The latest myth doing the rounds

The myths which are made-up to maintain the fiction that the Boers were in the innocent victims in the Boer War never cease to amuse me. I was recently told by someone on Quora that Kruger’s decision to pick a fight with the British Empire wasn’t actually a stupid mistake at all, and that the Boers knew full well they couldn’t win. This clearly unhinged person claimed that they embarked on their hopeless cause out of pride, knowing that defeat was inevitable – which, of course, makes no sense whatsoever. It would seem that this is latest myth doing the rounds, however, as just a couple of days later, I was sent this extract by a friend:

‘Whatever; if you strip away the niceties in all the words, one thing is clear: Britain denied the Afrikaner, the ZAR and OFS an own national existence. Also in doing so, the Cape Colonial Afrikaners that had great sympathy with their northern brothers, had their self-respect offended. No respecting nation could bend the knee before such a brutish, unscrupulous attack from outside. Even if it was only for the retention of its self-respect, the Afrikaners had to resist such an imperialistic offensive with all their might. If they surrendered without a fight, the Afrikaner would never have been able to face themselves again. Their nation would have died an inevitable, shameful, and lustreless death. By their resistance – even having lost the war – they had earned the right to hold their heads up high and to be proud of themselves’.
[1]

Needless to say, the government of the Orange Free State was under no diplomatic pressure from Great Britain whatsoever. What really happened is that President Steyn dragged his republic into an attack against the British Empire, despite having absolutely no quarrel with London. Then again, such is the desperation of these people to peddle their falsehoods of Boer innocence and British aggression, that inconvenient things like facts are always disregarded.

And quite how starting (and losing) a war, rather than extending democracy to the population of the Transvaal, gives any one the ‘right to hold their heads up high and to be proud of themselves’ is completely beyond me. Fighting tooth and nail to deny equal rights to other people is not normally a cause for great pride. Rather than finally bowing to diplomatic pressure and introducing a fair franchise system in 1994, had, for example, the Apartheid government instead invaded and annexed parts of Botswana and Zimbabwe, then been defeated in a bitter and costly war, would white South Africans have the ‘right to hold their heads up high and to be proud of themselves’?

Equally, neither of the republics was under a ‘brutish, unscrupulous attack from outside’ or an ‘imperialistic offensive’. Thanks to Kruger’s outrageous and disgracefully restrictive franchise rules (which discriminated against English speakers, as well as non-whites, Jews and Catholics), there were ongoing tensions between London and Pretoria, of course; but to pretend that diplomatic pressure to grant a fair franchise to the Uitlanders was an ‘attack’ is ridiculous. That would be similar to pretending the International pressure, and the sanctions imposed on Apartheid-era South Africa, were ‘brutish, unscrupulous attacks’. And it is also worth noting that, if anything, Kruger’s ghastly regime made the later Apartheid government look positively benign and liberal.  

As normal, this self-pitying, self-serving, ahistorical rubbish also completely ignores the aggressive nature of Kruger’s ever-expanding Transvaal, and their oft-boasted claims of ‘driving the Rooinek into the sea’ and ‘building an Afrikaans Empire from the Zambesi to the Cape’. It also disregards the antics of Kruger’s busy and well-funded Secret Service, and the rabble-rousing and gun-running they were up to in British territories long before the war[2]. Though it suits his modern-day apologists to turn a blind eye to all this, the reality is that Kruger’s government had been planning an attack on British territories since at least 1887, when they tried to pressure the government of the Orange Free State into signing an offensive alliance against Great Britain[3].

But the truly insane part of this psychotic outburst is the idea that, out of some sense of ‘honour’, ‘pride’ or ‘self-respect’, the Boers started a war they could never win. Of course, anyone making such an intergalactically ridiculous claim should be able to provide actual evidence to support it. How about a few speeches made by Kruger and Steyn, encouraging their people to sign up for – and die in – a war they knew they couldn’t win? Some documents which support the idea that they didn’t think they had a cat’s chance in Hell, but – hey – starting a war which will kill thousands of your countrymen is OK as long as it is done for reasons of pride?

But, no – there is nothing like that at all. What we do have, however, is a lot of evidence that the Boers thought their victory was a racing certainty, that the blundering Tommies were no match for them, and that the whole of southern Africa would soon be theirs.

The illustrious Austrian traveller, Count Sternberg, initially journeyed to the Transvaal to fight for the Boers. When he was denied a field command, however, he instead attached himself to the federal armies acting as a war correspondent for much of the conflict. This remarkable man thus enjoyed access to many of the most senior Boer leaders and even prior to his departure from Europe, he had met Dr Leyds[4] in Brussels, remembering him to be ‘quite confident, relying mainly on the inevitable European intervention’[5]—this despite his repeated warnings to Pretoria that no such help would be forthcoming. If the calm and urbane Dr Leyds was only ‘quite confident’, others were much more so. On his arrival in the Transvaal in December, the Count met F.W. Reitz – then serving as that republic’s State Secretary – and recalled that he had ‘no doubt as to the final victory of the Boers, of which he was so convinced that he would not even allow the possibility of the fortunes of war changing’.[6]

Indeed, it would seem that most of the Transvaal Boers shared this conviction and the Count remarked that the outbreak of the war had been greeted with great enthusiasm by many who had no doubt that they would ultimately be successful.[7] As the Count noted: ‘The Transvaaler, accustomed to fight against natives, welcomed the war; for them it was more sport than anything’. Some, he noted, were so confident of an easy victory that they bragged they were not going to wash until they reached the Indian Ocean, or even Cape Town. There was, the Count recalled, a ‘feeling rampant in young Transvaal that they would sweep the British into the sea and compel the officials at Cape Town to speak Cape Dutch’.[8]

In his magnificent personal account of the conflict, ‘Commando’, Deneys Reitz is not too proud to admit that he embarked on the war ‘with the eyes of youth, seeing only the glamour, but knowing nothing of the horror and the misery’.[9] Reitz would later serve in the British Army in the Great War, rising to the rank of Colonel, but was just a precocious 17-year-old when he joined the commandos. Reitz proudly told none other than President Kruger that, not only would he account for three British soldiers, but he would do so with one shot.[10] In his account of the conflict, young Reitz also declared that ‘our leaders underestimated the magnitude of the task on which they were embarked’.

A long-term resident of the Transvaal, Ulsterman Jack Lane, was commandeered, and sent to fight against the nation of his birth against his will. He recorded his bitter scepticism and contempt for Kruger’s invasion and the triumphant mood prematurely sweeping the Transvaal in his diary:

‘I do not doubt that, the Boers may have a bit of a success for the first three months. But then, the time will come for reverses, when there will be another story to tell, when there will be a ‘howling and gnashing of teeth…And, in my humble opinion, the non-existence of their beloved South African Republic, and no one to blame but themselves and the Afrikaner Bond of the Cape Colony, combined with the Hollanders, and miserable Germans, who are making leaders believe that European nations will take up the quarrel against Britain. The Afrikaner Bond has poisoned the mind of the uneducated Transvaal Boer, with its papers and pamphlets, and lies they circulate. The ordinary Transvaal Boer believes it is impossible for any nation to beat them.’[11]

In another entry, he wrote:

‘The crowd are talking very big and from their talk Cape Town and Durban will be their first stopping place!!’
[12]

Nor was it only the rank and file who thought the invasion would be a turkey-shooting cakewalk. As Boer forces pushed into Natal, their commanders telegraphed Kruger to say that the Vierkleur (the four-coloured flag of the Transvaal) would soon be flying over Durban.[13] The Chief Justice of the Transvaal, Mr Gregorowski, was also arrogantly certain of victory, and boasted that the war would ‘be over in a fortnight. We shall take Kimberley and Mafeking, and give the English such a beating in Natal that they will sue for peace’.[14]

Though some – for whatever reason – have now dreamed up the idea that clever old Kruger knew the Boers could never win, in reality the man himself boasted that ‘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’.[15] Hardly the words of a man who didn’t think the Boers were going to emerge victorious from the Crusade he was launching.

On 2 October – just prior to attacking the British Empire – Kruger addressed the volksraad of the Transvaal in special session. Far from saying they were embarking on an impossible task simply for self-respect (or whatever the latest bullshit post-facto myth is this week), Kruger actually assured his God-fearing audience that their invasions would be fully supported by the Almighty. In an address which was genuinely hare-brained even by Kruger’s lunatic standards, he reminded his listeners that the Lord had ‘transplanted the people to this country, and led it here amid miracles … He is waiting for our prayers and He will be with us’.[16] Kruger went on to remind everyone that the Lord had been on hand to help them win the first Boer War and to defeat Jameson’s raiders:

‘They aimed thousands of shells and balls at us, while we only shot with rifles; and how wonderfully was the course of the bullets ordered! Three of us fell, while the enemy had hundreds killed and wounded. And who ordered the flight of the bullets? The Lord! He spared us then, to prove that He rules all things. The Lord will also protect you now, even if thousands of bullets fly around you … I will say once more that the Lord will guide us.’[17]

That he genuinely believed such utter rubbish is not only laughable to a modern reader, but also astounded even contemporary observers:

‘Nor should one, in estimating the forces at work to animate the Boer mind, omit to reckon his extraordinarily active and real belief in the interposition of the almighty. Such of the western nations as hold to the belief that God indeed shapes the destinies of nations and the issues of war, regard his power as manifesting itself through the wisdom of rulers preparing for war, and the skill of the warriors fighting the battle, both vouchsafed to the victorious nation by his will, but the Dutch believed in his personal intervention as materially as in the days of Jericho.’[18]

And Kruger’s partner in crime, President Steyn of the Orange Free State, was every bit as deluded, with one observer claiming ‘he commenced the war with a firm trust in God, and the most gross negligence’.[19] Steyn had openly declared to our Austrian friend, Count Sternberg, that ‘…their first object was the annexation of the diamond fields. This war made possible the attainment of their wishes, and before their eyes hovered the possibility of re-establishing the old frontiers, so that Kimberley would belong to the Free State.’ The keen-eyed reader will note there is no mention of only fighting for ‘pride’ or ‘self-respect’ in a losing cause there – for Steyn, it was all about annexing the diamond fields of (Britain’s) Cape Colony: pure and simple, a war of territorial expansion.

So given that pretty much every member of Kruger’s gaggle (not to mention the men of the federal rank and file) thought victory was a sure thing, where does this latest nonsense come from? Why, one wonders, are some so-called ‘academics’ resolute in their determination to simply make things up, rather than accept the inconvenient reality that, convinced they could win, Kruger and his claque made the monumentally stupid decision of attacking the British Empire? Why is it so hard for them to get their heads round this simple, undeniable fact?

Whether due to faulty intelligence, arrogance or a belief of racial supremacy, national leaders have made bad geopolitical decisions throughout history, starting wars which they go on to lose. The notion that – just because they were Boers – Kruger et al were incapable of such hubris and stupidity doesn’t stand up to any sort of critical analysis, especially given their quasi-lunatic religious fanaticism… a fanaticism which should have seen Kruger in a mental institute, not leading a nation into the Twentieth Century. For Kruger and Steyn’s two small republics to jauntily attack the British Empire in 1899 was a decision every bit as brainless as Germany’s invasion of the USSR in 1941, or Japan’s attack against the USA a few months later. It was as stupid and illogical as Argentina’s decision to pick a fight with Britain in 1982, or Iraq’s decision to invade Kuwait in 1990.

But, convinced they were God’s Chosen People, that they could drive the British from the region, and that the Lord of the Old Testament would smite Queen Victoria’s armies with thunderbolts, that is exactly what Kruger and Steyn did. No amount of special pleading, make-belief nonsense or far-fetched excuses can change this historical reality.


NOTES
 


[1] The original version of this complete and utter rubbish was written in Afrikaans. This is apparently a pretty decent translation.

[2] Frere, Letters from an Uitlander, p.21

[3] Fraser, Episodes of my Life, p. 14

[4] The Transvaal’s Envoy Extraordinary and Minister Plenipotentiary in Europe

[5] Sternberg & Henderson, p. 25

[6] Ibid, p. 54

[7] Ibid, p. 56

[8] Farrelly, p. 266

[9] Reitz, p. 15

[10] Ibid, p. 16

[11] Lane, p. 6

[12] Ibid, p. 3

[13] Stalker, The Natal CarbineersCh. 9

[14] Cook, p. 296

[15] Lowry, p. 209

[16] Nathan, p. 447

[17] Ibid, p. 449

[18] Maydon. French’s Cavalry Campaign, p. 17

[19] Botha, From Boer to Boer and Englishman, p. 27

3 Comments

  • Robert Hackney Posted June 6, 2020 3:48 pm

    Kruger and Steyn were weighed in the balance-and found wanting

  • Douglas Mason Posted June 6, 2020 3:51 pm

    It is the duty of good public leadership to avoid catastrophe and deliver good outcomes for the people they serve under whatever circumstance the polity finds itself. Picking a fight with a larger power and pursuing an unwinable war – far past the point when any hope of victory remained and which only caused further suffering and recrimination – is irresponsible in the extreme.

  • Douglas Mason Posted June 6, 2020 3:51 pm

    A tragedy of failed leadership, epically so. And the country still pays the price for it today. Would Apartheid and its horror have unfold in the way it did without the Boer War?

    As someone who has adopted residence in this country by choice, rather than birth, there is always a conflicted personal approach to the war. The first reaction is respect and sympathy for the wounded nationalism of Afrikaners and the heroism and suffering of the war. But that only goes so far – ultimately a judgement, and a hard one, must be made about the quality of political leadership under Kruger and how it has led the country down such an awful bind alley

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