Minister – sanctioning the shooting of Boer prisoners would be ‘awkward’
21 June 1900
On 21 June 1900, opposition was voiced by a minister in 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. It was not on a point of principle but rather over concern as to how public opinion might react. The murderous methods had already been secretly put into effect when Kitchener belatedly requested the government to officially back his campaign of indiscriminate executions. St. John Brodrick, Secretary of State for War, 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
Kitchener, who was less in angst over public opinion, wrote a memo the same day addressed to Brodrick, 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 he felt it necessary to banish not just those who had fought against the British, but all their families, servants and other dependents 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.’ The Secretary of State for War wrote back sympathetically but explaining that ‘Europe would be needlessly scandalized.’2
- Brodrick cited in Philip Magnus, Kitchener: Portrait of an Imperialist, John Murray, London 1958, p. 185.
- Kitchener and Brodrick cited in Ibid p. 186.
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