The British Empire 
                                                              1815-1914

What were the main causes of the Boer War?


Lord Kitchener

Paul Kruger

Boer commandos

Britain’s last imperialist war

This was a war fought between an Empire that was going through a period of self examination as its position at the top of the tree was being challenged, and a pastoral people that believed its very existence was at risk. It was a war that Piers Brandon describes in his book on The Decline and Fall of the British Empire as 'the greatest catastrophe to strike the British Empire since the loss of the American colonies'.


This was Britain's last great Imperialist war, and was a war fought between a great world empire and two small pastoral peoples- in essence a war between two very different cultures-a pastoral economy against a capitalist imperial economy.  

Despite the Diamond Jubilee of 1897 there was a good deal of unease about the Empire-about the morality of having an empire and ruling over peoples and also whether the Empire provided us with any tangible benefits. Most of our trade at the time was with countries outside of the Empire. Britain was isolated in the world and many saw this war as an opportunity to demonstrate our power in the world as well as secure an area that was deemed strategically important. The Boers though believed that Britain wished to destroy them as independent sovereign countries.


The Boers and the British

The Boers in the Transvaal and the Orange Free State tolerated each other during much of the c19th. Britain had annexed the Cape Colony in 1806 which eventually led to many of the Boers who lived there migrating to the interior in the Great Trek of the 1830s. There they set up what became the two Boer states whose independence was acknowledged by the British in the 1850s. In 1886 though  occurred the event which was to completely change the politics of south Africa and relations between Boer and Britain.


The discovery of gold changed everything

Gold was discovered on the Witwatersrand, present day Johannesburg. This began a gold rush every bit as wild as those in California, Alaska and New Zealand. In poured miners from all over the world especially Britain. By the end of the century one quarter of the world's gold was being dug in the Johannesburg reefs. Among the leading mine owners was Cecil Rhodes who not only wanted to develop mining but had some quite definite views about empire. Rhodes was a race patriot and a believer in the ideas of Herbert Spencer who in 1864 coined the phrase 'the survival of the fittest'. He later came to believe in reducing the franchise for the black voter and to regard the black population as a subject people. It was Rhodes who wanted to establish a Cape to Cairo railway and extend the Empire along the eastern side of Africa.


The gold on the Witwatersrand was difficult to mine yet the price of gold was controlled and did not reflect the difficulty and expense of extracting it. Although the reefs extended 50 km along the rand and attracted miners from all over the world who worked alongside destitute Afrikaners and Africans, the quality of the gold was poor and lay in deposits thousands of metres deep. As huge amounts of capital were needed to extract the ore, the industry came to be run by a dozen or so 'Randlords' like Cecil Rhodes who brought his diamond industry expertise to Johannesburg. The owners of the deep mines wanted a government sympathetic to their needs for  low wages and easily available capital and resources like dynamite at a decent price  but President Kruger saw the Randlords and their European labour force as a threat to the way of life of the Boer.


President Kruger believed the very existence of the Boer nation was at risk

President of south Africa at the time of the gold rush was Paul Kruger. He saw the arrival of so many foreigners called 'uitlanders' as a threat to the very existence of the Afrikaner nation. Kruger had been part of the resistance movement against the British during the First Boer War and was not going to allow any increase in British influence in the Transvaal even though his country was becoming the wealthiest country in Africa as result of the gold. In 1890 he restricted the 'Uitlander' vote to only those who had been in the Transvaal for fourteen years and maintained state monopolies on commodities like gunpowder.


The British men who determined policy

The men at the heart of the British government at the time of the Boer War were Prime Minister Salisbury and his Colonial Secretary Joseph Chamberlain. Salisbury was not a well man and often deferred to his ministers rather than fight them. He allowed his Colonial Secretary, Chamberlain, to determine policy in south Africa. Chamberlain believed Britain was losing her position as the dominant economic power in the world and in south Africa and believed a resurgent empire was the way to restore Britain's position. If there could be more investment in the existing colonies and more colonies the trade imbalance between Britain and the colonies that was worsening could be reversed.   Chamberlain believed that he could bully Kruger into conceding British demands on the rights of 'uitlanders'.

The most powerful man in Africa at this time was Cecil Rhodes. He was Prime Minister of the Cape Colony, chairman of De Beers and Gold Fields mining companies and managing director of the British South Africa Company that was extending the territory of the British Empire into what became Rhodesia and Zambia. Paul Kruger stood in his way and he was determined to destroy him and his state, the Transvaal and bring it under British jurisdiction.


Rhodes’ plan to destroy the Transvaal

To try to bring  about the destruction of the Transvaal, Rhodes planned an overthrow of Kruger's regime. Rhodes got enough assurances from Uitlanders to convince himself that it was possible to overthrow Kruger by an uprising of Uitlanders and then invite Britain in to provide protection. Rhodes believed he had sufficient support within south Africa-he was after all the Prime Minister of the Cape and in alliance with the moderate Cape Afrikaner party. he believed that the English community in Natal would support him and that he had the support of the British government. He had not been discouraged by Lord Rosebery whilst he had been Prime Minister and with Salisbury and Chamberlain he thought he had the full backing of the British government.


Led by Dr Leander Starr Jameson, a  raid into the Transvaal of 500 men of the British South Africa Police, began on 31 December 1895. It was a fiasco from the beginning. The men were not equipped at all for the type of enterprise that they were engaged in and the hoped for uprising in Johannesburg did not materialise. Rhodes realised the raid was doomed but his telegram urging Jameson to postpone the mission was ignored. Jameson and his men were rounded up and sent back to Britain for trial.

The man who was directly responsible for the Boer War of 1899 though was not Rhodes but Alfred Milner. Lord Alfred Milner was High Commissioner in South Africa when war broke out in October 1899. Whereas Salisbury and Chamberlain were not enthusiastic supporters of a war policy, Milner came to realise that war was the only option if Britain were to reassert its position in southern Africa. Milner had been appointed by Chamberlain in 1897 to reassert Britain's position following the disaster that was the Jameson Raid but he grew tiresome of Chamberlain's waiting game and did all he could to hasten a conflict with the Boers. With the re-election of Kruger in February 1898 the scene was set for a confrontation between the Boer nationalist and the self proclaimed race patriot, Milner.


Milner, the race patriot

When he was appointed High Commissioner from the Board of Inland Revenue, Milner had clearly formed ideas on Empire. He believed that Britain was a nation and empire in decline. He wanted more from South Africa than just revenge for Majuba. Revenge for him was crude. He wanted world supremacy for the British empire-he had no illusions about what was needed and he wasn't taken in by the flag waving and triumphalism that had been part of the 1897 Jubilee celebrations.


Milner came to the view that for Britain to reassert her position in south Africa then Kruger's Transvaal would have to submit to British control. The question of the 'uitlanders' would be used as the excuse to achieve this.


By May 1898 Milner had persuaded  the Cabinet of the need to give British support to intervention( peaceful at first). Two weeks later the Cape PM, Schreiner and Hofmeyr, leader of the Cape Afrikaners, proposed to Milner that he should meet with Kruger to try and settle matters and so on May 30th Milner found himself steaming north to Bloemfontein to a conference with Kruger. He was determined that it should not succeed. By this time the 'uitlanders' were paying 5/6th of the country's taxation, were the majority of the population but had no representation.


Milner was to push for a 5 year franchise, retrospective, which Kruger resisted until the last day when he agreed but with conditions. Kruger wanted in return negotiations on the Raid indemnity, Boer control of Swaziland and arbitration on rival interpretations on the London Agreement of 1884. The extra conditions was all that Milner needed to end the proceedings. Kruger's comment on the failure of Bloemfontein that what Milner wanted was not the franchise but his country.


Kruger offers a compromise

In August clutching at straws, the Boers offered a 5 year franchise but still with some conditions including the non-interference by Britain in their internal affairs. Rejection in Britain convinced Pretoria that franchise was not the issue and that both sides were on a road that led to war. By this time Milner had convinced Chamberlain (and Salisbury in turn) that war was  the only course. All that needed to be done was to ensure that the Boers were  the aggressors so as to bring the British public on side.

In September the War Office dispatched 10,000 troops from India under General White (they were to arrive the day the Kruger Ultimatum was delivered). War fever began to grip the country and in the Transvaal the country began to mobilise. Boers  commandos began to report for duty carrying their gun, bandolero of ammunition and dry rations of biltong, and people saw artillery being dawn through the streets of Pretoria. 'Uitlanders' began to leave the country by train and the exodus became a panic. In Pretoria there was wild excitement at seeing the men go off to fight and in Parliament tried to reassure people by saying 'God hath spoken in his wisdom; he will rejoice'. Outside the towns the veld was burnt to encourage its growth.


War fever in Britain

In England the new popular press whipped up a war fever. Improvements in technology and the need for capital investment required a mass market. With the decline in illiteracy and more leisure time the working class had the time and money to buy newspapers. The Daily Mail launched in 1896 and selling for a below cost half penny broke new ground and was closely followed by the Daily Express in 1900.

Kruger had decided that war was inevitable and as the Boers had the numerical advantage in October it was hoped that if the Boers could strike a swift blow they might force the British to the table at which they would acknowledge the full sovereignty of the Boer republics. The Boers had the numerical advantage of 40,000 to 15,000. By throwing all their troops against Natal, they could capture Durban before the first ships brought reinforcements, and this would encourage the Cape Afrikaners to rise up. On 28 September the Transvaal mobilised followed by the OFS on 2 October.


The ultimatum

On 9th October Kruger sent the British government an ultimatum demanding that the British withdraw their forces from the Transvaal border and send back forces on the way (8,000). When this ultimatum expired on 11th October the two sides were at war. Joubert, who had established a camp near Volksrust, was in a position to move on Natal with 21,000 men (15,000 Transvaalers and 6,000 from the OFS). On the morning of 12th October Joubert's forces began to move south.







Lord Salisbury

Dr Leander Starr Jameson

Lord Milner

Joseph Chanberlain

The first troops sent to south Africa went from India.

Boer fighters moved on Natal following the rejection of Kruger’s ultimatum.