36

THE GREAT GAME

Following his election victory in 1898, Kruger sought to give his administration a more modern character, appointing two Afrikaners from outside the Transvaal to key positions. To replace Leyds as state secretary, he chose Frank Reitz, a Cape-born, British-trained barrister, who had served first as chief justice of the Orange Free State then as its president for six years. His sister Fanny was married to the politician William Schreiner, shortly to become prime minister of the Cape Colony. Like Kruger, Reitz had fathered a large family: seven sons and one daughter by his first wife and six sons and one daughter by his second. He was also as committed as Kruger to protecting republican independence.

Kruger’s other appointment was more remarkable. As state attorney, he chose Jan Smuts, a 28-year-old lawyer who had graduated from Cambridge University with a string of prizes and a double first in law. Born on a farm in the wheat-growing area of Malmesbury in the western Cape, Smuts had once admired Rhodes, when he was prime minister, for his efforts to promote a concord between the Boers and the British in the Cape Colony, but like many other Cape Afrikaners, he had been disillusioned by the Jameson Raid. It had served, he said, as an ‘electric shock’ to Afrikanerdom. In 1897, he set up a law practice in Johannesburg, concentrating on professional work but keeping a close watch on political developments.

Like Reitz, Smuts was a committed republican. Republicanism, he said in an article in 1897, was a grand cause around the world. ‘Nowhere in the world has it such a chance as in South Africa . . . its day is coming and may be nearer than many think . . . The old ship of state is at last leaving her moorings, but it is the wind of republicanism and not of imperialism that is speeding her along.’ The trend of events favoured the republican cause.

Already the political centre of gravity in South Africa has followed the commercial centre of gravity and shifted from Cape Town to the republican capital. The Colonies will gradually have to accustom their pride and readjust their economic and political relations so as to fall in with the new disposal of political forces in South Africa . . . The Dutch and even the English in the Colonies will come to look more and more to the Transvaal for material help and support. The Union Jack - which has been in South Africa, not a symbol of peace and goodwill, but of blood, force and aggression - will more and more be relegated to that limbo of innocuous fads in which ‘imperial federation’ and similar entities and nonentities flourish.

He warned Britain against adopting a policy based on the use of force and intimidation. ‘The British Empire cannot be kept together by force and armaments.’ The ‘vigorous’ policy Britain was pursuing was already having the effect of drawing the two republics of the Transvaal and the Orange Free State closer together against ‘a common danger’, propelling them ‘on the road to a greater federal republic’. Moreover, it was affecting the attitude of the wider Afrikaner community. Afrikaner loyalty to Britain was fragile. It owed nothing to ‘a blood-relationship nor to long political habits of thought and life nor to an overwhelming feeling of gratitude’. It rested on a conviction about British rule being fair and just and a force for good that could easily ‘decay and shrivel up’. Any shift in British policy ‘intended to substitute for local self-government in South Africa an increased exercise of imperial authority from Downing Street is bound to miscarry fatally’. By promoting ‘war policies’ and ‘Jingoistic movements’, Britain would merely stiffen Afrikaner resistance:

It is simply the law of action and reaction: but who knows whether such insignificant Jingoistic matches, primarily intended to inflame Jingo-minds, may not set fire to the Imperial stack in South Africa? . . . To my mind, the die is already cast in the [Cape] Colony; the Dutch are absolutely committed to the support of the [Transvaal] Republic . . . and should an ambitious Colonial Minister choose to bring his ‘vigorous’ policy into operation in South Africa the entire South Africa will be speedily involved in a final conflagration.

Chamberlain, with his ‘vigorous’ policy, he argued, was ‘a more serious obstruction to progress than any other force in South Africa’. He dismissed as bogus Chamberlain’s claim that Britain had the right to exercise ‘suzerainty’ over the Transvaal by virtue of the 1884 London Convention; it had no basis in international law, he said. As for the grievances of the uitlanders, some were legitimate, but most were exaggerated. ‘I think that if the franchise were offered them tomorrow not ten per cent would accept it.’ But in any case, there could be no redress of grievances so long as Chamberlain was ‘flaunting war in the face of republican South Africa’.

To enable Smuts to serve as state attorney, Kruger enrolled him as a ‘second-class’ burgher. Smuts soon found himself amidst a swirl of intrigue and complained of being surrounded ‘by political and official enemies, by liquor syndicates, scheming concessionaires and powerful evildoers in high places’. But he quickly made his mark, tackling corruption and malpractice in the police force and racketeering in liquor sales, prostitution and counterfeit money. It was, he said, like ‘clearing out the Augean Stable’. He became an indispensable member of Kruger’s team, responsible for drafting virtually all new legislation as well as providing legal advice.

Smuts also had to contend with the growing groundswell of uitlander agitation against Kruger’s regime. The agitation was led by members of the South African League, aided and abetted by British officials in Cape Town and Pretoria who used it as a means of trying to bring about British intervention in the internal affairs of the Transvaal.

In December 1898, the death of a British uitlander, Tom Edgar, at the hands of the Transvaal police provided the trigger for mass uitlander protest. A boilermaker from Lancashire, Edgar had been making his way home in Johannesburg on the Sunday before Christmas when he was involved in a drunken brawl and knocked a man unconscious. Under the impression the man was dead, neighbours summoned the police. Four Boer policemen arrived outside Edgar’s house and called on him to open the door. When he failed to respond, one of them, Barend Jones, forced entry without a warrant. When Edgar attacked him with an iron-shod stick, Jones shot him dead. By Johannesburg standards, this was a routine incident.

Jones was promptly arrested and charged with murder. The public prosecutor, however, reduced the charge to culpable homicide and released Jones on bail. Members of the South African League immediately began organising a public protest. When a British official in Pretoria, Edmund Fraser, issued his own protest, Smuts agreed to order the re-arrest of Jones and reinstate the charge of murder.

The South African League, however, was determined to carry on with the protest. It placed notices in the local press and distributed leaflets calling on British subjects to assemble in front of the British consulate to sign a petition to Queen Victoria. It then sent the text of the petition for publication in advance to the local press and to newspapers in Britain. On Christmas Eve, a crowd of some 5,000 uitlanders gathered outside the consulate to demonstrate their support. The petition was read out from the consulate balcony by a League official and handed to the British vice-consul who undertook to deliver it to ‘the proper quarters’.

The thrust of the petition was that for years British subjects on the Rand had suffered ‘innumerable acts of petty tyranny at the hands of the police’, yet had no recourse to an independent judiciary; nor did they have a voice in the government. They therefore sought ‘the extension of Your Majesty’s protection to the lives, liberties, and property of your loyal subjects here, and such other steps as may be necessary to terminate the existing intolerable state of affairs’.

The Transvaal authorities reacted by arresting two League officials for helping to organise an unauthorised public meeting, prompting further protests - in the Cape as well as Johannesburg. A huge meeting in Johannesburg on 14 January 1899 ended in clashes between British uitlanders and Boer hecklers. The League subsequently accused the Transvaal government of instigating the disorder.

Because Milner was on leave in England at the time, the matter was handled by the acting high commissioner, General Sir William Butler, the commander of British forces in southern Africa. Unlike Milner, Butler had no liking for the jingo crowd. He regarded the uitlanders as troublemakers and the South African League as ‘an agency of disquiet’. In his autobiography, he claimed that Johannesburg’s residents were ‘probably the most corrupt, immoral and untruthful assemblage of human beings in the world’ and quoted a remark made by Merriman describing Johannesburg as ‘Monte Carlo superimposed on Sodom and Gomorrah’. The Edgar furore, he told Chamberlain, was a ‘prepared business’, worked up by the League to try to draw the British government into confrontation with Kruger. He resented the way the League had used the press to try to stir up a crisis with the intention of ‘forcing our hands by newspaper publicity’. What was needed was not ‘a surgical operation’ but an effort at compromise and conciliation. Accordingly, he refused to forward the petition to London.

Uitlander grievances over the Edgar affair were inflamed again when the charge against Jones was reduced once more to manslaughter. At his trial, a 25-year-old judge, whose father was a member of Kruger’s executive council, made a long rambling summary of the case during which he commended the police for doing their duty ‘under difficult circumstances’ and virtually directed the jury to acquit him. Jones was duly acquitted.

Milner spent much of his ten weeks’ leave in England, lobbying for a more ‘vigorous’ policy towards the Transvaal. He wanted, he said, to interview ‘all the leading politicians and pressmen . . . and to stamp on rose-coloured illusions about S. Africa’. ‘You may think me a bore,’ he told Lord Rosebery, a Liberal Imperialist, ‘but I should like to tell you some things about that little corner of the imperial chess-board I am especially concerned with.’ Milner dwelt on the dangers of ‘Krugerism’, emphasising that time was running out. He also met several of the Randlords, including Alfred Beit and Julius Wernher, and sought to enlist their support. To Milner, it was all part of ‘winning the great game between ourselves and the Transvaal for the mastery in South Africa’.

At the Colonial Office, however, Milner found Chamberlain and his officials still committed to a ‘no-war’ policy. The aim of the government, he was told, was ‘to keep the peace with Kruger unless he were very outrageous’. In a candid letter to a member of his staff in Cape Town, Milner wrote:

Joe [Chamberlain] may be led but he can’t be driven. I go on pegging mail after mail, month after month, and I think it tells; but if I were once to make him think that I am trying to rush him, he would see me to the devil and we might as well all shut up. I put everything in the way most likely to get him to take our view of himself. Whether he takes it, or rather when he takes it, depends on the amount of external pressure and excitement corresponding to our prodding of him from within. If only the Uitlanders stand firm on the formula ‘no rest without reform’ and can stand on it not 6 days, but 6 weeks, or six months, we shall do the trick yet my boy. And by the soul of St. Jingo they get a fair bucking up from us all one way or another.

Not only was Chamberlain reluctant to be bounced into a more aggressive stance, but Milner detected no public appetite for confrontation with Kruger. By the time he left England, he had decided different tactics were needed. There was no point in trying to ‘force’ his views upon others, he told Selborne on his departure in January 1899. He would have to rely instead on his own actions and prepare the public for a gradual ‘awakening’ of the threat Kruger posed.

If I can advance matters by my own actions, as I still hope I may be able to do, I believe that I shall have support when the time comes. And if I can’t get things ‘forrader’ locally, I should not get support whatever I said. I quite realise that public opinion is dormant on the subject, though it would take, I believe, but little to wake it up in a fashion that would astonish us all. My great fear is lest the waking up should come suddenly, perhaps irrationally, over some ‘incident’, which may turn out more or less hollow, instead of gradually in support of policy, carry conviction to all but the absolutely biased.

Nevertheless, Milner left England on 28 January ‘well pleased with the result’ of his visit. Furthermore, on the international stage, by the end of 1898 Britain’s room for manoeuvre had improved considerably. Many of the constraints that had previously preoccupied Chamberlain had been resolved. General Kitchener had completed his conquest of the Sudan. The French had been faced down at Fashoda - and Germany had agreed to stop meddling in the Transvaal. Following a rapprochement with Britain, Germany not only advised Kruger to implement reforms, it warned him against risking war with Britain and made it clear that, if war came, Germany would not interfere. Kruger was thus left without a European ally.

Amidst rising tension, Smuts sought to keep up a reform agenda. He struck up an amiable relationship with Percy FitzPatrick, Wernher, Beit’s representative, discussing with him ways in which the mining industry and the Transvaal government might resolve their differences. By 1899, as a result of amalgamations, the shape of the mining industry had changed significantly. Whereas in 1888, there had been forty-four separate mining companies, there were now only nine major finance houses controlling 114 out of the 124 Main Reef outcrop and deep-level companies. Although the nine had many common interests, they had differing views about the merits of political involvement. Since the Jameson Raid, Rhodes’ firm, Consolidated Gold Fields, had been determined to avoid political entanglements and sought a cordial relationship with Kruger’s government. A Gold Fields employee who became prominently active in the South African League was sacked. Its London-based chairman, David Harris, told Chamberlain in November 1898: ‘I may say that we are by no means ill disposed towards Kruger. We wish he could establish an honest executive . . . but we don’t think . . . that we are working under a crushing tyranny.’ Wernher, Beit & Co., the premier mining house, was inclined to play a more active role. Percy FitzPatrick, in particular, believed initially that much could be gained. In a despatch to Beit, he described Smuts as ‘very fair, when he has the facts, very willing and very bright, but he has a heart-breaking task’.

Smuts and FitzPatrick soon encountered stumbling blocks, however. FitzPatrick, a colonial maverick with his own political agenda, was intent on linking the mining industry’s complaints to a wider political settlement and wanted the British government to be involved. Smuts, while recognising the need to resolve the bewaarplaatsen issue and end the dynamite monopoly, dismissed any notion of British involvement in the Transvaal’s affairs as ‘inconsistent with the dignity of an independent state’.

FitzPatrick, according to his own account, was exasperated by Smuts’ apparent reluctance to see ‘the desperate seriousness of the position’, and ‘let himself go’.

‘Do you realize what it’s leading to,’ he demanded, ‘and what must inevitably happen if we don’t make a supreme effort to get a settlement; do you realize that it means war?’

‘Yes, I realize it, I think the position is very threatening,’ replied Smuts and walked towards FitzPatrick, making a wide sweep of his arms and bringing his hands together. ‘I seem to see two great thunderclouds approaching, and when they meet there will come the crash.’

‘And do you know what such a war means?’ FitzPatrick continued. ‘It will extend from the Zambesi to the ocean. It will divide the races and the States; it will split us from one end to the other; communities divided, families divided, father against son, brother against brother; God alone knows where the thing will end. It will mean utter ruin to South Africa; and you will risk all this for a little thing which is only vanity. Inconsistent with your dignity, that’s all it is!’

‘I know what it means,’ Smuts replied calmly.

Smuts’ calmness goaded Fitzpatrick further. ‘Your dignity! Your independence! Good God, you know England, you were educated in England: you know what the Empire means; in six months you will have no dignity left; you will have no independence; no State; nothing! What kind of madness is this!!’

‘Yes, I know England; better than perhaps you think,’ said Smuts. ‘Not in six months, my friend, not in six years; you may take the cities and the mines, for we would not meet you there, but for six or seven years we shall be able to hold out in the mountains, and long before that there will be a change of opinion in England. Other things will crop up, they will become tired and lose interest.’

While these private exchanges were under way, Kruger made clear that his own views about the dynamite monopoly remained unchanged: it represented a cornerstone of the Transvaal’s independence, he said. Instead of reform, he proposed to ask the Volksraad to extend the monopoly for a further fifteen years.

When Milner learned of the matter, he saw an opportunity of working it up ‘into a general row’. Hitherto, he had regarded the dynamite issue as ‘a capitalists’ issue, pure and simple’, best left alone. Now he recommended to Chamberlain that it could be used as a ‘peg to hang our remonstrance on’. Chamberlain duly authorised a despatch to Pretoria arguing that the dynamite monopoly was in breach of the London Convention. He also suggested to a British official in Pretoria, Edmund Fraser, that he should let mining companies know that the British government was taking up the dynamite issue and encourage them to do the same. Accordingly, at its annual general meeting in February, the Chamber of Mines passed a resolution condemning the dynamite monopoly, together with Kruger’s plan to extend its term. Representatives of the major mining companies put forward their own proposal to Kruger’s government to buy out the dynamite monopoly for £600,000. Kruger rejected both the British protest and the buy-out offer but countered with a hint that there might be room for negotiations between the government and the mining companies.

Authorised by Kruger, Smuts and Reitz opened confidential talks in March with the mining companies proposing a general settlement that came to be known as the ‘Great Deal’. The aim, the mining companies were told, was to find a way to reach ‘peace’ between the government and ‘the whole uitlander population’. The mining industry was asked: to acquiesce in the continuation of the dynamite monopoly; to discourage press agitation against the government; and to dissociate itself from the South African League. In return, the government was prepared to settle thebewaarplaatsen issue on terms favourable to the mining industry; to appoint a qualified financial adviser to oversee the financial administration of the state, including taxation; and to support changes to the franchise law.

In a series of public speeches, Kruger conceded that changes were needed to accommodate ‘aliens’ and ‘strangers’. He proposed that the period of time required before newcomers could gain full burgher rights should be reduced from fourteen years’ residence to nine. But he also dwelt at length on the question of loyalty. The distinction he wished to draw, he said, was not between nationalities but between those who were loyal to the state and those who were not:

We don’t allow bigamy in this country. When I speak of bigamy, I refer to the Government of this country and the Government of England and other countries. If you want to live here, first divorce your other wife - then you can marry us. This is naturalisation. No man can serve two masters, and if he has two wives he will love one and despise the other. Therefore, if a man wants to make this country his home, let him first become naturalised. If he doesn’t, let him remain a stranger. He will still be treated with all hospitality - provided he obeys the law - protected, helped to make money, to live comfortably, and to come and go as he pleased.

The Great Deal proposals received a mixed reception. There was a gulf of distrust separating the two sides. Percy FitzPatrick, who became a central figure in the negotiations, regarded the proposals as a device to entrench the dynamite monopoly in exchange for relatively minor concessions, and an attempt to divide the uitlander community by winning over the mining magnates while isolating the South African League. Though FitzPatrick believed that Smuts’ efforts were genuine, he doubted Kruger’s good faith and was convinced that the Volksraad would never accept the proposals. He fully expected the negotiations to fail. Nevertheless, he considered they were worth pursuing ‘in order to secure for future use a number of witnesses and plenty of evidence to demonstrate that the Govt. admit impossibility of position and propose radical change’. FitzPatrick’s primary objective was to draw the British government into any final settlement. Without the threat of British intervention, he believed, Kruger would never agree to reform. In London, both Wernher and Beit took a similarly sceptical view of Kruger’s intentions. But Consolidated Gold Fields was more positive. When presented with the terms of the deal, David Harris said he was inclined to accept it.

Chamberlain’s response was also positive. ‘Whether this offer is genuine or not I regard it as the most important move made since the Raid. It should certainly be treated as serious.’ He was, however, dismissive of the terms of the deal. When Harris told him on 14 March that he was prepared to accept the deal unless he objected, Chamberlain’s reply was blunt: ‘I said that Her Majesty’s Government would not interfere but that public opinion would probably say that the Financiers had sold their cause and their compatriots - and sold them cheap and would not in the long run get even the price they had accepted. It was however their business not ours . . .’

In Cape Town, Milner too feared the possibility of a ‘sell-out’. He instructed Conyngham Greene to keep in close touch with the uitlanders:

If they ask for our advice, we ought not to refuse to give it. The more they rely on us the better, as, while they look to us, they will neither do anything rash, nor come to terms with the [Transvaal] Government behind our backs which, if we disinterest ourselves, is always a danger.

On 16 March, mining magnates and their representatives met in London to sort out a common position. Alfred Beit attended on behalf of Wernher, Beit & Co. J. B. Robinson was there, along with George Farrar and three representatives from Gold Fields. In the detailed response the mining companies subsequently gave the government, they expressed their total opposition to the granting of monopolies and concessions, but added that, in order to reach a general settlement, they might be willing to make ‘a great monetary sacrifice’ over the dynamite concession, which burdened them with an unnecessary extra cost of £600,000 per annum, provided that it was agreed that the concession was not extended beyond its current contract and that the price would be lowered. They also tied themselves firmly to uitlander demands over the franchise. Though only a small minority of uitlanders were thought to be willing to exchange their existing citizenship for that of the Transvaal, the magnates declared that the franchise was ‘the vital point upon which a permanent and peaceful settlement must hinge’. An accompanying memorandum proposed a five years’ retrospective franchise for the uitlanders and a redistribution of seats in the Volksraad. It was said to represent the views of ‘a very large and influential section’ of the uitlander community. However, the mining companies pointed out that they were not qualified to speak on behalf of the uitlander community. The uitlanders themselves needed to be consulted.

FitzPatrick added his own flourish. Addressing a group of twenty-four prominent Rand leaders at the Rand Club in Johannesburg, he emphasised that the mining industry had no intention of coming to a settlement on its own account at the expense of the rest of the uitlander population, and further stressed the need for the British government to be involved - ‘by hook or by crook’. But he also expressed his doubts about the whole exercise, describing it as ‘a spoof’ designed to sow dissension among uitlanders. He finished on a belligerent note: the surge of industrialisation and immigration in the Transvaal, he said, would eventually overwhelm Kruger and his burghers. ‘It means the absolute wiping out of these people. We have got to win and we will win as sure as God is above us.’

Chamberlain’s attitude too became increasingly aggressive. In a speech to the House of Commons on 20 March, he claimed that in the past Kruger ‘had kept no promise with regard to the uitlanders and redressed no grievance’. His current promises of reform were ‘entirely illusory’. In what was a clear invitation to the uitlander community to respond, he explained that the British government had not so far attempted to intervene on their behalf because they had not yet asked the government to do so. He therefore did not feel ‘at the moment that any case has arisen which would justify me in taking the very strong action’.

The uitlanders wasted no time. Orchestrated by the British Agent in Pretoria, Conyngham Greene, the South African League produced a second petition to the Queen, supported by 21,684 signatures, listing their grievances and complaining that Kruger’s government had failed to implement its promises of reform:

Your Majesty’s subjects [said the petition] are still deprived of all political rights, they are denied any voice in the government . . . Maladministration and peculation of public monies go hand in hand, without any vigorous measures being adopted to put a stop to the scandal. The education of Uitlander children is made subject to impossible conditions. The police afford no adequate protection to the lives and property of the inhabitants of Johannesburg; they are rather a source of danger to the peace and safety of the Uitlander population.

The petition was delivered to Conyngham Greene in Pretoria on 24 March, reached Milner in Cape Town on 27 March and was forwarded to the British government on 28 March. Details were published in the Johannesburg Star and the London Times.

Coming at the same time as the mining companies’ stand in defence of uitlander rights, the petition provided Chamberlain with the excuse he needed to intervene. He was, however, in two minds as to how to respond. ‘If we ignore altogether the prayer of the petitioners,’ he said in a memorandum to the cabinet, ‘it is certain that British influence will be severely shaken. If we send an ultimatum to Kruger, it is possible, and in my opinion probable, that we shall get an offensive reply, and we shall then have to go to war, or to accept a humiliating check.’

Working in tandem, Milner and FitzPatrick decided on their own course of action. Now that Chamberlain had been given an opportunity to intervene in the Transvaal, neither saw any merit in continuing with the Great Deal negotiations. At the behest of the Transvaal government, the negotiations had been conducted in strict secrecy. At a meeting in Cape Town on 31 March, Milner urged FitzPatrick to find a way of getting details of the negotiations, including the government’s offer and the mining companies’ reply, into the open. Publication in the press might wreck the negotiations, but it would reveal that the mining companies were united behind the uitlander cause.

Reluctant to expose himself to the danger of leaking the documents, FitzPatrick arranged for a journalist to bribe a Transvaal government official to obtain copies, providing him with the necessary funds. ‘You do the work, but there’s no reason why you should pay the expenses when it’s our cause too.’ The documents were published in the London Times on 3 April, and three days later in the Cape Times and in other local newspapers.

Smuts and Reitz were furious at this betrayal of trust. ‘Our earnest attempt to promote a lasting reconciliation has been a disastrous failure, ’ wrote Smuts. ‘Conditions are worse here today than they have been for fifteen years - thanks to our efforts.’

Well pleased with the result, Milner prepared for the next phase of his plan of action: a press campaign. As a former journalist, he had a clear understanding of how the press could be used to manipulate public opinion. In Cape Town, he was in regular contact with the editor of The Cape Times, Edmund Garrett, an English journalist of similar mind. During his recent visit to London he had played an influential role in recruiting William Monypenny of The Times as the new editor of The Star, the leading English-language newspaper on the Rand; it was owned by the Argus group belonging to Wernher, Beit & Co. Arriving in Johannesburg in March, Monypenny performed a dual role, acting as a correspondent for the London Times as well as editing The Star. Milner gained another ally in March with the launch of a new uitlander newspaper, The Transvaal Leader, also financed by Wernher, Beit & Co. Milner praised Wernher and Beit for their commitment to the uitlander cause, describing them as ‘a new and astonishing kind of millionaire: men with some higher conception then the piling up of money’.

As well as using the press in southern Africa, Milner carried his press campaign to England. Outlining his plan to FitzPatrick, he asked for FitzPatrick’s help, explaining that he himself could not risk direct involvement. ‘The biggest real danger I have is that Chamberlain might get the idea I want to rush him.’ If that happened, ‘the whole business would be dashed and done for’. Chamberlain, he said, would ‘see me damned before he moved a finger’. He therefore looked to FitzPatrick ‘to do the press’ and ‘get before the House [of Commons] and the public the mass of damning evidence that was in the petitions . . . You must not allow the petitions to fizzle.’

As well as his covert manipulation of the press, Milner kept up a stream of instructions and advice to British officials in the field and to the Colonial Office in London. In a despatch to Conyngham Greene in Pretoria on 15 April, he wrote:

The great point seems to be (1) to keep the future course of negotiations public and (2) to force the [Transvaal] Govt. into some definite position - yes or no - about the franchise . . . The other thing is to get the Uitlanders - as they cannot have a mass meeting - to express in any way they can - by a series of smaller meetings along the Rand, if they can be organized - their approval of the scheme of reforms outlined in the memorandum. This would have a double effect. It would, so to speak, canonize that scheme as the Uitlanders’ recognized programme, their Petition of Rights - at present it is merely the opinion of a few individuals and it would keep up English interest and rub the real issue well into the public mind.

In a despatch to Chamberlain on 5 April, he urged him to put the franchise issue at the centre of his strategy. ‘Political reform goes to the root of individual grievances,’ he wrote, ‘and moreover it may become, if it is not today, a splendid battle cry, exciting sympathy throughout the Empire and even in some foreign countries.’ Writing to Selborne on the following day, he suggested the government should publish a ‘Blue Book’ setting out in detail the background to the uitlander crisis so that it could ‘get rubbed into the public mind’ - ‘I wish to goodness some of my vitriol could get in too. But I am afraid to put too much vitriol into public despatches lest they should ever see the light of day.’

To Milner’s delight, Chamberlain eventually decided to compile a ‘Blue Book’ and asked Milner for a contribution. Milner let fly with relish:

The spectacle of thousands of British subjects kept permanently in the position of helots [the slaves of ancient Greece] . . . calling vainly to Her Majesty’s Government for redress, does steadily undermine the influence and reputation of Great Britain and the respect for the British Government within the Queen’s dominions.

He claimed that the pro-Boer press openly preached ‘the doctrine of a Republic embracing all South Africa’ and supported it by ‘menacing references to the armaments of the Transvaal, its alliance with the Orange Free State, and the active sympathy which in case of war it would receive from a section of Her Majesty’s subjects’:

I regret to say that this doctrine, supported as it is by a ceaseless stream of malignant lies about the intentions of the British Government, is producing a great effect upon a large number of our Dutch fellow colonists . . . I can see nothing which will put a stop to this mischievous propaganda but some striking proof of the intention of Her Majesty’s Government not to be ousted from its position in South Africa. And the best proof alike of its power and its justice would be to obtain for the Uitlanders in the Transvaal a fair share in the Government of the country which owes everything to their exertions.

The case for intervention, he concluded, was overwhelming.

In a further despatch to Chamberlain, sent on the eve of a cabinet meeting in May, Milner spoke of meetings of working men and ordinary uitlanders taking place up and down the Rand at which the franchise was being demanded after five years’ residence. ‘We should be making a serious, and perhaps irretrievable mistake, if we did not take the present opportunity of defiantly ranging ourselves on the side of the Uitlander Reformers in their struggle with the Transvaal Government.’

Milner said he realised that by intervening on behalf of the uitlanders, the British government risked war. ‘The Boers will yield to nothing less than the fear of war, perhaps not even to that. But then this is a risk which, with the present rotten government in the Transvaal, we are running all the time . . . If we succeed we shall get rid of this nightmare for ever.’

When the British cabinet met on 9 May, with the words of Milner’s ‘helot’ despatch ringing in their ears, they decided unanimously on intervention on the side of the uitlanders. In a letter to Queen Victoria, Lord Salisbury explained: ‘We cannot abandon them without grave injustice - without endangering Your Majesty’s authority in the whole of South Africa.’

Thus the grievances of the uitlanders became fatefully entwined with the question of preserving British supremacy in southern Africa. For Milner, it was a triumph that he hoped would hasten ‘the great day of reckoning’.

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