The Anglo-Boer War of 1899-1902 was a complex affair of conflicting loyalties.
Back in the 1890s what is now the Republic of South Africa was four different countries. In the south was the Cape Colony, originally Dutch, but in 1899 a self-governing British Colony. In the south-east was the Colony of Natal, which had recently become a self-governing colony. In the centre the Oranje-Vrijstaat (Orange Free State, OFS), an independent republic, led by President M.T. Steyn, and in the north the Zuid-Afrikaansche Republiek (South African Republic, ZAR, also called the Transvaal) led by President Paul Kruger.
Gold had been discovered in the Transvaal and the British High Commissioner and Governor of the Cape Colony, Alfred Lord Milner, a fanatical imperialist, wanted to control it, and tried to browbeat Kruger. Eventually Kruger realised that war was inevitable, and tried to gain the advantage by declaring war first, and President Steyn followed suit as an ally. The combined forces of the two republics (the Republicans, or just “the Boers”), invaded Natal and the Cape Colony, and after initial successes got bogged down in besieging towns like Ladysmith and Mafeking (now spelt Mahikeng).
The British brought in more troops, drove most of the Boers out of the two colonies and staged a counter-invasion of the two republics, and after 18 months had seized and occupied most of the bigger towns and main transport routes.
It was at this point that many Boer soldiers, thinking that there was little point in continuing the fight, surrendered to the British, and some Boer renegades joined the British forces and fought against their erstwhile comrades.
So the republicans were divided into three groups: the “joiners” who joined the British forces, the “hendsoppers” (those who put their hands up in surrender), and the “bittereinders”, who fought to the bitter end, which was 31 May 1902 when the Peace of Vereeniging was signed, after which the ZAR became the Transvaal Colony and the OFS became the Orange River Colony .
When the Boer forces captured British soldiers, those who were British or from the Natal or Cape colonies were treated as prisoners of war, and most of them were eventually disarmed and freed. In the guerrilla stage of the war the Boer forces had no facilities for guarding prisoners. But the Boer renegades, the “joiners”, were tried for treason in courts martial, and if found guilty, they were executed by firing squad. and that is basically what this book is about. The title Boerverraaiers means Boer traitors.
Who were the traitors, how were they tried, how were they executed, and what happened to their families?
The book is thoroughly researched, and Albert Blake has gone through archival records, published and unpublished war diaries, and collected reminiscences of family members of the traitors and those who tried them to try to make the account as accurate as possible.
I noted at the beginning that the war was complex, with conflicting loyalties. The migrating Dutch farmers who founded the Boer republics originally came from the Cape Colony, so many of them had friends and relatives there, and many were born there. Some, including relatively recent immigrants from Britain, settled in the ZAR where they worked in the mines or associated industries. When war came, some had become citizens of the ZAR, other had not. But when the British army occupied the land, many of those who had become citizens reverted to their old loyalty.
People would find that they were in a firing squad ordered to shoot their childhood playmates or members of their own families. Nowadays people can often get counselling for such conditions as Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, but there was nothing like that back then.
The book is full of tragic stories, like the widow of a renegade who was shot by a firing squad, who then married a staunch republican, who never let her daughters by her first husband forget that they were children of a traitor. The son of another, who was executed as a spy, was made to stand up in class at school, so that the other children could see what the son of a traitor looked like.
Many of the “joiners” were of the bywoner (sojourner or squatter) class, who had no land, no income, and joined the British forces for money, to be able to feed their families. The British also took the women and children off the farms, burnt their houses and kept them in concentration camps where thousands died of malnutrition and disease.
After the war, therefore, many families and communities remained divided, though many tried to consign the renegades and their fate to oblivion. It became something that one did not talk about, but one effect was to make Afrikaner nationalism very suspicious of any signs of deviance. Terms like “joiner” and “hendsopper” were used as political insults more than a century after the end of the war.
In 2004 Tony Leon, then the English-speaking DA leader, repeatedly taunted Marthinus van Schalkwyk, then leader of the National Party, as a “joiner” when he joined the ANC. Van Zyl Slabbert, the leader of the official opposition in the 1980s was accused of being a “hensopper”, and a few years later Pik Botha, a former member of the NP cabinet, was dubbed a “joiner” when he was accused of getting too close to the ANC. (my translation)
A lot of black people were also executed as traitors, but their names were not recorded. Though they were not burghers (citizens) of the republics, and had no right to vote, they were regarded as subjects, with a duty of loyalty, so they too were tried by courts martial for treason, and many were executed if found guilty, and on at least one occasion a childhood playmate was in the firing squad.
The usual method of execution was to lead the condemned to where graves had been dug. They would be blindfolded and stand on the edge of their graves. The firing squad had 7-12 members, and someone else loaded the rifles, half of them with blanks, so that no one would know who had fired the fatal shots. They would fire simultaneously, and usually the executed traitor would fall into the grave, which would then be filled up. Sometimes relatives would erect a gravestone, and on some occasions they arranged or the reburial of the body in a cemetery. But the location of many graves of the renegades have been lost.
So this book exposes the pain of divided loyalties, and opens a subject that people would not talk about for many years, though it had a profound effect on South African society.