Daily Archives: 26 January 2021

Revival of the Boers, 1907

From Diamonds, Gold, and War: The British, the Boers, and the Making of South Africa, by Martin Meredith (PublicAffairs, 2008), Kindle pp. 492-493:

Lord Milner left South Africa in 1905 with little to show for his attempts to anglicise the Afrikaner population other than a few thousand British immigrants who had been established on the land and a depth of hostility among Afrikaners greater than anything that had existed before the war. A census in 1904 showed the total white population in the Transvaal to number 300,000; Johannesburg’s population had risen from 76,500 before the war to only 83,000; the Witwatersrand’s population now numbered 117,000; but the rural population gave Afrikaners an overall majority. In his final speech in Pretoria, Milner complained about the obstruction he faced from opponents, not from Afrikaners, but from British citizens. ‘Serious injury’ had been done to the ‘best interests’ of the Transvaal, he said, through ‘perpetual fault-finding, this steady drip, drip of deprecation, only diversified by occasional outbursts of hysterical abuse’.

Milner’s efforts were soon undone. In Britain, as the tide of jingoism receded, the Anglo-Boer war came to be seen more as a costly and inglorious episode rather than an imperial triumph. In parliament, the Liberal opposition criticised the use of low-paid Chinese labour in the gold mines, claiming it was tantamount to ‘Chinese slavery’. What made matters worse was the discovery that Milner had authorised the flogging of Chinese labourers – without reference to magistrates – in cases of violence and unruliness. ‘At the time,’ Milner told his successor, Lord Selborne, ‘it seemed to me so harmless that I really gave very little thought to the matter.’

In January 1906, a Liberal government under Sir Henry Campbell-Bannerman came to office, inclined to grant the Transvaal and the Orange River Colony self-government. General Smuts hastened to London to meet the new prime minister. ‘I put a simple case before him that night in 10 Downing Street,’ wrote Smuts. ‘It was in substance: Do you want friends or enemies?’

Five years after Britain had conquered the Boer republics, at a massive cost in lives, the Transvaal and the Orange River Colony were handed back to Afrikaner leaders. In February 1907, Het Volk won a clear majority over FitzPatrick’s Progressives and formed a government under Louis Botha as prime minister. In November 1907, Orangia Unie won all but eight seats in the legislative council and Abraham Fischer became prime minister. To Smuts, it was ‘a miracle of trust and magnanimity’.

To Milner, it was ‘a great betrayal’.

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