The British are issued with a Boer ultimatum
Rivalry and discontent in South Africa triggers a declaration of war
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