In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Boer Wars

  • Introduction
  • Reference Works and Historiographies
  • First Anglo-Boer War
  • Origins of the South African War
  • Black Participation
  • “The Methods of Barbarism” and the Concentration Camps
  • Other Aspects of the Wars
  • Peace and the Impact of the War
  • Commemoration and Remembrance

Military History Boer Wars
Stephen M. Miller
  • LAST REVIEWED: 26 October 2023
  • LAST MODIFIED: 26 October 2023
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199791279-0164


In an effort to bring political and economic rationalization to South Africa, the British pursued a plan of confederation. An important step toward accomplishing that goal was the annexation of the Transvaal in 1877. In late 1880, the Transvaal reasserted its independence and war erupted. Shortly after the humiliating defeat at Majuba in February 1881, Gladstone’s Liberal government eagerly sought a way out of the conflict. Two inconclusive peace “conventions” followed. New problems arose later in the century caused by the discovery of gold, the emergence of German power in the region, the awakening of Afrikaner nationalism, and the aggressive political pursuits of British administrators. Attempts to prevent a second war were pursued half-heartedly by Lord Milner, the British High Commissioner. As the British prepared an ultimatum, Paul Kruger, the president of the Transvaal, issued one of his own on 9 October 1899. The Second Anglo-Boer War, or South African War, began with a Boer invasion of the Cape Colony and Natal that led to the sieges of Ladysmith, Kimberley, and Mafeking. British attempts to break the sieges failed and culminated in Black Week in December 1899. Salisbury’s government struck back in the new year. Lord Roberts took command of a much larger force, strengthened by British volunteers and imperial troops, and drove through the Boer Republics. As the Boers embraced insurgency tactics, the conventional phase of the war came to an end. Lord Kitchener’s utilization of mounted drives and blockhouses, destruction of land and livestock, and the removal of civilians to concentration camps eventually destroyed the Boers capacity to continue the war. Peace came at Vereeniging on 31 May 1902. The scope of the second war naturally overshadowed the first in the literature. But important too were the growth in literacy and the drop in publishing costs. Whereas published memoirs and diaries trickled out after the first war, Great Britain witnessed a flood of literature even before the war had ended. Conan Doyle’s The Great Boer War was a bestseller and there was great interest in Leo Amery’s enormous project, The Times History of the War. Texts written in English vastly outnumbered those in Dutch and Afrikaans. Although historians showed continued interest in the war, it was not until the late 1970s that the production of quality scholarship, based on careful analysis of primary sources and exploring topics other than battles and leadership, became the norm. The centennial brought a resurgence of interest in the war and with it lots of fine new scholarship.

General Overviews

It should come as no surprise that in an era of increased literacy, modern production techniques, professional war correspondents, and a largely nationalist public craving stories about the war, that there would be a number of volumes published even before the conflict came to an end. Many more came out in the 1900s and certainly by 1910 the British market had been saturated. These books are mixed in their quality but generally display strong biases and almost exclusively center around military events. Texts originating in Great Britain greatly outnumber those published in South Africa. By the late 1970s, academics were starting to replace journalists and popular writers as the major producers of literature on the war. New areas of study were investigated and the quality of scholarship improved dramatically.

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