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Why Did Britain Go To War With Afrikaner Republics in 1899?

Clare Bartington (Feb 2014)

The Afrikaner Republics originated from the Dutch settlers in South Africa, these Calvinist farmers were known as Boers. During the great trek of the 1830s and 1840s these settlers left the British Cape Colony to escape British rule and consequently established the Transvaal Republic, the Orange Free State and the Natalia Republic (although the latter was later annexed by Britain in 1843). The question of what caused Britain to go to war with the Afrikaner Republics has been greatly debated for numerous years, exposing a variety of theories. Traditional arguments are centred over the Transvaal’s gold rush in the 1880s which Britain, like the diamond mines in Kimberly, wanted to get hold of in order to boost her prosperity and economy. Revisionists oppose this belief and focus predominantly on the pressures put on Britain such as the expansion from other upcoming European rivals, for instance  Germany and France, the poor treatment of the Uitlanders (who were mostly British) in the Transvaal and the need to uphold her supremacy in the region in order to maintain her empire as a whole. Ultimately though, the latter was the underlying reason for war with the Afrikaner Republics. She needed to assert her dominance in South Africa to show her continuing absolute power in the world as other nations across the globe were beginning to compete with her dominance.

It was once thought by historians that the Transvaal’s gold rush was the trigger for Britain’s keen interest in the republic. Marks and Trapido felt the British government were concerned with ensuring the mines were profitable to secure its objective of obtaining a continuous flow of gold for the London market.[1] Similarly, Van-Helton states that the possibility of assaults on the Bank of England’s allegedly slender gold supplies remained in the forefront of contemporary’s concern.[2] He adds that in 1898 Germany began to import raw gold directly from the South African Republic, bypassing the City of London, leaving fears that Paris and Berlin would soon overtake London as the world’s premier bullion market.[3] Thus Britain needed to expand in South Africa to retain economic and political control of a region which was a growth area for British investment and trade.[4] This was because the discovery of the gold transformed the regional balance of power, threatened imperial supremacy in Southern Africa and hence endangered the sea-route to India.[5] The gold reserves in which the Transvaal possessed would therefore support her capacity to finance free trade on a global scale.[6]  These arguments clearly suggest why Britain was keen to intervene in the Afrikaner Republics, yet this reason has been highly criticised. For instance, Van-Helten also indicates that there was little evidence of fear that gold would bypass London and that Britain found alternative ways to get gold flowing through London through the Gold Rate.[7] Furthermore he implies that the gold in the republic was wholly fortuitous. This is underpinned through the plot between Lord Carnarvon and Sir Theophilus Shepstone to conquer Zululand by gaining the Transvaal in the late 1870s and early 1880s,[8] showing that the annexation of the Transvaal had been wanted well before the discovery their gold.

Consequently, historians have been identifying other theories of the origins of Britain’s war with the Afrikaner Republics. The Uitlander petition for example has been revealed as a short-term cause for Britain declaring war on the republics. The Uitlanders, or outsiders were foreign workers who helped exploit the Witwatersrand gold fields.[9] Charles Leonard from the National Union implied they were poorly treated. In the union’s manifesto, Leonard wrote “we are the vast majority in the state. We own more than half the land, and, taken in the aggregate, we own at least nine-tenths of the property in this country; yet in all matters affecting our lives, our liberties and out properties, we have absolutely no voice.”[10] The Uitlanders produced a petition with over twenty-one thousand signatures, calling for British intervention.[11] South Africa’s High Commissioner, Milner met with the Transvaal’s president, Kruger to demand that he should give the vote to all Uitlanders who had lived in the republic for five years as opposed to fourteen; conversely Kruger was unwilling to go that far.[12] Milner reported to Chamberlain that the “case for intervention is overwhelming…thousands of British subjects were being kept permanently in the position of helots.”[13] On the 6th September, Chamberlain wrote that “To the Dutch in our own Colonies we have given equal rights and privileges with those of own nationality.”[14] Britain’s Prime Minister, Salibsury began to become angered and suspicious of the problems in South Africa. This is demonstrated through his letter in October 1899 that declared “I became convinced that Kruger was using the oppression of the Outlanders as a lever to extract from England a renunciation of suzerainty…this brought home to me the belief that there is an understanding among the leaders of the Dutch opinion and their aspiration is the restoration of South Africa to the Dutch race.”[15] Due to these Uitlander problems, part of Chamberlain’s final ultimatum to the Transvaal Republic addressed issues such as the franchise, equality as well as institutional changes, for example the establishment of a Tribunal.[16] Porter recognises that the British public significantly got behind the Uitlander cause[17] which would have enabled the British government to have public support for the war when it was declared. Nonetheless, the Uitlander grievances were not the underlying reason why Britain went to war with the Afrikaner Republics; it was only a contributing factor. Britain’s volatile position of super power status was the most significant reason for the outbreak of war with the Afrikaner Republics due to the instability of her authority in South Africa. The republics relations with Britain’s rivals were becoming suspicious and threatening to her as they were competing with her global dominance.

As seen above, it was apparent that the Dutch were a consistent danger to Britain. Statements by British politicians stress their concern for South Africa and thus Britain’s colonial future, for instance a telegram sent by Milner in May 1899 read that “Africa cannot prosper under two absolutely conflicting social and political systems.”[18] Similarly, Captain March Phillipps in April 1900 stated “If you want South Africa to ripen ultimately into a great first-class world power instead of a bunch of fifth-rate antagonistic States, the first thing to do is to range the country under one government, and as a British government will be progressive and a Dutch one will certainly retrograde, you must put it under a British one.”[19] Salisbury also proclaimed that he wanted “to teach the Transvaal that we, not the Dutch are boss.”[20] This is clear evidence that Britain were suspicious of the Dutch and felt threatened by them. As a result they felt the need to assert their authority in South Africa, “this had to be achieved even at the cost of war” according Salisbury.[21]  Robinson and Gallagher support this as they believe that Britain went to war to defend her regional supremacy and her geopolitical corollary, control of the Cape and the sea route to India.[22] However when it comes to trade, Marks and Trapido highlight that South Africa’s geography had not altered in 1890 therefore insinuate that trade was not a significant factor in the causes of the war with the Afrikaner Republics. Nonetheless Porter, like Robinson and Gallagher, feel the war arose out of Chamberlain’s recognition of the need to protect Britain’s world-wide but increasingly vulnerable position.[23] South African historians insinuate that the war was inevitable due to the complexities of the situation, “..with a peculiar brash form of capitalism and still older pre-capitalist political economies in South Africa and given Britain’s changing and diminishing position as a great capitalist state.”[24] All of this evidence strongly indicates that Britain waged war on the Afrikaner Republics to redefine her status and power on the world stage, which is the fundamental cause of the war.

The issue with the Dutch caused further problems for the British. According to Milner who implies through his letter after the war that by letting the Dutch intrude on Britain’s supremacy in Southern Africa it undermined their authority, thus lead to the other European nations believing they could interfere too; “we allowed an alien flag to be hoisted within the British ring-fence, thereby inviting the intrusion of foreign influences.”[25] European rivals began becoming a threat to Britain’s global domination. Porter believes that there was an increasing rivalry with Germany and France in South Africa as they wanted to build up their own economic and political strength and waken Britain’s,[26] for instance the Mail Packet Steamer service between Portugal and South East Africa passed from English into German hands.[27] It became clear that French and German investments would soon exceed English capital in the state.[28] Britain feared that her power was weakening; she had reached her peak and was now declining like the Ottoman Empire. This meant Britain needed to respond to her rival’s actions and proclaim her authority in South Africa. This highlights that yet again, Britain declared war on the Afrikaner Republics to enforce her supremacy in Southern Africa which would consequently send a global message that Britain was not a withering power, but on the contrary, still a supreme and an imperial player.

All in all, there are a number of reasons why Britain went to war with the Afrikaner Republics. The gold rush in the 1880s used to be seen as the main reason, as Britain wanted to boost her economic prosperity like she did in Kimberly with the diamond mines. However historians began to question this traditional argument and focused increasingly on the pressures put on Britain, such as the expansion from other upcoming European rivals, for instance Germany and France and the poor treatment of the Uitlanders in the Transvaal. However the need to uphold her supremacy in the region in order to maintain her empire as a whole was the most important reason as to why Britain went to war with the Afrikaner Republics. The republics were causing instability and discontent in British South Africa due to their growing links with Britain’s rivals. She could not be seen as a passive and diminishing power, especially seeing as her European rivals were becoming increasingly prominent on the world stage. Thus Britain had to reinforce her supremacy. Inevitably this caused tensions between the Republics and Britain which resulted unfortunately in war.

The Boer war showed that British power had reached a turning point. A new era had dawned as other nations were matching her strength and threatening her power. Consequently Britain during the twentieth century would see herself repeatedly trying to reassert her supremacy across her Empire as it simply became too vast and too hard to sustain.


[1] M. Twaddle, Imperialism, the State and the Third World, S. Marks and S. Trapido, Lord Milner and the South African State Reconsidered, (London, 1992), pages 80-81

[2] J.J. Van-Helten, Empire and High Finance; South Africa and the International Gold Standard, 1890-1914, (Journal of African History Vol. 23, 1982) pages 592-548

[3] ibid

[4] A. Porter, The South African War (1899-1902): Context and Motive Reconsidered, (The Journal of African History, Vol. 31, No. 1, 2009), pages 43-57

[5] M. Twaddle, Imperialism, the State and the Third World, S. Marks and S. Trapido, Lord Milner and the South African State Reconsidered, (London, 1992), pages 80-81

[6] A. Porter, The South African War (1899-1902), pages 43-57

[7] J.J. Van-Helten, Empire and High Finance, pages 592-548

[8] J. Darwin, The Empire Project: The Rise and Fall of the British World System 1830-1970, (Cambridge, 2009), page 224

[9] L. Thompson, A History of South Africa, (New Haven, 2001), page 140

[10] S. B. Spies, The Origins of the Anglo-Boer War, (London, 1972), page 20

[11] L. Thomson, A History of South Africa, page 140

[12] Ibid

[13] ibid

[14] S.B. Spies, The Origins of the Anglo-Boer War, page 54

[15] Ibid, page 53

[16] Ibid, pages 50-51

[17] A.N. Porter, The Origins of the South African War, page 271

[18] S.B. Spies, The Origins of the Anglo-War, page 42

[19] ibid, page 59

[20] M. Twaddle, Imperialism, the State and the Third World, page 88

[21] Ibid

[22] J. Darwin, The Empire Project, page 241

[23] M. Twaddle, Imperialism, the Sates and the Third World, page 86

[24] A. Porter, The South African War, page 54

[25] S.B. Spies, The Origins of the Anglo-Boer War, page 10

[26] A. Porter, The South African War, pages 51-53

[27] ibid

[28] ibid