The Second Boer War

The competition between three largest European empires resulted in the necessity to seize new territories, even if they belong to smaller peaceful nations. The British expansion was also encouraged by vast reservoirs of gold and diamonds as well as labor power. Since the Dutch had given up their positions, the British started the preparation for the war with local inhabitants – Boers, who previously escaped from the British invaders. The methods used by the British while fighting with Boers included establishment of concentration camps adjoining with genocide. Despite vast initial support from some European countries, the Boers did not receive enough help and lost the war. Consequently, they signed an agreement with the British, recognizing their predominant right for their territory and state.

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The Second Boer War is an aggressive war of the British elite against Boer republics of the Transvaal and Orange Free State, which was one of the first wars of the imperialism epoch. It lasted from 1899 to 1902 and ended with the agreement being signed between Boers and Britain, where Boers recognized their status of political enclave of Britain and the priority of the British crown. It is important that Boers also belonged to the white British society and the reason for their separation lied in social inequality they faced. The outcomes of the war can be explained by three factors: weak strategy of Boers, low quality of preparation and insufficient military resources. Along with that, Boers did not receive required support from neighboring African settlings, which had fatal consequences for their struggle for independence. The paper provides an analysis of the Second Boer War in its historical preconditions and supports the idea that the victory of Britain was defined by long-lasting preparation, benefits in resources and methods of fighting.

“The History of Boers: Territory Division and Military Preconditions”

Growing population and economical ambition of the richest cluster dictated the expansion of European empires on the territory of Africa. They struggled for new spheres of influence and trade markets. In Europe, the three largest empires competed against each other for colonies: Portugal, Holland and Great Britain. While Holland slowly gave up its positions, Britain occupied almost all territories the Dutch conquered. According to John Laband, “European conquest of Africa during the course of the nineteenth century eventually suppressed internal warfare.”  In 1652, the Dutch East India Company established African Cape Colony on the southern coast of Africa. The land donation made by company owners pursued a single aim, which was to tie the colonists to the land and thus, strengthen its positions in southern Africa. This strategic measure was taken during the harsh competition with Great Britain for marine, commercial and colonial dominance. Consequently, Holland introduced the position of governor in the capital city of Kapstadt (Cape Town), as well as created administrative and judicial authority to manage the Cape Colony. According to …, “By the time of British occupation of peninsula in 1795, the British took over the entire colony to the fish River. Except for three year of Batavian rule, the Cape remained a British colony.” Strict administration of the colonists’ life made them leave the colony quite fast.

Moving inland, the Boers pressed the African population, seizing their own occupied territories. They started developing winery and enlarged their cattle stock. The labor resources they used consisted of Hottentots converted into serfs and slaves that were brought from West Africa, Madagascar and South Asia. “During the 30's and 40's” of the XIX century, many Boers were suppresses by the British invaders, so they “left the Cape Colony” and rushed to the neighbor territory located between the “Orange”, “Vaal” and “Limpopo rivers.” Capturing those lands, the Boers fought against the British, who wanted to colonize the territory of modern Natal and the basin between Orange and Vaal rivers. Simultaneously, the Boers fought against Africans who resisted fiercely against the domination of the British and Boer colonizers.

In 1843, Britain annexed the territory of Natalia. However, Boers won in the fight for the area between the Orange and Vaal basin. According to Christopher Saunders, “In 1847, the Cape governor had extended the colony’s northern border to the Orange River, a natural line of demarcation, to which trekboers (Dutch pioneers) had advanced some decades earlier.” In 1852, the British and Boers representatives signed the Sand River Convention, “granting to the Transvaal Boers the right to manage their own affairs apart from England” on the territory seizing the north of the Waal River. Two years later, Boers and British signed a convention in Bloemfontein, by which England recognized independence of Boers and their territorial property between the Orange and Vaal rivers. The Boer colonialists proclaimed foundation of two republics: the Orange Free State (or Orange Republic) in 1854 and the South African Republic (Republic of Transvaal) in 1856. 

The two Boer republics continued using local labor of unprotected African tribes. In their constitutions, Boers sincerely declared racial inequality. Simultaneously, they grabbed new lands, pushing African tribes to the arid, marginal territory. The end of the 1950s-60s of the 20th century is marked by the war between Boers and the Basotho kingdom. The military operations began in 1858 and lasted ten years with rare short interruptions. 

“English Colonization and First Conflicts For Territory”

The British government pursued economic and political goals that motivated them to conduct intensive colonial invasions. First, they wanted to seize the richest sources and vast outlets, managing favorable areas for the export of capital. Second, the British wanted to subdue the indigenous population as the working labor and prevent the growth of the revolutionary trend. Third, they provided resettlement of colonies and expanded the layer of labor aristocracy with the help of large profits gained by colonies. The British imperialists hoped that the expansion of the British Empire would fasten economic development in England and help the government to retain the world championship in exports of goods and capital.

In the last decade of 19th century, England significantly expanded its colonial possessions. The struggle for new territories was the central subject of the British foreign policy of that period. During the colonial wars, England used its superiority in marine sphere and a large network of naval bases and strongholds. The colonial expansion of England also increased due to the “Great Eastern Crisis of 1875-1878 years.” The government pursued the traditional policy of maintaining the integrity of Turkey, trying to establish the British dominance over the vast Ottoman Empire. When Britain became Turkish patron, the government forced it to sign an agreement according to which Turkey would grant Cyprus to Britain and soon after that this territory was occupied by British troops. Thus, England gained the opportunity to create a new naval base on the eastern Mediterranean territory.

England continued its colonial expansion in Africa. Failure in Sudan has become a new challenge for Britain and it was a question of time when Sudan would finally be conquered. Since France also pretended to take Sudan, England started preparing for the war. Thus, France agreed to the demarcation of African possessions, so formally Sudan belonged to Anglo-Egyptian condominiums. In fact, it was a new British colony, which meant that official Sudanese would join the British Empire. 

When in the 1960s the largest deposits of diamonds and gold were discovered in South Africa, the mass migration of European miners began, which brought about flood of European capital. It was a serious precondition for a series of military conflicts guided by England that was willing to gain supremacy all over South African subcontinent. The main obstacle for England was active resistance of some independent African tribes and Boer republics of Transvaal and Orange.

In 1877, England made the first attempt to capture the Transvaal and started war against Pedi people. According to Christopher Paulin, “The Pedi decided that they would not submit to taxation without a fight. […]. The colonial office criticized the Transvaal’s aggressive war.”   Nevertheless, the British troops easily entered Pretoria – the capital of South Africa. In 1879, the Anglo-Zulu war began, and despite the heroic resistance of the Zulus, it ended with the victory of Britain. Zulu tribe wanted revenge and even initiated the attack, but Britain used such a cruel tactics that its victory met resistance in the world and resulted in loss of the conservative party on elections. The Boers of Transvaal derived a benefit from such conditions and in December of 1880 they started a war against Britain – the First Boer war, which ended with the loss of royalty. However, the deposits of diamonds motivated Britain, thus, in 1895 the administrator of the “British South Africa Company” Jameson made an unsuccessful attempt to occupy Transvaal. However, this case evoked more excitement of the British crown in regard to reaching global domination.

“Beginning of the War”

England always provoked conflicts with Boers, trying to spoil the relationships in the name of its own ambitions. In turn, Boers always agreed on considerable concessions during their negotiations with the British. Nevertheless, England needed a war so as to put forward more demands every time. Simultaneously, before autumn 1899, the British troops started arriving in South Africa. In these circumstances, the Boer republics had to take response measures. England began to mobilize army two years before the war. In May 1897, the British mobilization committee proceeded with discussing the terms of mobilization and the development of its campaign. However, in their preparation to war, the British commanders made some strategic mistakes in the determination of the number of troops to be sent to South Africa and the nature of their equipment. For instance, the mobilization committee intended to use the stocks of cavalry, cavalry arrows, artillery, engineers, and foot soldiers. 

In early 1899, the Britain had small amount of troops in South Africa. They consisted of three batteries of field artillery and two cavalry regiments, two companies fortress artillery, six infantry battalions, and a mountain battery. After the failure of Bloom Fountain Conference, the British government delegated a new military compound to South Africa. In his attempt to conceal preparation to war, Chamberlain tried to justify sending British troops under the excuse of being ready to any scenario and strengthening the defense of Natal. By the end of October 1899, the number of British troops was a few times larger than the Boers’. The British government had large resources of workforce in its possession, which allowed creating beneficial conditions for the British Army troops in terms of quality and quantity. However, while forming the reserved battalions of the British army, the commanders involved volunteers without experience and necessary skills, hence, during the combat they were first to die. 

“The Process and Outcomes of War”

During the war, Britain sent troops from its colonies and dominions such as India, Australia, New Zealand and Canada. The number of troops left behind in metropolitan area, India and other parts of the empire was minor. However, this fact worried the ruling circles of Britain as they feared the national liberation struggle the people of India could start or intervention of the foreign states into the war. In contrast, the Boers had no standing army. Their military battalions were formed only after the announcement of mobilization. Every mobilized man had to have his own weapon, a small amount of ammunition, a horse and week food supplies. The Boer troops had only few positions and until September 1900, they were elected. The leading position in the Boer army belonged to the general commandant, who had been elected for five years by Boer soldiers and officers.

At the beginning of the Boer War, the vice-president of the South African Republic was the general commandant Petrus Joubert, who supported collusion with the British. Thus, de-facto execution functions were imposed on Commander Kruger. The Boer combatants had no proficient education and training. Majorly, they were ranchers and hunters, equestrians and archers. However, strengthening of the expansion of the British colonialists in South Africa and the invasion on their territory in 1895 made Boer commanders react. They engaged several American and German military experts to train army and instruct the commanders in the military school located in Pretoria. However, the inner army discipline was still weak. Boers had no Quartermaster or medical service, as before the war, while the government of Transvaal had only two doctors in its disposal. One of them served in the artillery corps, while another one - in the police. During the Boer War, the means of the government of South Africa allowed establishing only seven hospitals. The Red Cross Society of the Republic of South Africa and some European countries provided almost all medical care services to the Boers. For instance, among the Red Cross Society representatives were German, Belgian, Russian, Dutch and Russian-Irish-American teams. 

The quality of military equipment which was at the disposal of the British and Boer forces was approximately equivalent - they had a rifle, heavy machine guns system “Maxim” rapid-fire cannon field artillery, heavy artillery, and smokeless powder. According to Christopher Paulin, “African leaders had become very aware of the discrepancy in weaponry between themselves and the Europeans.” Possibly, it motivated the Boer Commander Kruger to purchase weapons in Germany, France and England. In 1894, he ordered Mouser rifle, which was produced by the German company Krupp and by the French company in Creosote. During the last three pre-war years, Mozambique was one of the most strategically important points for transportation of the guns to South Africa. Nevertheless, the quantity of British equipment and number of military servants on the territory of African continent was much higher compared to Boers. Consequently, this advantage became one of the reasons why Britain won this military campaign over Boers. On October 9, 1899, the president Kruger sent an ultimatum addressed to the British government with a demand to stop the concentration of troops near the Boer republics. Simultaneously, he demanded mutual withdrawal of troops from both sides of the border. Kruger gave two days for the British to accept this ultimatum; otherwise, he would consider the negative response as a proclaimed state of war, and this is what actually happened. 

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At the beginning of the war, the Boer troops were positioned in the southwestern part of the Orange Free State. They blocked the diamond center of Kimberley, where the British troops had post governed by Colonel Kekewich. In October 1899, the Boer forces occupied the territory of Bechuanaland and blocked the area around Pretoria and Johannesburg. The Boer siege of the British forces located in Mafeking isolated the British from their army as this place was an important link of communications in the Cape Colony of Rhodesia. The outdated tactics of the English army had become obvious since the beginning of combat. For instance, the British army used ineffective attack in serried ranks and fire training attack at close range. In addition, the British soldiers were trained only with multiple rocket launchers instead of aimed fire. Consequently, during the first year of the war, the Boers conducted few forcing operations and won the battle. However, the maximum goal required by their strategic plan was the siege of Ladysmith, Kimberley, Mafeking, and the invasion to the Cape Colony, but nothing beyond that. 

Boers did not plan anything beyond that. Consequently, they did not succeed in their attacks because of the passive reaction and did not capture any city. In this way, the Boers’ calculation that all Afrikaners would be ready to rebel against the British occupation and that foreign countries would support them was wrong. In turn, England provided inhumane campaign to local inhabitants during the war, implementing the politics of desolation. The British commanders started its implementation in mid-1900 right after the Boers started a partisan war on the territory of occupied Pretoria. 

The British policy included massive burning and confiscation of Boers’ farms and other property by British troops. In addition, they established concentration camps for women, children and senior people, who were considered as family members of the Boer soldiers. Elizabeth van Heyningen mentioned: “About 28 000 Boers died in concentration camps set up by the British. Some 79 percent of the dead were children. 15 000 Africans perished in their own racially segregated camps.” The establishment of these camps was only a tactical manner aimed to prevent conversion of the peaceful citizens into accomplices of partisans. John Laband compared two fighting parties in the following way: “European Christian opponents respected their enemy in battle as fellow human beings […]. Invading British forces were not squeamish about doing what was required to conquer the Boer republics.” As a result of unequal fight, in 1902, the Boers were forced to agree to negotiations. Both sides signed a peaceful agreement, by which Boers lost their independence and recognized themselves as British enclave, retaining only internal autonomy. The richest republics of Transvaal and Orange were British colonies ever since. In 1910, the Boer territories became a part of the British Dominion – South African Union.

Conversation of independent Boers states into the British colonies cleared the way for the establishment of united British South Africa. Despite the fact that this controversy led to the war of 1889 – 1902, the Boer and British colonial forces found common solution on the issues related to the fate of the African population. The military administration of Lord Milner acted in accordance with his instructions on the creation of a white self-governing community, based on black labor and extending from Cape Town to Zambezi. In December 1906, the British Parliament approved the Transvaal constitution. It proclaimed voting rights provided only for the white. After the first elections, the government approved new constitution that arranged work of the Orange Free State governed by Abraham Fischer.


The Second Boer War can be called a successful British campaign on conquering Boers’ independent territories achieved through the quantity of army, cruelty of fight and long-lasting preparation for the war. The preconditions had been created since the Dutch companies established property on the territories with vast reserves of gold and diamonds. Britain provided preparation by transfer of troops from all colonies, but it is hard to evaluate their benefits in methodology, because previously Britain did not invest much in technical renovation. The two conventions between Boers and Britain were technical armistices, because the empire did not agree to concessions. However, its methods violated all laws of war and human rights as a result of which the British won the war and Boer people became a subdued nation.


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