Britain in the World
Events gallery heading 1901: Living at the Time of the Census Events of 1901
The South African War

The South African War, sometimes called the Boer War or Anglo-Boer War, was the first major conflict of a century that was to be marked by wars on an international scale. It demonstrated the inadequacy of 19th century military methods and raised issues of whether conscription should be brought in and the use of concentration camps.

The South African War was fought between Britain and the self-governing Afrikaner (Boer) colonies of the South African Republic (the Transvaal) and the Orange Free State. (At the outbreak of war, Britain ruled the South African colonies of the Cape and Natal).

'The price of Empire' - link to an enlarged version

The war began on October 11 1899, following a Boer ultimatum that the British should cease building up their forces in the region. The Boers had refused to grant political rights to non-Boer settlers, known as Uitlanders, most of whom were British, or to grant civil rights to Africans. Perhaps more important was the underlying question of control over the gold mines of the Transvaal at a time when the international financial system, and the stability of the British pound, was based on the gold standard. The war was also about Britain's control of South Africa and therefore its 'great power' status.

Although the war was fought between Briton and Boer, it was not simply a 'white man's war'. Large numbers of Africans and other non-Europeans were involved whether combatants or in support roles (including Mahatma Gandhi, then living in South Africa, who served as a volunteer stretcher-bearer in 1900), and the lives of many more were affected by the conflict. On the British side, troops came not just from Britain but also from other parts of the empire, especially Canada and Australia.

South Africa - link to an enlarged version
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A new kind of war
The South African War was a 20th century war fought by a British army that was only organised to fight the smaller-scale colonial wars of the 19th . It employed modern weapons - quick-firing rifles with magazines; machine guns, such as the Maxim gun; and terrible new types of high explosive such as lyddite, said to be capable of killing everything within 50 yards of its point of detonation. In its later stages it became a conflict of guerilla warfare and concentration camps for civilians were used to combat these tactics.

The course of the war
Initially the Boers took the initiative, invading the British colonies of Natal and the Cape, where they were joined by Afrikaner sympathisers. British troops were defeated in battle and the key towns of Ladysmith, Mafeking and Kimberley besieged. However, by late February 1900, Ladysmith and Kimberley had been relieved as massive British reinforcements began to turn the tide. In May, Mafeking was also relieved and Johannesburg taken, followed by Pretoria in early June.

Both the Orange Free State and the Transvaal were formally annexed to the British crown and at the beginning of October, Colonial Secretary Joseph Chamberlain, in a speech at Coventry, announced 'the war is over'. This was far from true, as the Boers turned to vigorous guerilla warfare. Hard-liners, such as Sir Alfred Milner, High Commissioner for South Africa, wanted the Boers crushed - 'to knock the bottom out of the "great Afrikaner nation" for ever and ever. Amen'.

Peace talks
By February 1901, the British Commander-in-Chief in South Africa, General Kitchener, was more willing to compromise for peace and offered terms to the Boer generals. He suggested that the republics would become crown colonies, though with the ultimate aim of self-government within the empire; prisoners of war would be released; an amnesty would be granted for those who had fought, except the Afrikaner 'rebels' living in Natal and the Cape; a £1 million compensation fund would be established; and 'coloured persons' would receive the same legal rights as they had in the Cape Colony, although if they were ever granted the vote this would 'be so limited as to secure the just predominance of the white race'. Peace talks were held at Middleburg but the denial of an extension of the amnesty to the 'rebels' was unacceptable to the Boer side.

Peace talks - link to an enlarged version

Over a year later, almost the same terms were accepted by the Boers under the Peace of Vereeniging of May 1902, with certain significant differences. The compensation fund was increased to £3 million. The question of votes for 'natives' would not be raised until the colonies became self-governing (as eventually happened in 1910) and, as the historian Thomas Pakenham observes, 'once self-governing, no Boer state would give the vote to Africans'.
Despite fighting for the British, the black population of South Africa derived little benefit from the war. Indeed, as Pakenham concludes, that 'it was the Africans who had to pay the heaviest price in the war and its aftermath'.

Follow this link to People of 1901 for more on people involved in the war.

For more on the South African War, try the following websites:

Anglo-Boer War Museum website

The History Net website

Kathleen Esslemont's website containing the diary of her grandfather who served with the British Army in South Africa

Victoria Cross awards

South Africa government, for a general history of South Africa

Please note that these websites give a variety of perspectives on the South African War. The National Archives does not necessarily guarantee their accuracy or objectivity.

Old Friends and Enemies? The Problem of Isolation The Empire Moving to Britain The South African War Censorship Methods of Barbarism?