The Bri­tish are is­sued with a Boer ul­ti­ma­tum

Ri­valry and dis­con­tent in South Africa trig­gers a dec­la­ra­tion of war

BBC History Magazine - - Anniversaries -

Just after six o’clock in the morn­ing of Tues­day, 10 Oc­to­ber 1899, the most dy­namic politi­cian of the age was asleep in Lon­don. As colo­nial sec­re­tary, Joseph Cham­ber­lain was master of the Bri­tish em­pire. In the last few weeks, he had been ab­sorbed by the sit­u­a­tion in South Africa, where his agents were draw­ing a net around the gold-rich Boer re­publics. Cham­ber­lain was awo­ken by a knock at the door, an­nounc­ing an ur­gent mes­sage from the Colo­nial Of­fice. He tore it open, and ex­claimed: “They have done it!”

The news from South Africa was an ul­ti­ma­tum, in re­sponse to Cham­ber­lain’s in­creas­ing pres­sure, sent by the Bo­ers’ un­com­pro­mis­ing leader, Paul Kruger. Prob­a­bly drafted by the young Jan Smuts (a fu­ture South African prime min­is­ter), the mes­sage ac­cused Bri­tain of stir­ring up dis­con­tent in­side the Transvaal, in­sisted that Cham­ber­lain with­draw the troops mass­ing on the bor­der, and de­manded that no Bri­tish troops cur­rently on the high seas should be landed in South Africa. It was de­signed to be a show of strength to put Bri­tain on the back foot, but it had the ef­fect of unit­ing opin­ion against the Bo­ers’ so-called “in­so­lence”.

To the next day’s pa­pers, Kruger’s ul­ti­ma­tum was a joke. The Times mocked this “in­fat­u­ated step” by a “petty repub­lic”, while The Globe was scathing about the “im­pu­dent burghers” of “this trumpery lit­tle state”. And although The Tele­graph was “in doubt whether to laugh or to weep”, there was no ques­tion about what Bri­tain’s re­sponse should be: “There can be only one an­swer to this grotesque chal­lenge… Mr Kruger has asked for war, and war he must have.”

On Wed­nes­day, the ul­ti­ma­tum ex­pired and the Boer War be­gan. But it would be longer, blood­ier and more dif­fi­cult than any­body ex­pected.

A pho­to­graph show­ing Bri­tish troops bound for South Africa from The Il­lus­trated Lon­don News on 11 Novem­ber 1899. The war, which be­gan a month ear­lier, lasted un­til 1902

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