The Boer War (1899-1902): Britain’s Wakeup Call

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Boers at Spion Kop, 1900

In 1886, gold was discovered in the Transvaal region of South Africa, an area then populated mostly by Afrikaans speaking Boers, descendents of the original 17th century Dutch settlers. This discovery led only 13 years later to the Boer War, a conflict which changed forever the way Britain thought about its Empire.

Almost immediately after gold was discovered, the region was providing over 25% of the world’s gold. (1) Seizing a chance to make millions, many a British entrepreneur invested in the gold mines, and by 1899, over two-thirds were owned by British stockholders. (2) While the gold mines immensely benefited the Boers, they were also seen as a blatant attempt to undermine their culture and way of life, as well as their autonomy. As the mines continued to become more and more prosperous, and as more and more British investments poured into the mines, relations between the Boers and the English, never cozy, became worse and worse. By October 1899, things had escalated to war. (3)

Both sides had anticipated an easy victory; both were disappointed. (4) The war dragged on for three years, with the British finally prevailing. This victory was, however, very much a pyrrhic one, as it resulted in a deflation of British imperialism. (5) The concept of the British Empire changed forever.

Initially, the Boer War led to fierce patriotism within Britain. (6) As the war dragged on, however, the public started to watch with horror Lord Kitchener’s campaign, which to some, used “methods of barbarism.” (7) At the same time, perhaps the nastiest political climate ever in the 20th Century began to form, with epithets such as “pro-Boer” far exceeding the level of a “pro-German” during any of the world wars. (8) This political climate was heightened by the Conservative Government’s (under Marquess of Salisbury (9) ) decision in Autumn 1900, after a string of victories at the battlefield, to call a General Election. This was won by a resounding margin of 402 MPs to 184 for the Liberals, who found themselves split almost evenly between pro and anti-war factions. (10) This electoral strategy would be copied several times during the 20th Century with almost perfect results. (11)

Geopolitically, Britain found herself in 1899, at the start of the conflict, without any friends in Europe, and a series of adversaries, who would turn on Britain if they had the chance. (12) It became readily apparent that the ideal of “Splendid Isolation,” which had permeated British foreign policy until then, was hopelessly outdated and should not be used a s a foreign policy. Instead, British strategic planners went back to a more active role in foreign policy, practicing pure balance of power. Thus, only two years after the Boer War was ended, Britain and France signed the historic Entente Cordiale. Three years later, the British came to an understanding with Russia, and seven years later, or only 12 years after the Boer War, Britain went to war to defend the idea of balance of power. The Boer War provided the wakeup call for this transformation.

Lastly, the Boer War demonstrated to British politicians the need to have broad political support for Boer War-like colonial wars in the future. The British government embarked on educating the public about the Empire. They also tried to make amends for the actions of the Kitchener forces. Less than eight years after the Boer War was ended, the Union of South Africa was created, with Dominion (self-government) status. This magnamity paid off, for only four years later, South Africa joined the British war effort, despite its having a significant German population.

Footnotes:

  1. (1) Lawrence James, The Rise and Fall of the British Empire, 2nd ed., (New York: St. Martin’s, 1995), p. 259.
  2. (2) Ibid.
  3. (3) A.J.P. Taylor, The Struggle For Mastery In Europe, 1848-1918, 2nd ed., (New York: Oxford University Press, 1971), p. 387.
  4. (4) Ibid., ed. by Chris Wrigley, From the Boer War to the Cold War: Essays on 20th Century Europe, (New York: Viking Penguin, 1995), p. 36.
  5. (5) Ibid.
  6. (6) James, p. 267.
  7. (7) Ibid.
  8. (8) Taylor, From the Boer War to the Cold War, p. 36.
  9. (9) The Third Marquess of Salisbury, Prime Minister (PM) from 1895-1902, was the last PM in British history to serve in the House of Lords instead of the Commons.
  10. (10) Peter Clarke, Hope and Glory: Britain, 1900-1990, 2nd ed., (New York: Penguin, 1997), p. 405.
  11. (11) The 1900 General Election is commonly referred to today as the “Khaki Election.” Other instances of the same electoral strategy include the 1918 “Hang the Kaiser Election,” the 1931 “Save the Pound Election,” the 1935 General Election in the midst of the Abyssinian Crisis, the 1974 “Who Rules? Election,” and the 1983 Election in the aftermath of the Falklands War. Of these, only the 1974 Election ended in political defeat.
  12. (12) Taylor, The Struggle for Mastery in Europe, p. 387.
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