6

THE WEAKEST LINK: BRITAIN IN SOUTH AFRICA

In South Africa, the bond of empire was weaker and the strains on it much greater than in other colonies of settlement. The European whites were predominantly non-British; the indigenous blacks more numerous and resilient. The frontier wars of conquest lasted longer, were fought with greater ferocity and spread out over a whole sub-continent. For much of the nineteenth century, South Africa was viewed in London as a hybrid region: a composite of settler and ‘native’ states. Imperial policy veered unpredictably between a ‘Canadian’ solution of settler self-government and the ‘Indian’ solution of direct control – at least over the large zones where autonomous black communities survived. Partly as a result, on the white side certainly, the ‘Imperial Factor’ was regarded with profound mistrust.

South Africa was likely to be an awkward element in the imperial system at the best of times. The sub-continent was stuck in its own version of Catch-22. As long as the struggle between whites and blacks continued there could be no hope of devolving imperial authority to a settler government on the model of Canada, the Australian colonies or (most relevantly) New Zealand. The whites were too divided; and the blacks were too strong to be contained without the help of imperial troops. But every imperial effort to promote settler unity and impose a common policy towards black peoples and rulers roused fresh white animosity against London's ‘dictation’ – especially among the Afrikaner (or Boer) majority. Suspicion of the Imperial Factor was the main cause of South Africa's peculiar fragmented state structure, with its division between two colonies, two Boer republics and a scattering of black territories, some in direct relations with London through the High

Map 8 South Africa in the nineteenth century

Commissioner in Cape Town, who doubled as the Cape Colony's governor. But, in the late nineteenth century, South Africa turned into something more than a tiresome frontier province of the Empire. It became the arena where the political and strategic cohesion of the British world-system was tested to its limit.

There were several reasons for this. In the 1880s, South African politics were transformed by the new wealth from diamonds and gold. The rapid growth of the mineral economy sucked in foreign capital and sharpened the competition for trade between the South African states. But its most disturbing effect was to create uncertainty about the geopolitical orientation of the whole region. With its gold revenues and commercial leverage as the great inland market, the autonomous Boer republic in the Transvaal now had the means to strike free from British paramountcy, dragging the rest of Southern Africa with it. But it also ran the risk of being inundated by foreign (mainly British) immigrants attracted by its new prosperity. If that were to happen, the Transvaal would become British by default, pulling the Afrikaners of the interior back into Britain's orbit, and making South Africa another Canada. The stakes were high. By the 1890s, the grand problem of South African politics seemed about to be settled. But no one could be sure what the outcome would be.

What made this regional issue into an imperial question was the intersection of South Africa's economic revolution with two wider political forces. The fate of the Transvaal, and of South Africa, turned (or so it seemed) upon the treatment of the immigrant British, or Uitlanders. The Transvaal was the high water mark of British migration, the demographic imperialism that had served so well to extend British influence, power and wealth. Kruger's republic fiercely resisted the habitual demand of British communities overseas for political and cultural predominance as the self-appointed standard-bearers of progress. But, in doing so, it set itself against a tide of British ethnic nationalism then approaching its peak. As a result, the Transvaal's relations with Britain and the rest of South Africa became entangled in the bitter ethnic rivalry of Afrikaners and ‘English’ (the usual term for British settlers in South Africa) in the prelude to war in 1899. Worse still, at the very moment when economic change was maximising political uncertainty, South Africa became the focus of imperial rivalry. As the new geopolitics of partition extended ever more widely across the Afro-Asian world, Britain's claim to regional supremacy in Southern Africa, languidly asserted since 1815, became critical to her strategic interests and world power status. This sudden conjuncture of ethnic, economic and geopolitical tensions turned South Africa, almost overnight, from a colonial backwater into the most volatile quarter of the Victorian empire.

This was the setting for the prolonged struggle over the political control of Southern Africa which reached its crisis between 1895 and 1909. To all the main protagonists, cabinet ministers, proconsuls, British settlers, blacks and Boers, interests of fundamental importance seemed at stake: imperial safety, economic progress, personal liberty, political freedom, cultural survival. In the longer view, the outcome of the struggle, the unification of South Africa as a self-governing, British dominion rather than its secession, or balkanisation into competing states, created a vital adjunct of British world power in the century of global wars. But the more immediate question, as Southern Africa entered its time of troubles, was whether imperial power could reshape the sub-continent to its own design even at the point of the bayonet. The lessons of the South African past were not encouraging.

Supremacy or stalemate

The British seized the Cape from the Dutch in 1795, returned it, and took it again for good in 1806. The halfway house to India could not be left in the hands of an enfeebled client of France, which the Netherlands had become. For the British, what mattered was Table Bay and the naval base at Simonstown on the Indian Ocean side of Cape Point. But this southern Gibraltar had a straggling hinterland. Beyond the mountains around Cape Town lay a sprawling, thinly populated pastoral colony that stretched away for seven hundred miles to the north. Wandering trekboers lived by transhumance and practised slavery.1 On the Cape's eastern frontier they had clashed since the 1770s with Nguni (or Xhosa) peoples moving south in search of pastures. Even before British rule began, friction between Boer frontiersmen and the colonial authorities in Cape Town had sparked a local rebellion.2 After 1806, British efforts to pacify the frontier, reduce their military costs and outlaw slavery compounded Boer resentment at alien rule and its anglicising tendency.

Already there were early signs of the imperial dilemma. Should the British push forward and take control of the turbulent zone where whites and blacks raided and counter-raided? Could they impose a real separation between the quarrelsome frontier communities? Were Boer and black misdeeds to be punished with an even hand? Should the colonial government in Cape Town seek treaty partners among the Xhosa chiefs and extend protection to its African allies? Behind all this was the question of whether control of the South African Cape required command of the South African interior. But, after 1836, it was no longer just a matter of the Eastern Cape and its border wars. The British had to define their imperial interest across the whole sub-continent.

For by that time a double revolution was transforming the nature of the imperial problem. The drastic consolidation of the Zulu state under Shaka (c.1787–1828) had released a huge wave of demographic turmoil affecting much of modern South Africa and beyond: the mfecane or ‘crushing’.3 Communities and tribes were disrupted, defeated and displaced. As Shaka's victims sought safety beyond his reach, they invaded new neighbourhoods and provoked fresh conflicts. Over a vast swathe of the interior highveld, the mfecane unleashed a chaotic process of forced migration and ethnic conflict. As old communities fragmented, rival leaders competed to build a following, claim land and assert their rule. The effects were felt all along the porous frontier of the Cape. As a result, white traders, trekkers and missionaries, as well as runaway slaves and servants, moved easily into the masterless realm beyond the Orange. Then, in the later 1830s, a large movement of Cape farmers from the embattled Eastern Province – some 15,000 between 1834 and 1840 – trekked north and east to found a Boer republic in Natal. Between them, the mfecane and the Great Trek sucked the Colony's human frontier deep into the interior. In a few short years, the zone of imperial concern had been driven north from the Orange to the Limpopo, and was on its way to the Zambezi.

To a succession of governors in Cape Town, the case for extending their imperial mandate over the whole sub-continent seemed unanswerable. The Cape's strategic value would be lost if any harbour in the region was controlled by independent whites: sooner or later they would solicit the presence of a foreign power. On this argument, Natal, with its magnificent port, was annexed in 1844, persuading the disgruntled trekkers to seek republican freedom on the interior highveld. Maritime supremacy was easy enough. But there was also a case for dogging the steps of the emigrant Boers wherever they went. For it soon became clear that the wars of expansion between the trekkers and rival statebuilders in the mfecane aftermath – like the Sotho ruler Moshesh or the Griqua captains Kok and Waterboer4 – destabilised the whole frontier. Endless border wars forced up the imperial garrison but held back the Cape Colony's commercial and political growth. Without an inland paramountcy to impose order on all its warring communities, the sub-continent would remain a costly colonial backwater, a constant embarrassment to the humanitarian conscience and an inconvenient, perhaps dangerous, drain on the scarce resource of military power.

The argument was persuasive but the means were lacking. Governor after governor claimed that peace and plenty would follow an extended paramountcy. One proposed an elaborate scheme of treaties, magistrates and police beyond the Orange.5 Three years later, Sir Harry Smith swept aside chiefly rule in Xhosaland and annexed the whole northern frontier up to the Vaal, to bring the Boers back under British rule. ‘My position’, he declared in a revealing analogy,

has been analogous to that of every Governor General who has proceeded to India. All have been fully impressed with the weakness of that Policy which extended the Company's possessions…[F]ew…especially the men of more gifted talents, have ever resigned…without having done that, which…circumstances demanded and imperatively imposed upon them. Such has been my case.6

The Colonial Secretary gave reluctant sanction: enlargement, he said, was inevitable.7 But, in 1851, after spending millions, the Colonial Office called a halt. The Boers were in revolt. The Eighth Xhosa War, provoked by Smith's policy, had been a military shambles hastily abandoned by Smith's successor. Further north, the Zulu state still loomed over the tiny colony in Natal. With black resistance unbroken, further coercion of the independent Boers beyond the Orange was politically futile and militarily dangerous. London made the best of a bad job. In 1852–4, in the conventions of Sand River and Bloemfontein, it conceded the Boer republics practical autonomy and patched up peace on the Cape frontier. A further advance under Governor Grey aimed to incorporate the whole border zone between the Cape's eastern frontier and Natal. It was aborted by the outbreak of the Indian Mutiny, and the hasty removal of much of Grey's force, and then by the deepening crisis in New Zealand to where Grey himself was transferred – although not before the great Xhosa cattle-killing of 1857 (a despairing act of self-immolation) had allowed him to push the settler frontier forward to the river Kei.8 But, for nearly twenty years, the Imperial Factor withdrew from the South African interior, on the argument that, with the coast (mostly) under British control, the inland republics were no threat to the strategic command that was the ultima ratio of the imperial presence.

The ‘conventions policy’ was a grudging recognition of the underlying weakness vitiating all attempts to make the sub-continent as ‘British’ as Canada or Australia, or to master it imperially as the British had mastered India. The Imperial government would not finance a vast campaign of territorial conquest in Southern Africa. There (as elsewhere) imperial expansion waited on local agents to create a framework of information, order and opportunity: without it, reinforcements of capital and manpower were hard to attract. Nor was British military power a decisive weapon without the follow-through of local force. But, in South Africa, the coastal colonies in the Cape and Natal were cripplingly weak. They had no great staples like timber, wheat or wool (though wool came closest), attracted few migrants and borrowed little capital. Overland transport was costly and slow. The interior yielded few commodities. The commercial energy that drove forward the settler frontier elsewhere was in short supply. As a settler society, South Africa was a pale shadow of Canada. Nor, despite Sir Harry Smith, could it be a second India. There was no peasant economy to tax, no sepoy army to recruit, and no means to pay for the ‘hire’ of imperial troops – the three conditions which had allowed Anglo-Indian sub-imperialism to flourish unchecked by London's veto. Far from being the dominant force in Southern Africa, the coastal colonies found themselves in frustrating equipoise with the interior states, white and black. Black societies could be harassed and threatened, but they were mobile, resilient and difficult to incorporate – partly because, in the primitive state of the colonial economy, that meant seizing their land by force and conscripting their labour. The Boer republics were an even harder nut to crack.

It was easy to mistake the crudity of the Boer states for weakness. But the Boers had developed a highly effective means of ‘primitive accumulation’ to complement their social and military system.9 On the highveld grassland and around its margins, their horse-borne mobility and firepower allowed them to capture African cattle, land and labour far more easily than in the dense bush and deep valleys of the old Cape borderlands. The Boer states existed to seize this wealth and redistribute it among their citizen-warriors organised into the key unit of their social and political life, the commando. The Boer elite were the commandants who had first pick of the spoils and on whose military prowess their followers depended. Boer institutions may have been simple,10 but their pastoral economy, drawing labour and foodcrops from black dependants, allowed a thinly spread but highly effective occupation of the highveld to be imposed in less than twenty years. Boer warfare was perfectly adapted to the open veld. Against it, the square and the infantry charge, the standard British tactics, were largely ineffective.

Stalemate was thus the rule in South African politics. When the British tried again to break it in the 1870s, the outcome was crushing failure. Once more, the reason for a forward move was the chorus of settler and official alarm at growing black resistance in the cockpit of peoples between the Cape, Natal and the Boer republics. Once more the blame was laid on disunity and competition among the whites. Federal union of the white settler states, British and Boer, favoured by Cape governors as the acceptable face of annexation, was endorsed by official opinion in London.11Cape Colony was given Responsible (self-) Government in 1872 in the hope that its leaders would take up the federal cause. They refused, fearing that the whole burden of frontier control would fall on them. The Colonial Secretary, Lord Carnarvon, turned instead to the junior colony, Natal, and to Sir Theophilus Shepstone.12 Shepstone was the son of a British settler in the Eastern Cape. He became an official interpreter and, in the border warfare of the 1830s, rose quickly to be the government's spokesman among the Xhosa chiefs. By 1846, he was ‘diplomatic agent’ to the Africans in Natal and to the Zulu kingdom beyond the Tugela. A large, impassive, secretive man, Shepstone became the uncrowned king of Natal. He was an imperial official, but a colonial patriot: an unrelenting Natal sub-imperialist, a proto-Rhodes without the diamonds. His aim was to build a greater Natal: to find new ‘locations’ for its blacks; to free more land for its whites; to annex the northern coast; to control the northern trade to the Zambezi; to conquer Zululand. Carnarvon's rebuff at the Cape gave him his chance, for London was now willing to throw the Imperial Factor and its army into his puny settler bridgehead. Natal would be the springboard for colonial federation. Shepstone's local influence, his mastery of frontier politics, his command of ‘native policy’, made him the obvious choice as the new supremo of the northern interior. At first all went well. Worsted in its war against the Pedi, the Transvaal in 1876 was bankrupt, divided and demoralised. Shepstone talked its dejected president into surrendering independence and conjured up a petition for annexation which he declared in February 1877.13 The Pedi were defeated with imperial help.14 Then, in the second stage of Shepstone's grand design, the army Carnarvon had sent invaded Zululand, and (after the disaster at Isandhlwana) decisively broke its power. In a single forward movement, the British had broken the cycle of frustration and transformed the geopolitics of Southern Africa. Or so it seemed.

The moment of triumph was short. There was barely time to broach federation before the Transvaal Boers began to throw off their new colonial state with its courts and taxes. Paul Kruger's fame as a frontier fighter made him the natural leader of revolt. With the shattering of Zulu and Pedi power, caution was redundant. In 1880, colonial control in the Transvaal crumbled rapidly. At Majuba, in February 1881, Boer commandos destroyed the imperial force sent to uphold annexation, killing General Colley, the high commissioner for South East Africa. With this fiasco, the Gladstone government threw in the towel, intimidated by reports that to prolong the struggle would unite Afrikaners in the Cape and Orange Free State against them.15 With the Convention of Pretoria they scrapped the Transvaal's annexation and threw away the federal plan. Shepstone and Natal had been broken reeds. The coalition of colonial and imperial power had never materialised. As in 1848–52, the Imperial Factor had come, failed and gone. The interior had kept its autonomy: London fell back on its old strategy of coastline control. But its hand in the sub-continent was now much weaker than before. A self-governing Cape Colony, with its (white) Afrikaner majority, was a sandy foundation for imperial influence. The final demolition of black independence (though not of all resistance) – the by-product of forward policy in 1878–80 – left the Boer republics much stronger by default.16 And, by the mid-1880s, French and German influence had begun to arrive in the region.

Kruger versus Rhodes

The Convention of Pretoria in 1881 settled the terms on which the Transvaal was to regain its freedom. The British withdrew, but not unconditionally. The Transvalers were forced to acknowledge British ‘suzerainty’ – a detached oversight of their internal affairs – and imperial control of their foreign relations. They were encumbered with debts and, most galling of all, forbidden to encroach on remaining African territory inside or outside the Transvaal boundary. The mistreatment of Africans within the Transvaal could be reported to the British resident.17 It was hardly surprising that, when Kruger became the Transvaal president in 1883, he was determined to cut down the scope for imperial meddling and regain the old republican freedom conferred in 1852. He had little choice. The social economy of the Transvaal Boers was inimical to fixed boundaries. The acquisition of fresh land for speculation was the chief means of accumulating wealth in an underdeveloped pastoral economy. ‘Encroachment has been their very life’, observed Lord Salisbury, the scion of an encroaching aristocracy.18 Indeed, the Convention had hardly been signed before groups of burghers began to push their way on to African land to east and west, threatening a new round of frontier disturbance and missionary outrage.

As Kruger sensed, the British position was getting weaker and their grip on the interior more tenuous. They had no will to confront the Boer filibusters and by 1883 scarcely any means. By 1883, the imperial garrison in South Africa was a mere 2,100 men. Besieged by Egyptian anxieties, the Gladstone cabinet had no appetite for quixotic adventures on the highveld. Most of all, senior ministers in London were now convinced that a false move in Southern Africa would unite all Afrikaners against them, wrecking what remained of imperial paramountcy and putting the Cape's strategic function at risk.19 They dared not coerce the Transvaal Boers and needed Kruger's help in settling the frontier disputes. So, when Kruger came to London in 1883, it seemed a foregone conclusion that he would get his way and regain the ‘independence’ conceded in 1852.

Indeed, the Transvaal president got much of what he wanted and might have got more. In the new Convention of 1884, British oversight of African interests disappeared. So did all reference to ‘suzerainty’, though the bar to diplomatic freedom (and thus full independence) remained. The Transvaal was allowed to resume the grandiloquent title of ‘South African Republic’. But, in return, Kruger made a fateful concession. He agreed to leave a corridor of land between the Transvaal and the Kalahari desert under British protection. This green strip, with its forage for oxen, was the ‘Road to the North’, the vital link between Cape Colony and the great unopened hinterland of Zambezia beyond the Limpopo. At the last minute, the High Commissioner in Cape Town had persuaded the Cape ministers to share the costs of British rule, and tipped the balance against surrender to Kruger's territorial demands. When later the Cape reneged and the Transvaal Boers violated the new boundary, an embarrassed government in London had no choice but to expel them by force and to assume the administrative burden of a Bechuanaland protectorate it had refused to consider before the Convention.

Part of Kruger's logic in accepting the western frontier of 1884 had been the urgency of debt relief – London's carrot.20 Even in the mid-1880s, the Transvaal had not thrown off the spectre of bankruptcy. Its annual revenues were puny: the Cape's were fifteen times as great. On any reckoning, the new republic was an impoverished backwater, a threadbare ruffian on the fringe of empire. Its nuisance value was local, not imperial. Kruger had reasserted the old autonomy of the South African interior but its persistent economic weakness remained. Then, in 1886, the discovery of the great gold reef on the Witwatersrand signalled a drastic reversal of fortune. Within four years, the Transvaal's gold production was worth nearly £2 million a year. By 1892, its revenues had reached half the Cape figure.21 Six years later they were almost equal. The danger of bankruptcy (and political implosion) vanished. Rising land values created a wealthy ruling class. With commercial concessions to distribute, Kruger could build a patronage state among the Transvaal whites and complete the subjugation of the Transvaal blacks. He could construct a railway to Delagoa Bay. With open access to the outside world and a gold economy, the half-promise of 1884 could become the whole-hog of republican freedom.

Historians have made much of the ‘mineral revolution’ which blew away the old assumptions of imperial strategy and made the rebellious Transvaal the strongest state on the sub-continent. In fact, Southern Africa had not one mineral revolution but two. The diamond rush at Kimberley came first (from 1867), and Kimberley became colonial not republican soil. But, for that other, earlier, revolution, Kruger might have carried his goldstate to independence and destroyed the remnants of British primacy in Southern Africa. Instead, he was confronted by a local rival whose ruthlessness matched his own and whose resources, leveraged with reckless lack of scruple, built a roadblock in his path. This rival was Cecil Rhodes.

Rhodes had come to South Africa in 1870.22 By 1876, still only twenty-three, he had made a small fortune in the diamond fields. Within a few years more, he emerged as a commanding figure in this rough speculative mining world whose voracious demand for imports, capital, railways and black labour transformed the Southern African economy. For the rest of his life, Kimberley remained the real centre of Rhodes’ business and political ventures, the capital of the ‘Rhodesian’ empire. It was here that his wealth was concentrated. It was here that he met many of those who became his partners, allies and agents. It was from here that Rhodes looked north towards Zambezia. This jerry-built outpost of colonial South Africa had become a commercial dynamo. It was a magnet for capital and enterprise and the natural springboard for the penetration of the northern interior by traders, prospectors, speculators and land-hungry settlers. It was the forward base-camp of sub-imperialism.

And it was here that Rhodes’ idle fantasies of imperial aggrandisement took on a local shape. In 1877, the Transvaal's annexation promised a new field for Kimberley's influence. Kruger's triumph closed it off; but, six weeks after the battle of Majuba, Rhodes entered the Cape Parliament. At first, he was preoccupied with defending the interest of the diamond fields against taxation and state interference. But, by 1883, Rhodes had grasped the importance of the ‘Road to the North’, the ‘Suez Canal of South Africa’ as he called it, stretching away from Kimberley towards Mafeking, Tuli and Bulawayo, capital of Lobengula's Ndebele state. By controlling access to this untold hinterland, Kimberley's ultimate mastery of the north, including Kruger's obstreperous Ruritania, would be assured. Under new Kimberley management, Cape Colony would throw off its rustic myopia and become the head and centre of a unified British South Africa.

Like his Canadian counterpart, John A. Macdonald, Rhodes saw that success depended upon mobilising the colonial state behind the programme for expansion. In South Africa, geography and economics demanded state sponsorship for the railway-building without which the whole sub-imperial plan would be still-born. Once in the Cape Parliament, Rhodes also grasped the need to win over the Afrikaner members who, under the leadership of Jan Hendrik Hofmeyr, had made the Afrikaner Bond the strongest political force in the Colony. The task seemed difficult. The Bond had emerged from a farmers' protection movement in the Western Cape, opposed to free trade; and from the cultural nationalism of the Dutch-speaking clerical elite hostile to the anglicising secularising effects of commercial growth.23 In fact, the Bond's antipathy to British influence was surprisingly ambivalent. Afrikaners were prominent in the Cape's legal and professional elite. They prospered with its new diamond wealth and warmed to its parliamentary rule. Like the colonial elites in Quebec (or Bengal), they found much to admire in an imperial system which promised self-government, liberal culture and material progress.

Rhodes played on this ambivalence with astonishing skill. By the mid-1880s, he had repositioned himself not as a British ‘imperialist’ nor as a Kimberley capitalist but as a Cape Colony patriot. His programme was Cape not British expansion. It was the Cape's claim to the north that he touted, a Cape sub-empire that he wanted to win, as a fair field for ‘English’ and Afrikaner alike. Nor were Rhodes’ motives crudely tactical. In politics as in business his instinct was always fusion. The ‘great amalgamator’ preferred a merger to an open struggle: rivals should be ‘squared’ not left to fight a bitter rearguard action. By drawing the Cape Afrikaners into his expansionist project, he hoped to build a ‘progressive alliance’. Rural interests and cultural prejudice would be carefully appeased. But new wealth would breed an Anglo-Afrikaner elite loyal to its own parliamentary institutions and to the Imperial crown. Proud of their Cape heritage and of the Colony's growing status, they would share Rhodes’ vision of a unified sub-continent and dismiss the Kruger republic as an ethnic cul-de-sac. Kimberley and Stellenbosch (the seedbed of Afrikaner culture) would unite to build a ‘Greater Cape’.

Between 1888 and 1890, the stalemate of South African politics began to break up. Rhodes was accumulating wealth and power with sensational rapidity. In 1888, with his close partner, the financial ‘genius’ Alfred Beit, he centralised diamond production in a single great combine, De Beers Consolidated. Rhodes did not have full control – especially over the London partners – but at the South African end his influence was supreme.24 De Beers became the treasure-chest from which he could fund his political activity and his schemes of sub-imperial expansion.25 It helped provide collateral for the new share issues, which Rhodes could turn to his own profit and from which he could reward patrons, friends and allies. In the same year, Rhodes and another partner, Charles Rudd, persuaded the Ndebele ruler Lobengula to grant the right to prospect for minerals in his kingdom. This was the notorious Rudd Concession, largely paid for in rifles. Rhodes now had a long lead over his competitors for the hinterland beyond the Limpopo and the goldfields it was thought to conceal. But, before he could invade Zambezia and build a private empire in the North – the first stage of the ‘Greater Cape’ – he needed an imperial licence to sanction political control by his agents on the spot. He also needed the promise of imperial support against any rival territorial claim by Portugal (which regarded modern Zimbabwe as the natural hinterland of Mozambique), Germany or the Transvaal republic. He needed a charter.

Rhodes came to England in 1889, a little-known colonial businessman. He departed (with his charter) as the great white hope of speculative investors and imperial enthusiasts. It was the turning point of his career. He had become a promethean figure in imperial politics: the supreme sub-imperialist who combined local power with ready access to wealth and influence at home. Rhodes outmanoeuvred his doubters and critics (including the Colonial Office) and squared every interest. A merger was arranged with his most dangerous rivals.26 The idea of a chartered company to prospect for gold excited the City. The ‘South Africa Committee’ of parliamentarians, philanthropists and missionary interests, chaired by Joseph Chamberlain, was expected to resist the charter as a colonial land-grab. But Rhodes captured two of its key members for his Company, including the ardent imperialist Albert Grey27 and won it over by a promise to help the struggling missionaries on Lake Nyasa. One of his henchmen, Cawston, had the effrontery to claim that the charter was intended to benefit the Zambezian blacks.28 With the eager support of the High Commissioner in Cape Town, Rhodes now carried all before him. To Alfred Milner, then private secretary to the Chancellor of the Exchequer, it seemed obvious that, like it or not, northern expansion would make Rhodes more amenable to imperial control.29 To the prime minister, Lord Salisbury, his promise of a British sphere in Central Africa at no public cost was a strategic windfall in hard times.

It was an extraordinary coup. Rhodes had made his own luck. But he also deftly exploited a political climate without which he might have needed much more. Anxiety over Ireland, the vulnerability of Egypt, and the global pressure exerted by Britain's imperial rivals created a jittery mood, especially among Liberal Unionists (like Milner and Chamberlain) who were attracted to ideas of imperial federation with the settlement colonies. To these uneasy imperialists Rhodes offered a winning combination of imperial patriotism and colonial expansion, uninhibited by the financial and diplomatic fetters they found so galling. Garnished with speculative profit, it was a seductive version of the imperial idea. Indeed, Rhodes’ campaign for the charter and the constituency of admirers he created formed the basis for the public sympathy in Britain on which he (and Milner) were to draw so heavily after 1897. In the meantime, Rhodes returned to South Africa to make his paper empire real. His ‘Pioneer Column’, paid for by De Beers, trekked into Mashonaland and founded ‘Salisbury’ – now Harare. In the Cape, Rhodes was now the undisputed supremo. 1890 was his annus mirabilis. He was already managing director of De Beers, the greatest fount of wealth in the Colony, and of the British South Africa Company, over whose domain in Zambezia (soon ‘Rhodesia’) his authority was absolute. Now he became Cape premier as well.

Over the next four years Rhodes used this remarkable portfolio of political, financial and territorial power to drive forward his aim of Cape supremacy and strangle the Transvaal's independence. His system seemed unstoppable. In the Cape, his alliance with the Bond was sealed by the artful distribution of his company shares at par. Rhodes made no secret of his dislike of Downing Street. This was the usual language of British settler politicians from New Zealand to British Columbia: but it was soothing syrup to Afrikaner opinion. Rhodes identified himself with the Cape Dutch origins of South Africa's ‘manifest destiny’ as a ‘white man's country’. His enthusiasm for Cape Dutch architecture, his purchase and restoration of Groote Schuur, his interest in agriculture, and his Afrikaner associates were all a reflection of his half-formed project for an Anglo-Afrikaner ‘middle nation’ within a wider Britannic confederacy.30 As Cape premier, Rhodes oversaw the extension of the Colony's railway to the Rand, the great inland market. As the uncrowned king of Rhodesia, he approved the Ndbele war of 1893 by which white rule was somewhat precariously extended from Mashonaland to Matabeleland. He pressed for the hand-over of Bechuanaland to the Chartered Company as the land bridge from the Cape to its new inland empire. He made an abortive attempt to buy Delagoa Bay and also the railway that Kruger was building to the last accessible harbour outside British territory.

But, by 1894, it was becoming clear that he had over-reached himself. There was a critical weakness in his grand geopolitical design. Seizing Rhodesia had been meant to give him a stranglehold on the Boer republics. A great gold reef in the Chartered territory would draw in a torrent of capital and migrants from Britain, boosting the trade and revenues of the Cape. It would drive home the lesson that it was futile to stand out against a Cape-led South Africa. Kimberley would revenge Majuba. This was Rhodes’ gamble: but it did not come off. By 1894, he knew that there was no great reef to be found: Rhodesia would not eclipse the Rand.31 Nor could Rhodes and his allies exert economic control over Kruger by their grip on the Rand.

The Rand in fact was Rhodes’ nemesis. Preoccupied by the struggle for De Beers, Rhodes had failed to foresee the Rand's vast potential. His company, ‘Goldfields’, was only one among several large mining houses that emerged in the 1890s. Rhodes lacked the capital to attempt the great amalgamation he achieved at Kimberley. Nor did the Rand lend itself to the tactics that had worked well with diamonds. It was easy for his rivals to raise money in London. The violent fluctuations in the value of shares, and the scale of speculative activity, ruled out the ‘squaring’ of interests, Rhodes’ favoured technique. Nor would Kruger allow the commercial free rein that Rhodes enjoyed in the Cape. Instead, his sale of concessions, like the dynamite monopoly, his control of the railways and the black labour supply, and his canny restriction of political rights, kept the gold-mining houses in a state of grudging dependence. Rhodes’ best hope was to use his connections with the ‘Corner House’, the largest mining house on the Rand and controlled by two of his partners in De Beers, Wernher and Beit, to foment opposition to Kruger. The danger was that the mining interests and the immigrant population – the Uitlanders or foreigners – would prefer an independent republic to domination by Rhodes’ Cape conglomerate. This was what made the defeat of Kruger so urgent; this was why his overthrow had to be staged by rebels loyal to Rhodes.32

The Jameson Raid in December 1895 was Rhodes’ attempt to seize control of the anti-Kruger movement in Johannesburg and master-mind the transfer of power in the Transvaal. Rhodes hoped to exploit the tacit sympathy of the Imperial government in London for Uitlander grievances and its willingness to intervene once Kruger's authority had been successfully challenged.33 Jameson, Rhodes’ closest henchman, was meant to arrive in Johannesburg in a show of solidarity with the local rebellion, but really to stamp on it Rhodes’ authority. A complicit High Commissioner at the Cape would rule in his favour. By a dazzling coup, rather than slow attrition, the grand design would be forged. Notoriously, everything went wrong. The Johannesburg conspirators were tardy and disorganised, so that Jameson's ‘raid’ was recklessly premature. Kruger was forewarned. Jameson's force was no match for the Boer commandos who caught up with him before he reached the city. The High Commissioner and Imperial government (both implicated in the original plan) disavowed Rhodes’ crude filibuster. The Johannesburg conspirators were rounded up, tried and imprisoned (commuting their death sentences cost Rhodes £300,000).34 Worst of all, Rhodes’ Afrikaner allies in the Cape whom he had kept in ignorance (believing perhaps that they would favour the end while loathing the means), turned against him in rage. His premiership collapsed. The ‘Colossus’ had suffered a huge reversal of fortune. Far from succumbing to the Rhodesian juggernaut, Kruger now seemed stronger than ever. His internal position was secure. And, after Rhodes’ treachery, he could be sure that the Cape Afrikaners would block any move to coerce him again. As the competition between rival imperialisms reached its climax in Afro-Asia, Kruger's chances of wriggling out of the British sphere seemed better than ever.

The decision for war, 1896–9

In his bid to pull Kruger down and absorb the Transvaal, Rhodes had wanted to keep the Imperial government at arm's length, while exploiting the authority of its agent (the High Commissioner) in his intended coup on the Rand. Rhodes intended to remake South Africa to his design not Downing Street's. To this aim the disastrous outcome of the Jameson Raid was a massive but not fatal setback. It forced Rhodes and his local allies into partnership with the Imperial Factor since London alone had the power to coerce Kruger. But whether London would be willing to do so was another matter entirely.

Indeed, it might have been expected that, after the Jameson Raid, the Imperial government would revert to the policy of disengagement adopted after 1881. Amid suspicion that it was implicated in the Jameson Raid, its influence was weaker than ever. An imperial initiative to promote federation was out of the question. In fact, whatever its inclinations, the Salisbury cabinet was drawn deeper and deeper into the thicket of South African politics. Chamberlain's own prestige was invested heavily in preventing Kruger from exploiting his triumph. Threatening language and a squadron in Delagoa Bay served notice that Britain's claim to regional primacy was undiminished. Chamberlain's deputy, Lord Selborne (the prime minister's son-in-law), was imbued with a ‘Rhodesian’ outlook. His memorandum of March 1896 warning against a secessionist ‘United States of South Africa’ forming around a cosmopolitan English-speaking Transvaal republic35 was inspired by the High Commissioner, Sir Hercules Robinson, and derived almost certainly from Rhodes. Nor, for all its absurdity, had the Jameson Raid failed to leave its mark on British policy. The furore over the Parliamentary enquiry into the Raid and indignation over the Kaiser's congratulatory telegram to Kruger helped to turn the Uitlander grievances into a political issue in Britain and a nagging index of imperial prestige. In South Africa, the ironic legacy of Rhodes’ fall had been the deliberate mobilisation of ‘English’ sentiment in Cape Colony behind a demand for imperial self-assertion against the Transvaal. Cool British detachment from South African affairs was hardly an option.

For Chamberlain, the immediate need was a capable proconsul: to watch Kruger closely against any breach of the Convention, especially the ban on his diplomatic freedom; to press the Uitlanders’ case; and to avoid the dependence on Rhodes to which Robinson had succumbed. His choice was Sir Alfred Milner, then chairman of the Board of Inland Revenue. This was not as eccentric as it seemed. Like Chamberlain, Milner was a Liberal Unionist who had rebelled against the Irish Home Rule bill in 1886. He was deeply sympathetic to the idea of closer union between the settlement colonies of ‘Greater Britain’ to which Chamberlain was privately committed. He shared Chamberlain's concern that a unified ‘British South Africa’ should form part of this larger imperial association. He had served under Cromer in Egypt (1889–92) and had published an influential defence of the imperial ‘mission’ there.36 As a safe pair of hands with wide friendships in both political camps, he enjoyed the prestige to place the government's South African policy on a fresh footing. The question was: what could he do?

To Milner himself, the immediate answer seemed not very much. He would do his best to persuade the Transvaal government down the path of reform, but without drawing in the Imperial government.37 But the Uitlander franchise was out of the question.38 The best hope was that the irrepressible growth of Johannesburg would force a change. Part of the difficulty lay in Cape politics where Rhodes’ sudden removal had brought confusion. ‘At present they are all dwarfs’, Milner told his old political mentor, George Goschen, ‘except Rhodes who is a really big man but thoroughly untrustworthy.’39 By this time, Milner had already begun to drift towards the alliance with Rhodes against which Chamberlain had warned him.40 He had little choice. Rhodes was the ‘real’ head of the Cape government, and the premier, Sprigg, his mouthpiece. More to the point, for all the disaster of the Jameson Raid, only Rhodes had the means to push forward the grand project which Milner saw as the real purpose of his proconsulship: the unification of British South Africa and the re-absorption of the Transvaal.

The key was the north, Rhodes’ private empire in Rhodesia. Foiled on the Rand and frustrated at the Cape, Rhodes’ best hope was to speed up Rhodesia's development and build a grand new colony embracing the Bechuanaland Protectorate (then still under imperial control). The Protectorate would be Rhodesia's land bridge to the Cape. As part of ‘Greater Rhodesia’ it would help surround the Transvaal on two sides. The third stage of Rhodes’ plan was to promote the federal union of the Cape, Natal and Greater Rhodesia. Then ‘the three combined will bring peaceful pressure to bear upon the republics to drive them into a S[outh] African federation’.41 Milner proposed to fasten imperial policy once more to Rhodes’ chariot wheels. But, this time, the ‘Colossus’ was to be kept on a leash ‘unless he is to make a shipwreck of his own ambitions and our permanent interests’. The persistent African risings against Rhodes’ Company government cast doubt on his schemes – at least for the moment. It was vital to preserve some imperial control over Rhodesia and to make him wait for the eventual transfer of the Protectorate. ‘His projected game is a good game but…he is desperately anxious to have another slap at old Kruger by “peaceful means”.’42 As Milner recognised, Rhodes ‘was much too strong to be merely used’. His cooperation had to be bought. But his ‘Northern’ strategy was the only shot in the imperial locker. Milner settled in for the long haul, and a ‘qualified success’. ‘A united and loyal S[outh] Africa on the Canadian pattern if it ever comes about is a thing of the very distant future’, he told one of his oldest and closest friends.43 But Britain's strategic interests, thought this ‘civilian soldier of the Empire’ (Milner's self-description), were safe enough: ‘I don't mean in the least that I despair of the maintenance of British supremacy.’44

Cautious pragmatism was the keynote of an imperial policy which waited on the maturing of Rhodes’ schemes. The Transvaal was ‘bound to topple’, Milner told Asquith, the future prime minister.45 There was little point taking up the mine-owners’ main grievance, the dynamite monopoly imposed by Kruger's government. Scarcely three months later, Milner performed an astonishing u-turn. Now he urged an openly aggressive policy towards the Transvaal, and, in a notorious speech (at Graaff Reinet on 3 March 1898), questioned the loyalty of the Cape Afrikaners to the imperial connection. Milner may have been reacting to Kruger's unexpectedly resounding success in the Transvaal's presidential election in February. He may have been anxious about Rhodes’ grip on Rhodesia. But there was another reason for his harder line. Early in 1898, Rhodes too was switching tactics. With the Parliamentary inquiry into the Jameson Raid behind him, and the black revolt in Rhodesia broken, he was ready to re-enter Cape politics. His old alliance with the Bond was irreparable; but he had a new vehicle. He had become the darling of the ‘English’ in the towns. In the Cape's Eastern Province, the South African League had been formed to rally loyalty to the Empire and (by a deft association) to Rhodes. In 1897, the League created the ‘Progressive’ party to campaign for free trade, agrarian improvement and the redistribution of seats – causes carefully identified with imperial loyalty. Before the end of 1897, a private understanding had been reached between the Progressives and Rhodes’ own followers.46 Six days after Milner's speech, Rhodes announced his conversion to the Progressive programme and opened fire on the Bond for its hostility to northern expansion and its resistance to an imperial naval contribution.47 Rhodes, sneered his bitterest enemy in the Cape, wanted a majority ‘not to unify South Africa, but to purchase…the Bulawayo railway and…that very bad egg Rhodesia’.48 But Rhodes was also determined to give urban (and ‘English’) voters a fairer share of seats. His new alliance would bring him the townsmen's vote. With firm control of the Cape Parliament he could tighten the knot round Kruger's neck. Milner had little choice but to follow him.

In fact, throughout 1898, Milner's dependence on Rhodes grew deeper. His own attempt to draw Chamberlain into the struggle for ‘reform’ in the Transvaal misfired badly. A sharp rebuke arrived from London. Chamberlain had other fish to fry and was preoccupied with the struggle for hinterlands in West Africa. At Rhodes’ direct request,49 Milner pleaded for his grandiose scheme to build a new railway beyond the Zambezi and open a vast new northern extension. Britain's strategy in South Africa, he urged, depended upon the gamble of Rhodesia's development. Capital would be attracted by the sheer scale of Rhodes’ project; a great new railway empire, pivoted on Bulawayo, would kick-start the Rhodesian economy as a counterpoise to the Transvaal.50 Two weeks earlier, Milner had warned Rhodes against ‘worrying’ Chamberlain with this scheme.51 But in the course of the year the prospects of direct imperial action grew steadily fainter. The British press was distracted by other imperial excitements in the Sudan and China. In South Africa, everything turned upon Rhodes. Chamberlain was anxious to hear about his gold prospects in Rhodesia.52 The Transvaal was ‘in a twitter’ about his plans.53 Redistribution and electoral victory would make Rhodes master of the Cape. His reward might be Bechuanaland.54 After two years in the wilderness, Rhodes seemed once more near the pinnacle of power.

Rhodes may have calculated that an election victory in the Cape and a third premiership would give him scope for some rapprochement with his erstwhile allies in the Bond. The Cape Afrikaners were as anxious as he to promote South African unity (though not at imperial command) and just as fearful of Kruger's dabblings in great power diplomacy – a vice attributed to his ‘Hollander’ advisers. With their help, Kruger might yet be overcome. The triumph and the spoils would be his, not Downing Street's. It was perhaps not so much Rhodes’ failure as the circumstances of his defeat that made conflict unavoidable. In the Cape elections of 1898, Rhodes had denounced ‘Krugerism’ and demanded ‘equal rights for every white man south of the Zambezi’.55 But, contrary to most prediction, and despite lavish spending, Rhodes’ Progressives were narrowly defeated although winning a majority of votes cast. A Bond ministry took office. Rapprochement went out of the window: a fresh round of ‘racial’ politics came in at the door. English ‘race-sentiment’, the stock-in-trade of the South African League, was turned up to whip in the remaining ‘English’ politicians who had stood out against Rhodes. Rhodes harried the Bond ministry in parliament and out.56 He pressed for redistribution, northern expansion and federal union. He erected a statue to Van Riebeek, the Dutch founder of Cape Town. Rhodes appealed squarely to Afrikaner misgivings and ‘English’ resentment at Kruger's refusal of white equality on the Rand.57 Then, in January 1899, he set off for Britain to rally support, raise fresh capital for his Zambezian railway and negotiate the passage of his telegraph to Cairo through German East Africa.

As he did so, the pan-British rhetoric of loyalty and grievance that he and Milner had unleashed in March 1898 and which had reached a crescendo in October 1898 at last bore fruit on the Rand. Throughout 1898, the quiescence of the Uitlanders had been a source of frustration to Milner. He had made contact with Percy Fitzpatrick, the leading Uitlander politician; but, with the ‘old reformers’ of 1895 still under ban, political organisation was minimal. The mining companies, who had hopes of economic reform, were reluctant to antagonise the regime on whose goodwill they depended. They had no reason to manipulate Milner: still less to be used by him. But, in December 1898, two events combined to transform Rand politics. The forthcoming expiry of the dynamite monopoly reopened the central issue between the mining houses and the government in Pretoria. Smouldering resentment over the arbitrariness of Boer administration on the Rand came to a head with the murder of an Uitlander, Edgar, by an Afrikaner policeman. The main Uitlander movement, a branch of the South African League, barred from local demonstration, stumbled upon an alternative tactic. It framed a petition to the Crown. The means to link the political struggle on the Rand with imperial sentiment at home and in the Cape – the trick that had eluded Milner – had at last been found. It was a turning point.

In fact, the first Uitlander petition was turned away (to Milner's consternation) by his locum tenens in Cape Town. But the Transvaal government now showed open signs of anxiety. In February 1899, it attempted to divide its opponents by negotiating the ‘Great Deal’ with the mining houses, offering certain commercial concessions and a modest extension of political rights in exchange for a public disavowal by the houses of ‘political agitation’.58 With Milner's encouragement, Fitzpatrick, the vital linkman between the mining houses and the political movement, sabotaged the agreement by premature publicity.59 Both men calculated that imperial intervention – evident in Chamberlain's renewed protest over the dynamite monopoly and his private warnings to the mining houses against the ‘Great Deal’ – could be mobilised. In March, the second Uitlander petition (with more than 20,000 signatures) was forwarded to London. Chamberlain had little choice but to accept it, since rebuffing it would have meant repudiating the ‘suzerainty’ which he had asserted in principle but avoided in practice. By early May it was clear that a new round of imperial pressure would supercharge the complaints of the mining houses and the Uitlanders. Milner's famous despatch likening their treatment to that of a servile class of ‘helots’60 was artfully designed to raise ethnic feeling at home and in South Africa to fever pitch. Behind Milner's populist rhetoric rallied the followers of Rhodes and the League. In Britain, he could rely on a chorus of journalists and lobbies, and here too Rhodes conducted a parallel campaign. Together with Alfred Beit, one of his closest allies, Rhodes heavily subsidised the (Imperial) South Africa Association, founded in 1896 to campaign for the Uitlander cause.61 In the Transvaal, said The Times, was a ‘vast number of British subjects whose grievances cannot be denied’. Could Britain afford to let its protection be seen as ‘inefficient against an insignificant Republic’.62

Kruger was too old a hand in imperial politics not to see the danger. Rhodes and Milner might ‘bounce’ the Imperial government into armed intervention before cooler judgment prevailed. By agreeing to meet Milner at Bloemfontein at the end of May 1899 to discuss Uitlander rights, he hoped to appease ‘moderate’ opinion in Britain and deflate the jingo mood. He probably calculated that a limited extension of the franchise would allow Chamberlain to draw back from confrontation. If so, it was a shrewd estimate. But at Bloemfontein Milner refused to negotiate, insisting upon the vote for Uitlanders of five years’ residence and a fixed allocation of seats for the Rand. When Kruger refused, Milner broke off the talks. Chamberlain was furious. British opinion, Selborne (his deputy) warned Milner, was not ready for war. Milner's helot despatch had made less public impact than had been expected: ‘we simply cannot force the pace.’63 Milner was in despair. ‘British South Africa had been tuned to concert pitch’, he told Selborne. But now Chamberlain was playing for time. ‘He seems to me to wish a patch-up.’ But delay would erode the loyalty and resolution of the Uitlanders and their local supporters: the Transvaal would use it to prepare for war. Unless London was ready to stand firm and to send troop reinforcements to show it meant business, Milner concluded bluntly, he would ask to be removed.64

At the eleventh hour it seemed that Kruger was about to repeat his earlier triumphs in 1881 and 1884. Milner and Rhodes could huff and puff. ‘English’ opinion in the towns could seethe at Boer injustice. Editorials might rage. But, as Milner remarked candidly, Boer commandos with their rifles and horses, backed by the heavy guns that Kruger had been buying, were more than a match for the scattered British garrisons and the unarmed ‘English’ population. Unless London steeled itself to send an ‘expedition’ to coerce the Transvaal, Kruger's combination of military and economic strength would steadily tilt the regional balance in his favour. Why then did the Transvaal government not stand firm on Kruger's offer at Bloemfontein and test London's nerve in the way that Milner feared?

In reality, both principals, Kruger and the British cabinet, were more vulnerable than they appeared to the campaign that Rhodes and Milner had orchestrated. Chamberlain's instinct had been to settle. But he was faced with Uitlander hostility to any retreat from Milner's demands at Bloemfontein65 and with signs of widespread feeling in Britain that the Uitlander cause could not be abandoned.66 Chamberlain, whose own political ambition was far from sated, was reluctant to alienate his natural supporters. Both he and his cabinet colleagues now saw that anything short of Milner's demands on the franchise issue would count as a failure to assert the supremacy (and uphold the suzerainty) on which they had always insisted. For their part, Kruger and his agile lieutenant, the youthful J. C. Smuts, also realised that some agreement must be reached: to avert the danger of imperial intervention; to ease the threat that ‘loyalist’ ministries would take office in the Cape and Natal; and to stave off the slump brought by political uncertainty to the Rand. But, in seeking a way out of the franchise dispute, Smuts made a fatal misjudgment.

Smuts was the acceptable reformist face of the Kruger regime. A Cape Afrikaner, Cambridge educated, a passionate admirer of Rhodes before the Raid, Smuts regarded white unity as the most urgent political need in South Africa. ‘We want a great South African nationality’, he declared in 1895.67 It was the deeper struggle of whites against blacks that mattered most. Left unplacated, Uitlander grievances would divide the whites and invite imperial meddling – the real threat to white supremacy. But Smuts was determined to secure a quid pro quo for conceding the Uitlander vote. Britain, he insisted, must give up its claim to influence the Transvaal's internal affairs: ‘the suzerainty was pure nonsense’ and should tacitly lapse.68 Perhaps he believed that the Salisbury government, with so many commitments abroad, would shrink from war for a phrase, once the substance of Uitlander demands had been met. He may well have assumed that neither Kruger nor the Transvaal Raad (assembly) would accept a one-sided bargain. Whatever its motive, Smuts’ move broke the iron rule that Kruger had carefully observed in his dealings with the British: not to challenge openly the provisions of the 1884 Convention in which Britain's diplomatic primacy was clearly stated. Smuts’ condition was understood in London as a bid for diplomatic freedom.69 It was confirmation that British supremacy was really at stake, not merely the detail of the Uitlander franchise: Kruger's real motive was at last laid bare. Negotiations collapsed. Early in September 1899, the cabinet authorised the troop reinforcements for which Milner had been begging and began to ponder an ultimatum. Before they could send it, Kruger despatched his own demanding the troops’ recall. On 11 October, the war began.

The causes of the South African War have been endlessly debated. On one side were those who saw the policy of Milner and Chamberlain as a form of economic imperialism. There were several versions of this argument. One maintained that capitalism – the Randlords – had manipulated ‘imperialism’ – Milner and the Imperial government – into imposing their programme on Kruger to the point of war. Another that Kruger's ‘pre-modern’ republic was intolerable to British leaders and especially to Milner for whom capitalism was an indispensable part of modernity.70 A third that British policy was driven most of all by the need to ensure the flow of Transvaal gold to London to support the gold reserves of the Bank of England. None of these arguments has withstood close scrutiny or mustered convincing documentary evidence. The Randlords, while bitterly opposed to aspects of Kruger's regime, showed no inclination to fish for trouble in London and preferred to settle their differences amicably with the Transvaal government. Kruger was much more amenable to the needs of the mining industry than was assumed by writers who saw the war as the clash between modern capitalism and a pre-modern state.71 No evidence has been found that in the critical period before the war the supply of gold became an issue for British policy-makers. Milner himself, while contemptuous of Kruger's misgovernment and corruption, showed no desire, even in the most private correspondence, to annex the Transvaal for commercial reasons, let alone to go to war to replace Kruger with an oligarchy of Randlords.

The result has been to confirm the verdict pronounced more than forty years ago by the shrewdest analysts of late-Victorian imperialism. The British went to war, concluded Gallagher and Robinson, to defend their regional supremacy and its geopolitical corollary, control of the Cape and the sea route to India.72 The sudden economic transformation of the Transvaal mattered not because it created new wealth to annex but because it gave Kruger the means to assert fuller independence and, sooner or later, to drag the rest of South Africa after him out of the British imperium. The stalemate between the coastal colonies and the highveld interior (the reason for the persistent failure of confederation) was about to be resolved in favour of Kruger's all-powerful goldstate. In the struggle to contain the secondary effects of the Transvaal's economic revolution, Milner had rehearsed every grievance, inflamed every issue and recruited every ally – until his relentless alarmism eventually drove home the threat Kruger posed to British supremacy. But what weighed most with British ministers, and especially with Lord Salisbury, the master of Realpolitik, was neither the economic stake British interests had amassed nor the rights of the Uitlanders – those ‘people whom we despise’. It was the necessity of preserving, in more arduous conditions and by more vigorous methods, the old mid-Victorian supremacy in a vital strategic sphere.

This remains the most convincing account of the ultimate objective of British intervention in September 1899. But it does not do justice to the wider causes of the war, nor to the pressures that beat upon an uncertain cabinet. What made South Africa the sternest test of late-Victorian imperialism was the collision of three political forces of exceptional intensity. The first was the enormous geopolitical investment the British had made in the exclusion of any rival great power south and east of the Zambezi. It was not only a question of safeguarding the Cape. The ink was scarcely dry on the diplomatic map of Africa and the partition of China and the Middle East was on the cards. The surrender of British primacy in a region where their interests were so important and of such long standing would have implied an astonishing loss of confidence. Salisbury's sovereign cure for geopolitical uncertainty – the careful demarcation of spheres – would have been jettisoned, with unforeseeable consequences. It was inevitable, once the argument over Uitlander rights turned into a dispute about paramountcy, that Salisbury would insist on Kruger's submission. The ‘old’ British interest in the Cape had become part of a ‘new’ British stake in the peaceful partition of the world.

Salisbury's misfortune was that the three-masted barque (Salisbury was fond of maritime metaphors) of his partition diplomacy was struck amidships by a state-building project of unusual strength. Until the 1880s the Transvaal had been a ramshackle frontier settlement, an African Costaguana. After Britain's failed annexation, Kruger's personal rule imposed the rudiments of statehood. The discovery and exploitation of gold after 1886 was widely expected to rot the foundations of what Milner was to call a ‘mediaeval race oligarchy’. Immigrants would swamp the old burghers; civilised commerce would displace their predatory pastoralism; Cape liberalism would discredit their crude trekker republicanism. Like the Trojan horse, the Rand would conceal an invading army ready at the signal to capture the Boer citadel and open its gates to British influence. Instead, Kruger skilfully utilised the bonanza of gold to reinforce his Afrikaner state. The Afro-Asian world was littered with failures in the ‘race against time’ to modernise before conquest: Kruger meant to be a winner. He was helped by the distinctive political economy of the goldfields. The Rand swelled his revenues, but remained a geographical and social enclave. It was easily contained, as was shown by the Jameson Raid and its aftermath. It depended heavily upon the state for its (black) labour supply and for transport. Its white population – many of them transients73 – could be treated as restless aliens or guest-workers. Mining revenues and commercial prosperity served not (in the short term) to liberalise Kruger's state but to enlarge the patronage at his disposal and consolidate a loyal burgher elite. They also paid for the arsenal of heavy weapons to supplement the citizen commando. Under these conditions, to be a landlocked state in the South African interior was no longer the handicap it had originally seemed. Guarded by geography and the passive sympathy of the Cape Afrikaners, Kruger's South African republic had fashioned an exceptionally favourable geopolitical niche in a world of imperialisms.

It is at best uncertain whether Salisbury's government would have had the will, the means or the opportunity to throttle Kruger's quiet bid for independence but for the intervention of a third force. It was also doubtful whether the Imperial Factor alone was a match for the Transvaal whites, any more than it had been in 1880. But, since the 1880s, the political landscape of the sub-continent had been transformed and not just by gold. Rhodes had outflanked the Transvaal and checked its expansion. By astute publicity and prodigal largesse he harnessed the speculative frenzy of the 1890s to the idea of British expansion in Southern Africa. His disaster in 1896 was a check, but by that time his efforts to strangle Kruger had begun to mobilise new and unexpected support. Jameson's fiasco had roused an ethnic ‘British’ movement in the Cape which soon spread to the Rand. Its leaders there, with little prospect of imperial deliverance, looked to the Cape for support. Building a local constituency was uphill work. Many miners were short-term migrants with little interest in local politics. Many suspected the League to be a front organisation for the mine-owners, a suspicion Kruger tried to encourage. But, by the middle of 1899, the Edgar case and the new tactic of petitioning the Crown, had given the League far greater credibility as the voice of the Uitlander.74

The League's success among British settlers in South Africa was symptomatic of a wider late-Victorian phenomenon. ‘Britannic’ nationalism was fiercest where the claim of British communities to social and cultural predominance was challenged: by Metis, East Europeans, French Canadians, Catholic Irishmen, Chinese migrants or Transvaal Boers. It was fostered by the growing closeness of educational and sporting connections, the new swiftness of communication, the growth of the press, the convergence between the urban society of the overseas British and their counterparts at home. It was no coincidence that the Wanderers club in Johannesburg, with its fierce assertion of British sporting values, was closely identified with the League and the venue for its meetings when permitted.75 The League's appeal was to an injured sense of ethnic and cultural superiority. At a meeting in June 1899, wrote one Uitlander, the League's Transvaal secretary, Thomas Dodds, ‘was cheered as…I have never heard any man cheered before, particularly at his words “we appeal to Caesar”. He knows well the pride of race – of which thank God I still have a small portion left in me.’76 Dodds' message was as obvious as it was popular: the Uitlanders were Roman citizens whose emperor would come to chastise the barbarians. Fitzpatrick's account of Uitlander suffering The Transvaal From Within, circulated at the same time in Britain, embodied a similar appeal.77

The Transvaal government was bound to suspect that the League was not only the voice of British ‘race patriotism’ but the tool of Rhodes’ ambition. Despite his electoral defeat in 1898, Rhodes’ hand was seen everywhere. To the Transvaal League he was its ultimate leader.78 Rhodes’ formula of ‘equal rights for all white men’ inspired the League's campaign for the franchise and spearheaded its appeal in Britain.79 Rhodes kept in close touch with the campaign waged at home (and with his help) by the South Africa Association's campaign.80 To the Transvaal Boers, the ‘great amalgamator’ had become the great manipulator. ‘Rhodes presses the button and the figure works’ was how Fitzpatrick described their fear.81 As a result, the Transvaal leaders were anxious to forestall imperial intervention but also to break the alliance between the Uitlanders and Rhodes symbolised by the League. In his negotiations with Fitzpatrick, the Uitlander spokesman in March 1899, Smuts pressed him to repudiate the connection with the League in the Cape. Fitzpatrick's reply was uncompromising. The League, he told Smuts (or so he claimed in a speech), ‘represent[s] a very large section in South Africa which section has been very friendly to us’. To his Uitlander audience he added: ‘They [i.e. the Cape ‘English’] are my people and I (for one) shall not turn my back on them…They are our people and we will stick to them.’82

The conclusion seemed obvious. The Uitlander leadership would use the franchise to widen the scope for Imperial influence. The League would take its orders from Kimberley. Kruger's dilemma was acute. As we have seen, he needed to defuse the feverish mood Milner and Rhodes had created and head off an Imperial coup. But he had to avoid a concession that would expose him to the ‘salami tactics’ of which Chamberlain, Milner and Rhodes were suspected. Smuts and Kruger may both have believed that the inherent strength of their strategic niche would deter Imperial aggression as long as they avoided the outright provocation of British opinion. Smuts’ offer was designed to remove the excuse for Imperial intervention now and its warrant in future. The end of suzerainty would block future petitions to the Crown and erode the sense of common identity on which Milner and Rhodes had played so successfully. But this attempt to outflank the Britannic nationalism he distrusted roused the deepest fear of all in British leaders. A cabinet cynical of Uitlander grievances united round the threat to British supremacy that Smuts had let slip.

Imperial supremacy, Transvaal state-building and Britannic nationalism were a volatile mixture. What made them explosive was the extreme uncertainty created by the speed of South Africa's economic transformation. It was widely assumed that the pace of change would increase. The Transvaal would be richer and stronger. But it could also be swamped by a flood-tide of migrants. The Afrikaner state might dominate the region – or be drowned in the attempt. Yet it was only in the last months before the war that the issue seemed so stark. For all the efforts of Milner, the great impresario of imperial politics, there is little sign before July 1899 that British ministers were impressed by his apocalyptic vision of a united Afrikanerdom and a vanished supremacy. Chamberlain may have shared Milner's hopes for a new dominion of ‘British South Africa’. But he had no idea how to achieve it. Instead, it was the insurgent force of Britannic nationalism on the Rand and in the Cape which exposed the race for power and brought Kruger and Smuts at last to their desperate remedy.

A British South Africa?

The decision by Kruger and Steyn, the Orange Free State president, to launch a pre-emptive attack upon the British may have smacked of desperation, but it was not uncalculated. Smuts had made much of Britain's strategic weaknesses: her multiple commitments; the chance of interference by her imperial rivals; the restlessness of colonial populations everywhere.83 Military intervention in South Africa would come at a high price for a far-flung empire. Kruger's reputation had been made by his skilful adaptation of South Africa's peculiar geopolitics in 1880–1. For both men, it was tempting to believe that the same combination of geographical remoteness and the political sympathy of Cape Afrikanerdom would stop the Imperial coercion of the republics in its tracks. In fact, the Boer leaders intended to make London's task even harder. By moving first, they aimed to capture Durban (the nearest port from which the Transvaal could be invaded) and Kimberley, the great inland centre of the Cape. With these in their hands, the Boers would hold the strategic initiative. Faced with a long war to battle their way into the South African interior, Salisbury and Chamberlain would begin to see reason. The result would be not the surrender that Milner demanded but a new convention.

They were too optimistic. The invasion of Natal was indecisive and Kimberley withstood their siege. The humiliating defeats they inflicted on British troops in the dreadful ‘Black Week’ of December 1899 created alarm and anger in Britain not indifference or resignation. Twenty years earlier, the interior could be abandoned after Majuba. But, in 1899, the fate of Kimberley, Rhodesia and the Rand itself all turned on victory; so did Britain's reputation as a military power. The response was a steady build-up of military strength and a crushing advance that gradually overwhelmed the Boer armies. By the end of 1900, the Boer capitals had been occupied, the Rand brought under Imperial rule, and the republics annexed to the British Crown.

The Boers’ collapse in the face of British military power was a brilliant vindication of the hopes of Milner and Rhodes. But it was also a mirage. By early 1901, it was plain that the Boer commandos intended to fight a war much more to their taste than the sieges and set-pieces in which they had been worsted. In the new guerrilla conflict that stretched from the Transvaal to Cape Colony, mobility, veldcraft and local sympathy made them more than a match for the Imperial forces sent to hunt them down. Far from disintegrating with the departure of the ‘Kruger gang’ (Kruger had escaped to Europe), Afrikaner patriotism was strengthened by comradeship and the racial bitterness of a total war. As the guerrilla struggle intensified, the Boer War became a civil war.84 Ten thousand Cape Afrikaners, subjects of the Crown, turned rebel and joined the commandos. More than 50,000 ‘loyalists’ were mobilised against them.85 Several thousand ‘poor white’ Afrikaners in the republics changed sides to fight for the British as ‘National Scouts’.86 Black communities seized the moment to recover lost lands.87 Hundreds, perhaps thousands, of blacks and (mixed race) coloureds, serving as British auxiliaries, or suspected of British sympathies, were murdered by Boer commandos.88 The rural economy of the highveld was devastated by British farm-burning, while the terrible mortality (both white and black) of the civilian prison ‘concentration’ camps sowed a tradition of ethnic martyrdom among Afrikaners.

On the British side, as the ‘expedition’ that Milner had first imagined turned into a long war, public sympathy began to flag. Marching to Pretoria was one thing. A messy, inconclusive war of attrition, punctuated by defeats and compromised by ‘barbarism’ was quite another. The eagerness of British leaders for peace was sharpened by the sense of strategic vulnerability on which Smuts had counted. With their army and reserves tied down in South Africa, and a long oceanic supply line to guard, ministers could only hope that no emergency arose in the defence of India or of British interests in the ethnic cauldron of the Near East. The crisis in China over the Boxer Rebellion of 1900 and the threat that a partition would follow was a brusque reminder that a long war in South Africa was a strategic luxury that London could ill afford. Kitchener, who had taken over as commander-in-chief in South Africa when Roberts went home, was willing to make peace with the Boers for little more than recognition of British sovereignty89 – a condition they rejected at the Middelburg negotiations of March 1901. It was only after a further year of war, with no hope of victory or of help from abroad, and amid the rising fear that their rural society might be permanently damaged, that the Boer leaders agreed at Vereeniging in May 1902 to give up the struggle.90

The terms of what was called significantly a ‘treaty’ bore all the hallmarks of a truce, not an outright British victory. The Boers surrendered their claim to independence. But, in return, they were promised that self-government (under the Crown) would be quickly restored. They kept their weapons. A substantial sum was granted to make good the damage the war had caused. And, in deference to the political traditions of the Afrikaner republics, they were not required to adopt the ‘colour-blind’ franchise of the Cape. With an amiable cynicism the question of whether anyone but whites should be granted the vote was deferred until the return of (white) self-government.91 This was the fragile constitutional platform on which Milner now tried to build a united dominion of ‘British South Africa’, and bury forever the remnants of ‘Krugerism’. The political omens could hardly have been worse. War weariness in Britain made further coercion of the Boers unlikely. The Boers themselves had preserved their political solidarity and their leaders had avoided a discreditable surrender. It was clear from early on that a determined effort would be needed to force them into the political mould that Milner had in mind. Three years of war had adjusted the old sub-continental balance of power, but not overthrown it.

For Milner, the war was to be the crucible of a new British South Africa. His immediate aim was to hold the ring until a new British majority (among the whites) was ready to govern. Ideally, he thought, a new federal parliament should be created first, to prevent the return of self-rule from reviving the old divisions. He was also determined to suspend the Cape Parliament, with its large Bond contingent, until his federal scheme was well under way.92 Secondly, he planned a large influx of British settlement, much of it meant for the land. The settlers would dilute the rural Afrikaners, and open up the fastnesses that were as impenetrable to British influence, as Milner later told Selborne, as Kamchatka, the darkest corner of Russia's Asian empire.93 Thirdly, to create the right conditions for immigration and federation, he was eager to revive the economy as quickly as possible, especially the gold mines. The Rand was the engine-room of the new South Africa: without its rapid recovery, Milner's own plans would be so much waste paper.

Milner realised from the beginning that his programme depended upon the support of the ‘English’ whose race patriotism he and Rhodes had worked to arouse before the war. To suspend the Cape constitution, he counted on Rhodes’ support and that of his allies in the Progressive party and the South African League.94 He looked to Rhodes and his Randlord friends to prime the pump of land settlement. They were to buy land discreetly in the ex-republics ready for sale to British settlers – a plan of which Rhodes himself was an ardent supporter95 and on which a significant part of his estate would be spent.96 Milner's real hope was that the war had transformed the English into a united community of ‘British South Africans’, the dominant element in his imagined dominion, ‘a united self-governing South Africa wh[ich] shall be British in its political complexion’.97 It was the loyalists, he told Chamberlain, who best understood the point of the war. ‘They are among the most devoted adherents of the Imperial cause’, and were convinced that ‘British supremacy and…one political system from Cape Town to the Zambezi is…the only salvation for men of their own race as well as for others’.98 It was they who had grasped, far better than opinion at home, that there should be no compromise peace that permitted the recovery of Afrikaner national feeling. In the new state that Milner envisaged, the Uitlander meek would inherit the earth. With its British institutions, British civil service, British settlers on the land, British ownership of the mines, a British majority among whites,99 and English as the language of education and government, the Afrikaners would be faced with a stark choice. They could choose to assimilate to the new South Africa, or retreat into impoverished rural isolation on the platteland as the stranded relics of a failed culture. Milner even planned a local colonial army, mainly English in manpower, to neutralise the joker in South African politics: the threat of an armed Afrikaner rebellion.100 Thus the South African English would make up for the flabbiness of opinion at home. The South African League would become a ‘national’ movement, gluing the ‘English together behind a single programme’.101 Even if the Cape remained stubbornly Afrikaner in sympathy, mining and commerce would make the Transvaal British. ‘A great Johannesburg…means a British Transvaal’, said Milner.102 The new Transvaal would be the ‘stronghold’ that British influence had always lacked in South Africa.103

The Milnerite vision was an imperial fantasy. The local triumph of Britannic nationalism, on which he had counted, was postponed indefinitely. For all his energy, Milner could not transcend the racial dynamic of white South African society and the limits it placed (as so often before) on the imperial initiative and proconsular power. The core of Milner's plan was a tide of British migration to reverse its old deficit. In a decade when emigration from Britain reached its secular peak, Milner's needs were modest. But his hopes were crushed, in part by the depth of the post-war depression (which discouraged immigrants with capital) but most of all by the great fact of a black majority – a low-wage workforce whose exploitation had already turned thousands of unskilled ‘Europeans’ (the South African term for whites) into the ‘poor white problem’ that haunted South African politics for a generation or more. It was this black majority that (by a cruel irony) guarded Afrikanerdom against an influx of British. Worse still, the more that Milner struggled to impose his programme, the more he united the Afrikaners and (bitter twist) divided the English. The first sign of this was the hostility of some English politicians in the Cape (including Sprigg, the prime minister) to suspending the constitution. With Rhodes’ death in March 1902, before the war ended, the Cape Progressives were rudderless104 and disunited. ‘The party is rotten to the core’, wrote its chief organiser.105 No English Cape politician could fill Rhodes’ shoes. In the Transvaal, Milner's ‘stronghold’, the situation was no better. There the Progressive leaders, George Farrar and Percy Fitzpatrick, were closely identified with the Randlords, whose prime aim was to drive down the cost of mine labour. Their alliance with Milner to delay self-government and ‘solve’ the labour problem affronted the tenets of Britannic nationalism. For, at the Randlords’ behest, Milner proposed to bring in indentured labour from China to kick-start recovery. ‘Lord Milner is our salvation’, wrote Lionel Phillips, head of the largest mining house on the Rand.106 The result was uproar. ‘Chinese slavery’ offended humanitarian feeling in Britain. Much more dangerously, it roused the fear of English labour on the Rand that it would be displaced by ‘Asiatics’ – the same kind of fear that lay behind ‘White Australia’. It now suspected Milner's motives for delaying self-government and found common cause with the Afrikaner campaign to end direct rule. The racial bond uniting whites against blacks, Indians or Chinese was much too strong for the Imperial loyalism or British race patriotism on which Milner had counted so heavily.

By 1905, Milner's time was running out. Against the discontent of both English and Afrikaners, he needed strong backing from London. But Balfour's government was falling apart. Chamberlain had resigned in 1903 (over tariff reform) and war had broken out in the Unionist party. With the Liberals reunited behind the defence of free trade and against ‘Chinese slavery’ – Milner's gift to the opposition – their return to office seemed certain. When they did, guessed Milner, they would tear up his policy root and branch.107 Liberal dislike of the Randlords, their sympathy for white labour, and their ear to English as well as Afrikaner demands for self-rule would sweep away what remained of Milnerite state-building. Before that could happen, Milner himself had resigned, and the emergence of the new Afrikaner party, Het Volk, under Louis Botha and Jan Smuts signalled the end of his hope that a British Transvaal would make a ‘British South Africa’. Instead, the prompt concession of responsible government by the incoming Liberals brought Boer governments to power in the Orange Free State and (with the help of English voters) Transvaal by 1907. With the prospect of tension between the mining industry and its new political masters over non-white labour,108 the discord between the South African states over their share of railway and customs revenue, and the furious row over Natal's repression of a black uprising in 1906,109 the familiar cycle of South African politics seemed once more in full swing. After a brief frenzy of activity (as in 1878–81), Imperial influence had shrivelled in a winter of colonial discontent.

This prognosis proved too gloomy. It was easy to see the Transvaal movement under the two ‘bitter-ender’ generals as a portent of a revived ‘Krugerism’. There was, Fitzpatrick had warned in 1904, a ‘very powerful, silent, solid, organised party against us…[T]he Boers are politically irreconcilable…and will remain so until we completely and permanently outnumber them.’110 In reality, Botha and Smuts were convinced that only by an alliance with the ‘moderate English sections’ could they hope to defeat the ‘money power’ of the Progressive leaders.111 They were determined to prevent the ‘race’ card being used to rally the English vote, as Rhodes and Milner had used it before the war. Despite the Randlords’ fears, they were much too cautious to risk the mining economy by imposing the all-white labour policy urged by labour leaders.112 Far from adopting the linguistic and cultural nationalism of the Afrikaner leaders in the Cape and Free State, or championing the rural platteland against the Rand, the Het Volk government was careful to conciliate both English capital and English labour, in case their reunion let loose the power that had brought down Kruger's republic.

More to the point, both Botha and Smuts were in favour of South African union. Not the united British South Africa under English control that Milner had wanted, but a union nonetheless. Botha had deduced from the war that there was no room for two peoples and two flags in the sub-continent: ‘let us…have one government…let us now leave the past’, he had told Fitzpatrick in 1902.113 Botha may have reasoned that, after the war, the Transvaal Afrikaners would not be able to hold their own. Even with self-government, they would face a surge of English numbers and influence brought by the growth of the Rand. For Smuts, the case for union was even more urgent. He was, after all, a Cape Afrikaner and an early supporter of Rhodes. After 1902, he was as convinced as ever that white unity was imperative in the face of the ‘native problem’.114 The fragility of white power on the African continent obsessed Smuts all his life. But, like other Afrikaners, Smuts had a second, complementary, purpose. For him, the gravest threat to white unity and supremacy came from imperial interference: dividing the whites with its siren call of race and imperial loyalty; imposing the prejudices of missionaries and humanitarians. Union would squeeze out the influence that the Imperial government exerted through the High Commissioner, end the Imperial claim to be the trustee of the black majority, and install a ‘national’ government with the status and prestige of the Canadian, Australian and New Zealand dominions.

It was far from clear that early union along these lines would get London's support. In Milner's terms, it was premature. But Milner's successor took a different view. Selborne had been Milner's old ally at the Colonial Office in the prelude to war. But he arrived in South Africa (in 1905) after five years at the Admiralty. He knew at first hand the strategic anxieties behind the Anglo-Japanese alliance of 1902, and the entente made with France in 1904. His view of Boer politics was also much more optimistic than Milner's. Krugerism was finished, he insisted. Commerce and education were dispelling the stagnation on which it depended.115 Botha was a ‘Tory’ whose ideas were ‘big’ and who depended on English votes.116 His views on education, railways and agriculture were really like Milner's.117 Far from seeing the Transvaal under Botha as a threat to British interests, Selborne saw it as the engine of progress for the whole of South Africa. Union was vital to economic development (by breaking down differences over tariffs and railways). Economic development would draw more British migrants. More British migrants would speed the advance of modernity, dilute Afrikaner solidity and encourage Botha's non-racial politics. By an indirect route, Milner's great goal of ‘British South Africa’ would be reached after all.118

Selborne had a second reason to press union forward. The real danger to Britain's influence, so he began to argue, was the gulf between white opinion in South Africa and radicalism at home. With the Liberal triumph at the 1906 election, the radical phalanx in the House of Commons was pressing for change in India and Egypt as well as South Africa, where Liberal attacks on Natal (over its treatment of the Zulu rising in 1906) were fiercely resented.119 The radicals would soon alienate the South African English as well as the Afrikaners.120 But closer union would keep the radicals’ trouble-making out of South Africa, and pave the way towards the grander aim of Imperial Federation, to which Selborne, like Milner and Chamberlain, was deeply committed. The ‘Selborne Memorandum’, issued ostensibly at the request of the Cape prime minister (the rehabilitated Jameson, Rhodes’ political heir), was a coded call to arms for white unity against an overbearing metropole.121 Selborne's ‘kindergarten’ promoted the federal idea in a propaganda campaign. Selborne's own contribution was to push the divided and leaderless English (Jameson was no Rhodes)122 towards a union which (to some Transvaal Progressives) exchanged the distant hope of a ‘British’ Transvaal for the immediate certainty of an Afrikaner South Africa.123 With the local consensus on union (not federation) at the Durban convention in 1908, Selborne's colonial bandwagon overcame all resistance in London. The South Africa Act of 1909 removed Imperial control over internal affairs, including ‘native’ rights. Its only concession to Liberal unease was the exclusion (temporary, so it was thought) of the ‘High Commission territories’ of Basutoland (Lesotho), Bechuanaland (Botswana) and Swaziland from the new dominion. In 1910, a (mainly) Afrikaner ministry took office in Pretoria. Imperial policy became ‘trust Botha’.

It was a strange inconclusive finale to the greatest crisis of late-Victorian imperialism. But it was also a sign that the British connection was bound to depend on the scale and vigour of its local bridgehead. For much of the nineteenth century, the undecided struggle between whites and blacks for the South African interior had given significant leverage to the Imperial Factor and strengthened its grip on the coastal colonies. After the setback of 1881, the expanding influence of the Anglo-commercial elite had been the best hope of keeping the whole sub-continent within the British orbit. In 1898, Rhodes and Milner had fallen back on race loyalty and Britannic nationalism. After 1902, Milner had hoped to build his British South Africa on the surer foundation of a British majority. By 1908, even his staunchest friend among the South African English, Percy Fitzpatrick, acknowledged that, in the short term at least, there was no choice but to work with the ‘moderate’ Boers, Botha and Smuts, to prevent the revival of full-blooded republicanism – a view shared by Jameson. It is tempting to conclude that British blood and treasure had been spent in vain: that Britain's hold on South Africa was more dependent than ever upon Afrikaner goodwill. That would be mistaken.

In fact, Botha and Smuts understood how limited and conditional was their tenure of power. In theory, they could disavow their allegiance to the Imperial crown and secede from the Empire. In practice, loyalty was the only option. This was not because rebellion would be punished by a British invasion – though imperial intervention could not be ruled out. Nor because it would freeze the mineral economy with its close ties to London – though financial disruption would have followed. The real check on republican nationalism was more brutal. What Botha and Smuts feared most of all was a return to the ‘racial politics’ of 1899, and an English party united against them under Randlord leadership, under the banner of ‘the Empire in danger’. If that were to happen, then ‘Krugerism’ would also revive: and their centre would not hold. They could hardly doubt the results of repudiating the British connection: at best the break-up of the Union; at worst a civil war, pitting loyalist veterans against Boer commandos. This was the real legacy of the South African War: not the failure of Milner or the breaking of Kruger, but the entrenchment of the South African English, forged by the war and its prelude into a self-conscious ‘Britannic’ community within a brittle, gimcrack, settler state. Divided as they were by class and region and personal antagonisms, they were strong enough to exclude Afrikaner republicanism from practical politics. It was not what Milner and Rhodes had intended; but it proved curiously durable all the same.

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