The first shots of both the 1st and 2nd Anglo-Boer Wars were fired in the North West.
Conflict in southern Africa between Great Britain and the allied Afrikaner-populated Transvaal (the South African Republic) and the Orange Free State in, what is today, South Africa.
Throughout the 19th century, after Great Britain had acquired the Cape of Good Hope in 1814 and expanded its possessions in southern Africa, ill feeling mounted between the Dutch-descended population, called Afrikaners, or Boers, and British settlers. This resulted in the Afrikaner migration called the Great Trek (1835-1843) and the consequent establishment of the Afrikaner republics: Natal, Orange Free State, and the South African Republic. Natal became a British colony in 1843, but the Transvaal territories were granted independence from Great Britain in 1852, and Orange Free State in 1854.
In the late 1850s, the Transvaal territories formed the South African Republic. The stage for war was set in 1884, when gold was discovered in the Witwatersrand, a region then encompassing parts of the southern Transvaal. The discovery lured thousands of British miners and prospectors to settle in the area, the influx being so great that the city of Johannesburg was created almost overnight.
The Afrikaners, primarily farmers, resented the newcomers, whom they called Uitlanders (“foreigners”), and in token of their feeling, taxed them heavily and denied them voting rights. The resentment on both sides grew, ultimately leading to a revolt by the Uitlanders in Johannesburg against the Afrikaner government.
This revolt was instigated by the British colonial statesman and financier Cecil Rhodes, then premier of the Cape Colony, who desired to bring all of southern Africa into the British Empire. In December 1895, Leander Starr Jameson, a friend of Rhodes, led a band of 600 British armed men in an unauthorized attempt to support the rebellious Uitlanders in the South African Republic. Called the Jameson Raid, the venture resulted in Jameson’s capture and imprisonment and in Rhodes’s resignation. Jameson later served as premier of the Cape Colony from 1904 to 1908.
Direct negotiations to solve the South African problem proved unfruitful, and hostility between the Afrikaners and the Uitlanders continued unabated. The president of the South African Republic, Paul Kruger, was unyielding in his opposition to the Uitlanders. In 1899 the recently appointed British governor of Cape Colony, Alfred Milner, who strongly resented the Afrikaners’ treatment of British subjects, issued orders to build up the 12,000-man British army contingent then in southern Africa into a force of at least 50,000 troops. On October 9, 1899, Kruger demanded the withdrawal of all British troops from the Transvaal frontiers within 48 hours, with the alternative of formal war.
British non-compliance with Kruger’s demands brought immediate action, and an alliance of the South African Republic and the Orange Free State declared war on October 12, 1899. Boer forces under the command of General De la Rey attacked the British garrison and railway siding at Kraaipan, south west of Mafikeng, thereby signalling the start of the Anglo-Boer War.
The North West province saw a number of important battles as both sides sought control of the main railway link to the north.
The Afrikaner forces were initially successful, invading Natal and Cape Colony. Within days they succeeded in surrounding British forces at Ladysmith, Natal, and at Mafeking (now Mafikeng) and Kimberley, Cape Colony. In December the British commander in chief Sir Redvers H. Buller sent fresh troops to relieve besieged British forces in three areas of the war zone: Colenso, Natal; the hills of Magersfontein on the Orange Free State and Cape Colony borders; and the mountain range of Stormberge in the Cape Colony. Within a week’s time, referred to as Black Week by the British, each of the new units had been defeated by Afrikaner forces.
On January 10, 1900, the British general Frederick S. Roberts was sent to replace Buller as commander in chief. (Buller, however, remained to fight throughout the war). Early in February, Roberts ordered the British commander John D. P. French north to relieve the city of Kimberley; French’s objective was attained four days later. Simultaneously, Roberts undertook a north-eastward march from Cape Colony into the Orange Free State. Attacked by the Afrikaner general Piet Cronje on February 27, Roberts fought back successfully and forced the surrender of Cronje and his troops, altogether about 4000 men. On March 13, Roberts entered Bloemfontein, capital of the Orange Free State. Two months later, on May 17, besieged Mafeking, defended by troops under the command of the British soldier Robert Baden-Powell, was relieved.
The Siege of Mafikeng commenced on 14 October 1899 and lasted for 217 days until 17 May 1900. The town became somewhat of an icon at the time. During this time Sol Plaatje wrote his literary masterpiece “The Boer War Diary of Sol T Plaatje: an African at Mafikeng”.
Roberts captured Johannesburg on May 31 and Pretoria, the capital of the South African Republic, on June 5. Upon these defeats, President Kruger fled to Europe, and Roberts, believing the war to be won, returned to England in January 1901.
British satisfaction proved short-lived. Boer leaders, among them such soldiers and future statesmen as Louis Botha and Jan Christiaan Smuts, launched extensive and well-planned guerrilla warfare against the occupying British troops. The fighting thus continued for the next year and was finally quelled only through the severe tactics of the new British commander in chief, Lord Horatio Herbert Kitchener. He exhausted the enemy by devastating the Afrikaner farms that sustained and sheltered the guerrillas, placing black African and Afrikaner women and children in concentration camps, and building a strategic chain of formidable iron blockhouses for his troops.
Negotiations for peace began on March 23, 1902, and on May 31 Afrikaner leaders signed the Treaty of Vereeniging. The settlement provided for the end of hostilities and eventual self-government to the Transvaal and the Orange Free State as colonies of the British Empire.
Britain agreed in turn to pay a £3 million indemnity for rehabilitation, and granted amnesty and repatriation to Afrikaner soldiers who pledged their loyalty to the British monarch.
In the course of the Afrikaner War, British losses totaled about 28,000 men. Afrikaner losses were about 4,000 men, plus more than 26,000 civilians who died from disease in concentration camps. Thousands of black Africans died in the camps.
The Treaty of Vereeniging brought peace and political unification to South Africa but did not erase the underlying causes that had triggered the conflict. Even after the establishment of the Union of South Africa in 1910, the Afrikaners, by and large, kept themselves culturally and socially separate – a fact that has begun to change only in recent years.
Many of the battle sites and war cemeteries have been restored in the province. Special events were hosted as part of the centenary commemorations of the war during 2001/2002
The North West has a rich history of clashes that strectch between the coming of the Voortrekkers and the end of the Anglo-Boer Wars. The bulk of these battles occured during the final two years of the Second Ango-Boer War with the Siege of Mafikeng (14 October 1899 till 17 May 1900).