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The Boers

When is a war not a war? When it is carried on by methods of barbarism in South Africa.

Sir Henry Campbell-Bannerman commenting on the Second Boer War (British Prime Minister, 1905-1908)

As these freelance farmers trek East during the second half of the 18th century, they create a distinct identity, separate from their European origins though crucially, they retained a sense of superiority to the Africans they encountered. These subsistence farmers became known as Trekboer and later simply as Boer. The Afrikaner identity, language and sense of nation are built in this harsh environment. Ironically, their initial itinerant existence dictated by the grazing needs of their animals, mirrors that of the Khoikhoi whom they'd displaced. As the Boers expand into the Eastern Cape, they come into conflict with the Xhosa-speaking people.

But the Dutch Empire that had created this initial colonisation is effectively replaced by the British Empire in 1815. And some of the British bring with them radical new anti-slavery ideals. Five years later, 5,000 British middle class settlers are introduced onto farmland between the Boer and the Xhosa people in the hope of creating a buffer zone between the two warring sides. The experiment is so disastrous that some trace the 20th century problems of South Africa to this single act.

The British are unable to farm the land and retreat to townships and other urban areas. This unintentionally creates administrative white, British elite that simultaneously makes second class citizens of the rural Boer, and of the native Xhosa. The Boer bitterly reject their new colonial masters and when, in 1834, the British end slavery throughout their empire, it precipitates The Great Trek, where 12,000 Boer head North-East. The Xhosa stay to fight for their land. But in 1857, they effectively self-destruct when they act on a prophecy that said killing their own cattle would drive the British into the sea. Nearly a hundred thousand Xhosa die in the ensuing famine.


The Boer's Great Trek initially stops at Bloemfontein where they set up a Republic. The deeply religious Boers believe they have found the Promised Land because of the large swathes of deserted farming land they encounter. In fact, they are walking into newly conquered Zulu land and it is only empty because the tribal farmers have fled. The Boers and Zulus commit various atrocities on each other over the next 50 years but both are eventually beaten by the ever expanding British. Many of the Boers again move on, some going to the emerging independent Orange Free State or the Transvaal Republic.

As the conquered Zulus are unwilling and unproductive servants on the British sugar plantations, 150,000 Indians are brought over. Economic expansion explodes with the discovery of first diamond, and then gold. The ensuing Boer Wars are as much an attempt to stake a claim to their riches as to establish national control.


In 1899, in the second and main Boer War, just 65,000 Boer take on half a million British soldiers. By 1900, the British Major General, Herbert Kitchener (later infamous for his First World War strategy) had largely secured territorial control of Bloemfontein, Johannesburg and Pretoria. In response, the Boers engage in guerrilla warfare. To destroy the land on which they depend, Kitchener instigates a burnt-earth policy, and to eliminate their civilian support, he creates the first concentration camps. Approximately 26,000 Boer women and children would die in these camps.

But Boer defeat in 1902 does little to enfranchise black people. The British are primarily interested in Boer, or Afrikaans agreement to their economic control, not with the lack of black democratic recognition. Despite both black and Indian entreaties, the Union of South Africa is created in 1910, and it effectively bars non-whites (nearly 80% of the estimated six million population) from political representation in their own country. In response, two years later, the African National Congress (ANC) is created.

Did you know?

Although primarily remembered as a conflict between the Boers and the British, the Anglo-Boer War of 1899-1902 actually involved many other countries of the British Empire. India, Australia, Canada and New Zealand all sent soldiers to serve alongside the British, making this war an international affair.