It was 110 years ago that the Boer War started, a nasty conflict with a miscellany of atrocities befitting a classic colonial engagement. It was waged in the true imperialist mould, revealing an unvarnished desire on the part of an insatiable Britain to acquire gold-mining interests in the Boer domains within Transvaal and the Orange Free State.
It also pitted soldiers of similar background against each other: the Australian bushmen against the Boers; warriors of rural background fighting their own, with 16,000 Australians seeing service along with 6500 New Zealanders — remarkable numbers given the lack of conscription or a draft in both countries and 606 and 158 respectively perished in the conflict. Curiously, Australia, obsessed with the legend of the rugged soldier perishing in distant lands, has little time to memorialise this conflict. Some insist that it was in the bloodied fields of South Africa where “the legend of the Aussie digger began” (ABC News, October 10, 2009). That said, commemorating a dirty colonial invasion for resources proves a problematic “fit” in the context of enlightenment and justice.
The messy conflict provided grist to the mill of anti-war opponents, just as it excited pro-war enthusiasts. It gave Arthur Conan Doyle a chance to defend the conflict in The Great Boer War (1901) and a young Winston Churchill a forum for belligerent expression. Such exploits did not fool the likes of critics such as the pioneering newspaper man, W. T. Stead, who, despite admiring the novelist’s talents, reviewed Conan Doyle’s work coolly. Readable as it was, the account had come from a man who had been “swept off his feet by the wave of military enthusiasm which passed … the … country” in 1899 and 1900.
Stead’s rejoinder came in Methods of Barbarism (1901), an account accusing the British army of rapaciousness and destructiveness in the field. An indignant Conan Doyle would in turn dismiss such allegations as mere tissues of lies, writing a polemical retort, The War in South Africa: Its Cause and Conflict. The work received the avid support from the establishment — the foreign office, the war office, King Edward VII (in the form of £500 to defray publication costs), and the colonial secretary, Joseph Chamberlain. He was duly rewarded for his efforts with a knighthood in June 1902, an event Stead scrupulously avoided covering.
By 1902, the conflict was getting less support in parts of Britain and other parts of the Empire. Atrocity stories on non-combatants were reaching the presses of the colonies, and those of Europe. The execution of New South Wales drover Harry “Breaker” Morant and Peter Handcock that year contributed no small part to the anti-war case in Australia. They had been convicted of slaughtering 12 Boer prisoners and a German missionary, an incident that was not without precedent in that guerrilla campaign. The Bushveldt Carbineers claimed they had been issued the orders. The paper trail to such orders, on the other hand, proved thin. The execution has seen much ink expended, with historians such as Bill Woolmore citing their solitary confinement for months, denial of due process and heavy-handed dispatching as a case of brutal injustice.
The British and colonial forces were rudely surprised by their Boer enemies. The German Mauser rifles, equipped with smokeless cartridges, proved lethal. The ambush became a frequent occurrence. Sabotage proved regular and effective.
The bruised and surprised British eventually gained the upper hand, adopting a scorched-earth policy, destroying food lines and supplies and establishing various blockhouses to encircle the Boers. The concentration camp, brainchild of Lord Kitchener, made its unwelcome appearance for the first time, with women and children interned within enclosures. Neglect proved the ultimate killer — 25,000 Boer civilians, along with 14,000 natives perished.
The signing of the Treaty of Vereeniging in May 1902 added Boer territory to yet another domain of pink on the British imperial map. But it left a few nasty realities: that depredations against civilians in a guerrilla war had come to stay, symbolised by the interning qualities of the concentration camp and the realities of an ever more lethal array of technologies. It is those factors that deserve commemoration more than anything else.
Binoy Kampmark was a Commonwealth Scholar at Selwyn College, Cambridge. He lectures at RMIT University, Melbourne.