To fully reconcile The Boer War is to fully understand the ‘BLACK’ Concentration Camps

Two different current Narratives

refugeesTo many Afrikaans speaking white people in South Africa the narrative of what in South Africa is called ‘The 2nd Anglo Boer War’ (or just shortened to ‘The Boer War’) is one of a struggle of the Boer nations for independence, the backdrop set against one of British greed for gold in The South African Republic (Transvaal) and colonial expansion by the subjugation of independent nations. The Boer’s boldly fighting against the odds against a British Imperialist invasion and then having to endure the indignity of a systematic eradication of the Boer nation and culture by means of a punitive genocide initiated by what some now regard as a Nazi styled system of British ‘concentration camps’ which murdered their women and children in their tens of thousands.  An indignity and outrage which now calls for an apology and war repatriation from the British.

18056649_10155221467369476_6950152090307411838_nTo many of the British, the story is somewhat different. The British call the war ‘The South African War’ and it is one of a struggle of British migrant miners fighting against oppression and for citizen rights in The South African Republic (Transvaal). Followed by brave pockets of British garrison troops in border towns in the Cape Colony and Natal fighting off an invasion by the Boers of their colonies, the siege of their towns initiated by the Boer’s declaration of war on the British, and by besieging their towns subjecting British women and children to starvation and indiscriminate shelling by surrounding Boer guns – calling for a national outrage in the UK and a ‘call to arms’ of the biggest expeditionary force seen to date to ‘get their cities back’ and save the civilians. Then after winning the conventional war the British felt forced to depopulate large swathes of land bordering their supply routes to Pretoria. This was done to prevent constant attack on their supplies and the supply of Boer commandos (now with governments ‘in the field’ instead of their capital cities), by their own kin on their farmsteads.  Their reaction, wherever there was an attack, just put all the surrounding farmstead folk into ‘refugee camps’ (their term for the camps) and burn the farmsteads supplying the Boer forces to the ground. All because some renegade Boer commandos didn’t ‘play by the rules’ of a conventional surrender and embarked on an unconventional phase of the war instead (guerrilla war) which threw the generally accepted rules of engagement out the window.

Nasty, very nasty history this war was, and these two different views on the subject are to a degree both ‘politically’ motivated, both conveniently serving to underpin ‘Nationalist’ ideologies and in so supporting political agendas – whether it is a Boer or British one.

A third dimension

So, somewhere between the two vastly different narratives lies the truth, but there’s a third part of the war neither of the above two narratives even begins to properly consider, and it’s a part of the Boer/South African War which fundamentally shifts all previous narratives on the war, moving it away from a war between two white tribes to a more holistic one involving all South Africans.  Ground breaking research is now been done on the ‘Black’ involvement in the war and the impact to the Black community.  New understanding is coming about and it is shaking the traditional British and Boer narratives and historical accounts to the core.

At the very centre of understanding this previously overlooked aspect of the war is the unveiling of the history of the ‘Black’ concentration camps of the Boer War.  Their impact to the Black community, almost no different to the impact to the Boer community.  The only difference is the politically driven race politics post the Boer War, and especially during the Apartheid period, which simply brushed it aside as something less relevant with a brutal degree of apathy, leaving us all now with a ‘perception’ of the war rather than a truth.

In an odd sense, it is only by understanding this aspect of the war that full account and truths are established, that anything by way of ‘apologies’ or ‘reparations’ in our modern context can even be possible.

The Black History of the Boer War

So, if you are unfamiliar with the ‘Black’ part of the Boer War here it is.  South Africa’s ‘Black’ tribal population also took part in the war, on a scale most people are unaware of.

In the case of the Boer forces, very often Black farm workers took on the role of ‘agterryers’ (rear rider) in fighting Commandos, their job was a combination of military ‘supply’ and one of a military ‘aide-de-camp’ (assistant) to one or more of the Boer fighters.  These ‘agterryers’ ferried ammunition, weapons, supplies and food to the Boer combatants, they arranged feed for horses and in some cases, they were even armed.

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Boer officer and his agterryer

It was not only Black men in support, but Black women too, they supported the Boer women in providing food and feed to frontline commandos and when the concentration camp systems started they (with their children) were also swept up and in many cases also accompanied and lived in the tents with the Boer families interned in the ‘white’ concentration camps themselves, primarily looking after the children (black and white), sourcing food and water as well as cooking and washing.  They too were exposed to the same ravages of war in the camps as the white folk, mainly the water-borne diseases which so decimated the women and children in these camps.

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A Black women in a Boer Concentration Camp

The British were no different, they quickly employed the local Black population as ‘scouts’ and numerous examples exist of these ‘scouts’ conducting surveillance of Boer positions and intelligence on Boer movements as well as guiding the British through the unforgiving South African terrain.

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British officers with a Black African ‘Scout’ observing terrain

 

The British also sought manpower from the local Black population in cargo loading and supply haulage.  These people were as much a part of moving British military columns as any military person involved in logistics and supply and to a degree they were also exposed to hazards of war.

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Black Africans in British Service, the brass armband signifies military service

 

The British would also ‘commandeer’ entire Black tribal villages for the use of setting up forward bases, strong points and defences – putting entire village populations at risk and literally bringing them into their ‘war effort’.

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Black African village taken over by the British for a strong-hold position

There is even a recorded event when Black South Africans took a more direct role in the war.   On 16 May 1902, Chief Sikobobo waBaqulusi, and a Zulu impi marched on Vryheid and attacked a Boer commando at dawn with losses on both sides.

Context behind the Concentration Camp policy

However, the biggest and most deadly impact to the Black African nations in the Boer War, came in their own earmarked British concentration camps.  So how did that come about?  To understand why the concentration camps initially came about and their purpose we need to put both the white and black concentration camps into context.

To the British, the war should have ended when they marched into Pretoria in September 1900, having now relieved the Boer sieges of their towns of Ladysmith in their Natal Colony, Mafeking and Kimberley in their Cape Colony, and having already taken The Orange Free State’s capital.  The war was over, ‘officially’ they had annexed both republics and they even called for a post war ‘khaki election’ back in the UK to reshuffle Westminster to post war governance.

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Not for the Boer forces it wasn’t.  The British in marching into Pretoria found themselves stretched deep into ‘hostile’ territory with extended and vulnerable supply lines stretching over hundreds of kilometres.   Boer strategy was to move their government ‘into the field’, abandon the edicts of Conventional Warfare and embark on ‘Guerrilla Warfare’ tactics instead, to disrupt supply and isolate the British into pockets.  To do this they would need food, ammunition and feed supplied directly from their own farmsteads surrounding their chosen targets.  Isolated British garrisons came under attack with some initial Boer successes, their forces then melting away into the country. Easy targets were also trains and train lines, and after many a locomotive steamed into Pretoria riddled with bullet holes or didn’t make it all, Lord Kitchener got fed up at the arrogance of it all and acted decisively.

blockhouseKitchener concentrated on restricting the freedom of movement of the Boer commandos and depriving them of local support. The railway lines and supply routes were critical, so he established 8000 fortified blockhouses along them and subdivided the land surrounding each of them into a protective radius.  Short of troops to man all these strong points (he needed 50 000 troops) and control the protective areas, Kitchener also turned to the local Black African population and used over 16 000 of them as armed guards and to patrol the adjacent areas.

Wherever and whenever an attack took place, or where sufficient threat existed to this system, Kitchener took to the policy of depopulating the radius area, burning down the farmsteads, killing the livestock and moving all the people – both Black and White (it mattered not to the British what colour they were) into what was termed a ‘refugee camp’ by the British, these camps however were in reality a concentration camp of civilian deportees forcibly removed from their homes.

 


Two systems of concentration camps existed, one for Blacks and one for Whites.  Both were run very differently.  Victorian sentiment at the time was very racially guided.

The Boer Concentration Camps

The ‘White’ camps were tented and the ‘refugees’ (more accurately forced removed and displaced civilians) were given rations of food and water.  The British could also not afford the resources to ‘guard’ and administrate these camps, and herein lies the problem.  It was due to the lack of ability to manage the camps that some camps were managed well and others simply were not, some fell under British military command others were ‘outsourced’ to local contractors manage, and both British and quite often Afrikaner entrepreneurs were brought in to administrate the camps.  In most instances these camps were very isolated, and by isolation it simply meant the people in them had nowhere else to go (there were no Nazi styled ‘wire’ fences with prisoners shot trying to escape), the camps were in fact relatively porous with regard the movement of people in them.

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Bloemfontein Boer Concentration Camp

Some camps were well run, orderly with demarcated tent lines and health policies implemented based on running a normal military camp (tents and bedding were regularly aired out) and ablutions correctly located with drainage.  Other camps were not well run at all, the administrators allowing the Boer families to ‘clump’ their tents together with no proper ablution planning or health policy.  Policies on food rationing also differed from camp to camp.  In some camps, sadistic camp administrators took to punitive measures to ‘punish’ the Boer families whose menfolk were still fighting in the field to get them to surrender, literally starving these people to the point that just enough food was given to keep the alive.

It follows that in these camps, especially the poorly administrated ones, that social disease would take root, and it came in all sorts forms ranging from poor nutrition to exposure, but it mainly came in the form of waterborne diseases from poor sanitation.  Here again, some camps were medically geared to deal with it, others not.  The net result of all of this is a tragedy on an epic level.

The official figure of the death toll to white Boer women and children in the camps is 26 370, a staggering figure when you consider that only an estimated 6000 Boer combatants in the field died in the war. Another tragedy (lesser so than life) was the loss of family heirlooms and family records to the relocation and scorched earth policies, this served to erase the inherent culture and history of the Boer peoples. The combination of both the systematic erosion of Boer culture and the astronomical rise in death rates of the ‘fountain’ of Boer race – their women and children, has left a deep scar of hatred and loss which still openly exists to this day, and for good reason.

The Black Concentration Camps

The ‘Black’ concentration camps were a different matter entirely. On the 21st December 1900, Lord Kitchener made no bones about his new concentration camp policy at the inaugural meeting of the Burgher Peace Committee held in Pretoria, where he remarked that in addition to the Boer families, both ‘stock’ and ‘Blacks’ would also be brought in.

As said, Victorian sentiment was very racially guided, and where the ‘white’ concentration camps were at least given some semblance of tents for shelter, food, aid workers, water rationing and some medical aid albeit entirely inadequate, the ‘Black’ concentration camps had very little of that.

Black concentration camps, were also earmarked to isolated areas bordering railway lines so they could be supplied – with both deportees and supplies.  The isolation also became the means of containment.  However no ‘tented’ constructs were provided in most instances and these Black civilians were simply left on arid land to build whatever shelters they could scourge for.  They were also not given food rations on a system resembling anything near the system provided ‘white’ camps, in the white camps the food rations were basically free of charge, in the black camps they had to pay for it.

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Black women on their way to a concentration camp in the Transvaal

In all an estimated 130 000 black civilians (mainly farm labourers on Boer farms) were displaced and put into this type of concentration camp, 66 camps in total (with more still been identified, some sources say as many as 80 camps), all based primarily on the British fear that these Black people would assist the Boers during the war.

During early 1901, the black concentration camps were initially set up to accommodate white refugees. However, by June 1901, the British government established a Native Refugee Department in the Transvaal under the command of Major G.F. de Lotbinier, a Canadian officer serving with the Royal Engineers. He took over the black deportees in the Orange Free State in August that year and a separate department for blacks was created.

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Medical inspection inside a Black concentration camp as administered by the Native Refugee Department. Orange Free State, 1901. Note the black mourning band worn by the RAMC Doctor and the armed African wearing a British army tunic top. Children with distended stomachs inspected, including the toddler with a ruptured umbilical – starvation. In the background to right of the Doctor a child bites its fingers while witnessing this inspection. Note the shelters. No tents – caption and research by Dr. Garth Benneyworth.

Entire townships and even mission stations were transferred into concentration camps. The Black camps differed from the Boers in that they contained large a number of males. This meant the camps were located by railway lines where the men could provide a ready supply of local labour. Work was however paid, and it was via this economy that the Black deportees could properly sustain themselves in the camps.  In this respect to better understand what these camps were, the concept of a ‘forced labour camp’ would be a better definition.

Of the Black concentration camps, 24 were in the old Orange Free State Republic, 4 in the Cape Colony and 36 in the old South African (Transvaal) Republic. There was a single concentration camp in Natal at Witzieshoek, and more camps are identified to this very day . Some of the camps were for permanent habitation and others were of a temporary nature intended for transit.  Their stories speak volumes for the way they were treated.

On the 22 of January 1902, At the Boschhoek Black concentration camp the deportees held a protest meeting. Stating that when they have been brought into the camps they have been promised that they will be paid for all their stock taken by the British, for all grain destroyed and that they will be fed and looked after, none of which had not been forthcoming. They were also unhappy because “… they receive no rations while the Boers who are the cause of the war are fed in the refugee camps free of charge … they who are the ‘Children of the Government’ are made to pay’.

23 January 1902 records that two Black deportees of the Heuningspruit concentration camp for Blacks, Daniel Marome and G.J. Oliphant, complained to Goold-Adams: “We have to work hard all day long but the only food we can get is mealies and mealie meal, and this is not supplied to us free, but we have to purchase same with our own money. “We humbly request Your Honour to do something for us otherwise we will all perish of hunger for we have no money to keep on buying food.”

The ‘official’ rations were meagre at best and had to be purchased, for ‘Natives’ over 12 years of age: Daily: 1½ lbs either mealies, K/corn, unsifted meal or mealie meal; ¼ oz salt; Weekly: 1 lb fresh or tinned meat; ½ coffee; 2 oz sugar – all but the corn was to cost the Black deportee receiving it 4½d per ration.

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Black women in a Black concentration camp in Klerksdorp, note the lack of infrastructure and shelter

By 1902 18 January, Major De Lorbiniere, writes that supplying workers to the army ‘formed the basis on which our system was founded’. The department’s mobilisation of Black labour was very successful – however really this is not surprising at all considering the incentives offered. Those in service of the British and their families could buy mealies at a halfpence per lb, or 7/6 a bag, while those who do not accept employment had to pay double, or 1d per lb and 18/- or more per bag.

The camps, usually situated in an open veld, they were overcrowded, the tents and huts were placed too close together and did not provide adequate protection from the harsh African weather. They were extremely hot in summer and ice cold in winter. Materials for roofing were scarce, also no coal was provided for warmth.  In addition to this misery there was a severe shortage of both food and water (mainly fresh vegetables, milk and meat) .

Water supplies were often contaminated by disease and any form of medical attention was rare to non-existent. Abhorrent sub-human conditions meant that water-borne diseases like dysentery, typhoid and diarrhoea spread with ease and the death rate climbed drastically.

The horrific conditions these deportees subjected to were superseded only by even more abhorrent treatment, the same social diseases, exposure and nutrition problems sprung up in these camps as they did in the ‘White’ Boer camps, with the same horrific result.

Most of the deaths in the concentration camps were caused by disease, and it took root with the most vulnerable, mainly children. By this stage in the war, the death rates in the Black concentration were climbing to unacceptable levels. An aid worker, Mr H.R. Fox, the Secretary of the Aborigines Protection Society, was made aware by Emily Hobhouse that the Ladies Commission (the Fawcett Commission – looking into the problems and death rates in the concentration camps) had focussed solely on the ‘White” concentration camps and completely ignored the plight of Blacks in their concentration camps.  So, he promptly wrote to Joseph Chamberlain, the Colonial Secretary, requesting an inquiry be instituted by the British government “as should secure for the natives who are detained no less care and humanity than are now prescribed for the Boer refugees”.

On this request Sir Montagu Ommaney, the permanent under-secretary at the Colonial Office, responded that it seems undesirable “to trouble Lord Milner … merely to satisfy this busybody”.  With that swift apathy to the plight of the Black deportees came another tragedy on an epic level.

By the beginning of 1902, conditions in black camps were however improved somewhat in order to reduce the death rate. More nutrients were introduced (tinned milk, Bovril and corn flour) and shops were opened that allowed black people to buy some produce and equipment, mainly items like flour, sugar, coffee, tea, syrup, candles, tobacco, clothes and blankets.

The total Black deaths in camps are officially calculated at a minimum of 14 154 (about 1 in 10).  However recent work by Dr. Garth Benneyworth estimates it as at least 20 000, this after examining actual graveyards and factoring that burials had also taken place away from the camps themselves. Dr. Benneyworth notes that the British records are incomplete and in many cases non-existent and the fact that many civilians died outside of the camps in labour or transit or were buried in shared graves, this caused the final death toll to be much higher.  The high rate of child death in the Victorian period aside, a staggering 81% of the fatalities in the Black concentration camps were children.

In Conclusion

Compare that to the Boer concentration camps, where the deaths are recorded are around the 26 000 mark and it becomes clear that the Black population of South Africa suffered the same as the White population during the Boer war.  However, the fact is that historical research into the Black involvement in the war is sorely missing from the general narrative.  Post the Boer war and during Apartheid a lot of research around the Boer concentration camps was done, even monuments and museums were erected to them. It served Nationalist political agenda at the time in establishing Afrikaner identity along a separate race line, so almost nothing by way of research was done on the Black concentration camps, no monuments, museums or even a solid historical account exist of them at all. The Black history of the Boer war most certainly did not make it into mainstream ‘National Christian’ government education curriculum at the time.  As a result the Boer war is simply just not properly understood to this day.

If you add to this the glossed over South African Black History behind their contributions and sacrifices in WW1 and WW2, you can see that Race Politics in South Africa has simply not taken the Black history and their sacrifice along with the mainstream historical account, especially the history prior to the implementation of Apartheid in 1948. What this alienation of critical parts of our history from the overall historical record has done, has reinforced the narrative that black lives were somehow of a lesser consequence to white lives. So, there is no surprise that most modern South Africans (mainly youth) simply can’t be bothered with properly understanding South African history prior to 1994.

There is still a very long way to go to fully understanding the war – but the future in reconciling the true effect of this war and redressing it as a nation – is to understand that the Boer War was not only a ‘white’ man’s war, nor the concentration camps strictly about Afrikaner women and children, a much bigger story exists and its one which needs to be reconciled with – and that is the suffering of South Africa’s black population and the extraordinary losses they experienced in these concentration camps too.

The redress for white Afrikaners in South Africa as to any form of global awareness and world condemnation of this tragedy to their nation lies in the reconciliation of the history with the previously unwritten and misunderstood black history behind The Boer War.  Only if his tragedy is seen as a national issue, with a common cause and reconciliatory national healing process behind it to deal properly with it, only then can amends and long awaited apologies from the British be found.


Written and Researched by Peter Dickens with references and extracts from the Military History Journal Vol 11 No 3/4 – October 1999 Black involvement in the
 Anglo-Boer War, 1899-1902 by Nosipho Nkuna, also references from Dr Garth Benneyworth and ‘Erasure of black suffering in Anglo-Boer War’ By Ntando PZ Mbatha.  Photo copyrights – The Imperial War Museum and Dawie Fourie.

 

‘Waffen SS’ uses the Boer War to recruit the Dutch

An interesting Nazi propaganda poster from the Second World War, with a South African spin.

Waffen SS Propaganda and the Netherlands

At the beginning of the war, the idea of the 3rd Reich and Nazism was not central to Germany, furthermore the idea of a united Europe under the discipline and economic policies of Fascist ideologies and concepts like the 3rd Reich was widely accepted by large communities in countries like France (mainly in the South), Belgium, Austria, the Netherlands (including ‘Holland’), Hungary, Croatia, Italy, Romania and Bulgaria.

This poster, with the clever use of propaganda and imagery is a recruitment poster for the Waffen SS, aimed at Dutch Nationals (Netherlands Legion). It forms part of a propaganda poster campaign which asks Dutch nationals to question themselves on who exactly is a true Dutch patriot, implying the ones that join Germany in the fight against Bolshevism (“Communism” and Russia) are the true Dutchmen.


It pulls at a strong emotional trigger amongst the Dutch which was still very prevalent at the beginning of World War 2, which was the 2nd Anglo-Boer War (1899 – 1902). Dutch sentiment during the Boer War sided with the Boer Republics (driven by historical, language and cultural bonds) and many in the Netherlands where quite appalled by the way the British had conducted the war and the atrocities committed against Boer women and children. 

Thus the clever use of Paul Kruger, “speaking” a well-known phrase in Afrikaans (and Dutch) ‘Everything Will Be All Right” and this leads into a call to action in Dutch “Fight Bolshevism with the Waffen-SS”. At the time Paul Kruger (the last State President of the ‘Transvaal Republic’ i.e South African Republic) was internationally known as the face of Boer resistance against British occupation during the 2nd Anglo-Boer War.

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Johannes Brand

The phrase “alles sal reg kom” (everything will be all right) is also clever as it was coined by another Boer Republic State President – this time the Orange Free State, Johannes Brand who said in “Cape” Dutch – “alles zal recht komen als elkeen zijn plicht doet” (all will be well if everyone does his duty) and this entered popular culture as “ALLES SAL REG KOM” – both in the Netherlands and South Africa.

Subtle, but implied in the Poster by the use of Paul Kruger is the call to action to fight not only Bolshevism (Russia) but also their “allies” in the war which was the United Kingdom – so hated by many Dutch for their treatment of their “brother nation” – the Boer nation.

To really understand the Waffen-SS, it needs to be known that it was not really part of the German Army, instead it was a “political” armed wing of the German Nazi Party’s Schutzstaffel (SS, “Protective Squadron”).  The ‘SS’ and ‘Waffen SS’ are two separate entities joined at the hip.  The Waffen SS comprised military formations which were formed to include men from Nazi Germany and volunteers (and later conscripts in some cases) from both occupied and un-occupied lands.

Waffen SS Foreign Divisions

The Waffen-SS targeted occupied countries for man-power. Reason being the SS itself was limited in Germany to a very small percentage of the yearly German call up and outside of Germany they had no such restrictions on them if recruiting for the ‘Waffen’ SS.

To this end the Waffen SS initiated very strong propaganda campaigns calling members of the occupied countries to fight with them, essentially against the ‘Communist or Bolshevist Onslaught’ of Soviet Communism.  The Dutch proved the most fertile ground for this campaign, in total 25 000 Dutchmen volunteered to serve in the Waffen SS.

The Dutch by percentage of population made up the biggest number of volunteers in Europe to join the Waffen-SS. Many volunteering within six weeks of the occupation of their country by Nazi Germany.

Adolf Hitler resisted integrating the Waffen-SS into the army, as it was intended to remain the armed wing of the Nazi Party and his plan was for it to become an elite police force once the war was won.

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Dutch and French Waffen SS

Initially, in keeping with the racial policy of Nazi Germany, membership was only open to people of Germanic origin (so-called Aryan ancestry). The rules were partially relaxed in 1940, although groups considered by Nazis to be “sub-human” like ethnic Poles or Jews remained excluded.

Hitler authorised the formation of units within The Waffen-SS largely or solely compiled of foreign volunteers and conscripts. Foreign SS units were made up of men from Albania, Armenia, Azerbaijan, Belarus, Belgium (both Wallonia and Flanders), Bulgaria, Croatia, Denmark, Estonia, Finland, France, Galicia, Georgia, Hungary, India, Ireland, Italy, Latvia, Luxembourg, the Netherlands, Norway, Romania, Russia (including Cossack and Tatar, Turkic SSR Republics), Slovakia, Slovenia, Spain, Sweden, Ukraine, Asian Regiment, Arab Regiment, the United States (15–20 volunteers) and British (27 volunteers – which included Commonwealth members and even included 5 South Africans).

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Waffen SS foreign unit badges

The Waffen SS grew from initially 3 Regiments to over 38 Divisions in World War 2, serving alongside the ‘Heer’ (regular German Army) and the Ordnungspolizie (uniformed Police) and other security units.

Images show French and Flanders (Belgium) Waffen SS

Although having a fierce reputation in conventional fighting alongside the German army all over Europe – East and West fronts, at the post-war Nuremberg trials the Waffen-SS was condemned as a criminal organisation due to its connection to the Nazi Party and involvement in numerous war crimes.

Waffen-SS veterans were denied many of the rights afforded to veterans who had served in the Heer (army), Luftwaffe (air force) or Kriegsmarine (navy). An exception was made for the Waffen SS conscripts sworn in after 1943, who were exempted because they were not volunteers.


To read up a little more on South Africans involved in the Waffen SS, please feel free to follow this link to a previous Observation Post article.

South African Nazi in the Waffen SS

Researched by Peter Dickens with added research from Sandy Evan Hanes – reference Wikipedia.  Images – colourised Waffen SS, ‘Colour by Doug’ copyright.

Sergeant Major Gandhi’s military service in Natal

It is strange to think of Mahatma Gandhi as having served in the military, but in many ways his military service and witness to war in South Africa shaped the future icon of peace and tolerance which he was to become.

Gandhi is generally quite misunderstood, like Smuts and Churchill, he was a man born in a period of ‘Empire’, the ideals of that period – its systems of governance and politics was fundamentally different to what we understand in the context of modern politics and individual freedoms.  ‘Empire’ was the way the world worked then, literally – it dictated geo politics and trade.

48934-OGJmNDllZjVjOAIn this context rose a young, British educated lawyer – Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi -who emigrated to the British Colonies in Southern Africa to make a name for himself and start a new life.  He was at the start of his life quite supportive of British policies in South Africa and those of British empire and expansion.

Historians and political pundits have forever struggled to explain why the apostle of peace and non-violence had rendered support to the British Empire in the Boer War, the 1906 Natal Rebellion and the First World War.

What is clear by his own writings was that his intensions in supporting the British Army in Southern Africa was to buy the Indian population in Southern Africa more political concession and representation based on endorsement and participation in British war efforts.

The Boer War

Gandhi actually played a pivotal role in the Boer War, forming  Natal Indian Ambulance Corps under the British Military.  He even raised the money to form the Corps from the local Indian Community.   It consisted of 300 “free” Indians and 800 indentured labourers (Indians were encouraged to emigrate to South Africa as labourers under contract, once the specified dates of the contract finished they were “free” to own land and make their own way as citizens).

The Boer War was officially declared by the Boers in October 1899 when they invaded the British Colonies of Natal and the Cape.  This attack led to the Siege of Ladysmith and the Garrison stationed there.   In an urgent response the British authorities recruited the Natal Volunteer Ambulance Corps of about 1100 local White men. At the same time Gandhi pressed for his Indian stretcher-bearers to be allowed to serve.

Battle of Colenso

Dubbed “Black Week”, from 10–17 December 1899, the British Army, unprepared for the Boer invasion, completely outnumbered and outgunned suffered three devastating defeats by the Boer forces, starting at Stomberg, then Magerfontein and finally ending the black week at Colenso.  In all the British lost a total of 2,776 men killed, wounded and captured.

It was the Battle of Colenso on 15 December 1899, that the Natal Volunteer Ambulance Corps first saw action, removing the wounded from the front line and then transported them to the railhead.

Battle of Spion Kop 

After Colenso, the first full attempt to relieve Ladysmith by the British was met with absolute disaster at Spion Kop (or Spionkop) for the British. Spion Kop (Afrikaans: Spioenkop meaning “spy hill”) is a mountain located near the town of Ladysmith, 27 km to the South West.

On the 23rd January 1900, the British climbed up the Spion kop hill at night and in dense mist. They surprised the small Boer piquet there and drove them off the kop at bayonet point. The Boer piquet retreated down the hill to their camp waking up their fellow Boers by screaming “Die Engelse is op die kop.” (The English are on the hill.). At that time a half-company of British sappers began to entrench their position on the hill with a mere 20 picks and 20 shovels (oddly – while almost 1,000 soldiers stood around idle).

As dawn broke, the British discovered that they held only the smaller and lower part of the hilltop of Spion Kop, while the Boers occupied higher ground on three sides of the British position. The British had no direct knowledge of the topography of the summit and the darkness and fog had compounded the problem. Furthermore, the British trenches were inadequate for all defensive purposes. Because the summit of the kop was mostly hard rock, the trenches were at most 40 centimetres (16 in) deep and provided an exceptionally poor defensive position – the British infantry in the trenches could not see over the crest of the plateau and the Boers were able to fire down the length of the crescent-shaped trench from the adjacent peaks.

By the end of the battle, the British suffered 243 fatalities; many were buried in the trenches where they fell. Approximately 1,250 British were either wounded or captured. The Boers suffered 335 casualties of which 68 were dead.

During the battle, the Natal Volunteer Ambulance Corps (including Gandhi) moved into the frontline to collect the wounded.

There is an account of Ghandi’s bearing during the Battle of Spion-Kop. Vera Stent described the work of the Indians in the Illustrated Star of Johannesburg, July 1911, as follows:

ghandi7“My first meeting with Mr. M. Gandhi was under strange circumstances. It was on the road from Spion Kop, after the fateful retirement of the British troops in January 1900.

The previous afternoon I saw the Indian mule-train moved up the slopes of the Kop carrying water to the distressed soldiers who had lain powerless on the plateau. The mules carried the water in immense bags, one on each side, led by Indians at their heads. The galling rifle-fire, which heralded their arrival on the top, did not deter the strangely-looking cavalcade which moved slowly forward, and as an Indian fell, another quietly stepped forward to fill the vacant place. Afterwards the grim duty of bearer corps, which Mr. Gandhi organised in Natal, began.

It was on such occasions the Indians proved their fortitude, and the one with the greatest fortitude was the subject of this sketch [Mr. Gandhi]. After a night’s work, which had shattered men with much bigger frames I came across Gandhi in the early morning sitting by the roadside – eating a regulation Army biscuit. Everyman in Buller’s force was dull and depressed, and damnation was heartily invoked on everything. But Gandhi was stoical in his bearing, cheerful, and confident in his conversation, and had a kindly eye. He did one good… I saw the man and his small undisciplined corps on many a field during the Natal campaign. When succour was to be rendered they were there.”

34 Indian leaders were awarded the Queen’s South Africa Medal for actions in the Boer War. Gandhi’s is held by the Nehru Memorial Museum in New Delhi.

1906 Natal Rebellion

The Zulu uprising in Natal during 1906 was the result of a series of culminating factors and misfortunes; an economic slump following the end of the Boer War, simmering discontent at the influx of White and Indian immigration causing demographic changes in the landscape, a devastating outbreaks of rinderpest among cattle and a rise in a quasi-religious separatist movement with a rallying call of ‘Africa for the Africans’.

The agricultural mainstay of the economy of Natal had been adversely affected by the depletion of the Black workforce to the more lucrative work in the mines of the Witwatersrand.  The imposition of Hut Tax was a further burden and then the introduction of a Poll Tax on each male over 18 years in Natal and Zululand by the cash-strapped government was to be the final straw turning discontent into open rebellion.

The enforced collection of this tax was deeply resented by many Blacks, it raised tensions considerably within Natal and resulted in a series of incidents and finally the murder of a farmer and the deaths of two Natal policemen in January 1906. This caused the Governor Sir Henry McCullum to declare Martial Law on the 9 February and the militia were called out.

By this time Gandhi had attained the rank of Seargent Major and encouraged the British to recruit Indians. He argued that Indians should support the war efforts to legitimise their claims to full citizenship. The British accepted Gandhi’s offer to let a detachment of 20 Indians volunteer as a stretcher-bearer corps to treat wounded British soldiers. This corps was commanded by Gandhi and operated for about two months.

For his action Gandhi was awarded another medal, the Natal Rebellion 1906 medal.

gandhi SA

Gandhi seated centre row 4th from the left

The experience however taught him it was hopeless to directly challenge the overwhelming military power of the British army, he decided it could only be resisted in a non-violent fashion, driven by the purity of heart.

Peaceful Resistance

In 1910, the same year the South African Union was established, Gandhi established an idealistic community called ‘Tolstoy Farm’ near Johannesburg.  It was here, based on his wartime experience and unsuccessful experiences of collaborative politics with the British, that he nurtured his policy of peaceful resistance.

In all Mahatma Gandhi spent 22 years of his life in South Africa, a significant period of time, and there is no doubt the region’s politics and violence forged the man he had become by the time he returned to India in 1915.  On arrival in India he brought with him an international reputation as a leading Indian nationalist, theorist and organiser. He joined the Indian National Congress and was introduced to Indian issues, the rest as they say … is history.

The bloody South African connection with Liverpool FC’s famous “Kop” stand!

One for the football fans! Another back of the “chappie gum wrapper” did you know fact. South African military history and the 2nd Anglo Boer War specifically are forever bound in a number of terraces and stands at sports stadiums attended by hardcore fans in the United Kingdom – the most notable is “The Kop” stand at Liverpool FC’s Anfield Stadium.

Spion Kop (or Kop for short) is a colloquial name or term used for a number of sports stadium terraces and stands. Their steep nature resembles a hill near Ladysmith, South Africa, that was the scene of the Battle of Spion Kop in January 1900 during the Second Boer War.

The Battle of Spion Kop was fought about 38 km west-south-west of Ladysmith on the hilltop of Spioenkop along the Tugela River, Natal in South Africa from 23–24 January 1900. It was fought between the Boer Forces of the South African Republic and the Orange Free State on the one hand and British forces during the campaign to relieve Ladysmith. It was a British defeat.

After a tense standoff between Milner and Kruger over political and citizenship rights for the mainly British immigrant gold miners living in the Transvaal (South African) Republic. In a pre-emptive move to gain an upper hand in the negotiations, put the arrogant Milner and other British Imperial expansionist warmongers in Cape Town in their place and obtain a swift victory whilst British garrison forces were relatively weak and unsupported in Southern Africa (and whilst the Boer forces had superior fire-power, weapons technology and troop numbers) with what was hoped to be a minimum loss of life – war was declared by the Boers against the British.

President Paul Kruger and Sir Alfred Milner departing after the failed Bloemfontein conference in June 1899.

So with war officially declared on 11 October 1899 by Kruger, the Boer forces immediately went on a surprise offensive (literally the same day as declaring war) invading the two British colonies of Natal and the Cape Colony.  However the British garrison towns at Ladysmith, Mafeking and Kimberley held up the invasion and the Boer forces took to the tactic to besiege these towns, bombard them (using their famous “Long Tom” cannons and other artillery pieces) and in so literally starve them of fighting capability and pound them into a surrender.

The Victorian British political class, press (media) and public, somewhat surprised by this bold move by two small “farming” Republics invading British territory, and aghast at the starvation and bombardment of both British soldiers and British civilians alike in their  towns, then mustered the largest expeditionary force ever seen date to relieve these towns – literally to go and get them back.  However, the then world’s only real “superpower” was in for a big surprise in this first phase of the Anglo Boer War as the Boer forces initially took the upper hand and gave them a bloody nose they would never forget.

The first full attempt to relieve Ladysmith by this expeditionary force to South Africa was met with absolute disaster at Spion Kop (or Spionkop) for the British. Spion Kop (Afrikaans: Spioenkop meaning “spy hill”) is a mountain located near the town of Ladysmith, 27 km to the South West.

On the 23rd January 1900, the British climbed up the Spion kop hill at night and in dense mist. They surprised the small Boer piquet there and drove them off the kop at bayonet point. The Boer piquet retreated down the hill to their camp waking up their fellow Boers by screaming “Die Engelse is op die kop.” (The English are on the hill.). At that time a half-company of British sappers began to entrench their position on the hill with a mere 20 picks and 20 shovels (oddly – while almost 1,000 soldiers stood around idle).

As dawn broke, the British discovered that they held only the smaller and lower part of the hilltop of Spion Kop, while the Boers occupied higher ground on three sides of the British position. The British had no direct knowledge of the topography of the summit and the darkness and fog had compounded the problem. Furthermore, the British trenches were inadequate for all defensive purposes. Because the summit of the kop was mostly hard rock, the trenches were at most 40 centimetres (16 in) deep and provided an exceptionally poor defensive position – the British infantry in the trenches could not see over the crest of the plateau and the Boers were able to fire down the length of the crescent-shaped trench from the adjacent peaks.

By the end of the battle, the British suffered 243 fatalities; many were buried in the trenches where they fell. Approximately 1,250 British were either wounded or captured. The Boers suffered 335 casualties of which 68 were dead.

The British, unable to hold the Spion Kop hill under withering and accurate fire from the Boer forces retreated back over the Tugela, but the Boers were too exhausted from the fight to pursue and follow up their success. Once across the river the British rallied their troops and Ladysmith would be relieved four weeks later.

This first significant loss by the British in The Anglo Boer War was to be forever emblazoned on the collective British memory, and the first recorded reference to a sports terrace as “Kop” related to Woolwich Arsenal’s Manor Ground in 1904.

However, it was in Liverpool that the tradition really took hold when a local newsman likened the silhouette of fans standing on a newly raised bank of earth to soldiers standing atop the hill at the Battle of Spion Kop.

In 1906 Liverpool Echo sports editor Ernest Edwards noted of a new open-air embankment at Anfield: “This huge wall of earth has been termed ‘Spion Kop’, and no doubt this apt name will always be used in future in referring to this spot”. The use of the name was given formal recognition in 1928 upon construction of a roof. It is thought to be the first terrace officially named Spion Kop.

The Kop became the Liverpool FC home supporters’ end of Anfield Stadium and is widely dedicated to the many Liverpool-born soldiers who died at The Battle of Spion Kop. This stand became legendary in football for the atmosphere, and is still regarded as creating the most intense atmosphere in English football, with the many songs and massive volume that LFC fans create wherever they go. The capacity is 12,409.

Even the nickname sometimes given to Liverpool supporters “Kopites” derives from this home supporters end “The Kop”.

Many other English football clubs and some Rugby league clubs (such as Wigan’s former home Central Park) applied the same name to stands in later years.

Villa Park’s old Holte End was historically the largest of all Kop ends, closely followed by the old South Bank at Molineux, both once regularly holding crowds in excess of 30,000. However in the mid-1980s work was completed on Hillsborough’s Kop which, with a capacity of around 22,000, became the largest roofed terrace in Europe.

The “Kop” stands at St Andrews (left) and Meadow Lane (right).

Even one for the golfers, The Wrekin Golf Club in Shropshire, founded in 1905, named its 13th hole Spion Kop in honour of the men from the region who fell in the battle.

The Battle of Spion Kop was actually to shape the minds and politics of three key individuals, and in so shape the future of the world.  Involved in the Battle of Spion Kop as an Ambulance man (medic) was none other than Mahatma Ghandi, the famous Indian political reformer and spiritual leader.  Alongside him in the Battle were two other future heads of government – Winston Churchill and Louis Botha.  But that’s another story.

In part, the retribution for besieging and shelling British towns and civilians was going to come in the dehumanising approach in the way the war was conducted by the British, especially against Boer civilians in the closing phases, leading not only to atrocity but also Boer cultural annihilation. However that is also a story for another day.

Amazing how South African military history can yet deliver on some surprises, and how some very bloody and tragic events can be linked as a living memorial to the joys of watching football and singing in the stands.

Reference Wikipedia and “The Boer War” by Thomas Pakenham. Image shows the signboard and terraces at Anfield of “The Kop” and a Boer Commando with Spionkop in the background.

The ‘Casus Belli’ for war; compare the Iraq War & the Boer War

History repeats itself, that’s the ironic part. For starters let’s compare the Boer War (both 1st and 2nd Boer Wars) to the last Iraq War.

The Boer war started due to a mix of Imperial interests in Africa, the wealth in the ground in the Boer republics – Gold and the perceived threat to the mainly British citizens working in the Boer Republics on the mines (this part was based on very ‘emotional’ grounds and less on reality – but it was the ‘Casus Belli’ – justified case – for war). The Iraq war started due to a mix of USA interests in the Gulf, the wealth in the ground – Oil, and the perceived threat to Americans and Israelis (or ‘the world’) from Iraqi weapons of mass destruction (entirely fabricated but also the ‘Casus Belli’ for war).

All war is for ‘economic’ benefit, and the Boer and Iraq wars are no different. The subjective and emotional reasons given for the war –mainly that of ‘threat, oppression and persecution’ to minority groups in each case is no different. Like the USA in the modern day context (citing oppression by the Iraqis of Kurds, Christians, Kuwaitis), Great Britain also put it’s case forward to the ‘world’ (citing oppression by the Boers of British, American, European miners) and in both instances the war was passed off as entirely legitimate once it ended for these same reasons … the ‘Casus Belli’ had been made.

In Iraq, America remained as an occupier after the war – Great Britain did the same in South Africa after the Boer War– and in both instances the rational given to the ‘world’ was the reconstruction of the state both economically and politically until it’s perceived ‘threat’ was removed and the country was moulded in a likeness of themselves i.e. … more palatable ‘less aggressive’ version to the ‘world’. In both instances they attempted coalition political parties to govern the country as a means to gradually withdraw from direct governance, but retain influence – and in both instances injecting huge economic aid into both to ‘reconstruct’ it in their likeness.

In both instances, civilians where oppressed and randomly imprisoned as a means of removing support to guerilla cells. In the case of South Africa it was curtail supply to ‘Boer Fighters’ and in Iraq it was to curtail supply to ‘terrorist cells’ (the irony and the truth is that both these guerilla groupings where local and ethnically based). In both instances civilians where exploited to achieve these military objectives.

Oil in 1990 is to Gold in 1900. On the economic front the ‘world’ was presented a case that ‘aggressive’ states where not allowed to be in charge of the world economy as they hold the ‘key’ to it, and these states needed to be removed to ensure worldwide economic stability – this was argued by the USA in 1990 and by Great Britain in 1900 with a similar outcome and support to both.

The Iraq war – lets face it the whole WMD thing was a complete farce and millions of people where affected and will be for years to come, and whose kidding whom it was about Oil at the end of the day – same thing with the Boer War, an emotionally flawed reason for war, millions of people affected for years to come, and whose kidding whom it was about Gold really.

In summary, the cruel thing about history is that it repeats as it is the human condition that guides it. The reasons for war are always economic but they are guided by emotional convictions (religion, political dogma, ethic oppression, human persecution etc etc). The even crueler thing about both Iraq and South Africa is that ‘world’ opinion will always justify the war because of the strong cases put forward before and after the war by the victor (albeit very flawed cases). For this reason it is very unlikely that the USA will be compensating Iraqi families 110 years after the war and apologising, the same is also true of Great Britain and South Africa

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.

Boers ‘Don’t forget Majuba, boys’. Brits ‘No fear, Boere, no fear’.

A little bit of ‘Army’ banter between Boer and British Forces. Graffiti scrawled by both sides on a bedroom wall in a house originally taken by the Boers and recaptured by British forces. The Boer graffiti reads: ‘Don’t forget Majuba, Boys’. The British grafitti reads: ‘No fear, Boere, no fear’. Majuba was a disastrous British defeat in the lesser known First Boer War of 1881, and it was an “old score” to be settled in the Second Boer War 1899-1902 with devastating effect and further reaching punitive damage.

Many people in South Africa don’t know too much about the history of the 1st Boer War (also known as The Transvaal War) as they do about the 2nd Boer War i.e. the “Anglo Boer War” or “South African War” (as it is known in Britain).  As, by far, the second war had the most devastating and greatest impact to modern South African history, especially when the Concentration Camp policy and Scorched Earth policies are factored.  In fact it’s only as a consequence of the 2nd Anglo Boer War that South Africa as a “whole” country came into existence.

Many people in South Africa would also be surprised to learn that at one point, some 22 years before the 2nd Anglo Boer War, the Transvaal (known as the South African Republic) was “colonised” by way of a political annexe and effectively became British in 1877. A special “warrant” was issued by the British ostensibly to protect the Transvaal Boers against Zulu and local Pedi aggression).

It was the Transvaal War that changed this arrangement and re-established the South African Republic (Transvaal Republic) under the control of the Boers, setting the stage for the bigger conflict to come.

The Battle of Majuba Hill (near Volksrust, South Africa) on 27 February 1881 was the main and decisive battle of the First Anglo-Boer War (Transvaal War). It was a resounding victory for the Boers and the battle is considered to have been one of the most humiliating defeats of British arms in history.

Major-General Sir George Pomeroy Colley occupied the summit of the hill on the night of 26–27 February 1881. His motive for occupying the hill remains unclear. The Boers believed that he may have been attempting to outflank their positions at Laing’s Nek. The hill was not considered scale-able by the Boers for military purposes and thus it is often assumed that the purpose of occupying the summit may have been Colley’s attempt to emphasize British power and strike fear into the Boer camp.  Who knows, but the end result was that it was scaled and a resounding and very one sided Boer victory  ensued – the Boer suffering only 1 dead and 5 wounded, whereas the British suffered 92 dead, 134 wounded and 59 captured.

The impact of this battle was far reaching. It led to the signing of a peace treaty and later the Pretoria Convention, between the British and the reinstated South African Republic (Transvaal Republic), effectively ending the First Boer War and giving the Transvaal back to the Boers.

Coupled with the defeats at Laing’s Nek and Schuinshoogte, this third crushing defeat at the hands of the Boers ratified the strength of the Boers in the minds of the British, arguably to have consequences in the Second Anglo-Boer War, when “Remember Majuba” would become a rallying cry (as is seen in the feature image).

This defeat marked the beginning of the decline of the British Empire. Since the American Revolution, Great Britain had never signed a treaty on unfavourable terms with anyone and had never lost the final engagements of the war. In every preceding conflict, even if the British suffered a defeat initially, they would retaliate with a decisive victory. The Boers showed that the British were not the invincible foe the world feared.

However the British “Retaliation” for the Battle of Majuba Hill and the surrender of a British “protectorate” (the Transvaal) was yet to come and when it did, twenty two years later, the punitive measures of the British military, against combatants and non combatants alike, had devastating and tragic consequences for the Boer nation as a whole.

This underpinning “old score to settle” was very much a rally call of the 2nd Anglo Boer war, it’s often overlooked by some historians that claim they entire war was about British Imperial greed for Gold and Diamonds, and whilst only partly true – there remains a score of other reasons for the Anglo Boer War (2nd Boer War) – and this is no doubt, one of them.

Images above show a 2nd Boer War (Anglo Boer War) postcard to “avenge” Majuba and wipe the slate clean and British soldiers from the 2nd Anglo Boer posing at the Battle of Majuba Hill memorial on the summit of Majuba, making a profound statement of eventual victory.

Feature Image: Copyright Imperial War Museum Collection, reference wikipedia and the Imperial War Museum.