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     Boer War
     Vereeniging and Union

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Boer War: 1899-1902

Outright warfare between British and Afrikaners derives from the various tensions which have characterized the 1890s, in particular British expansionism and an understandable Afrikaner fear of being surrounded, squeezed, absorbed. After the Jameson Raid the Boers have increasingly good reason to distrust British intentions.

Kruger, convinced that war is inevitable, takes energetic steps in preparation. In 1897 he concludes an alliance with the other Boer republic, the Orange Free State. And he begins a programme of rearmament to improve his republic's military capability.


On the British side new factors make war increasingly likely. In 1895 Joseph Chamberlain, a man with a strong imperialist vision, becomes the British secretary of state for the colonies. In 1897 he appoints as his south African high commissioner Alfred Milner, an equally keen imperialist. Milner is soon urging on the colonial secretary a vigorously assertive policy. In practice this means taking a strong line with Paul Kruger, elected in 1898 to a fourth term as president of the Transvaal.

The most inflammatory issue between the two sides is once again the uitlanders, who pay heavy taxes in the Boer republic but enjoy no political rights. They are, writes Milner in a telegram to Chamberlain in May 1899, 'in the position of helots'.


At a conference in Bloemfontein in June 1899 Milner demands that the Transvaal grants voting rights to the uitlanders. Kruger refuses. In the next few months there are half-hearted attempts at compromise, but in October the Boer republics issue an ultimatum demanding the withdrawal of British troops from their borders.

The result is war, which at first goes entirely in favour of the Boers (their forces at this stage outnumber the British troops in south Africa). Boer armies move rapidly east and west, besieging important British bases just beyond the borders of the Transvaal - Ladysmith in Natal, and Mafeking in Bechuanaland. A siege of Kimberley soon follows.


A British army corps, landing at the Cape in December 1899, does nothing to reverse the trend. In what becomes known as Black Week (December 10-15) British forces are decisively defeated in three separate engagements against the Boers (at Stromberg, Magersfontein and Colenso), in each case losing between 700 and 1100 men to minimal Boer casualties.

The tide begins to turn in Britain's favour after the arrival of Frederick Roberts and Herbert Kitchener to take command in January 1900. Kimberley and Ladysmith are relieved in February, followed on May 17 by Mafeking (where Robert Baden-Powell first makes his name in command of a heroic resistance).


Meanwhile Roberts has occupied Bloemfontein, capital of the Orange Free State - the annexation of which he announces on May 24. By the end of that month he is in Johannesburg. On June 5 he occupies Pretoria, capital of the Transvaal. Roberts proclaims its annexation. A few days later Kruger escapes from the republic into Mozambique.

In all normal senses the war is over, but the Boers are not so easily defeated. They adopt extremely successful guerrilla tactics, prompting an equally unconventional and much criticized response from the British. Kitchener, by now in sole command (Roberts returns to Britain in January 1901) adopts three ruthless but effective measures.


First he pioneers a new use of a railway network in warfare, building corrugated-iron blockhouses beside the railway lines as temporary forts for British troops. Here they can be rapidly reinforced as required. Meanwhile, from this relative security, they ride out to effect a scorched earth policy, destroying the crops and farms of the Boers.

This results in a great many homeless and starving women and children, whom Kitchener provides for in a manner recently pioneered by the Spanish governor in Cuba - concentration camps. By the end of the war, in 1902, about 115,000 people are living in these camps. More significantly, some 4000 women and 16,000 children have died in them of illness.


Vereeniging and Union: 1902-1910

The statistics of the concentration camps tarnish the British victory in the Boer War. By contrast the military deaths during the three years of fighting emphasize the martial spirit and skills of the Afrikaners (22,000 British dead, 6000 Boers).

The treaty ending the war is agreed in May 1902 at Vereeniging, an existing town of which the name happens to mean 'union' in Dutch. British annexation of the Boer republics is confirmed, but there are several important concessions (there are to be no recriminations, Dutch is to be taught to Afrikaner children in public schools). Nevertheless the overall effect of the Boer War is to make possible Rhodes's dream of a united South Africa under the British flag.


Among the Boers, defeat in the war prompts a new commitment to Afrikaner culture. In a familiar pattern, Language and nationalism go together. The Taalbond ('language union') is formed in 1903 to promote the use of Dutch rather than English. At the same time there is a campaign to take more seriously the writing of Afrikaans, the colloquial version of Dutch spoken by the Boers. Vigorous Afrikaans poetry and prose begin to be published.

Specifically political organizations accompany this development. Parties committed to Afrikaner self-government are formed - Het Volk ('The People') in the Transvaal in 1905, and Orangia Unie ('Orange Union') in the Orange River Colony in 1906.


An unspecific promise of internal self-government for the two Boer colonies has been included in the Vereeniging treaty. In the event the promise is fulfilled with reasonable speed, largely because the Conservative government in Britain (responsible for the conduct of the recent war) is replaced in 1906 by a Liberal administration more inclined to offer concessions. Transvaal is given self-governing status in 1906, followed by the Orange River Colony in 1907.

Meanwhile the entire region has been prospering. During the years immediately after the war Milner does much to integrate the economies of the British and Boer colonies, bringing them into a single customs union and amalgamating their railway systems.


With increasing economic cooperation, a greater degree of political union becomes attractive - even for communities so recently and bitterly at war. Moreover there is the example of the dominion status recently accorded to Australia (1901) and New Zealand (1907). The idea of a united independent South Africa, free of further interference from Britain, begins to gain favour among the leaders of both the British and Afrikaner communities.

A national convention of delegates from the four colonial parliaments meets in 1908-9 and draws up a constitution. It is passed almost unanimously in the parliaments of the Cape Colony, the Transvaal and the Orange River Colony, and by a large majority in a referendum in Natal.


On one thorny issue a compromise is reached, allowing the former colonies (now to be provinces) to keep their own local traditions. The Cape colony, which has eliminated race as a consideration in the franchise, is allowed to retain this policy. In the other three colonies, where it is a point of principle that the electorate is exclusively white, a colour bar remains in place.

The British parliament passes the South Africa Act in September 1909. The Union of South Africa becomes an independent dominion within the British empire in May 1910. Pretoria becomes the administrative capital of the new nation, while the legislative capital (as the seat of parliament) is Cape Town.


This History is as yet incomplete.


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