The causes of the war must be sought first in South African politics and secondly in international politics at the end of the 19th century. Because of their interrelationship these two causes are here treated as one.
To a certain extent it can be said that the seeds from which the war was to stem were sown during the Great Trek. This had as one of its most important results the fact that the second half of the 19th centuty after the two Boer republics, the Transvaal and the Orange Free State, had gained their independence -was to see an increasing conflict between the political aims of the Afrikaners and the British. In events such as the Basuto wars, which the Free State had to wage for self-preservation, and the annexation of the diamond-fields, the germ of the development of Afrikaner nationalism is to be found. The annexation of the Transvaal in 1877 and the First Anglo-Boer War (1880-82) which it caused gave this nationalism such an impetus that it was to become a dominant factor in South African politics.
At the same time British imperialism in respect of South Africa was revealed. Imperialism was not by any means limited to Britain, but was a world-wide tendency. Other European powers, such as Germany, France and Italy, were also engaged in it. The result was the ‘scramble for Africa’, in which these powers competed with one another to establish colonies on the continent. This acquirement of colonies was chiefly motivated by the idea that the colonies would provide raw materials for British industries and at the same time would be markets for manufactured products. When other countries also became industrialised and established their own colonies, Britain could no longer consider herself one jump ahead of the rest of the world. This fact was of particular significance for South Africa.
The champion of the British imperialist cause in South Africa was Cecil John Rhodes, who became a member of the Cape Parliament in 1881 and rose to be Prime Minister in 1890. His great ideal was to bring the whole of South Africa under British control. He was to find his chief antagonist in President Paul Kruger of the Transvaal Republic, who became the leader of Afrikaner nationalism after 1881. Kruger’s great aim was to protect the political and economic independence of his state, to check British influence and to prevent British control. It was inevitable that there would be a clash between him and Rhodes, who succeeded, by the annexation of Bechuanaland and of Rhodesia, in surrounding the two Boer republics completely, precluding any further expansion on their part. After that the only outlet for them that was not in British hands was Delagoa Bay, to which the Transvaal built a railway, financed by German and Dutch capital.
The discovery of gold on the Witwatersrand in the Transvaal Republic in 1886 was to the advantage of British imperialism. Thousands of British subjects moved to the Transvaal to try their luck. They began to campaign for equal political rights, which the original Transvaalers could not grant for fear of losing their independence. After the agitation had continued for some years, some of the leading Uitlanders (foreigners) in Johannesburg conspired with Rhodes, which led to the abortive Jameson Raid at the end of 1895. This event not only marred the relations between English and Afrikaners in South Africa, but also revealed to an amazed world that Britain and Germany were no longer on very friendly terms. Germany had already invested a considerable amount of capital in the gold-mines, and besides she had an idea of gaining possession of Delagoa Bay. The Emperor William II was moved to send a congratulatory telegram to President Kruger on the failure of the Raid. This caused much indignation in Britain, and the Government, in which the Colonial Secretary, Joseph Chamberlain, was a leading figure, was determined to cut the knot in South Africa by terminating the independence of the Transvaal.
It was with this policy in view that Sir Alfred Milner, a convinced Imperialist, was sent to South Africa in 1897 by the British government as Governor of Cape Colony and High Commissioner in South Africa. He seized his opportunity at the beginning of 1899, when the Uitlanders in Johannesburg renewed their agitation. This time they sent a petition to Queen Victoria, begging for British support. Milner also urged interference on their behalf. Pres. M. T. Steyn of the Orange Free State, who feared that war would result and wished to prevent it, then invited both Kruger and Milner to a meeting in Bloemfontein to discuss the situation. The talks lasted from 31st May to the 5th June. The main subject was the granting of the franchise to British subjects who had settled on the Witwatersrand. Although Kruger made considerable concessions, Milner remained unsatisfied, as he was already contemplating the destruction of the independence of the Transvaal by military force. For this reason the Bloemfontein Conference failed.
After his return to Cape Town Milner urged the British government to send troops to South Africa, and they began to arrive in August and September. The Transvaal government now made further concessions regarding the franchise for foreigners, but these were not sufficient to satisfy Milner. The Orange Free State, as well as the Transvaal, saw in the arrival of the British forces a threat to their independence, and on 9th October an ultimatum was sent to the British government: if the troops were not removed, a state of war would exist between Britain and the Boer republics. And so the war began on 11th October 1899. A few days later Chamberlain stated in the House of Commons that the war was necessary to maintain Britain’s position in world affairs. The diminution of British power, owing to the rapid rise of important competitors, turned the problems in South Africa into a matter of prestige for Britain. She had to show that she could compel a recalcitrant small state to submit to British domination.
Leave a Reply
You must be logged in to post a comment.