Anglo-Boer War (1899-1902)

Alternatively known as the Second Boer War and the South African War, the Anglo-Boer War employed new mass styles of wartime propaganda in response to recent developments in media technology and the politics of mass society of the late nineteenth century. The war was fought by the British Empire against the two Dutch-speaking republics of the Orange Free State and the South African Republic (formerly the Transvaal Republic). Given the disparity of strength, the defeat and annexation of the two “Boer” (Dutch for “farmer”) republics was inevitable. But early British defeats, followed by difficulties and brutalities in ending the war, earned the Boers considerable sympathy in Europe and the United States, bolstered by a pro-Boer propaganda campaign. This included the issue of British farm burnings and of “concentration camps.” The first war fought by the British since the Crimean War (1854—56) against an enemy with access to British and foreign news sources, it was covered by war correspondents on an unprecedented scale, raising important issues regarding censorship and control. The war also saw the widespread use of photography and marked the important early use of the cine-camera.

The chief motives for the war were ideological imperialism and a desire to control the newly discovered goldfields of the South African Republic. Sir Alfred Milner (1854— 1925), high commissioner for South Africa, largely engineered the outbreak of war, this despite the reluctance of both sides to fight. Among Milner’s methods was the manipulation of the press both in South Africa and in Great Britain. Cecil Rhodes (1853-1902), chairman of the De Beers diamond enterprise, was also heavily associated with manipulating the press in South Africa. British critics of the war (“pro-Boers”) argued that popular and political assent to the war had been artificially contrived, foreshadowing an important twentieth-century propaganda debate.

In 1895 a close associate of Rhodes named Leander Starr “Dr. Jim” Jameson (185 3— 1917) launched the so-called Jameson Raid to provoke an uprising in the South African Republic. In 1897 the latter appointed Dr. Willem Leyds of Brussels to serve as its am-bassador-at-large to Europe. Leyds organized propaganda events throughout the war, notably through the use of cartoons and other visual media. Since these were not linked to any coherent political initiative, they were merely an irritation to the British government, which was nevertheless shocked at the extent and virulence of European scorn.

The war began in October 1899. The three early British defeats during “Black Week” (which occurred in December) were more important for their political and propa-gandistic impact than as military losses. After the occupation and annexation of the republics had been completed by July 1900, the remaining Boers changed to guerrilla tactics, requiring the British to hunt them down. In order to deprive the Boers of supplies, the British resorted to burning farmsteads and villages, placing women and children into concentration camps (separate for white and black families). The term “concentration camp” was an old one, although it had recently gained notoriety in the Spanish-American War of 1898 when it was applied to the prison camps on Cuba. At first the British camps resulted in widespread deaths due chiefly to poor organization in handling out breaks of disease. But by the war’s end (May 1902) the British were actually turning people away from the camps. Boer propaganda exploited both the British burning of farmsteads and the countless deaths from disease in the concentration camps, as revealed through a British newspaper campaign chiefly conducted by Emily Hobhouse (1860—1926). By extension, the German government’s decision in the 1930s to name its Nazi detention camps for political prisoners “concentration camps” (which were unlike the British camps in nature) was meant both to reflect their unpleasant nature and to serve as a propaganda ploy against the British. The persistent belief that the British invented the concentration camp has been the war’s most enduring propaganda issue.

Whereas previous British colonial wars had been covered by a handful of reporters, the Boer War involved about two hundred journalists at its height. The improvising of new forms of accreditation and censorship laid the foundations for much greater control of the press in subsequent wars occurring during the twentieth century. With few exceptions, the British also blocked reportage from the Boer side by controlling telegraph communications from South Africa. In general, the British press was willing to cooperate, the recent mass-circulation daily and illustrated weekly newspapers in particular benefiting from the war. British senior military commanders—notably Field Marshal Lord (Frederick Sleigh) Roberts (1832— 1914), who served as commander-in-chief in South Africa in 1900—established a system of rewards and punishments that allowed them to exercise virtual control over the war’s reportage.

The use of lightweight cameras, in particular the introduction of the Pocket Kodak in 1897, meant that this war, like the Spanish-American War, was well photographed from all sides. An early form of the cine-camera called the “Biograph” was used by W. K-L. Dickson (1860—1935) in 1899—1900 to film events from the British side. Fictional films of the war were also made in Great Britain and the United States. Coinciding with such developments as the 1896 creation of Britain’s first mass-circulation newspaper (Daily Mail), the 1898 Imperial penny post, and the establishment by 1899 of a worldwide British telegraph cable system meant that the Boer War was reported and propagandized in a new way.

How the majority of the British working class responded to the Anglo-Boer War, the last in a series of imperial wars of expansion, remains unclear. Certainly, working-class culture was saturated with the propaganda of empire at almost every level, from trinkets to pageants. But it is difficult to prove whether the war met with popular approval in Britain, or even with much popular awareness.

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