Serious Cartooning: Boer Lilliputian

Jan 23, 2014

Our new blog series will take a look at cartoons within the Theodore Roosevelt Digital Library. There are currently over 1,600 cartoons in the digital library, many of which were originally published in Puck magazine. These are often very detailed, featuring current events or cultural mores of the Gilded Age and Progressive Era. In this blog series, staff from the Theodore Roosevelt Center will decipher the meaning behind some of these cartoons.

The Boer Lilliputian

The Boer Lilliputian, February 21, 1900. From the Library of Congress Prints and Photographs collection.

Using imagery from Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels, the “Boer Lilliputian” cartoon, published in Puck magazine, contrasts the might of the British Empire against the unexpected success of the Boer republics, the Orange Free State and South African Republic, in the South African War. John Bull, the national personification of the United Kingdom, is Lemuel Gulliver in the process of being restrained by Lilliputian Boers. Five of the Boers, or Afrikaners, are identified with names on their hatbands. The leaders of the two Boer republics, Paul Kruger, president of the South African Republic, and M. T. Steyn, president of the Orange Free State, are easily identified by their top hats and distinct facial hair. The other identified Boers, Louis Botha, P. J. Joubert, and Pieter Arnoldus Cronje, are military leaders.

The ribbons holding down John Bull are labeled with the names of battles and sieges from the war. Mafeking, Ladysmith, and Kimberly were British held towns that were besieged by the Boers. The other battles, discounting a name in the middle that is obscured, are Dundee, Glencoe, Elandslaagte, Spion Kop, Tugela, Belmont, and Modder River. Not all of the battles were outright British defeats; in fact several are viewed as tactical victories for the British. However, the British were consistently poorly led and dependent on outdated tactics which led to high casualties and made even their victories seem Pyrrhic.

The cartoon was published on February 21, 1900, and the outlook of the war still appeared bleak for the British; three defeats in December 1899 had become known as Black Week and their defeat at Spion Kop had occurred a month previously. The cartoon displays this bleak viewpoint with a broken sword labeled “British Prestige” next to John Bull. However, by the end of February everything had changed. Kimberly and Ladysmith were relieved and, at the Battle of Paardeberg, the British won their first great victory with the surrender of Cronje and 4,000 Boers. At this point the British went from success to success; relieving Mafeking on May 17, capturing the capital of the Orange Free State on March 13, annexing the Orange Free State on May 28, capturing the capital of the South African Republic on June 5, and annexing the South African Republic on September 9. The war appeared over, but the Boers switched to guerrilla warfare, at which they excelled, and peace was not reached until May 31, 1902, with the signing of the Treaty of Vereeniging.

The peace treaty ended the independence of the Boer republics and they became British colonies. They were given self-government in 1906 and became part of the Union of South Africa in 1910, with Botha, the man on John Bull’s knee, serving as Prime Minister. Botha led reconciliation efforts with the British and remained Prime Minister until his death in 1919. Joubert was slowly dying at the time of the cartoon’s publication, and would pass away in March, having suffered internal injuries after being thrown from his horse. Cronje was shortly to surrender at the Battle of Paardeberg and would die in retirement in 1911. President Kruger fled before the British advance and attempted to secure support for the Boer cause in Europe. He died in exile in 1904. President Steyn signed the peace treaty, took the oath of allegiance to Britain, and remained active in South African politics until his death in 1916.


Pakenham, Thomas. The Boer War. New York: Random House, 1979. Print.

Posted by Grant Carlson on Jan 23, 2014 in History  |  Permalink  |  Comments (0)  |  Share this post

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