My interest in the Boer War is related, in a certain way, to my interest in the outdoors. In that war, even more than in most other wars, people who had the ability to observe the terrain carefully were more likely to survive. It was a conflict fought largely on horseback over vast open spaces.
The war began in 1899 when the Boers—mainly Dutch-speaking people in South Africa—decided to defend their republics against encroachment by the British Empire, which coveted the gold reserves of the Transvaal and had the ambition to control wide sweeps of territory in southern Africa. It ended in 1902 when the vastly outnumbered Boers were forced to surrender. The British had burned most of their farms and swept Boer women and children into concentration camps, where more than 27,000 died.
For an excellent compilation of source material about the war, visit the Anglo-Boer War blog crafted by “Pen and Spindle.”
My work of narrative nonfiction about the war, Transvaal Citizen, describes the lives of several young Boer fighters, how their paths collided and separated, how they experienced the same events in very different ways. A major source for the work is an unpublished memoir written in 1903 by Deneys Reitz, who is well known for a book he published much later, Commando. I wrote the book following a research trip to South Africa in 2005.
I am aware that is possible for people to misunderstand my interest in the subject. It is not part of a project to support a racist program of Afrikaner nostalgia.
This page displays the opening passage of my book. Short selections also appear on the page entitled “Transvaal Citizen.”
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Pretoria was a town of comfortable bungalows. In a country blinded by sun, its shady gardens soothed and protected. Weeping willows and gum trees leaned over the streams. The houses with their cool verandahs had been built in a simple, practical way, and for that reason they were pleasing in appearance.
The bungalows congregated in the vicinity of Church Square, Pretoria’s point of greatest energy, where important public buildings sprouted up. The Dutch Reformed church had been joined by the massive construction of the Raadzaal, home of the Transvaal parliament. This elegant edifice, with its wedding cake pillars and Victorian superfluities, said to the outside world: we can be as grand as you can. The Raadzaal’s domed roof and turrets were mirrored across the square by its architectural sibling, the Palace of Justice, just recently finished, complete with a telephone system. Down the street loomed the Grand Hotel.
A short distance out of town, smart new houses were going up for successful attorneys and government contractors who were profiting in one way or another from the Rand. They were in the fashionable gothic style, half-timbered with many gables jutting out, set off by neatly clipped shrubs and fences that had a brass nameplate on the gate. Inside they boasted polished floors, stained glass windows, and electric bells.
More distant from the town stood four giant fortresses recently commissioned and built at terrible and troubling expense by the decision of President Paul Kruger. These were the Despoort, Klapperkop, Schanzkop, and Wonderboompoort forts. Each one had an enormous 155-mm Creusot gun.
Beyond the forts a traveller would get out into the endless space and light of the veld. There crouched under the sky were the farmhouses, simple constructions of plaster or mud bricks and corrugated tin. In an arid land, they huddled near the drainages of the terrain, wherever water could be ponded up. Many had floors of packed-down dirt.
The bungalows and the farmhouses seemed to grow out of the land, therefore had no particular style. But the new suburban houses were in an English style, and the government buildings were said to be French Renaissance. The forts had French guns and artillerymen trained by German experts. President Kruger’s tastes ran to the Germanic. On ceremonial occasions he wore a tasselled sash, embroidered with a fierce bird of prey with spread wings—too angular and aggressive for English tastes. The dress uniforms of the Transvaal State Artillery were of blue and gold, with epaulettes and enough gold braid to satisfy the greatest lover of ornament.
And so it was, in a growing town in Africa.
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