Category Archives: Britain

Old Oregon No Man’s Land

From The Company: The Rise and Fall of the Hudson’s Bay Empire, by Stephen Bown (Doubleday Canada, 2020), Kindle pp. 280-281:

The European colonial settlement of eastern North America had progressed quickly in the last decade of the eighteenth century and into the nineteenth century. Cities like Boston, New York and Philadelphia had mushroomed after the revolution, and farmland expanded to feed the influx of people and increasingly encroached on the traditional territories of Indigenous peoples. The British, anxious to maintain against the United States a legal claim to the Columbia River, the artery of the fur trade west of the Great Divide, proposed extending the 49th parallel west to the Columbia and then following the Columbia as the border to the sea. To the American negotiators who had their eye on the large, deep harbours of Puget Sound (the only viable harbours for large ships north of San Francisco) this was not ideal. But in 1818, weary from years of inconclusive conflict during the War of 1812, neither the British nor the Americans were willing to grapple over who would lay claim to the land on the far side of the Continental Divide. So they agreed to jointly “occupy” the region, deferring more complicated, and politically charged, questions to the future. (The terms of the Convention of 1818 were reaffirmed indefinitely in 1827, with the provision that either country could cancel the agreement with one year’s notice.)

In February 1819, the United States and Spain signed the Adams–Onis Treaty. In addition to selling the territory of Florida for $5 million, Spain also agreed to the northern boundary of California being set at the 42nd parallel and ceded any rights to the territory north of that to the United States. Russia, in two separate treaties—with the United States in 1824 and with Britain in 1825—bowed out of Old Oregon (but retained the right to trade in the region), agreeing to a southern boundary for Alaska roughly similar to the Canadian-American border today.

Old Oregon, now defined as the territory west of the Rocky Mountains, north of Spanish California and south of Russian Alaska, became a political no man’s land, jointly claimed on paper by Britain and the United States, and open to settlement and commercial development from either nation, although neither had any tangible presence there and they had neglected to inform the local inhabitants of their decision. Of course, the only commercial development was the fur trade, and the traders were more likely to follow the customs of their Indigenous hosts and customers than those of Londoners, Montrealers or New Yorkers. The vast territory remained unchanged for decades, until the 1830s, when the first wagon trains began rolling west along the Oregon Trail.

The Hudson’s Bay Company and the North West Company faced other challenges east of the Rockies that proved to be more of a threat—their own internecine quarrels.

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Nor’Westers vs. Hudson’s Bay Company

From The Company: The Rise and Fall of the Hudson’s Bay Empire, by Stephen Bown (Doubleday Canada, 2020), Kindle pp. 205-207:

EACH OF THE TWO COMPANIES HAD competitive advantages and disadvantages. Working against the North West Company was the fact that the Hudson’s Bay Company could get its goods by ship right into the heart of the continent, while the Nor’Westers had to transport their goods from Montreal, far to the south and east. But the Company suffered from a lack of manpower. The near-continuous wars that occupied Britain (the American War of Independence between 1775 and 1783 and the French Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars between 1792 and 1815) deprived the Company of easy access to young male workers when they were desperately needed to staff the new inland posts. The Napoleonic Wars in particular made it difficult for the Company to recruit young men into the overseas fur trade, and it increasingly hired the mixed-blood descendants of earlier employees to take on roles within the Company hierarchy. The Company still adhered to its policy of rarely employing Indigenous people for full-time careers because it wanted them out in the bush capturing beaver, fulfilling the supply side of the business equation, for which they were uniquely suited. Over time the connotation of “mixed-blood” or “Indian” denoted economic roles and placement in the hierarchy rather than purely genetic or racial background. By the beginning of the nineteenth century, the Company still had barely five hundred employees in North America, although it relied heavily upon the contract services of countless Indigenous hunters, guides and labourers.

The Nor’Westers, on the other hand, drew on Quebec’s seventy-thousand-strong local population, whether French or Mohawk-Iroquois. They fielded approximately twelve hundred people along their vast supply line. It was a more expensive and labour-intensive business model, but, as would be seen, the larger numbers would be useful in a fight. The Iroquois were particularly suitable for aggressive conflict, and even the Company began hiring them decades later when the two companies were at war. “I have frequently heard the Canadian and Iroquois voyagers disputed as regards their merits,” wrote Company agent Colin Robertson in 1819, “perhaps the former may be more hardy or undergo more fatigue, but in either rapid or traverse, give me the latter, for their calmness and presence of mind which never forsakes them in the greatest danger.” If you were in a scrape, you’d want a Mohawk-Iroquois companion, and these men were in great demand in the early nineteenth century.

The life of a voyageur could be harsh and often short, full of danger and extreme living, but many would never trade it for any other, signing on for the next season’s work each year for decades and only retiring when they were no longer capable of the rigours of the life. One old man, astonishingly over seventy, reminisced on his life travelling the land as a fur trader. “I have been 24 years a canoeman and 41 years in service; no portage was ever too long for me. Fifty songs I could sing. I have saved the lives of 10 voyageurs. Have had 12 wives and six running dogs. I spent all my money in pleasure. Were I young again, I should spend my life the same way over. There is no life so happy as a voyageur life.”

The two companies’ different corporate structures also manifested in their interactions with local peoples. While the Company men were ordered to adhere to basic discipline and to respect various Indigenous customs and ceremony, the more chaotic arrangements of the Nor’Westers allowed for more individual discretion, which meant in some cases developing a greater facility with Indigenous languages and a deeper understanding of local customs. But the “pedlars,” as the Company men derisively called them in the early days before they became a dangerous and organized threat, also earned a reputation for bad living and poor relations with Indigenous peoples, the result of the behaviour of a minority tarnishing the reputation of many. As a consequence, they seldom stayed in the same place from year to year for fear of repercussions and kept building new outposts. It wasn’t a stable business plan.

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Hudson’s Bay Company Policies vs. Realities

From The Company: The Rise and Fall of the Hudson’s Bay Empire, by Stephen Bown (Doubleday Canada, 2020), Kindle pp. 118-121:

Spirits were in great demand as payment for hunting, in ceremonial exchanges and in payment for furs. Throughout the eighteenth century the Company made frequent attempts to restrict or regulate the dispensation of liquor, but these efforts were never uniform. The main obstacle to instituting a more consistent prohibition was that it was impossible to regulate alcohol completely within the factories for their own employees, and they feared that if denied alcohol completely the Indigenous traders would take their business to the French, in spite of the greater travelling distance and inferior trade goods. Potent alcohol was a recurring problem for all who congregated at the Company’s posts; this was a society struggling to develop the social infrastructure and accepted behaviours needed to regulate and control the actions of people under the influence of the new intoxicants. Isham later observed that a custom had evolved whereby men who planned on drinking would send away the women and children along with all the guns and knives. Most of the problems between the employees and officers at the factories also had to do with the abuse of or smuggling of liquor.

The most striking thing is that none of the decision makers on the London Committee ever visited the bay, apart from James Knight, and the yawning gap between reality and theory was also part of life at the outpost. Whether it be admonitions to grow more vegetables, to get more work done during each season, to trade for more furs by exhorting the Cree to work harder, or to get their employees to urge Indigenous peoples from farther inland to breach the Cree hegemony and trade directly at the fort, many directives had to be politely ignored. Life at the factories along the bay revolved around its own unique set of customs and activities, borrowing from Indigenous practices whenever convenient, accommodating Indigenous customs whenever possible and generally creating its own society that was derived from cultural and geographical necessity rather than rigid London imperatives.

One directive from the London Committee to John Nixon must have made his eyes roll when he read it at Fort Albany in 1680. A helpful suggestion on how to save money on food rations, it revealed just how little was appreciated in London of life along the bay: “Upon Hayes Island where our grand Factory is, you may propagate Swine without much difficulty, wch. is an excellent flesh, and the Creature is hardy and will live where some other Creatures cannot.” These types of directives were written by well-meaning dandies, upper-class financiers and aristocrats who had never been to Hudson Bay and experienced its primitive outposts, harsh climate and poor soil, but also had never worked outside the rarefied palatial offices and manors of upper-class English society—people, in short, who ought not be telling servants how to procure their food on a remote distant continent, where they were visitors in a bewildering and deadly land, perched precariously along the rim of a geographical and cultural terra incognita.

On the one hand, there was the London Committee, with its directors planning grand strategy and issuing orders that occasionally indulged in the penchant for micromanagement, and then there were the people who worked for the Company in the outposts with the geographical and climatic constraints of the Subarctic and who worked with, or were friends with or even married to, the Indigenous people of that land. The Company had official policies, but the people bayside interpreted those policies and adjusted them to reality.

RELATIONSHIPS WITH THE HOSTS OF THAT foreign land were at the heart of life and business at the posts. Not only were the local, or Home Guard, Cree often hired for jobs as labourers, hunters, guides, seamstresses, cooks and interpreters, but sexual and romantic relations between Indigenous women and Company men were common. In the earliest days of its operations in the late seventeenth century, the Company’s directors issued proclamations to its officers to prevent or obstruct these relationships. “We are very sensible that the Indian Weoman resorting to our Factories are very prejudiciall to the Companies affaires,” the committee wrote to John Nixon in 1682, “not only by being a meanes of our Servants often debauching themselves, but likewise by embeazling our goods and very much exhausting our Provisions, It is therefore our positive order that you lay your strict Commands on every Cheife of each Factory upon forfiture of Wages not to Suffer any wooman to come within any of our factories.” For obvious reasons, this directive from aristocratic directors, comfortable in their estates in London and surrounded by their families, was not only foolish but unenforceable, human nature and social needs being what they are.

There was always a difference between what London directors wrote in their letters as official policy and what chief factors enforced for themselves and their men. Money was usually at the crux of it. Workers who spent many years of their lives in what amounted to remote work camps wanted to improve their lot as much as possible, while the managers didn’t want responsibility for families. But, as Graham noted, “the Company permit no European women to be brought within their territories; and forbid any natives to be harboured in the settlements. This latter has never been obeyed.”

But the Company soon appreciated the benefit of having close ties with their Indigenous trading partners and quietly began supporting intimate liaisons. The shift in opinion was based on the realization that these relationships were not a financial drain but rather an asset. Unofficial diplomatic marriages between Indigenous women and Company employees became common, with Indigenous women seeking kinship ties for more favourable trading privileges, while single Company men sought female companionship and an introduction to the life and customs of the land. In a practical sense these were alliances for mutual aid, companionship and support, both social and economic, much like marriages today.

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The Era of Beaver Pelts and Mad Hatters

From The Company: The Rise and Fall of the Hudson’s Bay Empire, by Stephen Bown (Doubleday Canada, 2020), Kindle pp. 46-48:

IT WAS A SEEMINGLY RANDOM flight of fashion that began the dramatic expansion in commerce between the English, French and many of the Indigenous peoples of North America. Furs have always had value in winter for warmth, and to a lesser extent had value for their water-resistant properties, but it was their use in the manufacture of felt that drove the demand in Europe. Felt was developed originally in central Asia as an excellent insulating and waterproofing material for tents and tarps; it was also used in ancient times by Roman legionaries as padding under their armour. In seventeenth-century Europe, felt was primarily used in the manufacture of hats, an ever-changing fashion accoutrement that became an indispensable signifier of prestige and social identity first for gentlemen and ladies and then, as the century progressed, for nearly every status of person. The style of hat signalled the level of prestige and the profession of the wearer. Picture the distinctive tricorne or Continental hat; or the cocked hat of the navy; the dignified stovepipe Regent, or top hat, of the financiers; and the somewhat amusing Paris Beau beloved of the young urban rake. Ladies’ hats had their own hierarchy of frivolity, complexity and expense—and attendant etiquette and social flourishes that governed how a hat was worn and with which accessories, how it was donned and with which distinctive and noble gesture it was removed.

In general, the waterproof and durable beaver felt hat, which could be dyed and moulded into a bewildering variety of shapes, was perfectly suited to symbolize and reflect the desires of an increasingly stratified and mercenary society. People were marked by their hats, the prices of which were well known and appreciated. Since it took about three to four worn beaver pelts to make enough felt for a single hat, some hats were so pricey that they were carefully tended and repaired for years and then passed down as inheritances. Even wealthy people kept inferior spares to be worn in inclement weather, saving their best beaver for notable occasions—or at least occasions when others might note the quality and make of their hat.

Felt was made using heat, moisture, pressure and mercury nitrate to shrink the fur fibres so that they matted together. Hatters spent long hours toiling away in their poorly ventilated tenements, inhaling clouds of mercury fumes as they bent over their felt-making apparatus, combing, pressing and steaming the pelts into the desired consistency and shape. Mercury was eventually discovered to have debilitating effects on the hatter, causing a type of poisoning called erethism, or mad hatter disease, which was characterized by tremors, depression, delirium, memory loss and hallucinations. Hatter wasn’t a profession or trade conducive to a long and healthy life, but nor were many other occupations of the era, and the dangers were poorly understood while the pay could be high.

By the early eighteenth century, London was not only the principal depot for the wholesale warehouses of prime beaver pelts from the best beaver preserve in the world, but by a coincidence of history it was also becoming the global centre for hat manufacture, which for centuries had been based in northern France. Seventeenth-century Europe was riven with religious conflict between Catholics and Protestants. Many of the felt and hat manufacturing trades were dominated by French Protestant Huguenots. In the mid-1680s, they began to flee their homes and cross the English Channel to escape religious persecution. They settled in the vicinity of London and brought with them the secrets of their trade, so that soon the best hats in Europe made from the best beaver pelts from North America originated in London. The most distinguished French nobility, and even Catholic cardinals, ordered their distinctive hats from Protestant hat makers in London.

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Hudson Bay Company’s Charter

From The Company: The Rise and Fall of the Hudson’s Bay Empire, by Stephen Bown (Doubleday Canada, 2020), Kindle pp. 2-3:

King Charles II had granted his cronies a grandiose charter and monopoly absurd in its scope and geographical misunderstanding—absolute mercantile authority in English law over a territory that encompassed the entire watershed of Hudson Bay, some four million square kilometres of land, over 40 per cent of the later territory of Canada, including all of northern Ontario and Quebec, all of Manitoba, southern Saskatchewan and southern Alberta and a good portion of the states of North Dakota and Minnesota. The region held nearly half the world’s supply of fresh water in a vast lowland of swamps, ponds and lakes, and was home to at least ten million beavers, then extremely valuable for their pelts. The Company was not a colonizing enterprise—nothing in its charter had do with missionaries or conquest—but nor was it a purely business enterprise. While commercial transactions for profit were its primary objective for the first century and a half of its existence, it also had other responsibilities, such as searching for the fabled route to Cathay, “by meanes whereof there may probably arise very great advantage to us and our Kingdome.”

The interior of North America in the 1670s was bewildering and unknown, and it was decades before the Company began to appreciate the political and cultural complexity of its trading monopoly. Word of the Company’s arrival spread quickly, and people began canoeing the rivers to its forts or factories along the Hudson Bay coastline each year. The [Algonquian] Cree who dwelt closest to the Company outposts along the bay, and eventually the [Siouan] Assiniboine and [Athabaskan] Chipewyan, became the brokers of the trade, operating their own jealously guarded monopolies and using the Company as a wholesale distributor, while passing on goods to Indigenous peoples farther inland.

After generations of mutually beneficial trade, knowledge and technology had been shared both ways, and many Company employees, including people of mixed genetic and cultural heritage, had learned the secrets of inland travel and survival. When faced with competition from traders of the North West Company coming west from Montreal in the 1780s, the Company moved inland and competition intensified. For most of its life the Company competed most vigorously for the right to thrive without competition.

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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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Foreign Volunteers in the Boer War

From Diamonds, Gold, and War: The British, the Boers, and the Making of South Africa, by Martin Meredith (PublicAffairs, 2008), Kindle pp. 433-435:

Stung by accusations that the war had been mismanaged, the British government ordered a change of command and appointed as commander-in-chief Field Marshal Frederick Roberts – ‘Lord Bobs’ – a diminutive, 67-year-old war hero, blind in one eye; but it was decided to leave Buller in charge of the Natal army. Two more divisions – the last readily available – were despatched from England. The government also realised that it had been trying to fight the wrong kind of war, relying too much on slow-moving infantry battalions to deal with mounted Boer riflemen using highly mobile tactics; British mobility needed to match Boer mobility. Britain called for civilian volunteers to join a new ‘Imperial Yeomanry’. Some 20,000 men from the ‘hunting and shooting’ fraternity signed up, including thirty-four members of parliament and peers. The City of London paid for one thousand volunteers. Further reinforcements came from other parts of the empire – from Canada, Australia and New Zealand. By January 1900, the total number of troops Britain had shipped to South Africa had reached 110,000. Additional support was provided by uitlander refugees and colonial volunteers formed into two mounted corps of their own – the Imperial Light Horse and the South African Light Horse – financed in part by Wernher, Beit & Co.

Even members of the Indian community in Natal – originally immigrants employed as indentured labourers to work on sugar plantations – volunteered to serve as stretcher-bearers. Their organiser was a 28-year-old lawyer, Mohandas Gandhi, who had arrived from India in 1893, spending a year in Pretoria before settling in Durban. Gandhi expressed sympathy for the Boer cause but considered he was bound by loyalty to Britain. ‘I felt that, if I demanded rights as a British citizen, it was also my duty, as such, to participate in the defence of the British Empire.’ The Natal authorities at first turned down Gandhi’s offer. But after Black Week, their attitude changed. Gandhi’s ambulance corps of ‘free’ Indians and indentured labourers recruited 1,100 volunteers.

Just as the British won support from the empire, so Boer ranks were bolstered by foreign volunteers. Some 2,000 uitlanders – Germans, French, Dutch, Irish, Irish-Americans, Russians, Scandinavians, even some English – joined the Boer cause. Another 2,000 foreign volunteers arrived from abroad. A retired French army colonel, Count de Villebois-Mareuil, enlisted, hoping to capture Cecil Rhodes. ‘History will add a fresh flower to the glory of France,’ he wrote in his diary. ‘To take Kimberley and see the face of the Napoleon of the Cape.’ He rose to the rank of Vecht-generaal – combat general – but was killed in action in April 1900. In all, the Boer allies were able to raise armed forces totalling more than 70,000 men. In addition, about 10,000 Africans served as auxiliaries to Boer commandos – retainers, porters, gun-bearers and labourers – many of them conscripted under duress.

Yet early Boer advantages were soon frittered away by poor strategy. By committing such a large proportion of their forces to the siege of three towns, Boer generals lost the opportunity to drive deeper into Natal and the Cape Colony when both areas were highly vulnerable to mobile attack. As their forward thrusts began to ebb, they turned to a more defensive stance, preparing for a much tougher British assault. By December, the Boer offensive had reached its limits. Unlike 1881, there had been no crushing blow to induce the British to negotiate.

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Original Goals of Rhodes Scholarships

From Diamonds, Gold, and War: The British, the Boers, and the Making of South Africa, by Martin Meredith (PublicAffairs, 2008), Kindle pp. 382-383:

Rhodes was often troubled by premonitions of an early death. It prompted him to write a series of wills with grandiose notions intended to ensure his personal immortality. In his first will, drawn up in 1877 while he was a student at Oxford, he instructed his executors to establish a secret society with the aim of extending British rule throughout the world, restoring Anglo-Saxon unity and creating ‘a power so great as to render wars impossible’. His next four wills – in 1882, 1888, 1891 and 1892 – followed much the same theme; in a covering letter to his 1888 will, he suggested to Lord Rothschild that he should use the constitution of the Jesuits as a template for a secret society, inserting ‘English Empire’ in place of ‘Roman Catholic Religion’.

In 1899, at the age of forty-five, sensing he had not long to live, he drew up his seventh and final will, refining his previous ‘great idea’ into something more practical. He made bequests to members of his family and to his Oxford college, Oriel; and he directed that Groote Schuur should be used as the official residence for future prime ministers of a federal South Africa. But his main ‘great idea’ focused on the education of young colonists. He gave instructions for scholarships to be awarded to suitable colonial candidates to study at Oxford, stipulating the qualifications they needed. In the first place, only men were eligible. Discussing other necessary qualifications with W. T. Stead in London, Rhodes envisaged a points system:

You know I am all against letting the scholarships merely to people who swot over books, who have spent all their time over Latin and Greek. But you must allow for that element which I call ‘smug’, and which means scholarship. That is to stand for four-tenths. Then there is ‘brutality’ which stands for two-tenths. Then there is tact and leadership, again two-tenths, and then there is ‘unctuous rectitude’, two-tenths. That makes up the whole. You see how it works.

In the terminology he finally used, Rhodes instructed points to be awarded for: literary and scholastic attainments; success in ‘manly outdoor sports’; ‘qualities of manhood’, including devotion to duty, protection of the weak, and unselfishness; and ‘moral force of character’. He listed fifteen colonies from which sixty scholars from the British Empire were to be drawn; and he added a further ninety-six scholarships for students from the United States. After meeting Kaiser Wilhelm in 1899, Rhodes allocated fifteen scholarships to German students.

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Cecil Rhodes as Master Persuader, 1890

From Diamonds, Gold, and War: The British, the Boers, and the Making of South Africa, by Martin Meredith (PublicAffairs, 2008), Kindle pp. 247-249:

In 1890, at the age of thirty-seven, Rhodes reached a pinnacle of wealth and power. As prime minister of the Cape Colony, he had command of an effective administration and the support of the Afrikaner Bond, the only organised political party in the country. As chairman of De Beers, he controlled a virtual monopoly of both diamond production and markets. As managing director of the British South Africa Company, he was empowered to act with ‘absolute discretion’ over a vast stretch of the African interior and allowed a private army – the British South Africa Police – to enforce his plans.

It was a dazzling feat of empire-building that won him many admirers. Rhodes regarded his achievements as evidence of his own unique genius. But, like other empire-builders, his success had depended on the work and talent of many key figures. His early business career had been held together by Charles Rudd; indeed, their partnership for several years was commonly known as Rudd and Rhodes, in that order. The mastermind behind the amalgamation of the diamond mines in Kimberley was not Rhodes but the self-effacing Alfred Beit – ‘Little Alfred’ – to whom he invariably turned for solutions. His drive to the north was facilitated by Hercules Robinson, a Cape imperialist who shared similar aims; it was Robinson’s decisiveness that led to the Moffat Treaty, incorporating Matabeleland within Britain’s sphere of interest. His triumph in winning the support of the British establishment for a chartered company was due as much to the work of Gifford and Cawston in London as to Rhodes’ own efforts. Finally, he managed to obtain a royal charter for his company only because it suited the interests of Lord Salisbury; preoccupied with the need to keep Britain ahead in the Scramble for Africa among European powers, Salisbury saw a means to extend British influence on the cheap, at no cost to the public exchequer.

In harnessing allies to his cause, Rhodes displayed remarkable powers of persuasion. But what was equally influential was the power of his money. Many hitched themselves to Rhodes’ band-wagon lured by the prospect of making their own fortunes. When he encountered resistance or scepticism, Rhodes was adept at providing incentives, bribes, share options, directorships and other positions, convinced that every man had his price. Politicians, journalists and churchmen in Britain and in southern Africa, even those with distinguished records, had few qualms about signing up as paid supporters for Rhodes’ cause. The Anglican Bishop of Bloemfontein, Dr Knight-Bruce, once so outspoken in his condemnation of Rhodes, was soon silenced by being offered the post of first Bishop of Mashonaland. Earl Grey, the paladin of his generation, was similarly converted, reasoning to himself that he might be able to do more good from within the British South Africa Company than by remaining an outside critic.

In his memoirs, the Cape lawyer James Rose Innes gave a graphic description of Rhodes at work, infecting the body politic, as he put it:

He offered to members of parliament, and other prominent persons the opportunity of subscribing at par for parcels of chartered shares then standing at a considerable premium. It was delicately put; the idea was to interest the selected recipients in northern development. Of course the recipient paid for his shares, but equally of course they were worth far more than he paid. In effect it was a valuable gift, which could not, one would think, be accepted without some impairment of independence. Yet there were acceptances in unexpected quarters.

Rose Innes was one of the few who declined Rhodes’ offer.

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Transvaal’s Gold Boom Years, 1890s

From Diamonds, Gold, and War: The British, the Boers, and the Making of South Africa, by Martin Meredith (PublicAffairs, 2008), Kindle pp. 291-293:

The Transvaal’s new wealth from gold transformed Pretoria from a village into a town. Grand public buildings sprang up around Church Square; electric light and telephone systems were installed. Ralph Williams contrasted the character of Pretoria when he first arrived there as British consul in 1887 with the changes that occurred within the space of a few years. Government buildings then, he said, were ‘homely to a degree’.

Flush with gold revenues, Kruger ordered the construction of an opulent new building for government offices and for parliament on the west side of Church Square. Laying the foundation stone in May 1889, he remarked: ‘Who would have believed five years ago that such a building was possible?’ Designed in the Italian Renaissance style by the government architect, Sytze Wierda, the Raadzaal cost £155,000. Kruger took a lively interest in all its details. On the ground floor, he was provided with two offices to the left of the main entrance. On top of the central tower stood a female statue. Some said it was an allegorical figure representing Freedom or Liberty; others that it represented Minerva, the Roman goddess of war. When Kruger was shown the statue before it was put in place, he was said to have objected to it being bare-headed. ‘A lady can’t stand up there in public with nothing on her head. She must have a hat.’ Accordingly, a helmet was fashioned and fixed on with rivets around the brim. The building was completed in 1891. An 1893 guidebook, Brown’s South Africa, A Practical and Complete Guide for the Use of Tourists, Sportsmen, Invalids and Settlers, described it as ‘one of the handsomest and probably the costliest pile in South Africa’. Kruger enjoyed the routine of the daily ride to his office in a state carriage accompanied by mounted troopers; he also awarded himself a huge salary increase, raising it from £3,000 a year to £8,000. Yet despite the new buildings and the occasional pomp, Pretoria retained the ambience of a sleepy village, where Afrikaner traditions of church and family life were closely observed.

Thirty miles to the south, amid a landscape of mining headgear, ore dumps and battery stamps, stood Johannesburg, an overgrown mining camp, brash and bustling, renowned for drunkenness, debauchery and gambling. On windy days, clouds of yellow dust from the ore dumps swirled through the streets. On the northern outskirts, over the crest of the ridge, wealthy whites lived in luxury houses, with views stretching away to the Magaliesberg hills, protected from the noise and dust of the mine workings by northerly winds which blew it all southwards. But most white miners and other employees lived in boarding houses in working-class districts close to the mines, frequenting the bars and brothels set up there. Two-thirds of the uitlander population consisted of single men. Black mine workers were confined to compounds, as in Kimberley.

During the boom years of 1888 and 1889, scores of prostitutes arrived from the Cape Colony and Natal. More came when the rail link to the Cape was completed in 1892. With the opening of the railway from the port of Lourenço Marques on Delagoa Bay in 1894, there was an influx of prostitutes from Europe and New York City. A survey in 1895 counted ninety-seven brothels of various nationalities, including thirty-six French, twenty German and five Russian; the brothels in one part of Johannesburg were so numerous that it became known as ‘Frenchfontein’.

A correspondent for the London Times, Flora Shaw, visiting Johannesburg in 1892, said she was repelled by its brash character. ‘It is hideous and detestable, luxury without order, sensual enjoyment without art, riches without refinement, display without dignity. Everything in fact which is most foreign to the principles alike of morality and taste by which decent life has been guided in every state of civilisation.’ Olive Schreiner, who went to live in Johannesburg with her husband, described it in 1898 as a ‘great, fiendish, hell of a city which for glitter and gold, and wickedness, carriages and palaces and brothels and gambling halls, beat creation’.

Kruger found it difficult to come to terms with this industrial monster in his backyard and the godless uitlander community that lived there; Duivelstad – Devil’s Town – he called it.

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