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Useful Notes / The Second Boer War

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The Relief of Ladysmith, 1900 by John Henry Frederick Bacon

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. Also 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 wasn't until the 1820s that the British started moving in large numbers or made changes in the way things were run in the Colony; when these changes did happen, however, it annoyed 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 present-day northeastern region of South Africa)—were long-lived, surviving for decades.

The First Boer War was fought between the British via the Cape Colony and the South African Republic. The Boers won the Battle of Majuba Hill, encouraging 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 Boer 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 major Cape Colony garrisons at Ladysmith, Kimberley and Mafeking; 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 

The British Army eventually resorted to rounding up entire Boer communities and imprisoning them in so-called 'Concentration Camps', the first widespreadnote  use of the strategy. At the time "concentration camps" was a neutral term which meant exactly what it sounded like: camps where the Boer population, previously dispersed thinly across the countryside, was concentrated in one place. This was done to make it easier to deal with the insurgents until the war was over and they'd be released. The once neutral term's current connotation of "place where you enslave then murder people you don't like" is purely because the Nazis intentionally used it to mask the fact that they were running slave and death camps. That said, the British concentration camps were no picnic either, as food was often scarce—sometimes intentionally so—and thousands died from the resulting combination of malnutrition and disease. 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 malnutrition left many weakened and susceptible to diseases that 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 its other African conquests, eventually lead to the declaration of the Republic of South Africa in 1961 and...

Depictions in fiction

  • In Cavalcade, patrician Robert Marryot and his manservant Alfred Bridges go off to fight in the Boer War. The Boer War is presented rather romantically as a "good war", as opposed to the later horrors of World War I.
  • 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
  • Downton Abbey: Robert Crawley, 7th Earl of Grantham served with the Grenadier Guards during the Second Boer War alongside his valet John Bates (who was his batmannote  in South Africa). 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.
  • Young Winston, a biopic of Winston Churchill, depicts his exploits in the Boer War.
  • The Nazi propaganda film Ohm Kruger, which predictably demonizes the British, especially their use of concentration camps. The irony's lost on nobody.
  • Clive Wynne-Candy, the protagonist of The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp served in the Boer War, though it's never depicted onscreen. Early scenes revolve around Candy traveling to Germany to confront a journalist accusing Britain of atrocities in the war, leading to his duel with German soldier Theo Kretschmar-Schuldorff.
  • Richard Hannay, protagonist of The Thirty-Nine Steps, is a veteran of the Boer War.
  • In Fan Fiction, Discworld author A.A. Pessimal introduced what Ankh-Morpork sniffily calls The Boor War, as part of the backstory of an expanded Discworld "Africa", and a historical reason for Rimwards Howondaland to generate attitudinal and somewhat pugnacious people who, in this world, won the War. Mainly because Ankh-Morpork sent generals like Lord Rust out to lead its colonial Army to inevitable ruin and destruction against the people they persist in calling Boors. A descendant of great Boor War leaders and fighters is, at the time of the "present-day" tales, a prominent Assassin in Ankh-Morpork. Her family are walking reasons as to why Ankh-Morpork lost. Both the Boer Wars of our world are conflated into one Boer War for narrative convenience; here Majuba Hill was fought in the same war as Spion Kop. note 
  • In Mary Poppins, Admiral Boom mistakes the dancing chimney sweeps for attacking "Hottentots," implying that he's a veteran of the Boer Wars.
  • Afrikaaner folk singer Bok van Blerk commemorates the doomed struggle of the Boers with ballads such as the hymn Afrikanerhart note  and De La Rey, about the last Boer general to surrender to the British and the men who fought literally to the last bullet and the bitter end. To a man, all the Boers in the video have got facial wounds which are leaking suspiciously bright red blood; van Blerk himself also has wounds to his hands. At this point, they launch their final attack on the British lines. British soldiers watch incredulously as the Boers walk towards them.
    In die modder en bloed lê ek koud... note 
  • The war is a background event during the appropriate seasons of Murdoch Mysteries. In one episode, Inspector Brackenreid, a former soldier, briefly enlists; in another, young Winston Churchill tours Canada telling his tales from the Boer War and winds up a murder suspect.
  • Captain Blackadder in Blackadder Goes Forth has the Queen's South Africa Medal and the King's South Africa Medal, showing he is a veteran of the Second Boer War, among his other escapades in Africa.