In a recent issue of the magazine of the Anglo-Boer War Study Group of Australia, Kopje, we were treated to a reminder by Professor Fransjohan Pretorius of what, since the 1940s or so, has become the standard way of looking at the Boer War. Rather like the Mel Gibson version of ‘Gallipoli’, however, the version presented by the Professor by no means tells the whole story, nor could it be consider in anyway even-handed.
It is remarkable, for example, that he completely neglected to mention the long held dreams and aspirations of the Transvaal Boers to build an ‘Afrikaans Empire from the Zambezi to the Cape’ – a plan announced publicly by senior officials of the ZAR government 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.’
Nor did he see fit to mention that Kruger was pushing the Orange Free State to join him in an offensive alliance against the British as early as 1887 – secret talks of which one astounded Orange Free State delegate stated:
‘the South African Republic desired nothing more nor less than the offensive and defensive alliance’ and to thus make the OFS ‘sharers in the animosity cherished against the British Government, which appeared very clear to me during the conference in Pretoria in June, 1887’.
It should be noted that these talks took place a full ten years before alleged ‘war-monger’ Lord Milner arrived on the scene, and have been brushed under the carpet to maintain the preferred mythology – and, if Professor Pretorius had his way, would continue to be overlooked.
The tireless pre-war rabble-rousing and gun-running of Kruger’s well-funded (though rather incompetent) Secret Service is also glossed over in the ‘approved version’ of the war, despite these efforts commencing prior to the Jameson Raid and being targeted at destabilising British possessions in Bechuanaland, Basutoland and Rhodesia. Likewise, the 1899 ‘Bogus Conspiracy’ is never mentioned for the simple reason that – hatched in May of that year – it was a false-flag, put-up job, cooked up by Kruger’s Spooks, for the purpose of turning European public opinion in his favour by painting the British as the villain of the piece.
Amazingly, so well has this absolutely critical event been air-brushed out of the approved version of the war, that even the late, great Ken Gillings had not heard of it until I discussed it with him. Needless to say, you will obviously not find any mention of it in Pakenham’s ‘definitive’ history of the conflict.
There are many other bizarre omissions in the ‘standard’ / ‘accepted’ / ‘Apartheid regime approved’ version of the conflict. We are always assured, for example, that Britain attacked the republics, or treated to the disconcertingly vague claim that ‘war broke out’ – both of which are very strange ways of describing how tens of thousands of Boer horsemen swarmed over their borders into British territory, looting and pillaging, annexing great tracts of land, re-naming towns and implementing their racist laws.
Worse still, the clear and unambiguous aim of these invasions was to drive the British from Southern Africa, with the plan being to snatch Durban and the Cape ports before the Empire could react. Colonel Villebois-Mareuil was a French mercenary who fought for the Boers. He enjoyed personal contact with President Kruger, would be promoted to the rank of general, and worked closely with Joubert, Cronje, and Botha. Known as ‘the French Colonel’, he wrote that republican war aims were ‘simply a matter of grabbing back the whole of South Africa from the British … a case of the hatchet in the big oak’.
Their post-war apologists always desperately try to portray these invasions as being ‘limited in scope’ and ‘only made reluctantly to hold important defensive terrain just over the border’ – but this is utter hogwash. Leaving aside that it seems frightfully convenient that all this ‘important defensive terrain’ just happened to be on the other side of the border, it is also refuted by the Boer generals of the time (Louis Botha, for example, grumbled that only General Joubert’s dithering prevented him from eating bananas in Durban, while General Cronje talked of throwing the Rooinek into the sea and being in Cape Town within a month) and by the war aims openly admitted by both Kruger and Steyn: to annex the Kimberley diamond fields, all of Natal, and snatch a sea port.
Amusingly, none of their apologists can ever point out exactly where this mythical ‘defensive terrain’ actually was: it cannot possibly have been the Tugela line, for example, for the Boer invaders pushed well south of that before retreating to it in the face of Imperial reinforcements. Likewise, the invading Boers retreated to the Magersfontein positions after being defeated at Belmont, Graspan and Modder River.
Furthermore, the Boer invaders rampaged across their borders in every direction: not just into Natal and the Cape Colony / Griqualand West, but also Bechuanaland, Zululand and even Rhodesia. And lastly, if the plan was just to ‘take up defensive positions’, why, one wonders, did the invaders feel the need to annex the land they had seized, re-name the towns they had captured, establish a system of veld cornets to collect tax and, worst of all, implement their racist laws?
While he found plenty of time to write about the scorched earth policy of the British in his article, the Professor failed to mention that the Boers indulged in plenty of burning and looting themselves – indeed, it was a favourite tactic of theirs used both in their rampage through Natal and later to ‘persuade’ their less-enthusiastic brethren to continue the fight. Kitchener’s request to have all farms declared off limits was rejected out of hand by Botha, who declared:
‘I am entitled by law to force every man to join, and if they do not do so, to confiscate their property and leave their families on the veldt’ and ‘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 everything movable and also to burn their farms’.
It is also mind-boggling that Pretorius et al can discuss the deaths in the concentration camps without troubling themselves to even mention that there happened to be a measles epidemic raging through Southern Africa at the time, an outbreak which did not discriminate between those in the camps and those who were not. Given that 43% of deaths in the camps were caused by measles, this would seem a very strange fact to overlook. Likewise, it is rarely (if ever) mentioned that, at the time, peacetime infant mortality rates in the region were around 300 in a 1000 – compared to about 4.5 in a 1000 in the modern-day West. Again, this is a strange omission as, despite the reality being that babies of the period died like flies even in normal circumstances, it would leave the layman to conclude that the wicked British were to blame for every infant which died in the camps; which is, of course, very much the intention of the approved version of the war.
Not surprisingly, there is rarely any mention of the part played by the Boers in creating the camps. As Professor Walker wrote: ‘The first of them had been opened at Krugersdorp as a shelter for refugees, whose numbers grew after Kitchener had failed to persuade Botha to leave surrendered burghers unmolested on their farms’.
Also overlooked is that, such was their determination to look after those in the camps, the British authorities were shipping nurses in from the Motherland and paying them four times what they were paying their private soldiers. Or that there were not only hospitals and schools in the camps, but also shops and that residents were paid to help guard the camps from the murderous attentions of the bitter-einders.
Also (barring the night time curfews) the residents were pretty much free to come and go as they wished with many finding work in the nearby towns. But don’t take it from me: take it from General Louis Botha himself, who said of the camps:
‘one is only too thankful nowadays to know that our wives are under English protection’
Or from the residents of the Brandfort camp who wrote their thanks to the commandant, Captain Dyer, asking that he would always ‘…recall those men and women of a strange nation whose hearts you have won by the quiet forebearing and ever kind treatment which they have ever received at the hands of one who in love they will ever remember as the good Oupa of the Brandfort Camp.’
Pretorius’ article also touched on the blacks who perished in the camps, but without feeling the need to mention that the reason many of them ended up in camps in the first place was to escape the attentions of gangs of bitter-einders who raided and pillaged their villages mercilessly, murdering them and driving off their livestock. Even after tens of thousands of these poor souls approached the British for protection, the bitter-einders continued to attack their refugee camps as abundant sources of supply. It is equally strange that the Professor’s concern for the black population during the war did not prompt him to at least mention the regular incidents of brutal mass-murder carried out by the bitter-einders on black civilians – 200 in one afternoon at Modderfontein alone, while in another of countless examples, 29 – men, women and children – were murdered at Dordrecht. Canon Farmer, a missionary in the Transvaal, regretted that the Boers ‘look upon the Kaffirs as dogs & the killing of them as hardly a crime’ while veteran War Correspondent, Bennet Burleigh, described the bitter-einders as having a ‘notorious and almost innate habit of terrorizing, beating, and even killing without mercy, any native who may have happened to have aroused his suspicions or incurred his ire’.
And if black civilians suffered, those who dared serve the British in any way could expect even rougher treatment: in August 1901 a detachment of British auxiliaries was defeated near the village of the Shangane chief, Mpisana. The fifty blacks who were taken prisoner were all subsequently murdered by General Viljoen’s men. In other incidents, forty native auxiliaries captured near Queenstown were lined up and shot in November 1900, thirty-seven unarmed scouts were murdered near de Aar in August 1901, and the following month, sixteen black dispatch riders attached to the 17th Lancers were killed in a variety of horrific ways, including disembowelment and mutilation.
Another curious reality to try to sweep under the carpet, but clearly one not fitting with the ‘approved’ version of the war.
It was years of reading and listening to the nonsense of the ‘Apartheid-regime approved version’ of the war – a version in which Kruger’s invaders have been re-invented as a peaceful, benign innocent folk – which prompted me to write ‘Kruger, Kommandos & Kak’ and, in 2017, to release an updated and greatly expanded edition re-titled ‘Kruger’s War’. That I dared to challenge some of the more cherished Apartheid-era myths did not go down well with some, and I received a clutch of death threats from various lunatics as well as a threat of legal action: though quite on what grounds I was to be sued was never explained.
The sad reality is that many myths of the conflict have been repeated so many times that they are accepted as ‘fact’ and writers today do not even feel the need to provide a reference for such wild claims as ‘Britain needed to field an army half-a-million strong to defeat the Boers’ (totally untrue) or that ‘the British marched forwards shoulder-to-shoulder in their red jackets’ (equally untrue, but I have even been told this nonsense by several battlefield guides) or that the British were the ones who invaded the Transvaal (rather than, in reality, that the Boers sparked the war by invading Imperial territory). Others will spout that the British ‘attacked the Boers to steal their gold and diamonds’, clearly ignorant of the fact that the vast bulk of the diamond mines at the time were in British territory and the gold mines were privately owned, largely by British investors. Indeed, in reality, President Steyn admitted that the capture of the Kimberley diamond mines from the British was one of his war aims!
It is my hope that – when read by open-minded people – Kruger’s War will go a little way to re-dressing the balance of how this most mis-understood of wars is perceived. As Kruger, Kommandos & Kak proved, however, many prefer to stay feverishly loyal to Apartheid-era propaganda and their cherished myths, so it will probably take many years before a rather more rational and considered view of the war becomes widespread.