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The Boer Wars

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These are wars of many names. For the British they were the Boer Wars, for the Boers, the Wars of Independence. Many Afrikaaners today refer to them as the Anglo-Boer Wars to denote the official warring parties.

The first Boer War of 1880-1881 has also been named the Transvaal Rebellion, as the Boers of the Transvaal revolted against the British annexation of 1877. Most scholars prefer to call the war of 1899-1902 the South African War, thereby acknowledging that all South Africans, white and black, were affected by the war and that many were participants.

Between 1835 and 1845, about 15,000 Voortrekkers (people of Dutch extract) moved out of the (British) Cape Colony across the Gariep (Orange) River into the interior of South Africa. Their 'Great Trek' was a rejection of the British philanthropic policy with its equalisation of black and white at the Cape, and of the political marginalisation they experienced on the eastern Cape frontier.

They established two independent republics - the Transvaal and the Orange Free State - as recognised by Great Britain at the Sand River (1852) and Bloemfontein (1854) Conventions.

The republicans acquired the name 'Boers', the Dutch and Afrikaans word for farmers. Like the African societies within their borders, the stock farming Boers enjoyed a pre-capitalist, near-subsistence economy. Only gradually effective state administrations emerged.

Initially, the Transvaal Boers adopted a policy of passive resistance. When the British government made its determination to uphold the annexation clear, the Boers turned to armed resistance in December 1880.

They reinstated the republic, led by a triumvirate consisting of Vice President Paul Kruger, Commandant-General Piet Joubert and MW Pretorius. The first Boer War broke out on 16 December 1880 with a skirmish between the British garrison in Potchefstroom and a 'commando' under General Piet Cronjé.

The Boer 'commando' system evolved from the early defence system at the Cape. Each district was divided into three wards or more, with a field cornet for each ward and a commandant taking military control of the entire district.

The burghers elected these officers, including the commandant-general of the Transvaal. When mobilised, a burgher had to be prepared with his horse, rifle and 50 (later 30) rounds of ammunition and food enough to last for eight days, after which the government would provide supplies. Assembled burghers formed a 'commando'.

Except for the artillery and the police in the second Boer War, no uniforms were worn, the burghers preferring drab everyday clothes. The Boer force is the classic example of a citizen army, because virtually the entire white male population of the republics between the ages of sixteen and 60 was conscriptable for unpaid military service.




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