The ‘Boer’ republics

‘When I was a child, the Matabele came, they swept over us like the wind and we bowed before them like the long white grass on the plains. They left us and we stood upright again. The Boers came and we bowed ourselves under them in like manner. The British came and we rose upright, our hearts lived within us and we said: Now we are the children of the Great Lady. And now that is past and we must lie flat again under the wind—who knows what are the ways of God?[i]
– Chief Mokhatle, reflecting on the end of British rule, and the return of Boer domination over the Transvaal in 1881

The phrase ‘the Boer republics’ has always been thrown around a lot in writing about the Boer War, and the years leading up to it; indeed, I confess I have used it plenty of times myself in my books and articles. It’s a handy way of describing the Transvaal and the Orange Free State, but it is also something of a misnomer, and can give the average reader a rather distorted view on affairs.

Words have power, and when a book refers to ‘the Boer republics’, the layman would be forgiven for thinking of them in the same way he might think of, say, France or Denmark; that is, that France is mainly populated by French people, and Denmark is mainly populated by Danes. It is completely undeniable, though rarely emphasized or even mentioned by the True Believers, that though the phrase ‘the Boer republics’ may give that impression, they were certainly not ‘mainly populated by Boers’, just as South Africa is not mainly populated by white people today.

Though convenient shorthand, the phrase in a way legitimizes the fact that, though they only made up a small minority of the population, the recently-arrived Boer settler / invaders jealously and unfairly held onto political control – especially in the Transvaal – and lorded it over the black majority. No one would have referred to Apartheid South Africa as ‘the white republic’, but to have done so would be essentially the same as using the phrase ‘Boer republics’ to describe the Transvaal and the Orange Free State of the 1890s. Indeed, I recall news reports at the time always (rightly) emphasizing that Apartheid-era South Africa was a white-minority-run state.

The phrase, the ‘Boer-minority-run republics’ is awkward and clunky, and highly-unlikely to catch on, but at least it makes the situation a little clearer. It’ll certainly upset a few of the Defenders of the Myth (to be fair, that is not hard to do), who prefer to tacitly give the impression that the republics were indeed populated by Boers – if not entirely, then predominantly.

But just how few Boers were there in the ‘Boer republics’? Completely accurate stats are not easy to come by, but when the Transvaal returned to Boer rule in 1881, Henry Rider Haggard[ii] made the following observation about the black population of the territory:

‘They outnumbered the Boers by 25 to one, taking their numbers at a million and those of the Boers at 40,000, a fair estimate, I believe … as the lash and the bullet have been the lot of the wretched Transvaal K****r in the past, so they will be his lot in the future … after leading those hundreds of thousands of men and women to believe that they were once and for ever the subjects of Her Majesty, safe from all violence, cruelty, and oppression, we have handed them over without a word of warning to the tender mercies of one, where natives are concerned, of the cruellest white races in the world.[iii]

Haggard’s ‘thumb suck’ is rather contradicted by the Transvaal’s State Almanac for 1897, which stated that the republic’s total white population (ie. both English-speaking and Boer) was 245,397 (28%), and the total black population was 622,544[iv]. Given a 50/50 split between Boers and the Uitlanders (which seems reasonable, and might even understate the number of Uitlanders), that means that – even using their own stats – the Boers only accounted for 14% of the Transvaal’s population. A ‘Boer republic’ indeed.

As regards the Orange Free State, the 1904 colonial census – which was obviously done just after the Boer War – gave the total population of 387,315, of whom 225,101 (58%) were blacks, 142,679 (37%) were whites (again, both English-speaking and Boer). Coloureds (19,282) and Indians (253) together were 5%.

However one wants to slice it, these were undeniably black republics – it’s just that, in contrast to the way non-whites were treated in the British Colonies[v], the recently-arrived Boers made sure they were not considered equal before the law, and got absolutely no say in the running of them. Indeed, pretty much the only thing the quarrelsome settlers of the Transvaal had been able to agree upon was a line in their 1860 constitution which confirmed, ‘The people are not prepared to allow any equality of the non-white with the white inhabitants, either in church or state’.[vi]

With admirable forthrightness, the Boers’ chief cheerleader in Europe, Dr Kuyper, proudly trumpeted the difference between the relatively benign rule in the British colonies and that in the republics:
‘The English prided themselves on protecting the imaginary rights of the natives… The Boers are not sentimentalists, but are eminently practical. They recognized that these Hottentots and Basutos were an inferior race.[vii]

No one would claim that British Imperial rule was perfect when judged by today’s standards, but contrast those statements to the conditions Britain insisted upon on the founding of a Colony in Natal in 1843: ‘there should not be in the eye of the law any distinction or disqualification whatever, founded on mere difference of colour, origin, language or creed’.

And Britain’s Cape Colony was more forward-looking still, practicing a colour-blind franchise system, the Cape Qualified Franchise. The Cape’s Attorney General, William Porter[viii], explained this to concerned white voters by stating: ‘Why should you fear the exercise of franchise? This is a delicate question but it must be touched upon. I do not hesitate to say that I would rather meet the Hottentot at the hustings, voting for his representative, than in the wilds with his gun upon his shoulder. Is it not better to disarm them by granting them the privileges of the constitution? If you now blast all their hopes and tell them they shall not fight their battles constitutionally, do not you yourselves apply to them the stimulus to fight their battles unconstitutionally?’

But querying the phrase ‘the Boer republics’ is not just an exercise in semantics, and certainly not driven by Political Correctness – something which I utterly despise. Nevertheless, I feel it is an important point to make, as every time a writer refers to ‘the Boer republics’, he is subtly and subliminally causing an unwary reader to focus entirely on a small (15-20%?) minority of those who lived in them, which can be highly misleading.

When, for example, writers sniffily declare things like ‘the Boer republics were determined to resist any British proposal for a Confederation’, what they really should be saying is: ‘the small Boer settler minority which was wielding absolute political power in the republics was determined to resist any British proposal for a Confederation. However, the English-speaking white populations of those two states would generally have been in favour of it, as would the Indian[ix] and Coloured communities, not to mention the oppressed Jews and Catholics in the Transvaal. It is also reasonable to assume that – given the two alternatives – the large black majorities in both republics would have gladly swapped Boer rule for British Imperial stewardship’.[x]

Suddenly, the pre-war notion of a Confederation of South African territories doesn’t seem like the dastardly British attempt to ‘grab our land’ that certain relics of the Apartheid-era so desperately attempt to pretend it was. Instead, we can be confident it is something which would have been welcomed by the majority in both republics[xi]. If only the self-appointed Chosen People had given anyone else a say in the matter[xii], the Boer War – and all the horrors and division that brought – would never have occurred, and by the turn of the century, there could very well have been a peaceful union of the various polities in the region, just as happened in Canada and Australia.


[i] Mason, The Birth of a Dilemma, The Conquest and Settlement of Rhodesia, p.110

[ii] Sir Henry Rider Haggard KBE (1856–1925). A great friend of Rudyard Kipling, and more famous for his fictional works ‘She’ and ‘King Solomon’s Mines’, Haggard had been on the staff of Sir Theophilus Shepstone, Special Commissioner for the Transvaal at the time of annexation. Haggard later stood (unsuccessfully) for the Conservative Party in Norfolk’s Eastern Division in 1895. ‘She’ is one of the best-selling books of all time. Perhaps most remarkably, Haggard’s work inspired the motto of the RAF – Per Ardua ad Astra (Through Adversity to the Stars) – a quote which was taken from his book People of the Mist. No doubt this will soon be changed thanks to the modern Leftist obsession with ‘de-colonising’ everything

[iii] Creswicke, South Africa and the Transvaal War, Vol. I, p.103

[iv] Transvaal and Orange Free State Chamber of Mines (1897). The Mining Industry. Evidence and Report of the Industrial Commission of Enquiry. Johannesburg: Times printing and publishing works. pp.574–575

[v] Of course, the self-governing British territories of Natal and the Cape Colony were also mainly non-white, but they were not so blatantly discriminated against, and the Cape Qualified Franchise was well ahead of its time. When Natal was granted self-government in 1893, franchise rules were introduced that were certainly not as enlightened as those in the Cape: nevertheless, there were still a few non-whites (only three Africans and 251 Indians) on the electoral role, and – unlike in the Transvaal – no discrimination against Jews or Catholics, or anything like the endless chicanery Kruger practiced to deny the vote to the whites who spoke a different language

[vi] Thompson, A History of South Africa, p.102

[vii] Guyot, Boer Politics, p.21

[viii] William Porter (1805-1880), an Irishman of Liberal persuasions who was called to the Irish bar in 1831, then appointed as Attorney General of the Cape of Good Hope in 1839. Porter was largely responsible for drafting the Cape’s first constitution in 1854. His name lives on in the small town of Porterville, some 100 miles to the north of Cape Town

[ix] There can be no doubt that the Indian community in Kruger’s Transvaal would have welcomed British rule. The Transvaal Government defined Asians as ‘Coolies, Chinese etc, Arabs, Malays, and Mohammedan subjects of the Turkish dominion’. They were forbidden from owning fixed property, had to register with the local magistrate within 8 days of arriving, were restricted to living in certain neighborhoods, and had to pay an entry fee of £25. Indian merchants, as British subjects, objected to this law and appealed to the British government to protect their rights. Thanks to diplomatic pressure from London, the law was amended to allow the ‘Asiatics’ the right to own fixed property, though not land, and the entry fee was lowered to £3. Hong Kong Chinese were also able to claim Imperial protection as British subjects, and were thus not as badly treated by Kruger as the other Chinese workers. Goodness, the sheer horror of the wicked British Empire!

[x] One should bear in mind that numerous black kings and chiefs in the region pleaded for British Protectorate status to save them from Boer invasion and encroachment

[xi] Please note that I am merely stating that – given the choice, and as made clear in the quote at the start of the article – the black majority would have preferred it to Boer domination, not that they might have preferred it to neither

[xii] instead of being determined that, not only the republics – but the entire region – was theirs by ‘Divine Right’

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