The Boer war is a matter of black and white

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The Independent Culture

The South African War 1899-1902 by Bill Nasson (Arnold, £14.95)

The South African War 1899-1902 by Bill Nasson (Arnold, £14.95)

THIS WEEK'S centenary of the outbreak of the Boer war has brought a predictable flurry of books on the conflict. Few are as worthy of attention as Bill Nasson's attractive, single-volume history in Arnold's "Modern Wars" series.

One of its strengths is that Professor Nasson has avoided the attempt to tell the whole story in minute detail. This is a neat and strikingly successful strategy - rather like that employed by the Boer forces, before the horrors of Kitchener's scorched-earth and concentration-camp tactics drove them to surrender. Instead of a blow-by-blow account of minor battles, we get a masterful assessment of the myths and misconceptions surrounding the conflict; instead of droning on about Winston Churchill's "escape", we are treated to a ground-breaking assessment of the blacks' role in the war.

It is hard to give the full flavour of this fresh and remarkable book. Nasson describes the early-19th-century Afrikaner migration from the Cape as "just the unproductive edge of an expanding colonial market". The Jameson Raid is dismissed as "a hare-brained coup". Nasson relishes Chamberlain's fretting, a few days before the outbreak of war, that "our troops, unlike the Boers, cannot mobilise with a piece of biltong and a belt of ammunition, but require such enormous quantities of transport and impedimenta". Better still, Nasson has a wonderfully sure touch when explaining exactly what happened and why. His absorption of every scrap of new research seems effortless and complete.

One of the more enlightening parts of the book deals with the fate of blacks in a "white man's war". Nasson shows beyond doubt that blacks were paid combatants on a huge scale, despite the efforts of men such as Baden-Powell - the "hero" of the siege of Mafeking - to deny their contribution. He also shows that, as the power of the Boer republics was smashed by the British advance, Africans eagerly repossessed ancestral lands - only to be pitched off by their "liberators" once the grubby Anglo-Afrikaner peace deal had denied them any hope of enfranchisement.

Of the temporarily defeated Boers, Nasson writes thoughtfully and generously. He understands the legacy of the concentration camps - both in forging a more resilient Afrikaner nationalism, and in driving that perverted form of affirmative action for poor whites that came to be codified as apartheid. Today, Afrikaner traditionalists can turn with relief from the scourge of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission and embrace the commemoration of a war in which they, too, were plainly the victims of injustice on a heroic scale.

As Nasson concludes this magnificent, subtle and memorable book, he reflect s that the war "is not, and never has been, an American Civil War", in the sense of defining a "collective consciousness". He also notes that "The mounting concern of the Edwardian élite with the relationship between imperial power and racial vitality as something to be improved through national efficiency and advanced eugenics was very much a product of the hard going during the South African war." So the siege of Mafeking begat the British scouting movement. Perhaps we should be thankful it was no worse than that.

The reviewer wrote the recent two-partanalysis of the Boer war broadcast on Radio 4. His book, 'Empire: the British imperial experience from 1765 to the present', is published by Fontana