Macalisters in the Second Anglo-Boer War

On this day in 1899, the second Anglo-Boer War began. This war was the culmination of nearly a century of conflict between the British settlers and colonial authorities in South Africa and the Boers, descendants of Dutch traders established there for centuries. Many Macalisters fought for the empire.

Tensions in South Africa had worsened considerably since the end of the first Anglo-Boer War (1880-1). The Boers felt increasingly insecure in their two nominally self-governing republics. They objected to the sudden influx of ‘uitlanders’ (non-Boer settlers) that followed the discovery of gold in Transvaal (one of the Boer republics), and recent movements of British troops appeared sinister to many of them[1], especially in light of an attempted 1895 coup by Cecil Rhodes. On its part, in an era of competing empires the British government was nervous about attempts by Germans in the southwest of Africa to link up with the Boer republics[2] — particularly with potential profits from the Transvaal mines up for grabs.

An ultimatum was presented to the British government on the 9th of October listing the demands of the Boers; the British government, to whom the demands seemed very much like a declaration of independence, replied that “the conditions demanded by the Government of the South African Republic are such that Her Majesty’s Government deem it impossible to discuss”.[3] To the Boers, this refusal amounted to a declaration of war.  

Ultimately, the result of the war that began on this day was a united South Africa under British rule. But things got pretty nasty before then. The Boers resorted to guerrilla warfare, for which imperial forces were ill prepared, and quickly inflicted several defeats which stunned the British public. In return, British authorities undertook a scorched-earth policy that destroyed Boer farms and sent thousands of displaced civilians (mostly women and children) to concentration camps, where epidemics wiped many of them out. These tactics cut Boer forces off from needed supplies, and the widespread suffering that resulted eventually brought the Boers to negotiation.

However, the immediate result of Britain’s rejection of Boer demands was a Boer offensive on Natal, one of the areas under British control.[4] Before long, imperial forces from Britain and several colonies were headed for South Africa. Even with limited access to South African records, I have found nearly 100 Macalisters (of various spellings) among them. This number included Charles Godfrey Somerville McAlester, the future clan chief, who was captain of the 3rd Battalion Royal Scots Fusiliers.[5]  Two McAllisters, both named William (but with different service numbers), arrived from Australia with the Army Medical Corps, and there were several of the name from New Zealand and Canada. Others of this clan fought with imperial units from Britain, Ireland, and British South Africa itself.

Macalisters were among the early casualties as well. Lance Corporal A McAllister of the Scots Guard was wounded in November, and Private D McAllister of the Highland Light Infantry was wounded 11 December; Private J McAllister and Private P McAllister of the Royal Irish Rifles were the first of quite a few of this name to be taken prisoner when they were captured on 10 December.  (Their fate is unclear, although most of the Macalisters captured during this war appear to have been released.) Over the course of the three-year war, nearly twenty Macalisters were wounded, five of them fatally: Trooper Angus Ian Macalister (Imperial Yeomanry), Private A McAllister (Liverpool Regiment), Private J McAllister (Royal Irish Rifles), Private W McAllister and Private J McCallister (both of the Cameronians, or Scottish Rifles). Additionally at least one, Corporal Arthur McAllister of the Imperial Yeomanry, died in an accident, at Standerton in September 1901. Less gloriously, Trooper H McAllister of Thorneycroft’s Mounted Infantry was discharged for misconduct on the 8th of December 1899.[6]

The second Anglo-Boer War ended on 31 May 1902 with the Treaty of Vereeniging.

Copyright (c) Lynn McAlister, 2013

[1]Hugh Williams & Frederick Charles Hicks, eds., Selected Official Documents of the South African Republic and Great Britain: A documentary perspective of the causes of the war in South Africa, 1900 (available on line at Project Gutenberg and the Anglo Boer War website), preface.  
[2] The Boer Wars; see Lawrence James, Rise and Fall of the British Empire (New York, 1994), pp. 263-5.
[4]The Transvaal‘, the Guardian, 13 October 1899
[5] War Service of Officers, 1905. In addition, W Macalister Hall, 4th regiment of the Argyll & Sutherland Highlanders, and E J McAllister, Army Service Corps, were captains of their units.
[6]Most of this information is taken from the Anglo Boer War website, which is an excellent source of information about this conflict, and UK, Casualties of the Boer War, 1899-1902 at

Macalister Hall and the Campbeltown Library

On this day in 1899, James Macalister Hall was awarded the Freedom of Campbeltown. He was only the third person to receive this honour (the first two having been the Duke of Argyll and the Marquess of Lorne), which suggests that his contribution to the area must have been felt to be considerable. According to the Scotsman, the award was presented to Macalister Hall at his home because of his age and ill health.[1]

Macalister Hall grew up in Campbeltown, the son of a grocer. His mother, Grace, belonged to a family of Macalisters from one of the Cumbrae Islands. They have no obvious connection to any of the leading clan families. Like the Strathaird family, however, these Macalisters made names for themselves in the British East India Company, of which James eventually became Director. They then set about acquiring property. James Macalister Hall purchased the estates of Killean and Tangy in 1875; at his death in 1904, the property passed first to his brother Stuart, who died childless, then to a nephew, and eventually to James and Stuart’s sister, Grace. The estate was broken up about 1940. Another brother, Peter, rented Torrisdale Castle in the 1860s; Peter’s son William actually purchased Torrisdale, changing his name to Macalister-Hall in the process, and that estate remains in the Macalister-Hall family to this day.

James Macalister Hall was very successful and became quite wealthy. He used his resources to benefit his hometown. About 1895, when local civic groups declared the absence of a public library “an affront to civic dignity”, James Macalister Hall offered to fund the building of a library. “Campbeltown’s new Library and Museum was formally handed over to the town” in January 1898.[2] The building, constructed by Glasgow architect J. J. Burnet, is known as the Burnet building.

In its early days, the museum was operated by the librarian. Donations were accepted of almost anything, the result being a rather eclectic collection. Although the library was eventually moved to a new leisure centre, the Campbeltown Museum remains in the Burnet building[3] – the most visible of the contributions for which this clansman was given the Freedom of Campbeltown on 20th January 1899.

Copyright (c) Lynn McAlister, 2012

[1] “Freedom of Campbeltown”, the Scotsman, 19 May 1945, p. 4
[2] “Campbeltown’s New Library and Museum, 1899″, Michael Davis, in Kintyre Magazine web edition, issue 45: Spring 1999