26 November 2007

So I'm only a few pages into a new book on the Second Boer War, this one a contemporary (1902) account by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle entitled "The Great Boer War". It is a much more colourfully written book than the "The Boer War" by Thomas Pakenham, as could be expected when the author was known for inventing Sherlock Holmes among other things, but it is rumoured to be somewhat factually inaccurate in places. No matter...as I was saying, I'm only a few pages into it and I feel I've gotten my money's worth by this insightful passage:

An American would realise the point at issue if he could conceive that after the founding of the United States the Dutch inhabitants of the State of New York had trekked to the westward and established fresh communities under a new flag. Then, when the American population overtook these western States, they would be face to face with the problem which this country has had to solve. If they found these new States fiercely anti-American and extremely unprogressive, they would experience that aggravation of their difficulties with which our statesmen have had to deal.
This is admittedly obscure and uninteresting to the general reader (who rarely tends to share my strange fascination with 19th Century South African history), but for me it was an enormous revelation. I had somewhat bought into the forgone conclusion that the British Empire was purely interested in expanding its grip and spreading its empire across continents when it found itself at war with the Boers in 1899. I can't help this, I'm sure it has to do with the way we are educated today; it was a popular refrain to bash "imperialism" with the Brits as Exhibit A (until we overtake them!). But Conan Doyle's illustration above seemed to make the British motivation (other than Milner's personal ambitions) for war much clearer and more reasonable.

Another rather quotable bit is his eloquent praise for the hardy nobility of the Boer blood, with which he opens the first chapter:

Take a community of Dutchmen of the type of those who defended themselves for fifty years against all the power of Spain at a time when Spain was the greatest power in the world. Intermix with them a strain of those inflexible French Huguenots who gave up home and fortune and left their country for ever at the time of the revocation of the Edict of Nantes. The product must obviously be one of the most rugged, virile, unconquerable races ever seen upon earth. Take this formidable people and train them for seven generations in constant warfare against savage men and ferocious beasts, in circumstances under which no weakling could survive, place them so that they acquire exceptional skill with weapons and in horsemanship, give them a country which is eminently suited to the tactics of the huntsman, the marksman, and the rider. Then, finally, put a finer temper upon their military qualities by a dour fatalistic Old Testament religion and an ardent and consuming patriotism. Combine all these qualities and all these impulses in one individual, and you have the modern Boer-the most formidable antagonist who ever crossed the path of Imperial Britain. Our military history has largely consisted in our conflicts with France, but Napoleon and all his veterans have never treated us so roughly as these hard-bitten farmers with their ancient theology and their inconveniently modern rifles.

"Inconveniently modern rifles" made me chuckle a bit...the British, who enjoyed the advantage of outclassing their rivals in firearms technology in most colonial wars of the era, found themselves outclassed by that immensely impressive design, the Mauser magazine rifle. The British by this time were using a relatively advanced bolt design in the Lee-Metford, but they were still using a blackpowder cartridge. From the numbers I've seen, the Mausers (using high-tech smokeless powder) had approximately 800 fps higher muzzle velocity than the Lee-Metfords, which gave them better range and accuracy, not to mention kept them hidden by obscuring the white puffs of smoke after firing from hidden positions. The British fielded some Lee-Enfields at that time, which used a new rifling and fired a smokeless cartridge, the venerable .303 British.

Although I will say I didn't realize that I did not have to pay for this book. I found out later it is public domain, and available all across the web. If you're interested, get started here:

The Great Boer War

Another book worthy of mention is "The Washing of the Spears" by Donald Morris. History of the Zulu kingdom from Shaka to Cetswayo (downfall under the latter). Very entertaining and enlightening.

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