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The Second Boer War 1899-1902

From 1899 to 1902, the British Empire fought the two Boer states (the Orange Free State and the Transvaal Republic) in what would be known as the Second Boer War. After suffering humiliating defeats at the hands of the Boer forces in late 1899, the British army came roaring back and destroyed their defenses. Brutal and relentless on the battlefield, the British commander Lord Kitchener gained notoriety by applying the “scorched earth” tactic on the Boer properties and by establishing one of the first concentration camps of the 20th century. The deliberate neglect of the concentration camps killed thousands of Boer women and children, as well as the indigenous South Africans who were forced into similar camps. These events are recorded on the Biblical Timeline with World History during this time.

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The First Boer War: The Quest for Land, Diamonds, and Gold (1880-1881)

Britain completely took over Cape Colony after the Convention of London in 1814. The British occupation drove the remaining Boer settlers to leave the Cape and make the “Great Trek” into Basutoland (modern Lesotho) and the Zulu territory. Some of the Boer settlers established the Orange Free State in the early 19th century. The State’s independence was formally recognized by Britain in 1854. A separate group of settlers created the independent Transvaal (South African Republic) which later received recognition in 1856. All of this, however, was accomplished at the expense of South Africa’s indigenous people.

The British government was content to leave the Afrikaners alone until the discovery of diamond mines at Kimberley near the Orange Free State in 1867. Uitlanders (mostly British settlers) flocked to the area to try their luck in the mines. More uitlanders migrated to the Afrikaner-held areas when gold mines were discovered in Transvaal in 1872. The Afrikaners, however, disdained these new migrants. Uitlanders lived and mined alongside the Afrikaners, but it did not mean that Boer government was obligated to grant them their rights.

The abundance of diamond and gold (as well as the “plight” of the uitlanders) made British intervention in the Afrikaner states seem inevitable. The British authorities first needed a solid reason to intervene. The Afrikaner governments themselves were not only torn in internal disputes but were also involved in long-running armed conflicts with the natives. The British colonial government reasoned that the hostility between the Afrikaners and the blacks endangered its territory, so the authorities used it as a pretext to finally annex Transvaal in 1877.

The Afrikaners hated the interference, so they rebelled and declared war on Britain (First Boer War) in 1880. They managed to overpower British troops so that the Cape Colony government was forced to sue for peace in the following year. Guns were finally silenced when representatives of the Afrikaners and the British government signed the Treaty of Pretoria in 1881.

It wasn’t long until greed overrode the fragile peace that the Afrikaners and the British forged in 1881. Cecil Rhodes, owner of the De Beers Consolidated Mines at Kimberley and later Prime Minister of Cape Colony, rose to become one of the wealthiest and influential men in the region. After annexing Zimbabwe, he soon dreamed of a British trans-African railway which spanned from Cairo to the Cape.

Unfortunately for Rhodes, the presence of the Afrikaner states stood in the way of his ambitious project. He tried to undermine the Afrikaner government by fomenting unrest among the discontented (mostly British) uitlanders in Transvaal. In 1895, he sent soldiers to Transvaal to conduct the Jameson Raid. The raid was a failure, and the embarrassment led Rhodes to resign as Prime Minister. His successor, Governor Alfred Milner, continued Rhodes’ work and encouraged the uitlanders to urge the Transvaal government for the right to vote. In 1899, the frustrated uitlanders finally appealed to the British government to intervene. The Orange Free State and the Transvaal Republic responded by declaring a renewed war on Britain on October 12, 1899. So began the Second Boer War.

Second Boer War (1899-1902)

Herbert Kitchener was the commander in chief of the British Army during the latter half of the Second Boer War.

Though vastly outnumbered by their enemies, the Afrikaner soldiers were adequately armed and knew the landscape well. They managed to route the British troops during the early phases of the war in 1899. Between the 10th and 17th of December (also known as the Black Week), the British troops were decimated in three separate encounters with the Boers at Colenso, Magersfontein, and Stormberg. The Boer troops also inflicted an embarrassing and heartbreaking defeat to the British at Spion Kop in January 1900.

The British government sent additional troops to South Africa after the devastating fiasco of Spion Kop. By the middle of the year, Britain had already reversed its losses. The British reinforcements finally forced the Afrikaner commander Louis Botha and his troops to surrender in September 1900. The rest of the Boer army, on the other hand, was forced to resort to guerrilla warfare. Some guerrillas became involved in sabotaging British communication lines, as well as railways that transported supplies to its troops.

The sabotage enraged Lord Kitchener, the ruthless commander-in-chief of the British troops in South Africa. To punish the Boers, he ordered his troops to blow up the houses of the farmers and burn their crops. Herds of animals owners by Boers were senselessly slaughtered. Rape was also used by British troops to further punish Boer women. After the senseless destruction, Kitchener ordered his soldiers to round up Boer elders, women, and children and herd them all together in a concentration camp.

The British authorities deliberately neglected the prisoners so that thousands of Boers interred inside the camps died of diseases and starvation in 1900. News of the dire conditions of the concentration camps trickled to the international community. Britain was later shamed into improving the condition of the camps, thereby reducing the number of deaths until the end of the war in 1902.

Black South Africans employed by Boers as farmhands or servants sometimes fought against the British during the course of the war. Their families were also put in separate concentration camps where conditions were even worse than those of the Boers. The death toll in the black concentration camps was also high.

The Boers knew that they could not conduct a war of attrition, and they were finally forced to lay down their arms in May 1902. Representatives of both sides met at Pretoria to sign the Treaty of Vereeniging on May 31, 1902. After nearly a century of resistance, the Afrikaners were finally forced to accept British sovereignty. In exchange, Britain allowed her Afrikaner subjects the right to govern themselves and create their own laws. As part of the compromise and due to  fear of provoking another Boer rebellion, the British colonial government conveniently overlooked any issues the blacks might have had during the negotiations.


Picture by: Copied and digitised from an image in The Queenslander, 8 January 1910, p. 21, Public Domain, Link

Gooch, John. The Boer War: Direction, Experience and Image. London: Routledge, 2014.

Pascoe, Elaine. South Africa, Troubled Land. New York: F. Watts, 1987.

Thompson, Leonard. A History of South Africa. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1992.



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