The Boer War: An American Postcard

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George Miller

The Boer War

An American Postcard

Note that Kruger’s name is mis-spelled.

About a dozen years ago I made, in print, one of those categorical (but hedged) assertions typical of a professor: apparently, I wrote, there were no Boer War (1899-1902) postcards ever published in the United States.

Several years later I read an article by a friend describing the earliest card in his “political cause” collection. It was, yes, a Boer War card. I freely admit I coveted that card. I know it wasn’t nice, but I did. Frankly, I never anticipated seeing another copy, but this fall I noticed one in a mail auction that matched the one in my memory.

There are images of that card, herewith. The card is likely not the rarest of the rare—but, I categorically (and tentatively) assert: maybe this is the only U. S. published postcard connected with the Boer War.

The background
The word “boer” is Dutch for “farmer” and it was a term applied to South Africans of Dutch descent. The original settlement in South Africa was established in 1652 by the Dutch East India Company as a shipping station for cargo vessels sailing around the tip of Africa to trade with India and the Spice Islands.

British forces took over that Cape Colony in 1795 and by 1815, it was an official part of the British Empire. Britain abolished slavery, set about reforming the government, and encouraged immigration. The descendants of the original settlers (Dutch, German, and French Huguenots)—more commonly called Afrikaners—resented the new order and thousand’s left the Cape Colony in what was known as the “Great Trek” into the northeastern interior of Africa. There they formed two new republics—the South African Republic (or Transvaal) and the Orange Free State—with constitutions modeled in part on America’s.

The Afrikaners lived in widely dispersed communities in what was essentially a primitive, frontier society. Unlike the British, the Afrikaners practiced a strict racial discrimination policy. An uneasy peace existed between the British and the Afrikaners until the discovery of diamonds in 1867 and immense gold deposits in Transvaal in 1886.

The gold rush brought a heavy flow of immigrants into Transvaal. These foreigners, or Uitlanders as the Afrikaners called them, were not welcome and in fact the government of the South African Republic, under President Paul Kruger, refused to extend political and civil equality to these outsiders—many of whom were British subjects. Armed conflict seemed inevitable: the Afrikaners resented the British intrusion; Britain had to defend the rights of British subjects; and, most importantly, Britain wanted to control the largest gold mining operation in the world.

The War
The War began on October 11,1899. From the outset it was an unequal contest: before it was over, Britain had committed about 500,000 men; the Boers, about 88,000. But the war was conducted on the Boer’s terms and in their own familiar terrain, so numerical superiority didn’t count for that much.

The War can be divided into three stages. During the first, the Boers consistently embarrassed British forces laying siege to the cities of Ladysmith, Mafeking, and Kimberly. The British, under the command of Lord Kitchener and Frederick Sleigh Roberts, reversed the tide during the second phase, occupying Johannesburg and Pretoria and driving Kruger into exile in Europe. The Boers, under generals such as Christiaan Rudolf de Wet, resorted in the third phase to commando warfare until Kitchener retaliated with a scorched-earth policy which eventually forced the Boers to accept a peace settlement in May 1902.

The aftermath
Although the British won the War and ended the independence of the Boer republics, the Afrikaners retained their own language (still one of the two official languages of the Republic of South Africa) and eventually gained complete control of their country. The Nationalist Party, Afrikaner in composition and policy, has controlled the government since 1948.

U.S. attitudes toward the war
The official U.S. reaction to the Boer War was strict neutrality even though public sentiment was sympathetic to the Boers. Here, after all, was a tiny frontier republic with a constitution similar to that of the United States resisting the imperialistic designs of a colonial power. Two particular segments the U.S. population—-those of German or Dutch descent and those of Irish—tended to be most active and vocal in supporting the Boer cause. Nevertheless, neutrality was essential. If the U.S. intervened outside of its own hemisphere, then what was to prevent the European powers—such as Germany—from intervening in Latin America.

The Boers sent representatives to the U.S. hoping that the War might become a political issue during the presidential election of 1900, but neither party cared to champion the cause—in large part because it was an issue that ultimately failed to engage voter attention.

The Boers suffered under the neutrality policy because they lacked the financial clout of Britain. Britain financed approximately 20% of its war debt through U.S. security markets, but the Boers, lacking the security necessary for such loans, found only small sums available. The U.S. allowed all but the most blatant of military goods to be exported, but again because of Britain’s sea power and money, it alone benefitted from the policy.

Since they had little success in trying to elicit support, it was not surprising that the Boers hoped for a change in U.S. policy after the assassination of President McKinley in September 1901 and the succession of the Dutch-descended Teddy Roosevelt.

T.R.’s sympathies
Teddy’s sympathies were divided between the two factions. In a letter to his sister dated February 1900, he confided: “The trouble with the war is not that both sides are wrong, but from their different standpoints both sides are right.”

“The Boers,” he continued, “feel themselves to be fighting for the same principle for which their ancestors and ours fought three centuries back against the Spaniards.” In addition, Roosevelt felt strongly that the military successes of the Boers derived from their frontier “rough rider” life. To a friend he wrote, “The Boers are marvelous fighters, and the change in conditions of warfare during the past 40 years has been such as to give peculiar play to their qualities. More pluck in advancing shoulder to shoulder no longer counts for as much as skill in open order fighting, in taking cover, and in the use of their rifle, or as power of acting on individual initiative.”

Despite his personal admiration for both the cause and courage of the Boers, Roosevelt was ultimately, pro-British. The deciding factors for him were several. First, the War involved to his mind the survival of the British Empire. He wrote to his sister in December 1899: “The South African business makes me really sad. I have a genuine admiration for the Boers; but the downfall of the British Empire, I should regard as a calamity to the race, and especially to this country.” A few months later, he observed, “I have a very warm feeling of regard for England and have felt that though the Boers were perfectly right from their standpoint and also had the technical right in the case, yet that England was really fighting the battle of civilization.”

A second factor for Roosevelt was the issue of race. Quite simply, Roosevelt felt the Anglo-Saxon rather than the Dutch should dominate in South Africa. A British loss would, in Roosevelt’s own words, be a “race humiliation of a great catastrophe.” In 1900, Roosevelt wrote: “I think it would be a great deal better if all the white people of South Africa spoke English, and if my Dutch kinfolk over there grew to accept English as their language as my people and I here have done, they would be a great deal better off.”

Another factor was also significant, if less personal. The English had been sympathetic to the U.S. position during the Spanish-American War and Roosevelt was quick to acknowledge that debt: “The British behaved so well to us during the Spanish War that I have no patience with those people who keep howling against them.”

In short, Roosevelt’s succession to the U.S. presidency did nothing to change U.S. policy toward the Boers.

The postcard
The postcard, above, features portraits of George Washington and Paul Kruger flanked by a colonial American soldier with a flag carrying the date 1776 and a Boer with a flag carrying the date 1899 (the year the Boer War started). The simple typeset message reads: “In the name of Humanity and Liberty, and as a Citizen of this Republic, I appeal to you, its Chief Executive, to exert your great influence to stop the war against the South African Republics.” The sender was to sign his or her name and address.

The back of the card has a pre-printed address: “Hon. Theo. Roosevelt, President of the U.S., Washington, D.C.” To the left directions read: “Sign your name, affix one cent stamp and mail this card. Help the cause of the Boers by distributing Peace Postal Cards among your friends.”

The card carries the imprint of A[dolph] Selige, 20 N. 4th Street, St. Louis, Missouri, a prominent early postcard publisher. Although it is possible that he simply published the card for a local or regional pro-Boer faction, Selige was born in Germany and in all likelihood personally supported the Boer cause.

Since my copy was not postally used, we must guess at its publication date. The card has a “Post Card” back so it must date from after December 24, 1901, the date on which the government permitted postcard rather than private mailing card backs. Roosevelt did not assume the presidency until after McKinley’s death in September 1901; the War was over by May 31, 1902. Boer supporters had hoped that Roosevelt might soften the U.S.’s policy of strict neutrality, but Roosevelt refused to receive the Boer representatives until March 1902 and by then the War was nearly over. Given the time constraints then, the card was almost certainly published during the early months of 1902.

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As the wife of a South African I thank you for this informative bit of history. While there visiting relatives I visited many museums but none explained it so well.

Would be interesting to find a postcard depicting the war between the British and the Zulu.

This article needs to be updated to acknowledge the fact that South Africa now has eleven official languages, with Ndebele, Pedi, Sotho, Swazi, Tsonga, Tswana, Venda, Xhosa, and Zulu having joined Afrikaans and English.

This is really an interesting slice of history you have presented here. The reasons for this conflict are laid out very well. I would say that had I been alive at the time of this conflict, it would have been difficult to take a side.

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