The Boer War was a tragic colonial accident. Romantic books have been written about it, full of hatred for the rooineks, as well as academic standard works, but none has done justice to the hope and despair of all involved. Now historian Martin Bossenbroek has filled that gap with his prizewinning book.
In the two Boer Wars (1880-81 and 1899-1902), the mighty British Empire suffered more than a pinprick. Its wounds were inflicted at places with evocative names like Bronkhorstspruit, Majuba, Stormberg and Magersfontein, and not by a large standing army but by a bunch of farm boys. The British eventually beat the white Afrikaners, but not without losing their supposedly unassailable prestige to guerrilla fighters who looked like Old Testament characters. The Boers, by the end mostly women, children and old men in concentration camps, paid with their lives or health for their impertinence.
Bossenbroek tells a classic story of ‘the struggle of a small people for self-preservation’, using understatement and empathizing with all parties, whatever their shortcomings. His success as a writer lies in his way of telling personal stories while not neglecting the bigger picture. Dutch involvement in the Boer War – the Boers were descended from courageous sixteenth-century Dutch settlers – is seen through the eyes of lawyer Willem Leyds, close colleague and confidant of ‘uncle’ Paul Kruger, president of the Transvaal. The description of the British experience is based on the account by young war reporter Winston Churchill, an occasional combatant himself, while the Boers are represented by a young fighter called Deneys Reitz.
This was the first modern war, with trenches, guerrilla operations, media battles, and the tactics of mass murder and concentration camps. It sowed the seeds of one of the great colonial tragedies of the twentieth century: the apartheid system. The well-worn saying that war has no winners has rarely been made so credible and tangible as it is here, in a book that looks at the same hopeless war from three contrasting perspectives.
- The way Bossenbroek makes use of a multitude of personal accounts lifts the book out of the genre of non-fiction to the highest literary level.
- Shows the Netherlands to be the missing link in the development of the conflict.