Of course, there was much about the war that the British must regret. They were in an imperial mode then, and they were anxious to establish their supremacy not only over the blacks of South Africa, but also over their only white challengers there: the two infinitesimal republics of mixed Dutch, Flemish, German and Huguenot stock who called themselves simply Boers - "farmers" - and longed to maintain their own independent societies free from blacks and British alike. The thoroughly mixed motives of imperialism were particularly tainted down there because the British- owned Rand goldfields were at stake; economics, strategy and plain greed all made it inevitable, as Winston Churchill wrote, that "sooner or later, in a just cause or a picked quarrel... for the sake of our Empire, for the sake of the race, we must fight the Boers".
Certainly the British behaved like bullies. The vast resources of the greatest Empire the world had ever known were pitted against 100,000 poor agriculturists. "Follow the Flag!" cried the London press in an excess of imperial braggadocio, and enthusiastic volunteers came from all the far-flung colonies. The most famous regiments of the British Army were mustered for the conflict; Lord Roberts and Lord Kitchener, Britain's most celebrated soldiers, commanded the huge armies in the field. In the end Kitchener won by setting up concentration camps in which thousands of Boer men and women died of disease, starvation or heartbreak - primitive forerunners of Auschwitz and the Gulags.
It is not a pretty record, and, in more ways than one, the Boer War marked the beginning of the end of the imperial idea - the Queen Empress Victoria symbolically died in the middle of it. The mass British public, of course, waved their flags, sang their jingo songs and went joyously mad when the brave British garrison of Mafeking was relieved from besiegement by the dastardly and disloyal Boers.
Even at the time, though, more sensitive Britons were terribly ashamed. Supporting the Boers became one of the great progressive causes of their fin de siecle. Lloyd George the Welshman risked his whole career by being pro-Boer. The grand old Manchester Guardian was burnt on the Stock Exchange. My grandfather detested the Boy Scout movement specifically because it was founded by Baden-Powell of Mafeking. The war was a tabloid craze of a century ago, and no Prime Minister need apologise for that.
In fact the Boers were to emerge, in the British historical memory, as the true heroes of the conflict - the most glamorous fighters, the noblest leaders. The raggety Boer kommando guerrillas, ranging the veldt on their ponies with rifle, biltong and slouch hat, gave their very title to the British commandos of the Second World War. The best of the Boer generals, Jan Smuts and Louis Botha, became in British minds very icons of gentlemanly generosity. The way the war was fought and won was a matter of chagrin to British historians, and the most popular British poet who had ever lived, Rudyard Kipling, deplored the crude British hubris of it all in his hymn Recessional: "Lest we forget, lest we forget..."
In South Africa itself, where the victorious British established themselves as the ruling power, the Boers were often much admired by their old opponents. They came to call themselves Afrikaners - just Africans - and if they were generally politically hostile to the Empire, to the British as people they could be gracefully conciliatory: in the town cemetery at Lichtenberg in the Transvaal, for instance, a plot set aside for the burial of British soldiers was reverently maintained at least into the 1970s. General Smuts ended up a British Field Marshal, a Companion of Honour, a Privy Councillor and honorary citizen of 14 British cities; in the Second World War more Afrikaner South Africans than British ones volunteered for service under the Crown.
When I first went to South Africa in the 1950s, to write a book about the country, the Boer War was still vivid in the Afrikaner consciousness, and plenty of its veterans were still alive. I found the rock-bottom urbanised Afrikaners horribly loutish, surly and resentful, but almost everyone else kind and hospitable - "Come in, come in" was the habitual Afrikaner greeting to a stranger then, "always interesting to meet somebody from overseas..."
They had not forgiven the British for the Boer War, indeed, and talked a lot about ground glass in the porridge of concentration camps. They had racial prejudices of bewildering complexity and they were generally far keener on Old Testament values than they were on New. But the best of them were exquisitely cultivated and enlightened, and to an incipient Welsh nationalist they were genuinely inspiring in their devotion to their language, their culture and their Volk.
Apologise to them? It would never have occurred to me. Much though I liked and admired them, I realised even then that their defeat in the Boer War was really a blessing for their multiracial country. The British might have been jingo imperialists, but they were a great deal more liberal than the Afrikaners, and during the half century in which they retained the upper hand in South Africa racism was at least kept in check. It was only when the Boers gained political power in 1948 that the disgraces of apartheid were enforced, and crazy Afrikaner academics worked out a rationale, part genetic, part religious, for the supremacy of whites over blacks. "You see," one such scholar said to me in perfect seriousness, "for hundreds of generations the natives were lying plunged deep in sin - and it is sin that drove men into their different races. We are responsible to God for our policies."
This is the kind of argument that even the crudest or proudest of the British, even Lord Kitchener or Winston Churchill, would never have advanced. It was closer to the mystic ethnicism of a Heinrich Himmler, and it gave a quasi-spiritual justification for the worst of intentions - namely, keeping the Volk permanently on top.
The British Empire never claimed such jiggery-pokery sanction. At its climax, at the time of the Boer War, the Empire was frank enough in its drive for world supremacy, but was at least officially discreet in its racism. It was an inexorably expanding power offering limitless opportunities for its citizens, and it could afford to be constitutionally tolerant. The Boers, on the other hand, felt themselves a threatened minority, condemned to live where history had deposited them, and like small peoples under stress everywhere they resorted to magic or dubious philosophy to help maintain their identity.
It is all over now. No people is without blame in the modern history of South Africa, just as no people need be without pride. Blacks and whites have behaved well and have behaved appallingly. The Boer War itself was no more than an incidental skirmish in Europe's long campaign to master the African continent for ever, and to impose its own values upon the African peoples. Both ambitions failed, and it remains to be seen whether a free black South Africa is going to work the way Europe works, or revert to systems more indigenous. In either case the Afrikaners are stuck there. The British South Africans can always come home, but the Boers are Africans themselves, with no other homeland, and their old dreams of independent nationhood are as dead as the dodo.
But it's no use asking Tony Blair for apologies. The Boer War was a small conflict in an immense historical process, and if anyone should apologise for it, it should be the Lord God of Hosts: on the whole, I would think, more partial to the Boers than to the British, and anyway not the apologising kind.Reuse content