In their bid to brand Canada a “warrior nation,” Stephen Harper’s Conservatives seek to glorify Canadian military history, regardless of its horrors.
On Saturday Canada’s Minister of Veteran Affairs released a statement to mark “113 years since the end of the South African war.” Erin O’Toole said, “Canada commemorates all those who served in South Africa, contributing to our proud military history.”
But the Boer War was a brutal conflict to strengthen British colonial authority in Africa, ultimately leading to racial apartheid. In the late 1800s the Boers, descendants of Dutch settlers, increasingly found themselves at odds with British interests in southern Africa. Large quantities of gold were found 30 miles south of the Boer capital, Pretoria, in 1886 and the Prime Minister of U.K.’s Cape Colony, Cecil Rhodes, and other British miners wanted to get their hands on more of the loot.
There was also a geostrategic calculation. The Boer gold and diamond fields in the Orange Free State and Transvaal were drawing the economic heart of southern Africa away from the main British colonies on the coast. If this continued London feared that the four southern African colonies might unite, but outside of the British orbit, which threatened its control of an important shipping lane.
Between 1898 and 1902 London launched a vicious war against the Boer. With Cecil Rhodes’ Imperial South African Association promoting anti-Boer sentiment in this country, some 7,400 Canadians fought to strengthen Britain’s position in southern Africa.
The war was devastating for the Boers. As part of a scorched-earth campaign the British-led forces burned their crops and homesteads and poisoned their wells. About 200,000 Boer were rounded up and sent to concentration camps. Twenty-eight thousand (mostly children) died of disease, starvation and exposure in these camps.
In Another Kind of Justice: Canadian Military Law from Confederation to Somalia, Chris Madsen points out that, “Canadian troops became intimately involved in the nastier aspects of the South African war.” Whole columns of troops participated in search, expel and burn missions. Looting was common. One Canadian soldier wrote home, “as fast as we come up the country…we loot the farms.” Another wrote, “I tell you there is some fun in it. We ride up to a house and commandeer anything you set your eyes on. We are living pretty well now.” There are also numerous documented instances of Canadian troops raping and killing innocent civilians.
As with the Boer, the war was devastating for many Africans. Over 100,000 Blacks were held in concentration camps but the British failed to keep a tally of their deaths so it’s not known how many died of disease or starvation. Some estimate that as many as 20,000 Africans were worked to death in camps during the war.
Unlike the Boer, the plight of black South Africans didn’t improve much after the war. In Painting the Map Red: Canada and the South African War, 1899-1902, Carman Miller notes, “Although imperialists had made much of the Boer maltreatment of the Blacks, the British did little after the war to remedy their injustices.” In fact, the war reinforced white/British dominance over the region’s Indigenous population.
The peace agreement with the Boer included a guarantee that Africans would not be granted the right to vote before the two defeated republics gained independence. In The History of Britain in Africa, John Charles Hatch explains: “By the time that self-government was restored in 1906 and 1907, they [the Boer] were able to reestablish the racial foundations of their states on the traditional principle of ‘No equality in church or state.'” Blacks and mixed-race people were excluded from voting in the post-war elections and would not gain full civil rights for nine decades.
For Harper’s Conservatives the details of the Boer War are barely relevant. What matters is that Canadians traveled to a distant land to do battle beside a great empire. That’s the “warrior nation” they seek to create.