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The Boer War 1822-1902

European colonialism was at the heart of his conflict. From early in the nineteenth century the southern tip of Africa had been shared between the British and Dutch settlers and the relationship was an uneasy one. The Afrikaners or Boers, were descendants of the original seventeenth and eighteenth century Dutch settlers. The discovery of gold and diamonds in the Boer republics in the 1880’s further intensified the rivalry, as British subjects traveled into Boer territories in search of wealth. The unease spilt over into the first Boer War was fought between the British and the Boers from 16 December 1880 until 23 March 1881.

The second Boer War broke the uneasy truce since the end of first war hostilities. As loyal subjects of the British Empire, around 16000 Australians volunteered to fight for “the mother country” against the Boers. The onset of the war was pre-Federation, when Australia was still made up of six colonies and each of the colonies sent contingents to support Britain. Partially as a consequence of this, enlistment detail is notoriously inaccurate. In many cases, formal enlistment did not occur until arrival in Africa.

Post-Federation in 1901, an additional three contingents were raised by the new Commonwealth of Australia but most arrived too late or were still at sea when the war ended on 31 May 1902, with a British victory. All Boers became British subjects upon the signing of the Treaty of Vereeniging. Ironically, within nine years South Africa became a self-governing dominion led by former Boer generals.

Approximately 600 Australian soldiers died in the Boer War; about half from military action and half from disease.

The Boer War spawned the first military folk-heroes in Australia, including the legend of Private Harry (“Breaker”) Morant which became the subject of books, a stage play and a 1980 film adaptation by Australian Director Bruce Beresford.

Private Harry Morant

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Horse being unloaded at dock in Port Eliabeth

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