It is only human to feel a pang of sympathy for the increasingly beleaguered Prof Pretorius[i], as he desperately tries to defend the indefensible. It cannot be easy to go in to bat for Kruger’s Transvaal – an extremist quasi-theocracy so outrageously racist, antisemitic, expansionist and corrupt that it made the later Apartheid-government look like a model of benign and tolerant good governance. And it must be tiring to continually have to twist himself in knots, frantically pretending that the side that started the Boer War (ie. the Boers) was in absolutely no way responsible for it.
Perhaps the Prof got complacent as, for much of his academic career, no one really challenged the ‘accepted’ (ie. National Party approved) version of the Boer War. In recent years, however, more and more people are seeing through the Apartheid-era propaganda, and are daring to point out that the Emperor is not wearing any clothes. Perhaps worried that his life’s academic work is steadily being over-turned, the Grand High Wizard of the True Believers appears to be engaged in a forlorn, last-ditch defence of the myths surrounding the Boer War.
I was recently made aware of this entertaining nonsense, which appeared in a South African newspaper:
This amusing denial of historical reality translates as follows:
Was Kruger then, like Putin, the aggressor?
A friend reacted critically to my column (30.03) about the similarity of the attitude of the West to the Ukraine of today and the Anglo-Boer War.
He asks: ‘Did Paul Kruger not declare war on England because of the build-up of forces on his border? Did the Republics not invade the Cape Colony and Natal to prevent those troops from reaching them? Is it not similar to (Vladimir) Putin who reacted to an (even greater NATO threat which was) coming nearer, even though they promised not to come further east than Germany. He thus invaded the country next to him which was getting more and more weapons and wanted to become a member of NATO’.
Then he asks: ‘Is the argument not the same? Kruger was also the “aggressor”.’
Many historians have written books about the causes of the Anglo-Boer War, and still not written the last word. My friend is mistaken about the Boer invasions of the Cape Colony and Natal, because that was after war had broken out and because they hoped thereby to attain better military positions – which in a war situation is justified.
Putin’s concern over NATO on his threshold is by no means far-fetched. The West conveniently forgets the Cuban crisis of 1962 when the USA made serious objection to the presence of Russian atomic missiles erected on their front door. That was a more direct threat than the situation in Ukraine, but the similarity is obvious.
It is difficult to estimate how serious Putin’s concern for the Russian inhabitants of Ukraine is. Is it pretence or has he got a point? We simply do not have a complete and verifiable picture, even though there are worrying allegations.
In the Zuid-Afrikaanische Republiek (ZAR) the Uitlander question was a pretext for British aggression. The British government regarded the withholding of voting rights as an argument for intervening, even though the London Convention of 1884 recognised the right of the ZAR over its internal affairs. Franchise within five years was the demand of Sir Alfred Milner, the British High Commissioner, at the Bloemfontein Conference of May-June 1899. Kruger refused this. When he actually yielded after Bloemfontein, he demanded completely reasonably, but perhaps unwisely, independent arbitration over further matters which worsened the explosive situation.
In diplomatic term Kruger was indeed the aggressor because he sent the ultimatum to Britain. But did he have another choice with an increase of troops on his borders, given the ZAR’s experience with the Jameson Raid (invasion) of 1896?
British documents show that they wished to pressure Kruger until he gave in, because they did not believe he would declare war. Milner secretly admitted to Joseph Chamberlain, the British Colonial Secretary, that he personally was working towards a war and added: ‘it is either reform (Uitlander franchise) or war’. Chamberlain’s reaction to the Boer ultimatum was: ‘They have done it!’ Now it was not necessary for the British ultimatum, which was considered immediately after the Bloemfontein Conference, to be sent.
The reality is much more nuanced and complicated than we think[ii].
It has long been obvious that those who are desperate to maintain the ‘accepted’ (National Party approved) version of events can only do so be leaving out any and all inconvenient parts of historical reality and, worse, resorting to making things up.
For example, in his frazzled desperation to pretend that Kruger’s Transvaal was not the aggressor in the Boer War (ie. to deny the blatantly obvious), Pretorius simply omits the fact that Kruger’s regime had been pushing the Orange Free State to join them in an Offensive Alliance against Britain from as early as 1887[iii]. With mind-numbing predictability, Pretorius brings up the Jameson Raid, but doesn’t bother to mention all the intrigue, rabble-rousing and gun-running Kruger’s well-financed Secret Service were doing in British territory before it[iv]. He ignores that senior men in the Kruger regime boasted of building an Empire from ‘the Zambesi to the Cape’[v] and of expelling the British from the region. He also leaves out the inconveniently troublesome Bogus Conspiracy[vi] – a botched, false-flag operation cooked up by Kruger’s spooks to swing public opinion behind an attack on the British. He leaves out that, with the help of German Staff Officers, Kruger’s gaggle had drawn up invasion plans of British territory back in March 1898[vii], and, of course, he simply omits the fact that Kruger’s Boers were gathering on the border of Natal from early September 1899[viii] – which is why the leaders of (self-governing) Natal were pleading for British reinforcements.
One is left wondering why any academic would studiously leave out so much of the story. Surely the good Prof couldn’t possibly have an agenda to push, or a violently anti-British[ix] axe-to grind?
HM Government was indeed applying diplomatic pressure to the Transvaal in the late 1890s, due to the blatantly unfair and discriminatory way the Uitlanders were treated by Kruger’s corrupt oligarchy. It is, however, farcical of the Prof to pretend this was ‘aggression’; in reality, it was little different to the way that the world applied diplomatic pressure to the later Apartheid Government, due to the blatantly unfair and discriminatory way the non-whites of South Africa were treated at that time. Surely the Prof doesn’t consider the sanctions which were applied to Apartheid South Africa during the 1970s and 80s to have been ‘aggression’?
In terms of simply making things up, the article continues to peddle the ridiculous fiction that British troops were ‘building-up on the borders’ of the Transvaal[x]. In reality, fearful of the impending Boer invasion of Natal – and bearing in mind the Boers significantly outnumbered the Imperial garrison – British Army High Command was actually advocating the abandonment of northern Natal, and a retreat to behind the Tugela River[xi]. Under pressure from the Government of Natal[xii], this did not happen, and the garrison was instead ordered to stay in place to defend Ladysmith, with the 8th Brigade pushed up to defend the coal mines at Dundee – though they had not even finished deploying there before Kruger’s invasion was launched[xiii]. Of course, Pretorius didn’t mention any of that in his article.
Alas, we shall never know which British units we are meant to believe were ‘building-up on the border’, or where… because this is simply make-belief, and is only ever spewed out to pretend that Kruger was the innocent victim of the piece. If British troops were ‘building-up on the border’, how was it that the invading Boers were able to invade so deep into British territory? How was it that they did not fight a major action in Natal until encountering British forces at Dundee[xiv] – 9 days after Kruger declared war, and unleashed his forces to surge into Natal, annexing land, changing the names of towns, and enjoying a lawless looting spree? How does the Prof explain that the first major action on the western front – Belmont – was not fought until 23 November: some 6 weeks after the Boers invaded Griqualand West, annexed British Bechuanaland,[xv] and laid siege to Kimberley?
Where in the name of God does the Prof think all these enormous British troop build-ups suddenly disappeared to? Or has this inconvenient reality never occurred to him? If so, one wonders at the standard of education offered at Pretoria University.
But probably the funniest line in the whole article is the bit where Pretorius says that the Boer invasions of Natal and the Cape happened ‘after war broke out’ and thus they are ‘justifiable because the Boers wanted to take up better military positions’[xvi]. These far-fetched excuses are laughable on so many levels, and only serve to confirm that even Pretorius realises just what a hopeless situation he finds himself in; the fact is that all the opening battles of the Boer War were fought because Kruger’s men invaded Natal and the Cape. I mean, how on Earth can an invasion take place ‘before’ a war starts? It was the Boer invasions of Natal and Cape which started the war, and ‘taking up better military positions’ inside someone else’s country is generally called ‘an invasion’.
One wonders if, for example, Pretorius also claims that the German invasion of Poland in 1939 was ‘justifiable’ as it happened ‘after the war started’? Equally, would he attempt to explain away Germany’s obvious aggression by pretending the Nazis only invaded Poland so the poor, misunderstood, noble, God-fearing and completely innocent men of the Wehrmacht and SS could ‘take up better military positions’?
Of course, he wouldn’t – but such is his apparent desperation to defend his preferred fiction, that his hypocrisy seemingly knows no limits. No matter what excuses the Prof comes up with, the simple reality is that Kruger was indeed, ‘soos Poetin, die aggressor’.
We can only hope the invading Russians get thrown out of the Ukraine, just as Kruger’s invading Boers were driven out of British territory.
[i] Despite his bizarre fascination with what I wear under my kilt – see his (ahem) ‘review’ of Kruger, Kommandos and Kak
[ii] Except when it comes to the Boer War, apparently, where in the surreal parallel universe inhabited by people like the Prof, there is no ‘nuance’ whatsoever, and it is all very simple: British = baddie, and Boer = goodie
[iii] Fraser, Episodes of my Life, p.84-127
[iv] O’Connor, A Short History of South Africa, 1652-1902, p.271
[v] Roberts, Salisbury, Victorian Titan, p.738
[vi] Amery, The Times History of the War in South Africa, Vol.1, p.302
[vii] War Office, Military Notes of the Dutch Republics of South Africa, p.52
[viii] Farrelly, The Settlement After the War in South Africa, p.213
[ix] And seemingly an anti-NATO axe too – does he really think that NATO is a ‘threat’ to Russia?
[x] The only Imperial – not British – troops near the border of the Transvaal were the 600-odd men of the recently-raised Protectorate Regiment, formed to defend Mafeking when an invasion by the Boers seemed likely – and thank goodness they were.
[xi] Pakenham, The Boer War, p.97
[xii] Hamilton, The Happy Warrior, p.129
[xiii] Bailey, Seven Months Under Boer Rule, p.14
[xiv] The Battle of Talana Hill, in which the invading Boers were defeated by Penn Symons’ 8th Brigade
[xv] Only Mafeking and tiny Kuruman were still holding out
[xvi] No one is ever able to explain where these mythical defensive positions were – due to the simple fact that they never existed. In reality, the long-planned Boer invasions were instead launched to drive the British out of Southern Africa – a dream Kruger and his minions had cherished for at least a decade