Wednesday, June 1, 2016

BOER WAR | May 31–Peace Treaty Signed

New Edition (2013) of an
old book (1899-1900) by
Charles Boissevain.
This day in 1902, in Pretoria, representatives of Great Britain and the Boer states signed the Treaty of Vereeniging, officially bringing to an end the second Boer War in South Africa.

The Boers, which means farmers in Dutch, are also known as Afrikaners. They descended from the original Dutch settlers of southern Africa who came to South Africa to obtain land to farm on, in a period when imperialism was in the air in Europe and Europeans patriotically traveled to other countries to help plant their national flags.

The Dutch became well established in what we call today Indonesia (which they called India), the Caribbean, and in South Africa. However, Britain occupied the Dutch Cape Colony in 1806 during the Napoleonic wars. The Boers did not like being under British rule and in 1833 began an exodus into African tribal territory, where they founded the republics of the Transvaal and the Orange Free State.

The two new republics lived peaceably with their British neighbors until 1867, when the discovery of diamonds and gold in the Dutch region attracted the envy of British empire-builders.  Preeminent among them was Cecil Rhodes, who coveted a British empire stretching "from Cape Town to Cairo"–a vision that he helped make a reality.

The first major discovery was on the Orange Free State farm of Boers named de Beer, who gave their name to a diamond-selling company created by Cecil Rhodes; the original de Beers did not profit from the diamonds that were found on their property. The de Beer company still controls one-third of the diamond market. Another diamond discovery occurred in the Transvaal near Pretoria, creating a rival diamond company controlled by the Oppenheimer family until the de Beers company absorbed it.

The first Boer War with Britain began as skirmishes in the 1890s. In 1899 this erupted into a full-scale war. Cecil Rhodes used his influence to ensure that his mines were protected and in return his company did everything it could to assist in the war on the Boers.

Resources came from throughout the British Empire to crush the Boers–Canada's Prime Minister Wilfred Laurier authorized a contingent to go to South Africa despite opposition from Quebec's French Canadians led by Henri Bourassa, who saw an ominous precedent (ironically, the next major military effort from Canada would be on behalf of France). Canada sent more than 7,000 troops.

By mid-June 1900, British forces had captured most major Boer cities and formally annexed their territories. Like the Scots fighting against Edwards I-III, the Boers launched a guerrilla war that frustrated the British occupiers. Beginning in 1901, the British began a strategy of fencing off areas with barbed wire, setting fire to the farms inside, and then systematically searching out and killing the guerrilla units. The families of displaced Boers were herded into concentration camps that famously became a precedent for the Nazi concentration camps, although the high death rate in the South African camps was a byproduct of the climate and isolation rather than being premeditated genocide.

Second letter to "An
American Lady", 1900.
Among the few voices in Europe speaking up for the desperate Boers was Charles Boissevain (my mother's grandfather). He famously wrote in December 1899 an Open Letter to the Duke of Devonshire making the case for the Boers and observing that war was being waged on farming "peasants" for one purpose only–to enable squalid British financial interests. The letter was published in 1900 by Boissevain's newspaper, the Algemeen Handelsblad and is available free as a Google eBook. It was also republished as a properly edited book in 2013 along with a second Open Letter to an American Lady.

By early 1902, the British had crushed Boer resistance, and on May 31 the Peace of Vereeniging was signed, recognizing British military administration over Transvaal and the Orange Free State, and in return authorizing a general amnesty for Boer forces. Cecil Rhodes died the same year, his wished-for empire largely in place.

In 1910, the autonomous Union of South Africa was established by the British, taking in Transvaal, the Orange Free State and Natal as provinces along with the original Cape of Good Hope.

While South Africa has since remained in the British Commonwealth, and the Springboks were formidable entrants in the British sport of Rugby,  Afrikaners took back South Africa at the ballot box–so long as voting was restricted to whites (and, for a time, "Cape coloreds").

Afrikaner control, however, depended on restricting the ability of non-whites to vote, which was at the heart of the policy of apartheid. Late in the 20th century, when universal adult suffrage was instituted and black Africans participated in the vote, Afrikaners again became a minority, and British South Africans an even smaller minority.

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