A Burgher of the Free State

(notes by John Radcliffe)


This tale first appeared in the London Daily Express, in seven instalments on June 26th, 27th, 28th, 29th and July 2nd, 3rd and 4th 1900, and in The People’s Friend of Dundee from July 9, 1900. Also in Everybody’s Magazine in October 1900. It is collected in the Sussex Edition vol. xxx. p.143, and in the Burwash Edition. See ORG vol 5, p. 2559 (Uncollected No.233).

The heading of four eight-line verses described as “Lincolnshire (?) Carol”, was also published in slightly amended form, entitled “A Carol”, at the end of Rewards and Fairies (1910) following “The Tree of Justice”, in Songs from Books (1913), in the Inclusive Edition and Definitive Edition of Kipling’s verse, and the Sussex and Burwash Editions. See ORG pp. 5386-8.

The story

Like “The Science of Rebellion“, another ‘uncollected’ story, this piece was written during the Second South African War.

It opens in Bloemfontein, capital of the Orange Free State, in the early weeks of 1900. The Free State, with the Transvaal, has been fighting the British since October 1899, and the war has been going well for them.

They have had a number of victories against ill-prepared British soldiers, with key British garrisons under siege, Ladysmith in Natal, Mafeking in Cape Colony, and Kimberley—the diamond town—just over the border. War fever is in the air, and there are high hopes of victory.

Allen, an old master-printer, has been a citizen of the Free State—a Burgher—since emigrating from Scotland forty years before. He is in charge of printing the main local newspaper, the Bloemfontein Banner. Like McPhee, the Scottish Chief Engineer in “Bread Upon the Waters” (The Day’s Work), he is experienced, proud of his professional skills, conscientious, loyal to his principles, and not easily impressed.

He has known the people of the Free State of old. He has spent some time farming on the veld, and his wife—now dead—was from a well-connected Boer family. He is unenthusiastic about the war, and the alliance with the Transvaal, and suspicious of the Germans and ‘Hollanders’ who seem to have growing influence. He is a lonely figure, and is seen as a traitor by people in Bloemfontein who are strongly behind the Boer cause.

He is by no means confident of victory, and dislikes the dishonesty of many of the propaganda items he has to set up for the paper, but he does his job loyally. He is particularly outraged when he sees a proclamation appealing to the neighboring African Basuto people to rise against the British, but this is not published before the British armies capture the town in March 1900.

The Banner is taken over by a team of journalists under orders from the Commander in Chief, Earl Roberts. Allen and his compositors carry on their work as before. He does not feel any elation at the arrival of the British, and when he encounters one of their generals, a fellow-Scot, he declines to express any affinity with the land of his birth. He has been—after all—a Burgher of the Free State these many years. He asks the general if the British have been using native troops from India against the Boers; the answer is an emphatic negative. A young volunteer soldier from the Cape tries to bribe him to act as an informer, but he sends him away.

However, a British Intelligence Officer appears, charged with investigating Boer intentions. After wrestling painfully with his conscience, Allen decides that honesty demands that he must reveal the proclamation to the Basutos. He does so, but insists that he does so as a Burgher of the Free State.

Historical background

The Orange Free State, like Natal and the Transvaal, was settled from the 1830s by Boers from Cape Colony, mainly of Dutch descent, who aimed to set up their own independent republics away from the British. It was for a time under British sovereignty, but became an independent state in 1854. It prospered under good government, and maintained good relations with the rather more unruly Transvaal.

The British had always been uneasy about the presence of independent Boer republics on the border of Cape Colony. In 1877, despite agreements to the contrary, they proclaimed the annexation of the Transvaal. However, the Transvaalers went to war and decisively defeated the local British forces in 1880-81. Gladstone’s Liberal government in London, conscious of the cost of further fighting, and doubtful about the advantages of coercing the Transvaal, confirmed the Republic’s independence.

However, in 1887 large deposits of gold were discovered in the Transvaal, and a gold rush ensued. in which many foreigners (uitlanders)—many of them British—poured into Johannesburg in search of wealth, threatening to outnumber the Boers, and demanding political rights.

Cecil Rhodes, the millionaire businessman who had been Prime Minister of Cape Colony, hatched a plan—with the covert knowledge of the British Goverment, now Conservative—to invade the Transvaal with a military force led by his colleague Leander Starr Jameson, so as to trigger off a rising by the uitlanders. Jameson was much admired by Kipling, and was said by the poet to have inspired his celebrated poem “If—”.

However, when Jameson launched what became known as ‘The Jameson Raid’ in January 1896, there was no response from the uitlanders and the raiders were quickly captured. Rhodes, though not the British Government, accepted responsibility for the fiasco.



After this experience Paul Kruger, the President of the Transvaal, was suspicious of Britain’s intentions for the future, and bought modern armaments from Germany.

When, after Johannes Brand’s death in 1886, Martinus Steyn became President of the Orange Free State, he made a mutual assistance pact with Kruger.


In 1897 the British Goverment appointed Alfred Milner as Governor of Cape Colony and High Commissioner for South Africa. He was convinced that Britain needed to assert her imperial supremacy over the Boer Republics.

He conducted discussions with Kruger, in which he demanded political rights for the uitlanders, in terms which Kruger was unable to accept. Milner’s aim—and that of Joseph Chamberlain, the British Colonial Secretary—was to force the Boers into war, after which the British would be able to make their own terms.

The Second South Afican War

War followed in October 1899, greeted with great enthusiasm by the British public, who expected early victory. However, the Transvaal and Free State mobilised their commandos of sharp-shooting burghers, and struck at the British in Natal and Cape Colony, besieging Ladysmith, Mafeking, and Kimberley, and winning a number of battles against ill-prepared British troops.

The British Goverment then sent out the redoubtable Earl Roberts (‘Bobs’) as Commander-in-Chief. Roberts developed a strategy which took the initiative from the Boers. Kimberley was relieved in February 1900, and Bloemfortein was captured in March. The action of this story takes place between December 1899 and March 1900, during which the British started to gain the upper hand. Thereafter the Boers fought on in a protracted guerilla war, which was concluded by the peace of Vereeniging in May 1902, which established British sovereignty over South Africa.

However, in 1906 the Liberals came to power in Britain, and in less than a year gave the Transvaal democratically elected self government under the formal authority of the British Crown. The following year the Orange River Colony also received a constitution and self-government. Within five years of the Peace Treaty the Boers of the two Republics had succeeded in practice in securing their independence.

‘The Friend’ of Bloemfontein

Kipling had visited South Africa in 1891 and again in 1898 when he made friends with Rhodes and Jameson. He immensely admired the charismatic and powerful Rhodes, and his belief in the over-riding need for British supremacy in Southern Africa and beyond.

When the war broke out Kipling was passionately committed to the British cause, unlike his Aunt ‘Georgie’ (Burne-Jones) who was strongly against it. He wrote a much recited poem “The Absent-Minded Beggar” to raise money for the troops, and came out to South Africa in mid-February 1900. He visited hospitals and hospital trains, saw what he could of the war, and conferred with Alfred Milner. He also offered his services to the Commander-in-Chief, Lord Roberts, whom he had known and greatly respected since his time in India.

When the British forces took Bloemfontein in March 1900, Lord Roberts closed down the main local paper, the strongly pro-Boer Express, and requisitioned its printing facilities. With a keen sense of how to influence the people of the town, he also took over the other local paper The Friend and made it the voice of the British Army.

For a fortnight Kipling worked on the paper with Perceval Landon of The Times, Howell Gwynne of Reuter’s news agency, E.W.Buxton of the Johannesburg Star, and Julian Ralph, an American correspondent reporting for the Daily Mail. There is a lively description of this time in Ralph’s War’s Brighter Side. Kipling’s account in “A Burgher of the Free State” is based closely on this experience, which he greatly relished.

In the story —written only a few weeks later, while the war was still being fought—Kipling sought to stress the idea that the true interests of the Free State, as espoused by Allen, were separate from those of the Transvaal, who in his view, and with much outside influence, had dragged the Free State into an imprudent war.

This may have been congenial to Kipling’s readers, but it did not take account of the fact that the Boers of the Free State continued to fight loyally with the Transvaalers until peace came in 1902. Furthermore, we have not traced any evidence that the Free Staters—as Kipling suggests—tried to enlist the Basutos against the British. The story, with its wealth of local detail, is clearly based on Kipling’s own direct experience in Bloemfontein, but is strongly coloured by his passionate commitment to the British war-effort. and to British supremacy over the Boers.

In a letter to Dr Conland in July 1900 he wrote:

War is a rummy job—it’s a cross between poker and Sunday
School. Sometimes poker comes out on top and sometimes Sunday
School—but more often poker. The Boers hit us just as hard and
as often as they knew how; and we advanced against ’em as if
they were street-rioters that we didn’t want to hurt. They spied
on us at their leisure, and when they wanted a rest they handed
up any old gun and said they’d be loyal subjects. Then they went
to their homes and rested for a week or two; and then they went
on the war path again with a new coat and a full stomach. They
are an elegant people: and we are the biggest fools, in the way
that we wage war, that this country has produced.

[Letters of Rudyard Kipling vol. 3, Ed. Pinney]

Some critical comments

Angus Wilson (p.217) comments:

In general, the Boer War stories are very disappointing, save for the light that they throw on the shaping of Kipling’s social and Imperial thinking. Kipling’s greatest hatred during the Boer War, as, indeed, later in the Great War, was for the undeclared enemies rather than for the declared ones. Neutrals, foreigners fighting for the Boers, the supposedly friendly Boer farmers of the Free State, above all, the cultivated Cape Afrikaners whose sympathies, of course, were often more with Kruger’s Transvaal than with the British to whom they had sworn allegiance.

His fiercest attacks, “A Burgher of the Free State” and his article, “The Sin of Witchcraft”, contributed to The Times on his return to England in April 1900, are direct polemics against Free State traitors and Cape traitors, as he saw them. These are understandably loaded, for they are journalism composed, so to speak, in the heat of the battle. Yet the same distracting themes inform “A Sahib’s War” (December 1901) and “The Comprehension of Private Copper” (October 1902)..

Kipling’s view that those he saw as traitors in Cape Colony needed to be dealt with much more harshly is expressed strongly in “The Science of Rebellion” published in February 1901.

One needs to bear in mind that a year before, in March 1899, Kipling had lost his beloved little daughter Josephine, to influenza, a blow from which he never recovered, and that, as Philip Mason points out (pp.150-151), there is a sense in which his frenzied activity during 1899 and 1900 was a reaction to that fearful experience:

… a picture was built up of a busy talkative man, rushing vigorously about, organizing rifle clubs, preaching war, glorifying soldiers, wanting to paint the map red. And up to a point it was true. But running through all this is another note of pity for

… the poor dead who look so old
And were so young an hour ago

while beneath it was another man altogether, trying to escape from memories of his daughter, yet turning back to children’s stories in which father and daughter are together; following his fancy into strange and magical worlds; secretly preparing an entirely new kind of story and new lines of interest.

And, as Andrew Lycett notes (p. 331), in 1900 he had also completed Kim, the most subtle and many-sided work of his life.

Some further reading

  • There is a well-researched and well-written account of the war and its origins by Byron Farwell, The Great Boer War, published by Harper and Row in 1976, and now available in paperback from the Wordsworth Military Library.
  • On the involvement of black South Africans in the war on the British side, an issue which figures little in most of the historical accounts, see Seamus Wade’s letter in KJ 273, which points to the evidence for the extensive use of black soldiers by the British, mainly though not exclusively in non-combatant roles. See also Mr Wade’s more recent letter on the subject to KJ 335.
  • See also the article by Nosipho Nkuna for The South African Military History Society which documents African involvement in the war on both sides in both combatant and non-combatant roles.
  • War’s Brighter Side, Julian Raph’s contemporary account of “The Friend”, is available in paperback from General Books in the United States
  • Kipling’s biographers, including Charles Carrington,
    Lord Birkenhead,
    Andrew Lycett,
    Harry Ricketts,
    Charles Allen ,
    Angus Wilson,
    David Gilmour, and
    Philip Mason, have interesting things to say about the war writings.

Kipling’s own stories of the South African War of 1899-1902 also include:

His poems from the war include:


©John Radcliffe 2010 All rights reserved