Berg Times Balderdash

One of the most entertaining things in life is watching the mental gymnastics which Defenders of the Myth™ put themselves through in order to maintain their preferred version of the Boer War. These people will shamelessly twist themselves in knots to justify (or explain away) the simple, undeniable reality that the Boer War started when the two Boer republics invaded British territory. Not only that, but their aim was openly stated as being to form an ‘Afrikaans Empire from the Zambesi to the Cape’ – which explains why they annexed the land they seized, and re-named the towns they grabbed.

To True Believers, however, none of this features in their bizarre version of the war. I was recently sent this newsletter by a friend:

You’ll notice I have underlined the most blatant pieces of balderdash. I love the way that this version claims that British ‘greed’ led them to want to grab goldfields in the two republics. The reality is, of course, that the goldfields were in the Transvaal, not the Orange Free State. What is more, the goldfields were owned by foreign (mainly British) investors already, so this fellow would have us believe the British were greedy to grab goldfields which British business men already owned? Remarkable. And, as the final nail in the coffin of nonsense, upon annexing the Transvaal, the British Government didn’t seize any goldfields from any of the owners – and they then granted self-rule to the Transvaal just 4 years later.

As Sir Arthur Conan-Doyle put it in 1902:
‘The gold mines are private companies, with shares held by private shareholders, German and French, as well as British. Whether the British or the Boer flag flew over the country would not alienate a single share from any holder, nor would the wealth of Britain be any way greater … how is Britain the richer because her flag flies over the Rand? The Transvaal will be a self-governing colony, like all other British colonies, with its own finance minister, its own budget, its own taxes, even its own power of imposing duties upon British merchandise … We know all this because it is part of our British system, but it is not familiar to those nations who look upon their colonies as sources of direct revenue to the mother country.’

And if his dose of inconvenient facts don’t go down well, how about this from the prize-winning French economist, Yves Guyot, writing in 1900:
[Britain’s critics are] perfectly well aware that England will derive no benefit from the gold mines, nor will she take possession of them any more than she has done of the gold mines of Australia. They are private property.’

Still, things like historical reality and facts do not seem to bother Defenders of the Myth™.

So let’s move onto the second ridiculous claim… that the poor old Boers ‘made the decision to besiege, certain key towns in the Cape Colony and Natal, in an effort to prevent a British invasion of their homelands’.
If I understand this outburst correctly, we are being asked to believe that the Boers’ master plan to ‘prevent an invasion’ was to start a war with the Greatest of the Great Powers of the Age? Perhaps a rather more sensible way to ‘prevent an invasion’ was not to pick a fight with Great Britain? I wonder if the writer would also sum up the causes of the Second World War by saying: ‘Germany made the decision to besiege certain key towns in France and Poland in an effort to prevent an invasion of their homeland’? That is every bit as nonsensical a contention, especially given that the Imperial garrison in southern Africa was, at the time, a mere fraction the size of the republican forces.

Forgetting the invasion of Natal for a moment, quite how this fellow thinks annexing vast tracts of semi-desert in northern Cape Colony and Bechuanaland, and laying siege to the dusty, one horse town of Kuruman, was going to ‘prevent an invasion’ is anyone’s guess. Indeed, what really makes these frantic attempts at post-factual justifications so entertaining is that they don’t actually fit with any of the facts: the Boers did not invade Natal with the aim of laying siege to Ladysmith: they invaded Natal to annex Natal. The simple fact is that Boer invasion forces rampaged well past Ladysmith, looting their merry way almost as far at Nottingham Road… before they retreated back in the face of Imperial reinforcements. No less a man than General Louis Botha later moaned that only Joubert’s timidity prevented him ‘coming to Durban to eat bananas in 1899’. Things were no different over on the western front, where a boastful General Cronjé had assured his men they would ‘drive the Rooinek into the sea’ and be in Cape Town within a month.

As entertaining as Defenders of the Myth™ always are, it is nonetheless disappointing that their endless codswallop should be spewn forth in a newsletter aimed at tourists. Who knows – someone might even be naïve enough to believe their nonsense.


  • James Seymour Posted November 28, 2018 11:47 am

    Dear Chris, I have read your blog and have to vehemently disagree. The South African War or second Anglo Boer War was largely fought over a desire of the British Empire to control the Boer Republics. As is often the case war of this nature revolved around a desire to control a precious resource. In this case, it was gold. The Boers had the opportunity in the early stages of the war to capture Durban. However, they choose not to and rather to entrench along the Thukela not the anglicized word Tugela…River to prevent a British invasion. It is such a pity that some many brave British and Boer soldiers had to perish as a result of imperialism.

    • Bulldog Posted November 28, 2018 4:52 pm

      Good afternoon James,

      You are welcome to be as vehement as you like, but alas you are not welcome to make up your own facts. Simply stating something vehemently does not make it true.

      I note you have not troubled yourself to dispute / disprove the quotes I provided in terms of the ownership of the gold, or why – if, as you would have us believe, the British were so desperate to steal gold mines (from British investors, presumably?), then why did they grant Home Rule to the Transvaal just 4 years later?

      I also add the following, which further shatter your (un-referenced) version of events:

      The explanation of the war as a capitalists’ conspiracy must be discarded; it is too smooth and rounded to fit easily into the jagged background of events and personalities, although it appealed at the time to some who were sophisticated and some who were simple minded.
      – Professor Le May

      The evidence so far produced does not support the view that the British Government went to war in 1899 to bring the gold supply or the gold fields under British control or to protect British trade or the profits of cosmopolitan capitalists in the Transvaal. None of these was under serious threat, even if it was acknowledged that the capitalists did suffer from unnecessary impositions at the hands of a corrupt and inefficient government. The Transvaal was not the only part of the world where this occurred; despite their justifiable complaints, the capitalists on the Rand not only made sizable profits, under Kruger’s government, but were also successful in attracting the large-scale private investment which was so essential to their operations. While some of their leading members, by 1899, certainly looked to a British takeover in the Transvaal as likely to benefit their interests, there is as yet no evidence that their views formed a significant part of the British Government’s considerations in its mounting conflict with the Transvaal government of President Kruger. Transvaal gold formed only a small proportion of the low level of British gold reserves, which was a deliberate feature of Bank of England policy before, during and after the South African War.
      – Professor Iain Smith

      The last thing the capitalists wanted, or needed, in 1899 was a war—especially one instigated and won by Britain… Britain based the defence of her monetary stability, in the event of international gold rushes, on her position as a creditor nation, but did not build up a massive gold reserve beyond what was required for the issue of currency … France, too, defended the stability of her currency based on a status as a creditor nation, but in addition, she built up a massive gold reserve as a second line of defence. France, not Britain, was the greatest European purchaser of new gold for strategic purposes … there were no compelling reasons at that particular moment for Britain to wish to control the government of the Transvaal in order to have control over its gold mines. Whatever gold was mined in the Transvaal would in any event find its way to the international gold market and the European Monetary System, to which Britain had as much access as anybody else. Moreover, whoever bought the gold had to pay the companies that mined it. The mining companies made profits from selling gold, not those who controlled the governments of the producing countries. For Britain, there would thus be enormous disadvantages in taking over the Transvaal, but no conceivable economic advantage to governing a gold-producing colony—it was a much better proposition to hold prime trading rights with a gold-producing colony. There was thus no economic imperative driving Britain to covet the Transvaal for its gold.
      – John Stephens, Fuelling the Empire

      And as for your claim that the Boers had the opportunity to capture Durban but ‘chose not to’ and instead entrenched along the Tugela… well, that is simply untrue. The invading Boers rampaged all the way to Mooi River, before (laden down with masses of loot) retreating back to the Tugela after the Battle of Willow Grange, and in the face of Imperial reinforcements. Didn’t you see the quote by General Louis Botha which I provided?
      You are no doubt equally unaware that another wing of the Boer invasion force looted and burned Pomeroy before being stopped by the Umvoti Mounted Rifles. Also note that other elements of the Boer armies invaded and annexed chunks of Zululand – can you explain how that fits with your assertion that they were the innocent victims of the piece?

      I still await your explanation as to how annexing vast swathes of Bechuanaland and the modern-day Northern Cape, and laying siege to the duty outpost of Kuruman, was done to ‘defend the Boer homelands’. While you’re at it, and if you really believe that all the poor old innocent Boers wanted to do was ‘defend their homelands’, perhaps you can explain why they re-named Newcastle and Dundee (and even street names therein) after grabbing them in their invasion of Natal? They also re-named Barkly West – maybe you can explain that too.

      I shall leave you with a few more quotes which further shatter the Apartheid-era version of the war:

      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.
      – Rev S. Du Toit, speaking in Amsterdam in 1884

      The Boer ideal was ‘Anti-British Federation in South Africa’. Mr Secretary Leyds has been appointed a kind of a Boer Minister in Europe, where he will no doubt do his utmost to encourage the idea that the federated Dutch Republics can be relied upon by anyone who wishes to destroy British supremacy in South Africa.
      – Writing in 1897, pro-Boer journalist William T. Stead lets slip that the republican plan was to challenge British hegemony in southern Africa

      The Bond was intended to be Pan-Afrikaner and in spirit bitterly anti-British.
      – Professor Eric Walker describes the reality of the Afrikaner Bond

      Freedom will rise in Africa like the sun from the morning clouds, inasmuch freedom rose in the United States…Then it will be from the Zambesi to Simon’s Bay: Africa for the Africander.
      – President Paul Kruger gives a lie to modern claims that there was no plan to build an Afrikaans empire in southern Africa

  • Paul Naish Posted November 30, 2018 1:57 pm

    I look forward to hearing your response to this very erudite reply Ash is course correct and cuts a knife through your statement with respect!

    • Bulldog Posted December 2, 2018 5:50 pm

      Hello Paul,
      I wouldn’t hold your breath. I have met dozens of people like Mr Seymour over the years, and not one has ever been able to back up his ‘vehemently’ held opinions with facts, references or even a coherent, logical argument.

      • Malcolm andrew bryer Posted December 8, 2018 9:40 am

        A Good read and and a necessary balance to received opinion. What is missing is Milner and his equaL determination to create a new dominion of South Africa and creat a federal British Empire.

      • Bulldog Posted December 29, 2018 9:12 am

        As I thought, no sign of Mr Seymour returning to defend his ‘vehemently’ held opinions… funny how those who hold such extreme, anti-British views can never actually defend them with inconvenient things like ‘facts’ or ‘references’.

  • Bulldog Posted December 8, 2018 10:12 am

    Hello Mr Bryer,

    I am glad you enjoyed the read.

    There is no doubt that Milner, and many others, thought that a federated South Africa made sense (just as some today think a federated Europe makes sense), but I think Milner’s part in the run up to the war has been greatly overblown by many. One should remember that he only arrived in South Africa a couple of months after the Transvaal and the OFS had signed an offensive alliance… the same offensive alliance that Kruger and his gaggle had been pushing for since 1887 – fully 10 years prior to Milner’s arrival.

    In May 1899, Milner sent a lengthy telegram to London to sum up the situation on the ground:

    ‘The true remedy is to strike at the root of all these injuries—the political impotence of the injured. What diplomatic protests will never accomplish, a fair measure of uitlander representation would gradually but surely bring about. It seems a paradox, but it is true, that the only effective way of protecting our subjects is to help them to cease to be our subjects. The admission of the uitlanders to a fair share of political power would no doubt give stability to the Republic. But it would, at the same time, remove most of our causes of difference with it, and modify and, in the long run, entirely remove that intense suspicion and bitter hostility to Great Britain which at present dominates its internal and external policy … A certain section of the Press, not in the Transvaal only, preaches openly and constantly the doctrine of a republic embracing all South Africa, and supports it by menacing references to the armaments of the Transvaal, its alliance with the Orange Free State, and the active sympathy which, in case of war, it would receive from a section of Her Majesty’s subjects. I regret to say that this doctrine, supported as it is by a ceaseless stream of malignant lies about the intentions of the British Government, is producing a great effect upon a large number of our Dutch fellow-colonists. Language is frequently used which seems to imply that that the Dutch have some superior right, even in this Colony, to their fellow-citizens of British birth. Thousands of men peacefully disposed, and, if left alone, perfectly satisfied with their position as British subjects, are being drawn into disaffection, and there is a corresponding exasperation on the side of the British.
    I can see nothing which will put a stop to this mischievous propaganda but some striking proof of the intention of Her Majesty’s government not to be ousted from its position in South Africa. And the best proof alike of its power and its justice would be to obtain for the uitlanders in the Transvaal a fair share in the government of the country which owes everything to their exertions. It could be made perfectly clear that our action was not directed against the existence of the Republic. We should only be demanding the re-establishment of rights which now exist in the Orange Free State, and which existed in the Transvaal itself at the time of, and long after, the withdrawal of British sovereignty. It would be no selfish demand, as other uitlanders besides those of British birth would benefit by it. It is asking for nothing from others which we do not give ourselves. And it would certainly go to the root of the political unrest in South Africa, and, though temporarily it might aggravate, it would ultimately extinguish the race feud, which is the great bane of this country.’

    These words certainly do not leave one with the impression that Milner had a burning desire to invade the Transvaal and add it to the British Empire, or that his intentions were anything other than simply to gain a fair franchise for the uitlanders. Alas, the notion that Milner ‘caused the war’ or that he ‘had always been desperate for war’ has been repeated so often that many no longer even think to query it. Those who do bother to delve a little deeper and read the man’s own correspondence on the subject will see a rather different picture. Far from the claim that he arrived in the Cape resolutely determined to provoke a war, shortly after his appointment in South Africa, for example, he noted:

    ‘I have a strong hope and conviction that, with moderation and good sense, and a policy of firmness, patience, and good temper, these difficulties may yet be satisfactorily, if not immediately settled.’

    As an example of this ‘moderation and good sense’, Milner intervened in a dispute within the British uitlander community in Johannesburg, insisting that courtesy demanded they must toast President Kruger as the head of state before HM the Queen at a banquet held to celebrate her diamond jubilee:

    ‘…on the present occasion and all others, British subjects in the Transvaal should be most careful to avoid anything which might be regarded as a slight to the S.A.R. or its Chief Magistrate.’

    This would have been a strange thing to insist upon if he was determined to provoke a war. Indeed, far from the modern day re-invention of him as a foaming-mouthed war-monger desperate for any excuse to pick a fight with poor old Kruger, Milner, in a confidential letter to Chamberlain written on 2 August 1897, declared:

    ‘That country [the Transvaal] is in a terrible mess, social, political, and financial. I think great allowance must be made for the men who have to govern a country in that state, even if their methods often seem to us very unwise. We should be very patient with them, very conciliatory, remembering how much excuse they have for regarding us with suspicion. But we cannot afford to appear, or to be, weak. It is no use being conciliatory if people think you are only being conciliatory because you are afraid.’

    Firmness and patience—not aggression—were the order of the day, as he had previously made clear in a letter to Lord Selborne concerning the despatch of an extra battalion of infantry and a brigade division (3 batteries) of artillery which were sent to bolster the meagre imperial garrison in South Africa:

    ‘…we have not the slightest intention of attacking anybody. The force we are sending is too small for any aggressive purpose. But in view of the armaments of the Transvaal, there is a widespread and natural feeling of alarm among our own colonists. We are bound to reassure them by making our own territory safe, and we mean to do it.’

    Also in 1897, he had explained in a note to the Colonial Office that his object was:

    ‘…to make things as easy as possible for President Kruger. Reform there must be, but the Boers should not be unduly harassed or hurried. They must be given time and every opportunity to reform themselves.’

    Again, it is difficult to identify anything other than a policy of ‘wait and see’, and to let things sort themselves out—which was, of course, the last thing the tens of thousands of disenfranchised uitlanders would have wanted to hear.
    The reformers would have been even less happy to read Milner’s letter to Earl Grey, written in June of 1897, in which he explained:

    ‘…the Transvaal will remain a centre of disturbance in South Africa and the final untying of the general knot is adjourned. I don’t think this a disadvantage from our point of view. I think we can afford to wait, that time fights on our side and that all our disasters of recent days have been due to precipitation. The difficulty is that the oppressed majority in the Transvaal cannot be expected to, and certainly do not, take quite such a philosophical view of the situation. The great question is whether their material condition can be so far ameliorated and sufficient hope given them of an improvement in their position, to keep them from doing anything foolish, until either (1) the Reform party in the Transvaal gains the upper hand or (2) the stick-in-the-muds do something so outrageous as to compel Great Britain to interfere and finally settle the business. My belief is that the way out is on lines No.1. I think as the extreme bitterness and suspicion engendered by recent events subsides, there will be a beginning of enfranchisement, small at first perhaps, which will in the long run lead to a complete change in the policy of the Transvaal Government and bring it into line with the more progressive South African communities. Meanwhile, we have plenty to do in organizing our own vast possessions…’

    None of this in anyway suggests that Milner plotted, or even hoped, for war. He was perfectly happy to play the waiting game, and for the uitlanders to gain the franchise gradually… indeed, despite the old chestnut that he wanted to use their plight as ‘an excuse’ to intervene, his main concern seemed to be that the uitlanders would not display similar patience, and do ‘something outrageous’.
    Quite how this equates to a man who, as we are so often assured, ‘arrived in South Africa, desperate to start a war’ is anyone’s guess. If he was determined to grasp at any reason to start a war with Kruger, his response to the crisis over the Transvaal’s expansion into Swaziland suggests otherwise. Chamberlain telegrammed Milner on 28 May 1897 to stress that, though he thought the partial independence the Swazis still enjoyed was important, he did not want war with the Transvaal over it. Milner replied on the 30th, agreeing with this pacific stance:

    ‘I never at this stage, contemplated any suggestion to the Transvaal Government which would, if rejected, involve forcible intervention… the semi-independence of the Swazis is not worth a war but worth an effort.’

    In July of the following year, Milner received word of a conversation in which the state secretary of the Transvaal, F.W. Reitz, had agreed that the uitlanders:

    ‘…ought to be admitted gradually to the franchise, though it would be difficult to persuade the old Boer oligarchy to grant it. On being once more assured that Great Britain had no design against the independence of the Republic, Reitz frankly confessed that he would like to see England guard the coasts of South Africa while the inhabitants shaped their own destiny. When reminded that there were 80,000 Englishmen in the Transvaal who had only asked for a fair share in the development of the resources in the country, he replied, ‘there are many things in this administration at which no honest man can look with approval.’

    Reitz’s confession prompted Milner to write a private letter to Mr Edmund Fraser, the Acting British Agent in Pretoria in the absence of Conyngham Greene. Dated 19 August 1898, the letter read:

    ‘Reitz’s attitude is very remarkable, especially as I believe it to be entirely honest. I need not tell you that it is our policy to meet him half-way. There is just one chance in a hundred that their attitude both towards us and the uitlanders may undergo a change—a permanent change, I mean—in the Reitz Direction. In that case, the ultimate fight might yet be averted, as we don’t want the Transvaal, any more than the Orange Free State, but only fair treatment for British industry and capital and an abstention on the part of their government from intrigues with foreign powers.’

    Despite his own stated aim to meet the Boers half-way and the numerous confidential letters showing that he didn’t ‘want the Transvaal’, that the British could ‘afford to wait’, and that ‘the Boers should not be unduly harassed or hurried’, Milner has long been presented as the Bogey-Man—the fellow who would have stopped at nothing to force a war against Kruger. Yet here was a man who did not latch onto any of the numerous casus belli presented to him by Kruger’s rather volatile foreign policy, and who consistently advocated patience, even at the risk of upsetting the uitlanders—the very people we are constantly assured he wanted to use as an excuse for war.
    The character assassination of Milner is largely based on two misquotes. The first is used / misused seemingly to try and present him as a vile racist bigot and therefore the baddie of the piece: ‘you have only to sacrifice ‘the nigger’ and the game is easy’.
    The full quote is rather different, however, and has precisely the opposite meaning. Written in a letter to a friend, Milner actually explained:

    ‘[If I did not have] some conscience about the treatment of blacks I personally could win over the Dutch in the Colony and indeed in all the South African dominion without offending the English. You have only to sacrifice ‘the nigger’ and the game is easy. Any attempt to secure fair play for them makes the Dutch fractious and almost unmanageable.’

    Any intelligent and fair minded reader will agree that, allowing for his use of language that has since become unacceptable, Milner’s rather colourful phrase was meant in completely the opposite way than his modern-day critics insinuate.
    And this really was a thorny problem facing relations between the Empire and the republicans in South Africa. If, by granting a fair franchise to the uitlanders, the Transvaal was to enter the British sphere, the mere suggestion of introducing a system similar to the Cape Qualified franchise therein would have had the Boers reaching for their Mausers. In November of 1897, Milner wrote to future Liberal Prime Minister, Herbert Asquith in confidence on the subject of a speech the latter had made about race issues in Southern Africa:

    ‘With your great two principles that (1) we should seek ‘to restore the good relations between the Dutch and English’ and (2) we should ‘secure for the Natives, particularly in that part of Africa called Rhodesia, adequate and sufficient protection against oppression and wrong’, I most cordially agree, with this reservation, that I don’t quite see the ground for your ‘particularly’… What I am so anxious that you and other English Statesmen, especially Liberal Statesmen, should understand is that object No.2 is the principle obstacle to the attainment of object No.1, is, and always has been… I should feel quite confident of being able to get over the Dutch-English difficulty if it were not so horribly complicated by the Native question.’

    A little later, Rudyard Kipling also noted that completely different attitudes to ‘natives’ and democracy were major sticking points in pre-war negotiations:

    ‘They want to sweep the English into the sea, to lick their own nigger, and to govern South Africa with a gun instead of a ballot box.’

    Milner, whatever his latter day detractors prefer to believe, was in a distinctly unenviable position, faced, as he was, not just with a minor clash of cultures, but with a clash between a modern, relatively liberal Empire and—as we have seen—an aggressively defiant fundamentalist state, almost medieval in its racism, intolerance, and extremism; a state which—together with its increasingly rebellious supporters in the Cape Colony—showed no interest in adapting to the modern world.

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