Sunday 27th of October 2002 11:45 AM 
Essay [02]

Garrett Moritz

"Instead of rejoicing you would do better to weep, for this gold will cause our country to be soaked in blood."
Paul Kruger upon the discovery of the Witwatersrand gold field in the Transvaal

The Boer War of 1899-1902--known to the optimistic British as the "Tea-Time War" and to the Boers as the "Second Freedom War"--was and has remained controversial. The war began as a conflict between erudite gentleman diplomats, rough-hewn homesteaders and a handful of brash self-made millionaires battling for gold and national pride in what was then one of the earth's farthest frontiers. Not surprisingly given such a dramatic setting, the Boer War made consistent headlines not only in Britain but also worldwide. And although public interest in the war may have flagged in the century since its end, it is as historically interesting now as ever. The reason is that there is a continuing historiographical debate over who or what caused the war. Historians have suggested many possible origins, from British self-defense to capitalist-driven expansion, from covert actions to jingoism to an underlying atavism. While none of these possibilities alone can explain the Boer War, capitalist forces and local actors at the periphery were the strongest immediate causes. But beyond these immediate causes, a deep-seated British atavism is instrumental in understanding the origins of the war in a broader historical context.

Before discussing interpretations, a sketch of the events leading up to the war is in order. Seeking to control a vital port on the route to India, the British claimed the former Dutch Colony at the Cape of Good Hope in 1814. As British colonists trickled into "Cape Colony," the Dutch Farmers known as the "Boers" became increasingly discontent. Though tensions were largely a result of competition and ethnocultural divisions, the limitations placed on the Boers' traditional freedom in dealing with native Africans further exacerbated the situation. Eventually, the most dissatisfied of the Boers enacted a South African variant of the Turner Frontier Thesis, left Cape Colony and crossed the Orange River to found Natal, which eventually became a British colony also. Despite the assimilation of Natal, this "Great Trek" out of Cape Colony would be a lasting symbol of Boer independence. Later, some of the Natal Boers would trek further, crossing the Vaal River to found the Orange Free State and the Transvaal.

The British, primarily concerned with the strategic Cape Colony, were content to accept two neighboring Boer states until 1886, when the discovery of gold in the Transvaal made Johannesburg a boomtown, larger even than Cape Colony's capital at Cape Town. Prospectors, including British settlers known as "Uitlanders," flocked to the Transvaal. The vast store of gold discovered in the Witwatersrand Reef was more than the world had ever seen; more valuable than even South Africa's famed diamond mines. This new development in the Transvaal led to confrontations, such as the infamous Jameson Raid. In 1895, Dr. Jameson led a small band of men 600 strong, financed by Cecil Rhodes, in a failed attempt to instigate an Uitlander rebellion in Johannesburg. 2 The fiasco brought Anglo-Boer tensions to a fever pitch and, following a final effort at reconciliation between High Commisioner Sir Alfred Milner and Transvaal President Paul Kruger at Bloemfontein, war formally began in 1899. 3

In order to consider who or what caused the war, it is necessary to decide which of the two parties initiated the conflict. Since it is quite clear that the British were on the military offensive, the question is essentially whether British belligerence was a response to some legitimate affront by the Boers. In other words, was the war fought in British self-defense? At the time of the conflict, a common argument was that the Transvaal government routinely trampled Uitlander freedoms. Although this argument was initiated as a wartime justification, it has survived in the historiography of the war at least up to Arthur Keppel-Jones' book, South Africa: A Short History, which appeared in 1949. Keppel-Jones argues that the political disenfranchisement of Transvaal Uitlanders constituted a legitimate threat to British interests. The threat was twofold. First, Uitlander treatment was a genuine concern. Second and more important for Keppel-Jones was the notion that Great Britain would lose credibility with colonies in Canada and Australasia if it failed to protect colonists in South Africa. 4 While this second reason seems quite an interesting analogue to US domino logic in the Cold War, the first appears tenuous as a genuine reason. The Uitlanders were nearly all gold rush prospectors, far more concerned with Transvaal wealth than political enfranchisement. The historical consensus has been to reject the self-defense interpretation in favor of a counter-argument in which British hawks trumped up the threat to Uitlanders for propaganda purposes. One of the earliest writers to criticize protectionism as a cause for the Boer War was J. A. Hobson.

Hobson, a turn-of-the-century economist and journalist, was in South Africa working for the Manchester Guardian in the months preceding the war's outbreak. His views have been extremely influential in the historiography of both the Boer War and imperialism in general. Hobson's central tenet was that British capitalism encouraged a misallocation of wealth that led investors to seek higher investment returns in developing foreign markets. Governments, seeking to protect their investors' commitments abroad, followed imperialist policies. Imperialism, argued Hobson, did not benefit the state as a whole but served the interests of financial strongmen.5 This idea has enjoyed wide influence. For instance, the Hobsonian view of imperialism was the precursor to Marxist/Leninist imperialism, as Hobson's attempt to explain the Boer War in terms of capitalist interests became a major argument Lenin used to justify his belief that imperialism was the final stage of capitalism.

In the Boer War, Rand millionaires such as Cecil Rhodes embodied Hobson's general idea that capitalist machinations rather than Uitlander grievances were the real cause of the conflict. As an eyewitness to events in South Africa, he argued that not only did the Uitlanders care little about the grievances that so aroused British national fury, but also that the most egregious offenses against them were largely apocryphal. While Hobson marshaled piles of statistics and corroborating arguments for his view that capitalist interests drove the war, his most fundamental example was the Jameson Raid. For Hobson, Rhodes backed Jameson in an attempt to open the Transvaal to his corporate mining interests. This was a particularly explicit example of a raffish financier acting as the real force behind Anglo-Boer antagonism. 6 Although Hobson's views on imperialism in general have become increasingly accepted, his initially unassailable assessment of the Jameson Raid has become less certain over time. The reason is that Rhodes may not have been the sole mastermind behind the raid, contrary to Hobson's original assumptions. Recent archival research has indicated that high-level British officials may have clandestinely encouraged Rhodes to support Jameson, transforming the raid from a manifestation of capitalist expansionism into a government-sponsored covert operation.

A leading proponent of this view is the South African historian Jean van der Poel, who notes that Rhodes actually had misgivings about the raid, but was secretly spurred on by high-level British officials such as Colonial Secretary Joseph Chamberlain. There was suspicion of a conspiracy on his part as early as 1896, when a parliamentary Committee of Enquiry questioned Chamberlain's foreknowledge of the raid. According to van der Poel, Chamberlain skillfully sidestepped this question by means of a deft equivocation, stating that neither he nor any British officials had any idea about Jameson's decision to attack. Although this statement was enough to satisfy the committee, it does not satisfy van der Poel, who points out that Rhodes himself could have truthfully made precisely the same claim. No one knew about the final decision to make the raid except for Jameson--the decision was left solely to him. The preparations for the raid, on the other hand, were well known to Chamberlain. The lack of extensive concrete evidence for official British complicity, van der Poel writes, was due to the willful suppression of this information by a politically minded Chamberlain. 7 The Colonial Secretary's knowledge lessens the strength of Hobson's interpretation of the Jameson Raid, undoubtedly a major root of the war, as a purely capitalist-driven event.

Although in recent years van der Poel's argument has been increasingly accepted, the point remains arguable. Even considering "quasi-incriminating" passages in Chamberlain's telegrams, the British historian R. C. K. Ensor staunchly maintains that claims of Chamberlain's complicity are merely speculation, inadmissible to serious historians. 8 However, Ensor also accepts that Uitlanders were being treated unjustly and that this was a primary cause of the war, something nearly all post-Hobson interpretations reject. Ensor's arch-conservatism may be a moderating force on the historiography of the Boer War, but it is outside of the majority view on this issue.

The acceptance of van der Poel's view over Ensor's is evident in the subsequent writings of British historians such as Ethel Drus. With access not only to newly unsealed government documents in both Cape Town and London, but also to privately owned Chamberlain papers, Drus reconfirmed van der Poel's conclusion on the issue of Chamberlain's complicity in the Jameson Raid. Her only substantial difference from van der Poel is that she does not accept that the Committee of Enquiry was actually fooled by Chamberlain's verbal maneuver. Rather, they were quite aware of the real implications of his sophistry, but discontinued the investigation and allowed the public to believe that Chamberlain was innocent out of patriotism and a desire to avoid further scandal.9

As historians increasingly come to see Chamberlain as of central importance to the Jameson Raid, Hobson's view of a solely Rhodes-backed conspiracy has declined. However, the significance of Rhodes does not end there. Because he remains a key figure for other reasons, Hobson's argument retains viability. For instance, though they may not have had ultimate control of the Jameson Raid, Rhodes and his associates did own the South African newspaper-publishing network. And this translated into a great deal of control over British home opinion, according to Hobson in The Psychology of Jingoism. Hobson writes that the opinions expressed in dailies and journals throughout Britain were inherently biased towards accepting war with the Boers. This bias came from the fact that these publications, though representing numerous independent interests, relied on only two major sources for information on South Africa--the Johannesburg Star and the Cape Times. Since Rhodes and his affiliates owned both the Star and the Times, they were able to portray the Uitlander situation as more outrageous than it actually was.

Hobson was struck by the ease with which a small group of raffish financiers could manipulate public opinion. The way in which a handful of Rand millionaires inspired jingoistic patriotism through a small but strategic press monopoly was further evidence for his thesis that the Boer War--and by association imperialism in general--was instigated by a few powerful capitalists. In this way, the Boer war was more due to their expansive goals than any legitimately national interest, and even the appearance of a national will to fight could be traced to Rhodes.10

Although ownership of South Africa's cable services clearly gave the Rand millionaires a great deal of power over public opinion, Hobson neglects the reason the misrepresentations of the Times and Star were so effective: at least to some extent, they played to beliefs which many British citizens already held. Nothing Rhodes owned could allow him to control those beliefs, for they were a product of centuries of British culture. Sir Alfred Milner, for instance, held that, "Deeper, stronger, more primordial than material ties is the bond of common blood, a common language, common history and traditions." 11 Such statements reflected that even if Rhodes-backed journalism trumped up Uitlander grievances, this was because British society was receptive to such claims, and in many ways may have wanted to believe the reports coming in from the Times and the Star.

One historian who has emphasized this view that Rhodes did not engineer British jingoism is Bernard Porter, who describes how critics of going to war were "invariably howled down" while proponents never were. As a result, potential critics of the conflict remained silent, out of national loyalty or cowardice. Critics of Chamberlain or Milner found their windows smashed or were even beaten by mobs, with police sometimes watching approvingly. As Porter points out, although Rhodes may have fueled these emotions through control of the information flowing into Britain, he did not create the environment that was receptive to such news. After all, it was not Rhodes who smashed the windows.12 So Hobson's argument must be amended--although Rhodes may have exploited British jingoism, he did not create the propensity for it. But because it is so difficult to identify any direct source of jingoism, Hobson's interpretation is only amended rather than refuted entirely. Rhodes, through the media aspect of Hobson's argument, remains a central figure in explaining the origins of the Boer War.

Beyond pointing to a small group of capitalists as a manifestation of capitalism itself, there are other broad, macro-level interpretations of the Boer War. Most notable is that of Ronald Robinson and John Gallagher,13 who emphasize the importance of local conditions--in their terminology, "events at the periphery"--as the driving force in imperialist conflicts. Robinson and Gallagher, therefore, do not accept that the "expansive forces of Europe" caused the Boer War. This clashes squarely with Hobson's view that the imperialist impulse derived from overcrowded markets in Europe. Interestingly, evidence can be marshaled for both interpretations.

How the Hobson case for interpreting the Boer War can be made has been shown. However, the war did in many ways also follow the "periphery" model. Whether focusing on the aggrandizement of monopoly power by Rhodes, High Commissioner Milner's disagreement with President Kruger at Bloemfontein, the Jameson Raid or even the initial discovery of the Witwatersrand Reef, all of these events took place in South Africa, not in Great Britain. As Hobson has explained, local forces such as South Africa's leading papers, the Star and the Times, largely fueled positive public opinion towards what London referred to as the "tea-time war." Furthermore, the intransigence of Transvaal President Paul Kruger, a symbol of voortrekker pride, was itself an example of the importance of events "at the periphery." Although Robinson and Gallagher are reluctant to apply their entire theory of imperialism to the Boer War,14 their emphasis on peripheral events provides a useful contrast to Hobson's Britain-centric view.15

Like Hobson's view, Robinson and Gallagher's peripheralism also breaks down if the chain of causality is extended back far enough. The best example of this is seen in the Bloemfontein Conference. Orange Free State president M. T. Steyn initiated the conference, which brought Milner and Kruger together on May 31. Kruger tried to bargain but Milner issued an ultimatum: reduce the requirement for Uitlander franchise from fourteen years' residency to five or war would be imminent. Steyn was stunned. With Milner driving such a hard line and his expectation of Kruger's traditional obstinacy, deadlock seemed certain and peace impossible.

That changed when Kruger made a shockingly generous concession, offering to reduce the residency requirement to seven years. Despite Chamberlain's encouragement to continue the talks, Milner refused this proposal and left the conference on June 5. In tears, Kruger returned to the Transvaal and made a final attempt at peace, unilaterally persuading the volksraad to implement a Reform Bill lowering the residency requirement for the franchise to seven years. Even the Rhodes-backed Times announced that war was averted. Despite what all agreed were reasonable and even generous concessions, Milner penned his infamous "Helot's Dispatch," describing the Transvaal as a force which "menaces the peace and prosperity of the world." The Boer War was on.16

Although it probably cannot be viewed as a cause of the war, Bloemfontein was at least the last moment where war could yet have been prevented. The failure to settle for peace at Bloemfontein owed largely to Milner's inability to deal with Kruger. At the most basic level this occurred because Milner, rather than an experienced diplomat or a South African expert, was doing the negotiating. Milner, a successful financial wizard with little diplomatic experience, was unable to turn his fiscal shrewdness and "stiff upper lip" into an ability to patiently negotiate with Kruger. The selection of such an unqualified High Commissioner for South Africa, if not a cause of the war, was at least a reason why a possibly preventable conflict turned bloody. This selection system was not an "event on the periphery" but the result of an obsolete British system which did not carefully train foreign service specialists, but merely assumed that the "best and brightest" from Balliol were equipped to handle any situation, no matter how volatile.

The continuation of this antiquated British attitude that a Peer of the Realm was prepared for virtually anything regardless of training is an example of what Joseph Schumpeter defines as an "atavism," a stubborn survivor from pre-industrial periods and governmental systems. Schumpeter's specific argument is that the residuals of feudal structures--such as the hierarchic nature of European societies--were the real cause of imperialist conflicts.17 The appointment of relatively unqualified gentlemen such as Milner to crucial posts reflected the continuance of the atavistic hierarchy. Milner's failure at Bloemfontein showed this practice to be no longer effective in a complex turn-of-the-century world that demanded specialization. Although the breakdown of negotiations at Bloemfontein was a peripheral event rather than an expansionist plan masterminded from London, the underlying reason for the conference's failure was British. Specifically, this factor derived from the atavism that allowed Britain's foreign policy elite to entrust delicate negotiations to the inexperienced Milner.

Recent historians, though not explicitly mentioning atavism, have pointed to exactly this inadequacy of Milner for his post as a reason the negotiations broke down and the Boer War began. As Byron Fallwell writes of Milner, "[T]his financial expert arrived in South Africa and went to work applying his genius to its very human problems. South Africa never recovered from the experience." 18 Statements like these, common throughout recent retellings of the Boer War, reflect the implicit acceptance of the atavism interpretation in the war's current historiography. Thomas Pakenham also emphasizes this view, describing Milner brushing aside Kruger's Reform Bill as a "Kaffir-bargain" and intentionally seeking to infuriate Kruger at every opportunity.19 Milner's obstinacy, not Kruger's, foiled Steyn's plan for peace.

As with most historical events, the Boer War necessarily had multiple origins. That is not to say, however, that all causes are equally useful for explaining the origins of the war. For instance, the idea that the war was honestly fought over Uitlander grievances was shown to be more propaganda than history even before the war was over, and the self-defense interpretation has subsequently fallen from use since its last appearance in the writing of Keppel-Jones. It also seems unlikely, if historians' current consensus reflects the truth, that the Jameson Raid was a solely Rhodes-backed initiative. On the other hand, there are opposing interpretations that nonetheless remain viable given the current evidence. Hobson's argument that a capitalist minority motivated the war has remained remarkably resilient since its formulation nearly a century ago. While parts of the foundation based on accepting Rhodes as the mastermind behind the Jameson Raid have been somewhat eroded by the tide of newly revealed documents, the overall structure remains standing. On the other hand, Robinson and Gallagher's stylish new peripheral hypothesis also applies in many ways. A change in perspective, such as an emphasis on atavisms or the societal causes of a propensity for jingoism, renders each of these arguments ineffective.

But even considering these two very legitimate interpretations, Schumpeter's atavism theory provides the most expansive explanation for the origins of the Boer War. All the other interpretations treat the Boer War solely in the context of the modern period. Capitalism and nationalistic jingoism are industrial revolution or post industrial revolution phenomena. Atavism, on the other hand, appreciates a much longer continuity in history and utilizes centuries of British cultural heritage. While it does not invalidate the competing theories, atavism suggests a unity in the historical process missing in the other interpretations. And for that the historiography of the Boer War is all the richer.


1 Byron Farwell, The Great Anglo-Boer War. New York: Harper & Row, 1976. (page 21)

2 Thomas Pakenham, The Boer War. New York, Random House: 1979. (pages xxv-xxix)

3 Summary of events, with the exception of the Jameson Raid, from J. M. Roberts, The Penguin History of the World. London: Penguin Books, 1990. (pages 742-743)

4 Arthur Keppel-Jones, South Africa: A Short History, 3rd revised edition. London: Hutchinson and Co., 1961. (pages 116-133)

5 Wolfgang J. Mommsen, Theories of Imperialism. Trans. P.S. Falla. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1982. (pages 11-15)

6 J. A. Hobson, The War in South Africa, Its Causes and Effects, 2nd ed. London: James Nisbet and Co., 1900. (pages 52-61)

7 Jean van der Poel, The Jameson Raid. Cape Town: Oxford University Press, 1951. (pages 259-260)

8 R.C.K Ensor, England 1870-1914, Vol. XIV of The Oxford History of England, ed. G.N. Clark. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1936. (pages 226-236)

9 Ethel Drus, "The Question of Imperial Complicity in the Jameson Raid," English Historical Review, LXVIII, 1953. (Pages 582-587)

10 J.A. Hobson, The Psychology of Jingoism. London: G. Richards, 1901. (pages 25-27)

11 Byron Farwell, The Great Anglo-Boer War. New York: Harper & Row, 1976. (page 27)

12 Bernard Porter, "The Pro-Boers in Britain." The South African War: The Anglo-Boer War 1899-1902. Ed. Peter Warwick et al. London: Longman, 1980. (pages 239-242)

13 Robinson and Gallagher are famous for emphasizing the continuity of imperialism and their development of the concept of "informal imperialism." Though of tremendous general historical importance, it is of little direct relevance to this discussion.

14 Since the Boer War was a conflict between two European or European-derived groups, rather than the "exploitation" of native Africans by Europeans, Robinson and Gallagher realize that the conflict is not similar to the rest of the Scramble for Africa, and that their interpretations may be problematic in this case.

15 Ronald Robinson and John Gallagher, "The Partition of Africa." Imperialism: The Robinson and Gallagher Controversy. Ed. William Roger Louis. New York: Franklin Watts, 1976. (pages 117-124)

16 Byron Farwell, The Great Anglo-Boer War. New York: Harper & Row, 1976. (pages 33-35)

17 Wolfgang J. Mommsen, Theories of Imperialism. Trans. P.S. Falla. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1982. (pages 21-24)

18 Byron Farwell, The Great Anglo-Boer War. New York: Harper & Row, 1976. (page 28)

19 Thomas Pakenham, The Boer War. New York, Random House: 1979. (page 64)

1998 Garrett Moritz. All rights reserved.


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