Boers (Dutch: "farmers") worked hard to build a new life for themselves. But they also had to fight to keep their republics free of British encroachments and safe from Bantu attacks.
Their great leader was Paul Kruger, an imposing, stubborn and deeply religious man. The bearded, patriarchal figure was beloved by his people who affectionately referred to him as "Oom Paul" (Uncle Paul). His utterly frank and straightforward manner sustained the morale of his people during the hard years of conflict. A contemporary observer described him as a "natural orator; rugged in speech, lacking in measured phrase and in logical balance; but passionate and convincing in the unaffected pleading of his earnestness." (Davit, p. 425. for full titles, see the bibliography.)
He died a blind and broken man in exile after giving his life for his cherished dream of a self-reliant, white, people's republic.
The discovery of gold at Witwatersrand in the Transvaal in 1886 sealed the doom of the hardy pioneer folk. Gold and diamonds drew foreigners ("uitlanders" or "outlanders") like a magnet.
As often happens in history, the origins of this war have been obscured behind clouds of emotional "patriotic" rhetoric and in bitterness over the savage slaughter and destruction. Many details in the background story of how this war began have come to light only years after the fighting had ended. A masterful work, The Boer War, for example, published by Random House, sheds further light on the dark origins of the shameful conflict. Author Thomas Pakenham dissects the conspiracy of British colonial officials and financiers to plunge South Africa into war.
The men who flocked to South Africa in search of wealth included the English diamond capitalist, Cecil Rhodes, and a collection of ambitious colonists who were to play a decisive role fomenting the Boer war.
Barney Barnato, a dapper, vulgar fellow from London's East End, was the first of many who have had a major impact on South African affairs. Working with Cecil Rhodes, he quickly amassed a fortune in gold, land speculation and diamonds. His empire controlled a labor force of 120,000 men. Through shrewd financial maneuvers Barnato seized control of De Beers Consolidated Mines in 1888 and thereby acquired a virtual monopoly of the world's diamond output. (Today, Harry Oppenheimer controls the De Beers cartel, which still sets the world diamond prices, as well as the largest gold mining company and the most influential newspapers in South Africa.)
The most powerful South African financial house was Wernher, Beit and Co., which was controlled and run by a speculator from Germany named Alfred Beit. Cecil Rhodes relied heavily on support from Beit, whose close ties to the Rothschilds, and the Dresdner Bank made it possible for Rhodes to acquire his diamond fortune (Flint, pp. 86-93; and Emden).
Beit and Lionel Phillips, a millionaire from England, together controlled H. Eckstein & Co., the largest South African mining syndicate. Of the six largest mining companies, four were controlled by capatalists (Saron, pp. 193-4). The stake in the Boer lands was not limited to gold and diamonds. One year before the war began, a daughter company of the Beit, Phillips conglomerate had some two million acres of the most valuable agricultural land in the Transvaal Republic (s, p. 79).
By 1894, Beit and Phillips were conspiring behind the backs of Briton and Boer alike to "improve" the Transvaal parliament with tens of thousands of pounds in bribe money. In one case, Beit and Phillips spent 25,000 pounds to arrange settlement of an important issue before the Volksdraad (Report, pp. 165-167).
In 1895, over 500 British adventurers tried to seize control of the Boer republics by staging the "unofficial" Jameson Raid into the Transvaal. Rhodes organized the venture, which Beit financed to the tune of 200,000 pounds. Although the raid failed, it convinced the Boers that the British were determined to take away their hard-won independence. The blood of those who died in the abortive raid also baptized the alliance of finance and British imperialism (Saron, pp. 193-94; Second, p. vii).
Transvaal authorities arrested Phillips for his part in organizing the raid. They found incriminating secret correspondence between Phillips and co-conspirators Beit and Rhodes which encouraged Phillips to confess his guilt.A special Transvaal court condemned Phillips to death for his crimes, but following British protests, the sentence was commuted to a fine of 25,000 pounds. Later, after returning to Britain, the financier was knighted for his services to the Empire and during the First World War was given a h high post in the Ministry of Munitions.
Undaunted by the Jameson Raid fiasco, Sir Alfred Milner, the British High commissioner for South Africa, began secretly to foment a full-scale war which would bring the wealth of the Boer lands completely into the Empire. The secret alliance between Milner and the "gold bugs" of Wernher-Beit gave Milner the backing needed to precipitate war.
To h hide his plans, the British Commissioner treacherously agreed to "negotiate" with Kruger over the status of the "uitlanders." Milner demanded immediate citizenship rights for the flood of foreigners who had poured into the Boer republics. President Paul Kruger responded with bitterness and anger: "It is our country you want!" The talks finally broke down, just as Milner had intended. Even after the war began, Milner did everything to prevent a compromise peace. Like the victorious powers of the Second World War, he insisted on unconditional surrender -- and he got it. During the phony "negotiations," Lord Kitchener, the famous British warlord, privately admitted to a friend that a major obstacle to complete British takeover was the fact that the Boers were "afraid of getting into the hands of certain people who no doubt wield great influence in the country" (Pakenham, p. 518).
Boer fears were well grounded. While the "negotiations" were underway, Wernher, Beit and Co. was secretly financing an "outlander" army of 1,500 which eventually grew to 10,000.
Back in Britain, the leading newspapers, especially those owned by imperialists, pushed for war. The papers included the influential conservative organ, The Daily Telegraph, owned by Lord Burnham (born Edward Levy), Oppenheim's Daily News, Marks' Evening News, and Steinkopf's St. James Gazette (Hirshfeld, p. 4).
Resistance in Britain to the growing orchestrated campaign of war hysteria came from the political left. The Social Democratic Federation (SDF), led by Henry M. Hyndman, was especially outspoken in its opposition to the war preparations. Justice, the SDF weekly, warned its readers in 1896 that "Beit, Barnato and their fellow-s" were aiming for "an Anglo-Hebraic Empire in Africa stretching from Egypt to Cape Colony," designed to swell their "overgrown fortunes." Since 1890, the SDF had repeatedly cautioned against the pernicious influence of "capitalist s on the London press." When war broke out in 1899, Justice declared that the "Semitic lords of the press" had successfully propagandized Britain into a "criminal war of aggression" (Hirshfeld, pp. 5, 15).
The boundless greed of the ish "gold bugs" coincided with the imperialistic schemes of British Colonial Secretary Joseph Chamberlain, the dreams of diamond speculator Cecil Rhodes, and the political ambitions of Alfred Milner. On the altar of their avarice and ambition, they sacrificed the lives of tens of thousands of people who wanted only to live in freedom.
Britain dispatched troops to South Africa in preparation for war. Kruger gave an ultimatum demanding their withdrawal. After Britain refused, the Boer republics declared war.
Although outnumbered, the morale of the Boer freedom fighter was good. He was fighting on territory he knew well. More importantly, he was fighting for his land, his freedom and his way of life. Mounted on horseback, he didn't look anything like a typical soldier. He wore a "uniform" of rough farming clothes. He usually had a long beard, wore a wide-brimmed hat, and slung belts of bullets over both shoulders.
But after a year and a half o struggle, the Boers were forced to give up all large towns and main rail lines to the enemy. Still, they refused to capitulate and began a guerilla war against the occupation army. The Boer commandos, outnumbered about four to one, but supported by an entire people and striking without warning, were able to prevent the enemy from controlling the country he had occupied.
Lord Kitchener, the British commander, now changed tactics to "clean up" a war which most considered already won. He ordered a new kind of war -- a war of total destruction and ruthlessness against a whole people. That meant destroying all livestock and crops, burning down the Boer farms and herding the women and children into concentration camps. Reports about these camps shocked the entire civilized world.
The British system of waging war was summarized in a report made in january 1902 by Boer General J.C. Smuts, later Prime Minister of the Union of South Africa:
"Lord Kitchener has begun to carry out a policy in both (Boer) republic of unbelievable barbarism and gruesomeness which violates the most elementary principles of the international rules of war.
"Almost all farmsteads and villages in both republics have been burned down and destroyed. All crops have been destroyed. All livestock which had fallen into the hands of the enemy has been killed or slaughtered.
"The basic principle behind Lord Kitchener's tactics had been to win, not so much through direct operations against fighting commandos, but rather indirectly by bringing the pressure of war against defenseless women and children.
"... This violation of every international law is really very characteristic of the nation which always plays the role of chosen judge over the customs and behavior of all other nations."
Even in Britain, prominent voices began speaking out against the slaughter. Lloyd George, who later served as Prime Minister during the First World War, vehemently denounced the carnage. During a speech in Parliament on February 18, 1901, he quoted from a letter by a British officer: "We move from valley to vally, lifting cattle and sheep, burning and looting, and turning out women and children to weep in despair beside the ruin of their once beautiful homesteads."
Lloyd George commented: "It is a war not against men, but against women and children."
Another future Prime Minister, Henry Campbell-Bannerman, declared in Parliament on June 14, 1901: "When is a war not a war? When it is waged in South Africa by methods of barbarism."
Michael Davitt even resigned as a member of the House of Commons in "personal and political protest against a war which I believe to be the greatest infamy of the nineteenth century."
John Dillon, an Irish Nationalist member of Parliament, spoke out against the British policy of shooting Boer prisoners of war. On February 26, 1901, he made a public a letter by a British officer in the field:
"The orders in this district from Lord Kitchener are to burn and destroy all provisions, forage, etc., and seize cattle, horses, and stock of all sorts wherever found, and to leave no food in the houses of the inhabitants. And the word has been passed round privately that no prisoners are to be taken. That is, all the men found fighting are to be shot. This order was given to me personally by a general, one of the highest in rank in South Africa. So there is no mistake about it. The instructions given to the columns closing round De Wet north of the Orange River are that all men are to be shot so that no tales may be told. Also, the troops are told to loot freely from every house, whether the men belonging to the house are fighting or not."
Dillon read from another letter by a soldier which had been published in the Liverpool Courierj: "Lord Kitchener has issued orders that no man has to bring in any Boer prisoners. If he does, he had to give h im half his rations for the prisoners keep." Dillon quoted a third letter by a soldier serving with the Royal Welsh Regiment and published in the Wolverhampton Express and Star: "We take no prisoners now ... There happened to be a few wounded Boers left. We put them through the mill. Every one was killed."
As an Irishman, Dillon's denunciation of the war carried special meaning. While British troops brutally robbed the Boers of their national freedom in South Africa, the British government also held the people of Southern Ireland under colonial rule against their will.
On January 20, 1902, Dillon once again expressed his outrage in Parliament against Britain's "wholesale violation of one of the best recognized usages of modern war, which forbids you to desolate or devastate the country of the enemy and destroy the food supply on such a scale as to reduce non-combatants to starvation."
"What would have been said by civilized mankind," Dillon asked, "if Germany on her march on Paris [in 1870] had turned the whole country into a h howling wilderness and concentrated the French women and children into camps where they died in the thousands? All civilized europe would have rushed in to the rescue" (Ziegler, p. 199).
No member of the House of Commons spoke out more vigorously against the ish-capitalist nature of the war than John Burns, Labour M.P. for Battersea. The former SDF member gained national prominence as a dauntless defender of the British workingman during his leadership of the dockworkers' strike of 1889.
"Wherever we examine, there is the financial ," Burns declared in the House on February 6, 1900, "operating, directing, inspiring the agencies that have led to this war."
"The trail of the financial serpent is over this war from beginning to end." The British army, Burns said, had traditionally been the "Sir Galahad of History." But in Africa it had become the "janissary of the s."
Burns was a legendary fighter for the rights of the British worker, a tireless champion of environmental reform, women's rights and improved municipal services. Even Cecil Rhodes had referred to Burns as "the most eloquent leader of the British democracy."
And yet, Burns did not oppose the s merely as capitalists. He considered them dangerous on racial grounds. To his diary he confided that "the undoing of England is within the confines of our afternoon journey amongst the s" of East London (Hirshfield, pp. 10-20).
Opposition to the war was strong in the British labor movement. In September 1900, the Trades Union Congress passed a resolution condemning the Boer war as one designed "to secure the gold fields of South Africa for cosmopolitan s, most of whom had no patriotism and no country" (Hirshfield, pp. 11-20).
One of the most influential campaigners against the "-imperialist design" in South Africa was a journalist named John Hobson. He had been sent to re port first hand on the Boer war by the Manchester Guardian in 1899. During his three month investigation, Hobson became convinced that t small group of ish "landlords" was essentially responsible for the conflict (Hirshfield, pp. 13-23; Hobson, p. 189).
Hobson's persuasive analysis of the forces behind the conflict was entitled The War in South Africa. He warned and admonished h is fellow countrymen: "We are fighting in order to place a small international oligarchy of mine-owners and speculators in power at Pretoria. Englishmen will surely do well to recognize that the economic and political destinies of South Africa are, and seem likely to remain, in the hands of men most of whom are foreigners by origin, whose trade is finance, and whose trade interests are not chiefly British" (Hobson, p. 197).
Anti-imperialist and working-class circles enthusiastically acclaimed Hobson' widely read work. Commenting on the book, the Labour Leader, semi-official organ of the Independent Labour Party, noted: "Modern imperialism is really run by half a dozen financial houses, many of them ish, to whom politics is a counter in the game of buying and selling securities" (Hirshfield, pp. 13-23).
A crusading English lady, Emily Hobhouse, alerted the world to the horrors of the camps. "In some camps," she reported, "two and sometimes three different families live in one tent. Ten and even twelve persons are forced into a single tent." Most had to sleep on the ground.
"These people will never ever forget what has happened," Hobhouse declared. "The children have been the hardest hit. They wither in the terrible heat and as a result of insufficient and improper nourishment. . . . To maintain this kind of camp means nothing less than murdering children."
The British held 116,572 persons in their concentration camps, almost all of them women and children. That was about a fourth of the entire Boer population. After the war, and official government report concluded that 27,927 Boers had died in the camps of starvation, typhus and exposure. That included 26,251 women and children, of whom 22,074 were children under the age of 16.
Emily Hobhouse found that none of their hardships, not even seeing their own hungry children die before their eyes, would shake the Boer women's determination. They "never express," Hobhouse wrote, "a wish that their men must give way. It must be fought out now, they think, to the bitter end."
Kitchener gave rifles to the native Bantus. The British eventually armed about 10,000 marauding Blacks, but the policy was kept secret from the people back home.
No wonder. This was the first time in history that Europeans had given weapons to blacks with orders to kill fellow Whites. Although they proved poor soldiers, the primitive blacks murdered and slaughtered defenseless Boer women and children across the countryside. The fate of the women and children who escaped the living hell of the camps was often more horrible than that of those who did not.
In his January 1902 report, General Smuts describes how the British recruited the Bantus:
"In the Cape Colony the uncivilized Blacks have been told that if the Boers win, slavery will be brought back in the Cape Colony. They have been promised Boer property and farmsteads if they will join the English; that the Boers will have to work for the Blacks, and that they will be about to marry...