The Boers

by Gaurav Misra
Class of 1997

The presence of the Boers in South Africa provided the British with a major problem to contend with in order to establish their presence on the African continent. The Boers and British engaged in some minor skirmishes during the second half of the 19th century, culminating in the Boer War from 1899-1902. The British had no reason to reign over the Boers, but they spent almost 100 years trying to subjugate the Boer population. The Boers, on the other hand, were fighting for the right to their way of life.

The Boer people were Dutch farmers who settled in the southern part of Africa in the 17th century. They intermingled with other European settlers and established the Afrikaner or Boer (Dutch for farmer) community. Although the Boer population was actually a mix of various Europeans, the predominant culture was Dutch Protestant. The Boers became a very independent people, and soon cut off all ties with the Netherlands. One of the major aspects of the Boer way of life was racial superiority; slavery was common among them. They, as members of the Dutch Reformed Church, were also very rabid in their beliefs and very anti-Catholic; they even believed that the Anglican Church was not a true Protestant church, but actually a disguised arm of the Catholic church.

After the Congress of Vienna in 1815, the British gained control of South Africa and soon developed their own settlements. In 1833, the British officially outlawed slavery in South Africa. The Boers responded in 1836 by embarking on their Great Trek to find a new place to live. By the 1850s, they had established two independent Boer states, Transvaal and the Orange Free State. The Boers and British lived separately and peacefully for the next decade.

In 1866, gold and diamonds was discovered in Transvaal. This discovery sparked a surge in British immigration, and the British took control of the state in 1877. The Boers revolted in 1881 and regained control of their homeland. In the famous Battle of Majuba, the Boer army of farmers destroyed the world famous British army. This defeat followed the defeat of the British at the hands of the Zulus, the first time the a European army had fallen to an African army, and completely discredited the British as a fighting force.

The British had never taken action toward the Boers because of their racial practices, but they moved right in as soon as there was money to be made. But when this happened, one of the reasons the British continually gave to justify their invasion of Boer lands was that they were righting the moral wrongs of the Boer people. At the very same time, the British were themselves engaged in committing human rights violations in other parts of the world.

After the British were removed from power, the new Boer government led by President Kruger treated them with very little respect. A British expedition led by Sir Jameson staged an attack to overthrow the government of Transvaal in 1895. The attack was repelled, but it angered the British into devoting more resources to South Africa, causing the Boer War.

Throughout their history, the Boers have tended to live in a state of semi-isolation and not concern themselves with the affairs of the world at large. The British, however, insisted on intruding into their lives for no reason other than greed. They were faced with a surprising amount of resistance and spirit from the supposedly inconsequential farmers. The subsequent British actions in South Africa became the center of international attention and served to isolate the British as the specter of World War I approached. The resources and time invested by the British in order to subjugate the Boer community was not well spent and ended up harming the British in the long run. This was a classic situation of immediate gratification of British pride dominating a long term African policy dictated by common sense.