The Boer War: Britain's Vietnam
What a time the 1890s must have been – if you were British.
Britain was the world’s sole superpower. It controlled, directly or indirectly, something like one-third of the world’s population and land area. Most international trade was carried in British ships, and much of it consisted of British manufactures. British language and culture was hugely influential, and in many parts of the world overwhelmed local cultures, especially among the educated elites.
In the 1960s, the United States occupied a remarkably similar position. Its de facto empire spread across Asia, Africa and South America. America’s colourful, vibrant, open culture was the envy of people the world over, especially the young, who imitated it energetically.
At the height of their powers, however, both these great nations lived in fear that their dominance was threatened. There had been warning signs. In the Crimean War of the 1850s, and the Zulu Wars twenty years later, Britain suffered serious reverses which exposed the failings of its much vaunted military power. In the 1950s the Americans had the same chastening experience in the brutal Korean War.
Both superpowers survived. But neither was to last.
For the United States, the turning point was to come with Vietnam in the 1960s. As a technological and nuclear superpower the US came up against an untrained adversary who fought with simple weapons, and didn’t know when they were beaten.
For Britain it was the South African War of 1899-1902. The Boers had virtually no formal military training, refused to obey the rules of conventional warfare, and were as elusive, as mobile, and as dedicated as the Viet Cong sixty years later.
Both great powers were humbled in their turn. Both lost tens of thousands of men. And neither was victorious. North Vietnam survived as a Communist state, despite all the Americans could throw at it, and the Boer republics regained their independence within a very few years and achieved virtually everything they had been fighting for. That included systematic repression of the black population, which the British had specifically promised to resist.
After Vietnam the United States never regained its sense of manifest destiny. Public opinion was never again wholeheartedly behind military adventures, and the country’s leaders were never again wholly trusted.
The Boer War had the same effect on the British. The hysterical celebrations which greeted the relief of Mafeking in mid-1900 (‘Mother may I go and maffick, tear about and hinder traffic?’) mark by their very violence the end of the old certainties. They exhibit a desperate need to cling to a set of values which was already passing.
The death of Queen Victoria just seven months later put the seal on this. The British appear to have understood instinctively that the end of the Victorian era inevitably meant the end of their own glorious century.
The more thoughtful of British commentators had seen this coming even before war broke out. Kipling’s poem Recessional was written for Victoria’s Diamond Jubilee but it might just as well have been penned for her funeral.
Far called, our navies melt away;The poem’s refrain, Lest we forget, is nowadays invoked as an elegy for the fallen. In fact Recessional is an exhortation to the British to be humble in the face of their inevitable decline. Meanwhile, popular British novels of the 1890s, by writers like Le Queux and Childers and Romer, spoke of invasion threats and subversion by evil geniuses. The overall message was: the end is nigh.
On dune and headland sinks the fire.
Lo! All our pomp of yesterday
Is one with Nineveh and Tyre
In truth it wasn’t very nigh at that stage, but it was certainly approaching, and the British sensed it clearly enough.
What the USA really lost after Vietnam, and what Britain lost after the Boer War, was not military or economic supremacy, but moral ascendancy – confidence in their mission to rule.
Neither empire was ever to regain it.
T.D.Griggs writes: I was born in London, but have so far lived on four continents and have dual British and Australian nationality. I’ve worked variously as a journalist, industrial editor, and proprietor of a successful communications consultancy – interspersed with spells as a truck driver, barman and volunteer firefighter – before becoming a full-time novelist fifteen years ago. That seems like the kind of varied and colourful background a novelist ought to have, and it sometimes surprises me, looking back, that it’s actually all true.
My first novel, Redemption Blues, a contemporary crime drama – was a million-seller, and has just been re-edited and re-released. This is the first time it has appeared as an e-book, and the first time US readers will get the chance to see it, so I’m hoping for a whole new audience for it. That book was followed by a story written under my one-time pen-name of Tom Macaulay, The Warning Bell (Orion Books, 2010), a tense father-son drama set in the present but looking back to a World War Two mystery.
Distant Thunder (Orion Books, 2013) is my first venture into pure historical fiction. Set in the 1890s, it tells the story of two young lovers whose lives are caught up in the cruel machinery of the British Empire at its zenith, but just as the whole edifice is beginning to totter. The tale draws on my lifelong interest in the Victorian era, with all its glamour, confidence, adventure, and brutality, and has some – I hope – interesting things to say about imperialism.
These days I live in Oxford, within sight of the dreaming spires, with my Australian wife Jenny and half a black Labrador dog called James (the neighbours own the other half). Check out my website www.tdgriggs.co.uk and follow me on twitter @TDGRIGGS1.