Tuesday 22nd of October 2002 07:10 AM 
Tributes: Africans & the Anglo-Boer War

It is understood that you have armed Bastards, Fingos and Baralongs against us- in this you have committed an enormous act of wickedness...reconsider the matter, even if it cost you the loss of Mafeking...disarm your blacks and thereby act the part of a white man in a white man's war.
General Piet Cronjé's message to Colonel Baden-Powell
29 October 1899.

While the main protagonists of the war namely Great Britain and the two Boer republics were mainly white, it was not exclusively a white man's war:

  • Black people were involved as combatants, to a limited degree, though both sides initially agreed that they were to be employed in a non-combatant role;
  • At least 15 000 blacks were armed by the British and served in mobile British columns that tried to track down the Boer commandos;
  • About 25 000 served as armed blockhouse guards;
  • They were also employed on the Imperial Military Railway system;
  • In the few mines that had reopened in a bid to get the economy functioning again;
  • In a military support role as scouts, agterryers, and wagon drivers;
  • As refugees of war;
  • During the application of the scorched earth policy as internees in British concentration camps.

Some 30 000 Boer farmhouses were destroyed and the Boer women and children were removed to concentration camps. Of necessity the Black servants and workers also had to be removed, to prevent them from helping their employers on commando with food and information. Furthermore nobody was left on the farm to feed them. Thirty-seven Black concentration camps are recorded in the Transvaal (the former South African Republic) and twenty-nine in the Orange River Colony (the former Orange Free State).

These camps held an estimated total of 11 500 people at the height of their existence.The camps were mainly sited along the railway lines from Bloemfontein northwards to Pretoria and then eastwards to Nelspruit. From Johannesburg the camps were established south eastwards down the line to Volksrust and some along the line from the Orange River to Taung in the Northern Cape.

Local camps not on main railway lines were those at Thaba Nchu, Winburg, Heilbron and Harrismith. The locality of the camps in Natal, have as yet not been established. Initially the camps were under the control of the military but after June 1901 the control was passed on to the newly established Department of Native Refugees.

Half of the recorded Black deaths occurred in the three months between November and January 1901 - 2831 deaths were recorded in December 1901. Some 81% of the deaths were children. Officially 14 154 deaths were recorded but as the records of the camps are unsatisfactory the number could be as high as 20 000.

Source: Anglo-Boer War Museum, Bloemfontein.


Agterryers have been described as coloured batmen, however this approximation glosses over important distinctions. Agterryers certainly did not enjoy the privileges or rights accorded to R.F.C batmen in the Great War; the image of an eternally cheerful Cockney batman waking the pioneering aviator fighter with tea and toast does the agterryer no justice at all. Their tasks were unglamorous, taken largely for granted by the individuals they served, and the significance of these roles in the history of South Africa, in the War, and in the African experience has been, for the most part, ignored by the general public.

Since the earliest days of modern Southern Africa, it had been the custom of colonists (both English and Boer) to have personal servants accompanying them on their journeys. Agterryer is, however, a military term, and the Dutch/Afrikaans word for military servants or batmen. In the Boer republics non-Whites could be called up for military service and use of this was made during the Second South African War when the agterryer won a permanent place in South African history.

The duties of an agterryer were to lead pack-horses, drive carts, look after the horses, keep saddles and bridles clean and in good order, procure firewood and water, serve as cooks, be general 'helpers', and at times, to assist with the laundering and mending of clothing.

It was 'technically' illegal for agterryers to carry arms, and during a battle they mainly tended the horses in a safe place (dead ground), but inevitably found themselves at times in the heat of the action. Stories of the tremendous bravery shown by many agterryers abound, in anecdotes and to a lesser extent, popular literature of the day. Ou Dimpie, agterryer of the burgher David Botes, went, under a terribly heavy fire to fetch ammunition, at Rooirand in the Orange Free State, enabling the burghers to put British forces to flight. In the battle at Gatsrand (Potchefstroom), Jess, a young African servant of a burgher, Eksteen, made it possible for him to escape by racing through the British lines leading Eksteen's horse. There was also Ruiter, who in July 1901, at Reitz, made it possible for President M.T. Steyn to escape by giving the alarm, taking the President his horse, indicating to him the safest route to follow and finally, misleading the enemy. The significance of this action to the morale of Free State forces cannot be overestimated.

To be continued...

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Who Fought the War?
A wonderfully refreshing page which explores the role and experience of Black peoples during the war. Firmly refutes the 'White man's war' myth.

Further Reading
Comaroff, J.L. (ed.) The Boer War Diary of Sol T Plaatje, an African at Mafeking (London, 1973)

Labuschagne, Pieter. Ghostriders of the Anglo- Boer War (1899 - 1902): The Role and Contribution of Agterryers. Pretoria: University of South Africa Press, 1998.

Warwick, Peter. Black People and the South African War, 1899-1902. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1983.

Warwick, Peter. Black Industrial Protest on the Witwatersrand 1901-02. York: York University Centre for South African Studies, 1975.