The South African War: Three Perspectives

One of the great problems faced by modern historians is the issue of national bias. It is always assumed that you will receive a different opinion on a subject from a different historian, but the narratives they might present could be influenced by their nationality. This has been the case for historians who wrote about the South African war of 1899. Each side of the war took away different ideas that would impact their countries and, eventually, their way of viewing history. In England, the narrative is often focused around the unjustified reasoning that was used to go to war with South Africa and how the war became a divisive issue at home. For Australia, the war is a story of Australian disillusionment with the British Empire as they were fighting for a side that would not see them as equals. In South Africa, the story is one of repression. Not only of the British oppressing the Boer, but the Boers and British oppression of the black South Africans. These narratives can be found in different scholarly works. Some overlap, but they are all influenced by their own nationality.

For the English, the narrative of “unjustified reasoning” is best represented in Thomas Pakenham’s The Boer War. In his book, he outlines the reasons that the war began, the horrible actions undertaken in the war, and the its ultimate pyrrhic victory. Before the war had even begun, there had been an attempted raid by a group of pro-British rebels who sought British intervention in Johannesburg. The main force was led by a man named Leander Starr Jameson, the administrative general of the British South Africa Company. The raid was ultimately stamped out by South African forces over the course of three days. The Republic of South Africa, also known as the Transvaal, would use this as grounds for war against the British, as it was a clear attempt at annexing the republic. For Britain, this war became a matter of anglicizing the Transvaal and dealing with the Boers. It was not the first time they had done such a thing, as Pakenham points out the annexation of the Transvaal in 1877. Not three years later, the first Boer War had begun. The Boers had won their independence then and planned on keeping it. Pakenham then argues that this new attempt at taking the Transvaal was simply more of the same in terms of causes. However, the actions undertaken in the war proved to be the great difference. Whereas the first war was simple guerrilla warfare versus British military doctrine, the second had a new military doctrine that emphasized general brutality towards the Boer commandos. Pakenham characterizes this new policy as British superiority being carried out by the likes of Sir Alfred Milner, who infamously said that “If we are to build up anything…we must disregard and absolutely disregard the screamers.” Here, he was referring to both Boers and pro-Boer British who were against the war. Pakenham pointed out how those who were against the war were either against it because they saw it as unjustified and backed those claims up with stories about the concentrations camps, the irregular groups committing war crimes, and the involvement of the South Africa Company. Pakenham also mentions how the British goals in the war would fall apart quickly after the end of the war. The plan was to create a British majority in the Transvaal. However, there was a conflict with the Wehrner-Beit group, who needed cheap labor for their mines. Because of that, they resorted to cheap indentured Chinese servants, which meant they would not be hiring British immigrants. Ultimately, British immigrants stopped coming to South Africa. On top of that, the British army did not learn any lessons that could have aided them in the Great War. The way Pakenham tells it, the Boers were good at confounding the Royal Army because they were able to create a hardened defensive line with trenches. Ultimately, the story presented is that of a war that had been fought over land expansion, marked both by forgotten lessons and war crimes.

For South African Historians such as Jean Van Der Pol and Bill Nasson, the issue of the Boer war was tied to a great deal of social and political issues in South Africa. Issues like the debate between becoming a united federation under Britain, becoming an independent republic, and the seemingly endless racism between White and Black South Africans all contributed to how the war played out and, ultimately, influenced South African politics for generations. To begin with, Van Der Pol, a White South African woman presented the narrative that Cecil Rhodes, the Prime Minister of the Cape Colony in 1894 and a key planner in the Jameson raid, sought to ultimately create a “South African Federation”, a federation that would encompass all of modern South Africa and would be loyal to the British Empire. Van Der Pol pointed out how this did not set well with the Dutch in the Transvaal and the Orange Free State, who largely favored remaining the independent republics that they were. Though the “Dutch elite [were] happy” to deal with British administrators, they still saw themselves as distinctly different from the British. Different enough that the idea of a British Federation was unappealing. Ultimately, Van Der Pol goes on with the ideas of the Boer War being a war between Republican Boers and pro-Federation British in South Africa. However, as the scholarship on the subject expanded, so too, did the literature. Nasson dedicated several books to explaining both the ‘Boer vs Briton’ side as well as the relatively unexplored narrative of Black involvement in the war. This was something that had gone somewhat unresearched until the 60’s. He presents the idea that the South African war was not simply a war between Boers against British and Blacks, but also a South African equivalent to “the American Civil War, the British Civil War, and the Spanish Civil War.” While that may not be true when talking about body counts, he believes it to be similar to these wars on the grounds of the great and global debates that these wars were fought on. One that would be used to justify Afrikaner nationalism as a “myth of national origin” in the years to come. He expanded on this idea further in Abraham Esau’s War, where he covers the reasons that Black South Africans went joined the war. The way he says it, the Black involvement in the war was due to frequent mistreatment of South African Blacks by the Boers, with the final straw being the murder of a Black farmer named Abraham Esau. What started from there was a war that would also divide the Black South African population, with some siding with the British and others with the Boers. There would also be a great many Blacks who, in trying to flee the Transvaal, would face similar fates to Boer civilians, including time within concentration camps. Each side believed that they other would simply bring further oppression and chose to stand in the way of that. Ultimately, they would have a British South Africa with an apartheid.

For Australia, the South African war came at an odd time. Halfway into the war, Australia would declare independence from the Empire. They had gone to war to fight for an empire and ultimately came out with a sense of general disdain for the British and a newfound interest in nationalism. One of the major driving forces for this was the demeaning way the Royal Army treated provincial soldiers. Craig Wilcox describes it in Australia’s Boer War: The War in South Africa 1899-1902, as an “affair of bush hats versus brass hats.” Then there was the issue of war criminals. Wilcox was quick to point out the trials of soldiers from the Australian contingent and how they would be tried for things the Royal Army would not be. In the infamous case of Lt. Morant, an Australian contingent had killed Boers that had tried to surrender. Wilcox pointed out that this had not been such an issue with other units. Lt. Colin Philip, of the 6th Queensland Imperial Bushman, said that “Boers caught breaking the custom of war were shot summarily” and “they had written orders to shoot Boers wearing khaki.” That last part is in reference to a commonly utilized Boer strategy of wearing British uniforms, which were khaki. He writes about how men like Morant became national heroes in Australia, despite their horrid actions. However, he does not say that the trial was rigged or that the Bushveldt Carbineers were “scapegoats” as Lt. George Witton, one of the officers on trial, would put it. Their executions were the result of new leadership in the army, one that would punish soldiers for their crimes but held animosity towards Australians. The executions were, as he put it, “a warning that the severity would apply to the army too.” It was a warning of severity that would be applied specifically to Australian soldiers, as the crimes of the Carbineers were being committed by hundreds across South Africa, yet few would see trials for them.

Historians, despite being the great source for scholarly information that they are, are still subject to bias. In this case, that bias can be based on where and what culture the historian was born into. The English focus on the war crimes committed by the Empire and the unreasonable actions that started the war. For the Australians, the Boer war highlighted problems between the Australian colony and the British Empire. They would never be equals if they stayed in, so they became more focused on the idea of an Australian nation. In South Africa, opinions are even more divided based on whether or not the historian is White or Black. They could focus on the ideas of Boers vs supposedly superior Britons or they could discuss a forgotten war; one that took a backseat to the narrative of a “white man’s war.” Culture and nationality are two of the biggest contributors to bias when discussing wars like this.

Hofmeyr, Isabel. 1987. “Building a Nation from Words: Afrikaans Language, literature, and ethnic identity, 1902-1924.” In The Politics of Race, Class and Nationalism in 20th Century South Africa, 109. London: Routledge.
Nasson, Bill. 1991. Abraham Esau’s War: A Black South African War in the Cape, 1899-1902. Melbourne: Oxford University Press.
—. 1999. The South African War: 1899-1902. NY: Oxford University Press.
Pakenham, Thomas. 1979. The Boer War. London: Random House Publishing.
Van Der Pol, Jean. 1951. The Jameson Raid. Cape Town: Oxford University Press.
Wilcox, Craig. 2002. Australia’s Boer War: The War in South Africa 1899-1902. Victoria: Oxford University Press.

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