Interpretations of the South African War 1899-1902
- the reasons for the war have been a subject of great debate for the last 100 years; the debate has been out of scale to the actual military and strategic significance of the war. Why?
- some sources:
- The war became a focus for anti-British resentment in the rest of the world. It was perceived to be a bully beating up a couple of little, inoffensive nations.
- The war became a focus for pro and anti imperialists in Britain. It in fact marked the high water mark of jingoistic imperialism in Britain. The costs greatly deflated the enthusiasm for empire building and imperialism as a movement declined subsequently.
- It divided British society much like the Vietnam War did in the United States.
- It was seen as the prime example of ‘capitalist imperialism.’
- as of the early 1880s and up to the signing of the Treaty of London in 1884, the British government had decided that they did not have sufficient interests in the Transvaal to maintain their control by sending sufficient force to put down the Boers and to maintain forces there. It seemed at the time that maintaining direct control would be a continuing, on-going cost. Furthermore, adequate indirect control could still be maintained by controlling the ports (Britain took the precaution to annex the entire coast of Zululand up to the border of Portuguese territories).
- Robin Winks, ed., British Imperialism: Gold, God, Glory
- T. Caldwell, ed., The Anglo Boer War: Why was it fought:
- Harrison Wright, ed., The New Imperialism
- this is more general but there is a good deal on Hobson and Lenin and the theory of capitalist imperialism
- D. K. Fieldhouse, The Theory of Capitalist Imperialism
- this focuses specifically on tracing the development of the theory and includes large excerpts from Hobson and Lenin
- Ronald Gallagher and John Robinson with Alice Denny, Africa and the Victorians
- J. A. Hobson, Imperialism: A Study (1902)
- __________. The War in South Africa (1900)
- V. Lenin, Imperialism , The Last Stage of Capitalism (1916)
- 2 factors changed the situation dramatically in the next few years and brought a reversal of policy:
1 German Intrusion
- the German annexation of South West Africa late in 1884;
- discovery of the gold reefs in the Witwatersrandalmost at the same time, although it took several years to prove that there was a lot of gold and that it could be extracted economically.
- the annexation of South West Africa introduced a very powerful European rival into Britains backyard in southern Africa. [Portugal tended to be a British client; this helps to explain why Portugal was able to hold on to so much of its empire. In any case, it was no threat.]
- the German actions showed that the scramble for colonies was really underway. By the 1890s, Germany was increasingly being regarded as a great threat to British interests; it began to replace France as the greatest danger. That danger was multiplied with the German Naval Act of 1896 when the most powerful military nation in Europe deliberately set out to build a navy to rival that of Britain.
- the grab for colonies drew from the desire to find lebensraum for Germany and to try to keep German emigrants from being lost to the German nation. Soon, there emerged a dream to link up the German colonies (Kamerun, German East Africa and South West Africa) by acquiring all the land in between to create MittelAfrika. The Caprivi Strip (a long finger of territory stretching from German South West Africa across to the Zambezi River) was even negotiated as a 1st step.
- the door had been opened in South West Africa by the penny-pinching games being played by the British and Cape governmentsboth were trying to get the other to pay as many costs as possible. Fishing boats from the Cape and some British traders had long been established at Walvis Bay. When the Germans inquired early in 1884 whether Britain was asserting any claims to South West Africa, London was trying to get the Cape to assume responsibility for Walvis Bay and did no want to give a strong answer before the Cape had accepted the responsibility. As a result, it did not answer for months. Finally, after hearing nothing and assuming that the British were not asserting any claims beyond Walvis Bay, the German government annexed South West Africa based on the presence of a number of German missionaries who had been working in several areas since the early 19th C.
- initially, the two governments were playing the same game in regard to the area north of the Diamond Fields. Boer land grabbers were moving into this areaknown as Bechuanaland. A line of mission stations stretched north; Cecil Rhodes first came to prominence as a politician in the Cape parliament during this period when he declared that this area was the Capes road to the north. This fixation with the road to the north lasted throughout Rhodes career. The Rhodes Memorial at the Univ. of Cape Town has a quotation from one of his speeches about it and a statue of Rhodes in the Botanical Gardens beside the Parliament Buildings in Cape Town shows Rhodes pointing to the north, to the road to the north.
- with the German intrusion in S. W. Africa, this area was annexed in the next couple of yearsthe Cape annexed the southern part, known as British Bechuanaland, and the larger, northern area became the Bechuanaland Protectorate of the British government (Botswana).
2 Gold reefs
- the significance of the gold reefs was not at 1st apparent. The initial discoveries were made where the reefs broke the surface; the reefs extended for great distances underground but it took some time to prove this. Also, the gold was in quartz rock in very uniform, but low concentrations. Until the development of the cyanide process for extracting the gold from the rock, it was not certain that the gold could be extracted from the ore economically. Thus, it was not until the early 1890s that it became clear that the gold find was indeed massive.
- Johannesburg mushroomed and immigrants from Britain, Europe, and indeed the world, flocked in. As a result, the entire power position began to shift in South Africa. Previously, the Cape had been the largest and wealthiest area. It was clear that shortly that would change. Moreover, the government of the SAR quickly set to work to use the new wealth coming in to gain greater independence. The railroad was built to Lourenço Marques to get a port free of British control. This was soon used to import artillery and other modern, military equipment which the SAR purchased in Europe. Thus, there could be in the near future a military threat from the South African Republic to the British naval station at Simonstown.
- in any case, after 1884, the lack of concern of Britain (whether of the government or of imperialists like Rhodesof course, when Joseph Chamberlain became colonial secretary, there was an imperialist in the government) reversed itself; by the 1890s increasing pressure was being exerted on the SAR to reassert British authority. Clearly, most of the initiatives and pressures which eventually led to war in 1899 came from the British side. Many explanations have been put forward to explain this reversal; we shall group them into 4 categories:
1. Simple grab for the gold and direct economic benefits
- Simple grab for the gold and direct economic benefits;
- Strategic (military) reasons;
- Capitalist imperialism
- Imperialism and the desire to become a world power
- this was a common argument at the time and was widely accepted and believed among anti-imperialist groups in Britain and the United States.
- the end of the 1890s was a period of maximum British isolation and hostility to Britain; there were the tensions arising from the scramble for colonies and twice Britain came close to warwith France over Fashoda and the Sudan and with the U.S. over Venezuela.
- however, these arguments are also the weakest. British firms and markets already dominated much of the mining and related industry and almost all the gold was marketed through London. Even non-British mining interests tended to gravitate to London (gold mining in S. Africa was very capital intensive and the main capital market was there, as was the gold market). The majority of companies were floated on the London market. Werner, Beit & Co and Echberg & Co were 2 firms which had originated in Germany with Jewish connections and which switched their headquarters to London.
- getting free of British influence and control was an on-going objective of SAR leaders. Both Burgers in the 1870s and Kruger in the 1880s and 90s sought out Dutch, French and German investors and backers in building the railroad to Lourenço Marques. Yet British firms and bankers still got in on the action as those backers went to London for financing.
- the point of all this is that British firms and the British economy were getting a great deal of benefit; it was not worth going to war to get the rest. The gold mines were highly profitable and mining shares paid high dividends.
2. Strategic Factors
- the strongest interpretation was put forward by Gallagher and Robinson in Africa and the Victorians (see excerpts). They were trying to explain all or nearly all British acquisitions in Africa during the scramble in 3 major areas: (1) north and east Africa, (2) southern Africa and (3) west Africa.
- their argument is really strained and not very credible in regard to west Africa, but we do not really care in this course.
- their argument is that geopolitical thinking preoccupied policy decision-makers in London during this period. The most important area of the Br. Empire was India. Africa was of little interest for its own sake. Africa became important only in relation to the sea routes to India. First and foremost in the late 19th C was the Suez Canal; secondly, especially if anything should happen to Suez, was the route around the Cape of Good Hope. It is their argument that all the acquisitions in north and east Africa stem from Suez and most of the acquisitions in southern and even up into central Africa were related to the Simonstown naval station and protecting the route to India. (It was like Ezekiels dry bones in the song the hip bone connected to the thigh bone,/ the thigh bone connected to the knee bone ..... etc)
- in south Africa, the intrusion of Germany and the independence of the SAR stimulated an immediate response in the annexation of Bechuanaland in order to prevent a direct link up between the two.
- the concern about German interference continued and was aggravated by the famous telegram sent by the Kaiser to Kruger in the wake of the Jameson Raid. It congratulated Kruger in defeating and capturing Jamesons force, but also made a vague statement about the Kruger government having his support. Actually, the telegram helped the Br. government because public opinion in Britain became so worked up about this German meddling that criticism of possible Br. government involvement in the Jameson Raid was greatly inhibited.
- however, the SAR was itself becoming perceived as the greatest threat in South Africa. The balance of power in southern Africa was rapidly shifting north to the SAR. The SAR was using its new wealth to purchase and import the latest weapons from Germany and France; however, British naval supremacy meant that that could be stopped if necessary so it was not too great a threat. However, with the growth of Afrikaner nationalism, the real threat was the creation of a United States of South Africa, but under Afrikaner leadership of the SAR. It was felt that the economic strength and attraction of the Transvaal would inevitably draw the Cape in. Such a United States of South Africa dominated by the anti-British northern Afrikaner leadership would withdraw from the Br. Empire, and as a result, the naval station at Simonstown would be lost.
- thus in this interpretation, the conflicts with the SAR were pursued ultimately to the point of war to protect and preserve the naval station of Simonstown in order to ensure that strategic maritime links to India could be protected.
3. Capitalist Imperialism
- the classic statement of this interpretation was put by Hobson in Imperialism: A Study (see excerpts). Lenin borrowed most of the essentials and incorporated them into Imperialism, the Last Stage of Capitalism. This remained the basic Marxist position.
- Lenins book is more general in dealing with the new imperialism as a whole, while Hobson was more focused on South Africa. Hobson was a vigorous anti-war activist and had written an earlier book, The War in South Africa, in 1900 which strongly condemned the war and the role that he felt the rand capitalists had played in bringing it about. While the second book, Imperialism: A Study., discussed imperialism generally, it was based on Hobsons interpretation of events in South Africa.
J. A. Hobson
- Hobson was an advocate of social reform. His diagnosis of what was wrong was his theory of maldistribution of income in Britain and Europe. Because of this, some people had more income than they required for living expenses; as a result they saved part of their income which they wanted to invest. Others had too little income so that although they had many unsatisfied needs, they lacked money to meet them. The consequence of this was that the people with large incomes were already consuming all they wanted, while those with unmet needs were not able to purchase the goods they needed. This, Hobson argued, led to factories closing because goods they produced went unbought. Employees who lost jobs further reduced consumptiona vicious circle or downward spiral.
- this downward spiral affected those with savings looking for profitable places to invest. The savings of the well-to-do investors were turned over to the banks and financiers, but without profitable opportunities at home, they had to go abroad. This was the real economic force driving the new imperialism. It led to imperial expansion in different ways:
- Hobson showed that the other economic arguments for acquiring colonies, especially in Africa where most of the acquisitions had been made in the new imperialism of the late 19th C, did not hold water. Trade, especially with Africa, was small and not very valuable; not many raw materials were acquired there. Finally, most of the areas acquired in the late 19th C were not suitable or attractive for white emigrants so these colonies could not function as outlets for surplus population from Europe.
- in some cases, the financiers made loans to unstable governments; when those governments got into trouble and couldnt pay back the loans, the financiers pressured the British government to step in to guarantee that the loan would be repaid. The best example of this was Eygpt.
- in other cases, resentment against the foreign influence of bankers and businessmen provoked a backlash against the local government. The British government would intervene to prop up the indigenous government, but this would lead to a complete takeover over time.
- in other areas, development so lagged that there were no significant opportunities for investment. However, if the British government took over, there would be a need to build railroads, ports, roads, etc which would provide investment opportunites. The financiers, therefore, pushed the government to seize territories. Much of Africa fell into this category.
[These explanations for the scramble seem to be like cockroaches, almost impossible to kill! Almost all my students very confidently assert that these were the motives of the new imperialism and the scramble for Africasources of raw materials, markets for manufactured goods and outlets for surplus population. In 1902, Hobson had argued strongly, and basically correctly, that the facts did not support these explanations and that they were without real merit. The problem is that it seems superficially that these explanations are true. Moreover, proponents of imperialism used these arguments when they were advocating expanding the European empires. Undoubtedly, many people at the time fell for these arguments and others seem to have been doing the same thing ever since.
- as evidence that the need for investment opportunities was driving the new imperialism, Hobson advanced 2 points:
South Africa is a bit of an exception in that the development of mining and the growth of cities did mean that substantial amounts of trade did develop. Moreover, there was a considerable emigration from Britain and Europe to South Africa. However, as already noted, Britain was already getting a large portion of the trade. On the aspect of population migration, South Africa was way down the list after the United States, Canada and Australia as destinations for emigrants from Britain. Thus, as explanations for pushing a war to acquire the Boer republics, they are totally inadequate.]
- Hobson, however, was strongly opposed to imperialism. He argued that imperialism was undesirable and unnecessary. It was undesirable because it cost a lot of money (raising everyones taxes, especially as it led to wars), it cost lives and it benefited only special interests, not the nation as a whole.
- foreign investments paid higher returns than domestic investments; e.g., Indian railway bonds paid 5-6% while Br. government bonds paid 2-3%;
- he produced 2 tables, one showing the increase in territories and population to the Br. Empire as a result of the scramble 1870-1900 and a second table showing the growth of British overseas investments 1870- 1900. What he argued was that the first was caused by the secondimperial expansion was caused by growing overseas investments. Of course, the rules of logic state that just because two sets of events happen simultaneously does not prove that one set caused the other; that is an invalid conclusion.
- moreover, it was unnecessary as there was a remedy according to Hobson. If the malady was maldistribution of income, then it could be cured by redistributing income. This could be done by paying higher wages and by social reform. The latter would involve government spending for health, education and minimum standards of living. Raising taxes on the wealthy would help to reduce excess savings as well as providing the increased revenues.
- redistribution of income (whether directly in increased wages or indirectly in increased government services) would put more income into the hands of people with unmet needs who would spend, not save, it. This increased consumption would allow factories to reopen as their goods were sold and increased employment would allow for more expansion; i.e., the downward spiral would be replaced by an upward spiral. With expansion, there would once again be profitable opportunities for investment at home, which, Hobson argued, investors preferred anyway.
- Hobson recognised that imperialism was an enormous force which he likened to a train. It was bankers and financiers who controlled and manipulated this train:
They have the largest definite stake in the business of Imperialism, and the amplest means of forcing their will upon the policy of nations. Does anyone seriously suppose that a great war could be undertaken by any European state, or a great State loan subscribed if the House of Rothchild and its connexions set their face against it?
- however, finance was not the only or even the strongest force behind imperialism; there was patriotism, jingoism, etc.
And it is true that the motor-power of Imperialism is not chiefly financial; finance is rather the governor of the imperial engine, directing the energy and determining its work: it does not constitute the fuel of the engine, nor does it directly generate the power. Finance manipulates the patriotic forces which politicians, soldiers, philanthropists and traders generate; the enthusiasm for expansion which issues from these sources, though strong and genuine, is irregular and blind.
- capitalists and financiers used media and important moulders of public opinion (schools, universities and churches) to mobilise mass support for imperialism as a patriotic crusade; further, they misinformed the public about the economic trade benefits. They did this to get profitable investment opportunities and to protect their investments. Therefore, society paid the costs for a few to benefit economically.
- capitalists and financiers were assisted by other special interests who also benefitedthe military, arms manufacturers, colonial administrators. Hobson labelled these the harpies of imperialism.
- Hobson also indicted the press, universities and schools for inculcating imperialist values in the young, and the churches and mission societies who allowed themselves to be bought and used by the imperialist manipulators.
- Lenin and Marxists borrowed much of Hobsons analysis, but put it into a Marxist framework. In their view, imperialism was the great motivation and driving force for finance capitalism, the successor of industrial capitalism; it was the last, desperate attempt to stave off the final contradiction and collapse of capitalism which would open the door for the REVOLUTION. The major difference though was that, while Hobson argued that imperialism was curable (by redistribution of income), Marxists argued that imperialism was an expression of capitalism and capitalism was incurable. The only thing that could end imperialism was the destruction of capitalism.
Problems with Hobsons theory:
(1) Hobson failed to make a geographical breakdown of where the foreign investments had been made. He did do a geographical breakdown of trade to show that the areas acquired in the scramble provided relatively little trade or destinations for emigrants. When such an analysis is done, it shows much the same pattern as for trade; i.e., most overseas investment went to other capitalist countries (by far the biggest destination was the U.S., but significant amounts in Germany also) or to the older dominions (Canada, Australia, etc) or India. Very little went to the newly acquired colonies.
(2) Are higher rates of return on foreign investments support for Hobsons theory? In fact, one can argue that higher rates of return show that they are less attractive and require the extra incentive to attract the investors. Hobson even suggested this. Thus, it is not clear that investors were being driven abroad by lack of opportunities, but were being enticed by higher returns. In a sense, investors have to be bribed and coaxed.
(3) Is Hobsons depiction of capitalists as imperialists an accurate one? Cecil Rhodes was the epitome of the capitalist imperialist; his credentials in both areas were very impressive. He can legitimately be our test case.
- Rhodes made his fortune originally in organising mining companies on the Diamond Fields, eventually creating one giant companyDe Beers Consolidated Diamond Mining Co. He was slow in getting involved in the Witwatersrand, although, eventually, his Consolidated Goldfields Co. was a medium sized player.
- Rhodes also organised the British South Africa Co. which received 15% of the profits of De Beers. With some difficulty (he was not trusted by many politicians in London), the BSA Co. was granted a royal charter. The BSA Co. was his vehicle for expanding up through central Africa and acquiring Northern and Southern Rhodesia. Thus, it was a way of privatizing imperial expansion. It also illustrated Rhodes approach to promoting imperialismpatriotism plus 5 %.
- Rhodes certainly gave a great deal of credence to charges made by Hobson and others:
- the problem with Rhodes is to decide which of the 2 aspects was primary. Although Rhodes was both an imperialist and a capitalist, it makes a big difference which was end and which was means. That is, did Rhodes use patriotism and imperialism as a means for enhancing his wealth and capitalist activities (as Hobson and others argued) OR did he make money in order to have the means to pursue his imperialist activities?
- he speculated in the shares of his own companiesselling high and buying low.
- he was very crude and unscrupulous in his methods. He thought everyone could be bought or fixed, even the Kaiser.
- he bought or influenced newspapers, made donations to universities, schools and even mission operations; this has been frequently exaggerated. Many newspapers were happy to support imperialism without being bought (in either sense), mainly because doing so sold more papers!
- he certainly used missionaries, most notably to help to deceive Lobengula, the Ndebele king.
- Rhodes is a fairly good example of an increasingly common type in the late 19th C. The segregation of the sexes (especially in the public schools) seems to have had a lasting effect on large numbers of young men during the period. They could spend their entire lives with only minimal contact with women: residential public schools ==>university or the army ==>males only clubs, etc.
-many were always ill-at-ease among women; this included Rhodes who preferred to be with men and kept contacts with women to a minimum (Rhodes sued Princess Radziwell for putting it about that she was his lover). Men of this type popped up all over the Empire and were very prominent in late 19th C imperialism, men who either married late (Lugard and Milner) or not at all or who spent most of their lives separated from their wives. Usually, they were expanding the Empire for the Queen who had become a kind of earth goddess. It has been suggested that much of the veneration for Queen Victoria may have been almost an Oedipus complex and their imperialist activities a kind of sexual sublimation (great scope for Freudians).
- we have more explicit evidence about Rhodes motives in his 1877 Confession of Faith and his will written in the same year. It should be noted that when he wrote this, he was still in his 20s and his fortune was very modest. He had also been introduced to the Masonic Order which he did not take too seriously but which served as a model for his secret society for expanding the Empire.
- several things stand out: his Anglo-Saxon racism, his social darwinism and above all his megalomania (Rhodes idea of British lebensraum makes even Hitlers seem rather small time in comparison). Moreover, he dedicated his life and willed his fortune to expand the Empire and to create Anglo-Saxon domination of the world. Although the exact terms of the will were changed a number of times, the intent never changed; the Rhodes scholarships, which is the final form his will took, was supposed to select and induct young men into his Secret Society. Oxford he considered the heartland of Anglo-Saxonism, and spending a couple of years there would steep young men in its mysteries and values. His idea of the Secret Society was really a conspiracy to dominate the world (it is a good indication of his mentalityone that participated in hatching the Jameson Raidthat he thought it could be done!).
- the Jameson Raid, led by Leander Starr Jameson,, and the entire plot to stage an uitlander uprising to overthrown the government of the SAR were so clumsy and amateurish that it makes even some of the CIAs activities look good. The big question is How much was the British Government, especially Joseph Chamberlain, involved? Sir Hercules Robinson asked not to be told certain things and Chamberlain divided his mind into things which he knew officially and things which he knew only unofficially. Neither was active in the planning, but both knew in a general way what was being hatched and did nothing to stop it; in fact, clearly they were hoping for it to succeed. Afterwards, Rhodes used pressure (almost blackmail) on Chamberlain and the British government to prevent the charter of his BSA Co. from being revoked (He and Jameson took the blame and avoided implicating Chamberlain).
- Rhodes was never interested in money for itself; he preferred to live simply. He did buy Groote Schuur, but he used the estate to be a demonstration farm; parts of the estate were used to found the University of Cape Town and the giant hospital, Groote Schuur. The house was willed to be the official residence of the future prime minister of a united South Africa.
- Rhodes was not even interested in building a financial empire; he left the details of running his companies to others. No, the thing which turned Rhodes crank was building the British Empire.
What about other capitalists?
- certainly, few of them were such fanatical imperialists as Rhodes was. The traditional arguments say that the capitalists used the politicians (Chamberlain, Milner, etc.) as lackeys in Marxist jargon to act as cats paws.
- the capitalists disliked some of the SAR governments corruption and policies. They complained especially about a number of policies which increased their costs:
- thus, there were frequent complaints about the Kruger government and certainly capitalists were pleased to use British government intervention or the threat of intervention in order to get changes. BUT did they really want or push for war? Were the capitalists the real force behind the drive to war, using and manipulating the British government as Hobson and Lenin, etc. argue?
- directly, some of the concessions, most notoriously, the dynamite monopoly;
- indirectly, many concessions raised the cost of living at the goldfields which meant that the mining company had to pay what were, compared to Europe, very high wages to white miners.
- we should note here that the situation was more complicated than has often been recognised and acknowledged. Most concession companies ended up in the hands of capitalists who were also involved in gold mining; some capitalists cultivated close ties to members of the SAR government (e.g., Sammy Marks). As a result, they benefited from concessions, although they had to pay higher costs along with everyone else.
- the point to keep in mind is that capitalism in the SAR was not monolithic; competition and rivalries among capitalists and businessmen meant that their influence was often split in conflicting directions; there were always some mining capitalists who cultivated close ties with and supported the SAR government. Interpretations which are based upon a monolithic or reductionist view (most of the Marxist interpretations, but also the liberal Hobson) are seriously flawed. [This is also true of Marxist interpretations about who was the real determining factor in imposing apartheid.]
- at times the capitalists tried to use Britain and British pressure as a means of getting changes in policies. However, except for a few of Rhodes close associates, the capitalists were not involved in or much interested in the planned uprising for a coup détat.
- in the period following the Raid, most capitalists adopted a more cooperative attitude to the SAR government. This was so much the case that Milner tended to call them all mugwumps. They were making good profits and did not want war; they did not care much about being able to vote as long as their interests were not ignored by the government.
- most of the agitation about uitlander grievances was coming from the white mine workers. While much attention was focused on the lack of political rights, concerns about the high cost of living (blamed on the concessions) and the issue of education for their children (including the issue of language) were at least of equal concern (neither of these last two problems affected capitalists seriously).
- the mood of accommodation among capitalists lasted until early in 1899. With government support, The Standard & Diggers News, a pro-government English newspaper, launched a campaign to enlarge the rifts between the capitalists and the white mine workers. The normal conflicts between workers and employers were increased by the on-going desire on the part of mining companies to use as many African workers as possible because the latter were paid only a fraction of what white workers were paid. While white workers had skills that Africans did not have (and most African workers were migrants who stayed only for limited contracts), there were semi-skilled tasks that Africans could learn fairly quickly.
- the newspaper campaign involved high-lighting the tensions and conflicts (i.e., fomenting class conflict); the purpose seems to have been to frighten the capitalists and to make them feel that they were dependent on the government. It had the opposite effect; they were frightened, but decided instead to try to mend their fences with the white workers.
- it was only at that point after the momentum towards war was already under way that the capitalists swung around to support the uitlander grievances; in effect, this brought them into an alliance with Milner and Chamberlain who were using these grievances as a means of provoking a war. The capitalists seem to have been followers rather than the leaders and instigators.
4. Imperialism and the desire to become a world power
- earlier in the 19th C, there had been a good deal of skepticism and pessimism about the Empire in Britain. After the American revolution and the demands for responsible government in Canada, Australia and New Zealand in the 1840s and 50s, there was a feeling that colonies matured and, like ripe fruit, would fall from the imperial tree. However, in the 1860s and 70s, fervour for empire began to revive and increase dramatically.
- there were several aspects:
Emerging World Powers
- the Indian Empire especially impressed and filled British imperialists with pride (Disraeli catered to and helped to expand this when he had Queen Victoria created Empress of India);
- there was growing concern about the apparent drift of the settlement colonies (Canada, Australia, and New Zealand) towards greater autonomy and ultimate independence. This brought forward the imperial federation movement in the 1880s to try to reverse the trends; the movement wanted to unify the British Empire on the basis of some sort of federation. Organizations and supporters emerged in Britain and the various dominions, but there were significant differences on what kind of federation it should be; these differences were never resolved, but the movement enjoyed a good deal of support up to World War 1. After that, support for the movement declined rapidly, especially in the dominions where increasingly opinion supported complete autonomy and independence.
- finally, amidst considerable reluctance from British governments, the scramble for colonies after 1884 saw Britain become one of the most active in acquiring more colonies and dependencies.
- this was a growing concern. In the late 19th C, Europe (and because of European preponderance much of the rest of the world) was dominated by the great powers; these were Britain, France, Germany, the Dual Monarchy, Russia, and Italy (The U.S. clearly belonged, but because of isolationism, it did not participate in many of the diplomatic summits in the period). However, there was a growing preoccupation with a looming transition to an entirely different scale of national state.
- the 2 examples that everyone could see were the United States and Russia; both were continental in scale, had populations over 100 million and had enormous resources for industrial development. Thus, sometime in the near future in the 20th C, these states would emerge as world powers and would eclipse the remaining great powers who would become second-class powers as a result. The critical problem then in the other great powers was how to remain in the game and become world powers themselves. It was kind of like a poker gamehow can we get the additional chips to stay in the game?
- recall too that international relations were perceived to be a social darwinist arena of constant struggle and survival of the biggest and fittest. You were either one of the big guys or you had to do what you were told, like it or lump it!
- it was in this context that John Seeley wrote The Expansion of England in the early 1880s (it was originally a series of lectures). Britain, Seeley argued, was at a crossroads; the question was whether Britain would remain a great power or spend its time looking back to when it had been great (this was what Spain was forced to do). According to his version of British history, what had made Britain great in the 18th and 19th Cs was its empire, and Britains future, if it was to have one, also must be in its empire. The book is almost always cited as being an enormous influence and encouragement for the imperialism movement in the late 19th C.
- actually, Seeley was more interested in the evolving dominions and India, not Africa and the foci of the new imperialism. Thus, his ideas were most appropriate for the imperial federation movement and his book is given credit for helping to start it (the Imperial Federation League was founded in 1884).
- this seems a more potent source of energy behind late 19th C imperialism than the machinations of capitalists. Joseph Chamberlain (just read the sections on his career as Colonial Secretaryi.e., minister for coloniesand the Jameson Raid), one of those most responsible for the coming of war, stated, The day of small nations has long passed away. The day of Empires has come. Although he had begun as a businessman, most of his career was as a politician and he was a strong supporter of the imperial federation idea. Few of the prominent imperialists were capitalists. Certainly, there was Rhodes (although as we have noted above, Rhodes was an imperialist first and a capitalist only secondarily) and some trading interests associated with the Royal Niger Co. and the British East Africa Co., but these were not really the dominant capitalists or the majority of capitalists in Britain.
- France was preoccupied with (and frightened by) a united Germany which was not only larger in population, but was also surging ahead industrially; and the gap was growing as German birth rates were significantly higher than those in France. Thus, acquiring an empire was a means to try to catch up and keep up with Germany as well as in the race to become a world power.
- in Germany, 2 schools of thought emerged on the question of how Germany could also become a world power. One school also looked to colonies and made the same arguments: emigrants from an overcrowded Germany could go to colonies and not be lost to the nation (as happened to emigrants who went to the US and elsewhere). Thus, colonies would allow the nation to grow (i.e., provide lebensraum) and also provide resources which were not available in Germany. However, another school argued that Germanys lebensraum should be found in eastern Europe; by expanding in eastern Europe, additional agriculture land could be found. At the same time, Germany should make itself dominant in Europe by creating a German dominated MittelEuropa; this would make Germany more or less a continental power. The colonial option was pursued after 1884 by acquiring colonies. However, the Pan German League was founded in 1894 and it became a powerful proponent of the east European option.
Joseph Chamberlain and Alfred Milner
- most of Rhodes political influence was destroyed by the Raid. However, in return for protecting the charter of the BSA Co., Rhodes helped to protect Chamberlain from being implicated in the Jameon Raid. To replace Sir Hercules Robinson as governor of the Cape Colony and high commissioner in South Africa, Chamberlain choose Alfred Milner. It was Milner and Chamberlain who were largely responsible for bringing the war in 1899.
- Chamberlain had led the split of the Liberal Party in 1894 over the issue of Irish Home Rule, which he opposed. When he brought his over 100 followers into a union government with the Conservatives, he could have had almost any portfolio in cabinet except prime minister; he stunned everyone by requesting the Colonial Office which was regarded as one of the least desirable positions (often it was filled by a member of the Lords). Chamberlain was a convinced imperialist, obsessed with the extreme importance of the empire.
- after the S. African War, Chamberlain came to the conclusion that because of growing nationalism, the dominions could only be drawn closer by offering economic incentivesimperial preferences (i.e., giving goods traded between areas of the British Empire low or no tariffs compared to goods coming from outside the Empire); ever since the 1840s when free trade had triumphed, preferences (which involved imposing a customs tariff) was anathema as it would impinge on the cheap bread policy. When the Conservatives reluctantly adopted Chamberlains imperial preference platform, it helped to bring about their defeat in 1905 (although they were headed for defeat anyway as dissatisfaction and reaction to the war had grown).
- Alfred Milner had been a protege of Lord Cromer in Egypt and was also an imperialist in the same mould as Chamberlain. In fact, after his career in South Africa, Milner returned to become the acknowledged leader of the imperialists, helping to found the Round Table which became the leading imperialist organisation into the 1920s.
- Milner decided that the SAR was a grave threat to, not only the British position in South Africa, but also to the entire idea and dream of imperialism. Afrikander nationalism was the big threat. Unless something were done, in a short time, Afrikaner nationalists would be able to use the SAR to bring about a union under Afrikaner domination. In view of the extreme anti-British feeling in the SAR, the united South Africa would leave the Empire and expel the British from Simonstown.
- however, there were other significant symbolic aspects of the situation which had an even wider impact. The example of Afrikaner nationalism might influence and encourage the growth of local nationalisms in other dominions (especially in Canada) also. As well, if nothing were done about the grievances of the uitlanders, a large percentage of whom were British subjects, people throughout the Empire would question the value of being British subjects in the first place. Thus, the mystique and attraction of imperialism would be lost. On all these counts, something must be done to scotch the threats posed by the SAR.
- Milner used the uitlander grievances as his handle, especially in his inflammatory dispatches which he prepared for publication (the most famous, or infamous, was the helot dispatch). At the same time, he wrote private letters to Chamberlain and others suggesting ways to get the maximum advantage in influencing public opinion. His purpose, of course, was to bring both the British government and public opinion around to support a war in South Africa.
- Milner also had close links with a leading correspondent of the London Times (he later married her!); he was able to have a strong impact on what was reported.
- this leads us to the point: the Marxist view would reduce Milner to the status of a lackey of the capitalists. This really requires ignoring and dismissal of massive amounts of evidence.
- Milner distrusted and was contemptuous of most capitalists; he declared that their only concern was money. He felt that they would sell their mothers, wives, and daughters so why would they quibble over selling out their country and the Empire?
- nor did he think much better of most of the uitlander miners; he was sometimes deeply afraid that the SAR government would make major concessions because he thought that most miners would be perfectly happy to give up British citizenship for citizenship in the SAR, just as so many had in going to the US. Miners had higher incomes, standards of living and higher status than similar workers in Britain. Thus, whenever the SAR government appeared ready to make major concessions, Milner would add new demands so that Kruger would reject them all.
- because of opposition in the British cabinet to a war in S. Africa, Milner engaged in a campaign:
- public opinion was rather easily roused during this period; imperialism and aggressiveness were popular. Newspapers which played up imperialism sold very well while opponents tended to remain fairly small, even if influential (Manchester Guardian, Economist). Hobson was aware of this, but Marxists have ignored or denied it (this attraction of the masses to imperialism does not fit into their scheme where the capitalists determine everything).
- first to convince Chamberlain that war was the only solution (Chamberlain at times still hoped that their major aims could be achieved by concessions, especially if they achieved political concessions);
- secondly, to strengthen Chamberlains hand in the Cabinet;
- finally, to arouse sufficient outcry from the public to force the last holdouts in cabinet.
- Milner felt that the Empire was on trial in S. Africa and that if it could not overcome nationalism in S. Africa, the Empire was finished. He was greatly preoccupied with Afrikanderism and the need to defeat it. But Afrikaner nationalism was really just one example (albeit more extreme and more advanced) of growing nationalisms in all the dominions.
- he felt that the only way to fight this trend was to hold out a higher and better ideal and status I am a British subject! (just what Romanus sumI am a Roman had came to mean in the Roman Empire). It should convey such status and benefit that no one would willingly give that up.
- Milner (with Chamberlain an accomplice) decided that war was a necessity and succeeded in bringing it about; the most meticulous account of this is J. S. Marais The Fall of Krugers Republic.
- Milner and Co. were assisted by the fact that a good body of Boers in the SAR were not averse to war; Majuba Hill and the Jameson Raid gave them a feeling of divine protection. This was not entirely mystical. They decided to push the issue and declare war (it was the Boers who declared war first) in hopes of duplicating the outcome of 1880-81; they hoped to inflict some quick and early defeats on British forces which would cause a reaction in Britain. British public opinion and government would decide that the costs were not worth it and would decide to make a settlement that left the 2 republics with independence.
- the Orange Free State entered the war on the basis of the defensive treaty with the SAR as they had no serious disputes with the British.
- on the other hand, one can have sympathy for the Boer cause only if one ignores the majority of the population; the Boer republics were racist autocracies and their preservation does not seem to deserve much sympathy. In the Anglo-Boer struggle, there werent many good guys or people with white hats.
- the effects of the war were unfortunate, because in the long term, Afrikaner nationalism (especially in its northern, most rigidly racist mode) triumphed. However, that may have been due to mistakes made at the end or subsequently. However, it should give one pause when thinking of military solutions; even if you win the war, what then? How do you ensure the success of your long-term objectives, especially in an era of nationalism?
[The above was originally written several years ago. However, when Pres. Bush was launching the war against Saddam Hussein and some of my students asked for my opinion, I made the pointwinning the war is the easy part; winning the peace is the hard part. It seems even more relevant now and my comment above applies equally to Iraq!]
The South African War
- there were many books written giving personal accounts of experiences; these include several written by Canadians. Few soldiers on the British side were there for the entire war as most enlisted for 1 year and returned home after their enlistments. There are several Boer accounts in English by individuals who were active during all or most of the war; two of the best known are: Denys Reitz, Commando (entire book online); he was captured shortly before the end and spent time as a POW on St. Helena. C.W. de Wet, Three Years War. You can find a host of internet sites as the South African War is a favourite of military buffs.
- the war was in 2 distinct phases (although Thompson and others divide it into 3 phases)a formal war with set-piece battles and fronts and a second guerrilla phase.
- initially, the Boers had success, partly as a result of British inexperience and ineptitude and partly a result of new tactics, such as the use of slit trenches which showed the path to trench warfare in 1914. However, the Boers failed to push forward; most felt that these early victories were enough and they expected that the reaction in Britain would soon bring an end to the war. This was the first phase for those who divide it into a 3 phase war.
- one interesting feature was a book by German observers from the General Staff. They concluded that the early defeats (especially at Spion Kop) were caused by British indecision and worrying too much about casualties. If the British had pushed on in spite of casualties, they would have had fewer casualties in the long run because the war would have been over quicker. The approach of pushing ahead with attacks without regard to casualties was pursued in W.W. 1 with disastrous consequences!
- however, Lord Roberts and Kitchener were sent out and their drive and larger British forces soon brought the capture of all the major cities of the republics, and Kruger himself retreated down the railway to Mozambique and went on to Europe to attempt to raise support there in order to force the British to make peace. Most people thought the war was over; Roberts resigned and turned command over to Kitchener.
- most of the Boer forces were not trained soldiers. With the defeats, many simply returned to their farms. Others, who were captured by the British, were allowed to return home (given a parole) once they promised not to rejoin the fighting. Many agreed because they thought the war was over. However, some of the more determined Boer leaders insisted on continuing the war. They began to attack troop trains and small detachments of troops in a guerrilla fashion.
- this was in fact a much more congenial mode of fighting for most Boers who were not trained for the heavy slogging of formal warfare. But the Boers were excellent horsemen, good marksmen from a distance and had thorough knowledge of the land. The Boer guerrilla commandos became like willow-o-the wisps.
- this kind of fighting was extremely frustrating for the British. Only much later did the British begin to get mounted units that were equal to the Boer commandos in mobility and speed. The Boers did not have formal military uniforms and that made it difficult to determine who was fighting and who not. The British were also angry that many Boers had broken their paroles.
- the farm burnings had begun as retaliation. Whenever British troops were attacked, the farm from which the attack had come was burned. However, shortly, the policy evolved to a general one of burning all farms. The major aim was to deny the Boer commandos all food and shelter.
The Concentration Camps
- in order not to leave large numbers of women, old people and children exposed on the veld without food or shelter, the British set up concentration camps for those displaced by the farm burnings. This may have assisted the guerrillas; some Boers said that knowing their families were being taken care of allowed them to join a commando with fewer qualms. The camps themselves were not closely guarded and Boer commandos sometimes slipped in at night to join their families for a few hours before leaving again before dawn.
- a series of epidemics, which were also decimating British troops (the British lost far more men to disease than to Boer action), swept through the camps. The dead women and children (an oft given statistic is 5,000 women and 20,000 children) became one of the most damaging issues, both in the war itself because it fed the growing anti-war opposition in Britain and as a factor in solidifying Afrikaner nationalism in the 20th C. There were 2 factors underlying the deaths:
- eventually, improvements were made in the camps and undoubtedly too the survivors had developed immunities; in any case, the death rates declined dramatically, but the damage had been done. None of this was intentional and the British military forces were enduring the same ordeal by disease.
- The Boer population was scattered and not accustomed to living in close quarters; their hygienic and sanitation practices were not appropriate. British military and medical people were often appalled by their practices. For example, cow dung was used as a multi-purpose medicine and was especially used as poultices for wounds and cuts. While this was used for external application, medical people found some of the concoctions prepared for internal application just as revolting and unsanitary. These were people who did not have access to medical doctors and had to look out for themselves. As a matter of fact, the Boers had borrowed heavily from African medicine and despite the reaction of British doctors, some of the herbs may have been more beneficial than British doctors credited. More importantly, they had little exposure and immunity to many of these contagious diseases (measles, chicken pox, etc.).
- The British military was unprepared and overwhelmed by logistics; no one had expected such large numbers and such responsibilities. Nor were their efforts helped by the fact that the major focus of Boer attacks was the railway lines (trains, even if armoured, and tracks were easier targets than military units). Until the British developed extensive repair teams, supplies of food, medicines and blankets were short and frequently inadequatefor British forces also. Eventually, they did develop track repair teams that were constantly in motion repairing track; they could make repairs almost as fast as the Boers could rip track up.
- there had been considerable opposition to the war right from the beginning; the anti-war activists used the farm burnings and concentration camps to focus their opposition. [What happened to Britain during the South African War is very similar to what happened in the US during the war in Vietnam.]
- especially prominent was Emily Hobhouse. Her 2 books, War Without Honour and The Brunt of the War and Where It Fell, really publicised this aspect by giving her descriptions of the camps and by the extensive statements of Boer women, many of which were published verbatim. The Boers knew that their only hope was to rouse public opinion internationally and in Britain to force the British government to end the war. Thus, the statements were clearly part of a propaganda campaign, yet Hobhouse seemed to accept everything at face value. Boer women were often the most intransigent of the bitter-enders. Undoubtedly, the women had to endure many hardships, but some of their statements are very revealing. One of the things they complained about, even more than the physical hardships, was the derision and mocking by Kaffirs as they were being moved by train. [Hobhouses efforts were not forgotten and when the S. African navy acquired a submarine in the 1970s, it was named the Emily Hobhouse.]
Defeating the guerrilla campaign
- to counter the Boers mobility, blockhouse fences were built; small blockhouses like small silos were build every few hundred feet for a small troop with barbed wire strung between the blockhouses. These were intended as large pens to contain the Boer commandos. Then, huge drives were organised to drive the commandos like game into the arms of hunters who would be waiting along one line. Given the vast amount of energy expended by the British, the results were often disappointing as most of the commandos would break free of the net. But the commandos could not be replaced and there was certainly a process of attrition taking place.
- the tide began to turn more seriously against the Boers:
- as a result of these factors, the dwindling numbers of Boer commandos were being harried relentlessly. It became unsafe to remain in the same place for 2 nights; when information was received of a Boer camp, the tough new British mounted units would ride all night to attack before dawn.
- The British began to train mounted troops who could rival the Boers. The British were hampered by the fact that volunteers to the war signed on for 1 year; their training and conditioning took place mostly in South Africa and they were often just getting to the point of being really useful and experienced when their enlistments expired.
- The British set up intelligence networks, especially among Africans; in this way they became much better at locating the commando groups.
- War weariness was setting in among many Boers in the camps (the hands uppers). Some, mostly landless and poor, joined a unit working with the British known as the National Scouts. The National Scouts did not actually fight, but did help the British to locate Boer commandos. The growing threat of disunity and possible civil war was an important factor persuading leaders like Botha and Smuts that they would have to make peace.
- Hostility with Africans was escalating markedly. Commandos requisitioned food and forage from Africans, paying in IOUs from a South African Republic which no longer existed. On the other hand, Boers knew that the Africans were providing the British with information about their whereabouts and they began to attack those they suspected. Africans were demanding that they be given arms to be able to defend themselves. Indeed, Africans were fighting back.
- the Boers had been able to rely on capturing food and supplies from British forces, but that become much rarer. Smuts commando, after a daring raid across and back through the northern Cape, had been shepherded into the remote desert of the north-western Cape and was essentially out of the war with dwindling supplies. Although some leaders like de Wet liked to give the impression that they could have gone on forever (of course, his account was written after the war), they were getting near the end of the road. Even de Wet was nearly captured a couple of times and his forces too were dwindling.
- by 1902, the pressure was mounting on the British side as well. Initial enthusiasm had waned and recruitment became more difficult. Costs were soaring and there was talk that the country would be bankrupted (ridiculous in view of what was learned about financing a war in WW1, but a real fear in 1902). Pacifist and anti-war groups were gaining more support and criticism of capitalists was growing stronger (Hobhouse on the one hand and Hobson on the other!).
- Kitchener too was desperate to bring the war to an end; he was afraid that his career would be ruined if it went on much longer and that was probably his highest priority. Milner, on the other hand, wanted to ensure that the new colonial administrations set up in the former republics were not hampered by peace terms. He especially wanted to implement far reaching educational and other changes that would undercut Afrikaner nationalism and republicanism.
- a truce was arranged; all the leaders of the Boer commandos still at large were helped to travel to the small town of Vereeniging at the border on the Vaal River. There negotiations took place. Debate among the Boers took a great deal of time because a small, but determined, group wanted to continue the war. Many among these most intransigent Boers were Free Staters. They complained bitterly that they had entered the war voluntarily in support of the Transvaalers and now the Transvaalers were prepared to give up independence. However, eventually, the overwhelming majority accepted the final treaty.
- one of the big issues in the negotiations involved political rights for Africans. The Boers were holding out on that. Milner did not want the issue included in the peace settlement; it should be left open for resolution in the future. Kitchener did not give a damn about whether Africans got political rights as long as he got an end to the war. Kitchener won.
Treaty of Vereeniging (May 31, 1902)
- the terms were relatively brief. The Boers agreed to give up the independence of the Boer republics and become colonies;
- Britain agreed to provide £3,000,000 for reconstruction and resettlement on the land for those whose farms had been burned.
- Britain agreed not to extend the franchise to non-whites prior to granting responsible government; i.e., that whites in the former republics would in fact have the final say on whether or not non-whites would gain a right to vote. It gave away the store!
- in addition, there were private and unofficial predictions that a Liberal government (the Liberals were increasingly expected to win the next election) would grant greater political rights and even responsible government relatively quickly (as happened in 1906 and 1908).
Role of Africans
- although both sides had promised that this would be a white mans war, both sides made very extensive use of Africans, albeit mostly in non-combatant roles. The Boers made use of forced labour requirements and Denys Reitz described the relative comfort of the early days when they still had their servants during the siege of Ladysmith. The British made large scale use of Africans in transport and logistical roles. The Boers treated any they captured very harshly, often shooting them. Some Africans (and Coloureds) undoubtedly acquired guns and began to defend themselves. As few Africans had sympathies for the Boers, they provided information from the beginning although it was only later in the war that the British organised this intelligence source extensively and systematically.
- the burdens on Africans were heavy. Between the effects of the farm burnings (substantial numbers of Africans also ended up in concentrations camps) and the depredations of Boer commandos, African communities were subjected to great hardships. Emily Hobhouse didnt go around collecting their stories and statements!