Modern British History

Palgrave master series

by Norman Lowe

Chapter 17

The outbreak of the Boer War, October 1899

Study Sources A to F and then answer the questions that follow.

Source A:

Speech by Joseph Chamberlain in the House of Commons, 19 October 1899.

From the first day I came into office I hoped for peace, I strove for peace and I have believed in peace... After that extraordinary ultimatum which was addressed to the government, it is impossible for us to do any other than fight with all energy the war which has been thrust upon us... We are going to war in defence of the principles upon which this Empire has been founded. The first principle is that if we are to maintain our position in regard to other nations, if we are to maintain our existence as a great power in South Africa, we are bound to show that we are able to protect British subjects everywhere when they are made to suffer from oppression and injustice.... The second principle is that in the interests of South Africa and the British Empire, Britain must remain the paramount power in South Africa. We are now at war because Kruger and the government of the Transvaal has placed British subjects in the Transvaal in a position of distinct inferiority.

Source: Quoted in L. Evans and P. J. Pledger, Contemporary Sources and Opinions in Modern British History, Vol 2, Warne, 1967.

Source B:

Speech by Sir Henry Campbell-Bannerman (Liberal leader) in the House of Commons, 5 February 1904.

It was on June 20, 1899. The right hon. gentleman [Chamberlain] came to my room. He told me that he wished to submit to me certain proposals that the government were contemplating. The first was to send out 10, 000 men to the Cape... he went on to say, ‘You need not be alarmed. There will be no fighting. We know that those fellows’ - that was the Boers – ‘won't fight... We are playing a game of bluff’. I think I ventured to express frankly to the right hon. gentleman my opinion that such a policy was unworthy of the country. I said it was a rash and dangerous policy to begin a course of bluff when you did not know what it might lead to.

Source: Quoted in J. Wilson, A Life of Sir Henry Campbell-Bannerman, Constable, 1973.

Source C:

Letter from Lord Selborne, one of Chamberlain’s Colonial Office Ministers, to Lord Milner, British High Commissioner in South Africa

DOWNING STREET, 22/3/98 (Confidential)... Our object is the future combination of South Africa under the Union Jack... Our first object is to avoid war if it can be done safely, but if it is to come, what are the conditions under which we must manoeuvre for it to come? It must command the practically unanimous consent of the British in South Africa, and the approval of as large a proportion as possible of our own Dutch in South Africa, and the action must have the unanimous consent of public opinion at home.

Source: As Source A.

Source D:

Remark by Milner to Mr J.T.Molteno, a member of the Cape parliament, 3 October 1899, reported to the Daily Chronicle by Mr Molteno

Well, Mr Molteno, it is no use; I am determined to break the dominion of Afrikanerdom.

Source: As Source B.

Source E:

Speech by Lloyd George at Carmarthen, 27 November 1899.

I do not mean to say that there are no circumstances which would compel us to fight, but I would say that the case must be an overwhelming one indeed before we do so. In this particular instance war could have been avoided. We were negotiating, and the Boers had conceded our demands, which we then withdrew. In the meantime we sent tens of thousands of soldiers to South Africa with artillery and munitions for war... We are fighting for a franchise in the Transvaal which we do not give our own subjects at home... I do not believe the war has any connection with the franchise. It is a question of 45 per cent dividends.

Source: Quoted in P. Rowland, Lloyd George, Barrie & Jenkins, 1975.

Source F:

Bernard Porter, in The Lion’s Share, gives a historian’s view of the outbreak of war.

Milner could not imagine the Afrikaners of the Cape being loyal to the Empire while there remained an independent nation of their ‘race’ to the north to divert their loyalties, and he could not see the Transvaal forfeiting her independence without war. In any case she should be pushed to the limit, mainly on the issue of the uitlander franchise - because it was a genuine grievance, and because if Kruger did give satisfaction on it, Britain’s position in South Africa would be automatically secured: uitlanders outnumbered Boers, most of them were British, and it was assumed that if Britons were given the vote, they would use it imperially. Consequently from the beginning of 1898 Milner devoted his energies to bringing on a crisis which could be exploited to this end... He did all he could to prevent a reconciliation with the Boers, and his constant fear was that Kruger would make reasonable concessions which he would have to accept, which would take from him the excuse for grabbing all he wanted. At a conference with Kruger at Bloemfontein in June 1899 he had to work hard to avoid a peaceful settlement. But he succeeded and the war he desired at last broke out... In the event, the fact that it was the Boers who issued the ultimatum and not the British, made it easier (the British had one prepared in case the Boers failed to)... Though it was Milner who forced the pace, the government’s aims were no different from his. All ministers agreed on the importance of bringing the Transvaal to heel in order to uphold British supremacy. Where Milner and his political masters disagreed was over tactics - Milner wanted to rush in, but the ministers had to be sensitive to the reactions of public opinion; Salisbury was concerned to get the boards clear of other troubles first.

Source: B. Porter, The Lion’s Share: A Short History of British Imperialism 1850-1970, Longman, 1975.


  1. Using information from Section 17.3(a) and the sources, explain the words in italics in the sources: (i) ultimatum (sources A and F); (2 marks) (ii) uitlander franchise (source F). (3 marks)
  2. What evidence do Sources A, B, C and F provide about Joseph Chamberlain’s political aims and methods? (7 marks)
  3. ‘We are now at war because Kruger... has placed British subjects in the Transvaal in a position of distinct inferiority’ (Source A).
    Using information from Section 17.3 and the evidence of the sources, explain how far you think this is an adequate analysis of the causes of the Boer War. (18 marks)
(Total 30 marks)