Baron Roberts of Belgravia / Andrew Roberts FRSL FRHistS is one of the leading historians of the modern age, and also serves as a Member of the House of Lords. He earned a First in modern history from Cambridge, then added a PhD and has since written extensively on military history – winning the British Army Military Book of the Year Award. His magisterial biography of Lord Salisbury won the Wolfson History Prize and the James Stern Silver Pen Award for Non-Fiction. A highly respected academic on both sides of the Atlantic, Baron Roberts is the Roger and Martha Mertz Visiting Research Fellow at the Hoover Institution at Stanford University, as well a Lehrman Institute Distinguished Lecturer at the New-York Historical Society.
Given all that, one would have thought that Baron Roberts’ research and writing on the rights and wrongs of the Boer War would be taken seriously. Instead, he is simply ignored by the Defenders of the Myth, such is their desperation to keep their self-serving Apartheid-era fantasies sputtering on a little longer.
Some extracts from Roberts’ books on the subject are well-worth sharing:
‘Although the Boer War has long been denounced by historians as the British Empire’s Vietnam, and characterised as being fought for gold and diamonds, and trumped up by greedy, jingoistic British politicians keen to bully the two small, brave South African republics, the truth was very different. Far from fighting for their own freedom, the Boers were really struggling for the right to oppress others, principally their black servant-slaves, but also the large non-Afrikaans white Uitlander (‘foreigner’) population of the Transvaal who worked their mines, paid 80% of the taxes, and yet had no vote. The American colonists had fought under James Otis’ cry that ‘Taxation without representation is tyranny’ in 1776, yet when Britain tried to apply that same rule to Britons in South Africa, she was accused of vicious interference’.[i]
‘Lord Salisbury and the British Colonial Secretary, Joseph Chamberlain, were genuinely outraged at the way Pretoria treated the Britons who lived and worked in the Transvaal, and especially at how Kruger repeatedly raised the residency-period requirements for the franchise while ignoring the Uitlanders’ petitions protesting at the way they were subjected to higher taxes, poorer school provision, police brutality, and the private and state monopolies that grossly inflated their cost of living’.[ii]
‘British policy-makers became convinced that British paramountcy in southern Africa, so crucial for the future development and protection of the Empire, was under growing threat. This racial antagonism between Boer and Briton was, it was felt in Cape Town, Pretoria and London, leading inexorably towards a clash.’[iii]
‘the two obstinate bearded old patriarchs, Salisbury and Kruger, both knew that this struggle was actually about ultimate regional paramountcy, about showing who was ‘Boss’ in South Africa’.[iv]
‘Lord Salisbury found it hard to believe that 410,000 Boers could seriously be considering taking on the might of the British Empire at such a pitch of its fame and power. Intelligence sources nevertheless continued to suggest that the republics were arming to the maximum extent possible. Pretoria then suddenly declared war on Britain on 11 October 1899 and invaded the British colonies of Natal and Cape Colony, thereby deliberately starting a conflict which was to cost tens of thousands of lives, but which has ever since been perversely and unfairly blamed entirely on Britain’.[v]
‘Salisbury admitted that ‘of course I cannot produce evidence which would convict Kruger in a Court of Law. In political life you have to guess facts by the help of such indications as you can get’. He was however convinced that Kruger aimed at ‘a renunciation of suzerainty’ and ‘a restoration of South Africa to the Dutch race’. Had Salisbury had the evidence of Smuts’s secret memorandum to the Transvaal executive, he could indeed have indicted the Boer leadership for just such a conspiracy’.[vi]
As Roberts explains, The Top-Secret memorandum referred to was sent by Jan Smuts on 4 September 1899, and made the Imperial ambitions of the Transvaal republic abundantly clear (expect, apparently, to passionately and determinedly ignorant True Believers). Smuts’ memorandum – quoted by Roberts – stated that the aim of the war was to establish ‘a United South Africa, of one of the great empires (rijken) of the world… an Afrikaans republic in South Africa stretching from Table Bay to the Zambesi’.[vii]
Pretty damning stuff, if one is open-minded and intelligent enough to accept it.
And some more from Roberts:
‘In all, around 4,000 Boer adults and 16,000 children died in the camps – the 26,370 women and 1,421 children commemorated in the Women’s Monument in Bloemfontein is Afrikaner propaganda… British soldiers were also dying of disease at an alarming rate, and accounted for almost as many deaths as among Boer civilians. Out of the 4,667 cases of enteric fever diagnosed amongst soldiers over three months in Bloemfontein, for example, no fewer than 891 proved fatal. The RAMC was prepared for 4 per cent of the army being ill at any one time, but was soon faced with an actual figure of nearly 10 per cent. Vast amounts of money were spent on the camps, no less than £112,000 in the period for 13th March to 30th June 1901. It cannot be sustained that the camps were part of the deliberate use of ‘methods of barbarism’ against the Boers, so much as a terrible, unexpected by-product of guerilla war’.[viii]
‘The ‘war crime’ for which the British have been most commonly held responsible during the Boer War was the supposed ill-treatment of Afrikaans women and children in camps there. In fact, these ‘concentration’ camps – the term had no pejorative implication until the Nazi era – were set up for the Boers’ protection off the veldt, and were run as efficiently and humanely as possible, given the Boer commandos’ own constant disruption of rail-borne supplies into them. A civilian surgeon, writing in 1901, gave a further reason why the death rates were so high: ‘The Boers in the camps often depend on home remedies, with deplorable results. Inflammation of the lungs and enteric fever are frequently treated by the stomach of a sheep or goat, which has been killed at the bedside of the patient, being placed hot and bloody over the chest or abdomen; cow-dung poultices are a favourite remedy for many skin diseases; lice are given for jaundice; and crushed bugs for convulsions in children’’.[ix]
‘There were a few isolated cases of starvation, but epidemics of measles, pneumonia and cholera caused by far the largest number of fatalities… As a general rule, the Boers could leave the camps whenever they wished, and occupants were encouraged to go out to work and stay with friends and relatives if at all possible… As those rich enough to live outside the camps tended to do so, only the poorest Boers, generally the most ignorant and superstitious, remained’.[x]
‘In a General Order of 6th October 1900, General Louis Botha commanded his men to ‘Do everything in your power to prevent the burghers laying down their arms. I will be compelled, if they do not listen to this, to confiscate anything moveable and also to burn down their farms’. As well as Botha, Generals Smuts and De la Rey also burnt the farms of Boers who had surrendered, adding to the refugee problem… Furthermore, when in December 1901, Kitchener wrote to De Wet to say that he was more than willing to send ‘all the women and children at present in our camps’ to wherever the Boer general specified, no reply was received’.[xi]
The increasingly laughable Defenders of the Myth like to pretend that, by daring to challenge their National Party version of events, I am some sort of lone voice who should not be taken seriously. Unfortunately for them, the reality is that the best-selling Baron Roberts was shattering their self-pitying fantasies long before I put pen to paper.
[i] Roberts, A History of the English-Speaking Peoples Since 1900, p.27
[ii] Ibid, p.28
[iii] Roberts, Salisbury: Victorian Titan, p.719
[iv] Ibid, p.732
[v] Roberts, A History of the English-Speaking Peoples Since 1900, p.29
[vi] Roberts, Salisbury: Victorian Titan, p.738
[vii] Ibid, p.734
[viii] Ibid, p.805
[ix] Roberts, A History of the English-Speaking Peoples Since 1900, p.31
[x] Roberts, Salisbury: Victorian Titan, p.804/5
[xi] Ibid, p.805