The Canada of 1899 was a callow country of seven provinces, thinly populated by five million people of mostly Anglo-Saxon stock. A mere thirty-two years old as a nation, it was a colonial outpost firmly clasped to the bosom of Britain. Yet Canada’s character was changing. The Klondike gold rush was bringing fortune-seekers from around the world, and peasant immigrants were flooding in from central and eastern Europe — 7,500 Doukhobors from Russia that year alone — to settle the prairies.
Elsewhere, two world powers were flexing their imperialist muscles. The United States, fresh from winning Puerto Rico, Guam, and the Philippines in the jingoistic Spanish-American War of 1898, began a bloody 3¤-year conflict to quash Filipino insurgents. And Britain, a year after machine-gunning thousands of tribespeople to dominate the North African territory of Sudan, was about to embark on another war, this time in South Africa.
The Boers (Dutch for “farmers”) declared war on Britain on October 11, 1899, and Britain called on its overseas colonies to gird for battle. There were intriguing parallels to the global state of affairs a century later: public opinion in Germany and France (along with the Netherlands, ancestral home of many Boers) was strongly opposed to an invasion based on questionable motives — in this case, Britain’s expansionist ambitions in South Africa. As Canadian historian Robert Page points out, “Unlike the world wars of 1914 or 1939, Mother Britain was not in danger, for the Boer Republics’ total available manpower was not much more than that of the city of Toronto.”
And Canada, then as in 2003, was led by a Québécois Liberal who was reluctant to commit his countrymen to fight on foreign soil. The only major external conflict Canadians had engaged in was the British-led, North American War of 1812, which ended in a draw — although the Canadas had ultimately repelled the invaders.
Yet, in a land where less than a third of the population was French-speaking, loyalty to the British crown was still intense in 1899, only two years after Queen Victoria’s Diamond Jubilee. The Canadian Constitution rested in London, not Ottawa, and couldn’t be amended without British consent. Although Prime Minister Wilfrid Laurier had been knighted during the Jubilee celebrations, he tried to keep Canada out of the war — reflecting the anti-British feeling of French Canadians. He was soon swayed by the hope that aiding the Imperial forces might boost the young nation’s political status and leave it stronger and more independent of the Mother Country. Paradoxically, he also hoped that sending troops overseas would cement ties with Britain at a time when American protectionism was increasingly closing the U.S. border to Canadian goods.
Three days after war broke out, the Dominion of Canada, urged on by British colonial secretary Joseph Chamberlain, issued a recruiting order to organize the First Canadian Contingent for South African service — Canada’s first expeditionary force. Among English Canadians, this decision was popular, supported by the press and politicians across the country, except in Quebec (which in 2003 registered the most opposition of any province to an invasion of Iraq).
The government at first decided to dispatch only a thousand troops, half Australia’s contribution and even smaller than New Zealand’s. Sending them off on October 31, Laurier parroted English-speaking sentiment: “. . . the cause for which you men are going to fight is the cause of justice, of humanity, of civil rights and religious liberty. This is not a war of conquest or subjugation, but it is to put an end to the oppression by a tyrannical people.”
Fine words, but false. The war was about gold and land. Britain had been jousting with the Netherlands over the territory since 1795, more than a century after the Dutch East Indies Company established the first white colony around the Cape of Good Hope. Now, on the cusp of the 20th century, the resident Boers were of Dutch, German, and Huguenot ancestry. A decade after British settlers began muscling into the Cape Colony in 1820, the Boers had trekked northeast to establish three republics, killing and displacing the Bantu natives. But Britain eventually annexed Natal and then the Orange Free State, when diamonds were found there, and briefly took over the Transvaal Republic (renaming it the South African Republic). It regained its independence and its former name in 1881. Five years later British prospectors rushed into the Transvaal after newly discovered gold, the largest deposits in the world. The Boers, fearful of losing their last territory to the Uitlanders (outsiders), enacted laws to restrict the vote to long-term residents.
Imperialist-minded British politicians and mining interests conspired to force a regime change on South Africa, led at the time by Paul Kruger, a passionate, patriarchal figure. Among his foes was the Cape Colony’s prime minister and the owner of the Kimberley diamond mines, Cecil Rhodes, who wanted to paint the map of South Africa in Empire red. In 1895 he financed a raid on the Transvaal city of Johannesburg, an attack that failed and fomented even more hostility. Four years later Kruger offered to reform the voting restrictions, but the British refused the olive branch and dispatched military reinforcements to South Africa.
In October 1899 the high commissioner of the Cape Colony disregarded a forty-eight-hour ultimatum to remove all British troops from the Orange Free State and the Transvaal. Britain had been on the verge of declaring war itself.
Excerpted from The Book of War Letters by Paul & Audrey Grescoe, eds. Copyright © 2005 by Paul & Audrey Grescoe, eds. Excerpted by permission of McClelland & Stewart, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.