21 JUNE

MINISTER – PUBLIC BACKING FOR SHOOTING PRISONERS WOULD BE “AWKWARD”

[ 21 June 1900 ]

On this day in 1900, opposition was voiced in the British cabinet to General’s kitchener’s ruthless war against Boer insurgents in South Africa, including the destruction of entire villages and the shooting of prisoners on sight. However, it was not so much on a point of principle as over concerns over public opinion.

The policy of shooting prisoners had already been secretly put into effect but now Kitchener belatedly asked the government to officially back his campaign of indiscriminate executions. Sir John Brodrick, Secretary of State for India thought it would be “awkward” to publicly sanction the shooting of men who had surrendered. “If we had begun by it, it would have been well enough,” he explained, but he didn’t want at this late stage in the war to risk “outraging the conscience of Europe”.  The rest of the cabinet reluctantly concurred.[1]

Undeterred by such scruples, Kitchener wrote a memo the same day addressed to Sir John, urging that he be allowed to force the Boer population into permanent exile.  The Boers were “uncivilized Africander savages with a thin white veneer” and it was necessary to banish not just those who had fought against the British, but all their families, servants and other dependants too. He suggested forcible transportation to Madagascar, Fiji or the Dutch East Indies and “that they should not be allowed to return”, adding that there would then be more “room for the British to colonize.”  Brodrick wrote back sympathetically but explaining that “Europe would be needlessly scandalized.”[2]

FOOTNOTES

  1. Brodrick cited in Philip Magnus, Kitchener: Portrait of an Imperialist, John Murray, London 1958, p185
  2. Kitchener and Brodrick cited in Ibid p186.

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