The South African War (1899–1902) was the first occasion on which New Zealand sent soldiers to an overseas war; it established traditions and precedents for subsequent conflicts.
Premier Richard Seddon was a great enthusiast for the war. He moved the parliamentary motion offering the troops, was present at most departures, insisted that the 1st Contingent arrive in South Africa before other colonial forces (although in fact a group of Lancers from New South Wales beat them) and, after the 1st Contingent, he personally appointed the officers. He made his own son, R. J. S. Seddon, lieutenant in the 4th Contingent – despite his lack of experience – and then replaced another officer with his son to command the North Island regiment of the 8th Contingent.
The war, also known as the Boer War or the Second Boer War, arose from Britain wanting to assert control in South Africa, while the Boer (who were descended mainly from Dutch settlers – boer means ‘farmer’ in Dutch) wanted to preserve the independence of their territories of the South African Republic – also known as Transvaal – and the Orange Free State. The issue was intensified by the fact that Transvaal was the site of major gold and diamond mines, and Uitlanders (foreigners, including British settlers) faced citizenship restrictions and did not have voting rights in Transvaal.
New Zealand enthusiasm
Although most New Zealanders knew little about southern Africa, there was huge enthusiasm for participation in a war against the Boers. Even before war was formally declared, the New Zealand Parliament became the first colonial legislature (though not the first colony) to offer troops. War was declared on 13 October 1899, and only eight days later a crowd said to be over 40,000 farewelled the 1st Contingent of troopers with patriotic music and ‘extraordinary scenes of enthusiasm.’1
There were a number of reasons why New Zealanders were so supportive of the war:
- Most Pākehā New Zealanders had either migrated from the UK or were the children of migrants, and an appeal to Englishmen’s rights struck a responsive cord. In Parliament Seddon spoke of the ‘crimson tie’ to Britain.2
- Imperial rivalries with Germany and Japan heightened loyalties to the British Empire, and it was strengthened by ideas of racial competition. In farewelling the troopers Seddon hoped that ‘our race … would, could and should be the dominant race of the world.’3
- War was seen as restoring the ‘virility’ of the nation’s men in an era of cities and materialism.
- The war was a way for New Zealand to gain international recognition.
Opposition was minimal – confined to some critics of capitalism such as Tommy Taylor, a few supporters of Irish nationalism, pacifists such as Wilhelmina Sherriff Bain, and J. Grattan Grey, the chief Hansard (parliamentary) reporter, who lost his job as a result.