Taking Sides In The Boer War


“I have been absorbed in interest in the Boer War,” wrote Theodore Roosevelt to his friend Cecil Spring Rice in 1899. He was not alone. Most Americans took a keen interest in this remote conflict. Leading newspapers sent their correspondents to the front; the war was debated in Congress and discussed iin Cabinet meetings; private organizations sprang up to help one side or the other; a surprising number of Americans actually made their way to South Africa and joined the fight; and toy stores stocked up on two new games, Boer and Briton and The War in South Africa.

The struggle of two small pastoral republics—the Orange Free State and the Transvaal (its formal title was the South African Republic)—to retain their independence by braving the might of the British Empire evoked strong feelings of sympathy in the breasts of most Americans. They saw it as the small and weak pitted against the large and powerful, republics against monarchy, and it reminded many of our own revolution against this same empire.

The two South African republics covered an area of 160,000 square miles and contained a white population of under 450,000—roughly, a population smaller than San Diego’s spread over an area the size of California. They were founded by Boers, people of Dutch and French Hugue-not descent whose ancestors had gone to the Cape of Good Hope in the seventeenth century. Early in the nineteenth century, when the British took over the Cape and abolished slavery, the Boers fled into the hinterland to escape their rule. They had already developed into a hardy, resourceful, quarrelsome, fiercely independent race with their own language, customs, and system of government. Most were devout believers in the fundamentalist doctrines of the Dutch Reformed Church; and as Joshua Slocum, the American circumnavigator of the globe, discovered when he visited the Transvaal, President Paul Kruger even believed the earth was flat.

These people—farmers, breeders of cattle, hunters—wanted only to live their own lives in their own way (which included, however, a belief that every man should be allowed to “whip his own nigger”), and they might possibly have been permitted to do so had not a misfortune overtaken them: in 1886 they found gold, more gold than had ever been found anywhere else in the world. At the time Kruger wisely warned his people not to rejoice, for “this gold will cause our country to be soaked in blood.” And so it did.

In the gold rush that followed, thousands of foreigners flocked to the Transvaal. The Boers were perplexed by all these outlandish folk—uitlanders, they called them—who descended upon them; they were amazed but not bedazzled by the quantities of gold that came from their earth and baffled by the new industries and the peculiar needs they created. The Boers were fearful too, for their whole way of life seemed threatened. The uitlanders, on their part, were affronted by laws and customs quite different from their own and annoyed that the Boers would not change them. They were incensed that in Johannesburg, which they regarded as theirs, the policemen were Boers and that in this Boer republic the language of the courts and schools was Afrikaans, which had developed from seventeenth-century Dutch.

Goaded by the British and Americans among them, the uitlanders clamored for the right to vote in Transvaal elections, and when the Boers steadfastly refused they made a feeble attempt at a revolution, which the Boers promptly squashed. Finally they turned to badgering Britain for help, and here they were more successful. Alfred Milner, newly appointed High Commissioner for South Africa, took up their cause and made it his own. With the approval of his government he began to put pressure on Kruger to give the uitlanders the franchise. Milner’s requests turned to demands, but Kruger stubbornly held his ground.

Apparently no one in the Transvaal thought oi the solution conceived by Mr. Dooley, the comic character created by F. P. Dunne. Said Mr. Dooley to his friend Mr. Hennessy: “If I had been President Kruger I’d have given the votes to the Uitlanders, but I would have done the counting.”

Eventually all negotiations collapsed into mutual exasperation, and both sides decided on war, the Orange Free State throwing in its lot with the Transvaal. Of all the reasons ever given by a nation for going to war, those of the British were the most peculiar: to force another country to make British subjects into Transvaal citizens. As this seemed a bit silly even to the British, they announced after the war started that the real purpose was to establish “British paramountcy” in South Africa. No one really understood what this meant, but it implied a determination to reduce the republics to British colonies.

Just as the fighting was about to begin, in October, 1899, Britain discovered that it had too few troops in South Africa to fight a war. Hurriedly, regiments were whistled up in Britain, India, and elsewhere and shipped off to Natal and Cape Colony.