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

By Kelley S. Kent
2013, Vol. 5 No. 10 | pg. 3/4 |

There is no way to measure what effect this article in the Times had on its readers. Who were their readers? Paula Krebs, associate professor of English at Wheaton College, Massachusetts, explains that "circulation figures for nineteenth‑ and early twentieth‑century newspapers are either unreliable or nonexistent" (37). According to the History of the Times, "the circulation of the Times in 1878 was upwards of 60,000" (118), in 1908 about 38,000, and in 1911 about 42,000 (768). Between 1878 and 1908, circulation figures dropped drastically, but there are still no exact figures. Even then, "newspapers were the central source of information about the Boer War, for [both] the British public in general" and those "not privy to the daily cables from South Africa" (Krebs 36). In the late nineteenth century, the Times was the most well‑respected newspaper in the world. According to Paula Krebs, "political decision makers ... considered newspapers as both reflectors and shapers of public opinion" (37). How they accomplished this dual role is unknown, since newspapers could reflect only what they shaped. The Times' desire to portray the Boers as vicious, inhuman, and backward is inexcusable. Many pro‑Boers recognized the Times' rhetoric for what it was: malicious rhetoric attempting to incite hatred against the Boers and foment public approval for war. Many British people, both pro‑Boer and pro‑war, did not like the Boers as a people. The important question is why desire war: hatred for Boers, an attempt to civilize them, an attempt to preserve the empire, or all of these?

The Times was implicated in the Jameson Raid, a key incident in the events leading up to the war. The letter about Uitlander "women and children," which instigated the failed raid, was published only in the Times (History 222). In the 1896-97 investigation of the raid, the Times' connection with Rhodes was thought to be strong but was not revealed (216‑17). According to History of the Times, "the examination of Rhodes did very little to expose the connexion [sic], regarded in many quarters as intimate, of the Times with the Raid. Rhodes had been allowed to suppress the name of Flora Shaw," a Times correspondent who published Jameson's letter (222). The Times' pro‑Government stance during the war is not surprising and must be taken into account.

The Times had a long history of stereotyping Boers. Before South Africa became an intimate part of the imperial landscape, "the paper entertained no love and little respect for the Boers" (History 158). The first Boer War (1880‑81), however, made the newspaper realize "that the Transvaal was [more than] a mere 'petty Boer state' established upon native territory" (158). In an 1884 editorial, the Times said Romantics once desired "to represent them as a simple folk who went forth into the desert with the Bible in one hand and a purely defensive rifle in the other, asking nothing of the world but to be left alone." However, "the Transvaal has developed" in these Boers "all the aggressiveness, the greed, the contempt for public law, and the disregard for all the right save that of the strongest" (158‑59). The Times' perception of the Boers is as little accurate as that of the Romantics.

Before and during the war, angry letters to the editor of the Times perpetuated the Boer stereotype. An anonymous "colonist" congratulates the Times on its "level‑headed and temperate articles on the Transvaal war," or as the author prefers, "the Boer rebellion," with the connotation that Great Britain was in control ("Boer Rebellion" 7). However, this "colonist" charges the Boer army with "raiding an enemy's country, stealing the horses and cattle, and looting the stores of inoffensive private citizens," which was not considered "civilized warfare" (7). In many societies, horse and cattle theft was punishable by death. These Boers, instead of being "gentle, pious, simple people, have surely shown ... their true character with a vengeance" (7). The colonist's allegiances become clear. In an October 1901 letter to the Times, George W. Potter charges "English pro‑Boer newspapers [with] feed[ing] the war flames" (5). He believes these newspapers give the Boers hope that England's citizens support them, so that "the tide [will] turn in their favor" (5). However, the Times' accusing the pro‑Boers of hateful "war" propaganda is counter-propaganda, so its readers will not accuse the Times of using propaganda to persuade its readers.

In another letter to the Times, W. H. H. quotes a letter he received from his son in South Africa and calls the supposed "humanity of the Boer" fiction (13). He notes that "newspaper reports of the Boer ill‑treatment of women ... have been received somewhat doubtfully by many English people." His son admits that "'people at home seem very loth [sic] to believe the tales of outrageous barbarity on the part of the Boers.'" The author sets out to destroy the myth of the Boer "as a simple‑minded Bible reading peasant incapable of [violent] conduct"; according to him these tales of outrage and violence against the British "are all true." Instead, the Boer appears violent and inhumane, refusing to relieve the suffering of "women and little children [who] were without food or water for 51 hours." The purpose of this barbarity is to incite hatred among the soldiers so they will fight harder and win the war faster: "For every fresh tale of outrage the soldiers hear, they swear to get even with them" (13).

Pro‑Boer counterpropaganda came in the form of pamphlets, issued by the Stop‑the‑War and South Africa Conciliation committees and newspapers, notably the Manchester Guardian and the Daily News (Koss xxx). My focus will be on two pamphlets issued by the Stop‑the‑War Committee, "established at a Conference of Friends of Peace ... on January 11, 1900" (68). The first, issued soon after the committee was formed, is a placard called "Stop the war! An appeal to the people!" (70‑72), that "set forth the reasons why it appealed to the nation to stop the war" (70). The second is "Our Brave Brother Boer. The Verdict of Tommy Atkins!" (no. 42), issued in April 1901 (79‑81).

Regarding the authors of these pamphlets, the committee's president was John Clifford, but a more well‑known man, W. T. Stead, served as an executive member (Koss 70). Stead (1849‑1912) also served as editor of the popular Pall Mall Gazette during the 1880s and was a bold "critic of the Government's policy in South Africa" (Caldwell 39). The Stop‑the‑War Committee needed to present itself truthfully to be believed; dishonest authorship, or the lack thereof, would not have served their goals. However, the committee is vague in these pamphlets, referring to themselves as "we" and their audience as "our fellow countrymen," to appeal to that wider audience: all of Great Britain (Koss 70).

In the first pamphlet, "Stop the war! An appeal to the people!," the authors call the war "an unjust war which ought never to have been provoked" (Koss 70). It is a mixture of "facts" and "factoids" (Johnson‑Cartee and Copeland 156). Under "Let us face the facts!," the authors claim "there would have been no war if we had consented to arbitration, which President Kruger begged for, but which we haughtily refused" (Koss 71). This is untrue. Both the British and South African governments "attempted" arbitration, but the end result each time, during summer 1899, was a series of ultimatums. Neither side was willing to make terms of peace without impossible restrictions. Some British readers could not see themselves as "haught[y]," while an image of "President Kruger begg[ing]" might have seemed laughable (71). While the authors also claim "there would have been no war if the government had counted the cost" (71), they did count the cost, but most British thought the "war" would be over by Christmas because they failed to account for the military strength of the Boers (Surridge 58‑64).

The authors make two further claims about the war's causes. They state that "there would have been no war if the capitalists at the goldfields had not hoped it would reduce wages and increase dividends" (Koss 71). Both Rhodes' and Kruger's greed factored into the war's causes and J. A. Hobson, in The War in South Africa, argues that the main cause of the war was economic imperialism. However, this was not the only reason; causes of wars are numerous, with many tangled webs. The authors finally state, "There would have been no war but for the campaign of lies undertaken to make men mad against the Boers" (71). This charge is true, for many British and South African newspapers clamored for war, inciting the public to support the war with their anti‑Boer propaganda. Many of these statements contain truth, but other causes of the war are not mentioned, including the Uitlanders' grievances. These pro‑Boer pamphlets also do not explain what steps their readers should take to "stop the war." Unlike the Times, however, the pamphlet contains more information than disinformation.

This pamphlet, in appealing to emotions, also short‑circuits its readers' systems of processing information. For example, the authors ask, "Why are our sons and brothers killing and being killed... ? Why are happy homes made desolate, wives widowed, and children left fatherless?" (Koss 71). They attempt to incite anger among their readers at the extravagant loss of life, both British and Boer. Continuing the war will mean "the sacrifice of the lives of 20,000 of our brave men. The slaughter of at least as many brave Boers... .If we wade through blood to hoist the Union Jack at Pretoria our difficulties will then only have begun... . We do not want another Ireland in South Africa" (72). This violent and emotional image of "wad[ing] through blood," however, did not concern other generations of British soldiers (72). The death total might have seemed high to the committee's readers, who may not have been able to imagine such wholesale bloodshed. As Stephen Koss explains, "the Stop‑the‑War Committee appealed unabashedly to the emotions, specializing in fiery rhetoric," with the assumed "existence of shady dealings, financial and diplomatic, to which Joseph Chamberlain was allegedly a party" (xxxiv).

Ireland was invoked repeatedly by pro‑Boers to curb the British public's desire for a South Africa united under the British crown. In a September 1899 speech, John Morley said a win for Great Britain in South Africa would mean the establishment of "a government, which will be Ireland all over again" (qtd. in Koss 14). Phillip Stanhope, in the Manchester Guardian (4/9/1900), said, "Any [imperial] scheme which failed to recognize" the Boer majority in South Africa "could only intensify racial hatreds and result in the creation of another Irish question" (qtd. in Koss 138). A. G. Gardner, in the Blackburn Weekly Telegraph (12/29/ 1900), said the war "has raised up for us an 'Ireland over the sea' which we shall have to hold down with the iron heel of martial rule" (qtd. in Koss 180). Ireland's attempts at home rule, and the enormous loss of life in her fight for independence, was on the minds of many during the Boer war; they did not want "another Ireland" (Koss 72). However, although the possibility of South Africa becoming "another Ireland" was not palatable to many pro‑Boers, they still could not predict the future (72).

The most striking item in this pamphlet is the authors' question, "Who are the Boers?" (Koss 71). According to the committee, "the Boers are the Dutch of South Africa, white men, and Protestant Christians like ourselves. They read the same Bible, keep the same Sabbath, and pray to the same God as ourselves. They believe that they are fighting for freedom and fatherland" (71). The committee insists that the Boers are like the British; they try to emphasize the Boers' humanity and to destroy, with "facts," the Times' stereotypes of them. However, the committee did not appeal to all readers. Not all Boers or British are "white men" or "Protestant Christians." This pamphlet appeals only to a select few: Protestant men of Anglo‑Saxon origin.

The second pamphlet, "Our Brave Brother Boer. The Verdict of Tommy Atkins!," has one goal: to counteract stereotypes of Boers. It is the eyewitness account of a "special war correspondent of the Daily News," a pro‑Boer London newspaper, who discusses "his treatment at the hands of his captors" (Koss 79). The anonymous reporter stated, "Our men when wounded are treated by the Boers with manly gentleness and kindly consideration" (79). In this account, the Boers neither taunt the wounded nor treat them with contempt; instead, women bring them water and bandages (79). The reporter insists, "No man or woman in all the British Empire whose son or husband lies wounded in the hands of the Boers [should] fear for his welfare, for it is foul slander to say that the Boers do not treat their wounded well" (80). Not every Boer was gentle and kind, but they had human failings and human courage. This report cannot be traced to its original source. We do not know how much is fact and how much "factoid" (Johnson‑Cartee and Copeland 156).

The opinion of Tommy Atkins, the stereotypical British soldier of the Empire, is also important. According to the anonymous reporter, "I say emphatically that in every solitary instance, without one single exception, our countrymen declare that they have been grandly treated" (Koss 80). This is a bold statement and a "factoid": it can be neither proved nor disproved, but it appears strong, emphatic, and true (Johnson‑Cartee and Copeland 156). Not every British soldier approved of his treatment in Boer hands, and the reporter could not interview every British soldier laid up in Boer and British hospitals. Instead, the report indirectly praises the British army; the Boers seem unprepared for war without proper uniforms, like the colonists in the American Revolution.

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