Few people in the United States realize it today, but the Boer War in South Africa (1899-1902), also called the “Second Boer War,” “South African War,” or “Anglo-Boer War,” created a worldwide debate on the nature of European aggression and self-determination long before World War I. In the press and on the ground, it was truly a prelude to the First World War, as many countries—officially or otherwise—sent soldiers to fight for one side or the other.
The expansion of newspapers and the employment of foreign correspondents at the turn of the century meant that, for the first time, a war overseas was being covered in depth and reaching millions of readers daily. Correspondents like Richard Harding Davis, Arthur Conan Doyle, and Winston Churchill, among others, filed reports via telegraph and steamer back to domestic U.S. and British audiences.
Because of this glut of information about the war, readers quickly formed opinions on the main protagonists. Was this an example of the overreach of the British Empire, which abused its Boer detainees by settling them in concentration camps, exposing the heartless nature of the Empire? Or were the British making great strides in South Africa by imposing (ostensible) equality and progress on the two Boer Republics? Conversely, people either viewed the Boers as backward, uneducated farmers resisting modern society, or as humble frontier farmers fighting for their own freedom against the tyranny of John Bull (the British equivalent to Uncle Sam). Depending on one’s view, the Boers were analogous to U.S. Revolutionary fighters, or the Confederacy during the Civil War (more on that here).
Within this politicized atmosphere, Benjamin Viljoen, a Boer general, became a symbol: of heroism for Boer sympathizers, or of villainy for pro-British readers. After his eventual capture, Viljoen would co-settle a colony of Boer exiles in Chihuahua, Mexico, the subject of my book’s Chapter 4.
In this illustration, drawn by the famous battle illustrator, Richard Caton Woodville, Jr., Viljoen is depicted on horseback immediately to the right of the surrendering soldier. Notice that this shows Viljoen firing his gun into a fleeing man, a cowardly act, or so readers of the Illustrated London News would have wanted it. Given the nature of Boer surprise attacks, Viljoen shooting an adversary in the back would have been possible, but the image clearly seeks to editorialize on the brutality of the Boers. If this image does not make this explicit, then its caption certainly does:
Under the guidance of traitors, Viljoen and Muller crept up to the sleeping camp about half-past eight in the morning, and opened a terrific dire on men and horses. In the wildest confusion, our soldiers sprang up and rushed for their rifles, but the Boers covered the stacks of piled arms and poured in a heavy fire. A Boer shouted to a trooper in the horse lines to hold up his hands, and on his obeying, shot him down. “You coward,” cried a wounded officer who lay near by, and pulling out his revolver, he shot him dead. “Everywhere,” says Mr. Bennet Burleigh in the Daily Telegraph, “explosive bullets flicked, flashing about like brilliant fireflies or will-o’-the-wisps.” Of the Victorians, twenty were killed and forty wounded.