A hopeless cause?


Afrikanderdom has awakened to a sense of earnestness which we have not observed since the heroic war of liberty in 1881. From the Limpopo, as far as Capetown, the second Majuba has given birth to a new inspiration and a new movement amongst our people in South Africa … The flaccid and cowardly Imperialism that had already begun to dilute and weaken our national blood, gradually turned aside before the new current that permeated our people … Now or never the foundation of a wide-embracing nationalism must be laid … The partition wall has disappeared … never has the necessity for a policy of a colonial and republican union been greater; now the psychological moment has arrived; now our people have awakened all over South Africa; a new glow illumines our hearts; let us lay the foundation-stone of a real united South Africa on the soil of a pure and all-comprehensive national sentiment.
– Afrikaner Bond mouthpiece, Ons Land, trumpets the defeat of the Jameson Raid and calls for the building of Afrikaans-led united South Africa.

When Kruger launched his invasions in October 1899 the German foreign minister Count von Bülow confidently reported:
‘The vast majority of German military experts believe that the South African war will end with a complete defeat for the English. Nobody here believes that the English will ever reach Pretoria.[4]
Based on the republican numerical superiority in late 1899, and the element of surprise that Kruger’s invaders enjoyed, the Count (and various other esteemed German military advisers) clearly believed that a Boer victory was inevitable at the time. However, a few decades worth of propaganda to justify the Boer defeat means that this is far from the view now commonly held. Instead, Kruger’s crusade, today, is generally thought of as a last desperate gamble, a romantically forlorn hope, doomed to failure from the very beginning. Of course, it is a question that can never really be answered, but let’s take a moment to consider whether or not the Boers could have won: was theirs a hopeless cause from the start, or did they blow their chance?

Before one can even attempt to address this question, one needs to understand the aims of the republicans and examine whether or not they were attainable. As we have seen, many modern writers claim that Kruger’s objectives were very modest and most seek to convince their readers, or perhaps themselves, that Kruger’s war was ‘expressly of a limited nature’, and not one of conquest,[5] that the war was started to preserve the ‘sovereignty of the state’, or that the Boers were ‘fighting for their independence’. The problem with such (frantic) attempts to exonerate Kruger and Steyn of all blame is the sheer mass of evidence to the contrary. Even Professor Scholtz grudgingly admits that such blasé statements of innocence are contradicted by historical reality. Despite his frantic claims about the war categorically not having been one of conquest, the professor confesses that the republicans nevertheless acted as ‘permanent governors and not temporary sojourners’ in the land they captured. He also concedes that they forced the British subjects who lived therein to join their armies, and that there were plans to provoke a massive uprising in the Cape Colony which would see it declaring unilateral independence from Britain and forming a ‘third Boer republic’.[6]

But let’s be charitable for a moment, and pretend that poor old misunderstood Kruger only ever wanted to retain the sovereignty and independence of the Boer republics: could this (on the face of it) laudable and reasonable objective have been achieved? And how? The answer is most certainly yes, and without any effort at all or a single shot being fired. There had never been any doubt regarding the sovereignty of either republic until Kruger and Steyn embarked on their invasions of British territory. The simplest way to have preserved sovereignty would have been to desist from attacking the pre-eminent Great Power of the age.

As we have seen, the Free State had no reason at all to fear for its sovereignty until Steyn nonsensically signed Kruger’s offensive pact and joined his conquest of British territory. As for the Transvaal, its independence was slightly limited by the British retention of ‘suzerainty’ but this had so little practical impact as to be almost irrelevant. Theoretically, it gave Great Britain a say in the Transvaal’s foreign affairs but this had not stopped Kruger from expanding his borders in all manner of different directions, or his agents from seeking alliances with European powers, gaining the services of their military advisers, and buying massive amounts of armaments from them.

The British were certainly pressing for electoral change in the Transvaal but this is completely different from threatening sovereignty and it is highly unlikely that they would have gone to war to secure this. Even when Kruger’s invasions of British territory led to the annexation of the Transvaal, it was given self-rule within a few years. As we have seen, any comparison between the numbers of troops sent to defend British territories in southern Africa in 1899 and how many the British military had calculated would be necessary to conquer the Boer republics shows that an offensive war was simply not a realistic proposition.

As well as the obvious lack of military planning for an invasion of the Transvaal, the British Government would never have secured popular support for such a venture. Unlike the Transvaal, Great Britain was a functioning democracy with a free press and, even when British territory was invaded by the Boers, there were still those in politics and the media who sympathized with Kruger’s plucky underdogs. Given that significant numbers of Britons felt this way—even after a Boer invasion had ignited the war—one can only imagine what the reactions of France, Germany, and Russia would have been to an unprovoked British invasion of the Transvaal.

Nor should it be forgotten that lobbying for a fair franchise does not equate to threatening the independence of a nation. As General Joubert rightly stated, Kruger could easily have avoided a war by adopting a five-year franchise;[7] it really was as simple as that. The introduction of a fairer franchise system would have involved no loss of sovereignty or independence: the world pressed for electoral reform in South Africa throughout the Apartheid-era, but no one suggested that this was a threat to the nation’s independence.

The situation in the Transvaal of the late 1890s was very similar: a large number of people who, by the accepted standards of the day, should have had the vote, didn’t. These people, quite understandably appealed to London to apply pressure so that what was patently a grossly unfair situation could be rectified. Of course, it suits some today to postulate that the war was all about the Transvaal’s independence, but such a smokescreen presents the British government as the sole guilty party while ignoring the complex reality of the situation. Enfranchising tens of thousands of tax-paying uitlanders who had lived in the ZAR for years would no doubt have ended Kruger’s (highly lucrative) term in office, but it would no more have ended the independence of the Transvaal than democratic elections ended South Africa’s independence in 1994.

Any government elected after the extension of the franchise to include large numbers of uitlanders would undoubtedly have made radical changes in the Transvaal, and the country would never have been quite the same again. But given that—in comparison with the British territories of South Africa—Kruger’s Transvaal was a corrupt, deeply racist, poorly run, and utterly undemocratic kleptocracy, this would not have been a bad thing. A more democratic Transvaal might well have gone on to gravitate toward the British Empire, but again, if this was what the majority of the expanded electorate wanted, then that is how it should have been: that’s the whole point of a democracy. It should never be forgotten that the Afrikaners —far from all of whom supported Kruger—only made up about half of the whites in the Transvaal, and that whites in turn made up only a small minority of the total population of that country. However modern-day apologists choose to spin it, the fact that a small clique drawn from a portion of a minority group would no longer be running the nation in no way meant that the Transvaal would lose her independence.

Building on the work of Kruger’s propaganda machine, some writers today seek to equate the word ‘independence’ with the phrase ‘continued power for a small unrepresentative gang’, but this is utterly irrational. Indeed, it would be like saying that the leaders of the United States had every right to deny the vote to all but those of Protestant English extraction on the spurious basis that the Pilgrim Fathers and the settlers of Jamestown were from England. Like the United States, the Transvaal was a nation founded by immigrants[*] and for one particular small group of such immigrants to demand the right to rule over all the others indefinitely was, and is, completely indefensible.

So we have to accept that Kruger’s aim in starting the war had nothing to do with the normal definition of independence, but rather a base desire to stay in power so that his ‘chosen people’ could continue to dominate the Transvaal. The fact that the British were the dominant power in southern Africa as a whole, and that a large number of uitlanders were Britons who would always look to London to champion their cause complicated his position immeasurably. The only way to square the circle was either to allow the uitlanders a fair franchise and hope beyond hope that they would vote for him, or replace Great Britain as the pre-eminent power in the sub-continent—something he and his followers fervently desired in any case. Kruger was a cunning enough fellow to know that the uitlanders would never vote for him, but, to hang on to power a bit longer, he probably considered agreeing to Milner’s demands at Bloemfontein, before dragging out the process of implementation, coupled with his old trick of simply rigging elections. It is possible that he did not risk this because he had met his match in Milner and knew quite plainly that he would not have gotten away with it.

As we have seen, the republican invasion plans were by no means limited incursions as claimed by some today. They were envisaged to deliver a knockout blow that would see the British driven from South Africa, allowing Kruger unfettered rule of an empire stretching ‘from the Zambesi to the Cape’, and this was the long-held and openly stated aim of the Afrikaner Bond. Even if Steyn and Kruger had been content with the aims that they shared with Count Sternberg, this would have seen the Kimberley diamond fields annexed by the Orange Free State,[8] and the whole of Natal added to the ever-expanding Transvaal,[9] leaving a shattered and humiliated Great Britain with a vastly reduced presence in the region.

Luckily, the Boer invasions of Natal and the Cape Colony ultimately failed but let us ponder if they could ever have succeeded. Firstly, as witnessed earlier, the Boers’ strategy of attack was fundamentally flawed. Natal was staunchly pro-British and thus was never going to rise in support of a republican incursion. The Cape, on the other hand, was home to large numbers of Afrikaners and thus a far more likely recruiting ground. Despite this, if the republican army made any sort of ‘main effort’, this was directed towards Natal—and the capture of Durban—while the Cape Colony proper was largely ignored during the first month of the war, and resources were frittered away in all manner of other directions, including the siege of Mafeking[10] and incursions into Rhodesia and Bechuanaland. More than anything else, it was this inability to focus on anything approaching even a semi-achievable aim that cost Kruger his chance of a South African empire.

The invasion of Natal was never going to work—even if the invading Boers had somehow made it to Durban, and by some miracle captured the city, Imperial reinforcements could have landed at a dozen other ports; it would have been a major inconvenience for the Imperial cause, but—as long as the political will remained—not a knockout blow. In contrast, if Natal had been screened by forces dug in along the mountainous border, and 40,000 aggressively led Boer commandos had been unleashed into the Cape Colony, it is just about conceivable that this would have sparked a general uprising from the many Kruger sympathizers and Bondsmen there. From a conventional military point of view, this would arguably have given the republicans their best chance of victory. The result might have been the much-longed-for establishment of a ‘third republic’ in the Cape, with British South African territory reduced to just Natal and (perhaps) a naval base on the Cape Peninsular. But even this best-case-scenario contradicts Kruger’s stated desire to capture Natal and, specifically, the port of Durban.

However successful this Cape uprising might have been, the republicans would still have struggled to seize Imperial-held towns: after having looked at their abysmal record in capturing defended positions—Ladysmith, Mafeking, Kimberley, and even Kuruman and Wepener—there is no reason to believe that they could have swept into the likes of Cape Town, Port Elizabeth, or East London unless massive numbers of townspeople were in open insurrection. Taking staunchly loyal Durban was a virtual impossibility: the British need only have landed just a few thousand troops, and Imperial command of the sea would have ensured that the city could not have been starved into submission. The big guns of the Royal Navy’s battleships and cruisers would also have been devastating in defence of the town or in support of landings. Consider that just one of the Royal Navy’s nine Majestic-class battleships—each mounting four 12-inch guns,[†] twelve 6-inch guns and a further twenty-eight 12 and 3-pounder guns—comprised more firepower than all the artillery of both republics combined.

Alternatively, what if the Boers—with their chosen strategy of directing their main effort at Natal—had managed to win a Majuba-style victory?[‡] Some writers have suggested that this was the republican plan all along, and that they believed the deliverance of a crushing defeat would be enough to prompt a British surrender. The problem with this theory is that the republican generals never showed the necessary dynamism to force any of their sieges to a conclusion despite these offering their best chance of dealing a hammer blow to Imperial prestige. Even if, however, they had shown a bit more grit and somehow forced the surrender of Ladysmith, it is unlikely that even the capture of 12,000 Imperial troops would have sent the British scurrying to the negotiating table. Salisbury was cut from a very different cloth than the spineless Gladstone who so readily threw in the towel during the first Boer War. We can never know for sure, of course, but based on the public reaction to the Imperial defeats of Black Week, it is likely that any Majuba-style defeat would actually have further galvanized the British public behind the war.

So how could the republicans have won? One alternative sometimes bandied about is that the Boers should have played to their strengths and fought a guerrilla war from the outset, rather than trying to take the British Army on in a conventional campaign. We have seen plenty of evidence showing that the Transvaal Secret Service tinkered with sparking insurgency campaigns in neighbouring British territories in the run-up to the war,[11] but unless these had been accompanied by an invasion it is unlikely they would have amounted to anything more than minor, if irksome, uprisings. The problem with this strategy is that, while sponsoring a terrorist campaign in a neighbouring country is a useful way to unsettle it and divert attention, it is very difficult to gain control of a neighbouring territory by such means unless a sizeable chunk of the population therein are ‘on sides’. This was arguably the situation in the Cape Colony, and with additional gun-smuggling and propaganda it is just about plausible that extremist Bondsmen in some areas might have been persuaded to rise up against the British and fight for a ‘third republic’ without Kruger having to get directly involved. The chances were mighty slim, however; even when the republicans provided the catalyst of a conventional invasion, precious few Cape Afrikaners rose up and threw in their lot with Kruger, and any small-scale rebellion or guerrilla campaign would probably have been contained by local paramilitary forces. If British agents had discovered who was behind the scheme, HM government would have had a cast-iron casus belli against the republican states—though the reader will recall that it overlooked the Transvaal’s pre-war aggression in Rhodesia and Bechuanaland.[12]

Alternately, the republicans could have played for time: many in the Afrikaner Bond anticipated embarking on their invasion only when Britain was otherwise engaged in another conflict.[13] During the Boer War, and despite their enormous commitment to South Africa, Britain still managed to send 12,000 troops to China to help put down the Boxer Rebellion, as well as fighting and winning the War of the Golden Stool[§] and the Anglo-Aro War—all while maintaining their far-flung garrisons and refusing to send non-white troops to fight the Boers. It is obvious, therefore, that for the distraction of another conflict to have proved decisive, Great Britain would had to have been embroiled in a very major war with one of the other Great Powers, not something that happened terribly often and not something that would occur again for another fifteen years. Obviously, if the federals had invaded when France made a play for Egypt or Russia moved against India, for example, this would have had an enormous impact on the war in South Africa. Yet despite the best efforts of the Transvaal diplomatic corps, no Great Power could be persuaded to join the party.

A member of the Bond told the highly placed legal eagle, Michael Farrelly, that they would have preferred to have had another twenty years to prepare for war,[14] which would have seen the Boer War coinciding with the First World War. It is perhaps interesting to consider whether the republics could have triumphed militarily if they had somehow managed to pull the wool over Milner’s eyes, placated the growing resentment of the uitlanders, hung on for fifteen years and invaded the Cape and Natal in 1914 rather than 1899.

Kruger died in 1904 and Joubert in 1900, but many of the other Boer big-hitters were young in 1899 and would still have been around in 1914, and if anything, the loss of the pedantic Joubert would have been advantageous to any invasion plans. The delay would also have allowed the Transvaal to complete the purchase of vast numbers of modern artillery pieces—a programme cut short by the start of the war in 1899—and to continue spreading sedition and dissent in the Cape. It is impossible to know what sort of garrison such a hypothetical invasion would have faced, but only four battalions were actually deployed in the Cape in 1914, despite it bordering German imperial territory.

Elsewhere at that time, the British Army was heavily committed to France—two divisions were held back in defence of the United Kingdom, but the British Expeditionary Force sent over the channel in 1914 still boasted four infantry divisions and a cavalry division; larger than the army corps that was mobilized to South Africa in late 1899 and representing most of Britain’s deployable regular army. Over the course of the Great War the British expanded their army massively though, and, as well as the many dozens of divisions deployed on the Western Front, were able to commit hundreds of thousands of Imperial troops to side-shows like Gallipoli (490,000 Imperial troops served in the eight-month campaign), Mesopotamia (350,000 Imperial troops served there over the course of the war) and Macedonia (there were seven British divisions in theatre in 1917) so sending a significant expeditionary force to South Africa would not have been impossible later in the war, though perhaps unrealistic in 1914.

It should also be recalled that the Great War was not fought as a ‘white man’s war’—Indian troops served with distinction in many theatres and the British utilized large numbers of African troops in German East Africa—so it is perfectly conceivable that they would have mobilized black South Africans following a hypothetical 1914 Boer invasion.

Even if the republican regime in Pretoria had managed to hang on and launch their invasions in 1914—which, given the increasingly volatile nature of uitlander protests, seems unlikely—their chances of success or failure would have been strongly linked to that of their German allies. As the Germans lost, there is no reason to suppose that—even had the initial invasions of Natal and the Cape been successful—an Afrikaans empire could have lasted any longer than the Great War. One must also take the enormous industrialization of warfare during the First World War into consideration. By 1916, there would have been no way an Afrikaans empire could even have begun to compete in such a conflict. Cut off from Germany by the Royal Navy’s control of the seas, it would simply have had no answer to Imperial tanks, armoured cars, aircraft, poison gas, and massed heavy artillery.

As it was, the only way Kruger could have won in 1899/1900 was through a lack of British political resolve, or if a more determined thrust into the Cape Colony had seen Afrikaners rising and declaring for the Afrikaner Bond en masse—something which was never likely to happen and, as we have seen, many even fought against the invasion. Even if the Boers had somehow managed to snatch both Cape Town and Durban (bearing in mind that they failed to capture a single significant town throughout the war) Kruger might have been able to force some sort of a peace on the British, but militarily, there would have been little to stop Imperial forces re-invading with an unopposed amphibious assault as South Africa’s sea board is far too long to be protected. Alternatively, Portugal might have been coerced into permitting an expeditionary force to transit her colony of Mozambique (properly, Portuguese East Africa) to access Rhodesia or attack the Transvaal. In light of this, it is difficult to see how Kruger really could have expected his invasions to have succeeded, other than perhaps by his lunatic faith in divine intervention. They were launched for the most dubious and base of reasons and essentially doomed to failure from the start, completely relying on the off-chance that the British would simply back down after a humiliating defeat or that another of the Great Powers would wade in on the side of the republicans.[**]

The guerrilla war was similarly futile and, short of the British Government suddenly deciding to throw in the towel, could never have achieved anything. As long as bittereinders continued to be rounded up in their hundreds month on month, London was never going to simply abandon their long-held position as the dominant power in the region, or turn their back on the large loyalist population in southern Africa. Indeed, the continuing antics of the bittereinders served only to prolong the misery of their own people. They fought for a hopelessly unwinnable cause, for the least pleasant of reasons, using the least pleasant of methods.

Many of the Boers who continued the fight into the guerrilla phase of the war were forced so to do for risk of their farms being torched by their more extreme brethren. Others were fooled into continuing the struggle by charismatic leaders or by the endless anti-British propaganda spewing forth from the pulpit. One can feel varying degrees of sympathy in all such cases, but when one strips away all the Apartheid-Era propaganda and other such nonsense, many of the hard-core bittereinders were little better than murderers, renegades, and bandits. Even those who could arguably be labelled idealists were fighting for the continuance of rule by a miniscule minority, and against any sort of progress, democracy and the nascent moves toward racial equality found in British territory. Exactly like the Apartheid government which came later, a desperate bid to retain absolute power for the chosen people only saw them completely losing it instead. Though one can respect the skill, cunning, and bravery of some bittereinders, none deserve to be reinvented as gallant freedom fighters.




[*] it is largely ignored today that, in anthropological terms, even the black tribes of the Transvaal were fairly recent arrivals on the scene

[†] the revolutionary 12-inch Mk VIII could fling an 850lb shell—i.e. nine times the weight of a Long Tom shell—out to 10,000 yards

[‡] it should be remembered that Majuba was actually a skirmish; its legend is out of all proportion to the numbers involved. The British defeat at Nicholson’s Nek, for example, was a far greater loss than Majuba, but did not prompt London to throw in the towel

[§] despite its foul-sounding name, this conflict was actually named after a throne and was fought in present-day Ghana

[**] Other than Russia (which could have threatened Britain’s position in India) any other Great Power would have to take on and defeat the might of the Royal Navy—something that none of Britain’s rivals were in any position to even attempt



[4]Mallinson, p.269

[5]Scholtz, p.132

[6]Ibid, p.133

[7] Pakenham, p.104

[8]Viljoen, p.86

[9]Ibid, p.88

[10] Atkins, The Relief of Ladysmith, p. 3

[11]Heyer, A Brief History of the Transvaal Secret Service System, p.15

[12]Ibid, p.20

[13]Farrelly, p.178

[14]Ibid, p.96

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