Byron Farwell’s The Great Anglo-Boer War offers an intriguing glimpse into the waning days of Victorian England, deals with some difficult moral dilemmas, and entertains with good writing and good stories. When one combines the myopia of Victorian Brits and the self-righteousness of the Dutch Boers, it can lead, if nothing else, to entertaining reading. The whole episode reminded me of the failed Rob Schieder TV show Men Behaving Badly. I saw exactly 0 episodes of this show, but I do remember the promo, which had Schieder’s character standing by a sink full of dirty dishes. He narrated,
What does a guy do when all of his dishes are dirty? Well, the way I see it, he could a) Buy more dishes, b) Rent another apartment, or c) Find suitable dish-like replacement from your natural surroundings (holds up a frisbee).
My guess is that was about as good as the show got.
Who is one to root for in this conflict?
On the surface, you have an imperial nation at the high-water mark of its power, fighting in land not their own against a group of rag-tag farmers who only wish to be left alone. Our underdog instinct wants to kick in, but then we remember the Dutch Boers woeful mistreatment of the indigenous local African population and back off on any potential support. So perhaps we can root for the Brits? After all, “Empire” is not, or should not be, a dirty word in and of itself. Sometimes empire-states can serve the common good. And one can make a legitimate argument that England’s empire on balance did more good than harm, where no such argument exists for say, the French or Germans.
But then you see their reasons for their fight against the Dutch, and you throw up your hands. The British and the Dutch had their separate spheres of influence in South Africa, and managed to tolerate each other. But then miners found gold in the Dutch portion and a variety of treasure-seeking Brits came to seek their fortunes. The Dutch understandably did not embrace their presence. Almost exclusively they farmed and cared nothing for mining. They had a narrow, pious view of how life should be led that did not mesh well with the more rambunctious materialistic miners. Some kind of conflict between them would be inevitable.
The British couldn’t face the idea of their citizens not getting the royal treatment. Without citizenship, the miners naturally could not vote, and the Dutch passed a law aimed squarely at the miners making the residency requirement for voting 14 years. The British were outraged, and some minor scuffles ensued, followed by negotiations. The Dutch agreed to lower the residency requirement to seven years, two shy of the five years the British wanted.
It took someone like Foreign Secretary Alfred Milner to make this difference into a war. A brilliant scholar, perhaps his German ancestry led him to develop an outsized passion for all things British, especially the Empire. Was it his mixed ethnic background that subconsciously put so much racial language into his speech? He once stated,
I believe in the British race. I believe that the British race is the greatest governing race that the world has ever seen, and I believe there are no limits to its future. It is the British race which built the Empire, and the undivided British race which can alone uphold it. . . Deeper, stronger, more primordial than material ties is the bond of common blood, a common language, a common history and traditions.”
His Credo, published posthumously, somehow unfortunately only added to his popularity. . .
I am a Nationalist and not a cosmopolitan …. I am a British (indeed primarily an English) Nationalist. If I am also an Imperialist, it is because the destiny of the English race, owing to its insular position and long supremacy at sea, has been to strike roots in different parts of the world. I am an Imperialist and not a Little Englander because I am a British Race Patriot … The British State must follow the race, must comprehend it, wherever it settles in appreciable numbers as an independent community. If the swarms constantly being thrown off by the parent hive are lost to the State, the State is irreparably weakened. We cannot afford to part with so much of our best blood. We have already parted with much of it, to form the millions of another separate but fortunately friendly State. We cannot suffer a repetition of the process.
As an aside we can see that the Nazi’s did not invent all of their horrible language about “race,” and “blood.”
To our point, with this attitude Milner could make a mountain out of a molehill. His extreme sense of British dignity could be quite easily tweaked. When some in England felt that with the concession of the Boers war could be avoided Milner stated, “No no no. If enforced rigidly their government would be able to exclude anyone they deemed undesirable.” As Farwell noted, why Milner thought that the sovereign Dutch state could not exclude people they deemed undesirable implied that the Dutch had no sovereignty where England was concerned.
Milner’s counterpart Joseph Chamberlain also saw these minor disputes in absolute terms. He argued for war as well, stating,
We are going to war in defense of principles, the principle upon which this Empire has been founded, and upon which it alone can exist. The first principle is this–if we are to maintain our existence as a great power in South Africa, we are bound to show that we are both willing and able to protect British subjects everywhere when they are made to suffer injustice and oppression. The second is that in the interests of the British Empire, Great Britain must remain the paramount Power in South Africa. [The Dutch] are menacing the peace of the world.
That last sentence is almost breathtaking in its foolishness. How could a small group of Dutch farmers who denied British citizens the vote in Dutch elections and taxed them 5% on their profits menace the peace of the world? Not unless the British see their own peace as the world’s peace, or their own inability to get their way everywhere as tantamount to a rupture of “world peace.”
I could not bring myself to root for the British. Even British opponents of the war, like Major General William Butler, show this same insufferable posture. Butler forecasted many troubles the British faced in the war, and afterwords commented, “I was able to judge of a possible war between us and the Boers with a power of forecast of a quite exceptional character.”
The war progressed in the way we might expect. The rugged South African terrain gave the Dutch farmers plenty of hiding space, and British arrogance and unfamiliarity with their surroundings made for a few massacres. The Dutch were better shots and had better rifles. But then, British persistence kicked in. They poured in more money, more troops, and even had an upswing in Victorian enthusiasm, and eventually wore the Boers down. They took pages out of Sherman’s book by burning crops and farms (they targeted more broadly than Sherman did) and starving troops in the field. They anticipated the Nazi’s not only in racial language, but also in the use of concentration camps.
But the peace settlement showed that England had only won battles, and in fact, lost the war. They could not stay in South Africa, and eventually the Dutch gained their complete independence. As for “upholding British prestige,” the Germans did not think much of it and thus crashed through Belgium in 1914. So England lost what it both indirectly and directly fought for within a few years of the war’s conclusion.
What lessons can we deduce from this conflict?
1. The expansiveness of late-stage empires
The end of the Victorian era saw a huge expansion of the the Empire. As the reign waned, they had to loosen their belts. The same happened, albeit with less success, under Louis XIV in France, and with Augustus’ bid to get into Germany at the end of his life.
I have no good explanation for this. My only stab might be that when we get older, we don’t really change, but our characteristics come into sharper focus, be they good or bad. The same might hold for civilizations at the end of epoch. Expansive minded rulers might take a while to find their sea legs, but then once they/the civilization have made their characters, their expansive nature could accentuate itself more and more as time went on.
2. The Persistence of the Armies of Empire
The British troops showed remarkable tenacity and a passion for glory, much like the Roman army in its heyday. Mounting British casualties early on did nothing to abate this. I think we can say that rather than the expansiveness creating the armies, the armies provide the possibility of it in the first place.
3. Empires in their late stages make mountains of molehills
Pericles did this with the Megaran Decree, and Victoria did it in South Africa. To some extent, Napoleon did this with Russia. When empire-states do this, they always justify their extreme action under the aegis of defending their reputation throughout the world. For them, their action proves their vitality, but in reality, it may only prove that they have grown old, cranky, inflexible, and overly touchy.
4. The futility of force alone
On certain extreme political ends, some might say that, “violence never solves anything.” This is quite obviously untrue. But violence alone, apart from any other political or moral power, will rarely solve problems, especially for the aggressor far from home. The British experience in India should have taught them this lesson, for they established themselves there with very little force, and rarely had to use it to stay.
Milner wanted to make South Africa something of a second India, but their brutal tactics could never win over the local population. The Dutch never wanted to be British the way some Indians did. Even many Indians that eventually fought for independence used their British educations to do so.
I like the ‘Redux’ version of Apocalypse Now, and I think this scene sums up in some ways the position of the Dutch and the British.
Like sand falling though our fingers, South Africa slipped away despite their military victory.