Alex Mitchell’s WEEKLY NOTEBOOK – Oz mercenaries in the Boer War

Between 1899 and 1902 some 16,000 Australian volunteers travelled to South Africa to take up arms against the Dutch white settlers.
Australia’s irregular militiamen, i.e. mercenaries, served under the Union Jack using arms and ammunition supplied by the British army.
Some “bushmen” travelled at their own expense but most were paid with private donations from wealthy supporters of Britain’s colonial policy.
When Commonwealth Federation was declared in 1901, the first Australian government sent a further eight battalions of volunteers
to crush Boer independence in the Transvaal and Orange Free State.
British imperialism’s strategic purpose was to seize control of the recently discovered gold and diamond mines of the Witwatersrand. It was a prelude to the outbreak of World War One in 1914.
The savagery of the Boer war eventually turned public opinion in Britain and, fearing an electoral backlash, Liberal and Tory politicians halted the conflict and started peace talks.
Starved into submission, the Boers accepted a rotten stalemate in which they won control of their previously occupied territories while British-backed mining houses claimed the mines.
Excluded from the agreement were black Africans from the Xhosa and Zulu nations: they had to wait until 1994 for the first multi-racial parliamentary elections.

War celebrations

Dr Brendan Nelson, director of the Australian War Museum and defence minister in 2007-08 during the US-led invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan, is now in charge of building a memorial avenue in Canberra to commemorate the Australian “bushmen” of the British war against the Boers.
How does the celebration of Australian volunteer militias fighting overseas in foreign wars sit with the Abbott government’s Crimes (Incursions and Recruitment) Act? And should Attorney-General George Brandis be considering whether to posthumously remove their citizenship?
Dr Nelson succeeded John Howard when he lost the prime ministership in 2007, when he lost his seat as well. A former Labor man, Nelson is the complete chameleon: Labor to Liberal, republican to monarchist, pacifist to warmonger, mixed economy pragmatist to free marketeer.
Wading through the blood of servicemen and women from the 20th century, the former AMA president now wants to sanitise the barbarities of the Boer War and inflict them onto Australian history.

A filthy war

The architects of the Boer War were Colonial Secretary Joseph Chamberlain, mining magnate Cecil Rhodes (Abbott benefited from one his scholarships in 1981) and Viscount Alfred Milner, a pre-eminent colonialist.
Although there was racist violence on both sides, the British invaders excelled in their brutality. Urging Liberal MP Herbert Asquith to forget his squeamish opposition to the invasion of Boer-held provinces, Milner said: “You have only to sacrifice the nigger absolutely, and the rest is easy.”
General Robert Baden-Powell, founder of the Scout movement and “hero” of the Battle of Mafeking, revealed that his garrison survived by giving the Africans the choice of starving to death in the beleaguered town or running the gauntlet of the Boers. He authored a book celebrating his skill at scouting and a pastime he called the “sport of nigger hunting”.
Historian Thomas Pakenham wrote in his masterful book The Boer War (1979): “This was white man’s country. The Africans were there to be useful to the white men. When no longer useful they must go back to where they belonged wherever that might be. So, in the white man’s war, they had to pay, like the animals, a terrible price.”
The concentration camp, later adopted by the German Nazis, was invented by the British during the Boer War and 27,000 Boers died in brutal incarceration along with 20,000 black Africans. Measles, typhoid, dysentery, malnutrition and other crippling medical conditions flourished in the camps for so-called “refugees”.
David Lloyd George thundered: “When children are being treated in this way and dying, we are simply ranging the deepest passions of the human heart against British rule in Africa.”
In another speech he warned: “A war of annexation against a proud people must be a war of extermination, and that is unfortunately what it seems we are now committing ourselves to.”

Opponents in Oz

There was widespread opposition to the Boer War in Australia. Fresh from the bloodshed at Eureka Stockade in 1854, many Australians were hostile to joining a colonial war against white settlers in another part of the Queen Victoria’s British empire.
In the NSW parliament, early Labor leaders including future premier William Holman and future prime minister Billy Hughes opposed the war. Hughes told MPs: “I venture to say the greatest enemies the British race have today are these very men who would shove us into any dispute so long as a handful of powerful syndicators are to be served.”
After a three-day debate an Empire Loyalist motion supporting the war was carried by 75 ayes to 10 noes.
The great lawyer-politician HB Higgins was an outspoken opponent, saying: “I have come to the conclusion that this war is unnecessary, that it is unjust, and that it is unscrupulous.”
Writing in The Bulletin, Henry Lawson said: “England is not going to fight for England – not for English interests, but for the interests of English syndicates, and because she is forced to it by the power of private gold assisted by its contemptible and ignorantly-willing cat’s paw, jingoism!”
Cardinal Francis Moran, 1830-1911, advised the Catholic faithful: “This is a raid by capitalists on a self-governing country,” adding: “One of the special purposes for which the volunteers have gone to South Africa was to assist in annexing certain gold fields that had become very attractive to their British friends.”
But Queen Victoria showed her appreciation by sending Australian and British soldiers each a box of chocolates at Christmas 1900.

Enter “The Breaker”

One of the Australian mercenaries killed – but not in action – was Harry Harbord Morant. In 1902 he was shot by a firing squad of the Queen’s Own Cameron Highlanders after being found guilty of the summary execution of 12 Afrikaner POWs.
“Breaker” Morant later became a national hero in Australia with books, plays and films based on a romanticised version of his life story.
When the volunteer mercenaries returned to Australia none were arrested, lost their passports, citizenship, property or jobs. The racist savagery of the anti-Boer conflict was blotted out of the history books and five survivors were awarded Victoria Crosses by a grateful “Mother Country”. Six hundred died – half killed in action and half from disease.
Unless it can be stopped, the Australian War Memorial in Canberra seems determined to trash the memory of Australian men and women who gave their lives for the noblest goals.
Alongside the tribute to their sacrifice, Brendan Nelson and the arch-royalists want to celebrate the barbaric military adventurism of the war against the Boers to steal their mineral wealth.
Can it be considered a “just war”? No way.


  1. Dear Alex, what a shocking revelation about the Boer War I had never given much thought to. Shocking in that the blackest heart of vested interest has not changed its colour in our own times. Best wishes, Barry

  2. Hi Alex, maybe a bit tough on poor B Nelson, who likely rarely originated policy alone? But maybe a bit too kind on colonial/empirical England? Much ‘worse’?
    Agree with earlier comment posted..lots of us Aussies know sfa about Boer War…and our losses v. Korea, or Viet Nam, surprising to many.
    More lead in your pencil…or…may your typing fingers long avoid arthritis.
    And worth bringing Australian participation in The New Zealand Wars (Maori Wars) to our attention sometime? About as grossly ignoble?

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