Who Were
of the
Anglo-Boer War?

By H Labuschagne



A great amount of material has been written about the Anglo-Boer War. What is amazing, though, is how much confusion there exists to this very day, as to who and what the Boers really were. They have been called everything from "hairy, dim-witted barbarians," to "the kindest and most gentle race on earth."

Who were the Boers really? Where did they come from? How much of what had been written about the Boers is really true? And how did it come about that a race of non-industrialized pastoralists should have succeeded in tying the British Empire up in a bloody war for nearly three years? A war that would ultimately turn out to be the most expensive war in decades?

Perhaps most of the confusion comes from the fact that the term "Boer" is rather confusing in itself. In fact, the Boers – and their present-day descendants, now known as "Afrikaners" — have always had difficulty in explaining in a few short sentences exactly who and what they were. The word "Boer," simply means "farmer" in Dutch. And that, essentially, is who and what the Boers used to be in the beginning. A race that was comprised almost exclusively of farmers. In order to trace the roots of the Boers, it is necessary to travel back in time to the year 1652, when a Dutch commander by the name of Jan van Riebeeck, was sent to the Cape of Good Hope in order to establish a half-way station for Dutch ships rounding Africa on their toilsome journeys to the East. Along with van Riebeeck, came a handful of Dutch settlers who were supposed to work the land in order to produce food for the passing merchant ships. This group of people gradually grew in numbers as the years went by. Most of them remained farmers, in the areas surrounding present-day Cape Town, until the need for space began to cause them to drift ever-further inland.

Meanwhile, in 1685, the Edict of Nantes was formally revoked in France. After decades of sporadic civil war between Catholics and Protestants, it was now final: All Protestants in France would henceforth be brutally tortured, persecuted and killed for their faith. Although the Protestants formed a minority in France, a full third of the nobility were Protestant. Faced with new repression and severe persecution, thousands decide to leave their home country for ever. An enormous outflow of French Huguenots resulted. Between 75,000 and 100,000 French Huguenots fled to the Netherlands, where the Protestant state received them most warmly. Recognising that the French Huguenots often came from good backgrounds, and possessed valuable agricultural skills, it was decided to offer free passage to the Cape of Good Hope, where more agriculturalists were desperately needed. And so, an immigration of some fine French families into the Cape resulted.

At the Cape, the Dutch and Huguenot families gradually began to mix. Along with these two principle groups, a smattering of other nations were mixed in, but for the time being, the two main groups would be Dutch and French. As a language, French disappeared rather quickly, and Dutch remained as official language. With the passage of the years, this new embryonic group of people slowly began to evolve into a miniature little nation with its own customs and habits. Although the official language would remain Dutch for many years, the commonly spoken language was changing into a brand new language, which would in time, be known as "Afrikaans." These people began to drift away from the Cape into the wild, unknown wilderness beyond the mountains of the Cape, and eventually settled as far as Graaff-Reinet and Swellendam. They remained essentially farmers, and faced with the harshness of the African wilderness, they had to quickly learn to become self-sufficient and brave, or simply die in an unforgiving land.

In 1795 the Kaap de Goede Hoop was occupied by Great Britain and changed to "The Cape of Good Hope." The occupation, which was to last eight years, brought some English colonists to join the new gene pool. The farmers on the borders of the Cape, had been involved for years in bitter wars against the neighbouring black tribes where the two groups had met for the first time. Britain now stepped in to try and bring peace to the land, but by openly taking the side of the black tribes against that of the white settlers, the situation only became worse. After a brief period back under rule of the Batavian Republic, from 1803 to 1806, the Cape once again fell under British occupation. This time, Great Britain set about bringing far-reaching changes to the country’s economic and social conditions. The farmer-colonists, became ever-more dissatisfied as the border wars continued, while they themselves were being harshly dealt with by the British authorities. In 1820, a scheme was set up whereby large numbers of British colonists would be imported in order to form a buffer between the warring factions, and to develop the colony. Some blood mixed between the farmer-colonists and the immigrants in the process. These quickly became known as the "1820 British Settlers." The process of blood-mixing, wasn’t to last very long, however. All over the Cape Colony, the farmers were fed-up with British rule and the changing conditions.

The Great Trek

After much debating, it was finally resolved that they would form an mass-Exodus as their forefathers had from France, and leave the boundaries of the hated British administration for good. Accordingly, about 15,000 "border-farmers" as they were called, set out for the wild, uncharted wilderness of the interior between 1834 and 1840. The "Great Trek" had started. What followed, was years of intense hardship and adventure, where death became the Trekkers’ constant companion. Their fear, however, was always balanced by the strong Protestant faith which had so far remained undimmed. The "Voortrekkers" as they were now called, eventually formed an independent state in what is today part of Natal. The Republic of Natalia, would last a mere four years, however. The British government was determined that the Trekkers would remain its subjects, and accordingly, they regarded any land that the Voortrekkers colonized as their own. Some fighting resulted, but the end of the matter was that the British military might finally drove the Voortrekkers back into the unknown wilderness once more. On vast open stretches of the interior, where the British navy could not reach them, the Voortrekkers found what they had been looking for for so long: freedom. The land was wild and untamed. Strange beasts, the likes of which they had never known before, brought both wonder and terror to every day life. Gradually, though, the Trekkers began to win the land and tame it. Living as subsistence farmers, many of the once-wealthy Cape farmers gradually began to build their lives and their fortunes once more. By this time the Voortrekkers were known simply as "Boers" or farmers, and the term "Voortrekker had passed away.

The Boer Republics

In the two separate republics of the Orange Free State and the Transvaal, the settlers lived the happy and free lifestyles of pastoralists. Their states were always tottering on the verge of bankruptcy, and those who had much money to spare, didn’t care about paying taxes to anybody but God. Occasionally, there were wars with the surrounding black tribes — as there would be for many years to come. Even so, the two republics were slowly being built into islands of civilization in an ocean of wilderness. But peace would not last forever. With the land half-tamed by the Voortrekkers, the British government proceeded to colonize and develop neighbouring Natal, plus the surrounding kingdom of Zululand. Those that had insight, recognized that trouble was again brewing on the horizon. It wasn’t long in coming. When diamonds was discovered near the confluence of the Vaal and Harts rivers, and gold in the Transvaal, Britain suddenly began to take notice of what she had up till then ignored as "worthless land fit only for savages." Accordingly, Great Britain stepped in yet again, and in a series of clever diplomatic moves, secured the diamond fields for herself. Shortly thereafter, in 1877 Britain annexed the republic of Transvaal. The Boers were dismayed to find themselves back under the Union Jack – the Flag that they had come to hate so much.

First Anglo-Boer War and the Discovery of More Gold

The Boers endured British occupation for only a few short years. In 1881, the Boers crossed swords with the British forces for the first time since the days of the Republic of Natalia. It resulted in a resounding British defeat. If they thought that the saga against Great Britain was now over, the Boers were sadly mistaken. For now, it wasn’t worth the effort and expense to go after the Boer republics again. But when the greatest gold deposits in the world were discovered in Johannesburg in 1886, it was a different storey. Suddenly England needed control of that gold supply in order to maintain her position as world economic leader, and to guarantee the continued existence of the gold standard. A lot of diplomatic dancing on eggs was done, but it eventually became clear that England was preparing for war against the Boers once more. This time, however, the Boers were going to strike the first blow.

Second Anglo-Boer War

Realizing that their only chance of success lay in severely shattering the British army before it could manage to pour in more masses of troops and war materials, the two Boer republics formally declared war in the spring of 1899. But their timing was too late. It would ultimately be the most expensive war in living memory for both Boer and Briton It would be a war that would cost the Boers their independence, and by the time that the Second Anglo-Boer War was over 1902, the word "Boer" would no longer be used. Shortly after the war, the Boers were beginning to be referred to as "Afrikaners" instead. Today, the word "Boer" is used rather seldom, and often times more in a right-wing political context. The confusion as to precisely what is meant by the word "Afrikaner," however seem to be if anything, more than what it used to be when Afrikaners were still called Boers!

One important point which should be clarified, is the use of the word "Dutchmen" when referring to the Boers. It is important to note that the Boers had ceased thinking of themselves as "Dutchmen" a long time before the Anglo-Boer Wars. Indeed, by the time of the 1830's the Boers were so utterly different in character from the Dutch that they no longer wanted to be called such. During the latter part of the century the Boers already didn’t have very close ties with the Netherlands anymore, and frequently complained about the masses of Hollanders that were "flooding the country." Where many British sources are thus referring to the Boers as "Dutch" or "Hollanders," it should be clearly understood that this is a total misapplication of the term.




Often referred to by British writers as "dirty Dutchmen," "backward Boers," or "ignorant Dutch," the Boers were at first somewhat of a mystery during the Second Anglo-Boer War.

When Tommy Atkins and his comrades first took to the field in South Africa, they had been told a great deal about the cruel barbarities of the Boer people. Of how they would spare neither women nor babies in their lust for blood, loot and revenge. From the stories that were told, it seemed as if the Boers were indeed hairy, primitive barbarians who were a danger to the free world, and whose conduct, appearance and tactics would put the fear of God into people’s hearts.

Imagine their surprise – as many letters, accounts and diaries attest to – when they finally found the Boers to look in nearly every respect, exactly as they themselves did. Much greater still, was their surprise when they discovered the Boers to be, on the whole, not cruel monsters who would show now mercy and delighted in the taste of blood, but peace-loving pastoralists who often acted according to the traditional rules of "British fair play and gentlemanly conduct" much more than they themselves.

The propaganda game

The British soldiers would ultimately come to discover that a clever game of political game of propaganda was being played in England. And understandably so. It was hard enough to be involved in an immoral war fought for more immoral reasons as was the casse during the Second Anglo-Boer War. It seemed that the press and public opinions of virtually the entire free world had combined in their unanimous condemnation of Britain’s antagonism. The politicians therefore had to play a game of indoctrination in order to make it seem as if the Boers had been the aggressors from the very start. They were also most frequently made out to be "backward, illiterate savages" of a most brutal nature. The reason for this too, is not hard to guess. Somehow, it always seems less condemnable if acts of aggression are committed against people who are perceived as being brutal, dishonest, primitive and deserving of what they got. No one pities a thief when he is robbed. Similarly, nobody pities a rapist or brutal criminal when he is lynched by a mob. They know it is wrong all the same, but somehow the low class and wickedness of the transgressor seems to justify the acts of those "doing unto him as he did unto others." As one Englishmen wrote to the Boers at the beginning of the war: "May the Lord make you thankful for what you are about to receive..."

This indoctrination process became so firmly entrenched, that parts of it have survived to this very day. In many of the war’s more biassed and slanted history books, the illusion still remains that the Boers were somehow a primitive race of religious bigots who deserved to have their country taken from them – even though such an act might perhaps have been wrong in the first place. It has long been held in "civilized circles" that in love an war, all is fair. It does seem, however, that one of the lowest forms of warfare, has always been the act of destroying the honest personal integrity and good character of one’s enemy.

This attitude seems to have been reflected in the writings and remarks of many people who have drawn on the experiences of persons with such a propagandistic leaning. Mr. Ralph, an American reporter, was quoted as having remarked: "They are the worst-looking men I have ever seen. They are wild-eyed, savage, dull witted, misshapen. Those who show symptoms of a brain appear to be unbalanced..." He went further to state that, "The different parts of their bodies do not fit together. This one’s legs do not match his trunk. The next one has a head like a button on the shoulders of n ox. A fourth has the long arms of an orang-outang." Hardly fair comments considering that many writers have attested to the fact that British and Boers looked completely alike when taken out of uniform! But this has been the kind of propaganda, which regularly appeared in the British press in order to fuel patriotic fervour and support for the war effort.

Elsewhere, mention is made of Boer prisoners as being a "shabby, dirty, dilapidated lot of men with not a touch of soldierly smartness about them. As they came forth from their lairs, clad in ill-fitting garments of extra-ordinary incongruity, laden with parcels, bundles, teapots, and bottles; many with umbrellas and many with goloshes, those last refuges of the effeminate; in appearance a mob of frowsy vagrants; officers and men wondered that such a force had been able to hold back a splendidly disciplined British division for a while day at Modder River, to repel at Magersfontein the desperate valour of the Highlanders, and at Paardeberg to endure nine days of battle and terrible bombardment" (With the Flag to Pretoria, p. 433). What isn’t mentioned, is the fact that the Boers had just survived days upon days of some of the fiercest fighting, and most intense artillery bombardments of the war — huddled in hastily-dug bomb-shelters. Not only that, but according to war accounts, the British troops appeared little less haggard, as they’d been fighting out in the field for weeks under sometimes even worse conditions!

The propaganda effort went further, however. Even the wife of the gallant war-hero, general Cronjé wasn’t spared. Calling her a "thin, decrepit old woman, and in rough straw hat and dirty old black dress, without cloak or shawl of any short," the correspondent continued to say that she was "presenting a hopelessly miserable, draggled, and woebegone appearance." While the above might have been nominally true it deserves to be said that Mrs. Cronjé had just survived the same conditions as the rest of the Boer prisoners, huddled in an underground bomb-shelter. Any lack of freshness in her appearance might therefore easily have been forgiven. Disregarding this needless attack on a con-combatant lady of high social standing, the effect of such reports on the British public can easily be judged. No wonder the Boers were dismissed as a dour, primitive people! Unfortunately, reports such as these are what the British public received, and reports such as these are what they believed to be true about the war in South Africa.

Should it be argued that the attack of the Boer people’s character had been part of an officially-organized conspiracy? In part, that might have been true. On the whole, however, it could probably more likely be true that such misguided echoing of official sentiment, must have stemmed mainly from the spontaneous desire to make the war appear more fair and just, on the part of war correspondents and writers. It could very well have been an attitude which had arisen more-or-less spontaneously among members of the British media at large.

Other writers, mercifully, displayed a more balanced and fair sense of reporting ethics. One of the most glowing testimonies to the Boer character and background, was written by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, writer of "The Great Boer War," and made famous by his "Sherlock Holmes" series. Doyle, who was with the British army for a good part of the war, wrote in a rather dramatic style on this subject, but his quote does serve to illuminate the other side of the Boer character rather eloquently. Believing the war to be over soon, he wrote, "And so we have come to the end of the long road, past the battle of the pens and the wrangling of tongues, to the arbitrament of the Lee-Metford and the Mauser. It was pitiable that it should come to this. These people were a near akin to us as any race which is not our own. They were of the same Frisian stock which people our own shores. In habit of mind, in religion, in respect for law, they were as ourselves. Brave, too, they were, and hospitable, with those sporting instincts which are so dear to the Anglo-Celtic race. There was not people in the world who had more qualities which we might admire, and not the least of them was that love of independence which it is our proudest boast that we have encouraged in others as well as exercised ourselves. They were a community of Dutchmen of the type of those who defended themselves against all the power of Spain, at the time the greatest power in the world. They were intermixed with a strain of those inflexible French Huguenots who gave up home and fortune and left their country for ever. The product of this combination must inevitably be one of the most rugged, virile, unconquerable races ever seen on earth. Take this formidable people and train them for seven generation in constant warfare against circumstances under which no weakling could survive, place them so that they acquire exceptional skill with weapons and in horsemanship, give them a country which is eminently suitable to the tactics of the huntsman and the rider. Finally put a finer temper upon their military qualities by a dour fatalistic Old Testament religion and an ardent and consuming patriotism. Combine all these qualities and all those impulses in one individual and you have the modern Boer - the most formidable antagonist who ever crossed the path of Imperial Britain!..."

In this sentiment Doyle was joined by president Theodore Roosevelt, who wrote in his book African Game Trails, An Account of the African Wanderings of an American Hunter-Naturalist, "The Boers have provided themselves too hard a nut to crack for even Great Britain with all her might. Five years after a devastating war they are again in the ascendancy. They cannot be suppressed! They are bound to become a great nation because they possess the three essential qualities which go to the making of a great nation: ‘They are good fathers, good fighters and good Christians" (p. 19-21)


One of the national character traits which many writers of different views have agreed upon, has always been the fact that the Boers as a nation, were extremely religious people. In fact, so much so that it might very possibly be argued that the Boers might have been, seen as a nation, at least one of the most religious people at that time.

Scores of official Boer wartime telegrams, official dispatches, letters and diaries make repeated mention of spiritual matters such as the need to keep faith, the need to beseech God for victory in battle, etc. In his book Mounted Infantry at War, Boer War Sketches, Capt. Stratford St. Leger writes, for example, "The Boers as a rule are very strict from a religious point of view, and never retire to rest without singing a hymn and offering up a prayer." Many Boer sources also substantiate this point. Other observers wrote how, after the resounding Boer victory at Colenso, the commandoes did not indulge in wild celebrating, but rather spent the evening singing songs of praise to thank God for their victory. "It was very weird at night to hear the rough, untrained voices chanting the Psalms in various keys," Stratford St. Leger continues to say. Most of the large commandoes had their own church ministers who accompanied them to the field. On Sundays, at least two services were usually held. As far as possible the Boers also tried to avoid any fighting or trekking on Sundays. It must be said, though, that the religious fervour at the time of the Boer War, was nowhere near what it must have been during the days of the Great Trek. Some Boer journals, for example, mention how the authors felt embarrassed by the religious ceremonies. General Ben Viljoen, for one, was once called upon to give a public prayer – something which afforded him considerable embarrassment.

Nevertheless, the Boers seemed to display particularly great faith in times of trouble. Time after time, both president Paul Kruger and commandant Piet Joubert sent messages assuring their commanders that God would grant them victory if they would only believe explicitly and undoubtingly the He would do so. President Kruger even went so far as to urge his commanders to include words of spiritual upliftment in their telegrams wherever possible and applicable. Also in the concentration camps and prisoner of war camps, much mention is made of frequent church services, as well as much praying and Bible study. One also finds that the Boers placed tremendous value on the leadership of spiritual leaders. General Paul Roux, for example, was convinced by his burghers to exchange his position as minister of religion, for that of general. Another minister, affectionately known as "Vader Kestell" was made a similar offer, which he wisely declined. If the Boers thought that their religious leaders could guarantee miracles as Moses once did to the Israelites, they were sadly mistaken. In the Anglo-Boer War, at least, it was more the quality of officers and strategy which counted. Even overseas, much note was taken of the Boers’ religious drive. This was no doubt one of the main reasons why the Boers found so much church support in European countries, as well as in Russia.


Were the Boers brave as fighters? This is a valid question since the Boers have often been labelled by the propaganda machine as cowards in England and elsewhere. "Before the war the colonists told us that the Boer was a coward and could not shoot," Atkins writes on his way home England. "They continued to say that after a couple of months in the field the Boers would fly incontinently home," he goes on to say. Atkins then concludes this line of thought by saying: "Now there never was a greater misjudgement of a national character, and when the shock of realisation came there was a natural, indeed inevitable, tendency on the part of Imperial officers to rush to the other extreme..." (Quoted in The Road to Infamy.)

What sometimes made the British soldiers conclude that the Boers did not have the "stomach for a good fight," was the fact that the Boers knew that it would be of no use to pit themselves against overwhelming numbers in an all-out fight. Being greatly outnumbered, they wisely realized that they should only fight when the odds were in their favour. This attitude frustrated the British soldiers to no end. Many a soldier wrote despairingly during Lord Roberts’ advance through the Orange Free State, how only large dust clouds of the retreating could forever be seen on the distant horizon. Many complained that the Boers would seldom stand and give fight, and would rather often be seen merely "galloping away on their ponies." This was, of course, because the Boers knew it would have been futile to make a stand on the open plains where they would have been out-flanked and encircled within a matter of hours. They had realized early on that to engage an enemy which was vastly superior in number, without being in some kind of superior strategic position, would be military suicide for the Boer commandos. When the right opportunities arose where they could and would stand firm, on the other hand, the Boers mostly rose to the occasion with great gallantry which was well-admired by their enemies. On the last day of the Battle of the Tugela Heights, when it was necessary to defend the Boer positions to the last man, many of them did – even after the situation became completely hopeless. "Carried at the point of bayonet," British reports said. In sections of the trenches, the Boers did remain fighting until all were either killed or captured as the soldiers actually jumped into the trenches and overwhelmed them.

At "Krugersdorp koppie," also, where the South African Police unit was virtually wiped out as a fighting unit, they stayed and fought until most men were either wounded, dead or too weak to continue. Instances of spectacular Boer bravery where bravery was called for, are legion. It wasn’t only heroic defence which caught the attention either. In many cases, the Boers launched attacks of awe-inspiring bravery. At the Battle of Bakenlaagte and others, the Boers simply charged into a wall of bullets and shrapnel at full speed, firing from the saddle, showing complete disregard for the death that was around them. When commandant Potgieter was killed in a similar stormjaag incident, the attack was reported with the greatest respect for the bravery of the Boers. This turned out to be one of the most dramatic "cavalry" charge of the War — and also happened to be probably the last big one of the war

In all fairness, it deserves to be said that most of the British officers who got to know the commandoes well, rarely failed to mention the bravery of the Boers. The common British soldier had great respect for bravery, and rarely failed to admire it – even if the example came from the enemy. Certainly there were numerous exceptions. When the Boers went to war, it was as an entire nation. Cowards as well as the brave. The cowards, which are to be found among all nations, soon became sifted out. Incidentally, the Boers also made good mention of circumstances where the British soldiers had displayed remarkable courage. In short, few people have ever made any serious argument that either the Boers or the British – as an army in general – ever displayed anything but the most solid bravery when called for.


But what about the general character of the Boer people? Were they really superstitious, ultra-conservative, sour, mean, unfriendly or cruel?

One thing to which the continued hope and existence of the Boers as a nation, can probably be accounted to, was their unfailing sense of humour. Reading through dozens of accounts of life on commando, one is invariably struck by how the Boers managed to maintain their sense of humour during even the blackest of moments. "The Boers are endowed with a sense of humour," Stratford St. Leger dryly notes in his book. Actually, there is no shortage of examples as to the practical jokes and horseplay which abounded on commando. A frequent trick was to place the spiny seed of an olieboom or Datura stramonium weed underneath the saddle-cloth of a friend. As soon as the animal was mounted, it would invariably start to buck wildly – much to the amusement of the commando members, and much to the distress of the rider who couldn’t help but wonder frantically about what madness had suddenly come over his mount!

Numerous games were played on commando too. The Boers liked to shoot each other high into the air by means of drawing a soft cattle hide tight in trampoline-fashion, and there were contests of physical strength and skill. It was incidences where the Boers tried to play their enemies for the fool, however, which seem most amusing. Men like general Ben Viljoen, Wynand Malan and others had a particular good sense of humour and displayed them frequently. On one occasion a small number of burghers pestered general Viljoen so much for permission to go home on leave, that he wrote on their passes: "Permission to go on leave, on account of cowardice." No doubt he must have chuckled at what would have happened at the next station, as he saw the men pocket their passes without so much as a glance to it. General Malan too, seemed to have taken great delight in playing a personal game of cat-and-mouse with his old professional arch-enemy, colonel Scobell. When at the conclusion of the War, Scobell rushed into general Malan’s train in order to physically even the score, his men could not contain their laughter, and to loud cries of: "Kick him out! Kick him out!" he was actually kicked off the train by the returning burghers!


Were they "illiterate savages" as was sometimes reported? Whilst true that there were a good number of Boers who couldn’t read or write, it seems clear from a variety of sources, that perhaps the greater majority of them could. This was no small achievement, for most Boers had grown up during a time when there were no schools in the Boer republics. Since the days of the Great Trek, it had been customary for parents to teach their children the basic skills of reading and writing from the Bible, written in hard-to-understand High Dutch, and often also in hard-to-read Gothic letter types! Little mention seems to have been made of totally illiterate Boers. In a few instances, diarists made mention of how surprised their captive British soldiers had been to find that their captors were reading classic pieces of literature that was well above the abilities of the ordinary man. Schikkerling, for example, mentions his delight at finding works of Shakespeare and others. Many Boers had also mastered a variety of foreign languages. An adequate knowledge of English amongst many Boers, was considered a basic mark of a good education, and many seemed to have possessed this skill. Some of the younger generation, such as Schikkerling, Deneys Reitz, Rothman and others had come from intellectual families, and had had good very good schooling at the Pretoria Gymnasium. Some played musical instruments. A man named Blankenberg, for example, carried his violin with him throughout the entire war. Soldiers were also amazed to sometimes find men reading works in German and French, or asking questions which revealed considerable political or philosophical insight. Funnily enough, one soldier thought it very funny that the Boers should be speaking "better English than they [meaning ‘we’] do."


One nearly unfailing characteristic of the Boer people, has always been their remarkable hospitality. During the war, this changed sometimes, but on the whole, many travellers had been very impressed with the kindness that they had received from the Boers. In the words of the well-known industrialist, Sammy Marks: "Now, there isn’t a more open-hearted class of people than the real old Dutch people. They are charitable, hospitable, and so forth..." — (Sammy Marks, The Uncrowned King of the Transvaal., p. 236-237). Baldwin, a famous ivory hunter during the eighteen hundreds wrote: "I must say that very rarely, if ever, will they [the Boers] accept payment for food or anything taken in their own houses, and they are remarkably hospitable" (p. 146)

He was further of the opinion that: "The Boers are also great musicians, and very fond of dancing, and appear to live exceedingly happily. Many of the Dutch [sic] nös [women], or young maidens, are very pretty; and they are a very moral set of people... They are a primitive, hospitable, good-hearted set; marry very young; live to a good old age generally; and very frequently have large families, and most of them are very comfortably off, and take things very easy. Some of the poorer, however, both live and work very hard; but their wants are few, as they are brought up to do everything for themselves" (p. 163-166). And Gordon Cumming, reported that, "We were treated most hospitably and kindly by one and all the Boers in the neighbourhood.."

Even a most cynical Jingo like Louis Cohen, who so rarely had anything good to say about anyone that he found himself jailed for defamation at least once, wrote the following: "For myself, I affirm that speaking generally, I have found the Boers kindly and hospitable people. Wen I travelled around in the seventies and wandered into remote districts of the Transvaal, it would have been impossible to meet anywhere more benevolent folk than the primitive tillers who greeted me with a simple and unselfish welcome. If a cold or hostile reception fell to my lot, it was accorded by those Dutch whose hospitality had been outraged, their confidence betrayed. To tell the honest truth, whenever I have had the door shut in my face, ti has, nine times out of ten, been performed by German or British farmers who often grudged one the time of day, a glass of water, a rest on their stoep" (p. 178).

Meanness and cruelty

Were they ever mean or cruel? In some cases, certainly. Especially against their own kind, as is amply to be seen from the cruel treatment that came from the so-called "hans-kakies," or "joiners" who joined the British forces to fight against their own kin. As a nation, however, the Boers appeared to be hard fighters, but kind and gentle people – including to their enemies. Scores of testimonies exist of the kindness that had been shown to wounded and captured British soldiers. When Lord Methuen was captured by general De la Rey, he was given the best possible treatment by De la Rey’s own physician. Finding that the wounded general couldn’t be treated properly in the field, it was decided to send the high officer back to his own. This has been a most magnanimous act, since Lord Methuen, as both a general and a British peer, could have been an extremely valuable hostage who might have been used in a most valuable way. He was also, incidentally, the first and only British general to be captured in the war. Many soldiers were amazed to find their wounds being carefully tended by the people they had been told were so cruel and heartless. Not of few of them recorded their amazement on paper too.

Forgive and forget

One thing that must be borne in mind, is how strongly the Boers believed in the Biblical principle of "do unto others as you would have done unto yourself," and the principle of "turning the other cheek." In fact, so strongly did the Boers believe in this, that this principle might have cost the Boers at least two of the most devastating and complete victories of the entire war. This happened during the war in Natal when commandant-general Piet Joubert twice had the golden opportunity of pursuing his fleeing enemy and of either seriously shattering his opponents, or perhaps annihilating them entirely. But it was Joubert’s principle that: "If the Lord gives us a finger, we should not want to grab the whole hand," which cost him a victory which might have stopped the war right there.

There were also accounts of how te Boer women would hastily prepare food and drink for British columns that passed their farms during the initial phase of the war as generals Buller and Roberts’ armies began to march through the Boer republics. That many of those same columns later returned to burn down these same homes, is a point of bitter irony. Another point which stands to the compliment of the Boer character, was their amazing ability and willingness to "forgive and forget." This can be seen from many concentration camp accounts. In many cases, women who had been severely maltreated, starved and humiliated, refused to hate their enemies. Even after the war, the breach between Boer and Briton was so quickly healed to a large extent, that one cannot fail to be amazed at it. In the words of the wife of an important Boer officer as a passing column was burning down her home: "I know that you are only obeying orders and doing your duty..." Naturally, and by all means, not all Boers felt this way, but a large percentage certainly did.

Another point which strikes any researcher sooner-or-later is how often the Boers made remark of how they felt sorry for the "ordinary Tommy" or British soldier. Especially during times of bad weather, or when they were forced to take the boots and clothes of their captured prisoners. Many writers made mention of the fact that they felt sorry for the soldiers who had to suffer and lose their lives for the sake of the selfish ambition of politicians that were using them as cannon fodder to achieve their own desires. There were incidences of where Boers had shared their blankets with their captives on cold winter nights, or where they had actually given their only blankets to wounded captives. It is an interesting fact that wherever Boers and Britons came together for some period of time, they usually found each other remarkably pleasant company. Tobacco, cigarettes, war news and the likes were frequently exchanged.

Issues of cleanliness

Lastly, it is perhaps important that another accusation against the Boer character be addressed. As the Boer death-rate began to sky-rocket in the civilian concentration camps, the explanation was frequently given that "the Boers were dirty, lived unhygienically, and refused to obey sanitary regulations. This was sometimes stated in rather forceful terms. Equally forcefully, there can be said that this excuse cannot be termed anything but a blatant lie of grotesque proportions and malicious intent. The fact is that the concentration camps offered virtually now sanitary measures of real practical value. The Boers have always placed great emphasis on cleanliness, neatness and tidiness. As Cumming recorded: "The Dutch are particularly cleanly in their establishments and cooking, and moreover possess a very fair notion of the culinary art, their tables in general being graced with several very excellent and substantial dishes." It has been a matter of importance to Boers of old that their homes and appearances always be clean and pleasing.

That personal hygiene was important at all times, can be amply seen from any number of Boer accounts in which the high financial value of a simple bar of soap was expressed. The commandoes rarely had enough supplies of soap. Sometimes the commandoes actually made their own soap in the field by boiling animal fat with lye extracted from the ashes of certain burnt plants. Soap was always carefully cherished, regretfully traded, and diligently searched out. Naturally, men who were out on commando for long periods of time eventually did become rather dirty and unkept, but the same was true of the British soldiers. In fact, the Boers seemed to have made frequent mention of the dirty and appearance of their British captives. The Boers also dreaded having to put on British clothes before having sterilised them first, owing to the presence of lice in the clothes – something which bothered the commandoes to a far smaller extent. If all of the above was true of the men, it certainly would have been much more so of the women and children in the concentration camps.


In conclusion it must be said in all fairness that as far as moral and social values were concerned, the Boers were a race and a nation that could hold its head high with pride and dignity. Rarely in the course of human history had a war been more honourably lost, than in the case of the Boers during the Anglo-Boer War. It is a sad thing that a brave and honourable enemy had had to be so frequently vilified and its character so unfairly attacked as in this war. The Boers eventually lost most of what they had. Many lost the precious and irreplaceable lives of their families and friends. Nearly all lost a major part of their belongings, their wealth, the work of a generation... In some cases, their honour and dignity was the last of anything that those Boers still possessed after the last shots had been fired. It stands to eternal shame that the names and honour of such men and women of character should have been damaged so severely.

By contrast, it deserves to be noted that there are those who have always insisted, since the time of the Boer War, that the Boers had been some kind of super race. That they had been only noble, only honest and of the most sterling personal quality found among men. Such authors have depicted the Boers as being religiously nearly perfect, and of being virtually irreproachable in their every day conduct. This, however, is also not an honest assertion. The Boers were ordinary people, just like many others. They were a nation of many failings, together witch much good. Certainly, the Boer nation, at the time of the Boer War, seemed to exhibit general standards of morality that seemed to have been superior to many other nations at that time, but they were never perfect and never faultless. That much deserves to be said in order to balance the arguments.

It may be fitting to quote the words of Atkins as he sailed away from the Boer War to go and write his momentous work on the Anglo-Boer War, in England: "Lastly, I must say something about the accusations against the Boers (and there were many) of improperly using white flags, ambulances and so forth. A judicial observer has said to me: ‘Two-fifths of the stories are lies, two-fifths are accounted for by the mistakes and accidents of the battlefield, and one-fifth are true.’"

Perhaps the same could be said of other matters too. As Atkins rightly pointed out, there were exceptions. This is an important principle. There are always exceptions. However, on the whole and seen as a nation, the Boers undoubtedly left a track record in times of battle and adversity of which their descendants can be justly proud.


Geskiedenis Van Die Tweede Vryheidsoorlog in Suid Afrika, 1899-1902. Vol. I., Breytenbach, J.H., Die Staatsdrukker, Pretoria, 1973.
African Game Trails., An Account of the African Wanderings of an American Hunter-Naturalist., Roosevelt, T., Charles Schribner’s Son., 1910
AFRICAN HUNTING., Charles Baldwin., African Hunting Reprint Series., Volume 4., Books of Zimbabwe., Bulawayo., 1981
Mounted Infantry at War, Boer War Sketches., St. Leger, S., Galago Publishing (Pty) Ltd., 1986.
SAMMY MARKS. The Uncrowned King of the Transvaal., Richard Mendelsohn., Ohio University Press., Scott Quadrangle, Athens, Ohio., 1991
The Great Boer War., Doyle, A.C., George Bell & Sons., London., 1900.
The Road to Infamy, (1899-1900)., Coetzer, O., William Waterman Publications., Rivonia., 1996
The French Huguenots., Theron, F. & Joyce, P., Struik, Cape Town., 1988