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.


Written by Peter Dickens

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.

The Battle of Spionkop shaped 3 future leaders – Churchill, Botha & …. Gandhi

A little more unknown military history on just how one small battle in South Africa has shaped some of the greatest men of our time, including, believe it or not, Mahatma Gandhi, the famous Indian political reformer and spiritual leader.

Gandhi’s formative years were in South Africa and many don’t know this, but he even took part in the 2nd Anglo Boer War. He was also present at the battle of Spionkop, fighting for the British Army as a stretcher bearer and medic.

Spionkop is such a significant battle that three future heads of government were present, Winston Churchill, Mahatma Gandhi and Louis Botha. As a result, South Africa, and that battle in particular, played a significant role in moulding the contemporary history of the world in the years to come, simply because of the way the battle influenced these three men.

Background to the Battle of Spion Kop

After much sabre rattling over British immigrant workers rights on the mines in the Zuid-Afrikaansche Republiek (Transvaal Republic) and Rhodes’ Imperial expansionist visions, The 2nd Anglo Boer War was officially declared by the Boers on 11 October 1899 when they invaded the British Colonies of Natal and the Cape.

The move by two relatively small Boer Republics – the South African Republic (Transvaal) and Orange Free State Republic – to declare war on what was then the world’s only real superpower – The United Kingdom (Great Britain) – came with some astonishment to Queen Victoria and the British Government. The British expansionist Imperialists in Southern Africa, along with the Gold and Diamond mining magnates, on the other hand, could hardly believe their luck.

From the Boer’s perspective, the pressures Milner had put on Paul Kruger’s government to grant citizenship rights to mainly British mine workers on the Rand had simply become too much to bear.  Numerically speaking there were to be more miners than Boers in the Transvaal and the granting of such rights would have ended Boer governance of the province eventually – simply by the ballot alone.

As with the 1st Anglo Boer War (or Transvaal War as it was known) fought 20 years earlier from 16th December 1880 until 23rd March 1881, the Boers banked on a quick and decisive victory over the British Colonial forces in Natal and the Cape (which were somewhat weaker than Boer forces at the start of the 2nd Anglo Boer war), and bring to an end the United Kingdom’s demands on them and give them an upper hand in re-establishing their peaceful relations with their British neighbours – exactly as they had done after their victory over the British at The battle of Majuba in the 1st Anglo Boer War.

The Boer advance was however stopped by three small garrison armies at the British border towns of Mafeking, Kimberley and Ladysmith.  The Boers promptly put all three of these towns to siege and brought up heavy artillery and cannons to bombard them, both the garrisons and the civilians alike came under repeated and constant fire, the British citizens in these towns – especially women and children, were forced to near starvation and were now living rough in bunkers, mine shafts and caves.  This prompted an outrage back in Britain and fuelled by public opinion of the arrogance of it all Queen Victoria was able to draft the biggest British expeditionary force ever seen to go to Southern Africa and get their towns back. Central to all of this was the plight of the citizens in Ladysmith – Ladysmith was to become the pride of the British empire in Southern Africa and the rally call.

General Sir Redvers Henry Buller VC landed in Cape Town on the 31st October 1899 to appraise the situation, the main body of the first wave of expeditionary forces due to arrive shortly afterward by 10 November 1899.  By the beginning of December 1899 Buller had assembled all his forces in Durban to begin the relief of Ladysmith – what the British did not expect was to get was a resounding beating, ‘Black Week’ awaited them.

Buller’s woes in Natal started  with the Battle of Colenso – which was the third and final battle fought during the ‘Black Week’ – 10th to 17th December 1899 (the other two been resounding Boer victories at Magtersfontein and Stormberg in the Cape Colony),

At the Battle of Colenso, fought on the 15th December 1899, Buller’s forces came up against well entrenched Boer forces under the command of General Louis Botha (the first of the men profiled here).  Despite a brave attempt to ‘save the guns’ at Colenso, inadequate preparation and reconnaissance and uninspired leadership led to a heavy, and in some respects humiliating, British defeat. Buller’s army lost 143 killed, 756 wounded and 220 captured. Boer casualties were only eight killed and 30 wounded.  Buller retreated to reinforce, he requested even more British expeditionary battalions from the War Office by January 1900 and next up for Buller in a second attempt to relieve Ladysmith was The Battle of Spion Kop.

In a nutshell, the Battle of Spion Kop (Dutch: Spionkop; Afrikaans: Slag van Spioenkop) was fought about 38 km (24 mi) west-south-west of Ladysmith on the hilltop of Spion Kop along the Tugela River, Natal in South Africa from 23–24 January 1900.  It was fought between the South African Republic (Transvaal Republic) and the Orange Free State forces under the command of General Louis Botha on the one hand and British forces under command of General Sir Redvers Henry Buller VC in their second push to relieve Ladysmith on the other hand.  Spion Kop occupied the centre of the Boer line, and was therefore of strategic and tactical importance.

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Iconic photograph of British dead in situation after the Battle of Spionkop

So what were these three future statesmen and reformers doing at Spion Kop? During the battle, Gandhi performed the role of a medic, Churchill acted as a courier and Botha led the Boers during the battle.  So let’s have a look at these three and their involvement a little more in depth, and chart how this singular battle affected their future views and helped shape their careers.

Louis Botha

vo017cbaAt the onset of the war in 1899, Louis Botha initially joined the Krugerdorp Commando, he fought under Lucas Meyer in Northern Natal, and later as a General commanding and leading Boer forces rather impressively at the Battle of Colenso and then at the Battle of Spion kop.

General Louis Botha’s forces came up against General Sir Redvers Buller VC forces as he was trying to relieve Ladysmith.  Botha’s forces held the Tugela River and although Botha’s men were outnumbered, they were mostly equipped with modern Mauser rifles and up-to-date field guns, and had carefully entrenched their positions. In December, 1899, Buller made a frontal assault on the Boer positions at the Battle of Colenso The result was a heavy British defeat.

Over the next few weeks, Buller received further reinforcements, and he moved to cross the Tugela river and capture the hill of Spion Kop in a second attempt to advance on Ladysmith – Spion Kop lay at the centre of the Boer line, so of great strategic and tactical advantage if taken.  So on the night of 23 January 1900, General Sir Charles Warren, tasked with the advance on Ladysmith, sent the larger part of his force to secure the top of Spion Kop.

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Boer Forces on Spion Kop, January 1990

The British climbed up the hill at night and in dense mist. They surprised the small Boer piquet  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.

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Orange Free State Republic flag

In the resultant murderous and accurate Boer rifle and artillery fire as well as Boer assaults – the British ran up an unacceptable level of casualties and deaths – in what was to become known later as the ‘murderous acre’.  Although they eventually broke the Boer line after a herculean effort they withdrew from the hilltop as an exhausted and broken force, allowing the Boer’s to re-occupy it and win the day.

The British took 20,000 men and 36 Field Guns into the battle and by the end of the battle, the British suffered 243 fatalities; many were buried in the trenches where they fell and 1,250 wounded.  Whilst the smaller Boer force of 8000 men, 4 Field Guns and 2 cannon only sustained 68 killed 267 wounded.  It was a resounding Boer victory against the numerically superior British.

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South African Republic (Transvaal) flag

The Boers, including Botha, thought that their victory at the Battle of Spion Kop would be the end of all the hostilities, and like the end of the 1st Boer War which saw a similar British defeat on the hill of Majuba – the Boers thought the British would now sue for peace and so many of them even went home.  (see Observation Post Boers ‘Don’t forget Majuba, boys’. Brits ‘No fear, Boere, no fear’. for more on this battle).

Little did they foresee the ‘total war’ that was to become the 2nd Anglo Boer War and British resolve to not only take back their captured cities but also to eventually conquer the two Boer Republics with a degree of ruthlessness never before seen in South Africa, and never seen again.

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Louis Botha as the first Prime Minister of South Africa

The successes at Colenso and Spion Kop eventually saw General Louis Botha take control of all Boer Forces.  However, once the British won the conventional phase of the war and captured the capital city of Pretoria, the Boer commanders decided to move their government ‘into the field’ and embark on a new Guerrilla warfare phase.  This resulted in the British using heavily handed scorched earth and concentration camps systems to squeeze off supply to the guerrillas in the field.  The net result of these policies is that by the end of the 2nd Anglo Boer War, the Boer Republics’ farming sector was economically broken and Boer armies and Boer people’s completely decimated.

To build their country up again General Louis Botha teamed up with General Jan Smuts to propose ‘Union’ between the two British colonies and the two Boer states, take control back in the form of an independent South African parliament from Westminster (so it would be able to make its own laws) and create a new country – South Africa.  The Union of South Africa was born in 1910 with these two ex-Boer commanders leading it (without a shot been fired) and as one of these two reformers Botha took the mantle of South Africa’s very first Prime Minister.

Botha is literally the co-founder of South Africa and Smuts was very prepared to let him take the Prime Minister position as he was a far more popular man than the deep thinking broody Smuts,  here Smuts felt their relationship was perfectly balanced for the work of creating a new country and all the challenges that would bring.  Botha’s popularity, especially amongst the Afrikaner lay in his great deeds during the 2nd Anglo Boer War and his popular and likeable manner in command, this popularity was forged by his successes at Colenso and Spion Kop.

Botha would die in office on the 22 August 1919, and in a further ironic twist, it would be Field Marshal Smuts, Botha’s partner in Union who would go on to be come a key advisor and close friend to Winston Churchill during the invasion of France in World War 2 and the formation of the post war world.  To read more on Smuts and Churchill read Observation Post “The force of his intellect has enriched the wisdom of the whole human race”- the death of Jan Smuts.

Winston Churchill

Winston ChurchillWinston Churchill took initially part in the 2nd Anglo Boer War as a ‘war correspondent’ for The Morning Post.  War Correspondents like Churchill tended to be commissioned officers serving in uniform attached to Regiments or formations, their reporting was intended to toe the military line.  South Africa literally made Churchill into a national hero and it is the epicentre of his rise to political greatness.

Churchill’s activities in South Africa read like a ‘Boys Own’ Adventure Novel.  His impertinent nature saw him arrive in Cape Town with General Sir Redvers Henry Buller’s expeditionary force, and he immediately teamed up with journalistic colleague John B. Atkins of the Manchester Guardian to go to the front at Ladysmith before any other journalists could do so. They took a 700-mile undefended train ride, boarded  a small steamer bound for Durban and promptly sailed into the teeth of an Indian Ocean storm. After several harrowing days, the pair arrived at Durban.

Still determined to get to see the Boer forces’ siege of Ladysmith ahead of Buller’s advancing forces, Churchill and Atkins made another dangerous train ride of 60 miles to within hearing range the artillery fire of the Boer guns on Ladysmith. Churchill, still keen on getting closer to the action accompanied a scouting expedition on an armored train. The train was ambushed by the Boers and on 15 November 1899, Churchill and after a firefight in which Winston played a direct combatant role, he was captured by none other than Louis Botha (the other future statesmen profiled here).

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Churchill – standing off-set to the right as a POW

Churchill was imprisoned in a Prisoner of War (POW) camp. He managed to escape, and with a ransom price on his head and the assistance of an English mine manager, he eventually made his way to Delagoa Bay (Mozambique) after forging rivers, hiding in mine shafts and stowing away on a train . Hailed as a hero back in England, Churchill returned to Durban.

Here Churchill joined Buller’s advance on Ladysmith and was commissioned as a lieutenant in the South African Light Horse by General Buller whilst he was basking in the glory of his well-publicised escape from Boer captivity.  By January 1900, at the Battle of Spionkop just outside Ladysmith Churchill acted as a courier to and from the summit at Spion Kop and Buller’s headquarters and made a statement about the scene: “Corpses lay here and there. Many of the wounds were of a horrible nature. The splinters and fragments of the shells had torn and mutilated them. The shallow trenches were choked with dead and wounded.”

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Churchill on horseback during the 2nd Anglo Boer war, this photograph was taken just after his escape from Boer captivity.

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British Union Flag

Later, after the war Churchill used his new-found status as a national hero and turned his attention to politics, winning a seat in Parliament in the 1906 general election.

Ironically, it was Winston Churchill who revealed that General Botha was the man who captured him at the ambush of the British armoured train he was travelling in on 15 November 1899. Churchill was not aware of the man’s identity until 1902, when Botha travelled to London seeking loans to assist his country’s reconstruction, and the two met at a private luncheon.

Churchill became the Chancellor of Exchequer (Cabinet Minister) in 1924 upon rejoining the Conservative Party. Churchill was outspoken on a number of issues, such as the danger of Germans re-armament after World War One. His warnings against Hitler were largely ignored, but at the outbreak of the Second World War, his foresight was acknowledged and he became the war-time Prime Minister. His speeches and military strategy were a great encouragement to the British, and he is regarded today as one of the greatest Britons of his time.  It is largely due to Churchill’s leadership during the war that Britain was not invaded by Hitler’s nazi forces at the on-set of The Battle of Britain, that Britain (and Western Europe for that matter) is the modern democracy with the freedoms it enjoys today is largely thanks to Churchill (whether his detractors, of which there are many, like it or not, it remains a fact).

Mahatma Gandhi

Historians have forever struggled to explain why this apostle of peace and non-violence rendered support to the British Empire in the Boer War, the 1906 Natal Rebellion and the First World War.  However what is clear by Gandhi’s own writings was that his intentions 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.

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Natal Colony Flag

When the Boer War came about Mahatma Gandhi actually played a pivotal role in the forming Natal Indian Ambulance Corps which fell under the British Military command.  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).

In an urgent response the siege of Ladysmith 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, which was duly granted.

Gandhi lawyerMahatma Ghandi first saw action with Buller’s forces at the Battle of Colenso on 15 December 1899,  when the Natal Volunteer Ambulance Corps we ordered to remove the wounded from the front line and then transport them to the railhead.

During the Battle of Spion Kop, the Natal Volunteer Ambulance Corps (including Gandhi) moved into the frontline to collect the wounded. There is even 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:

“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.

ghandi7It 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.

Mahatma Ghandi remained in the military as a reservist, and was eventually promoted to the rank of Sergeant Major, he also took part in the 1906 Natal Rebellion for which he again received 1906 Rebellion Medal.  For more in Gandhi’s military service see The Observation Post Gandhi was a man of peace, but he was also a man of war! .

In the below image is Gandhi as a medic on the side of the British this time, seen in this photo with the stretcher-bearers of the Indian Ambulance Corps during the Boer War, South-Africa cira 1900.

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Standing: H. Kitchen, L. Panday, R. Panday, J. Royeppen, R.K. Khan, L. Gabriel, M.K. Kotharee, E. Peters, D. Vinden, V. Madanjit. Middle Row: W. Jonathan, V. Lawrence, M.H. Nazar, Dr. L.P. Booth, M.K. Gandhi (Mahatma Gandhi), P.K. Naidoo, M. Royeppen. Front Row: S. Shadrach, “Professor” Dhundee, S.D. Moddley, A. David, A.A. Gandhi.

After the wars (Boer War and Natal Rebellion), Mahatma Gandhi’s politics began to shape up as one of non violence, and no doubt his exposure to the violence on war guided Gandhi to his philosophy of peaceful resistance.

In another irony as his political career travelled in synch with that of Louis Botha, 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 his unsuccessful experiences of trying collaborative politics with the British, that he nurtured his policy of peaceful resistance.

Mahatma Gandhi’s political path was to cross with Louis Botha and Jan Smuts on a number of occasions over the issues of Indian rights and franchise in South Africa, and although Gandhi was arrested on a number of occasions for civil dissonance, he and Smuts developed a strong mutual respect, see Observation Post “… I am not worthy to stand in the shoes of so great a man”  for more on this unique relationship.

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 by Gopal Krishna Gokhale, his mentor. Gandhi by the time he arrived in India was utterly devout to the ideals of non-violence and universal love. He was against “untouchability” of India’s most destitute and all sorts of injustice in society. He lived a frugal life and imposed self suffering and hunger strikes to see his ideals triumph. In essence he dreamed of a “Ram Rajya” where everybody would live in peace.

In Gandhi’s in book Hind Swaraj Gandhi outlined his ideals of change via principles of non co-operation, and he declared that British rule was established in India with the co-operation of Indians and had survived only because of this co-operation. If Indians refused to co-operate, British rule would collapse and “swaraj” (self rule) would come.

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Negotiation of independence for India, Gandhi with Lord and Lady Mountbatten in 1947

Whist using this idea of non co-operation to fight British rule in India, he maintained his principles of truthfulness, peace and non-violence. In 1942, he launched the “Quit India Movement” to drive the British out of the country and gave the famous slogan of ‘do or die’ to his countrymen. The movement brought tremendous pressure on the British who eventually granted full independence to India in 1947.

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National flag of India

He even famously crossed political paths with Winston Churchill when Churchill famously commented  “It is alarming and also nauseating to see Mr. Gandhi, a seditious Middle [Inner] Temple lawyer, now posing as a fakir of a type well known in the East, striding half-naked up the steps of the Viceregal palace, while he is still organizing and conducting a defiant campaign of civil disobedience, to parley on equal terms with the representative of the King-Emperor.”

Gandhi famously disarmed this typical Churchill rhetoric and insult when Gandhi wrote to Churchill in a letter saying, “Dear Prime Minister, You are reported to have a desire to crush the simple ‘naked fakir’ as you are said to have described me. I have been long trying to be a fakir and that [too] naked – a more difficult task. I, therefore, regard the expression as a compliment though unintended. I approach you then as such and ask you to trust and use me for the sake of your people and mine and through them those of the world.”


Written and researched by Peter Dickens.  References – wikipedia, Imperial War Museum, SAHO – South African History on-line, the escape of Winston Churchill.  Image copyright Imperial War Museum.  Colourised Spionkop image copyright Tinus Le Roux

The Horrible History and many names of Thaba Tshwane

The featured photo of the South African Army College in Thaba Tshwane has a lot of hidden history. South Africans just love re-naming things in pursuit of one political party’s agenda over that of another one, all in the interests of political narrative – all of them serving to either change or hide South Africa’s strong military and cultural heritage to suite this or that political likeness.

Take the military compound in Pretoria as an example – First it was called Roberts Heights – then Voortrekkerhoogte – now Thaba Tshwane  – even the changes in language used in the name and subsequent name changes speaks volumes.

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Lord Roberts

The complex was founded around 1905, just after the 2nd Anglo Boer War by the British Army to garrison the city of Pretoria, and they called their new garrison area Roberts Heights after Lord Roberts.

Field Marshal Frederick Roberts (Lord Roberts) VC, KP, GCB, OM, GCSI, GCIE, KStJ, VD, Pc was one the most successful British commanders of the 19th century and the overall commander of British Forces during the 2nd Anglo Boer War.

It was however. renamed Voortrekkerhoogte (“Voortrekker Heights”) to commemorate The Great Trek in a flurry of Afrikaner nationalism which accompanied the Great Trek centenary – and what better than re-naming the hated “English occupiers” military base and removing the name of Lord Roberts – a man loathed by Afrikaners – and for good reason for many Afrikaners – the Boer war left this community deeply scarred, how the British and English South Africans felt about it at the time – different matter, to many of them Lord Roberts is a hero.  So, a controversial move that deepened social differences.

Following the end of the National Party and their influence of Afrikaner Nationalism as an ideology to govern South Africa, it was renamed again on the 19 May 1998 by the incoming ANC regime, this time called Thaba Tshwane instead.   This was done by the ANC to rid the area’s heritage of both its much hated ‘Colonial’ heritage and ‘Apartheid’ heritage with something more ‘universally shared’.

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The inaugural ceremony of the Voortrekker monument at Voortrekkerhoogte, held on 16 December1949

So, Thaba Tshwane it is then, meaning of which is a little lost in translation, but some say its named after Tshwane, son of Chief Mushi, an Ndebele leader who settled near the Apies River, although there is some debate to whether he actually even existed as a historical figure (there’s a problem – there is no written or historic record – its all deeply back in a mystical oral tradition).

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Chief Tshwane statue

In any event, the name was changed again, and once again it was done to suit the next incoming regimes’ political narrative – the replacement of Black African culture and history over that of White African culture and history and scrubbing out anything the National Party or United Party or even the British did in the name of Afrikaner or English identity and heritage in South Africa.

The casualty in all this re-naming and one-upmanship is the actual history, the actual legacy, the golden thread that links our combined journey together – that it was British military compound established and named after Lord Roberts – was sadly even lost on the thousands of  South Africans who served there in the 70’s and 80’s who simply knew it as Voortrekkerhoogte and now even that will be sadly lost to the next generation of South Africans who serve there – who will in time just know it as Thaba Tshwane.  The actual “History and Heritage” lost forever.

To give an idea of  just how much of this rich tapestry is lost in ‘Thaba Tshwane’ can be found in one simple little cornerstone. The oldest building in the military complex is the one pictured – the “South African Garrison Institute” what is now re-named as the “South African Army College”. But here’s the really interesting bit – Lord Kitchener laid the cornerstone of this College on the 12th June 1902.

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Lord Kitchener

During the Second Boer War, both Lord Kitchener and Lord Roberts (the chap they originally named Thaba Tshwane after) arrived in South Africa together on the RMS Dunottar Castle – along with massive British reinforcements in December 1899.

Following the defeat of the conventional Boer forces, Kitchener succeeded Roberts as overall commander of British Forces in November 1900. He subsequently inherited and expanded the successful strategies devised by Roberts to force the “Bittereinder” (Bitter End) unconventional Boer forces to submit.

The “Bittereinder” Boer Commandos had changed their tactics and were now using highly controversial and relatively new “hit and run” guerrilla tactics. The British in turn – in order to figure out how to stop “guerrilla war” – came up with the idea of containing the Boer’s supply line (their horse feed, shelter and food which where been provided by their families/homesteads) and placing all involved in supply (families and farm workers /servants alike) into both “White” and “Black” concentration camps respectively – and then burning the farms (a policy known as “scorched earth”).

Conditions in the concentration camps, which had been conceived by Roberts as a form of control of the families whose farms his forces had destroyed, began to degenerate rapidly as the large influx of Boers outstripped the ability of the minuscule British force to cope. The camps lacked space, food, sanitation, medicine, and medical care, leading to rampant disease and a very high death rate – especially among women and children (children particularly).

41cMeyjGDRL._SY450_You’ll recognise Lord Kitchener anywhere – he became the poster model for the “Your Country Needs You” campaign to spur British and Commonwealth men to sign up and fight in the trenches of World War 1. The poster is funnily seeing a little contemporary resurgence in celebration of the centenary of WW1.

It’s a “Horrible” history – but it’s history none the less – and for this very reason – that it is “horrible” that this history really needs to be told – lest we forget the sacrifice that it took.

Covering over it by re-naming everything, for the sake of a political one-upmanship merely washes out the country’s history, heritage and cultural understanding – it cleanses the rich tapestry that makes us unique as a nation.

In effect it takes us ‘off’ our combined journey as South Africans and does exactly the opposite of all the ‘good’ intentions for getting us to the best and most ‘shared’ option  – it separates us again, it deepens racial and cultural divide and perpetuates South Africa’s deepest problem, its on-going race politics.


Written by Peter Dickens