One of the most significant wars of the 20th century is the (second) Anglo-Boer War (1899 to 1902).

In short, it was a battle between the British Empire and the two Boer republics in South Africa (or what was then considered to be South Africa). One of the triggers was the discovery of gold which led to an influx of “foreigners” mostly from the Cape Colony.

South Africa, circa 1900, pink and peach regions are British

Brief context

In the 17th century, the Dutch began colonising Africa’s southern tip.

They built Cape Town as a stopover for ships travelling from Europe to the East Indies. After the Dutch Empire’s fall, the colony’s settlers, mainly of Dutch, French, and German origin, lost support from Holland. The British, their new rulers, treated them poorly. In response, they moved northeast into unclaimed lands.

There, they started seeing themselves as a separate racial and cultural group. They aimed to govern themselves. This led to the creation of the Boer Republics, notably the South African Republic and the Orange Free State.

The Boers, who were descendants of Dutch settlers, feared that the British would eventually take over their republics.

First Anglo-Boer War

Several vectors led to the First Anglo-Boer War, including diamond discoveries along the British and Boer borders, and British expansion into Boer territories. This expansion caused a major conflict.

After defeating the Zulus, the British – feeling overconfident – encountered a major setback: the Boers.

The First Anglo-Boer War was brief but impactful. It lasted from 16 December 1880 to 23 March 1881. Two battles occurred. The British lost 401 soldiers, while the Boers lost only 25. This defeat and the casualty difference was a wake-up call for the British.

The British might have been open to peace, but gold and diamond discoveries in the Transvaal’s (South African Republic) Witwatersrand area changed everything. Many British starting moving there, altering the area’s demographics.

These new settlers, called Uitlanders, were not trusted by the locals.

Tensions increased.

In 1895, the British tried to incite an Uitlander rebellion in the Transvaal (called the Jameson Raid), but failed.

The British wanted voting rights for the Uitlanders in the South African Republic (Transvaal).

The Boers, fearing loss of control, refused. President Paul Kruger demanded British troop withdrawal from the border. The British ignored this.

In October 1899, the South African Republic (Transvaal) and the Orange Free State declared war on Britain.

Second Anglo-Boer War

A number of interrelated factors led to the war, including

  • conflicting political ideologies of imperialism and republicanism,
  • the discovery of gold near Witwatersrand,
  • tension between British and Boer leaders,
  • the (failed) Jameson Raid and
  • the Uitlanders.

After the first Anglo-Boer War the British Empire did not let go of its ambition to “unify” South Africa under imperial British rule. The two Boer republics of the Orange Free State and the South African Republic (Transvaal) still maintained their desire for independence.

The Boer republics were a stumbling block for the British Empire because the Boers were brilliant fighters in spite of being heavily outnumbered.

The Boers
The Boers

The Boers ultimately lost the war.

They lost because the British Empire was too overwhelming in the end.

There is too much to summarise, and I recommend reading a more detailed account at AngloBoerWar.com, but what matters here is that the Boers held the British back for about two years, while the British thought that they’d defeat the Boers within a couple of months.

Take a community of Dutchmen of the type of those who defended themselves for fifty years against all the power of Spain at a time when Spain was the greatest power in the world.

Intermix with them a strain of those inflexible French Huguenots who gave up home and fortune and left their country for ever at the time of the revocation of the Edict of Nantes.

The product must obviously be one of the most rugged, virile, unconquerable races ever seen upon earth. Take this formidable people and train them for seven generations in constant warfare against savage men and ferocious beasts, in circumstances under which no weakling could survive, place them so that they acquire exceptional skill with weapons and in horsemanship, give them a country which is eminently suited to the tactics of the huntsman, the marksman, and the rider.

Then, finally, put a finer temper upon their military qualities by a dour fatalistic Old Testament religion and an ardent and consuming patriotism.

Combine all these qualities and all these impulses in one individual, and you have the modern Boer—the most formidable antagonist who ever crossed the path of Imperial Britain.

Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, ‘The Great Boer War’

Mark Weber is a historian and director at the Institute For Historical Review (IHR).

The Boer War marked the real beginning of the twentieth century.

JM Roberts

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