The Second Boer War was the final phase in the British colonisation of South Africa.
The Boers were the descendants of Dutch settlers that founded the Cape Colony in the mid 17th Century. Over the course of the 17th and 18th centuries, their language and culture diverged from that of The Netherlands
(by the early 19th century, the Boers' language was seen in the Netherlands as archaic and simplistic, almost baby talk; the Boers were strict Calvinist Protestants almost to a man, while in the Netherlands there were Catholics and less-strict Protestants, and by the middle of the 19th century secular liberals and socialists as well
). In time, their tongue—different enough to be considered a separate language, similar enough to still be largely understood by a speaker of Standard Dutch—became known as Afrikaans, and the people Afrikaners. However, it took a while for these labels to catch on; even they weren't sure what to call themselves for the longest time, and until a certain, unclear point in the early 20th century, the English-speaking world called them Boers
—Afrikaans and Dutch for "Farmers" (which most of them were).
The British took control of the Dutch Cape Colony in 1795 as a precautionary measure in the Napoleonic Wars
: the French had occupied the Seven Provinces and Britain wanted to keep France from taking this all-important territory (guarding the main route to India
). However, it isn't until the 1820s that the British start moving in large numbers or making changes in the way things are run in the Colony; when these changes do happen, however, it annoys the Boers to no end. Starting in the early 1830s, many Boers migrated to the interior of South Africa in an event known as the Great Trek, dealing with the Zulu people who controlled the land, and setting up a number of "Boer Republics
". While most of these were short-lived, two—the Orange Free State (roughly equivalent to today's Free State Province) and the South African Republicnote
(based in the Transvaal region)—were long-lived, surviving for decades.
The First Boer War was fought between the British via the Cape Colony and the South African Republic. It ended in a victory for the Boers, with the British calling it quits - in the face of Boer resistance, it wasn't worth the time or money to subjugate them, and as long as they were in no position to overrun British South Africa the Crown had no problem with them being there.
The Second war was caused by increased tensions between the British and the Boer states of Transvaal and the Orange Free State, exacerbated by the discovery of the world's greatest gold deposits in said Boer States. (during the 20th century, South Africa produced >50% of the world's gold). British merchants like Cecil Rhodes - 'founder' of British Rhodesia - wanted in, and they agitated for the government to annex the Boer states, by force if necessary.
The resultant war was long, and bloody. It has been described by American historians as 'Britain's Vietnam
, only not' - though a better way to put it might be that the American phase of the Vietnam War was like the Boer War, except they lost.
The war had three generally-recognized phases. The first consisted of a preemptive strike by the formal armies of the Boer republics, resulting in sieges of several major Cape Colony garrisons; the Empire tried to fight them off and relieve the sieges with the Cape Colony forces, which resulted in precisely nothing. In the second, the Empire abandoned all pretensions of limited warfare and poured everything it had into winning, bankrolled as they were by merchants eager to see the fields of Witterstrand under British administration so that they might invest in them and reap the benefits of the boom. The third phase was when the Boers, with their formal countries dispersed or otherwise in disarray, began to conduct a harrowing guerrilla campaign.note
Army eventually resorted to rounding up entire Boer communities and imprisoning them in so-called 'Concentration Camps', the first widespreadnote
use of the strategy.note
Combined with slash-and-burn tactics which essentially deprived the guerillas of all food and ammunition supplies, the Boers surrendered after 3 years of very messy partisan warfare.
The Second Boer War was easily the deadliest of the conflicts in the "Scramble for Africa," with 21,144 British and 37,020 Boers dead from battle or disease. Most of the Boer casualties were civilians who died in internment, the result of poor administration which initially left many camps under-supplied. None died of starvation itself, but the malnutrition left many weakened and susceptible to diseases which spread easily in the confines of the camps.
The Dutch settlers never really got over this, and their own anti-British sentiment, especially as Britain began decolonizing it's other African conquests, eventually lead to the declaration of the Republic of South Africa in 1961 and...
Tropes involved during the war:
- The Ace: When their first round of generals fail spectacularly, the British send in Lord Frederick Roberts, probably the Empire's most famous and decorated soldier. Within a few months he routs the Boers and ends the conventional phase of the war. Lord Kitchener, who annihilated the Mahdists at Omdurman, then takes over counter-insurgency duties.
- Brits with Battleships: The Second Boer War, like Vietnam, was not won on the battlefield. The British Lee-Enfield rifle was a good weapon, but the Boers knew how to use them and their other rifles better than the British conscripts.
- Bug Catching: Robert Baden-Powell's favourite cover story when he went spying was posing as a butterfly collector, who apparently looked silly enough chasing those bugs to the amused Boers (and later Habsburgs in the Balkans) for them to not notice that he only found the ones around their fortifications interesting.
- Colonel Badass: Robert Baden-Powell, the founder of the Boy Scouts, made his name in this war.
- Custom Uniform: Only the artillery units of the Boer armies were uniformed. The rest wore civilian clothes.
- Combat Pragmatist: The Boers used only guerrilla tactics. In response, the British rounded up the rural civilian population of Boer South Africa and put them in camps. Quid pro Quo?
- Critical Research Failure: Judging by the war's opening campaigns, the British learned absolutely nothing from the pummeling they'd received in the First Boer War.
- Determined Homesteader: The Boers saw themselves as these. Whether or not this justifies the bloodshed they chose over submitting peacefully, given their odds of winning, depends on what side you're on.
- They had won first war, beating the crap out of Brits, so they were sure they will do the same again. If the civilian population wasn't treated in such horrible way (it's horrible now, so imagine it from the point of view of late 19th century), Boers would probably struggle for years, until both sides would decide it's time for negotiations.
- A Father to His Men: "Uncle" Paul Kruger
- General Failure: Redvers Buller lost so many battles early in the war that his troops nicknamed him "Reverse" Buller. His second-in-command, Charles Warren (of Jack the Ripper infamy) was somehow even worse.
- Grey and Grey Morality: Britain was the most benign of the Imperial powers, but even if their rule brought prosperity to the regions they governed the process left a lot of social problems when they left, and there was always a gap between the lofty ideals the government claimed as its reasoning and the business interests in the colonies it usually sided with. Likewise, it wasn't the British who instituted apartheid and its precursor policies, but the Boers once they managed to take over the administration of British South Africa from the inside.
- The relationship between the Boers and the English was never particularly good. Novels such as Kringe in die Bos and Fiela Se Kind shows the Boers living in the Cape Colonies as poor, uneducated manual labourers being looked down at and exploited by the rich English land owners.
- Hey, It's That Guy!: Sir Winston Churchill was a soldier, an Intrepid Reporter, and a fugitive during this period. He escaped from the POW prison in Pretoria, which was a converted school building.
- Robert Baden-Powell, founder of the Boy Scouts.
- The Siege: The first two years of the war were dominated by this.
Depictions in fiction
- The Defence of Duffer's Drift is set during the war, and features a young lieutenant fighting a small skirmish from it over and over until he finally gets it right. It's used as a standard military text in many academies, in addition to being a delightfully snarky work in its own right.
- Dinsmoore, from an episode of The Transformers, somehow has painful memories of the Boer War... in 1985. He looks old, but not THAT old...
- Breaker Morant
- Robert Crawley, 6th Earl of Grantham of Downton Abbey is a veteran of the Second Boer War, as is his valet John Bates (who was his batman—essentially a military valet). This informs their intense sense of loyalty to each other despite their vastly disparate social status, and Lord Grantham's sense of duty more generally (particularly when World War I hits and he is disappointed when he isn't sent to the front).
- The Doctor Who novel Players features the Sixth Doctor encountering Winston Churchill in the middle of an African battlefield, rescuing him from assassination.
- One character in a Sherlock Holmes story was a British soldier in the Boer War, where he escaped an ambush, entered what he thought was an empty building, and was woken the next morning by a patient. Turns out the building was a leper's hospital, but a further twist is that he only contracted a benign form of it. Arthur Conan Doyle wrote several works defending Britain's role in the war, one of which got him knighted.