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

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

In this pro‑Boer, anti‑war propaganda, a different stereotype of the Boer emerges. It reinforces the merit of "Tommy Atkins," who does not "waste praise on any men, unless it is well deserved" (Koss 80). "Tommy" describes the typical Boer soldier as "'a rough‑looking beggar in the field, 'e don't wear no uniform, 'nd 'e don't know enough about soldiers' drill to keep himself warm,'" but he knows how to fight on his own territory; otherwise, "'we'd lick 'im every time'" (80). Tommy Atkins calls this Boer soldier "'a bloomin' South Se Cocoanut, not much to look at outside, but white 'nd sweet inside when yer know 'im'" (80). Although "the Boer" may not be attacking unarmed British civilians or slaughtering British soldiers, he is still different. All "Tommy Atkins," pro‑Boers, and their anti‑war British readers can see are the differences.

Most Stop‑the‑War Committee's pro‑Boer pamphlets are "internal propaganda" (Johnson‑Cartee and Copeland 160). They desired to be "external propaganda" (160), but their influence was small. They tried to use "facts" to persuade the working classes to "stop the war," but their propaganda could appeal only to other middle‑class British citizens because of the pamphlets' content. Regarding the "effect(s)" of these pamphlets on their audience, Stephen Koss explains that "we cannot tell for certain how widely any pamphlet was read, by whom, and with what results" (xxxiii). John Galbraith goes further, stating, "Circulation is a most unreliable index of influence. A pamphlet issued is not necessarily a pamphlet read, and a pamphlet read is not necessarily a pamphlet accepted" (112).

The problem with the Stop‑the‑War (STW) and South Africa Conciliation (SACC) Committees was their limited influence. The SACC "appealed to the intellect with arguments based on history and social theory," elements which would have limited appeal among the working classes (Koss xxxiii). Richard Price, history professor at Northern Illinois University, believes the working classes did not support war because daily living and social reform consumed them. These committees "could only be supported by extreme Evangelicals," whose "fundamentalist rhetoric could have no attraction for working men"; they "made no attempt" to appeal "to a mass audience" (Price 235). Their influence "was limited to the intellectual middle classes" (16). Unless the pro‑Boer movement could connect opposing the war with social reform, the working classes were uninterested, which is why the movement largely failed (237).

Lack of strong leadership was a concern for the pro‑Boer movement. It had no "dominating, charismatic figure who ... could transform the agitation from a sectionalist phenomenon into a mass opposition" (Price 234‑35). The term "pro‑Boer" was a problem for many of its members. G. K. Chesterton (1874‑1936) "boast[ed] that he was never ashamed to be" called "a pro‑Boer" (Koss xxiii). Others, however, saw "the label [as] more a stigma than a badge to be worn with pride. It was not the least inconsistent for one to condemn British policy makers without championing the Boers" (xxiii). The Stop‑the‑War Committee was considered radical because it favored the Boers; however, most did not. The South Africa Conciliation Committee tried "to bring the war to a speedy conclusion," taking a middle‑of‑the‑road approach to the war (xxv). Members had different motives: "Some wished to avoid war at all costs," while others desired to "keep public attention focused upon social problems at home" (6).

Critical to the British public either supporting or opposing war is "group polarization" (Johnson‑Cartee and Copeland 42). The authors explain: "Individuals participating in a group are far more likely to engage in ... extreme behaviors than if they are acting alone" (42). These groups also feel "'more strongly for or against than individuals'" (qtd. in Johnson‑Cartee and Copeland 42). Before war broke out, public opinion was a mixture of support and opposition for war in South Africa. A surge of pro‑government and pro‑Boer propaganda, however, sustained throughout the war, polarized the reading public and curtailed its thought processes. J. A. Hobson explains, "When [everyone] ... urged the necessity of war, the doubts of intellect and qualms of conscience in many minds were overborne by such unanimity" ("Force" 51). Polarization made it harder for propagandists to convince the opposing side of the merits of their views.

The concept of "social categorization" (Johnson‑Cartee and Copeland 20) explains the phenomenon of "Boer" stereotypes surging through mass propaganda before and during the war. The Times' description of "Boer brutality" was hate speech, with the objects of gaining public support for the war and sustaining public support for the empire. However, inhumane views of the Boers were in many British minds long before war was declared. The Boers, as early as 1895, "were seen as backward, petty tyrants who sought to exploit British settlers in the gold" mines of the Transvaal (Krebs 5). The Victorian mind considered Boers "illiterate and crude peasants who never washed or changed their clothes... .Paul Kruger was described as blowing his nose through his fingers" (117). Sir Rider Haggard (1856‑1925), imperial author of King Solomon's Mines and She, thought of Boers as "lazy, corrupt [and] sneaky" (150).

Just before the war, such stereotypical views became more violent. In October 1899, "it was general knowledge in Britain that the ragged bands ... of untrained Boer soldiers riding ponies could never mount a credible attack on the British army" (Krebs 5). "British public opinion" viewed Boers as "stubborn, cruel to their African servants, and trapped in the seventeenth century" (116). British slavemasters may have been just as cruel, but such "truths" would not have been popular or patriotic. John Hays Hammond, participant in the Jameson Raid, considered the Boer, a peasant with no interest in mining, "cunning, brave, and stubbornly intent on keeping ... his birthright" (14). In a March 1899 letter to Charles Bell, Mr. Monypenny, the Times' war correspondent in South Africa, called the Boers "very Oriental, treacherous, and cunning in a small way, but with no backbone and no real cleverness" (qtd. in Porter 191, 299n54). Such views influenced the Times' reports from the war front.

The early days of the war appeared to reinforce these views. "English newcomer[s]" to South Africa began "with the notion that a Boer is a sort of inferior strange animal" (Hobson, War, 125). The public's "sympathy with the Boers over the ... raid" meshed with their lack of love for them; most believed "their behavior towards Englishmen in the Transvaal has been, and is, unjust" (Porter 94). Richard Price's statement of British views of Boers is blunt: "The Boers were portrayed as uncivilized in the popular literature that justified the war. They were accused of being dirty, corrupt, immoral, and shifty. There were many unflattering references to their physiognomy. It was believed that they were at a lower stage of evolution" (12n7).

Mass propaganda's "resonance strategy" during the war served only to reinforce these stereotypes, especially during the British concentration camps crisis of 1900‑1902, the greatest scandal of the war (Johnson‑Cartee and Copeland 4). According to Paula Krebs, "Neither the Times nor the Daily Mail presented the 'pro‑Boer' side to the question of the camps" (53). Instead, "the Times maintained a defensive posture throughout the controversy about the camps; charges against the British never appeared in the paper‑‑only refutations of them" (46). To account for the conditions of the British concentration camps, London newspapers blamed Boer men for not doing their duty to their wives and children (62‑63). Pro‑government newspapers such as the Times blamed the unhygienic habits of Boer mothers for the high mortality rates in the camps (50‑51). However, pro‑Boer newspapers such as the Daily News saw Boer mothers as heroes, killed by British inhumanity (70).

Counteracting views of Boers as violent and inhuman was a different stereotype of Boers as "noble savages." Pro‑government newspapers talked of the war being fought to "'civilise the Boer,' thus linking the Afrikaner and the African in the minds of British readers as uncivilized peoples to be raised out of ignorance by the British" (Krebs 75). Olive Schreiner, born in South Africa to English and German parents, wrote numerous articles for English journals (112‑13). She was not a friend of Rhodes and spoke out against the war during its duration (113). However, Schreiner saw Boer culture, language, and people as backward. The Boers needed modern English culture in order to become civilized (117‑20).

Whether Boer War propaganda supported the war or opposed it, whether it vilified the Boer's stupidity and violence or praised his humanity, the result was a stereotypical and inaccurate view of the Dutch. The purpose of the propagation of these stereotypes was to preserve the empire, thereby making Great Britain political ruler of the world. As Walter Lippmann (1889‑1974) remarked, "There is nothing so obdurate to education or to criticism as the stereotype" (65). Using "resonance," the Times and other London newspapers tapped into what had lain dormant in the British mind since the first Boer War, and perpetuated it to persuade public opinion to support the second war (Johnson‑Cartee and Copeland 4). Their efforts were successful. As Lippmann explains, "the audience must participate in the news ... by personal identification ... and this is supplied to him by the use of stereotypes" (224).

However, not everyone supported the war. The pro‑Boer movement attempted to paint a portrait of the Boer as a simple peasant farmer, someone who would do the British soldier no harm. However, "real" Boers were neither peasants nor villains, but like all other peoples, varied in their dispositions and ideas. The problem was the term "Boer," which allowed one "immoral" Boer to represent every other; "good" Boers were then considered an anomaly. However, once the British public had imprinted the Boer stereotype in their minds, nothing could remove it. They had no visual images of Boers on which to base stereotypes or reality. Boers were "backward" because public opinion, with the help of press and government, said so. Only then could the preservation of the empire be acceptable in the public mind. According to Walter Lippmann, "where the imperial people ... has been deeply convinced that the backwardness of the backward was so hopeless as not to be worth remedying ... the tie has festered and poisoned the peace of the world" (95). The result of such a "poisoned ... peace" was the second Boer War (95).


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