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Taking Sides In The Boer War
The United States remained officially neutral, but many Americans fought alongside both opposing armies and several became legendary heroes
April 1976 | Volume 27, Issue 3
Labram’s most extraordinary accomplishment was the design and construction of a large gun. When Rhodes asked if he had ever built a cannon. Labram replied: “Yes, once when I was a boy, to shoot firecrackers on the Fourth of July to celebrate the time we licked the British!”
“Well,” said Rhodes, “build one now to celebrate the time you are going to save the British.”
Without previous experience of ordnance and without proper tools, Labram went to work. After he finished his designs, it took only twenty-four days to construct a breechloading gun with a 4.1-inch bore capable of firing a »8-pound shell. He named it “Long Cecil” in honor of Rhodes. Newspaper correspondent Lionel James said of this feat: “The production of this gun must be considered one of the most remarkable events in the history of beleaguered garrisons.”
To counter Long Cecil the Boers hauled up one of their largest guns, a 6-inch Creusot. It opened Ore on February 7, 1900. Two days later, firing its last round of the day, it sent a shell into Labram’s room at the Grand Hotel, Labram, who had been, dressing for dinner, was blown to bits. Four days later Kimberley was relieved.
There were other Americans who, without enlisting, served the British. An American from Brooklyn was the informer who tipped off the British to a plot hatched in Pretoria, after its occupation, to kidnap Lord Roberts. The ringleader was the first man in the war to be executed by a firing squad. Some men tried to enlist but were turned down. OJiJa Tek Ka (“Burning Flower”), a Mohawk Indian and a crack shot, made his way to South Africa to join the British but was told that this was “a white man’s war.” Nevertheless he stayed and worked at a remount depot.
In Cape Town one day Kipling encountered an American soldier of fortune “who had been at San Juan, and was a democrat—a grey, grizzled, tough old bird.” Although this man was a sergeant in the British army, he is believed to have been the inspiration for Kipling’s story “The Captive,” about an American with the Boers who was captured by the British. Several Americans serving with the Boers were captured and sent off to one of the British prisoner-of-war camps.
When the British overran the South African republics, the Roers had no place to put their prisoners and finally resorted to stripping captives of their weapons and clothes and turning them loose. In the early days of the war the British sent their prisoners to St. Helena; but when this island grew too crowded, other camps were set up in Ceylon, India, and Bermuda.
The more than four thousand Boer prisoners of war on Bermuda particularly interested Americans, especially when it became known that a hundred and thirteen were boys under sixteen and two were only eight years old. Letters smuggled out by prisoners and published in American newspapers encouraged philanthropy. Several organizations were formed to aid the prisoners: the Boer Relief Fund in New York, the Lend A Hand Society in Boston, and the American Transvaal League of Paterson, New Jersey, were particularly active, sending food and old clothing. The British distributed the food but returned the clothing as too dangerous; there were epidemics of smallpox at the time in many American cities.
Several Boers managed to escape. The S.S. Trinidad made regular trips between Bermuda and New York, and if a prisoner could break out of camp, swim to the main island, and stow away on this ship, he could make his way to freedom in the United States. When the war was over and the exodus from the camps began, many prisoners of war made America their first stop on their way home. One group of ninety, including two Boer generals, arrived in New York from Bermuda in the middle of July, 1902, and were greeted by enthusiastic crowds. On shore they split into groups. Some went sightseeing to Niagara Falls; some accepted the hospitality offered by Gérard Beekman at his Long Island mansion; one group even went to Texas, where the governor offered free land if they would settle there. President Roosevelt entertained the senior Boer officers at the White House and took them shooting.
Texas was not the only state to offer free land. In June, 1900, long before the war ended, Representative John J. Fitzgerald of New York proposed to Secretary Hay that the Boers—all of them—be invited to settle here on government land. After the war Arkansas offered five million acres; Colorado made a similar offer. Several hundred Boer refugees in Mozambique asked about homesteading, and when this was publicized in American newspapers, seven more western states offered free land. Rich New Yorkers of Dutch descent worked up a colonization scheme to settle Boers on three hundred thousand acres of irrigated land in Wyoming.