Propaganda, Public Opinion, and the Second South African Boer War

By Kelley S. Kent
2013, Vol. 5 No. 10 | pg. 2/4 |

According to many historians, British public opinion in 1898 ‑ 1899 did not favor a war with South Africa, so public support had to be manufactured. John MacKenzie, professor of history at the University of Lancaster, defines propaganda as "the transmission of ideas and values from one person or groups of persons, to another, with the specific intention of influencing recipients' attitudes so that the interests of its authors will be enhanced" (3). A few months before the war, Lord Salisbury, Prime Minister (1830‑1903) wrote, "Public opinion here ... is not very irritable [with the Boers]" (qtd. in Robinson, Gallagher, and Denny 78). Government officials thought "home opinion had to be educated ... to give them support in case of conflict with the Transvaal" (78). Lord Selbourne (1859‑1942), in a June 1899 letter to Sir Alfred Milner (1854‑1925), stated, "The idea of war with the South African Republic is very distasteful to most people"; however, "the worst service we could do the Empire would be to outrun public opinion" (qtd. in Milner 99‑100). According to MacKenzie, the purpose of propaganda throughout late Victorian Britain was to preserve the empire in the hearts of its citizens. It used all forms of media, including theatre, cinema, newspapers, historical and children's books, radio, postcards, biscuit tins, pamphlets, and music halls. Much propaganda served to popularize the British army, e.g., "Tommy Atkins." In late Victorian Britain, "regiments became a source of ... civic pride, a vital part of national ... pageantry" (5). Schoolteachers "were urged to teach the significance of the army and navy in the patriotic duty of defence" (182).

Preserving the empire was strategic in gaining public support for the second Boer War. The Imperial Federation League "visited troops for the Boer War" and World War I, while the Victorian League "was founded in 1901 during the Boer War" (MacKenzie 152). "Soldiers of the Queen," a popular music‑hall song written by Leslie Stuart in 1881, "achieved its greatest popularity" during "the Boer War" (56; Summerfield 35). "The Absent‑Minded Beggar," a poem written for the war by Rudyard Kipling (1865‑1936), "was intended as a fundraiser for the troops and their families" (Summerfield 36). Kipling, Britain's voice of imperialism in the late Victorian era, immortalized Tommy Atkins in his poetry. After the war, "patriotism and Empire continued to be highly marketable products in the world of popular entertainment" (42).

Both censorship and massive growth in newspaper readership were pivotal in influencing British public opinion on the war. The Education Act of 1870 put the possibilities of education, before limited to the middle and upper classes, into the hands of the working classes (Krebs 3‑4). During this period, "the annual production" of paper rose from "100,000 tons in 1860 ... to 652,000 tons in 1900," allowing for the greater dissemination of newspapers and pamphlets (MacKenzie 17). Censorship was "an important part ... of propaganda" (3), but newspapers suffered from it early in the war: "The London Daily Chronicle, in the early weeks of the war, was purged of its pro‑Boer staff" (Koss xxx).

J. A. Hobson (1858-1940), British journalist for the pro‑Boer newspaper The Manchester Guardian, spent months in South Africa interviewing Englishmen and Boers (Caldwell 17). Familiar with the work of French psychologist Gustave le Bon, whose The Crowd had been translated into English in 1896 (Ewen 64), Hobson said the Boer War "cast a powerful searchlight upon the nature of the ... crowd which we call the British nation" ("Forces..." 49). Hobson asks his readers to "turn first to the press, by far the most potent instrument in the modern manufacture of public opinion" ("Forces" 51). Most provincial newspapers in England received war information from London newspapers, which in turn received theirs "from correspondents who were members of the staff of newspapers in Capetown and Johannesburg" (51). Thus, "the principal organs of public opinion" in London and South Africa were owned by those "who own or control the diamond mines at Kimberley," men such as Cecil Rhodes (52). This large-scale restriction of war information was a turn‑of‑the‑century news media filter, as outlined in Edward Herman and Noam Chomsky's "A Propaganda Model" (281‑89).

As strategic as newspapers were in manipulating public opinion on the war, pamphlets were also necessary, albeit with not as large an audience. As John Galbraith observes, "the humble pamphlet and leaflet deserve to be examined as an influence in the shaping of British public opinion" (111). In their book Strategic Political Communication, Karen Johnson‑Cartee and Gary Copeland outline a four‑step process for analysis of propaganda: "who says what in which channel with ... whom with what effect(s)?" (152‑61). I will use this process to analyze three pieces of propaganda, before and during the war: one Times article, dated October 7, 1899, just four days before declaration of war in South Africa, as well as two pro‑Boer pamphlets by the "Stop‑the‑War Committee," dated January 1900 and April 1901. While individual pamphlets and newspapers "did not determine public opinion in the Boer War . . . all played a part in influencing the views of Englishmen" (Galbraith 126).

Although the Times article "The Transvaal Crisis" is anonymous, the editor of the Times from 1884 to 1912 was George Earl Buckle, whose editorship would have been common knowledge (History 2). The Times was the most well‑respected paper in London; attempting to hide its authorship would have damaged its credibility. Most information in the article comes "from our correspondent" or "through Reuter's agency." The Times' war correspondent was the unpopular W. F. Monypenny (Koss 95). John Burns, in an address to the House of Commons on February 6, 1900, stated his surprise and shame "that a great paper like the Times, the greatest newspaper in the world, but the smallest organ for oppressed humanity, should have employed the Monypennys and such people as correspondents" (qtd. in Koss 95). According to Thomas August, however, "The Times was the most authoritative source of news about the empire" (92). How "authoritative" was it?

Much of the article is "disinformation" (Johnson‑Cartee and Copeland 156), in the form of "factoids" (156) and "rumors" (158). It is hate speech against the Boer people (170‑71). Under "Boer brutality," the Times describes "outrages" committed by the Boers against Uitlander refugees. According to the Times' correspondent, in Capetown on October 5, "refugees ... tell stories on all hands of outrage [and] insult ... by the Boers, who are behaving like semi‑savages. They crowd the stations, hustle, grip, and strike the refugees, not sparing women or children, pointing rifles at them, and shaking cartridges in their faces." The reporter calls the Boers "childish. These are the people with whom the advocates of peace tell us that the unarmed British population should live amicably" ("Transvaal" 7).

The purpose of this article is to create a desire for war. Because injuring an unarmed person was not done by "gentlemen," the reporter wants his readers to think the Boers are not gentlemen. However, not all refugees were British, or unarmed. The reporter scorns those who advocate peace to make his readers desire vengeance. In this article, the Boers appear inhuman, which is what the newspaper wants its readers to think. The reporter creates a sense of moral and emotional outrage in his readers by short‑circuiting their intellect to appeal to their emotions. He does not interview individual refugee families, give their names, or quote them. This is the problem with rumors.

Boer stereotyping continues with a report by "a correspondent of the Cape Times." According to him, "a Boer snatched a baby from the arms of its mother with the object of provoking the father. Burghers poked rifles through the windows of the railway carriages" in order to "frighten the women." An Englishman who refused to give up "his British sympathies" was physically abused by a Boer policeman and "flung into a cattle truck." In another incident, "a Boer struck [a lady] in the mouth with the butt‑end of his rifle, and hit another lady in the throat with his fist." According to an eyewitness interviewed by the East London Standard, some British train passengers trying to find food were "thrashed" by fifty Boer men "with leathern sjamboks," thereby suffering "weals on their faces." The correspondent also said, "Most of the Boers were intoxicated when they left [Johannesburg]. They have no tents" ("Transvaal" 7). The effect of this report on most British readers would have been to give the British public a reason to hate the Boers. Only alleged physical violence against women and children would have accomplished their purpose, which was also to make the British remember the empire, and what being "English" meant.

The stories of outrage, however, are likely untrue. According to J. A. Hobson, many stories of the "outrages ... emanating from the press of Johannesburg and Capetown were designed chiefly ... for the British market" (War 215). He then says, "The stories of ... Boer assaults upon women did not even obtain wide credence at the Cape. But faithfully reproduced ... they passed by wire and mail to the great newspapers of London, and were there received with an implicit confidence" (216). Other stories of this nature appeared in many papers in order to arouse public hatred against the Boers. With the exodus of Uitlander refugees, "the local press was full of atrocity stories which were assiduously copied in the English press" (Langer 67). These incidents of brutality used "vague words ... from anonymous mouths, unverified and impossible of contradiction" (Hobson, War, 223). These "factoids" could not be proved or disproved (Johnson‑Cartee and Copeland 156).

Most of the Times' articles are "external propaganda" (Johnson‑Cartee and Copeland 160). Any newspaper with a national audience would be considered "mass communication" (160), and the Times, a pro‑Government newspaper, had an agenda: create a desire, among the British public, for war against South Africa. Before the fall 1899, many government officials thought British public opinion was against war in the Transvaal. As late as June 13, Lord Salisbury told Queen Victoria (1819‑1901) that British "public opinion ... was not ready to support war with Kruger" in South Africa (Surridge 41). If the British public did not support war, the government needed to manufacture support and decided the only way to accomplish this was to create hatred against the Boers. There was no attempt to present the facts, or even to avoid war.

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