The Boer War is a fairly forgotten piece of British Empire history, although ending only a little over a century ago. In the UK we remember Roark’s Drift (mainly because of Zulu), the Relief of Mafeking, Cecil Rhodes and Baden-Powell, the founder of the Scouts. It’s far too easy to have this jingoistic comic-book understanding of British history. In some countries, lots of them, the school history books are doctored to instill a nationalistic pseudohistory in the student, but here simple, subtle mass ignorance suffices.
Britain began the 20th century with systematic mass murder in South Africa, which involved the invention of the concentration camp. Part of jingoistic history is to make evil other: foreigners are and do evil,which we boldly resist. By editing out the evil from our own history, we end up with an overinflated impression of our moral superiority. This makes it important to remember the evil our country has done.
After the Relief of Mafeking in 1900, General Kitchener arrived in South Africa to take command. Frustrated by fighting the Boer defenders, who adopted guerilla tactics against superior British forces, Kitchener ordered the transformation of the extant refugee camps into concentration camps for the internment of the Boer women and children left in the villages and townships. The British didn’t mean to murder these women and children, but simply interred them in disease infested camps with too little food and let nature take its course. About 26,000 Boer women and children died in the British concentration camps. A roughly equal number of Boer fighters were deported from South Africa during the same period.
More forgotten are the Black Africans caught up in the fighting who were interned in separate concentration camps. The liberal British media, outraged at the plight of the White Boers, said almost nothing about the Black camps. All we have is an estimate that around 14,000 died in the Black camps.
The Boer War was an important turning point in the history of South Africa and the British Empire. The violence, bloodshed and trauma of the war is the background for Afrikaner grievances and insecurities that lay behind Apartheid. The war was the moment that Britain learnt that we could not dictate political and economic terms around the globe, and perhaps that we should not.
As we now have official admission that British soldiers killed 14 unarmed civilians without warning in Derry almost 40 years ago, that their commanders put them in that high-pressure position, and that the authorities have led the denial and coverup ever since, we realise that the need to question authority in order to keep it accountable and responsible for its actions.