britain and the ill-fated boer wars -- 5/4/16

Today's selection -- from The War That Ended Peace by Margaret MacMillan. In 1900, Britain, which was still viewed as the most powerful nation on Earth, entered into what became known as the Boer Wars with two tiny republics embedded in its colony of South Africa. The war, in which the British aimed to take over these independent republics and also first used concentration camps as a tactic of war, cost Britain its standing in the eyes of the other nations of Europe:

"The greatest power of all, the British Empire, had no [military] alliances with anyone [but] that had not caused it concern. But 1900 was not a good year. The British had gone blithely into a war in South Africa the year before against two much smaller Afrikaner republics: the Orange Free State and the Transvaal. The odds -- the whole British Empire against two tiny states -- should have made the outcome a foregone conclusion, but the British had in fact done very badly in what was called at the time the Boer War. Although the Afrikaners were on the run by the end of the summer, they did not finally concede defeat until the spring of 1902. Equally worrying, the war showed just how unpopular the British were in much of the world. In Marseilles, locals gave a warm reception to a party from Madagascar on its way to the Exposition whom they mistook for Afrikaners. In Paris, an enterprising fashion house made a hat in gray felt, à la Boer. At the Exposition itself the modest Transvaal pavilion with its flag flying proudly, drew a large crowd, eager, said the Hachette guide, 'to show their sympathy for the heroic little nation which is defending its in­dependence in the south of Africa.' Piles of flowers dedicated to 'the hero,' 'the patriot' or 'the lover of freedom' surrounded the bust of Paul Kruger, its former President.

The French caption mocks British hypocrisy in officially praising the humanitarian behavior of their armed forces.

"That sympathy mixed with pleasure when British forces suffered one defeat after another was echoed throughout Europe. Commentary on the Continent made much use of the image of David and Goliath. The Ger­man weekly Simplicissimus had a cartoon of a dead elephant being pecked by carrion birds as ants swarmed towards it with the comment 'the harder they fall ... ' There was also shock at the brutal tactics the British used to deal with Afrikaner guerrilla warfare. General Kitchener, who took over command, had local women and children rounded up and placed in con­centration camps so that they could no longer feed and shelter their fight­ers. Through yet more British incompetence, the camps became places of disease and death. A French cartoon had Kitchener as a great toad squatting on Afrikaner corpses and obscene cartoons circulated of Queen Vic­toria. Her son and heir, Prince Edward, as a result refused to visit the Exposition.

"Great powers depend on their prestige and the perception of others that they are powerful as much as material factors such as their military and their economies. In 1900 Britain was looking weaker and dangerously alone."


Margaret MacMillan


The War That Ended Peace: The Road to 1914


Random House Trade Paperbacks


Copyright 2013 by Margaret MacMillan


barns and noble booksellers
Support Independent Bookstores - Visit

All delanceyplace profits are donated to charity and support children’s literacy projects.


Sign in or create an account to comment

<< prev - comments page 1 of 1 - next >>