It’s a quaint tradition that continues to this day: Every Saint Patrick’s Day, a member of the British royal family presents the Irish Guards with shamrocks for their headgear. Sometimes the green clover falls so far it covers their faces.
But many people may not be aware that this shamrock tradition has a grisly history. Queen Victoria devised the “wearing of the green” in 1900 in support of one of the British empire’s most brutal wars.
The shamrock tradition originated with Irish deaths in the Boer War
The Boer War was fought from 1899 to 1902, and was, in part, precipitated by gold. In 1886, gold was discovered in the Witwatersrand ridge in the Transvaal. As the British moved into the region, they came into conflict with the white, non-British settlers known as Boers. War soon broke out, with the Orange Free State and Transvaal allied against the British empire.
Britain thought the war would be a cakewalk. It wasn’t. As described in Gregory Fremont-Barne’s The Boer War, Boer guerrilla warfare challenged the Brits’ formal military style. The British, in turn, responded with scorched-earth policies and concentration camps that resulted in the deaths of thousands of Boers and black South Africans.
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