The two Anglo- Boer Wars (1880-81, 1899-1902) were fought to prevent the independence from Britain of the two independent Boer republics, the Transvaal and the Orange Free State.
The Boer Republics
Ever since the British acquisition of Cape Colony was confirmed in 1815 Britain’s relationship with the Afrikaans-speaking white minority of some 20,000 people had been strained. From 1820 large-scale British immigration began in the Cape on land from which the Xhosa had been ejected, while the colony was reshaped in fundamental ways. The two ‘white tribes’ co-existed but did not intermingle, and the Boers always outnumbered the British settlers.
The Great Trek: In 1834 all slaves within the British Empire gained their freedom and the Boers were ordered to free their black slaves. In response to this and to other British administrative measures, between 1834 and 1840, some 15,000 Afrikaners (voortrekkers) trekked inland away from the Cape Colony in search of new land. The trek is commmorated in the Voortrekker Monument in Pretoria.
In Natal some formed a short-lived colony but when this was annexed by the British in 1843 they crossed the Drakensberg and joined other trekkers to form what became the two Boer republics. The Transvaal was awarded independence in 1852 and the Orange Free State in 1854. The area of South Africa under European settlement had now doubled and this greatly expanded territory was divided between the two Afrikaner settlements in the interior and the two British colonies dominating the coasts.
In 1867 diamonds were discovered in Griqualand (Orange Free State) at the confluence of the Orange and the Vaal rivers and the economy of South Africa was transformed. The diamond town of Kimberley was created on the borders of the Orange Free State and the Cape Colony (and it was formally incorporated into the Cape Colony in 1880). In 1871 Britain annexed Griqualand West. In 1871 the English entrepreneur Cecil Rhodes (see opposite) bought up a claim to the De Beers mine in Kimberley (incorporated in 1888 as De Beers Consolidated Mines Ltd).
The region became the largest producer of gems the world had ever known and between 1873 and 1883 tens of thousands of migrant labourers travelled there. The result of the aggressive British policy was an enhanced Afrikaner nationalism. As early as 1872 the Natal Times had declared:
‘The Anglo-Saxon race shall hold undisputed sway from Capetown to the Zambezi’ (New Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Rhodes).
The First South African War
Afrikaner fears were intensified by British policy in the Transvaal. In April 1877 the republic surrendered to the British under Sir Theophilus Shepstone in April 1877 in the wake of financial and administrative disorders and in return for protection against the Zulu chief, Cetshwayo . In 1879 the Zulus were defeated at Ulundi, marking the end of effective African resistance to British rule throughout South Africa.
But having dealt with the Zulus, the British were then faced with the first Anglo-Boer conflict (1880-1), which was more a Transvaal rebellion than a war. It was the attempt by Paul Kruger to recover the republic’s independence.
Following the British disaster at Majuba Hill (27 February 1881) Gladstone restored the independence under British suzerainty of the Boer republics at the Convention of Pretoria (March 1881). In 1883 Kruger was elected President of the Transvaal for the first of four successive terms of office. The Boers were given further rights of self-government at the Pretoria Convention (1884).
The Transvaal Gold Rush
In 1886 a diamond digger from Kimberley named George Harrison discovered the largest gold field in the world in the Witwatersrand, a ridge running from east to west 30 miles south of Pretoria. This alarmed Kruger who predicted,
‘this will cause our country to be soaked in blood.’South Africa suddenly assumed great importance in the eyes of the world and its gold supplies contributed to the underpinning of currencies and international trade. In a huge gold rush, African migrant workers poured in, the number reaching 100,000 by 1899. (The photograph on the left is of one of the gold fields.) Europeans, mainly of British and German origin, named 'Uitlanders' by the Boers also flocked to the Rand. The city of Johannesburg sprang up almost overnight. The Uitlanders rapidly outnumbered the Boers on the Rand, though remaining a minority in the Transvaal as a whole. There was a huge cultural divide between the migratory materialistic Uitlanders and the poor, rural god-fearing Boer population of the Transvaal. The nervous Afrikaners denied them voting rights and taxed the gold industry heavily. Every Boer was compelled to own a rifle, no non-Boer was allowed to. Johannesburg, with 50,000, mainly Uitlander inhabitants, was not even allowed an unelected municipal council. No open air public meetings were allowed. Judges were appointed by Kruger, who controlled all the government monopolies from jam to dynamite. In response there was pressure from the Uitlanders to overthrow the Boer government.
The Jameson Raid
Since 1890 Cecil Rhodes had been Prime Minister of the Cape. In the same year through the British South Africa Company he had annexed the territories later known as Southern Rhodesia, the territory of the Ndbele and Shona tribes. In 1894 he pushed north of the Zambesi where he carved out a new sphere for his company in what became Northern Rhodesia. In 1895 the British government annexed Northern Bechuanaland (Botswana). But no great mineral resources were discovered in these territories.
Recognition of this failure encouraged Rhodes to try to organize a coup on Johannesburg, aided from the outside by the Bechuanaland administrator Dr Leander Starr Jameson. Joseph Chamberlain, Colonial Secretary from July 1895, probably gave qualified approval to these plans on the assumption that the raiders would only cross into the Transvaal following a spontaneous uprising of the Uitlanders.
The raid, which took place in December 1895, was blatantly illegal, the internal insurrection never occurred and Jameson’s 500 men were quickly rounded up by Kruger’s police and handed over into British custody. The raid was a disaster for Britain’s good name. Rhodes resigned the Cape premiership. Chamberlain survived a parliamentary enquiry thanks to the good offices of Harcourt, now the Liberal leader, who laid the whole blame on Rhodes. Chamberlain was also saved because British attention was deflected by the congratulatory telegram (‘the Kruger telegram’) which Kaiser Wilhelm II, ever ready to make mischief, sent Kruger in January 1896.
The Jameson raid polarized the two white races in South Africa. Kruger never doubted that the British government and Chamberlain in particular had been behind the plot to overthrow their independence and their suspicions were confirmed by the rapid rehabilitation of those who had taken part. The Boer republics became even more defensive while the British government was drawn more fully into South African affairs.
In 1898 the new British high commissioner was Alfred Milner, an ardent imperialist who worked to mobilize pro-British elements throughout southern Africa. Kruger’s continued refusal to grant the vote to those Uitlanders who were long-term residents, though understandable, gave Britain the chance to assume the moral high ground. Salisbury disliked the growing jingoism at home and the cowboy capitalism of the mining interests, but in the last analysis he shared Milner’s analysis: what was at stake was a struggle to make sure that
‘we not the Dutch are the Boss’.The dispute had escalated into ‘a deadly fight for racial supremacy.
A conference at Bloemfontein in May-June 1899 failed to resolve tensions. In September, believing that he was calling Kruger’s bluff, Chamberlain sent at ultimatum demanding full equality for British citizens resident in the Transvaal. The Boers declared war on 12 October.