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'The Anglo-Boer War' - Apartheid's Last Hurrah!

In 1985 I bought a copy of Bill Nasson's 'Abraham Esau - A Calvinia Martyr in the Anglo-Boer War', (W. R. Nasson &* J. M. John, Social Dynamics, Volume 11.)* at the CNA in Cape Town. At that time there was a constant hint of teargas and insurrection in the air. Coming out of the darkness at night from the far side of town one heard the muffled rattle of small arms fire, even the thump of grenade explosions. What was going on? Tucked up and asleep in their beds, most suburbanites dreamed on, unaware of the reality of social change and resistance to the Apartheid state.

The aim of Nasson ' John's article in Social Dynamics was to create a anti-racist Black hero from the bones of our history, one that provided an encouraging example to those involved in the anti-Apartheid 'struggle'. It doing this it revealed that the 'Anglo-Boer War' was no restricted to Anglos and Boers only. Black people also participated in it, mostly as victims. Despite the mix of fact and fiction in this spurious and tendentious article on Esau's war of resistance in Calvinia, it accurately revealed that the 'Anglo-Boer War' was not the exclusive 'White Man's War' of my White South African Christian National education. It was more complicated than that, so complicated in fact that even the language we took for granted and used without thinking invariably led to a heated debate.

Part of that language and debate is the phrase 'Anglo-Boer War'. Today, I am of the opinion that the term 'Anglo-Boer War is an offensive anachronism whose use, like that of racist pejoratives, should be proscribed except when used in a historical context. The 'Anglo-Boer War' is a term that while not coming directly from the lexicon of Apartheid, (my limited research shows early use in London by Lady E. C. Briggs in 1901), gained widespread use in the post-war years, most especially in the Union of South Africa. In fact, the term 'Anglo-Boer War' was barely used elsewhere in the Empire. The the term 'South African War' was the preferred name  for it.

So, how did the use of this term come about? You may disagree but this is how I see it.

When most people consider the history of South Africa, they see it as a conflict between Black and White. As a broad generalisation that is certainly true. However, what most people neglect is that ever since Britain occupied the Cape for the second time in 1806 a conflict had developed between White and White, between Boer and Brit. By the late 1890s, Great Britain led by England was it the height of is Imperial power. For many, particularly the English in the colonies, this bred an arrogant assumptive sense of racial superiority. In South Africa the Dutch-speaking Boers (farmers) were regarded by the newly arrived English-speaking Uitlanders (foreigners) come to work on the goldfields as ignorant, slow, stupid and dirty Dutchmen. Japies, rock spiders, hairy-backs and worse. As Afrikaner nationalism developed, the perceived 'Boerhaat' of the English (Afr. hatred of Boers), became one of its most strident clarion calls.

The British believed that the Boers stood in the way of progress. For Britain the Empire represented progess. The Boers mistrusted the English, remembered their history, and knew they wanted to keep their independence at all costs. The two sides' dislike for each other was made worse by the long, bitter, humiliating and exhausting war of 1899 - 1902. Ultimately Britain and its Empire prevailed but not without Britain realising that any Pax Brittanica in South Africa would have to include the Boers who made up the majority of the White South African population. However, in 1902 some 65% of the South African population was Black. If there was one thing the Boers and English-speaking South Africans could agree on it was that both wanted Black South Africans to remain politically powerless.

Victory came with a recognition that Union, Britain's long-held political goal for southern Africa, would require English-speaking South Africans to share power with the majority Boers, (Afrikaners). Power-sharing with the old Boer enemy was fraught with risk unless many of them could be made Empire Loyalists. In victory the English-speaking community in South Africa trumpeted the Empire's virtues and its tribal superiority over the Boers by raising memorials to those who had fallen in what they now called the 'Anglo-Boer War'. (The Boers did not call it the Anglo-Boer War. Britain and its Empire called it the 'South African War'.) The choice of 'Anglo-Boer War' was a decision made by leaders of South Africa's insecure English-speaking community who wanted to laud their victory over the Boers as a reminder that they had been defeated by the Anglophone world which then constituted the greatest Empire ever known. 

By 1910 the Boers agreed to surrendered their republican independence in exchange for a political dispensation that excluded Black South Africans. The British agreed to this. In fact they had no choice as the English-speaking colonists demanded the same thing. Two ex-Boer Generals, Louis Botha and Jan Smuts, formed the first post-Union government. Much was made of a marriage between Boer and Brit and the birth of a new nation of 'White South Africans'. Botha's and Smuts' time in office would be marked by their loyalty to the Empire. When WW1 broke out, they made the decision to invade German South West Africa despite knowing that this was unpopular with die-hard Boers. It led to a rebellion in South Africa which they loyally crushed before completing their conquest of GSWA, the only colonially led campaign of WW1. It was also the first successful British campaign of WW1. It was the victory of the Empire's  'White South Africa'. The Anglos and the Boers had triumphed together.


When Britain created the Union of South Africa in 1910 it placed political power in the hands of Boers and British settlers, thereby creating an illusion for segregationists called  'White South Africa'. This fantasy had at its heart a myth based largely on the Boer's Great Trek and the 'Boer War', a phrase commonly used  in Britain and popularised by Conan Doyle in 'The Great Boer War' (1902). This term continued to be used by a many British historians, like Thomas Pakenham, ('The Boer War', 1979). However, what is significant is that  the term 'South African War' enjoyed widespread use in the UK, one seen on almost all post-war British war memorials. It is only relatively recently that 'Anglo-Boer War' has gained any traction in the UK, probably as a result of South Africa's near exclusive use of it.

The difference between Britain and South Africa's choice of name in the immediate aftermath of the war is clearly seen in Richard Stroud RDPSA's "coffee table book",  the unfortunately named 'Memorials to the Fallen in the Anglo-Boer War 1899 - 1902,' (The Anglo-Boer War Philatelic Society. 2021). It unintentionally highlights the extraordinarily stark and remarkable difference between Britain's choice of 'South African War' on its memorials and South Africa's use of 'Anglo-Boer War'. Perhaps many will not see it like that but for me, as someone who grew up there a long time ago and who was made to listen to racist justifications for all manner of thngs, it is hard not to see the unsubtle hand of South Africans making segregationist propaganda out of the use of  'Anglo-Boer War'. It was even said by my teachers to be 'the last White Man's War', one fought in Africa with no Black people as combatants or victims.

Both sides made extensive well-documented use of Black auxillaries, almost every Boer having an 'agetr-ryer', a sort of Black squire to do their menial work. Thousands were used as labourers by both sides. That they did not participate in the fighting with a rifle in hand (some did!) did not prevent them from being shelled at long rage, shot at and if captured, badly treated or summarily executed. The Empire Loyalist spy Abraham Esua was beaten senseless, then shot. The British did arm blacks, especially as town guards. Their loyalty was unquestioned and greatly resented by the Boers. Denys Reitz describes how Smuts' commando was chased by Basuto horsemen. My great-uncle participated in the Leliefonten massacre where Blacks were killed for defying and resisting Boer authority in the Cape. Over 16, 0000 Blacks died in concentration camps. The British Arm rounded up thousands to work as forced labour buiding defences along railway lines. It was slavery by another name. Some say as many as 120,000 were relocated and imprisoned in camps as labourers. At Holkrantz the Zulus slaughtered a large part of a sleeping Boer commando9s. The list would go on but for White South Africa's great racist reluctance to fully document Black participation in what it wanted to preserve as a 'White Man's War', one fought solely between Anglos and Boers, the 'Anglo-Boer War'.

In my capacity as editor of the South African Philately Club I recognise that the war of 1899 - 1902 affected all of South Africa's people, not just 'Anglos' and Boers. Consequently, I will no longer accept use the term 'Anglo-Boer War' except where it is used in a historical context. Our emerging editorial style sheet now requires the use of  the broader, more inclusive 'South African War' in any discussion about aspects of this conflict. Historic displays which reference the anachronistic term 'Anglo-Boer War', like Stroud's book, can be presented on this web site subject to a qualification that use of the term ignores the experience of all of South Africa's people in this conflict and as such it is misleading and out-of-date. I realise this will annoy some people. I advise them to get over their cherished delusions.

*Nasson and John's article contains spurious references unsubstantiated by the National Army Museum. Parts of it were little more than a fabricated 'Boy's Own' yarn intended to create a South African War Black resistance figure as a role model during the height of the Anti-Aparthed Struggle. Nassonand John's article and the reasons he wrote it have become history. At the time I chose not to challenge the accuracy of his article because I sympathised with his political motivation. Interestingly and deservedly so, Nasson is a well-regarded historian today, one who now uses 'South African War' almost exclusively. Clearly his penny dropped long before mine! The time has now come to write about Nasson and John's article as a curious and interesting item of South African history.


1]. Richard Stroud RDPSA's "coffee table book", 'Memorials to the Fallen in the Anglo-Boer War 1899 - 1902', available from him and or  the Anglo-Boer War Philatelic Society. (Copyright 2021. John Richard Stroud.  The Anglo-Boer War Philatelic Society.) This British book clearly reveals a prefernce for use of the term 'Anglo-Boer War' in SA as opposed to the greater use of 'South African War' in GB, its Empire and Commonwealth today. The fact that the  Anglo-Boer War Philatelic Society is British is neither here nor there.

2]. Souvenir of the Unveling of the Darlington War Memorial in 1905 erected "in Honour of the Men who Took Part in the South African War".

3]. Army Post Office Corps Plaque of 1904 to the "men who lost their lives ... during the South African Campaign". This was another common war descriptor in the years before and after the the First World War.

4]. Port Elzabeth's wonderful Horse Memorial erected 1905 "in recognition of the gallant animals which perished in the Anglo-Boer War". It is one of only a handful of statues worldwide that commemorates horses in warfare. A national treasure!

5]. Damage to Port Elizabeth's Horse Memorial by politically motivated activists. Richard Stroud RDPSA says in his book, "The memorial was severely vandalised on 6th April 2015 by a group from the ANC's "Economic Freedom Fighters" (EFL) (sic) who partly dismanteed it, throwing the soldier to the ground. The E.F.L. later claimed responsibility". Stroud, an acclaimed 'Anglo-Boer War' historian, is wrong in his contemporary comment. The EFF is not nor was a part of the ANC ( African National Congress). Julius Malema, the leader of the EFF, is an expelled ANC Youth League President who founded it as a new political party in 2013.

Would this 'vandalism' have happened if the perpetrators had felt that their ancestors had shared in the 'South African War' rather than being excluded from the Anglo-Boer War by White South Africa?

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Use of the 'South African War' in Britain and elsewhere as opposed to South Africa's historic use of largely 'Ango-Boer War' is quite remarkable. I will continue to place postcards here as I find them.

Where the year appears, this is the date when the PC was posted. No year equals 'unused PC'.

Below from top down.
"Anglo-Boer War" Pietermaritzburg; "South African War". Shrewsbury, England.
"Anglo-Boer War" Grahamstown 1913; 'South African War', Adelaide, South Australia 1904.

"South African War" Calgary, Alberta, Canada 1914. The monument reads: "To the Memory of the Brave Men of the Province of Alberta who in the South African War of 1899 - 1902 gave Their Lives for Their Country's Honour".


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My brother-in law was speaking to me about the Anglo Boer War Historical Society while I thought he meant the Anglo-Boer War Philatelic Society. This post outlnes these two societies. With no input from me, my brother-in-law, a Cambridge academic, has independently developed an awareness of the issues in this post. His view is that use of 'Anglo-Boer War' should be discontinued.

The Anglo-Boer War Philatelic Society

Of most interest to postal historians is the 'Anglo-Boer War Philatelic Society'. This was founded in 1957, just nine years after the Apartheid Nationalist government in South Africa came to power promising White men a place in Africa for the next 1000 years. In 1957, Britain was a largely monocultural society of conservative views that very largely did not challenge imperial orthodoxies.

When the Anglo-Boer War Philatelic Society was founded 'Anglo-Boer War' had been White South Africa's first and seldom questioned choice of name for the war since the peace of 1902. The use of 'Anglo-Boer War' limited the conflict to a 'White Man's War' which was how most White South Africans wanted to remember it. Some even believed this was the case! I am not suggesting that the founders of the Anglo-Boer War Philatelic Society were racists. They were men of their time who went along with what they thought back then was a clinically correct and better way to describe a war between the British Empire, 'Anglos', and the two Boer states. Today, we know differently.

The Anglo Boer War Historical Society

This society was formed in December 2012. Given the large number of academics and professionals in this society, people you would expect to be abreast of the time, one must ask why its founders chose this name for their society when there was already a debate developing about the continued suitability of the term 'Anglo-Boer War'. By 2012 other historians already understood the issue and committed themselves to not using 'Anglo-Boer War'. As the use of this term is not as widespread in Britain as South Africa, why did they choose to use it when curiously their web site address is ""?  I daresay  they may have thought that on the basis of South Africa's lead in almost exclusive use of the term 'Anglo Boer War' it was the way to go.

This society seems to be 'in bed' with a number of South Africans. As a word of caution, many elderly White South Africans are reactionary and angry with people who cause them to think about these issues more than they would like. Perhaps as this debate develops this society will be glad to be the 'Boer War Society'. My preference is for them to use the 'South African War', a truly British (Anglo) term in widespread use in the immediate aftermath of the war. The Anglo Boer War Historical Society website says that "Any thought provoking or controversial issues are tactfully examined". That being the case, I look forward to reading their views here. All comments, except racist ones, are welcomed. (That's not to say I think this society is racist! I have no reason to suspect that!)

Peter Prime's 'British Army Postal Cancellations of the ABW as published by the 'Anglo Boer War Philatelic Society'.


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Below is a postcard showing the unveiling in Grahamstown, Cape Colony, in March 1906, by the Governor, Sir Walter Hely-Hutchinson of the Memorial "To the brave men of Albany who died for the Empire during the Anglo-Boer War 1899 - 1902". It shows early use of the phrase 'Anglo-Boer War' in South Africa at a time when Britain used 'South African War' or variations of it. If you can show examples of British use of 'Anglo-Boer War' from this time, please advise me.

This postcard is also shown in Richard Stroud RDPSA's fine "coffee table" book, "Memorials to the Fallen in the Anglo-Boer War' (page 71). Its preceding page shows two postcards of the Memorial erected in East London in 1908, one of which describes it as the "Volunteer Monument" while the other describes it as the "Anglo-Boer War Memorial"  Stroud notes that it was "Vandalised in April 2015, white paint being thrown over it. Four men were involved". Again, one should not be surprised or indeed even offended by protests like this given that the colonists deliberately chose to use the term 'Anglo-Boer War' as a means of excluding all Black South African participation from the history of the war. When a people are excluded from history, they will have no option but to make their own version of events.

At the risk of undermining my argument and introducing an extra Empire versus Boer element to this debate, the term 'Albany' is interesting. It was given its name by Captain Kuyler, the hanging magistrate of Slagter's Nek notoriety. His family had lived in the Dutch 'New Amsterdam' since before it became British New York. During the American Revolutionary War Kuyler loyally sided with the British. By war's end he lost everything and fled to Canada where he joined the British Army who thought it a good idea to send him to the Cape. They hoped that being able to speak Dutch Kuyler would win over with the unhappy frontier Boers. Kuyler was appointed the local military magistrate in Uitenhage. Having lost everything to rebel colonists in America, he was in absolutely no mood to compromise with rebel Cape Dutchmen whom he hung. He named the surroundng area 'Albany' after his losts lands in upstate New York. Years later, after the discovery of diamonds, an attempt was made to create a buffer zone between the Griquas and the OFS Boers by filling the area with loyal Eastern Cape farmers from Albany. The area became known as 'Albania'.

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I am no longer of the opinion that the choice of 'Anglo-Boer War' in South Africa post-1902 was the deliberate choice of racist "historians of the the emerging race of 'White South Africans'" who "saw in it a nationalist pre-Apartheid, 'Whites Only', segregationist vision of the recent war". Yes, it later became all of that but not by original design. 

I am now of the opinion that the use of 'Anglo-Boer War'  was the choice of victorious English-speaking, White South African imperialists who in the immediate aftermath of the war  used it as a stick to remind the Boer community that while they represented the 'White South African' majority, English-speaking South Africans had the Anglophone world on their side. This explains to some extent why so many 'Anglo-Boer War' memorials were erected in South Africa.

The Black South African experience of Apartheid has led many to conclude that the 'Anglo-Boer War' was a colonial White Man's War from which racist South African history  excluded them. As such, the term Anglo-Boer War is a brutal reminder of all that is rotten about racist White colonial and imperial history. One should not be surprised when Black South Africans destroy these monuments as an act of political protest or retribution.