• Email
  • Print

The War that Made South Africa

The Boer War

by Thomas Pakenham
Random House, 718 pp., $20.00

The Boer War of 1899-1902 was Alfred Milner’s war, as surely as the Second World War was Hitler’s. He himself said to Lord Roberts, the British commanding officer, “I precipitated the crisis, which was inevitable, before it was too late.” As Britain’s proconsul at Cape Town, ruling the British colonies of the Cape and Natal, Milner was determined to provoke a war with the two independent Afrikaner republics to the north, the Orange Free State and the Transvaal. He wanted, he said, to “knock the bottom out of ‘the great Afrikander nation’ for ever and ever Amen.”

And then? “The ultimate end is a self-governing White Community, supported by well-treated and justly governed black labor from Cape Town to the Zambesi.” In other words, a new Dominion to include what later became Rhodesia, under a British control which would be steadily reinforced by a torrent of British settlers until the Afrikaner nation was no more than a scattered, back-country minority.

And then? Milner’s “Greater South Africa” would become a component of a Greater Britain of the white race—by which he meant the “English” race. There would arise a supreme federal world state, in which Canada, Australia, New Zealand, Britain, and the new South Africa would send their representatives to an Imperial Parliament in London. “Und morgen, die ganze Welt!” In this vast structure, the black and brown millions would be no more than “justly governed” servants.

As a racist politician, Milner is the only important British leader (Sir Oswald Mosley’s importance declined in proportion to his racism) who deserves some comparison with Adolf Hitler. Both looked forward to world domination by their own tribe of the white race; both engineered and provoked war to bring that vision nearer. Curiously enough, they failed in the same way too. The actions of both Milner and Hitler changed the history of large areas of the world, but in exactly the ways they did not intend. Hitler let Russia into Europe, ensured that through the state of Israel the Jews would become a coherent political force in the world, and left Germany broken and partitioned. As for Milner, Thomas Pakenham’s closing verdict can stand: “The end result of Milner’s destruction of the old [Afrikaner] republics was not only to lose the two old colonies, too [i.e., the British colonies of the Cape and Natal], but to cast away that priceless Liberal legacy: the no-color-bar tradition of the Cape.”

In consequence of Milner’s war, the whole of South Africa eventually passed under Afrikaner control, beginning with the restoration of self-government to the Transvaal and the Orange Free State, proceeding through the Union of 1908, and culminating with the Nationalist electoral victory of 1948. Milner’s countervailing flow of British settlers did not materialize. It was Afrikaner segregation by race, rather than the not ineffective British segregation by “civilization,” which came to determine “native policy.” The multiracial political constitution of the Cape did not spread to the old republics, and was eventually scrapped with the introduction of political apartheid.

Not that Alfred Milner was the black man’s friend. He had proclaimed as one of his principles for South Africa that he would “secure for the Native…protection against oppression and wrong.” But when it came to bidding for the loyalty of the Uitlanders, the non-Boer whites of the Transvaal who were the employers of black labor in the gold mines, his sale of that principle was prompt. “You have only to sacrifice ‘the nigger’ absolutely,” he wrote in 1897, “and the game is easy.”

Thomas Pakenham’s is the third major book on the Boer War in English in the last twenty years. Rayne Kruger’s Goodbye Dolly Gray (1959) was lively and full, concentrating on the military action. Byron Farwell’s The Great AngloBoer War (Harper & Row, 1976) was more comprehensive, and although Mr. Farwell didn’t pretend to much original research beyond printed sources, his understanding of Afrikanerdom and the trauma left by the war was remarkable. Pakenham’s work is certainly much more ambitious. He did research for years, picked his way about the battlefields and archives of South Africa (teaching himself Afrikaans in the process), and is able to claim that he has based the book “largely on manuscript (and oral) sources.” The oral sources are taped interviews with no fewer than fifty-two survivors of the war, who must presumably have been in their nineties when Pakenham found them. The manuscript sources are more important (the nonagenarians don’t seem to have contributed very much to the book in the end).

Pakenham was, he says modestly, “fortunate enough to be able to dig up…the private papers of most of the generals and politicians on the British side.” He read what remains of the secret War Office files, and a voluminous intelligence diary not, apparently, known to the previous historians. Best of all, he found the lost archives of Sir Redvers Buller, the British commander at the outset of the war. He found them in a most English place: stuffed under the billiard table in Sir Redvers’s old home in Devon.

I don’t think it is unfair to say that this book is written very much from a British perspective. This is not to say, of course, that Thomas Pakenham justifies the British decision to provoke and wage the war, or that he is biased against the Afrikaner nation. It is much more a matter of what intrigues or excites him. In spite of his diligence in learning Afrikaans and his South African wanderings, there is something about Afrikanerdom that eludes him. Byron Farwell, a much less intellectual writer, showed more empathy with the Boers. Pakenham, I feel, hasn’t been able to feel much more than puzzled respect for the Boer people of eighty years ago. The mounted burghers with their beards and slouch hats, their resourcefulness and their lack of discipline, their habit of fighting like wildcats one day and bolting like rabbits the next, have dodged through the nets of his understanding as they dodged through the meshes of Lord Roberts’s fort-and-fencing barriers. They don’t really come to life in this book.

Instead, we have some superb British Establishment annals, cunningly reconstructed by Pakenham out of his recovered diaries, letters, and archives. And this he is very good at indeed. If you wish to learn what was penned, plotted, or procrastinated in London or in Milner’s offices in Cape Town during these years, this is your book. If, on the other hand, you want to understand what the Boers were fighting for, or the link which connects President Kruger of the Transvaal to Jimmy Kruger, late and abominable minister of justice, or the paranoia about treachery within the Volk which began with the Cape Afrikaners who rode with the British and displayed its most recent spasm over “Muldergate”…then Pakenham won’t help. Few historians will. One must turn to novelists: Nadine Gordimer, Dan Jacobson.

What Pakenham reveals to the English-language reader, with more evidence than ever before, is something that Afrikaners have always assumed: that the war was to a great measure brought about by the alliance with the British, and specifically with Alfred Milner, of great foreign capitalists who were developing the mining areas in the Rand district. The two most prominent were Alfred Beit and Julius Wernher, both of whom were German-born and became British citizens. The British wanted to destroy the independence of the Afrikaner republics. The mining magnates, the “Randlords,” wanted a united South Africa under British control that would secure their supplies of black contract labor and, especially, reduce African mining wages. In order to achieve that, they were entirely willing to betray their own host government of the Transvaal.

At first, the Randlords attempted to reach some arrangement with “liberal” Afrikaners like the young Jan Smuts. But by the time Smuts offered them his “Great Deal,” a new and advantageous settlement with the mining companies, the Randlords had already resolved that only British intervention promised a lasting solution. Beit’s agent Fitzpatrick kept Uitlander agitation at the boil, maintained secret contact with Milner, and ensured that the “Deal” was rejected. Petitions were organized for British “rescue” action. Milner, judging his moment carefully, sent home the famous despatch in which he appealed for intervention on behalf of “thousands of British subjects kept permanently in the position of helots.” When the war began, Beit willingly shouldered the losses from the closure of the gold mines, in effect underwriting the costs of Milner’s war.

In view of these events, it is not astonishing that a bitter anti-Semitism persists to this day in the traditional wing of Afrikaner nationalism—tracts against liberal Jewish financiers, elaborated with the usual world-conspiracy prattle, were being distributed on the streets of Windhoek in last year’s Namibian elections. In the end, after the war, Milner’s alliance with Wernher and Beit brought about his own fall. He accepted the Wernher-Beit plan to import Chinese contract labor to remedy the chronic shortage of miners and prevent wages rising, only to confront a revolt of white miners defending their own jobs and pay levels. After a scandal over the flogging of Chinese workers, Milner was obliged to resign in 1908.

Pakenham’s most original achievement is to rescue the reputation of Sir Redvers Buller from its disgrace beneath the billiard table. It has been assumed by most chroniclers, starting with the highly biased London Times “History of the War,” that Buller was the archetypal fathead in a red coat, the general who lost battle after battle because he could not understand the problems involved in attacking men with modern rifles across open ground. He was certainly in command of British forces which suffered some of the most humiliating failures in their history. But Thomas Pakenham contends it wasn’t Buller’s fault, and with a most satisfying pile of new evidence and clever interpretation, he proves it.

Buller had an impossible task at the outset. Instead of simply marching northward from the Cape to the Boer capital of Pretoria, he had to divide his forces in order to rescue British garrisons at Kimberley and Ladysmith which should never have been there in the first place. His officers in the field, disregarding his orders and committing frightful tactical bungles, turned battles like the one at Colenso into disasters. Jealous colleagues intrigued against Buller with skill, and even his own subordinates told his rivals disgraceful fairy tales about Buller’s own motives. Buller’s reputation was finally ruined when, after Colenso, he sensibly cabled that it might be worth giving up the relief of Ladysmith. Pakenham has unearthed another cable, never revealed, which showed that Lord Roberts, about to succeed Buller as commander-in-chief, suggested at the same moment that Kimberley and Mafeking should be abandoned as well. Buller, however, became the British scapegoat of the war, although Pakenham, perhaps a trifle overdoing his rehabilitation, claims that he was an inventor of “the tactics of truly modern war”: the use of cover, advance by short rushes, the creeping barrage, and so on.

An enormous amount of this book is military narrative. Pakenham tells about battles very well, in the British tradition of history writing. But anyone who has read Rayne Kruger and Farwell will gradually develop blisters on the mind, as he is induced to trudge yet again up to the trenches at the Modder River, among the Highlanders pinned to the veldt at Magersfontein, over the piled corpses on the summit of Spion Kop. The story of the British armies in the Boer War is awful and astonishing, but can now surely be given a rest. I wish somebody would reissue the brief, minor classic Commando, Denys Reitz’s recollections of a young Afrikaner’s view of the war. And I wish, too, that Thomas Pakenham had given less of his eight years of research to battle pieces and more to uncovering the hidden political and financial background of the war—the aspect which best suits his talents.

Pakenham tackles once again, and well, the scandal of the concentration camps—the tented settlements into which the British herded the wives and children of the men out on commando raids. The name is now misleading; these were not penal camps for political offenders, but resettlement enclosures, one of the earliest attempts at the technique of draining the population “sea” from the guerrilla “fish” which was brought to its sinister perfection a half-century later in Malaya, Algeria, Vietnam, and Rhodesia.

The plagues with which we are now so familiar appeared at once: epidemics, undernourishment, and infant mortality among the captives, numbskull complacency and indifference among the captors. Kitchener, Roberts’s second-in-command, hit on the idea of those camps: “big, ambitious, simple and extremely cheap,” as Pakenham observes. The victims, without sanitation, vegetables, or milk, died by the thousand. Kitchener insisted they were “happy.” The war minister, Brodrick, wrote: “I think I shall have a hot time over these probably in most cases inevitable sufferings or privations—war of course is war.” It should be added that the camps were not even decisive in ending the war. A more important motive with the Boers was the growing fear that the black peoples of South Africa were becoming uppity, preparing to take advantage of white inattention. The Afrikaners were more worried about the families left out in the veldt, unprotected, than about those in the camps. In May 1902, a Zulu army defeated a Boer commando and killed fifty-six of them. The Peace of Vereeniging was signed later that same month.

Pakenham’s finest achievement, in this long book, is to write the Africans into the Boer War. The price of their labor in the goldfields was one of its root causes. And the conflict itself was far from the “white man’s war” which is usually described. Black sufferings were appalling. They took the real impact of the mine closures when the conflict began. Their rations were cut by Baden-Powell in the siege of Mafeking to feed the whites. Their families wandered starving across the country, between the armies. Even more embarrassing to white historians, they were used in the war itself. Not only were there some 80,000 of them as noncombatants with the armies; Kitchener had 10,000 blacks under arms as scouts and guards in his blockhouse network, and—according to Pakenham—many more with his flying columns. Finally, as we have seen, African unrest played some part in bringing the war to its end.

It remained only for the whites to unite in putting them back in their place. The blacks who had cheered and burned their passes when Roberts entered Johannesburg were sent back to their locations and had their wages cut. Although the British government rejected Kitchener and Milner’s proposal to guarantee that “Kaffirs” in the two Boer republics should never be given the vote, the eventual peace deal “excluded the question of granting the vote to natives” until the republics had regained internal self-government—which came to the same thing, of course. Pakenham, for all his industry, wasn’t able to find even a rough estimate of the African death-roll in the war. But in understanding and proclaiming that this was also a black experience—simultaneous with but very different from the experiences of British and Boer soldiers and civilians—Thomas Pakenham has helped to push open a very interesting door indeed. It is for the black South African, now, to pass through this door and record the new view of history which lies beyond it.

  • Email
  • Print