In reality, whatever their sentiments towards the war, most rural and urban black people tried to steer clear of trouble and to stay neutral in the Anglo-Boer confrontation. At the same time, the increasingly total nature of hostilities made it difficult to avoid getting mixed up in the war, directly or indirectly. As warfare spilled through the countryside, many blacks found themselves in harm’s way. Others were pulled into participating in military operations by the warring sides, choosing to serve in the war effort to escape extreme rural poverty or in the hope of gain or reward. Also,some became involved in hostilities with Boers on their own account, defending themselves against invading commandos, seizing opportunities to settle old scoresover land losses or harsh treatment, and seizing opportunities for plunder.
Despite repeated – and hollow – declarations by both sides that the conflict was a concern of European opponents, British and Boer war efforts both made considerable use of blacks for skilled and unskilled labouring tasks and combat duties. Commandos were accompanied to the front by up to 12 000 black and coloured agterryers, or mounted personal servants. Loyal and trusted followers, these individuals served Boer masters as gunbearers and ammunition carriers, and performed a variety of other field duties, including tending horses, maintaining weapons, scouting and dispatch riding, carrying rations and cooking, and treating and carrying wounded commandos.
Although of subordinate racial status, agterryers were often on intimate terms with their Boer masters, sharing the same clothing, food, tents and even musical culture. At times, under battlefield pressures and short of regular riflemen, Boer commandants swallowed hard and even posted armed skilled agterryers to front-line positions as combatants. Understandably, black assistance to the imperial war effort was on a much larger scale, not least because the British military presence brought substantial wage employment. At least 100 000 black and coloured men, as well as Natal Indian medical corps volunteers under Mohandas Gandhi, were engaged by the army. Most served as transport workers, camp labourers and servants, scouts, dispatch runners, spies and depot guards.
Some women undertook domestic work for camps and garrisons, such as washing. Although the British conscripted some of these war workers for heavy labour, the majority were volunteers. These included migrant labourers who had lost mine jobs at the outbreak of war and peasants in desperate circumstances because of crop failures and livestock losses. Others were attracted by the prospect of relatively good wages or a belief in the rightness of the British cause. Many educated blacks were persuaded by British war propaganda that victory over the Boer states would bring more rights and a less discriminatory political and social order.
As many as 30 000 men were armed volunteers with British columns or colonial town garrisons, and experienced deadly clashes with invading commandos. Others, like the coloured blacksmith Abraham Esau, were drawn into resistance through acting as spies and agents of the British.
While warfare claimed the lives of about 7 000 Boer and 22 000 imperial troops, we will never know how many armed black participants perished in various actions. Nor, for that matter, is there a count of British collaborators summarily executed when caught by the Boers, nor do we know the number of republican collaborators who were the victims of irregular British reprisals, shot as spies. Yet the greatest human loss lay elsewhere.
For rural blacks, as for the Boers, it lay in Britain’s concentration camps. Farm tenants, servants and peasant settlements whose livelihoods were destroyed by scorched earth tactics added thousands to the pool of war refugees. Interned in segregated camps where many inmates were compelled to provide labour service for nearby British forces, black refugees shared a fate in common with Boer families – atrocious conditions and high death rates. At least 20 000 blacks are now estimated to have died, mainly from epidemic diseases that cut down weakened camp inhabitants.
In this sense, the concentration camp experience could be seen as amounting to a common trauma for black and Boer societies, while not losing sight of proportion. Black civilian victims were a consequence of a British war waged against a Boer military and civilian front-line. Of the roughly 116 000 Boers housed in unsanitary and badly run white camps, some 28 000 died, largely from measles, dysentery and pneumonia. Almost all of the victims were women and young children. British humanitarian Emily Hobhouse did much to alert opinion worldwide to the appalling conditions suffered by interned Boers.
In a highveld Boer society of little more than about 200 000 people, the impact of such enormous losses cannot be overestimated. In representing the lowest point of Boer survival, the sufferings in the camps shaped one of this conflict’s most enduring legacies – that of the pity of war, rather than of its imagined heroism or romance.