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Unit information: The South African War (Level I Lecture Response Unit) in 2015/16

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Unit name The South African War (Level I Lecture Response Unit)
Unit code HIST20023
Credit points 20
Level of study I/5
Teaching block(s) Teaching Block 1 (weeks 1 - 12)
Unit director Professor. Potter
Open unit status Open




School/department Department of History (Historical Studies)
Faculty Faculty of Arts


Between 1899 and 1902, Britain mobilised a military effort unsurpassed in scale in the years between the Napoleonic Wars and the First World War. Almost half a million troops from Britain, Ireland and Britain’s settler colonies, and thousands of black African auxiliaries, were deployed against perhaps 45,000 Boer irregulars, white farmer-soldiers scattered across the South African interior. Yet it took over two years of fierce fighting for the British to win some kind of victory: in the process atrocities were committed on both sides, Boer farms were burned and up to 25,000 Boer civilians and perhaps 15,000 Africans died of epidemic diseases in British concentration camps. On the British side, some 50,000 soldiers were killed or wounded: another casualty, some would argue, were British claims to the ‘civilised’ superiority upon which empire was morally based. Why was the war fought? Why did it become so protracted, bloody and destructive? What were the consequences? We will examine this conflict, which proved of crucial importance for British imperial influence in South Africa and further afield, through a wide range of primary documents. We will also look at how historians’ perspectives on the war have changed over time, as conflicts between ‘Brit’ and Boer, and white and black, have reshaped the writing of South African history.

Intended learning outcomes

  • To provide a broad grounding in the history of the South African War.
  • To provide a particular perspective from the tutor to which students can react critically and build their own individual views and interpretations.
  • To provide an understanding of how changes in contemporary South African politics and society have influenced the way that historians have written about the South African War.

Teaching details

Weekly 2-hour interactive lecture sessions

Tutorial feedback on essay

Access to tutorial consultation with unit tutor in consultation hours

Assessment Details

A 3000 word essay (50%) and 2-hour unseen written examination (50%) will assess the student’s understanding of the ways in which historians have interpreted developments in the field; test the student’s ability to think critically and develop their own views and interpretations; and test their ability to work with many different types of primary source.

Reading and References

Bill Nasson, The Boer War: the Struggle for South Africa (Stroud, 2011)

I.R. Smith, The Origins of the South African War, 1899-1902 (Harlow, 1996)

David Omissi and Andrew S. Thompson (eds.), The Impact of the South African War (Basingstoke, 2002)

Greg Cuthbertson, Albert Grundlingh, and Mary-Lynn Suttie (eds.), Writing a Wider War: rethinking gender, race and identity in the South African War, 1899-1902 (Ohio, 2002)