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The Second Boer War was the world's first colonial war between european peoples, and the final phase in the British colonisation of South Africa.
The Boers were the descendants of Dutch settlers that founded the Cape Colony in the mid 17th Century. Over the course of the 17th and 18th centuries, their language and culture diverged from that of the Netherlands (the Boers were Protestant almost to a man). In time, their tongue--different enough to be considered a separate language, similar enough to still be largely understood by a speaker of Standard Dutch--became known as Afrikaans, and the people Afrikaners. However, it took a while for these labels to catch on; even they weren't sure what to call themselves for the longest time, and until a certain, unclear point in the early 20th century, the English-speaking world called them Boers--Afrikaans and Dutch for "Farmers" (which most of them were).
Eventually, the Boers made the trek from Cape Colony to the Interior of South Africa (known as the Great Trek), which got them into conflict with the Zulus already living there, as well as, from the 1840's onward, the British.
The First Boer War was fought between British already in South Africa and the Transvaal or South African Republic (not to be confused with today's South Africa.) and ended in a victory for the Boers, with the government calling it quits - in the face of Boer resistance, it wasn't worth the time or money to subjugate them, and as long as they were in no position to overrun British South Africa the Crown had no problem with them being there.
The Second war was caused by increased tensions between the British and the Boer states of Transvaal and the Orange Free State, exacerbated by the discovery of the world's greatest gold deposits in said Boer States. (during the 20th century, South Africa produced >50% of the world's gold). British merchants like Cecil Rhodes - 'founder' of British Rhodesia - wanted in, and they agitated for the government to annex the Boer states, by force if necessary.
The resultant war was long, and bloody. It has been described by American historians as 'Britain's Vietnam, only not' - though a better way to put it might be that the American phase of the Vietnam War was like the Boer War, except they lost. The war went badly for Britain initially, but the Empire eventually abandoned all pretensions of limited warfare and poured everything it had into winning, bankrolled as they were by merchants eager to see the fields of Witterstrand under British administration so that they might invest in them and reap the benefits of the boom. The Army eventually resorted to rounding up entire Boer communities and imprisoning them in so-called 'Concentration Camps', the first widespread use of the strategy. Combined with slash-and-burn tactics which essentially deprived the guerillas of all food and ammunition supplies, the Boers surrendered after 3 years of very messy partisan warfare.
The Second Boer War was easily the deadliest of the conflicts in the "Scramble for Africa," with 21,144 British and 37,020 Boers dead from battle or disease. Most of the Boer casualties were civilians who died in internment, the result of poor administration which initially left many camps under-supplied. None died of starvation itself, but the malnutrition left many weakened and susceptible to diseases which spread easily in the confines of the camps.
Tropes involved during the war:
- A Father to His Men: "Uncle" Paul Kruger
- Brits With Battleships: The Second Boer War, like Vietnam, was not won on the battlefield. The British Lee-Enfield rifle was a good weapon, but the , Mausers and Krag-Jørgensens used by the Boers were better, and they knew how to use them better than the British conscripts.
- Bug Catching: Robert Baden-Powell's favourite cover story when he went spying was posing as a butterfly collector, who apparently looked silly enough chasing those bugs to the amused Boers for them to not notice that he only found the ones around their fortifications interesting.
- Colonel Badass: Robert Baden-Powell, the founder of the Boy Scouts, made his name in this war.
- Combat Pragmatist: The Boers used only guerilla tactics. In response, the British rounded up the rural civilian population of Boer South Africa and put them in camps. Quid pro Quo?
- Determined Homesteader: This is what the Boers saw themselves as. Whether or not this justifies the bloodshed they chose over submitting peacefully, given their odds of winning, depends on what side you're on.
- Grey and Grey Morality: Britain was the most benign of the Imperial powers, but even if their rule brought prosperity to the regions they governed the process left a lot of social problems when they left, and there was always a gap between the lofty ideals the government claimed as its reasoning and the business interests in the colonies it usually sided with. Likewise, it wasn't the British who instituted apartheid and its precursor policies, but the Boers once they managed to take over the administration of British South Africa from the inside.
- The relationship between the Boers and the English was never particularly good. Novels such as 'Kringe In Die Bos' and 'Fiela Se Kind' shows the Boers living in the Cape Colonies as poor, uneducated manual labour being looked down at and exploited by the rich English land owners.
- Hey, It's That Guy! : Winston Churchill was a soldier, an Intrepid Reporter, and a fugitive during this period. He escaped from the POW prison in Pretoria, which was a converted school building.
- Baden Powell founder of the Boy Scouts.
- The Siege: The first two years of the war were dominated by this. The 'good guys' are who you think they are.
Depictions in fiction
- The Defence of Duffer's Drift is set during the war, and features a young lieutenant fighting a small skirmish from it over and over until he finally gets it right. It's used as a standard military text in many academies, in addition to being a delightfully snarky work in its own right.
- Dinsmoore, from an episode of The Transformers, somehow has painful memories of the Boer War... in 1985. He looks old, but not THAT old...
- Breaker Morant