- The Washington Times - Sunday, March 23, 2003

By Dennis Judd and Keith Surridge
Palgrave Macmillan, $29.95, 352 pages, illus.

The world's supreme superpower goes to war halfway across the world in a region which produces a commodity vital to its economic survival. Sound familiar? Of course, there are huge differences between Britain sallying forth to conquer the Boer Republics (the Transvaal and its partner, the Orange Free State) in 1899 and the United States invading Iraq in 2003, not the least being the Boer leaders' nobility and virtues (the worst charge that could be laid against them by their British enemies was obstinacy), being far removed from the brutal nature of Saddam Hussein.
Certainly, the Boers possessed no weapons of mass destruction: Although well-armed with French and German materiel, their defense posture was, prior to the war anyway, totally defensive. But there are nonetheless parallels between then and now that make reading Dennis Judd's and Keith Surridge's "The Boer War" especially timely.
If the United States does not currently enjoy the desired worldwide support for its Iraqi enterprise, Britain was much more isolated in its fight against the pastoral republics at the southern tip of Africa. Apart from the Dominion of Canada and the colonies of the British Empire, there does not seem to have been a country on the face of the earth where either government or people supported the dominant superpower.
At home, people were divided about the war, with the opposition party (which would sweep to a landslide electoral victory only a couple of years after the war's conclusion) bitterly divided between Liberal Imperialists and pro-Boers. And just as opponents of the Iraq war shout about blood for oil, so pro-Boers substituted gold to make an equally inflammatory linkage. The authors dispose of this canard with a crisp authority which Foggy Bottom or the White House might well envy today:
"Why did British forces need to invade a state that had already been so comprehensively penetrated by largely British capital, business expertise and technological know-how? Even if the British government needed secure access to gold bullion in order to maintain sterling as a great international currency, the Transvaal had to sell its gold on the open market and hence why not to the United Kingdom? and there were, moreover, other suppliers of bullion worldwide."
And in summing up the raison d'etre for Britain fighting the Boer War, the authors state the situation thus: "In the last resort, the British government needed to show that it could not be scorned and out-manoeuvered throughout the southern African region whether by the Transvaal, Germany, or even Cecil Rhodes." Make the requisite substitutions for the region and for the unholy trinity and we are very close to where we stand today.
But of course "The Boer War" is on its own merits a valuable piece of historiography. Beautifully clear and remarkably compact, it tells its story with elegance and enormous authority. Indeed, for a work so rich in detail and analysis, it is a remarkably easy read. And at the end, the war its origins and its consequences, its battles and its dramatis personae is fixed in the mind and understood, having been portrayed with a vividness that few other books have been able to manage with such economy.
The authors have cooperated to produce a generally seamless text which clearly draws upon two minds steeped in this subject. Two virtues stand out in particular: the ability to put South African history in a wider historical context and the ability to keep an eye simultaneously on British and South African politics. For example, this view of a British-controlled southern Africa after the war:
"Such an environment would also eliminate the danger that the Transvaal government's increasingly protectionist policies would seriously disadvantage commercial expansion within the region of the free-trading economies of Britain, the Cape and Natal. It is no coincidence that during the war [Colonial Secretary Joseph] Chamberlain was becoming increasingly preoccupied with the issue of protectionism versus free trade, and that within a year of its conclusion was to launch his highly controversial tariff reform campaign designed to restructure the whole imperial fiscal system. The conquest of the Transvaal therefore carried this extra economic bonus for the Colonial Secretary."
The authors are knowledgeable guides to battlefields and military strategy, as well as to conflicting policies. They do not, for instance, spare Gen. Kitchener's well -known part in carrying out the harsh policies employed against Boer guerrillas and their women and children. But they also illuminate his assiduous attempts to negotiate a peace with the Boer general (and later, first Prime Minister of the Union of South Africa) Louis Botha, which, had they succeeded, might have avoided the "methods of barbarism" with which his name became indelibly associated.
The authors are equally knowledgeable about the intricacies of gold mining, able to spotlight how the increasing prominence of deep-level mining brought about growing pressure for regime change in the Transvaal, because Paul Kruger's administration imposed burdensome charges and taxes (direct and indirect).
With their far greater production expenses, "the deep-level mining companies were most urgently in need of a more sympathetic approach by the regime, and hence more radical in their political agendas and more bitterly opposed to the [Transvaal] Kruger government; those still substantially committed to [older, less costly] outcrop mining methods were more supportive… .Caught between the powerfully articulated demands of much of the gold mining industry and the obduracy of the Transvaal government, statesmen and industrialists, both in South Africa and in Britain, began to despair of a peaceful and, as they saw it, 'sensible' resolution of the growing conflict of interests between the Kruger government and outside and inside pressure groups."
Perhaps the greatest strength of this book is its continuing attention to the majority black population of the region, whose involvement in the Boer War has been downplayed or ignored in too many previous studies. There was a tendency to focus on the war as an all-white conflict between Boer and Briton, but in fact both sides used blacks in their armed forces and the civilian casualties from starvation and disease as well as general exploitation of nonwhite South Africans were huge.
The Boers seem to have been decidedly harsher in their treatment of blacks than were the British: This was little reported at the time, but reading about it now certainly vitiates the reader's sympathies for the Boer freedom-fighters then seen worldwide as gallantly confronting the imperial superpower. The authors make it clear, too, that the republics were fighting, among other things, for the right to an all-white franchise.
Indeed, their fear of the color-blind voting system of the British Cape and Natal colonies (despite the use of property and education requirements to ensure an overwhelmingly white electorate) appears to have been a significant factor in their unwillingness to make peace with the British long after they knew they were beaten.
In the course of rectifying the omissions of a century of historians and in providing countless insights of their own, Mr. Judd and Mr. Surridge have made this book the essential text for anyone wishing to understand the Boer War. And it is interesting to note that if Britain did not find war in South Africa to be as easy as it thought it would be going in, it did nonetheless achieve its purpose unaided by any coalition of allies and indeed in the face of a world uniformly hostile to its enterprise. It was not an easy war for Britain to fight, domestically as well, but the Boer War did not test the limits of British power, which would continue to expand for some time thereafter.

Martin Rubin is a writer in Pasadena, Calif.

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