Opposition to the Second Boer War

Opposition to the Second Boer War (1899-1902) was a factor in the war. Inside Britain and the British Empire, there was strong opposition to the Boers and a minority in favour of them. Outside the situation was reversed and indeed condemnation of Britain was often intense from many sources, left, right and centre. Inside Britain influential groups, especially based in the opposition Liberal Party formed immediately. They fought ineffectually against the British war policies, which were supported by the Conservative Party of Prime Minister Salisbury.

After the Boers switched to guerrilla warfare in 1900 and the British imposed very harsh controls on Boer civilians,, the intensity of opposition rhetoric escalated. However, at all times supporters of the war controlled the British government, recruited soldiers in large numbers, and represented a majority of public opinion., Outside the British Empire the Boer cause won far more support as the British were reviled. However, all governments remained neutral. "Opposition" includes both opponents of the British war and also opponents of the Boers' war. This article includes opponents and supporters in the general public and the media, in Britain, the British Empire, and major neutral countries.

Great Britain

At the start of the war, some Liberal groups mobilized committees to protest the war, including the South African Conciliation Committee and W. T. Stead's Stop the War Committee. A common theme was that this capitalistic greed for the gold and diamonds that motivated the British seizure of two independent countries. Angry crowds often broke up anti-war meetings. The British press was overwhelmingly in support of the government, with only the Manchester Guardian and the Westminister Gazette outspoken in opposition.[1] With the press against them, anti-war elements relied heavily on streetcorner distribution of their many pamphlets.[2] Nevertheless a tide of young men volunteered for the war, as many as 100,000 a month at the peak. Liberals split, with many top leaders following Lord Rosebery in support of the war. Many nonconformists, the backbone of the Liberal Party, likewise supported the war [3]

The 1900 UK general election, was a "Khaki election" where the government waved the flag and ralleed patriotic voters. It resulted in a victory for the Conservative government on the back of recent British victories against the Boers. However, public support waned as it became apparent that the war would not be easy and unease developed following reports about the treatment by the British army's of the Boer civilians such as concentration camps and farm burning. Public and political opposition was expressed by repeated attacks on the policy and the government by the Liberal M.P. David Lloyd-George.[4]

Young Lloyd George made his name in opposition, as he alleged Chamberlain, his brother, and his son had large personal financial investments in a number of munitions firms that were making heavy profits in the war. The allegations of corruption and greed did not carry public opinion, so the anti-were elements switch to an emphasis on humanitarianism, with heart-rending depictions of the suffering of Boer women and children.[5] Emily Hobhouse in June 1901 published a fifteen-page pamphlet reporting on concentration camps operated by British Command, and Lloyd George then openly accused the government of "a policy of extermination" directed against the Boer population. In June, 1901, Liberal party leader Campbell-Bannerman took up the assault and answered the rhetorical "When is a war not a war?" with "When it is carried on by methods of barbarism in South Africa," referring to those same camps and the policies that created them. In 1910, when the Boers came to friendly relations with the British, they pointed to the "barbarism" comment by Campbell-Bannerman as a mark of British good faith.

Opposition to the war was strongest among the Irish Catholics in Ireland and Britain. Many Irish nationalists sympathised with the Boers as a kindred people being oppressed by British tyranny. Though many Irishmen fought in the British army, some fought for the Boers too. Irish miners working in the Transvaal when the war began formed the nucleus of two tiny Irish commandos.[6]

Among neutrals

The overwhelming public sentiment in neutral countries, especially Russia, Germany, France, and the United States, was highly negative. Anger and outrage against the British was high, and many people cheered on the Boers. People saw the Boers as heroic, outnumbered and extremely brave freedom fighters. [7] That included the general public, the leading newspapers, and many public figures. There was some fear that Germany might become involved beyond rhetoric, but it remained strictly neutral.[8][9] Some 225 Russian Army officers took leave to go and fight for the Boers, an indication of strong anti-British sentiments all across Russia.[10] Donal Lowry points out that support for the Boers was strongest among the enemies of British imperialism, including French Canadian separatists in Quebec, and Marxist intellectuals such as Georg Lukács and Karl Kautsky. Irish Catholics in the United States, Australia, Britain and Ireland supported the Boers, who inspired separatist and nationalist leaders, especially in the Irish Republican Army.[11]

In Australia

As part of the empire, Australia joined in the war but also suffered doubts about it. Most such doubts followed the English radical critique of war and empire, but some followed the Irish strain and were an early form of Australian nationalism. Notable among the nationalist critique were the anti-war cartoons in the Bulletin magazine, which thumped home a racist message that participation in a war started by Jews, capitalists and imperialists would mean having to accept non-white migrants once peace came (Breaker Morant had contributed to The Bulletin).

The execution by the British army of two Australian lieutenants (Breaker Morant and Peter Handcock) of the Bushveldt Carbineers for war crimes in 1902 and the imprisonment of a third, George Witton, was initially uncontroversial, but after the war prompted an empire-wide movement to release Witton which drew on anti-war radicalism. More than 80,000 signatures on petitions and intercession by a South African millionnaire saw Witton released in 1904. Three years later he wrote his influential apologia Scapegoats of the Empire.


In Canada, attitudes toward British imperialism were rooted in ethnic and religious communities. There was a three-way political conflict between Canadians of British descent, Irish descent, and French descent. The French-Canadians were hostile to the British expansion, and by 1915, were largely refusing to volunteer for military service and the First World War. Protestant Canadians, typically of British descent, generally supported British imperialism enthusiastically. They sent thousands of volunteers to fight alongside the British army against the Boers, and in the process identified themselves even more strongly with the British Empire.[12] A little opposition also came from some English immigrants such as the intellectual leader Goldwin Smith.[13] In Canada, the Irish Catholics were fighting the French-Canadians for control of the Catholic Church, so the Irish generally supported the pro-British position.[14]


In Belgium the 15-year-old socialist Jean-Baptiste Sipido, a young tinsmith's apprentice, attempted to assassinate the Prince of Wales then passing through Brussels.[15] He accused the Prince of causing the slaughter of thousands during the Boer War. Remarkably, in the following trial the Belgian jury found Sipido not guilty, despite the facts of the case being clear,[16] which the Leader of the British House of Commons called "a grave and most unfortunate miscarriage of justice"[17]


The existence of anti-war sentiment contributed to the perceptions of British actions after the war. There was much public revulsion in the UK and official Australian government opposition against the use of cheap Chinese labour, known as Coolies, after the war by the governor of the new crown colonies, Lord Milner. Workers were often kept in appalling conditions, received only a small wage and were forbidden to socialise with the local population. Some believe the Chinese slavery issue can be seen as the climax of public antipathy towards the war.

Having taken the country into a prolonged war, the electorate delivered a harsh verdict at the first general election after the war was over. Arthur Balfour, succeeding his uncle Lord Salisbury in 1903 immediately after the war, took over a Conservative party that had won two successive landslide majorities but led it to a landslide defeat in 1906.

See also


  1. Élie Halévy, Imperialism and the Rise of Labour, 1895-1905 (1951) pp 93-99.
  2. John S. Galbraith, "The pamphlet campaign on the Boer war." Journal of Modern History (1952): 111-126.
  3. Halévy, Imperialism and the Rise of Labour, 1895-1905 (1951) pp 99-110.
  4. Roy Hattersley. David Lloyd George: The Great Outsider (2000) pp 119-44
  5. Halévy, Imperialism and the Rise of Labour, 1895-1905 (1951) pp 95-98.
  6. Donal P. McCracken, The Irish Pro-Boers, 1877-1902 (Perskor, 1989).
  7. Stuart Anderson, "Racial Anglo-Saxonism and the American Response to the Boer War." Diplomatic History 2.3 (1978): 219-236.
  8. J. L. Garvin, The Life of Joseph Chamberlain (1934) 3:508-17
  9. Keith M. Wilson, The international impact of the Boer War (Routledge, 2014).
  10. G. V. Shubin, "'I'd like to go to South Africa': The participation of Russian volunteer officers in the Boer War, 1899-1902" [in Russian] Voenno-Istoricheskii Zhurnal (2001), Issue 1, pp 65-75.
  11. Donal Lowry, "‘The Play of Forces World-Wide in their Scope and Revolutionary in their Operation [JA Hobson]’: The South African War as an International Event." South African Historical Journal 41#1 (1999): 83-105.
  12. Gordon L. Heath, War with a Silver Lining: Canadian Protestant Churches and the South African War, 1899-1902 (McGill-Queen's Press-MQUP, 2009).
  13. R. Craig Brown, "Goldwin Smith and Anti‐imperialism." Canadian Historical Review 43.2 (1962): 93-105.
  14. Mark G. McGowan, "The De-Greening of the Irish: Toronto’s Irish‑Catholic Press, Imperialism, and the Forging of a New Identity, 1887-1914." Historical Papers/Communications historiques 24.1 (1989): 118-145.
  15. The Manchester Guardian, Thursday April 5, 1900
  16. Summarized by Speyer in "The Legal Aspects of the Sipido Case", Journal of the Society of Comparative Legislation 1900, p. 436.
  17. Speyer, p. 438.

Further reading

Great Britain

Dominions and United States

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