Martin Bossenbroek, The Boer War, Seven Stories Press, 2018, 464 pp., $24.00.
The Second Anglo-Boer War (1899-1902) was a tragedy—even a “white-on-white crime.” The world’s greatest military power, the British Empire, waged war on a force of 60,000 South African Boer militiamen. Haughty British officers who had won renown fighting the Pathans in the Northwest Frontier or Madhi fanatics in Sudan thought the Boers were a similarly uncouth force that could never defeat a professional British Army. The initial successes of the Boers proved them wrong, and the British should have known better. During the First Boer War of 1880 to 1881, the South African Republic (also known as the Transvaal) and the Orange Free State won the right to self rule without interference from Cape Town, the base of British operations in South Africa.
As the Dutch historian Martin Bossenbroek explains in The Boer War, the second conflict was largely an attempt by the British to win control over the natural resources of the South African Republic. After the discovery of gold in Witwatersrand in 1885, the city of Johannesburg sprung up almost overnight. It became a boom town right out of the American Wild West, with bordellos and gambling dens. President Paul Kruger of the South African Republic and his fellow Boers despised Johannesburg and the foreigners who were drawn to it by the gold rush. Kruger, Prof. Bossenbroek writes, was a veld-bred farmer who came from the proud Voortrekker and epitomized Old Testament zeal.
Johannesburg reminded Boers of what they had left behind when they trekked out of Cape Colony in 1835. The liberty-loving Boers—a mix of Dutch, Huguenot, German, and Portuguese—resisted when the British first declared the Cape a “protectorate” before soon turning it into a colony. Boers moved eastward into the high veld, defeated several African tribes, and established the two republics—the South African Republic and the Orange Free State—that Britain sought to dominate in the war of 1899.
The Boer War is a wonderful throwback to the days of heroic history. First published in Dutch in 2012 and only recently translated into English, it divides the story into three parts. The first sets the scene with an account of South African politics and economics. The chief character is Cecil Rhodes, the brilliant mining magnate who established the colony of Rhodesia and envisioned all of South Africa as a British confederation. The Boers stood in the way of this Cape-to-Cairo vision.
The second part is about the war. It is filled with tales of battle, commando raids, and guerrilla warfare, and takes as its main character the former British Army officer and war correspondent Winston Churchill. Prof. Bossenbroek provides details about the divisions within the British Army (mainly between officers from the “Indian” vs. “the African” services) and about divisions within the Boer camp.
The final section deals with the guerrilla phase of the war. When the British could not decisively defeat the highly mobile and well-armed Boer commandos, they put Boer women and children in concentration camps so as to deprive the men of the support they needed. These filthy, disease-ridden camps became the great scandal of the early 20th century; today it is thought that some 26,000 inmates died. Despite this cruelty, some Boers fought alongside the British during the First World War.
It is easy for Americans to identify with the Boers. Like the whites of North America, they are an ethnic hodgepodge, united by their Christian faith and shared experiences in the wilderness. In 1899, they wanted to be left alone in their republics; millions of white Americans feel the same way today.
Britain justified meddling in Boer affairs because of the non-Boer immigrants—mostly British—who rushed into the Transvaal during the gold rush. By the late 1890s, the Uitlanders, as the Afrikaners called them, were a majority in the cities of the Transvaal. Before long, these economic immigrants demanded voting rights and legal protection, but the South African Republic would not treat them like Boer citizens. Uitlanders then organized political action committees and even tried sabotage. In 1895, in one of the most disgraceful episodes in British imperial history, Cecil Rhodes tried to foment an Uitlander revolt that would give the British an excuse the come to the rescue of their persecuted citizens and take over the goldfields. The Jameson Raid of 1895 failed to stir up the expected rebellion, but was a sign of how seriously the British coveted South African resources.
Today, Mexico justifies agitating for anti-white, pro-Hispanic causes by claiming it is protecting its citizens. Often it doesn’t even try to hide its motivations, and groups such as La Raza make it clear that the goal of illegal immigration is Reconquista. Present-day America is no different from Victorian South Africa; demography is destiny.
Also, like the British of the 19th century, today’s egalitarians claim to have charitable motives. British do-gooders often criticized the Boers for failing to live up to their Christian duty to black and colored neighbors. The Boers understood very well whom they were dealing with and, unlike the British, actually knew how to make peace with African tribes. A similar cultural ignorance was repeated during the Apartheid era, when left-wing British governments and their allies harassed, boycotted, and harangued the Boers into giving blacks the right to vote. Since then, South Africa has spiraled into a chaos of corruption, rape, and murder. The commandos of 1900 could have predicted the consequences of black rule.
The Boer War makes for grim reading, but the conflict it describes was fought in an age of true manliness. Readers will be moved by the audacity and courage of both the British and the Boers.
It is terrible that the great British Empire that conquered Africa and India and established Singapore and Hong Kong arrayed its forces against the tiny but resolute republics of the Boers. These two people should never have fought each other. The Boer War is yet another warning to our people: European brotherhood and the future of the West are far more important than any temporary conflict or disagreement.