Jo Briggs, “The Second Boer War, 1899-1902: Anti-Imperialism and European Visual Culture”


The Second Boer War, part of the “Scramble for Africa” among European powers, was fought from 1899 and 1902 in what is now South Africa between British Imperial forces and the Transvaal Republic and Orange Free State. The war occurred during the period of so-called New Imperialism (ca. 1880 to 1914) characterized by rising nationalism, racism, Social Darwinism, and genocidal thinking. Occurring roughly in the middle of this period, the Second Boer War became the focal point for a variety of hopes, anxieties, politics, and ideologies. An examination of periodicals created specifically to protest against the war shows that the conflict resonated within diverse local contexts, revealing the complex interplay between global events and local politics.

The Second Boer War broke out in September 1899 and was the endgame in the struggle for power in map iconsouthern Africa that saw Britain fight a highly controversial war against two Christian, mostly Protestant, colonial nations governed by settlers of European, predominantly Dutch, origin. A particularly reprehensible moment in British imperial history, protest movements sprang up almost immediately in Britain, map iconFrance, map iconGermany, America, map iconRussia, map iconAustralia, and numerous other countries.[1] The war was widely perceived as manufactured by the British in order to gain control of gold and diamond mines in the area as part of the “Scramble for Africa” occurring after the Berlin Conference of 1884-85, which placed greater importance on direct rule to legitimate claims to territory between rival European powers. In addition, the Second Boer War pitted the British Army against predominantly volunteer forces. To contemporaries, this conflict was, therefore, of a very different nature to wars against “uncivilized” and supposedly racially inferior nations that imperial rhetoric was typically able to justify. The progress of the war was swiftly communicated through telegraph networks, foreign correspondents, the speedy reproduction of photographs, and early film. With the acceleration of communications and the employment of apparently more accurate technologies of representation, perceptions of near and far, local and global became intertwined.

Crane, Stop the War

Figure 1: Walter Crane, “Stop the War” (wood engraving, courtesy of Yale University)

Two examples, from Britain and from Germany, demonstrate this point. In Britain Walter Crane, the Arts and Crafts designer, artist, and socialist, employed the visual language of trade union banners in his anti-war illustration “Stop the War” in order to encourage those on the left to embrace anti-imperialism (Fig. 1). In map iconMunich, the anti-war publication Der Burenkrieg (“The Boer War”), sister paper of the notorious satirical journal Simplicissimus, used images of Bavarian and map iconAustrian peasants to protest the war, thereby introducing a heightened note of Pan-Germanism to traditional regional associations of the figure (Fig. 2).

von Defregger image

Figure 2: Franz von Defregger, “Originalskizze von Letzten Aufgebot” (1900)

In London, Crane responded to the Second Boer War through his commitment to left-wing politics. The artist, following his friend, fellow socialist, and mentor, William Morris, believed that it was necessary that all socialists should work for international solidarity.[2] In common with the economist and critic of imperialism J. A. Hobson, Crane held that capitalism relied on imperialism, and, therefore, socialism and anti-imperialism must go together. However, others on the left were not so convinced. Trade unions seeing their role as to protect their members’ livelihoods even perceived the British Empire as safe-guarding jobs, because it underpinned Britain’s prosperity.[3] Tellingly, the Independent Labour Party remained uncommitted on the issue of the war.[4] In 1900, Crane contributed a design titled “Stop the War” to the anti-war movement of the same name (Fig. 1), coordinated by the campaigning journalist, W. T. Stead (most famous for his exposé of child prostitution in 1880s London).[5] Crane depicted a winged figure, representing Peace and personifying the anti-war party, intervening between a British soldier (on the left) and a Boer rebel (on the right). The image was reproduced as a full-page illustration in Stead’s anti-war periodical, The War Against War in South Africa. It also appeared on leaflets, posters and a banner used at an anti-war rally. This image was a depiction, declaration, and, at the rally, an act of protest.[6] In a long career of propagating socialism through the visual arts, Crane used “Stop the War” as a particularly successful intervention from an artist who continually sought to place his activist art before the public.[7]

Crane poster for trade union

Figure 3: Walter Crane, Banner for the Electrical Trades Union (ca. 1898)

As well as being a clear anti-war statement, “Stop the War” is also a direct appeal to those on the left to connect the causes of anti-imperialism and socialism. “Stop the War” reflects Crane’s knowledge of the visual culture of trade unions and socialism, which he played an unrivaled role in shaping in the last two decades of the nineteenth century. A comparison of “Stop the War” with union banners reveals how Crane made the connection, through visual means, between trade unionism and anti-imperialism. Typically, union banners depict a winged figure symbolizing liberty, very similar to Peace in “Stop the War,” bringing together and blessing the union of two workers who face one another and occupy the same positions as Briton and Boer in Crane’s anti-war design. Frequently a motto appears, as it does here. In 1898 Crane had designed a union banner for electrical workers following this format, and a similar three-figure grouping appears in a great number of Crane’s designs created for socialist causes (Fig. 3). “Stop the War” is, therefore, an example of the way that the local and the global became linked in visual culture at this time.

A similar employment of an established trope from local visual culture to comment on a global event can be found in Munich and the protest publication Der Burenkrieg (“The Boer War”). Taken at face value, the contents of Der Burenkrieg, published in April 1900, seem to reflect local traditions and concerns as much as the injustices of the Second Boer War. In common with Simplicissimus, the publication included works by older academy professors alongside a younger generation of graphic satirists. Although the mixture of artistic styles that resulted appears unexpected, it is, as Maria Makela has pointed out, in keeping with the tolerance of the Munich art world (xvii). The link between these two generations of artists was the common subject matter of their work: the peasant. The peasant figure in Munich visual culture had radical and humorous connotations, and was often employed as a means of commenting on and satirizing bourgeois pretensions. In map iconBavaria, the peasant in art and satire had also gained a reputation as an anti-Prussian signifier with liberal, and even anti-establishment, overtones. On publication, Der Burenkrieg was promptly censored: placed under a ban preventing it from being displayed in shop windows (a Schaufensterverbot). Such acts of censorship were manifestations of the tensions in national and regional politics following the unification of German-speaking states after the Franco-Prussian War.

The use of the peasant in Der Burenkrieg re-contextualized the regional peasant in a global framework with significant consequences, namely the promotion of a nationalist, Pan-German peasant, over a regionally specific one. For example, Der Burenkrieg reproduced sketches for two history paintings by the academic artist Franz von Defregger of Tirolean peasants resisting the invation of Napoleon in 1812 to comment on the fate of the Boers (Fig. 2). Since the Boers were mostly of Dutch origin, the reproduction of Defregger’s work in the context of the anti-British, anti-war movement suggests a Pan-Germanism that was not present in Defregger’s original paintings. The shift to Pan-Germanism is reflected in the comments of the writer and editor of Der Burenkrieg, Ludwig Thoma. Thoma declared that the British were fighting “low-german farmers” (Keller 43), calling the Boers “flesh of our flesh” (Pöllinger 21).[8] Such outspoken racial designations were to characterize the rhetoric surrounding the German peasant in the years of increasing nationalism that were to follow in the build up to the First World War and, subsequently, fascism. Despite Britain being the protagonist, attention to European visual culture created in response to British imperialism exposes some of the workings and the consequences of New Imperialism; at home and abroad, unexpected dialogs arose between global events and local visual culture.

Jo Briggs is Assistant Curator of Eighteenth- and Nineteenth-Century Art at the Walters Art Museum in Baltimore. She completed her PhD in the History of Art at Yale University in 2008, and is currently working on a book project for Manchester University Press on revolutionary and exhibitionary visualities in mid nineteenth-century Britain.


published March 2013

Briggs, Jo. “The Second Boer War, 1899-1902: Anti-Imperialism and European Visual Culture.”BRANCH: Britain, Representation and Nineteenth-Century History. Ed. Dino Franco Felluga. Extension of Romanticism and Victorianism on the Net. Web. [Here, add your last date of access to BRANCH].


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Porter, Bernard. Critics of Empire: British Radical Attitudes to Colonialism in Africa, 1895-1914. London: Macmillan, 1968. Print.


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Defregger, Hans Peter. Franz von Defregger, 1835-1921. Rosenheim: Rosenheimer Verlagshaus, 1983. Print.

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Jo Briggs, “1848 and 1851: A Reconsideration of the Historical Narrative”


[1] See Greenwall.

[2] In News from Nowhere, Morris formulated the necessity, under capitalism, of imperialism: the need for a world-market spreading across the globe, the hypocritical pretenses used to justify this, and the consequences for colonized people. See Briggs 265; Boos 15-35.

[3] The historian Douglas J. Newton has observed that “At the turn of the century . . . it was still common within British trade unions for many of the more traditional members to insist that trade matters were the only legitimate concern of their union and to resent the trend towards more openly political involvement”; he adds, “The degree to which the leaders of British trade unionism were integrated into the prevailing system of Queen and Empire can be gauged from the links that were established in the 1890s between the TUC [Trade Union Congress] Parliamentary Committee and the Imperial Institute” (69, 74).

[4] See Porter 95-123. There was also a split in the Liberal Party over the war. Those on the right of the party, such as Lord Rosebery, took a pro-war stance, which led to the resignation of several Liberal Members of Parliament who were opposed to the war. See “Liberals and the Empire” in Porter 56-84.

[5] Crane’s “Stop the War” appeared in The War Against War in South Africa on 23 February 1900, no. 19, 297.

[6] See The War Against War in South Africa, report on the Battersea event, 6 April 1900, no. 25, 397. See also back page adverts for leaflets illustrated with Crane’s cartoon, The War Against War in South Africa, February 23, 1900, no.19 onwards, and for posters of “Mr. Walter Crane’s noble cartoon of the angel of peace,” 16 March 1900, no. 23 onwards.

[7] See O’Neill.

[8] Ludwig Thoma, letter to Dagny Langen dated 28 April 1900. He wrote, “They [the British] fight against low-German farmers [nieder-deutsche Bauern]. Now the matter is personal . . . because blood is thicker than water” (Keller 43-44). In an advertisement promoting Der Burenkrieg that appeared in Börsenblatt für den Deutschen Buchhandel, Thoma wrote: “We know it is German ‘Bauern’ which are fighting the battles in South Africa, it is flesh of our flesh” [Fleiche von unserem Fleich] (Börsenblatt für Deutschen Buchhandel [67Jg., no.. 56, 8.3.1900], Pöllinger 21).