Britain’s last great colonial adventure of the 19th century and Victoria’s lengthy reign, as some of the last unclaimed parts of the non-western world were being eyed up and bartered over, took place not in a war against black Africans or Australasians, but against the white descendants of European colonists, as part of a process whereby the modern nation of South Africa came into being, a confederation of British colonies and newly subdued protectorates and client states. This is the conflict of Majuba, the Spion Kop, Ladysmith and Kitchener’s blockhouses, and it was a war where many Irish soldiers and several Irish regiments fought. In this post, I’d like to take the opportunity to explain how this war came about, before future posts look more closely at the Irish experience.
“Boer” is the Dutch and Afrikaans word for “farmer”, and is popularly used as an identifier for the colonists of the southern part of Africa of European, primarily Dutch, background. Since the 17th century, Dutch commercial interests had been colonizing the Cape, but their rule had been resented by the increasing population, who wandered further and further afield. The British, as a result of the Napoleonic Wars, gained control of the Cape Colony in the early 19th century, and while their administration of the colony improved some things, the greater equality granted to natives and other black residents rankled with the Boers, already immersed in a racially uneven society that would dominate South African affairs from the first arrival of Europeans to the present day. As a result, more and more Boers trekked out farther afield, eventually founding their own states beyond British control, namely the Southern African Republic, known more commonly as the Transvaal Republic, and the Orange Free State. They also settled in Natal to the east of Cape Colony, but this was a British colony eventually too.
British control and influence in the region increased gradually, in line with the growing European domination of Africa, then fully experiencing the effects of the “Scramble”, wherein the great European powers all tried to grab as much of the continent as they could before somebody else did. The famous Anglo-Zulu War – that of Isandlwana and Rorke’s Drift – was fought in the region from 1879-1880, and had direct relevance to British-Boer relations.
The region might well have remained a little remarked upon colonial frontier, notable only for British efforts to gradually expand northwards and the Boers racist treatment of the African natives – even at the time, regarded as remarkably bad by Britain – but for the discovery of two separate troves of mineral resources, namely the diamonds of Kimberley in the Free State and the gold of the Rand region in the Transvaal, which suddenly turned these areas into some of the richest pieces of real estate on the planet.
This first Boer War stemmed, eventually, from the discovery of diamonds at Kimberley, and British efforts to suddenly incorporate that part of the South African landscape. The British annexed the area in 1877, and then went a step further by annexing the Transvaal the same year. The Zulu War delayed a proper response, but by the end of 1880 the Transvaal Boers, led by the dynamic and popular leader Paul Kruger, were in open rebellion.
This first full-on experience of warfare in the “veld” – the open plains of South Africa, broken by the hilly “kops” – was a tough one for the British, who had spent decades fighting wars against disorganised and easily beaten natives. The Boers excelled as light cavalry, being excellent horseman and distinguished marksmen, and favoured guerrilla tactics of ambush, raid and melting away into the countryside without offering anything close to a pitched battle. Organised into “commandos” with elected officers, they operated as highly mobile columns, not dissimilar to the ASU’s of the Irish War of Independence decades later (who would, indeed, be taking much direct inspiration from the Boers). The British, still wearing redcoats and carrying regimental flags into fights, favoured unit cohesion and massed firepower, and they suffered badly in the course of the three-month conflict, running into a succession of bad defeats, culminating in the terrible reverse at Majuba in February 1881.
A new liberal government in London under Gladstone had no interest in continuing an already expensive war, and a peace agreement that left the Transvaal as a self-governing state under nominal British suzerainty was agreed. The war has little overt connection to Ireland, save for the fact that one of the units engaged there, the 94th Regiment of Foot, would be transformed from its own entity into a battalion of the reconstituted Connacht Rangers, while they were stationed in South Africa. In line with the Childers Reforms, many of the newer Irish regiments cycled through postings in the colonies, and South Africa was no exception. A section of the 94th was badly mauled in the first major engagement of the war, and their experiences, and the experiences of other British regiment, led to significant tactical reforms in the army, not least the long-needed abandonment of the redcoat in favour of khaki.
The Second Boer War took the better part of two decades to come to the boil. The discovery of gold and the continuing rush for diamonds resulted in an explosion of immigration into both the Transvaal and the Orange Free State, to the extent that these “uitlanders”, by the end of the century, were actually forming a majority over the “native” Boers (leaving aside the gigantic amount of actual native Africans, who are curiously ignored in much of the history of the period). The uitlanders lacked political rights on the same level as the Boers though, a situation deemed necessary by Paul Kruger, who spent the period after the first war being the Transvaal’s elected President. Kruger wanted to maintain the Boers political control, but the situation was untenable: the cause of the uitlanders was too tempting a one for elements of the British administration in the rest of South Africa, and at home, who saw in such a crusade the opportunity to win a permanent favourable settlement in the area.
An abortive effort to lead an uitlander coup in the Transvaal, financed by local magnates like Cecil Rhodes and secretly approved by political figures like Secretary for the Colonies Joseph Chamberlain, took place in 1895, but was easily defeated by the Boers. It was this incident that started the final path to open warfare, as negotiations between Kruger and British interests over uitlander rights gradually deteriorated, a process aided by hardcore imperialists like Alfred Milner, the Governor-General of the Cape, who wanted to drive forward the dream of a federalised South Africa.
Though significant parties on either side entered the conflict with severe misgivings, on the likelihood of success and the long-term costs of such a fight, war began in the autumn of 1899, with the British Army organising for a field force to be sent to augment the existing units already in the area, with the stated aim of driving into both the Transvaal and the Orange Free State. Several Irish regiments would be engaged, in a war that the British hoped would be over Christmas, but which would drag on for three miserable years.
To read the rest of the entries in this series, click here to go to the index.