Boer War Bingo… The First Boer War

I have long noticed that each and every question about the Boer War can be guaranteed to prompt the same responses from a certain type of person. Indeed, so predictable is this, that I have come to think of it as ‘Boer War Bingo’, with the aim of the game to shout out (in no particular order), random things like: ‘Gold!’, ‘Diamonds!’, ‘Women and Children!’, ‘Concentration Camps!’ and ‘Genocide!’.

By way of example, I found this hilarious alternative reality of the First Boer War (ie. the war fought in 1880/81) while browsing about on Quora:


Nigel Vos, works at Architect and Project Manager

Answered Jul 23, 2017

What caused the First Boer War?

The British Empire wanted to annex two independent republics that were not theirs.

These were the South African Republic [also known as the Transvaal Republic where present-day Pretoria and Johannesburg are located] and the Orange Free State Republic [where Bloemfontein is located].

The Boers – with many non-Boers who had previously lived in the Cape Colony and Natal – were frustrated by being subject to British rule with very few rights.

They arranged a series of migrations into the mostly uninhabited central part of South Africa to get away from the British in what is known as the Great Trek.

The first organized large-scale migration started in 1836.

The First and Second Boer Wars were about the same thing – expansion of the British Empire and taking possession of huge reserves of gold and diamonds that had been discovered and did not belong to them.

Though he failed to get in mentions of ‘Genocide’ and ‘Women and Children’, Mr Vos was nevertheless clearly more interested in playing ‘Boer War Bingo’ than actually answering the question – goodness knows where he dreamt up the notion that the First Boer War was about ‘huge reserves of gold and diamonds’. Having read his nonsense, I made the (very obvious) comment that the First Boer War had nothing to do with the Orange Free State, or with diamonds (which were overwhelmingly found in the Kimberley region of Britain’s Cape Colony) or with huge reserves of gold (the Witwatersrand gold rush only occurred 5 years after the First Boer War had ended). Faced, perhaps for the first time, with historical reality instead of Apartheid-regime propaganda, he got very stroppy and blocked any further comments on his absurd version of events.

He then popped up again, commenting on the (historically correct) answer which I had given to the question. We swapped a couple of comments, but he refused to provide any references for his outlandish claims, then threw a little temper tantrum and told me to ‘Fuck Off’ – a comment he quickly deleted. So it seems we shall never know why he felt the need to claim that the First Boer War had anything to do with the Orange Free State, let alone diamonds and gold. One can only admire his determination not to let inconvenient things like ‘facts’, ‘historical reality’ and ‘geography’ from getting in the way of his determination to play Boer War Bingo.

This rather entertaining exchange made me think it might be worth doing a short article about the First Boer War – a war which, going by the Quora responses, is apparently every bit as misunderstood as the second one.

Though Mr Vos would prefer us to believe that the Boers trekked inland because they were ‘subject to British rule with very few rights’, the primary motivation for their treks in the 1830s was actually because the wicked old Brits had banned slavery – and some people weren’t happy to live without the ‘right’ to keep slaves. Poor lambs.
Additionally, and despite his claims, those Boers who established the Orange Free State are completely irrelevant in terms of the First Boer War, so we shall focus on their brethren who defeated, dominated and subjugated the black tribes north of the Vaal River, chasing out the Matabele overlords of the region. These new arrivals (including a certain Paul Kruger) founded the various mini-republics which would (after a series of civil wars) ultimately unite to form the Transvaal (or South African Republic, or ZAR). From the earliest days of Boer settlement in the Transvaal, the newcomers displayed a fondness of expansionism, military adventurism, capturing slaves and stealing cattle, and generally dominating their black neighbours; all of which meant the ever-expanding border areas of the fledgling republic were generally in a state of flux, turmoil and violence.

From 1872 the president of the Transvaal had been the relatively liberal and forward-looking Thomas Burgers while the distinctly illiberal and backward-looking Paul Kruger had risen to the position of vice-president. Burgers with his modern ways and the gaggle of civil servants he had imported from the Netherlands en masse, had quickly become highly unpopular with many Transvaal burghers. The ultra-conservative Dopper Party announced that they had had more than enough of all this progress malarkey and proposed the reassuringly blinkered Kruger as their presidential candidate.

For all his much-derided attempts at modernization, what Burgers presided over was still less of a functioning nation-state and more of a chaotic and virtually bankrupt collection of lawless individuals thinly scattered across the veldt. Slavery was still practiced in all but name, Potchefstroom, Lydenburg, and Pretoria were still little more than villages, there were only four state schools in the whole country, as late as 1877 total annual expenditure was less than £5,000,  and there was by then quite simply no money to pay government workers. Though most went without any sort of salary at all, the state-surveyor took his pay in land while the postmaster-general had a slightly less attractive deal being forced to take his in stamps.  Illiteracy was also a major problem—only eight per cent of white children in the ZAR (compared to 50% in Britain’s Cape Colony) attended school in 1877.  As Dr Jorrisen (later one of President Kruger’s chief agents) admitted in his reminiscences: ‘…there was no such thing in 1876 as Transvaal patriotism, the whole country was in a state of chaos.’

Disregarding this precarious situation, the leaders of the ZAR jauntily embarked on yet another military adventure against their black neighbours, this time targeting the mountain strongholds of the troublesome Pedi to the north of the Transvaal. A 1,400-strong commando was supported by an especially savage contingent of Swazi allies who were given carte blanche to butcher any women and children they came across.  Despite this, the Transvaalers came off badly and were quickly routed, scurrying back to Pretoria in a panic.

One observer recorded the complete collapse of Boer morale:

‘… [as the war] lasted longer and longer the burghers lost their courage. Some packed up on the quiet and went home, amongst others demoralization set in so fast that the whole commando in spite of the exhortations of the chivalrous president [Reverend Thomas Burgers] melted like snow in the sun and everybody rushed huistoe [home].’

With the flaws of the commando system exposed so starkly and the Pedi poised to follow up the rout, the Boers had no choice but to enlist a corps of foreign mercenaries under a Prussian adventurer called von Schlieckmann.  Paying for these dogs of war put yet more strain on the ZAR’s treasury but von Schlieckmann’s hired thugs managed to stabilize the situation temporarily. The ‘singular barbarity’ employed by von Schlieckmann’s force was enough to revolt even his own men:

‘About daylight we came across four kaffirs. Saw them first, and charged in front of them to cut off their retreat. Saw they were women, and called out not to fire. In spite of that, one of the poor things got her head blown off (a damned shame) … I never heard such a cowardly bit of business in my life. No good will come of it … [von Schlieckmann] says he will cut all the women and children’s throats he catches. Told him distinctly he was a damned coward.’

Schlieckmann’s thugs killed ‘two women and a child at Steelport’ and then, in another attack on a nearby kraal, ‘he ordered his men to cut the throats of all the wounded’. Field-Cornet Erasmus was another nasty piece of work whose men killed ‘40 or 50 friendly natives, men and women, and carried off the children’.

This brutality saw the Pedi just about contained, but to the south, the far more powerful and martial Zulus were mustering their forces and it looked, for all the world, as though the ZAR would be wiped off the map after just 25 years of unruly existence. Writing in 1896, William Fisher summed up a situation which many feared would spark a terrible and widespread war:

‘The Boers, penniless and demoralized, were under the shadow of a black cloud that seemed as if its bursting might involve half of South Africa.’  Another observer writing in 1900 agreed: ‘With rebellion rampant within its borders, fears of civil war, a weak administration, without money and without credit, the condition of the republic was rotten to the core’.

The Zulu king Cetawayo would later send a most remarkable communiqué to the British Special Commissioner admitting that he had been ready for war:

‘…the Dutch have tired me out and I intended to fight them … you see my impis are gathered. It was to fight the Dutch I called them together; now I will send them back to their homes … In the reign of my father, Umpanda, the Boers were constantly moving their boundary further into my country. Since his death the same thing has been done. I had therefore determined to end it once and for all.’

Though the Transvaalers later claimed they would have defeated any invading Zulu Army this was baseless bravado. Their commandos had just been routed by the far less fearsome Pedi and there is little doubt that the Zulu impis would have wiped out their hated foe. Indeed, and quite understandably fearing for their lives, the Lydenburg Boers shamelessly requested British protection as did various (mainly German and British) inhabitants of villages across the republic.  Seeing the writing on the wall, President Burgers made a remarkable speech to the volksraad:

‘I would rather be a policeman under a strong government than a president of such a state. It is you—you members of the raad and the Boers—who have ruined the country, who have sold your independence for a drink. You have ill-treated the natives, you have shot them down, you have sold them into slavery, and now you have to pay the penalty.’

Thus, the Transvaal was annexed by Great Britain on 12 April 1877 without a shot having been fired. Though later billed by Kruger’s propaganda machine as ‘a small army’, the British ‘invasion force’ actually consisted of a single 25-strong troop of Natal Mounted Police. There can be little doubt that the majority of the ZAR’s inhabitants welcomed their arrival, breathing a very deep sigh of relief at what they represented. None other than Henry Rider Haggard read the proclamation announcing the annexation, a statement which rightly declared the ZAR to have been facing ‘anarchy and bloodshed’. Incidentally, and to highlight how well the annexation was received, this proclamation was printed on the presses of the ZAR’s government-approved newspaper and another leading local newspaper stated that 96% of the Transvaal’s citizens were in favour of the annexation – a figure which does seem implausibly high, though, given the choice of British law-and-order, or annihilation at the hands of the Zulus, who knows.

For all this trademark huffing-and-puffing, Kruger continued to work under the new British Administration—indeed, he headed the faction that grudgingly supported it and drew a salary for doing so. He even, somewhat shamelessly, demanded a pay rise.  In fact, other than President Burgers (who disappeared from the scene on a pension paid for by the long-suffering British taxpayer) the only member of the pre-annexation republican government who refused to work with the British was the man who was to be Kruger’s rival for the next 20 years: ‘Slim’ Piet Joubert.

Critics of the British annexation of the republic have always tended to focus on its impact on the Boers, ignoring the fact that, even then, they were a tiny minority in the Transvaal. As Henry Rider Haggard put it:

‘It never seems to have occurred to those who have raised so much outcry on behalf of 40,000 Boers, to inquire what was thought of the matter by the million natives.’

Though one has to allow for a touch of wishful thinking, Haggard went on to describe how, with the exception of the Pedi who continued their war even after the annexation,

‘…the advent of our rule was hailed with joy by every native in the Transvaal … During our period of rule in the Transvaal the natives have had, as they foresaw, more peace than at any time since the white man set foot in the land. They have paid their taxes gladly, and there has been no fighting between themselves’.

Haggard stayed on as part of the British team tasked with trying to instill some sort of order into the affairs of the territory with which the Empire was now burdened. As we have learned, this task was a formidable one: according to Haggard, the ZAR’s treasury contained just ‘a single threepenny bit’ upon annexation.  Others put the total at an only slightly more respectable 12s 6d. Just three years of British stewardship achieved what 25 years of chaotic self-rule had not.  The ZAR’s basket-case finances were addressed with an injection of British money and, while the Boer commandos had been sent packing by the Pedi, the British Army succeeded in bringing them into line in short order.  Talking of the campaign at a banquet in Pretoria afterwards, the high commissioner for the Transvaal, Sir Garnet Wolseley, was heard to say:

‘I could not help feeling that the battle we were engaged in was essentially a Boer’s battle; but there were no Boers there. There were 2,000 English soldiers, and volunteers of Africander  and European origin raised in this country, and I asked myself, in whose cause is this battle being fought? Why is it fought? Why are we left to fight it out by ourselves when these ignorant men, led by a few designing fellows, are talking nonsense and spouting sedition on the High Vveldt?’

When, in 1879, the British Army also broke the power of Cetawayo’s Zulus, the two biggest external threats to very existence of the ZAR had been removed. It is interesting to note that after his defeat, Cetawayo himself said:

‘This war [ie. the Zulu War of 1879] was forced on me and the Zulus. We never desired to fight the English. The Boers were the real cause of that war. They were continually worrying the Zulus about their land and threatening to invade the country if we did not give them land, and this forced us to get our forces ready to resist, and consequently the land became disturbed, and the Natal people mistakenly believed we were preparing against them.’

While one can never assume such statements to be Gospel, there is little doubt that the Transvaal Boers were delighted to have the British Army do their dirty work for them. Either way, with the Zulu Empire shattered, General Wolseley was somewhat understandably of the opinion that Britain’s title to the Transvaal had been gained by defeating both them and the Pedi—either of whom might well have exterminated the Transvaal Boers had the ZAR not been annexed. It is hard to disagree.

Despite the British having fixed the Transvaal’s finances and defeated their enemies for them, such remarks—and the annoying habit their new overlords had of collecting taxes—served to unite the previously fragmented Boers into something approaching a national identity—even if it was one mainly based on a hatred of all things British rather than on something a little more positive. And with their enemies now vanquished and their finances on an even keel for once, Kruger and his ilk fancied another crack at running the country.

The rebellion of 1880–81, which later became known as the First Boer War, was quite possibly the nadir of the British colonial period. The Transvaal’s new imperial administrators had taken an understandably dim view of the Boers’ traditional attitude toward the payment of tax, and the prosecution of one such non-payer served as the catalyst for the uprising. Matters were not helped by the fact that the officer in charge of collecting taxes, Colonel Sir Owen Lanyon, was ‘a dark-complexioned man, and service in the West Indies and in other hot climates had considerably bronzed his face; on this evidence the Boers came to the conclusion that he was ‘a nigger’’.

Egging such ill-educated and prejudiced people on was child’s play to Piet Joubert and that perennial troublemaker, Kruger, and Boer rebels moved to attack the scattered British garrisons of the Transvaal and snatch back their independence—or, to put it another way—to replace relatively equitable, stable, and reasonable imperial rule with that of Kruger’s corrupt, self-serving clique.

The rebellion was little more than the investment of several British held settlements and a few skirmishes. The first of the latter was an ambush of the 240 men of the 94th Infantry at Bronkhorst Spruit, achieved by very dubious use of the white flag, a practice the Boers would repeat regularly during the Second Boer War. Indeed, the rebellion gave the British an early indication of the ‘pragmatic’ view their foes held toward the accepted rules of war: essentially, ‘the enemy must abide by the rules but we don’t have to’.

Following hot on the heels of the white flag incident at Bronkhorst Spruit (known to the Transvaal’s many loyalist residents as ‘the Massacre of Bronkhorst Spruit’) came the callous murder of Captain Elliot who had been captured in that engagement. Elliot and another officer  were given parole d’honneur to leave the Transvaal and cross into the Orange Free State. The two unarmed officers were taken to the Vaal River by an escort of eight Boers and forced to cross in the middle of the night. When they were halfway across their escort decided it would be good sport to open fire on them and the resultant volley killed the luckless Elliot midstream.

A little later, at the skirmish at Ingogo Heights (which, like the later action at Majuba, was fought in Natal – the ‘poor innocent Boers’ having invaded the far north of that British colony), the rebels outdid themselves: not only did they shoot under cover of the white flag they had raised, they did so at an unarmed priest who had gone forward to acknowledge the truce.  Things went from bad to worse for the British when—on 27 February—General Colley’s small force was routed from the top of Majuba Hill by an even smaller number of rebels.

Though the Boer victory at Majuba was deeply embarrassing for the British Army, the fact is that only one of the small imperial garrisons—Potchefstroom—surrendered during the war, and that was after three months of siege and due to ‘dishonourable action’.  The remainder—Standerton, Pretoria, Lydenburg, Marabastadt, Rustenburg, and Wakkerstroom—all held out to the end, giving sanctuary to the many loyalists who wanted nothing whatsoever to do with the rebellion.

Normally this relatively minor insurrection would have been dealt with in the customary imperial fashion, ie. the British troops would have dusted themselves off, sorted themselves out, and moved to smash the rebels. A few of the more outspoken and annoying rabble-rousers—like Kruger—would then have been strung up and everything would have returned to normal. This could, and should, easily have been achieved, for while there were only tiny numbers of redcoats in the Transvaal, the British had plenty of troops in the Cape and Natal.   Gladstone’s decision to throw in the towel was as astonishing as it was pathetically inexplicable. It was the first time since the American Revolution that the British had ended a war by signing a treaty on unfavourable terms. One reporter wrote in disbelief about General Sir Evelyn Wood (on instructions from London) having met with Joubert and his rebels to parlay:

‘The idea of an English General, with 10,000 troops at his back, after the British forces had been thrice beaten in open fight, going to an interview with the leaders of the enemy, for the sake of gaining time to negotiate peace proposals, was thought to be too absurd to be credited.’

Fortune had favoured Kruger, however, as Gladstone’s spineless Liberal Administration showed no stomach for the fight. With barely a second thought for the thousands of loyalists and hundreds of thousands of blacks he was casting aside, Gladstone had been desperate for peace even before Majuba and that hammering had been the final straw.

Wiser heads knew that the British Government would be in no position to make any demands with respect to loyalists and blacks unless they were negotiating from a position of strength.

Sir Michael Hicks-Beach raised his concerns in the House, reminding the Members of the ‘position of those 3,700 Boer petitioners who had asked for annexation, and of the British residents who had invested capital in the Transvaal upon the guarantee of the British Government. Mr William Rathbone proposed a resolution demanding equal political rights for all the white population in the Transvaal. Mr Chamberlain stated that ‘loyal settlers’ should be protected in their legal rights, lives, and property. Mr Gladstone, at the close of the debate, stated that ‘they would all be in a position of most perfect equality with the other inhabitants’’.

Perhaps Gladstone really believed this, naïvely assuming Kruger to be a man of his word. After all, at the British and Transvaal Commission, on 10 May 1881, Kruger had confirmed that this would indeed be the case and assured Sir Hercules Robinson that British subjects would continue to be treated exactly like citizens of the Transvaal, just as they had before the 1877 annexation. When General Wood pressed him on this point, asking him to confirm that British subjects would continue to receive equal privileges, Kruger replied:

‘We make no difference so far as burgher rights are concerned. There may be, perhaps, some slight difference in the case of a young person who has just come into the country.’

When asked to clarify this point another Boer delegate, Dr Jorrisen, gave some more detail:

‘What Mr Kruger meant to say is this; according to our law, a newcomer is not immediately considered a burgher. The words ‘young person’ have not reference to age but to length of residence. According to our ancient ‘Grondwet’ (Constitution) you must have resided one year in the country to become a burgher.’

Had the Kruger cabal abided by these perfectly reasonable assurances—which were openly published in the minutes of the meeting—there would have been no Second Boer War, but (as Gladstone had not given his generals a few more weeks to crush the uprising) these were nothing more than empty words and the rebels had no reason to honour such promises. Sure enough, the Transvaal’s newly installed rulers increased the required residence period from one year to five the following year. This would later be increased again and again in a desperate attempt to retain power at all costs.

Though Mr Vos blurted out ‘gold’ in his game of Boer War Bingo, on the contrary, many modern pundits claim that the British showed no interest in fighting for the Transvaal in 1881 because ‘no one yet knew there was gold there’. However, and while the Witwatersrand gold rush had not yet started—that happened in 1886—this is not actually the case. Writing in 1882, Thomas Carter described the continuing development of the gold fields of the Transvaal (such as the 1873 Pilgrim’s Rest gold rush in the eastern Transvaal) which antedated the 1877 annexation.  Similarly in 1881 Sir Garnet Wolseley counselled Gladstone against a spineless surrender of the Transvaal, pointing out that as gold had already been found there, an influx of English-speaking settlers would soon follow and the voices of the few trouble-makers would be drowned out.

So whatever it was that inspired Gladstone’s unpatriotic and gutless decision it was certainly not a complete lack of knowledge concerning the Transvaal’s gold deposits – even though limited amounts of gold had been discovered, the British showed no interest in fighting a war to retain the Transvaal… the complete opposite of Mr Vos’ entertaining claims.  In reality, Gladstone’s government showed no interest in winning the war and all too readily granted (an only slightly limited form of) independence to the ZAR. Kruger became its president shortly thereafter—a position he would hold until he plunged the sub-continent into war at the end of the century.

Even as the rebellion was still being fought, Kruger’s followers had been settling old scores. There had been numerous cases of murder and pillage, and property belonging to loyalists who had fled the war was simply seized by Kruger’s men; the atmosphere should have left no one in any doubt as to the sort of corrupt kleptocracy the newly independent-again ZAR would become. Two Bechuana chiefs, Montsioa and Mankoroane, who had supported the British during the war, had been attacked. Loyalists had been pressed into service in this conflict ‘according to the familiar practice of the Boers, who consider it excellent policy to make the disaffected fight their battles and save the skins of the good citizens’.  This policy would also be used during the Second Boer War.

With Kruger’s clique now in power, no one would suffer more than the Africans who—it is often very conveniently forgotten—made up the vast majority of the ZAR’s population. A distraught Henry Rider Haggard stated that they deserved ‘some protection and consideration, some voice in the settlement of their fate’, continuing:

‘They outnumbered the Boers by 25 to one, taking their numbers at a million and those of the Boers at 40,000, a fair estimate, I believe … as the lash and the bullet have been the lot of the wretched Transvaal Kaffir in the past, so they will be his lot in the future … after leading those hundreds of thousands of men and women to believe that they were once and for ever the subjects of Her Majesty, safe from all violence, cruelty, and oppression, we have handed them over without a word of warning to the tender mercies of one, where natives are concerned, of the cruellest white races in the world.’

It fell to the missionary John Moffat to try to explain to the African chiefs in the Transvaal that they would no longer enjoy British protection or equality before the law. Moffat described how, ‘for the most part there was the silence of despair. One gentle old man, Mokhatle, a man of great influence, used the language of resignation, ‘When I was a child, the Matabele came, they swept over us like the wind and we bowed before them like the long white grass on the plains. They left us and we stood upright again. The Boers came and we bowed ourselves under them in like manner. The British came and we rose upright, our hearts lived within us and we said: Now we are the children of the Great Lady. And now that is past and we must lie flat again under the wind—who knows what are the ways of God?’’

So there we have it: a brief account of what caused the First Boer War, and what happened in it, and after it.

Despite the ill-considered outbursts of Mr Vos, the war was most certainly not sparked by a wicked British plan to annex the Orange Free State – indeed, that republic was not involved in the conflict. Equally, there was no dastardly desire to grab ‘huge reserves of diamonds’ and, even though there had been limited discoveries of gold in the Transvaal, the British government showed no inclination to fight to retain ownership of the place… which rather refutes the knee-jerk claims that everything is always about the nasty old Brits trying to steal everyone’s gold.

As I tried to explain on Quora, the First Boer War was a rebellion against British rule by elements in the Transvaal. Pretty simple, really.

I can only apologise that the facts do not include too many opportunities to win at ‘Boer War Bingo’.

1 Comment

  • Chris Posted November 11, 2018 7:17 am

    Hi Chris ,
    As always — so much detail / hard work
    Seeing as you are busy with the — First War of Independence

    Please see

    https://www.kraaluitgewers.co.za

    For a detailed [ BINGO ? ] history

    ( You may need a translator )

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