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

By Kelley S. Kent
2013, Vol. 5 No. 10 | pg. 1/4 |

The Second Boer War (1899‑1902) was costly for Great Britain and the semi‑independent South African Republic (Transvaal). It strained political relations between the British and the Boers, who did not gain independence from the until 1961. Political freedom and civil rights for South Africa's native population came later. What was the purpose of fighting this war? Many historians believe the Boer War was "the last of the gentleman's wars" (Krebs 55), a war to preserve the empire, but also, as seen in the mass street celebration of the relief of Mafeking on May 18, 1900, a possible jingoistic aberration on the part of Britain's citizens (1). The Boer War came at a critical juncture in Great Britain's imperial history and was a turning point in the use of propaganda, both by the British government and the national press, in shaping public opinion. This propaganda also perpetuated the stereotype of "the Boer."

A general overview of the Boer War and some of its basic causes is necessary for a better understanding of the propaganda under analysis. The South African War, or second Boer War, began October 11, 1899, and ended May 31, 1902, with the Treaty of Vereeniging (Schapiro 345). According to Theodore Caldwell's study, its causes included the 1895 Jameson Raid, grievances against the Uitlanders, economic imperialism, working‑class jingoism and a desire for preservation of the British Empire. Historians today cannot agree on the causes of this second Boer War. Any explanation for its causes and effects cannot be simplistic, unlike popular propaganda of the period.

The British had a history of war with the Boers. The Boers, descended from colonists sent to by the Dutch East Company in 1652, had been living in the Transvaal since the seventeenth century; after 1806, however, Great Britain occupied the colony (Kline 345). In the first Boer War (1880‑1881), "the Boers, or Dutch farmers," fought for independence from Britain and essentially won (Schapiro 345). However, after this first war, they still had legal ties to Great Britain: the Convention of 1884 "placed the Republic in a position of semi‑dependence on Great Britain, and it strictly shut it off from encroachments beyond its borders" (Cook 41). According to E. T. Cook (1857‑1919), editor of the Gazette and Daily News, Paul Kruger (1825‑1904), president of the South African Republic (1883‑1902), "accepted the Convention of 1884 ... only as an installment. Like a certain section of the Irish nationalists, he might accept compromises, but his real aim was to sever 'the last link'" (41). The comparison made between Kruger and the Boers, with the Irish, was extensive during the Boer war, and will be examined in detail later.

South African Boer War

Victorian poster depicting the Defeat of Lord Methuen's Force by De La Rey at Tweebosch, March 7, 1902.

The Uitlanders' grievances against the Boer government were a source of contention regarding public opinion surrounding the war. With the cry of "gold!" in 1886 in Witwatersrand in the Transvaal, thousands of British, American, and German miners flocked to the area and set up residence (Keppel‑Jones 3). President Kruger let them come in, albeit with a few restrictions: no immediate voting rights or citizenship. Uitlanders had to wait "twelve years between naturalization and the right to vote" (10). Outnumbering the Boers two to one, they founded many of the Transvaal schools, but their children were not allowed to be taught English. Instead, they had to learn "Taal, the debased form of Dutch used by the Boers" (Hammond 14‑15). Already, the stereotype of "the Boer" had begun. According to John Hays Hammond, a conspirator in the Jameson Raid, the Uitlanders found little justice in the courts of law (15). Some of these grievances may "contain" truth, but according to many pro‑Boers, the Uitlanders' grievances were not a good enough reason to go to war (Koss 15).

The Jameson Raid in 1895‑96 did not help the delicate situation in South Africa. On December 30, 1895, Sir Leander Jameson (1853‑1917), acting on an "appeal for help from the Uitlanders," in the form of a letter he received about suffering "women and children," invaded the Transvaal (Porter 69). His real goal was to spark a in Johannesburg (69). Jameson and his cohorts were arrested four days later. The raid failed and made the Boers question British imperial motives in South Africa. Historians are still debating the depth of Cecil Rhodes' (1853‑1902) and Lord Chamberlain's (1836‑1914) involvement in the raid today. Rhodes, creator of Rhodesia and founder of the Rhodes scholarship after his death (Ellis 423‑24), was implicated in the raid by his connections with Jameson, South African newspapers, and the London Times. Lord Chamberlain, colonial secretary, however, blamed the conspirators. While many British citizens sympathized with the Boers, the government's investigation resulted in light sentences for all involved, although Jameson served a prison sentence, in England, of fifteen months (Ellis 425). As a result, relations between British and Boer deteriorated, as did relations between Great Britain and Europe (History 247‑48).

The problem of what to do with the Uitlanders worsened in early 1899. In April, the Uitlanders petitioned Queen Victoria for redress of their "grievances" and protection from the Boer government (Keppel‑Jones 9). Then ensued a series of ultimatums, each side looking for common ground, and finding none, because of their unreasonable demands. In September and October, the Uitlanders began leaving the Transvaal en masse. Many London newspapers used the flight of these refugees to paint a drastic portrait of Boer brutality; most of the stories circulated could not be corroborated, but incited their British readers to desire war. On October 9, President Kruger issued an ultimatum he knew could not be fulfilled in his forty‑eight-hour stipulation; the ultimatum was a declaration of war on Great Britain (Langer 68).

The Boer War cost many human lives. In the second week of December 1899, the Boers won a series of battles, known in London as "Black week" (Surridge 61). According to Keith Surridge, "as a result of the poor performance of the British army, criticism of the government began to intensify" (61). When the British began winning, they put thousands of Boer families in concentration camps, causing the "death of some 4,000 Boer women and 16,000 children" (Caldwell viii). These camps became the biggest scandal of the war, influencing public opinion. Conservative, pro‑ Government newspapers such as the Times blamed these deaths on the stupidity of Boer mothers, supposedly without knowledge of either hygiene or modern medicine. Pro‑Boer newspapers such as the Manchester Guardian, however, blamed the deaths of these women and children on British brutality (Krebs 46, 50‑51, 70). Twenty‑eight thousand whites died in the concentration camps, over twice the number of fighting men, on both sides, who died in battle (33).

During this period were the tragi‑comic relief of Mafeking on May 18, 1900, and the death of Queen Victoria (b. 1819) on January 22, 1901 (Krebs 1). Queen Victoria thought of Boers as "horrid people, cruel and overbearing" (qtd. in Ellis 7). Her death, and the death of a historical and literary era, did not help the British soldiers' spirits in winning the war. After two years of fighting the British won, but with a heavy loss of life; the Boers, however, lost their freedom. In the Treaty of Vereeniging, Great Britain formally annexed both the Transvaal and the Orange Free State under the British crown (Caldwell viii). In exchange for the British government setting all Boer prisoners free, and allowing them to return to their homes, "the Boers agreed to stop fighting and swear allegiance to King Edward VII" (Schapiro 345).

After the war came the deaths of many of its heroes and villains: Rhodes in 1902, Lord Salisbury in 1903, and Paul Kruger in 1904. The Transvaal and the Orange Free State were again "granted self‑rule" in 1906 (Caldwell viii). In 1910, the two provinces, along with Natal and the Cape Colony, formed the "Union of South Africa" (viii). Ironically, many Boer generals fought alongside their British comrades in World War I. However, South Africa did not gain complete independence from Great Britain until 1961 (viii). After the war, the Boers became known to the world as "Afrikaners." However, as the British had oppressed the Dutch, so the Dutch oppressed the natives of South Africa.

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