On 1 January 1900, and after six weeks of siege, the tiny desert outpost of Kuruman finally surrendered to the invading Boers.
Needless to say, certain History Professors who like to pretend that the poor old Boers were ‘forced’ to invade British territory are never able to explain why this crusade involved the republicans annexing a vast tract of the Kalahari or why they were so determined take this one-horse town in the middle of the desert – are we really meant to believe poor, innocent old Kruger feared an attack by a couple of dozen mounted police emerging from across the water-less sands? Then again, all the self-serving myths of the True Believers™ regarding a ‘defensive invasion’ (whatever the hell that is) are pretty easy to pick apart.
But we shall leave Kruger’s modern-day apologists and the Defenders of the Myth™ to their comforting fantasies of Boer innocence and return to historical reality.
Near the site of a natural spring in the semi-desert, Kuruman was founded by Robert Moffat in 1821 as a mission station, and as such was used as a base by the great David Livingstone. By 1899, and thus the time of the Boer invasions, it was still a tiny village many miles from the nearest railway, though served as an administrative centre for the surrounding area. When a 700-strong Boer force under Commandant Visser attacked on the 13th November, they were held at bay by a miniscule force of police and loyalists, both white and coloured (the latter known, seemingly without malice, as ‘bastards’) – perhaps eighty armed men in all.[i] Commanded by Major A. Bates of the Cape Police, this ad-hoc garrison was kept under fire for the next four days, though the republicans, despite their overwhelming numbers, never dared to mount a close assault.[ii]
On 18 November, Visser’s force retired a few miles and awaited reinforcement in the form of some local rebels. His numbers thus swelled to 1,000 men, Visser continued to besiege this irrelevant outpost. (Except for Kimberley, Kuruman and Mafeking, the whole of British Bechuanaland and Griqualand West were annexed to the two republics[iii] – a ‘defensive invasion’, indeed).
From the 5th to the 17th December, Visser’s men kept the defenders under fire, launching four assaults during this period, all of which were repulsed with losses.[iv] In desperation, Visser then demanded to be sent some heavy artillery and sat back to await its arrival.
One of the ladies of Kuruman wrote to a friend:
“Our men fought bravely for six days, after which the Boers departed, and we don’t know if they intend returning or not. Charlie is at the Police Camp and looks well and happy. He is very proud of our men. Our men are still on the alert, and are strengthening their forts, as the Boers will not return without a cannon. They quite expected this place to be handed over to them at once.”[v]
Despite holding off ten-times their number for many weeks, there was little the plucky defenders could do when the republican artillery finally arrived and the Boers were able to bombard them with impunity. With no relief in sight, and no way of returning the bombardment, the garrison surrendered on the 1st of January.
Nevertheless, the defence of Kuruman is an epic of the period: a multi-racial scratch-force of loyalists holding out for weeks against all odds, tying up republican forces which were urgently required elsewhere, and even drawing scarce artillery assets away from where they were really needed. Strangely, however, this sublime defensive action is barely mentioned in most modern histories – it clearly does not fit with the latter-day myth of the Boers smashing all before them in the first few months of the war.
Let me also take this opportunity to wish a Happy New Year to all.
The ‘Roaring Twenties’ are upon us.
[i] Kruger, R., p. 165
[ii] Maurice & Grant et al, Vol. 3, p. 3
[iii] Amery, Vol. 2, p. 297
[iv] Maurice & Grant et al, Vol. 3, p. 3
[v] Creswicke, Vol. 3, p. 26