Illuminations: The Irish and the Boer War
By: J. Michael Finn
The Boer War
also known as Second Boer War, or the Anglo-Boer War, was fought from October 11, 1899, to May 31, 1902 between England and the two Boer republics, the South African Republic (also known as the Transvaal) and the Orange Free State.
Although the issues and origins of war were complex, most historians agree that the war was about British control of the rich Witwatersrand gold-mining complex, located in the South African Republic (SAR). It was the largest gold-mining complex in the world. At the time, the world’s monetary systems were dependent upon gold and England was a believer in the “Golden Rule” – “He who has the gold makes the rules.”
The discovery of gold on the Witwatersrand in 1886 allowed the SAR to make progress with modernization efforts and compete with Britain for domination in southern Africa. The Boers (a Dutch word meaning farmer) were descendants of Dutch colonists to southern Africa in 1652.
They later formed the SAR and the Orange Free State. The SAR and the Orange Free State republics had been recognized by England in 1852 and 1854.
England began undermining the political independence of the two Boer republics and demanded the modification of their constitutions to grant political rights to the primarily British subjects in the SAR. They had immigrated to the SAR to work in the gold fields and many of them were Irish.
These rights would provide the British subjects with a dominant role in formulating state policy that would be more pro-British. In negotiations, President Paul Kruger of the SAR offered several concessions to the British proposals, but British rejected all of them.
The British government sent additional troops to reinforce the British garrison in southern Africa. They began arriving in August and September 1899. This buildup of troops alarmed the Boers.
On October 9, 1899, the Boers issued an ultimatum to the British, declaring that a state of war would exist between England and the two Boer republics if the British did not remove their troops from along the border. The ultimatum expired without resolution, and the war began on October 11, 1899.
The Boers, who were vastly outnumbered by the British troops, fought a guerilla action against the British, using hit-and-run tactics to cut the British supply lines and delay their advances. Early in the war the British were overconfident and ill prepared, resulting is some early Boer successes. As more British troops arrived, their response to guerrilla warfare was to destroy civilian farms and livestock as part of a scorched earth policy.
Irish support for the Boers can be traced back to 1877, when several Irish parliamentarians, such as Charles Stewart Parnell, opposed laws that would have annexed the Boer republics under British rule. When rumors of a war with the Boers began to surface in 1899, protesters led by James Connolly, Arthur Griffith and Maud Gonne (all members of the Irish Transvaal Committee) took to the streets in Dublin in August 1899 and public meetings were held across Ireland in support of the Boers.
Protests for Freedom
Several weeks later in Dublin, a crowd of nearly twenty thousand marched in protests against the planned British invasion of the SAR. The Irish saw the struggle of the Boer republics in South Africa as similar to their own struggle for self-determination and freedom from British rule.
In South Africa, the Irish Transvaal Brigade was established days before the outbreak of the Boer War and initially consisted of Irishmen who worked in the Witwatersrand mines. For joining the Brigade, the volunteers were given full citizenship of the two Boer republics. The brigade was formed by Colonel John Y. F. Blake, an Irish-American former officer in the U.S. Army.
In addition, fifty-eight men of the Irish American Ambulance Corps traveled from Chicago to New York City, where they were welcomed as heroes, for the purpose of joining the Boer War effort. Soon after their arrival in the SAR, they removed their Red Cross arm bands and joined the Irish Transvaal Brigade.
Blake’s second in command of the Irish Transvaal Brigade was Major John MacBride, from Westport, County Mayo. MacBride was a member of the Irish Republican Brotherhood. Beginning in 1893, MacBride was labeled a “dangerous nationalist” by the British government.
In 1896, he went to the United States on behalf of the IRB. He then immigrated to the SAR. MacBride was commissioned with the rank of Major in the Boer army and given Boer citizenship.
He was successful in recruiting both Irish South Africans as well as Irish nationals into the Brigade. When Col. Blake was injured at the Siege of Ladysmith, MacBride took over sole command of the Brigade. It would come to be known as MacBride’s Brigade.
The Brigade was operational from September 1899 to September 1900. During that time, it fought in about twenty engagements, with eighteen men killed and about seventy wounded from a force that averaged no more than 300 men.
At the Siege of Ladysmith, the Brigade manned the famous and effective Boer artillery piece, called Long Tom, and they fought alongside SAR troops successfully at the Battle of Colenso. Having worked in the gold mines, they had a well-deserved reputation as demolition experts. They delayed the British advance on Pretoria by blowing up bridges. The brigade disbanded after the Battle of Bergendal in September 1900.
In August 1900, Lord Herbert Kitchener took over as the British commander. Kitchener ruthlessly pursued the Boers. The farms of Boers were destroyed, and the inhabitants of the countryside were rounded up and held in segregated concentration camps under horrific conditions. Thousands died during their incarceration.
The plight of Boer women and children in the carelessly run, unhygienic camps caused an international outrage. The war went on for two more years before the Boers were forced into negotiations.
The last of the Boers surrendered in May 1902, and the war ended with the Treaty of Vereeniging, signed on May 31, 1902. Under its terms, the two Boer republics were absorbed into the British Empire, with the promise of self-government in the future.
In the war, the British lost 22,092 soldiers, with the Boers suffering only 6,189 killed, for a total of 28,281 military deaths; however, 46,370 Boer women and children died of starvation and disease in the British concentration camps.
When Major John MacBride became a citizen of the Transvaal, the British considered that, as a citizen of the United Kingdom, he had given aid to the enemy. So, after the war, he travelled to Paris, where Maud Gonne was living.
In 1903, he married her and they had one son, Nobel Prize winner Seán MacBride. After returning permanently to Dublin in 1905, MacBride joined other Irish nationalists participating in the 1916 Rising. He was executed by the British on May 5, 1916, and is buried in the mass grave at Arbor Hill Prison in Dublin.
*J. Michael Finn is the Ohio State Historian for the Ancient Order of Hibernians and Division Historian for the Patrick Pearse Division in Columbus, Ohio. He is also Chairman of the Catholic Record Society for the Diocese of Columbus, Ohio. He writes on Irish and Irish-American history; Ohio history and Ohio Catholic history. You may contact him at FCoolavin@aol.com.