South African War

Great Britain’s war with South Africa’s two Afrikaner republics ended Afrikaner hopes for maintaining their independence but established the basis for the larger, unified nation that would later fall under Afrikaner domination. The war also introduced deadly forms of modern warfare to Europeans.

Summary of Event

The South African War was a large-scale conflict in which the Afrikaner republics of the Transvaal and the Orange Free State faced the full might of Great Britain. Indeed, it pitted the Afrikaners, or Boers, who were mostly farmers of Dutch descent, against the entire British Empire. The number of casualties that the British would eventually suffer in the war would be greater than the entire Afrikaner population of the two republics it conquered. South African War (1899-1902)
British Empire;and South African War[South African War]
Afrikaners;South African War[South African War]
Kruger, Paul
South African Republic;and South African War[South African War]
Orange Free State;and South African War[South African War]
[kw]South African War (Oct. 11, 1899-May 31, 1902)
[kw]African War, South (Oct. 11, 1899-May 31, 1902)
[kw]War, South African (Oct. 11, 1899-May 31, 1902)
South African War (1899-1902)
British Empire;and South African War[South African War]
Afrikaners;South African War[South African War]
[p]Kruger, Paul
South African Republic;and South African War[South African War]
Orange Free State;and South African War[South African War]
[g]South Africa;Oct. 11, 1899-May 31, 1902: South African War[6410]
[g]Africa;Oct. 11, 1899-May 31, 1902: South African War[6410]
[g]British Empire;Oct. 11, 1899-May 31, 1902: South African War[6410]
[c]Wars, uprisings, and civil unrest;Oct. 11, 1899-May 31, 1902: South African War[6410]
[c]Expansion and land acquisition;Oct. 11, 1899-May 31, 1902: South African War[6410]
[c]Colonization;Oct. 11, 1899-May 31, 1902: South African War[6410]
Botha, Louis
De Wet, Christiaan Rudolf
Roberts, Frederick Sleigh
Kitchener, Horatio Herbert
[p]Kitchener, Horatio Herbert;and South African War[South African War]
Milner, Sir Alfred
Rhodes, Cecil
[p]Rhodes, Cecil;and South African War[South African War]
Steyn, Marthinus Theunis

The area around the Cape of Good Cape of Good Hope;settlement of Hope had been colonized by the Dutch in 1652. Because of British expansion into the area after 1806, Afrikaner settlers who resented the British advance began migrating into the interior during the Great Trek of 1835-1838. Of the several independent republics they founded in the interior, the two largest and most enduring were the South African Republic, founded in the Transvaal region in 1852, and the Orange Free State, founded in the region between the Orange and Vaal Rivers in 1854.

Discoveries Diamondfields, South African of diamonds at Kimberley in the northern Cape Colony, near the Orange Free State, in 1867, and of gold on the Witwatersrand in the Transvaal in 1886, brought a large influx of foreigners into the area and transformed the economies of these agricultural societies. Under the leadership of Paul Kruger, president of the South African Republic, these outsiders, or Uitlanders, Uitlanders were denied easy access to citizenship and were taxed heavily in an attempt by the Afrikaner government to maintain political control and autonomy. The Afrikaners feared that if the Uitlanders were granted citizenship and representation in their republics, they would eventually seize control of the governments. The British, however, viewed the Afrikaner measures as repressive and protested against them.

The Afrikaners feared that they might lose their independence, and these fears seemed to be confirmed by the Jameson Raid of December, 1895, to January, 1896 Jameson Raid (1895-1896) . The raid was part of a plot designed by Cecil Rhodes [p]Rhodes, Cecil;and South African War[South African War] to stir up the Uitlanders to rise up against the government of the Transvaal. A major mine owner, Rhodes was also head of the British South Africa Company British South Africa Company —which administered the northern colonies that later became Zimbabwe and Zambia—and the prime minister of the Cape Colony. His coconspirator was Dr. Leander Starr Jameson, the administrator of Rhodesia Rhodesia (Zimbabwe). The plot failed, and because Rhodes had pursued his policy against the advice of British colonial secretary Joseph Chamberlain [p]Chamberlain, Joseph;and South African War[South African War] , he resigned as prime minister. Further restrictions on the Uitlanders in the Transvaal also resulted, and the abortive conspiracy led to a military alliance between the Transvaal and the Orange Free State in 1896. Moreover, the Jameson Raid also provoked worldwide sympathy for the Afrikaners and a general denunciation of British policy.

Meanwhile, the British remained concerned about what they considered to be their legitimate commercial interests in the Afrikaner republics. Sir Alfred Milner [p]Milner, Sir Alfred[Milner, Alfred] , the British governor of the Cape Colony, began a long series of negotiations with the Transvaal’s President Kruger in an effort to resolve the grievances of the Uitlanders. In 1898, Milner returned to London to consult with Chamberlain. While he was absent, his subordinate damaged the British position by suggesting that these grievances of the Uitlanders were being exploited from ulterior motives. This indiscreet remark deepened the suspicions of the Afrikaners. In the spring of 1899, Milner warned Chamberlain that the situation in South Africa was becoming worse.

Afrikaner attack on a British convoy during the last months of the South Africa War, when Afrikaner forces relied heavily on guerrilla tactics.

(Francis R. Niglutsch)

Chamberlain [p]Chamberlain, Joseph;and South African War[South African War] suggested organizing a conference—a proposal that was supported by the Free State’s President Marthinus Theunis Steyn [p]Steyn, Marthinus Theunis , who hosted discussions at Bloemfontein between Milner [p]Milner, Sir Alfred[Milner, Alfred] and Kruger in May, 1899. No agreements were reached. In August, Kruger offered substantial concessions to the Uitlanders, but by then the British had concluded that establishing British hegemony over all of South Africa was the only solution.

As Uitlanders Uitlanders poured out of the Transvaal in September, 1899, the British began a large-scale military buildup in South Africa. This military menace was the subject of an ultimatum from Kruger on October 9, followed by a declaration of war on October 11. The Orange Free State honored the alliance of 1896 by joining its fellow Afrikaner republic in declaring war on the British.

The progress of the South African War can be divided into three well-defined phases. The first, from October, 1899, to February, 1900, was marked by a strong and successful Afrikaner offensive. The Afrikaners invaded Great Britain’s Natal colony on the east coast besieged British forces at Ladysmith, Mafeking, and Kimberley. Afrikaner forces also crossed the Orange River that separated the Orange Free State from the Cape Colony. In the second phase, from February to September, 1900, British forces under the command of Field Marshal Frederick Sleigh Roberts [p]Roberts, Frederick Sleigh occupied all the major towns and annexed the Transvaal. The third and most painful phase, from September, 1900, to May, 1902, was marked by guerrilla warfare by the Afrikaners under the leadership of their generals, notably Louis Botha [p]Botha, Louis and Christiaan Rudolf [p]De Wet, Christiaan Rudolf de Wet.

After Roberts was made an earl in November, 1900, he handed over command to his chief of staff, General Horatio Herbert Kitchener. [p]Kitchener, Horatio Herbert;and South African War[South African War] Kitchener then began rounding up Afrikaner women and children and placing them in concentration camps. Epidemics soon broke out in the camps, and there was an appalling death rate among prisoners until British officials compelled the military to improve living conditions in the camps. The British also built a system of blockhouses throughout the countryside. They then proceeded to run down the guerrilla bands by combing the country section by section.


The signing of the Treaty of Vereeniging Vereeniging, Treaty of (1902) on May 31, 1902, ended the most serious challenge to the British Empire since the Napoleonic Wars (1793-1815). The British effort had been marked by the participation of troops from Australia, Canada, and other colonies. The Afrikaners lost their independence and became British subjects. Although the war ultimately established the foundation for the Union of South Africa (later the Republic of South Africa), the bitterness engendered by the war continued to affect the political life of South Africa through the twentieth century.

The cost of the war was high for Britain, with more than 100,000 total casualties. For the Afrikaners, however, the loss of 7,000 lives dead out of a total population of 87,000 was devastating. Meanwhile, as historian Thomas Pakenham observed, the “central tactical lesson of the war eluded the British,” who tended to credit Afrikaner marksmanship or the enemy’s superior weapons with prolonging the conflict. Instead, the appearance of smokeless guns (witnessed firsthand by American soldiers in Cuba at roughly the same time) and the use of the machine gun Machine guns;in South African War[South African War] , when combined with trenches, had raised the defense to a new preeminence—a status that became even more apparent during World War I.

Further Reading

  • Bidwell, Shelford, and Dominick Graham. Fire-Power: British Army Weapons and Theories of War, 1904-1945. London: Allen & Unwin, 1982. Beginning its narrative shortly after the conclusion of the South African War, this book traces the impact of the British experience in the war on later British military strategy, tactics, and weapons.
  • Churchill, Winston S. London to Ladysmith via Pretoria. Reprint. Rockville, Md.: Wildside Press, 2005. First-person account of Churchill’s experiences as a war correspondent in South Africa during the early months of the conflict, when he was captured by Afrikaners.
  • Farwell, Byron. The Great Anglo-Boer War. New York: W. W. Norton, 1990. Solid popular history of the South African War that describes battles and opposing policies, with considerable attention to Kruger’s own role.
  • German General Staff. The War in South Africa, 1899-1900. 2 vols. Reprint. Nashville, Tenn.: Battery Press, 1999. Limited edition reprint of the detailed analysis of the South African War compiled by the German general staff for use in officer training. Covers events of the war through September, 1900. Includes illustrations and large, detailed maps.
  • Holt, Edgar. The Boer War. London: G. P. Putnam’s Sons, 1958. Before Pakenham’s book, this was probably the best single-volume military treatment of the war, although one that ignored the racial elements of the Afrikaner positions.
  • Pakenham, Thomas. The Boer War. New York: Random House, 1979. Thoroughly researched and comprehensive study of the South African War that is unmatched in detail and use of primary sources.
  • Phimister, Ian. “Unscrambling the Scramble for Southern Africa: The Jameson Raid and South African War Revisited.” South African Historical Journal 28 (1993): 214-220. Revisionist examination of the Jameson Raid’s role in furthering the objectives of the British imperial machine.

South Africa’s Great Trek Begins

Zulu War

First Boer War

Gold Is Discovered in the Transvaal

Rhodes Amalgamates Kimberley Diamondfields

British Subdue African Resistance in Rhodesia

Jameson Raid

Siege of Mafeking

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