I was recently made aware of an article in a South African history group newsletter, entitled:
Who (and what) started the Anglo Boer War / South African War?
Though the aim of this article is claimed to be to answer the question: ‘Was the ZAR responsible for starting the War? Or does the blame for it lie with Britain?’, it quickly becomes clear that the real motive is actually to maintain much-cherished myths. Indeed, the article has little to do with the study of actual history, and everything to do with blaming everything about the Boer War on the nasty British, and perpetuate the nonsense of Kruger being some poor, innocent, misunderstood figure.
The very fact that someone felt the urge to write such an article, however, at least suggests that they are starting to realise their pie-in-the-sky version is no longer being swallowed by open-minded, intelligent people. So, I guess that’s progress.
Written, as it was, to passionately defend the actions of / invasions by Kruger’s racist, undemocratic, anti-Semitic and violently expansionist republic, the article is not worth repeating in its entirety, mainly as it used the age-old technique of special pleading: ie. only telling one side of the story.
The writer, for example, says:
It can be argued that the War actually had a long run-up, starting with the British occupation of the Cape and later Natal, the annexation of the ZAR by Theophilus Shepstone, the Jameson Raid etc., but for now, we’ll rather confine ourselves to the period following the Raid.
No mention, you will notice, of the inconvenient fact that the Boers had only grabbed the Transvaal from the Matabele a few decades earlier, or that they had, ever since, expanded it by grabbing land in every direction, and that they jealously denied the vote to anyone other than ‘the Chosen People’. Equally, there is no mention of the fact that the ever-expansionist Transvaal not only attempted to invade and snatch the diamond fields at Kimberley in 1870, but had also attempted to invade their brethren in the Orange Free State in 1857.
And why, we might ask, did the writer not mention the oft-stated aim of Kruger and his minions: the building of an Afrikaans Empire covering most of Southern Africa, as summed up by a leading light of the Afrikaner Bond, the Rev S. J. du Toit, talking at an official function as early as 1884:
‘The South African Flag shall yet wave from Table Bay to the Zambezi, be that end accomplished by blood or by ink. If blood it is to be, we shall not lack men to spill it.’
Why, we are left to wonder, was there similarly no mention of the Secret Conferences of 1887, in which Kruger’s henchmen attempted to persuade the OFS delegation to agree to join them in an Offensive Alliance against the British?
Only by leaving out all this – and much, much more similarly incriminating evidence – can the writer frantically maintain his preferred fiction of the Transvaal being the innocent player in the piece.
There is also no attempt to examine why the Jameson Raid was launched, or even to mention it was not a British Government plot, but rather a privately organised affair by people who – quite rightly, and just like South Africa’s blacks during the Apartheid-era – felt aggrieved at being denied the franchise by Kruger’s corrupt oligarchy. Presumably, denying the vote to any but the ‘Chosen People’ is perfectly OK in the mind of this writer – it is difficult to know why else he feels obliged to defend a polity with franchise laws which made the later Apartheid regime look positively benign and liberal.
The highly subjective cherry-picking then continues, and we are treated to all manner of claims about British intelligence gathering and troop movements… but with no attempt whatsoever to relate what the Boers were up to at the time. This omission is, of course, wholly deliberate and is done entirely to maintain the fiction of Boer innocence, and to preserve the myth that they were sitting there, peacefully minding their own business. The reality is, however, very different.
For example, while the writer of this article falls over himself to tell how many Imperial troops were in theatre, he doesn’t seem to feel the need to mention anything about the Boers mobilising to the borders, or to state how many men-at-arms they had available. He clearly knows that being truthful, and stating that some 30,000 Boers were massing on the border of Natal, or relating that the Boers outnumbered the British forces in theatre, does not help his tenuous case… so he sneakily just leaves out such inconvenient facts. The version he peddles is thus as disingenuous and dishonest as describing Western Europe in 1940, immediately prior to the German invasion of France and the Low Countries, but only mentioning the Allied divisions; any reasonable person would think the dispositions of Wehrmacht formations should also at least warrant a mention.
We are also told that:
The build-up of a British military presence in nearby Natal and elsewhere had already commenced and troop movements closer to the ZAR-Natal border were being moved.
This is pure fiction and ignores the fact that it was the Boers who were mobilising to the Transvaal’s border with Natal, not the British; indeed, when war seemed inevitable, General Buller had advocated the abandoning of the north of the colony to the invading Boers and instead retreating behind the Tugela River. Though this plan was over-ruled by the Natal Government, the bulk of the (outnumbered) Imperial garrison was nevertheless at Ladysmith, nowhere near the border of the Transvaal. The 8th Brigade was belatedly rushed up to Dundee to defend the coal mines there, but only finished deploying after the Boers had invaded Natal.
It is evident that only by resorting to half-truths and make-belief that the myth be maintained a little longer.
And while we are told of the movements of Imperial intelligence officers in the months prior to the war, there is no mention whatsoever of the Transvaal ever-active Secret Service:
For example, in December 1895, prior to the Jameson Raid, a certain Henning Pretorius, Lieutenant-Colonel of the Transvaal Staats Artillerie, entered Rhodesia. Though ostensibly on a hunting trip, the Colonel’s busy mind was concerned with greater matters than shooting game, for he was actually an agent in the Transvaal’s secret service. According to a Daily Telegraph correspondent, Pretorius and his agents smuggled 175 rifles and 30 cases of ammunition—all ‘made in Germany’ and ‘bearing the Transvaal government mark’ having been drawn from the Transvaal’s magazine at Middleburg—into Rhodesia for distribution to potential rebels and troublemakers. One should note that the Matabele rebelled in 1896.
The agents of the Transvaal’s Secret Service—including Kruger’s son, Tjaart —were also busy elsewhere: situated in the Bechuanaland Protectorate, the rugged Langberg Mountains were the scene of a rebellion against imperial stewardship in 1896–7. Like the Matabele rebellion, one of the catalysts for this uprising was the British response to the rinderpest outbreak. But, and just as with the Matabele rebellion, Transvaal agents were hard at work, whipping up resentment and supplying weapons to the rebels behind the scenes.
All this was confirmed when, after his arrest, the principal rebel chief, Galishiwe, confessed that another Transvaal secret agent, a Meneer Piet Bosman, had actively encouraged him to fight the British. At first, Galishiwe had rejected Bosman’s advances, claiming, ‘I cannot fight the Englishmen, I am the Englishman’s child.’ Bosman dismissed this, using the veterinary culls implemented by the British in tackling the rinderpest outbreak to trick Galishiwe. Bosman then offered to purchase powder and ammunition for Galishiwe, providing him ‘six bags of powder, five boxes of caps, and five packets of Martini-Henry cartridges’, and later providing additional Westley-Richards ammunition. Indeed, a feature of the rebellion was how well supplied the insurgents were with ammunition.
Galishiwe asked Bosman also to provide him with rifles. However, Bosman refused fearing that the British would be able to trace these back to the Transvaal: ‘The Englishmen will see the guns. I will get my people together and come myself to your assistance when you fight the Englishmen.’ Despite having a 200-strong commando at his disposal, Bosman did not honour this promise and left the unfortunate Galishiwe and his people to carry the can.
Agents of the Orange Free State were also busy down in Basutoland and reports were spread through native workers that ‘the Boers would soon be the undisputed masters of southern Africa’. So much for the bizarre, though currently trendy, idea that the federal attacks which started the war were in some way defensive. These Free State agents also approached one dissident Basuto chief, Joel Molapo, and agreed a deal whereby a 500-strong commando would be sent to aid him against his half-brother, the pre-eminent pro-British chief, Jonathan. These two had been in conflict for almost 20 years, and so the Boer agents implemented their time-honoured tactic of supporting one faction against the other. It was well known to Jonathan that Joel was in close contact with several farmers over the border in the Orange Free State and he became very alarmed when it emerged that federal agents had supplied Joel’s rebels with Mausers. It was this latest bout of Boer intrigue and gun-running that drove Jonathan to declare his unconditional support for the British Government.
Boer agents attempted similar tactics in Bechuanaland prior to the war. In July 1899—a time at which we are meant to believe poor old Kruger was desperate to concede anything for peace—King Khama received a visit from a certain Petrus Viljoen who attempted to turn him against the Imperial Government. Khama, always a loyal friend to the British, sent him off with a flea in his ear, declaring, ‘You must not think you can frighten me, and my people, with your war talk. You must know that I am a son of the white Queen. I do as they instruct me. If I find you in my country, I shall help to drive you out’.
All this is simply left out of the one-sided article and, of course, no mention is made of the Transvaal Secret Service’s biggest cock-up, the spectacularly incompetent false-flag job which was the Bogus Conspiracy of May 1899. The reason for this critical event being omitted from his version is obvious: it simply does not fit the narrative he is desperately trying to sell to us.
Perhaps realising no one with even half-a-brain is buying what he is selling, and in an attempt to defend his increasingly hopeless position and increasingly laughable myths, the writer then cherry picks a couple of quotes. Alas, in so doing, all he achieves is to inadvertently confirm just how little he has read about the war, by stating:
Byron Farewell in ‘The Great Boer War’ (1976) said ‘Kruger tried to bargain but Milner was obdurate’ (page 34.) Thomas Packenham in ‘The Boer War’ (Ch. 6) puts the blame on Milner and in Chapter 42 said ‘Milner had tried to precipitate war’. They are both British historians.
Of course, Bryon Farwell (not ‘Farewell’) was actually American, while Thomas Pakenham (not ‘Packenham’) is Irish. But hey – who gives a damn about ‘facts’ when it comes to defending the myth?
We are then assured that the fact that the Boers were the ones who declared war and invaded is totally irrelevant – and thus Kruger and his gaggle are still wholly innocent – because the British were, it is claimed, themselves just about to issue an ultimatum to the Boers. This is, yet again, also untrue. The British were not interested in war at all: they had nothing to gain and hardly any troops in theatre (the Boers, who had mobilised first – not that the writer of the article sees fit to mention this – outnumbered the British army by some 2.5 to 1).
There was indeed yet another communication being prepared in London to send to Pretoria, but this was simply the latest dispatch in a diplomatic toing-and-froing that had been going on for months. To pretend that this newest communique was an ‘ultimatum’ is highly dishonest, as the new convention being drawn up in London cannot reasonably be considered as such. It was simply a list of seven provisions, relating to such things as the franchise laws, the end of religious discrimination against non-Protestants, and the independence of the Transvaal’s courts of justice. As John Stephens wrote in Fuelling the Empire:
‘…in return the British Government would fully guarantee the Transvaal against any attack on its independence, whether from any British dominion or from the territory of any foreign country … nothing in the draft seemed in any way to suggest a desire by Britain to annex the Transvaal. Also, from the draft form of the document it does not appear to be an ultimatum, since no sanction is included should the reaction from the Transvaal not be favourable.’
As usual, Kruger’s refusal to accept any change to his voting laws (which, let us never forget, were even more repellent than those of the later Apartheid regime) is also defended in the article. The writer uses the cast-iron reference of something one of his friends once said, and we are thus assured that: ‘Kruger made concession after concession until he was not prepared to concede anymore. The final franchise concessions of the ZAR were on a par with that of Great Britain and Germany at the time and even more lenient than that of the USA. No country in the world would simply grant citizenship to foreigners willy-nilly, especially by demand of a foreign power.’
Again, though appealing to Defenders of the Myth, this is pure fiction and ahistorical make-belief: what concession did Kruger actually make? And as the republic had only recently been founded by settlers, plenty of the Afrikaners living in the Transvaal – including Kruger, Smuts, Joubert, Reitz, Botha etc – were also ‘foreigners’, yet were not treated as second class citizens; the English-speaking Uitlanders – the men whose ingenuity, skill, hard work, and investment had transformed the ZAR into a semi-modern nation – only wanted the same franchise laws as were in effect in the OFS or the Cape: in no way an unreasonable aspiration. Though he pretended to negotiate, and pathetically shed a few crocodile tears in Bloemfontein, Kruger made absolutely no meaningful concessions whatsoever. The notion of him arriving there for talks with Milner, desperate to resolve the burning issue of his discrimination against the Uitlanders, has no basis in fact:
‘President Kruger, in accordance with his custom, began on a number of side issues, instead of going straight to the point, thus employing the method, known to most of us who have had dealings with mistrustful and ignorant peasants. He raised among others the following questions: (1) Swaziland, which he wanted to annex; (2) The mobilization of the army; (3) The payment of the Jameson Raid indemnity; (4) The uitlanders’ petition; (5) The gold law; (6) The mining law; (7) The liquor law; (8) The tariff law; (9) The independence of the Republic; (10) The dynamite monopoly; (11) Arbitration on all disputed points; (12) British intervention in the internal policy of the South African Republic. And then, added Kruger, ingeniously, when all these matters have been disposed of, we can take up the question of franchise.’
Unsurprisingly, Milner was having none of this. Refusing to be side-tracked he insisted on discussing the matter at hand. Faced with a determined British representative for the first time, wiser heads in the delegation realized that the rules had changed. Steyn and Smuts both pleaded with Kruger to agree to Milner’s straightforward demands: a retrospective five-year franchise (which, far from being onerous, would only have brought the Transvaal into line with the rest of southern Africa) and reasonable representation for the mining areas. Essentially, this would have meant that any white man who had settled in the Transvaal before 1894, and who had enough property to qualify, would have a vote. A distraught Kruger reckoned these numbers at over 60,000, inadvertently admitting just how many uitlanders his ghastly regime discriminated against. Milner even proposed that any uitlanders desirous of the vote should take ‘an oath to obey the laws, undertake all obligations of citizenship, and defend the independence of the country’. Hardly the words of a man determined to annex the place – even if he’d had the power to do so… which he didn’t. Despite enjoying the support of Steyn and Smuts, it is this eminently reasonable demand which has caused latter-day pro-Boer writers to reinvent Milner as some sort of warmongering psychopath.
And, more to the point, it’s not as though it was the British delegation which left the Bloemfontein talks and declared war – it was Kruger who did so, and only a few months later… except the chap who wrote this entertainingly surreal article even claims that ‘One could argue that the ZAR did not declare a war’ – what planet does this fellow live on, we wonder?
I suppose, if one wants to deny all the evidence, one could indeed argue that, just as one could also argue that the Germany did not invade the USSR in 1941, or that the Moon is made of cheese. This frantic desperation to deny simple historical fact is little short of laughable.
Indeed, when all’s said and done, and leaving aside his ahistorical special pleading, duplicitous misrepresentations and downright falsehoods, we can actually answer the question this article pretends to want to address very easily:
Yes, the ZAR – ie. the country which had plotted for war since at least 1887, which mobilised first, which declared war, invaded British territory, annexed the land they grabbed, looted and re-named the towns they captured, pillaged their way through someone else’s territory and implemented their racist laws – was, surprise, surprise, responsible for starting the war.
The True Believers are getting rattled…
I was recently made aware of an article in a South African history group newsletter, entitled: