30 September 2020

Thoughts on the Boer Republics (and Their Consequences)

I totally disagree with MM on this one. The ultimate consequence of the Boer Republics was the fall of South Africa to communism. As I wrote to Prime Minister Vorster in the 1970s, it is impossible to fight the Revolution when one is firmly wedded to the Revolution in one's ideology as the Boer Republics (and later, the Republic of South Africa) were. The fall to communism was inevitable from the day the first Boer Republic was declared.

From The Mad Monarchist (16 July 2016)

I have, from time to time, been asked about my opinion on the Boer Republics and/or the Boer War which saw them fall to the forces of the British Empire. It is a subject I have mixed feelings about considering that I have a great deal of sympathy for both sides of the British-Boer divide. The fact of my own contrariness also plays a part as, during the Boer War, the vast majority of world opinion was on the side of the struggling, little Boer republics and very much against the big, bad British Empire that was at its peak of Victorian splendor and I get very nervous whenever I find myself in agreement with popular opinion. I also dislike the sort of envy-driven hatred that manifests itself against any country or people when they reach the pinnacle of success. It happened to Spain, in happened to Britain more than once, it happened to Germany in the build-up to World War I and it has been happening to the United States and I detest each and every instance of it. The British Empire is dear to my heart and, despite popular opinion today, was inarguably a force for good in the world taken as a whole. However, even Anglophile that I am, I cannot deny that there were occasions in which the British Empire behaved badly as is the case with any country or any people in the world from time to time.

The British Empire had a record of success in Africa that would be difficult to surpass and, again despite what modern detractors would say, it was generally more humane than otherwise. The African lands touched by the British Empire benefited greatly from it with the forces of the British Empire wiping out slavery, introducing modern medicine, agriculture, education and government and they tended to work with traditional native leaders whenever possible. However, no person and no people are totally immune from error and misdeeds and just as the British acted benevolently in India in eradicating certain barbaric practices, the British also acted quite badly such as in forcing opium on the Chinese. The British Empire was a force for good in suppressing the slave trade and yet, in Africa itself there was also instances of Britain acting in a less than altruistic way. The Boer War itself, I think, shows both negative and positive aspects of the character of the British Empire. Greed often seemed to be the driving force behind the start of the conflict and British actions in fighting the war were, sometimes inadvertently though few today would admit it, quite cruel. And yet, the conquered Boer republics were taken into the British Empire and became even more successful still and, after the conflict, the British were generously magnanimous toward their former foes.

For those who complain that I never have anything good to say about any republics, ever (even my own, which is certainly not true), take note that I have no fundamental objection to the Boer republics and moreover that I think the Boer republics had much to recommend them. The Boers were a rough-hewn, rugged, frontier type of people who were excellent horsemen, crack shots with a rifle and devoutly religious -all of which are qualities to admire in my book. Unlike the republics in places such as France or Russia or China, I have no problem with the creation of the Boer republics because of the nature of their birth. They were not born out of any sort of radical, revolutionary upheaval. If France or Russia represent the extreme left in the birth of republics, the United States would be much more to the right but the Boer republics would be even further to the right still. To explain, and for the benefit of those unfamiliar with the story, a brief summary of how the Boer republics came to be is probably in order.

The Dutch arrive on the Cape

Before the British ever arrived in the area, the Cape of Good Hope region of southern Africa was a Dutch colony, part of the very businesslike empire of the United Provinces of the Netherlands. However, then the French Revolution broke out, the French invaded the Netherlands, the Prince of Orange was overthrown and a French puppet state called the Batavian Republic was erected. This meant the ruin of Dutch trade and the loss of most of the Dutch empire with the British swooping in and, after a brief battle, seizing control of the Cape for the British Crown. As many of the locals, mostly Dutch but including some other peoples in the mix, did not desire to live under British rule, they packed up their wagons and left British territory to head deeper into the interior of Africa (the famous “Great Trek”). It was these people who finally established what eventually became known as the Boer republics.

The British became more established in the region and the Boers lived in peace beside them, mostly as farmers and ranchers. They lived simple lives but were accustomed to the hardships of frontier life and were content. However, things began to change when it was found that the Boer republics sat on top of extremely lucrative mineral deposits. They were quite literally ‘sitting on a gold mine’ (and a number of diamond mines too). This, of course, attracted more and more British settlers who moved into Boer territory and that, of course, began to arouse the opposition of the Boers. They began to enact laws to curtail the flow of the British into their territory and the influence they had. That was only natural. It was also then, only natural, for the British to object to their rights being restricted and the British Empire, also not surprisingly, took up the cause of their fellow countrymen against the Boer republics and soon this led to the outbreak of war. Looking back at the overall situation there are few historians who would try to deny that the bottom line was simply this: the Boers had control of vast riches that the British wanted for themselves and they were prepared to fight and conquer the Boer republics in order to obtain control of these mineral deposits. Would any other power, similarly placed, have done otherwise? Probably not. Still, it was hardly Britain’s finest hour.

Boer President Paul Kruger

The world was amazed though by how tenacious the Boers proved to be when confronting the greatest empire in the history of the world. The war, or actually “wars” were long and bitter struggles with the Boers putting up one Hell of a fight. They were not professional soldiers but their way of life had made them a tough and tenacious people and before it was all over you could say that they made the British earn all the gold under Johannesburg the hard way and the payment for all that wealth was in blood. In fighting the war, which eventually devolved into a guerilla conflict with those Boers who refused to surrender, the British resorted to methods that were brutal but effective. The most notorious strategy was to isolate the Boer commandos (a local term the British adopted for their own special forces later on such was their fighting reputation) from their civilian base of support by ‘concentrating’ the Boer population in guarded camps. So it was that the British invented the “concentration camp”.

Today, the unthinking mob tends to think of a “concentration camp” as a “death camp” thanks to the influence of Nazi Germany on the popular imagination. However, this should not be so and the British certainly did not put Boers into camps in order to systematically exterminate the Afrikaner people. Which is also not to say that these were nice places. They were certainly not and large numbers of civilian men, women and children died in these camps from disease, malnutrition and poor sanitation. It was, however, not due to intentional British cruelty but rather to supply shortages, logistical failures and bureaucratic log jam. In fact, it was a British woman who came to the rescue of the imprisoned Boers, raising a public outcry over the conditions in which they were being held and who mounted the effort to relieve their suffering through much more efficient private, charitable channels. Obviously, if the British were a cruel and heartless people, no one would have cared about the concentration camps, there would have been no public outcry and no massive effort to put a stop to it. The British also proved themselves to be gracious victors when the brutal bloodletting was over. Rather than rule the Afrikaners as a conquered people, the British made them partners in the new colonial enterprise that became South Africa and, as a result, many of the men who had fought the hardest against the British became ardent supporters of the British Empire, even taking up arms again to defend it in World War I.

Louis Botha, Boer leader

So, for me, though I am a great admirer of the British Empire, I also see much to admire in the Boer republics, I am not unsympathetic to them and, as republics go, they were acceptable in my book. The important point, for me at least, is that they were foundationally legitimate republics rather than illegitimate revolutionary republics. The Boer republics were, if you like, a ‘creatio ex nihilo’ which did not detract from any existing, established authority to which they should have held allegiance. At the time they were severed from their own, original, mother-country, that (republican) state had been deprived of its own legitimate government. The transfer of territory to the British was not applauded by the Boers but they did nothing to oppose it, preferring to move inland and carve out their own country from the wilderness. The first French Republic, by contrast, was plainly illegitimate but the Boer republics were clearly not and so I have no fundamental problem with them in their origins nor do I know of anything objectionable about their operation when they existed. As such regimes go, they were okay in my book.

Battle of Blood River

There was, it must be mentioned, one aspect to the Boer republics which attracts the most criticism today, given modern, liberal, western sentiments and that was their attitude toward the Black population. I think this deserves to be mentioned, not simply for the sake of full disclosure, but to show that the British Empire was not only hardly as terrible as it is often portrayed but that it acted in a way in which modern-day liberals would have demanded and yet has absolutely nothing to show for such benevolence. First of all, the idea that the Boers should receive no sympathy because, ‘the British stole land from the Boers which the Boers had stolen from the Africans’ is a false, simplistic notion based on current fashionable opinion and not the actual facts. The Boers who made the “Great Trek” came as settlers, not conquerors. They obtained land by peaceful purchase, some Boer families still having the records of such sales from the Black Africans of the time, but most of the land was unoccupied due to the previous wars of conquest by the Zulus who had annihilated much of the previous Black population of the region. There were of course, inevitably going to be clashes, such as the famous Battle of Blood River, by which the Boers fought hard and paid a heavy price for the land they settled but the idea that the whole enterprise was some massive, armed heist is simply not true. The Boers did, however, have a very different attitude toward race in contrast to the British.

The British had long abolished the slave trade and expended a great deal in suppressing it, had abolished slavery long before across the British Empire and even in Victorian times, while certainly not possessing the thinking about race that modern Britons do, tended to look on racism as something terribly uncivilized at the very least. The Boers, on the other hand, took a more old-fashioned and Biblical view of race. They outlawed slavery too though some observers felt that was more in name rather than fact and they certainly viewed Blacks as a people to be kept apart from themselves, people who were different and to be treated differently. Black Africans could not become citizens in the Boer republics, they had fewer rights and freedoms and all the rest of it (any non-Boers and anyone not Protestant also faced degrees of discrimination as well). British society tended to look down on how Blacks were treated in the Boer republics and the inferior position of the Black Africans in the Boer republics was one of the ways that British public opinion was turned in favor of military action against them though it could hardly be argued that this was ever the primary reason for the war. Nonetheless, that was an aspect which enemies of the British Empire today tend to overlook. The vast majority of Black Africans supported the British because the British offered them more rights and more equal treatment than the Boers.

This, of course, eventually culminated in the collapse of the British Empire in Africa as the British government supported granting the franchise to Blacks, effectively handing them total control over South Africa (and other colonies) from the white minority. This led to an ugly stand-off with Rhodesia and British participation in international boycotts against apartheid South Africa, forever alienating the white populations of these countries. Critics of the British Empire today willfully ignore the fact that in South Africa, and other Black-majority countries across the continent, the British government took the side of the Black Africans against the White Africans, their own kith & kin many of them, something unprecedented in the history of all peoples all around the world. This is a fact, yet, from a monarchist perspective, one is forced to conclude that did nothing at all to benefit the Crown, British influence or even goodwill towards the UK.

By taking the side of the Black Africans, another race against those of their own blood in South Africa, the Boers and other White Africans tended to view the British as race-traitors, the people who sold out their own kind and it is easy to find people still today who have never forgiven the British for the part they played in the eradication of the White population in South Africa. The Crown, as usual, does not escape such criticism due to the way people view the monarch as the pinnacle and representation of all British people, society and government. However, while that was to be expected, the actions of Britain have obviously not immunized the British from accusations of racism and upon attaining political power, the Blacks of South Africa did not rush to restore the monarchy and become a Commonwealth Realm again. No, as we all know, the republican form of government was one thing about apartheid South Africa that the new regime wished to retain. Some do still think well of the British in South Africa, but it is not something that can be expressed openly without a severe backlash, even if you are a prominent African chief. And, today, Red China has far more influence in South Africa than Great Britain does. Taken altogether, it is simply a fact that neither Britain nor the British monarchy gained anything tangible nor even in terms of much goodwill and gratitude from its history of pro-Black policies in Africa.

Field Marshal Jan Christiaan Smuts

No one figure better represents the change in attitude towards the British monarchy on the part of Boers than the great Prime Minister and Field Marshal Jan Christiaan Smuts. He fought against the British in the Second Boer War, yet later became pro-British and a staunch monarchist after it was over. When some Boers, during World War I, allied with Germany and tried to instigate a rebellion, Smuts and the loyal Boers suppressed them on their own. He was a major military leader in World War I on the side of the British Empire in Africa and was again one of the most prominent leaders on the Allied side in World War II, fighting for the British Empire against the Axis powers (he was even the favored candidate to become Prime Minister of the United Kingdom if something were to happen to Mr. Churchill). He also supported racial segregation in South Africa and was very popular but later White South Africans came to view him less favorably as Britain took action against the racial policies of the country. When Black rule came to South Africa, Smuts fared no better as was seen in 1994 when the airport in Johannesburg, named in his honor, was renamed to the ‘Johannesburg International Airport’ and in 2006 was renamed again in honor of a prominent Black politician of the African National Congress. The Boers had fought fiercely against the British Empire but most later came to accept it and rose to prominence in South Africa. Many of them fought for the British Empire in World War I and World War II yet they reverted to republicanism due to British opposition to their racial policies and today one would be hard pressed to find a Boer in South Africa with much regard for Britain or the British monarchy. Thus did British opposition to apartheid alienate the Boers while still not garnering enough support among the Black population to restore the monarchy in a post-apartheid South Africa.

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