Part One of this long documentary opens with a nice, white-haired
English lady, born in 1890, referring to the Boers: "Not being as
civilized as we were, they tended to be a bit cruel." That simple
statement is a summary of the entire war, judging from the film we see.
There's no point in going through the entire history of the war, which
occupied a few years around 1900, about the time Teddy Roosevelt was
leading his Rough Riders up Kettle Hill.
Basically, Dutch farmers (Boer is cognate with German Bauer) settled in
Transvaal and the Orange Free State, north of the British colony at
Capetown in South Africa. The Brits didn't treat the native blacks with
much respect, but the Boers were worse. Blacks (routinely referred to
with the "N word" by both sides) weren't allowed to walk on the
pavement in Boer territory. Nobody in Boer territory had voting rights,
neither the blacks nor the whites.
The Brits didn't care. All the Boers to the north did was raise sheep.
Evidently, when gold was discovered in Transvaal, British interest
perked up. Time to liberate the blacks from penal servitude.
The Brits outnumbered the Boers by several orders of magnitude, but the
Boers had bought modern weapons from European countries like France,
and the first British expedition under Jameson was wiped out. War
But it was nothing like the American Civil War that had preceded it, or
like World War I which was to follow. Except for a few engagements at
the start, it was a guerrilla war, or "asymmetric warfare" as we call
it now. It was more like modern colonial warfare -- like Vietnam or
Algeria -- with a powerful military force fighting hit-and-run
"commando" units. The more numerous occupying force built the usual
series of fortified outposts and walls protected by rolls of barbed
wire. The emperor Hadrian built them in Britain in AD 122 to keep the
barbaric Picts from Scotland out of Roman territory. They've been
around ever since and are used in Afghanistan today.
On their side, the Boers had mobility, horses, the freedom of the veld.
Boer families kept them supplied with food and other goods until the
Brits did what General Sherman did in the Shenandoah Valley. They
killed what they couldn't eat, burned 30,000 Boer farms, and put the
women and children in what they called "concentration camps." It's
easier to build a city and an empire in a video game than it is in real
life, which Kitchener didn't seem to realize.
The Boers were finally worn down, after much death and suffering. Ten
percent of the white population of South Africa died from starvation
and lack of public health measures in the concentration camps. Blacks
fought on both sides, without much reward at the end. But nobody
escaped the prevailing misery. Two thirds of all Brits who died during
the war were felled not by bullets but by disease, especially typhoid
fever. Finally, with hardly any of their original number left, the
Boers signed a peace agreement and surrendered their arms. The blacks
went back to being second-class citizens. No one seems to have
benefited much, unless national honor and decorations are units of
I thought the film, long as it is, was reasonably informative. Who
knows anything about the Boer War? The survivors (and there seem to be
some, more than 100 years old now) but certainly not me. All I knew was
that Winston Churchill had been involved, and only because I watched a
movie called "Young Winston." The film itself is balanced, as far as I
could tell, in the sense that both parties were bull headed and
It's also repetitious and a little dull. Hours spent on the conditions
in the concentration camps, when half that time might have done just as
good a job. The motion pictures and photos are interesting though --
the Dutch women with these elaborate bonnets, just like cartoons, the
emaciated children, the pompous generals, the British soldiers marching
along wearing those odd, bell-shaped helmets of the period.
I didn't find the interviews with the offspring of the survivors
exactly fascinating, especially since old anecdotes are so frequently
subject to embroidering. But who knows? It all appears in retrospect to
have been a more than usually dumb war. Some wars are necessary, from
the point of view of the particular group being attacked. We can't let
Genghis Khan ride in and kill all of us. That's self defense. Every
group must have the equivalent of an immune system that rejects alien
invasion. But some wars seem pointless from beginning to end, and this
is one of them. This film make clear that the Boers wanted "freedom"
(mainly, it seems, to mistreat their blacks) but what did the Brits
want? Why was the war fought? Who gained from the result? There are
some things man was never meant to know.
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