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The Second Boer War, Episode 70 - 19/05/06


A Boer picket on Spion Kop, Ladysmith (Getty Images/Hulton|Archive)

A Boer picket on Spion Kop, Ladysmith
(Getty Images)
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In 1886 gold was discovered in Witwatesrand in the Transvaal. Constitutionally, British rights in the Transvaal were contained in the Pretoria Agreement and were limited to foreign affairs. The British consideration was what would happen when the Boers became rich? Could they threaten Britain's other interests in Africa and might the Germans help the Boers?

The Transvaal offered huge financial opportunities. There were more Uitlanders, foreigners, poorly treated but mostly digging for gold in Transvaal than there were Boers. The Boers disliked them but needed the huge taxes the Uitlanders paid. The British governor of the Cape, Alfred Milner demanded to know how could the Boers and British be at peace all the while the British Uitlanders in the Transvaal were so badly treated? Perhaps this was an excuse for war because Milner believed that unless there was a direct confrontation then the British would lose South Africa.

In November 1898 he went to London to explain this to the colonial secretary Joseph Chamberlain. There was a false hope that the moderates, especially those Dutch in the Orange Free State would be able to convince Kruger that militarily he couldn't beat the British. Milner's alternative - one the government wouldn't make public - was to abandon the Uitlanders in Transvaal to whatever was dealt them. But Chamberlain noted that if Britain couldn't protect its own people, so much for the imperial power of Queen Victoria. There was a so-called peace conference at Bloemfontein in June 1898. It came to nothing. Morale among the Boers was high.

The Boers had 38-40,000 well-drilled, sharp sharp-shooting militia and commandos. At the start, the British had fewer than 20,000 regulars. Here was a mark of real empire. The war started when the Boers attacked in the Northern Cape and Natal. In December there was a black week for the British. Defeat at Colenso, Magersfontein and Stormberg . Come Christmas 1899, the British were feeling uneasy.

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Historical Figure

Alfred Milner(1854 - 1925)

Milner was born in Germany, the son of a an English don at Tübingen. Milner was a brilliant classicist and could have been an academic himself. For a short time he was a fellow of New College, Oxford. He went to Egypt as a financial secretary and in London between 1892 and 1897 was chairman of the Inland Revenue board. Then, he was sent to the Cape as high commissioner for South Africa (1897-1905).. A good diplomatic pathologist. Not necessarily so good with living crises. But Milner was considered a success and became a viscount. In 1916 he was in the War Cabinet and later Secretary for War and until 1921 Colonial Secretary.

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Did You Know...

The Anglo-Boer War was a significant Empire effort because the colonies sent troops to fight on Britain's side against the Boers who were seen as rebels.

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Contemporary Sources

A Boer View
Denys Reitz, a young Boer commando, at the Spion Kop

"We woke with the falling of the dew and, as the sky lightened, gazed eagerly at the dim outline of the hill above, but could make out no sign of life. Gradually the dawn came and still there was no movement. Then to our utter surprise we saw two men on the top triumphantly waving their hats and holding their rifles aloft. They were Boers and their presence their was proof that, almost unbelievably, defeat had turned to victory - the English were gone and the hill was still ours. Leaving our horses to fend for themselves we were soon hastening up the slope past the dead until we reached yesterday's bloody ledge. From here we hurried across to the English breastworks to find them abandoned. On our side of the fighting-line there had been many casualties, but a worse sight met our eyes. In the shallow trenches where they had fought the soldiers lay dead in swathes and in places they were piled three deep. "

British concerns leading up to the war
John Merriman, soon be prime minister in the Cape, in 1898, writing to President Martinus Steyn of the Orange Free State.

"Eleventh of March, 1898. The greatest danger lies in the attitude of President Kruger and his vain hope of building up a State on a foundation of a narrow unenlightened minority, and his obstinate rejection of all prospect of using the materials which lie ready to his hand to establish a true republic on a broad liberal basis. Such a state of affairs cannot last. It must break down from inherent rottenness."

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