South African Military History Society

Newsletter No 295 DURBAN BRANCH September 1999

Another crackerjack meeting! This marked the Anglo-Boer War centenary, and took the form of an exposition by Ken Gillings on the origins and causes of the war, followed by a further analysis by our guest-speaker, Johan Wassermann, who emphasised the Boer point of view. George Chadwick acted as Chairman.

KEN GILLINGS swept us at some speed but with great clarity, from the first British occupation of the Cape in 1806 to the establishment of the Boer republics. He dealt with the British abolition of slavery and its effect on the determination of many Cape Dutch, preceded by the semi-nomadic trekboers, to escape British rule.

New Boer Republics emerged. The Republic of Natalia lasted from the Boer defeat of Dingane of the Zulu to the British annexation of Natal, following the battle at Congella. Many Natal Boers then moved to the area between the Orange and Vaal Rivers, only to have it annexed in 1848 by Sir Harry Smith as the Orange River Sovereignty. The 1852 Sand River Convention and the 1854 Bloemfontein Convention secured the independence of the Transvaal (as the South African Republic) and the Orange River Sovereignty (as the Orange Free State) respectively. In 1860, both republics were bankrupt. However, the 1867 discovery of diamonds brought some prosperity to the O.F.S. since the diamond fields provided a market for farm produce. A later British cash injection of 90 000 Pounds sterling in compensation for the transfer of the diamond fields to the Cape, gave more stability.

British imperial interest in the Transvaal led to its annexation by Shepstone, although the conflict with Sekhukhune of the Bapedi caused disruption. In Natal, the federal idea led to the Anglo-Zulu War. At the end of 1880, after the failure of the Boer delegation led by Paul Kruger, requesting freedom for the Transvaal, the Transvaal proclaimed its independence as a republic. Despite British garrisons in the major Transvaal towns, the Boers were able to defeat a British column under Lt Col Anstruther at Bronkhorstspruit. Thus heartened, Boer forces entered Northern Natal and defeated Sir George Pomeroy Colley, the Natal Governor, at Laingsnek. They inflicted yet another defeat on Colley at Schuinshoogte (Ingogo) and again during the baffle at Majuba, where Colley himself was killed. This battle was to feature largely in the Boer psyche as a resounding victory of a small force over a large one. As a result, Transvaal independence was restored by the London Convention of 1884.

The discovery of gold on the Reef in 1886 (it had been discovered earlier in the Eastern Transvaal in 1871) was a landmark event. It led to the immigration of Uitlanders, a stream of hopefuls from beyond the Transvaal. Many became industrial capitalists, while exploited Africans, often supplied with alchohol, provided a subservient workforce. Concessions, usually granted to non-British foreigners, burgeoned. The Uitlanders demanded the franchise. Joubert urged compromise. Kruger was prepared to bide his time until the opportunity arose to ward off the threat. He would wait, he said, until the tortoise put out its head and then he would chop it off. The abortive Jamieson Raid ended when the raiders were surrounded at Doornkop. Kruger, aware of further impending trouble, began to re-arm the Transvaal with imported modern weapons.

Meanwhile, in Europe, Germany was providing an industrial challenge to Britain. Sterling needed to be underpinned by gold. The gold of the Transvaal offered the British a solution to this. Sir Alfred Milner, High Commissioner for South Africa and Lieutenant-Governor of the Cape, was to be instrumental in gaining the annexation of the Transvaal and the Orange Free State.

Recalling the politically powerless traders in Ancient Athens, the Uitlanders were nicknamed "helots". They now resolved to gain the franchise. Kruger offered a seven-year franchise and later a five-year franchise with some concessions.

By 2nd September 1899, Joseph Chamberlain, the British Secretary for the Colonies, regarded war as inevitable. British troops were moved to Dundee in a hostile move. First the South African Republic and then the Orange Free State mobilised their commandos. In October, the Ultimatum was issued. Britain was to withdraw her troops or face war. On 11th October 1899, when this was not done, the war began.

JOHAN WASSERMANN then took up the story, warning that, like any conflict, the Anglo-Boer War had many causes, some of which are disputed. The Boer perception is of two main causes of the war; gold and Majuba. Afrikaner nationalism was pitted against British imperialism.

As Boers moved away from the settled Cape Colony, a new culture evolved among them, which was separate from the European mainstream. They became alienated from established civilisation. Theirs was a pastoral, pre-industrial farming economy. Among them was a strong thread of the notion of being a "Chosen People" running through their mind-set.

Piet Retief's Manifesto, published as he left to join the Great Trek, expressed the common Boer desire for self-government, and independence from Britain. This led to the formation of the republics. In this situation, the Boers were constantly engaged in minor wars with African groups whom they displaced. In Britain, the concept of imperialism was strong; and colonial confederation as achieved in Canada, under the umbrella authority of Britain, was supported. The issue of gold was generally regarded as less important than the extension of British authority. In the Transvaal, a surge of Republican nationalists had emerged, especially as a result of the victory at Majuba: David's triumph over Goliath. The homegrown Transvaler was the ideal. The latter idea caused Jan Smuts, with his Cape and Cambridge background, to be looked at askance by some. The discovery of gold propelled the pro-industrial Boer republic into the sphere of big money. The centre of importance in South Africa shifted from Cape Town to the Rand. The Boers feared that they would be outnumbered and overwhelmed, although the Uitlanders in those early days were not eager to adopt Transvaal citizenship even when, in 1890, this was offered on a fourteen-year franchise.

The Transvaal Afrikaners, generally, remained on the periphery, away from the main conflict, which emerged after the discovery of gold. Nor did the individual Uitlandors comprise a united group. The main grievances were those of the emergent mining houses against Kruger, especially when concessions to run various aspects of mining and transport were granted to non-British Uitlanders on the divide-and-rule principle. However, while money was still coming in, individual randlords wore not opposed to Kruger.

The question of the drift was abrasive. The building of railway lines to Durban and Lourenzo Marques (now Maputo), and which were intended to give access to Portuguese and Natal ports, was begun. The drifts over the Vaal, which would have allowed goods to be taken to and from the Cape, were closed by Kruger. War was inevitable.

Both sides wore spoiling for this war, which was essentially between Afrikaner nationalism and British imperialism. Milner prepared for war, aware that the Transvaal had the potential to expand northwards, which would have been in conflict with the British desire to gain complete control.

After these lively and masterly presentations of the origins and causes of the Anglo-Boer War, the Chairman, George Chadwick, invited questions that came thick and fast. Several questions revolved around speculations, and the responses were all thought provoking. Dr Gus Allan expressed our thanks after a thoroughly enlightening and satisfying meeting. Eventually, the Chairman called a halt at 10 00pm, but many members lingered on for further discussions.


Dr Ingrid Machin
Secretary: Durban Branch
4 Hadley,101 Manning Road,Glenwood,Durban,4001
Telephone: (031) 201 3983

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