Kruger “blunders” and declares war on the world’s Superpower!

This period cartoon captures that moment when President Paul Kruger, who in a game of political chess with Queen Victoria, is about to make a “blunder” – a disastrous move in chess which is ill considered. The British Army is ominously overseeing the move and Kruger, rightfully so, looks very worried.

The “blunder” move was simply this, after much sabre rattling and posturing by Milner and other British Imperialists in Southern Africa over mineworker representation in the Transvaal, on 11 October 1899 President Paul Kruger of the Transvaal/South African Republic (a day after his 74th birthday) in alliance with another Boer Republic – The Orange Free State, in a rather surprising move to many – declared war on Great Britain.

The move by two relatively small Boer Republics to declare war on what was then the world’s only real superpower came with some astonishment to Queen Victoria and the British Government in the United Kingdom. The British Imperialists in Southern Africa, along with the British Gold and Diamond mining magnets, on the other hand could hardly believe their luck.

Alfred Milner, the Governor of the Cape Colony had taken a belligerent stand with Kruger and pressed very hard for war against the “Transvaal” Boer Republic, it essentially stood in the way of Imperial expansionist plans.  However he did not generally have poplar support back in the United Kingdom for a war .  Once the declaration of war came from Kruger it was used as a “causes belli” (a legitimate justification to go to war) to the British public.

More alarming to the British at home in the United Kingdom was that night 800 men of the Potchefstroom and Lichtenburg commandos under General Koos de la Rey (one of General Piet Cronjé’s field generals) attacked and captured the British garrison and railway siding at Kraaipan between Vryburg and Mafeking, some 60 kilometres south west of Mafeking and well inside sovereign British territory.

Thus, with the invasion by Boer forces of a British Colony, so began the Second Anglo-Boer War. Under the orders of Cronjé the Mafeking railway and telegraph lines were cut on the same day, and the dice was rolled.

Not to trivialise the matter as a game of chess, the move by Kruger would have horrific consequences for the Boer nation. The war would see the desperation of Guerrilla tactics being employed by the Boer Forces, after the “conventional” phase of the war was lost, as a last ditch effort to maintain their sovereignty “in the field”.  The use of this tactic spurred the British to fight the remainder of the war in an utterly ruthless and murderous manner, especially in the treatment of Boer women and children – the British policies of scorched earth and concentration camps would leave a very bitter and tarnished legacy.

The question we ask now, with all the 20/20 hindsight in the world is why? Why on earth would Kruger fall for all the sabre rattling and posturing by The British?   Did he not anticipate the massive mobilisation of biggest expeditionary force the British had ever assembled to go “get their Colonies back”? Did he not see the underpinning greed of mining concerns operating in Africa – did the Jameson Raid not warn him of this?

Contrary to less informed opinion, at the onset of the war there no “massive” build up of British arms along the borders of the two Boer Republics to really threaten imminent invasion of them.  “Sabre rattling” (limited reinforcements where ordered) and warnings – yes, but a vast build up of arms – no. To coin a phrase – they where playing “chess” using an age old tactic to force the hand.

At the on-set the Boer Republics in fact had the upper hand militarily and quickly put siege to the relatively small and isolated British garrisons on the two British Colony’s borders (notably Ladysmith, Kimberley and Mafeking).  At the start of the war, numbers and arms in fact favoured the Boer Republics, it was only after war was declared that a truly massive British Imperial build up of arms and men to be shipped to Southern Africa occurred.

Central to the dispute, for the British at least was the issue of workers rights and political representation of mainly British expatriate population setting up business and working on the Gold mines in the Transvaal. The two sides summited on the 15 May 1899 in Bloemfontein to avoid war and Milner and Kruger immediately clashed over the issue of citizenship – Kruger was only prepared to grant expatriates citizenship to the “Transvaal” i.e. South African Republic after 14 years of residency, Milner insisted the period be 5 years.  The issue came to head and negotiations broke down – both protagonists as belligerent to one another as ever.

Both Milner and Kruger knew that the vast number of British expatriates  in the Transvaal would unseat the Boer government by simple majority if they became citizens, to Kruger the proposals where an attempt by Britain to take over his country (and its resources) by simple subjection.  It is best summed up in his own reply to Milner when he said “Our enfranchised burghers are probably about 30,000, and the newcomers may be from 60,000 to 70,000 and if we give them the franchise tomorrow we may as well give up the Republic.’ Kruger went on to say, “It would be ‘worse than annexation’.

To the British it was a matter of individual rights to political representation in the Republic, which was now at a boiling point on the rand.  Given the simple change in the country’s demographic due to the Gold Rush, this change was likely to be permanent and these rights could not be avoided – in essence the Boer Republic would eventually cease to exist through popular vote, it was just a really a matter of when.

To the Boers it was a fight to remain in power and keep their country. It had been contested before, the British military had already taken over the Transvaal some years before as a British Protectorate (over the issue of representation again – this time the African tribes had disputed the territory) and the British had been outed by the Boers in a small and swift war (the 1st Boer War or “Transvaal War” in 1880/81) which re-gained them their sovereignty over the territory.  It however remained a disputed territory to many, it had now become even more complex with the massive influx of expatriates and business, and the memory of Britain’s control of the Transvaal was still fresh – for both the Boers and the British.

The answer to why Kruger moved when he did, lay in the hope that the initial successes of the Boer Forces against the smaller British Forces garrisoned in Natal and the Cape Colony at the time would bring about detente.  As with the victory of the Transvaal War (the 1st Boer War 1880 to 1881) to out the British from that Republic then, Kruger hoped a swift victory would bring sense to the British position with regard to British expatriates “rights” and “citizenship” on the mines in the Transvaal and put any Imperial British expansionist plans and Milner’s obstinate attitude towards the Boer Republics to bed.

In hindsight, the move was indeed a blunder, Kruger did not get the detente he sought.  Change in the Transvaal’s political and demographic make-up was inevitable, and Kruger would not embrace it – a fierce sense of patriotism and sovereignty where central edifices for him and he chose to take up arms to stall the inevitable in a last ditch effort to keep his country under Boer control (a similar parallel can be drawn years later when the “union” of South Africa was taken back politically by the hard line Afrikaner Nationalists in 1948).

No doubt “Gold” played a role, the simple fact that it was discovered is very central to the dispute.  However of interest is just how much of a factor it played – The Boer standpoint at the time was Britain’s “Gold-magnets” started the war out of greed (the Jameson raid in their eyes proved that to them).  Some modern option is the British wanted to “steal” the Republic’s gold, however the economics of matter is that the Gold was in fact already owned by the British private concerns mining it and they paid a tax to the Transvaal government for the sale of it. This agreement on ownership and tax did not change when the Union of South Africa was established after the war, so there was no real financial gain for Britain in going to war (the fact is they owned the Gold already).

What lies more at the heart of this matter of greed is “Empire” as an ideology central to the world politics at the time – the expansion of territory around the globe by the British – the concept of a “Cape to Cairo” band of control over the whole of Africa and the sun never setting on the British Union flag.  British global expansionism was central to Milner and others as Victorian characters and the two Boer Republics stood in the way of it.

To put perspective on the robust, very brave, tenacious and largely suicidal move by Kruger in today’s context – it would be akin to two relatively small prosperous oil/gas neighbouring states like “Qatar” and “The United Arab Emirates” getting into a coalition and then declaring war against the current global Superpower – the United States of America – who has vested interest in their territories (business and large numbers of expats) and in their product (oil/gas). Today’s “Oil” is yesterday’s “Gold” in the context of global monetary exchange and world dominance (the on-going wars in the Middle East involving all the Superpowers is testament to that).  There would only be one outcome, and it would be as disastrous in this comparison context now as it was for the Boer Republics in their context then.

One thought on “Kruger “blunders” and declares war on the world’s Superpower!

  1. The First Boer War was over, with the British trounced, after three months and five days. The Second Boer War was a different story for many reasons, but in my opinion a major factor in favour of the Boere during the 1880-81 war was the logistical supply lines of the British which were not only extremely long, but arduous. When the war broke out, the Cape Western railway system was only completed from Cape Town to Beaufort West, the Cape Midland system from Port Elizabeth to Cookhouse and Graaff-Reinet respectively, the Cape Eastern system from East London to Queenstown and the Natal system from Durban to Pietermaritzburg. There were no railways in the Orange Free State and Transvaal and the Oosterlijn from Lourenco Marques still lay nine years in the future. Any movement of troops and materiel inland of these five towns therefore had to be on foot, on horseback or by ox wagon.

    When the railways of the Cape of Good Hope, Natal, the Orange Free State, the Zuid-Afrikaansche Republiek and southern Mozambique were all linked at Union Junction near Alberton on 15 December 1895, the British logistical supply lines were in place and ready for the Second Boer War, which broke out on 11 October 1899, less than four years later.

    Granted, the opening move on the Boere side was to attack the railways at Kraaipan and put Mafeking, Kimberley and Ladysmith under siege, but Oom Paul’s mistake was to not fully comprehend the difference that railways would make in the second round. Some overconfidence after winning the first round probably played a role too.

    Liked by 1 person

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