The South African war of 1899-1902 has been described as the ‘last of the little wars’1. However, the reality was very different.
The mighty British Empire unleashed its force over two Boer republics in South Africa. The battle was clearly one sided, but it took the British forces numbering 450,000 men over two and a half years to defeat 75,000 Boers, Afrikaners and foreign volunteers from the Cape and Natal. Troops serving under the British came from Great Britain itself, Australia, New Zealand, Canada, India, USA, and South Africa.On the Boer side troops were used from countries such as Russia, Ireland, Holland, Germany, Spain, Italy, Belgium and France.
When looking at the contribution made by black Africans in the South African war it is essential that one considers the historical context of race relations in South Africa. To begin with it is important to emphasize that there was a conflict of views as to who was there first. Without a doubt black Africans had lived in Southern Africa long before Europeans had any means by which to travel the world.By the 1600’s however, the Dutch East India Company had arrived in the Cape and began to encourage colonists in an attempt to defend its settlement from natives and also to secure an adequate supply of cheap foodstuffs for its passing East Indiamen. During the course of the eighteenth century their numbers grew and more and more settlers went to seek a new life in the interior, away from the control the company, ‘hunting, and trading with the Hottentots for cattle and eventually as cattle-farmers themselves. Thus there came into being the Trek Boers’. These pioneers cut away from the mainstream of European development and adapted themselves to make there livelihoods from grazing on the grasslands of interior South Africa.
These communities were eventually to call themselves Afrikaners.They differed from other Africans mainly in there individualism and in the seventeenth century Calvinist beliefs that they shared. These beliefs embraced the view that ‘they were an elect from God and that the heathen coloured folk had no natural rights against them or to the land they were taking for there own’. The mythology of this Afrikaner belief allowed them to justify there actions towards indigenous people before, during and indeed after the South African war of 1899-1902. This myth shared by many Afrikaners was filled with contradiction. Firstly it was claimed that Southern Africa had been largely uninhabited when they arrived, they had only peripheral contact with native Africans who largely avoided them.
Another view was that these natives were so backward and barbarous that there rights were not valid, nor did they need to be considered.Also with the emergence of the coloured community it became increasingly difficult to deny the existence of a substantial black presence in Southern Africa. During the Anglo-French wars of 1793-1815 the Cape passed from Dutch to British control.
By 1820, Britain had planted some 5,000 settlers, ex soldiers and there families in the Cape. These English speakers were generally more liberal and sympathetic to black and coloured Africans, however, when it came to crunch about rights over land and political supremacy, they held similar ideals to that of the Afrikaner people.Both cultures were ‘equally committed to the maintenance of a white supremacist South Africa’. 4 The Boer war highlighted the issue of black and coloured identity in Southern Africa. The conflict concentrated political choices for all the peoples of Southern Africa, and it forced essential attitudes of the white population toward the black into the public arena. The war touched the lives of black people in South Africa in many ways. In towns such as Mafeking, Ladysmith and Kimberley it brought ‘danger, fear upheaval, economic loss and at times humiliation’.Occasionally the war brought opportunity but only for a minority.
More generally, the disruption of the labour market once fighting began caused widespread poverty and led many Africans to readily accept the offer of work with the British forces. Among the educated members of the black communities in South Africa the prospect of the defeat of the Boer republics by the British Empire was generally welcomed. The treatment of the black population was far more liberal in the Cape and Natal under the rule of the British then under the Boer governments in the Transvaal and the Orange Free State.
The hope of many blacks was that if the Boers were defeated militarily, and the republics administered by the British, the condition of the blacks would rise and their prosperity increase. In 1899 both the Boers and the British were in broad agreement that blacks would not be armed on any scale or encouraged to fight in what was seen as a ‘white mans war’. It was thought by many that the participation of blacks would ‘turn a civilized war into a barbaric struggle.
6 The British also at this point decided against the use of non white troops from the Empire in military operations in South Africa.Once the war was under way and both sides began to feel the strain on their military resources it became clear that Africans would need to play a large part in supporting the war effort of both sides. Although it is accurate to say that the majority of non whites supported the British, it is estimated that at the start, approximately 9,000 were with the Boers, this number lowering as the Boers fortunes dwindled. Many of Africans were forced labour, and some were known as agterryers -servants.These servants were often used by burghers who accompanied them to the front line. There were many examples of loyalty shown by the agterryers, some of whom remained with their masters to the bitter end. Many of these men were armed by the Boers, to be used as scouts and guards and some even took part in the fighting. As the war progressed many deserted, it had become apparent by 1900 that the Boers were fighting a battle that they could not win.
This combined with bad treatment and a lack of food prompted the blacks to seek paid employment with the British.Thousands of Africans became involved in military duties for both the British and the Boers, in a wide range of roles from administration, logistics and manual labour. As well as non combatant service black Africans also served as armed members of at least one of the commandos and the British used armed African soldiers in the guerilla phase of the war.
Native leaders were also encouraged to guard their borders against invasion by the Boers and also to deny them passage along strategic routes.In return the tribes were supplied with arms and munitions. Generally, the recruitment of Africans took place in the east, while in the west coloureds were used as auxiliaries. In towns such as Mafeking Africans were enlisted into local defense organizations, and they were especially useful during the sieges for intelligence gathering and for the running of dispatches through enemy lines. Indeed Colonel Baden Powell enlisted Africans and Coloureds to defend Mafeking, much to the annoyance of the Boers.At the end of the war Baden Powell went on to deny the involvement of black people, claiming that the native Baralong people had refused to defend the besieged garrison. This was proven to be untrue and highlighted the lack of recognition for the bravery of many black and coloured people. As the war progressed an increasing number of Africans were used as scouts by the British.
These people were often armed as the Boers tended to summarily execute any black people who were found to be supporting the British.One such case is that of Abraham Essau, a coloured auxiliary who was executed by the Boers. The number of armed Africans used by the British is difficult to establish but estimates have ranged as high as 30,000. The use of black Africans enabled the British to police areas in the Cape colony where the loyalty of Afrikaners was thought to be questionable.
For the majority of non whites participating in the war their involvement was with the British as transport workers and as general labour, a few provided the British with cattle and land.In reality, native people were able to make a better living working for the British army then with their previous employment with the Cape farming community and subsequently there became the issue of serious labour shortages for white farmers. From these factors we can see that the Boer war affected both blacks and whites on an immense scale. The death toll was high on both sides and lives were devastated all over Southern Africa and beyond. The death toll for the black African population is hard to calculate as many deaths went unrecorded.The latest estimates that of the 115,000 blacks interned in concentration camps, 20,000 died. There were also countless blacks who were shot by the Boers if they were suspected of helping the British, and those who were killed while performing their duties as scouts or agterryers.
What is clear from the extensive evidence on the South African war is that non whites had a significant role to play in the implementation of the war effort for both sides. It could never have been a ‘white mans war’ in a country where 3/4 of the population were black or coloured.Nor were the effects of war confined to those black people who were enlisted in duties for the Afrikaners or the British, the war touched the lives of every black and coloured community throughout the country. For half a century after the Boer war blacks and coloureds were written out of all records by both the Afrikaners and the British.
Their suffering as well as their bravery remained unacknowledged. Influential statesmen and military figures such as Smuts, De Vet and Reits were guilty of denying or playing down the role of the black and coloured communities in the war. However with the end of Apartheid, a fresh approach