The Second Boer War ("Have To" History)

Stuff You Don’t Really Want To Know (But For Some Reason Have To) About the Second Boer War

Three Big Things:

1. The Boers were descendants of Dutch, Germans, and Huguenots who settled the Cape of Good Hope in the mid-17th century. They were farmers and ranchers who believed they were among God’s most favored elect. 

2. There were two distinct wars between the Boers and the British – the Boers won the first using superior horsemanship and marksmanship. The British won the second by having way more soldiers than the Boers.

3. The Boer resorted to guerilla warfare; the British responded with “scorched earth” tactics and concentration camps for Boer women and children, where thousands died of hunger, disease, and neglect.

Background & The Great Trek

Cape Colonies

In 1652, the Cape of Good Hope was colonized by the Dutch, including a group of farmers referred to as “Boers.”  They were everything you’d expect from gritty, self-reliant farmers who shared a strong faith and traditional lifestyle. 

Great Britain eventually took control of the Cape. They were anti-slavery, anti-Calvinist, and anti-speaking Dutch. As a result, nearly 15,000 Boers moved northeastward as part of “The Great Trek.” As they’d migrated, the Boers, also called “Afrikaners,” enslaved or otherwise marginalized the rather sparse native (and black) African population and soon considered themselves very much the “real” citizens who deserved to be there, as opposed to the (British) interlopers who eventually followed and with whom they continued to clash.

The Boer Republics

By the 1850s, the Boer had established two independent republics in southeastern Africa – The Transvaal (aka “The South African Republic”) and the Orange Free State. These republics instituted apartheid – strict segregation and discrimination, enforced by law as well as social custom. For a decade or two, it seemed they might just be left alone.

In the late 1860s, however, diamonds were discovered in Transvaal. The resulting rush of Uitlanders – “outlanders” – soon outnumbered the locals and began demanding greater political participation and basic protections. Factions rose up and clashed, tensions increased, and eventually things erupted in the First Boer War (1880 – 1881). The British were caught off-guard by Boer marksmanship and tactics; the brief conflict became Great Britain’s first military defeat since 1783. Transvaal (aka “the South African Republic”) secured its independence, at least temporarily.

Tensions Renewed

In 1886, a substantial gold deposit was discovered in Transvaal. The Boer had by that time learned the role mineral wealth could play in maintaining their independence and took full advantage. By 1890, South Africa was the largest source of gold in the world. They became major players in the international monetary system and invested heavily in the neighboring Orange Free State and other Boer communities, throwing a rather expensive wrench into Great Britain’s longsuffering desire to eventually unify South Africa under British rule.

Rhodes ColossusNevertheless, with so much gold came more Uitlanders – ambitious individuals as well as foreign companies with the resources and know-how to manage difficult extraction. The Transvaal government made it difficult for newcomers to vote or otherwise fully participate in society, which didn’t bother those only interested in quick profits but antagonized the British to their ideological cores.

Conveniently for future history students, the complexities of Anglo-Boer relations coalesced at this point into two colorful personalities. Representing Transvaal was President Paul Kruger, a Boer nationalist whose street cred went all the way back to the Great Trek. Flying the Union Jack was Cecil Rhodes, Premier of the Cape Colony and founder of DeBeer Diamonds. You’ve probably seen that political cartoon of him standing spread-legged across Africa – claiming the continent for Queen, country, and white culture everywhere. He’s also why there’s a “Rhodes Scholarship,” which allows deserving youngsters of solid occidental backgrounds to attend his alma mater, Oxford University.

Rhodes recognized that if Transvaal’s prosperity was allowed to continue, they’d soon be in a position to push Great Britain out of South Africa entirely. He helped put together a plan to stir up an Uitlander revolt – a debacle which became known as the Jameson Raid, so titled because it was to be led by Dr. Leander Starr Jameson (a name only slightly less awesome than “Orange Free State”). The revolution was slated for late December, 1895.

Poor communications, disputes among Uitlander leaders, and the preference of many to celebrate the New Year instead of overthrowing “the man” sabotaged the plan from the outset. Rhodes and his co-conspirators tried to call off Jameson’s invasion, but the raiding party had somehow cut their own communications instead of Transvaal’s, so while the Boer were kept well-informed of what was happening, Jameson was not. His party was captured on January 2nd and sentenced to death, soon reduced to fines and severe embarrassment.

Paul KrugerThe Jameson Raid reinforced to the Boer the importance of sticking together – supporting one another while constraining the Uitlanders. Tensions continued to build for several more years and eventually the British resorted to a more traditional approach and began building up troops along the border. In October of 1899, President Paul Kruger issued an ultimatum demanding they withdraw.

They didn’t.

Transvaal and the Orange Free State declared war on the British. 

The Second Boer War, aka “The Anglo-Boer War” or “The South African War” (1899 – 1902)

For the first several months, things unfolded very much like they had in the first war, but on a larger scale. The Boer struck and retreated, blending into their surroundings. They used horses to maximum advantage and shot with what must have seemed impossible accuracy. They occupied key cities and drove back the British at almost every confrontation. Had they pressed their advantage aggressively, it’s possible they could have ended the war by Christmas.

But the Boer weren’t looking to destroy the British, or even to take back the Cape. They wanted to be left alone, and when given the opportunity to conduct total war, preferred to lay siege to entrenched towns or otherwise dial back the death and violence. Surely the British were learning their lesson, and perhaps this time it would stick.

The British had learned from their previous encounters – but not the lessons the Boer hoped. They remembered an embarrassing military loss followed by feeling disrespected and marginalized by a bunch of farmers with weird accents. This time Great Britain brought in reinforcements – lots of them. They made some strategic adjustments as well, but like the North in the American Civil War, they didn’t have to win every battle or rethink every maneuver if they could consistently outnumber and overwhelm their opposition.

Which they did.

Armed BoersBy the end of 1900, the British controlled most Boer territory and officially annexed both Transvaal and the Orange Free State. This should have been the end of hostilities, but many Boers still refused to surrender. Thus began a new phase of the war – two years of guerilla warfare and raids. The Afrikaners vandalized railroads, cut telegraph lines, and otherwise harassed British forces endlessly. They struck and then vanished, never allowing their opponents security or peace, but avoiding open conflict whenever possible. 

The Brits strung barbed wire, established military checkpoints, and otherwise struggled to contain the guerillas. When these proved unsuccessful, they initiated a “scorched earth” policy – burning fields, destroying towns, and killing livestock which could conceivably be used to support the rebels. They fortified their supply storehouses and put heavy armor on their trains. Boer civilians – women and children as well as men of all ages – were gathered into concentration camps, where thousands died of disease, starvation, and neglect.

It’s not entirely clear whether such brutality towards the wives and children of those fighting was part of a “total war” strategy or the tragic result of poor management and conflicting priorities. In might have been retaliation for the suffering endured by cities previously besieged by the Boers, or merely reflected the harsh realities of the times. Disease killed more fighting men than bullets, and even back in mother England, over a third of those volunteering for military service were rejected for various health-related issues.

Black Africans suspected of helping the Boers were placed in separate camps, where conditions were even worse – if such a thing were possible. Both Brits and Boers desired that this be a “white man’s war,” but separating such a thing from the people in and around it proved impossible. While some Africans found ways to profit from wartime conditions, many others lost jobs, homes, and lands as a result of the conflict.

Boer CampThe Anglo’s perceived brutality severely damaged their standing in the eyes of the rest of the world as well as provoking outrage and protests back home. The war became increasingly unpopular as it continued to drag on, prompting the British to offer increasingly generous terms to the guerillas. Those determined to fight to the bitter end became known as Bittereinders (I’m not even making that up), while those who accepted reconciliation were labeled Hensoppers – literally, “hands-uppers.”

If nothing else, the Boer wars gave us arguably the most fascinating vocabulary list in all of world history curriculum. 


By May of 1902, it was over. Citizens of both Transvaal and the Orange Free State voted to accept the terms of the most recent British peace offer, the Treaty of Vereeniging. The former republics were absorbed into the British Empire which promised them some degree of self-government – a promise they delivered by creating the Union of South Africa in 1910.

Bitterness remained between the Boers and their English-speaking neighbors, and racial divisions between both groups and Black Africans would get worse before they got better. Apartheid shaped much of the 20th century until its abolition in the 1990s, and the Afrikaners throughout have retained their own language and culture. There are today around 2.6 million Boers – over half the white population of South Africa. Some are still fighting for separate recognition.

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