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Europe 1871-1914

Conflict in Africa: the Boer War (1895-1902)

The Scramble for Africa (1876-1914)

Imperialism in Asia (1830-1900)

Summary

For generations, South Africa witnessed conflict between Europeans and white settlers, both of whom wanted political and economic control of the region. Most particularly, conflict developed between Britain and Afrikaners, mostly Dutch descendants of white settlers who had emigrated to South Africa throughout the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Britain wanted total dominion over the region of South Africa, and the Afrikaners constituted a significant roadblock. In the 1830s Britain began to assert control. From 1837 to 1844 the British forced the Afrikaner population onto the Great Trek, a resettlement plan that moved the Afrikaners from the coastal colonial settlement to the interior lands of Transvaal and Orange Free State. In 1884, Germany, Britain's archrival in Europe, established itself in neighboring Namibia. Then, in 1886, huge gold deposits were found in the Transvaal territory of South Africa. Faced with the prospect of immense economic gain and the sudden possibility of German political intervention in regard to that financial windfall, the British, under capitalist entrepreneur Cecil Rhodes, took action.

Very quickly, the British came to the conclusion that their interests were not fully served under the political regime of the Afrikaner government in Transvaal. The Afrikaner policies on tariffs and trade did not square with British imperial aims. In 1895, Rhodes and his chief lieutenant, Dr. L. S. Jameson, took advantage of the unrest of British settlers in the Transvaal region to launch an unauthorized overthrow attempt. Jamesone himself led a contingent of British South African police into Transvaal. The invasion proved to be premature and a complete failure. Jameson was captured, turned over to the British and imprisoned for his unauthorized attack. Rhode's was forced to resign his position.

New British leadership did nothing to ease tensions. In 1899, angered over what they perceived as the harsh treatment of British settlers in the Transvaal and still motivated by the prospect of gold, the British began a massive build up of British forces in the area. In October 1899, the Afrikaner President Paul Kruger demanded the withdrawal of these troops and threatened war if his demands went unmet. The British did not comply, and on October 12 the Transvaal and Orange Free State declared war.

The war progressed rather poorly for the better-equipped, better-trained, and larger British army. Under inept leadership and harassed by effective Afrikaner guerrilla tactics, the British were forced to fight the war for three years. By the time the war was over--a war, by the way, that saw the British introduce and effectively use concentration camps as a means of controlling captured populations--over sixty thousand people had died. The British lost almost 30,000 fighting men, while Afrikaner forces lost some 5000. More than 20,000 Afrikaner civilians died in the concentration camps. Numbers of deaths of black Africans placed in the camps went uncounted, though the numbers certainly reached into the thousands. In 1902, after massive effort and expense, and the brutal tactics of the English commander Herbert Horatio Kitchener, the British exhausted the Boer's into submission.

On May 31 the two sides signed the Treaty of Vereeniging, under which the British accepted the conditional surrender of the Afrikaners. The Transvaal and Orange Free State were promised limited future autonomy as British colonies. The British in turn promised to pay three million pounds and promised the Afrikaners that no decision to include the black majority in government would be made before rule was returned to the Afrikaners. This, unfortunately, made twentieth-century apartheid an eventuality.

Commentary

When discussing the Boer War, one cannot skip over the brutality the British used against its white enemies in South Africa. Concentration camps were havens for disease, malnutrition, and persecution. Individual rights did not exist in these territories and women and children were raped, abused, and forced into labor for the British government. No one knows the extent of the abuse, though it is clear they did not compare to those perpetrated by Hitler or Stalin in scope or atrocity. However, it is important to note that concentration camps developed under British auspices and were used against fellow whites, fellow Europeans, and fellow imperialists.

Also illustrated by the Boer War is that while European states were quite unwilling to go to war against each other over African territories--the French and British seemed near to blows over the Fashoda Incident in 1898--the powers had no difficulties slaughtering African populations for their own national benefit. This disparity, furthermore, could not derive simply from European racial superiority because, as in the case of the Afrikaners, the British fought whites of European descent who also maintained rabid racist policies toward the black majority. How is it that Britain could not conceive of war against France in Africa--as if Africa was not worth a war--but it was quite easy for Cecil Rhodes to demand the conquering of the South African population already in place even before England officially came to Cape Colony?

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