Opposition to the Second Boer War

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Opposition to the Second Boer War in Britain was modest when the war began on 11 October 1899 and was always less widespread than support for it, let alone prevailing indifference. However, influential groups formed immediately and ineffectually against the war, including the South African Conciliation Committee and W. T. Stead's Stop the War Committee.

In the United Kingdom[edit]

Although the 1900 UK general election, also known as the "Khaki election", had resulted in a victory for the Conservative government on the back of recent British victories against the Boers, public support quickly waned as it became apparent that the war would not be easy and unease developed following reports about the treatment by the British army's of the Boer civilians such as concentration camps and farm burning. Public and political opposition to Government policies in South Africa regarding Boer civilians was first expressed in Parliament in February 1901 in the form of an attack on the policy, the government, and the Army by the radical Liberal M.P. David Lloyd-George.

Emily Hobhouse in June 1901 published a fifteen-page report on concentration camps operated by British Command, and Lloyd George then openly accused the government of "a policy of extermination" directed against the Boer population. In June, 1901, Liberal opposition party leader Campbell-Bannerman took up the assault and answered the rhetorical "When is a war not a war?" with "When it is carried on by methods of barbarism in South Africa," referring to those same camps and the policies that created them.

There was also embarrassment at the poor health of the British recruits, with up to 40% being found unfit for military service. Most were suffering from poverty-related illnesses such as rickets. Concern over the health of the recruits coincided with increasing concern for the general state of the poor in Britain.

Opposition to the war was strongest among the Irish. Many Irish nationalists sympathised with the Boers as a kindred people being oppressed by British imperialism. Though many Irishmen fought in the British army, some fought for the Boers too. Irish miners working in the Transvaal when the war began formed the nucleus of two tiny Irish commandos.

In Australia[edit]

As part of the empire, Australia joined in the war but also suffered doubts about it. Most such doubts followed the English radical critique of war and empire, but some followed the Irish strain and were an early form of Australian nationalism. Notable among the nationalist critique were the anti-war cartoons in the Bulletin magazine, which thumped home a racist message that participation in a war started by Jews, capitalists and imperialists would mean having to accept non-white migrants once peace came (Breaker Morant had contributed to The Bulletin).

The execution by the British army of two Australian lieutenants (Breaker Morant and Peter Handcock) of the Bushveldt Carbineers for war crimes in 1902 and the imprisonment of a third, George Witton, was initially uncontroversial, but after the war prompted an empire-wide movement to release Witton which drew on anti-war radicalism. More than 80,000 signatures on petitions and intercession by a South African millionnaire saw Witton released in 1904. Three years later he wrote his influential apologia Scapegoats of the Empire.


In Belgium the 15-year-old socialist Jean-Baptiste Sipido, a young tinsmith's apprentice, attempted to assassinate the Prince of Wales then passing through Brussels.[1] He accused the Prince of causing the slaughter of thousands during the Boer War. Remarkably, in the following trial the Belgian jury found Sipido not guilty, despite the facts of the case being clear,[2] which the Leader of the British House of Commons called "a grave and most unfortunate miscarriage of justice"[3]


The existence of anti-war sentiment contributed to the perceptions of British actions after the war. There was much public revulsion in the UK and official Australian government opposition against the use of cheap Chinese labour, known as Coolies, after the war by the governor of the new crown colonies, Lord Milner. Workers were often kept in appalling conditions, received only a small wage and were forbidden to socialise with the local population. Some believe the Chinese slavery issue can be seen as the climax of public antipathy towards the war.

Having taken the country into a prolonged war, the electorate delivered a harsh verdict at the first general election after the war was over. Arthur Balfour, succeeding his uncle Lord Salisbury in 1903 immediately after the war, took over a Conservative party that had won two successive landslide majorities but led it to a landslide defeat in 1906.

See also[edit]


  1. ^ The Manchester Guardian, Thursday April 5, 1900
  2. ^ Summarized by Speyer in "The Legal Aspects of the Sipido Case", Journal of the Society of Comparative Legislation 1900, p. 436.
  3. ^ Speyer, p. 438.

Further reading[edit]

  • Biography of W.T. Stead, W.T. Stead and his "Books for the Bairns", Sally Wood-Lamont, Salvia Books, Edinburgh, 1987
  • Craig Wilcox, Australia's Boer War: The War in South Africa 1899-1902, Oxford University Press, 2002.
  • George R. Witton, Scapegoats of the Empire, (1907) Angus & Robertson, 1982.