The Boer Wars

Memba Ben By Memba Ben, 13th Feb 2017 | Follow this author | RSS Feed
Posted in Wikinut>Writing>History

Continuing my look back at African history. A group of plucky farmers take on a colonial power in a bid to preserve their identity, gain independence, and to fight for what they believe is theirs.

The story of the Freedom Wars

Ever since Jan Van Riebeeck landed at Cape Town in 1652 and turned it into a restoration stop for their trips to the Far East, South Africa became home to Dutch colonists who later became known as Afrikaners/Boers.

Initially, it was meant to be a pit stop for the Dutch/East India Company between their spice trades but families later began to settle down in the southernmost part of Africa.

Around 1815 after the end of the Napoleonic Wars, the British were given the Cape Colony even though the Boers were still living in South Africa. This created tension between the British Empire and the Dutch East Indian Company as the trade routes by the Cape was a prized possession for the DEIC and the British Empire was under political pressure to secure military and naval bases, for strategic purposes. Despite the best efforts of the Dutch settlers, the British defeated them handily and annexed the land.

However, just because the British allowed the Dutch colonists to stay in their land didn’t mean that things were easy. The British began forcing English culture onto all its colonies. The Dutch colonists who had left their homeland and were building a new cultural identity weren’t going to have that, and knew that something had to give, which led them to undergo the Great Trek to establish their own homeland which was free from British rule. They later settled in the Transvaal.

The discovery of minerals

In 1868, it came to light that the Transvaal was rich with gold and diamonds. The British Empire knew they needed to act fast because while it might have been their land by technicality, the Transvaal was known as Boer territory. This discovery of mineral deposits led to the British Empire declaring that the land the Boers lived on was part of Britain’s colonies and annexing the Transvaal in 1877. Naturally, the Boers weren’t pleased with the news but couldn’t contest it at the time as they had fallen into war with the Pedi and Zulu Kingdoms over rights to the land.

As a show of willingness to negotiate, the Boers sent a delegation to England to try and work things out but the British didn’t have any of that. They made it clear that the matter wasn’t up for discussion; either the Boers leave the land or face the consequences. The Boers made it clear that they weren’t going anywhere and the Empire sent an Army to teach them a lesson.

When the British landed in the Cape in 1879, they unexpectedly met forces from the Zulu Kingdoms and things went down, culminating in the Anglo – Zulu War. The British Empire managed to defeat the Zulu Kingdom and annex them into British rule as part of their expansion plans. The British Empire had hoped that their victory over one of the Boers enemies would improve relations but the Boers were still unhappy with the annexation of the Transvaal and opposition towards the British grew.

The First Boer War

Things began to escalate in 1880 when an event known as the Wagon Conflict took place. Basically, a Boer had his wagon taken away from the British on the claims that he didn’t pay his taxes. The Boers caught wind of this, stormed the British complex where the wagon was kept, and gave it back to the owner. This small victory gave the Boers more belief that they could successfully fight the annexation and in December, the Boer leaders announced the return of Boer ownership over Transvaal and planted their flag on British soil, formally telling the British that the land is theirs. The British weren’t going to take this lying down and officially announced war on the Boer Republic, starting the first Anglo-Boer War. The Boer tactics were devastating which caused them to withdraw from the war, fearing it would become costly.

The British handed self-governance to the Boer Republic on the 23rd of March 1881, officially ending the First Boer War however peace would only last until 1886 when there was yet another discovery of gold, this time in the Johannesburg region. This made the Transvaal (the home of the Boer Republic) the richest province in South Africa.

Peace and Conflict

Now, while there might have been a century of conflict between the Boers and Britain based on ideological differences, this wouldn’t be based on that. The British and the Boers knew that with that gold, the Boers could potentially rival them in power and potentially claim Southern Africa as their own.

However, despite having all that wealth, the Boer Republic didn’t the labour or the industrial technology to successfully mine and the gold, which forced them to allow people (mainly British folks) with the capabilities settle in and mine the gold. The British came to outnumber the Boers and as you could imagine; with years of conflict between them, things were likely to go down.

With the large number of British people living in the Transvaal, Cecil Rhodes and other capitalists wanted to exploit the new found wealth and launch an uprising. This happened in 1896 with the Jameson Raid, but things didn’t work out fails and further strained relations between the British Empire and the Boer Republic as they believed that the British Government knew about the planned coup.

After the disaster that was the Jameson Raid, there were a lot of negotiations between the two parties in an attempt to reach a compromise on the issues of the rights of the British within the South African Republic, and the control of the gold mining industry.

The Second Boer War

The problem arose when the British began expressing desire and intention to incorporate the Transvaal and the Orange Free State into a federation under British control. Given the large influx of British people in Johannesburg, the Boer Republic recognized that giving full rights to the British would eventually result in the loss of Boer control in the South African Republic.

In 1899, things came to a head when the British basically demanded that they receive full rights in the Transvaal. Naturally, the Boers refused and issued an ultimatum on 9 October 1899, giving the British government 48 hours to withdraw all their troops from the borders of both the Transvaal and the Orange Free State or the South African Republic (under the leadership of the Boer Republic), allied to the Orange Free State, would declare war on the British government. The British government wasn’t going to back down and rejected the South African Republic's ultimatum, resulting in the South African Republic and Orange Free State declaring war on the British Empire.

Similar to the first Boer War, irregular Boer tactics proved successful against the British but for financial reasons, the British wanted the war over as quickly as possible. This led them to employ a scorched earth policy. Essentially, the British troops advanced quickly through the landscape rounding up everyone, burning everything and weeding out the Boer commandos. The tactic proved successful, leading to the deaths of a quarter of the Boer population and around 20,000 neutral blacks.

The British were exceptionally cruel when dealing with the Boers. They used of concentration camps to round up civilians and kill them. Civilians being people not directly involved with the guerilla uprising against British rule. People who were related to Boer fighters were tortured/murdered by the British.

End and Beginning

When the South African Republic found out about these camps, the war effort became increasingly unpopular and the Boer Republic had to concede defeat on the 31st May 1902, with delegates from the Transvaal and Orange Free State voting to accept the terms of the Treaty of Vereeniging, which stated that the two republics were to be absorbed into the British Empire, with the promise of self-governance in the future.

The treaty would later be honored with the creation of the Union of South Africa in 1910, which would become vital in the formation of the Republic of South Africa.


Boer War, Boer Wars, Boers, British Empire

Meet the author

author avatar Memba Ben
A fan's view on the business of football.

For more content, head to:

Share this page

moderator Peter B. Giblett moderated this page.
If you have any complaints about this content, please let us know


author avatar Tranquilpen
13th May 2017 (#)

How does a tiny group of whites manage to take South Africa from millions of blacks?

Reply to this comment

author avatar Memba Ben
13th May 2017 (#)

Hi Tranquil Pen.

It's a combination of things but I think the main one was that while it might have been a "tiny group" at first, they still did have the backing of an empire so there was no way the locals were going to have the strength to fight back.

Reply to this comment

Add a comment
Can't login?