Richard Steyn is at pains to claim his biography about Milner was not written to continue the vilification of the man, and I do not doubt that he set out with honourable intentions. I must admit, however, that I feared the worst when I read, on the back cover of the book, that Milner was ‘primarily responsible for the Boer War’… so not Kruger, then? You know, the man who had planned for war since at least 1887, and was the man who declared war, and started the war by invading, annexing and looting neighbouring territory? No… not him, but instead a man who arrived in South Africa ten years after Kruger started pushing for war, and who didn’t declare war, and didn’t have the power to declare war anyway? That’s the one they’re going with? Right – this is going to be interesting.
My spider-sense really started tingling when I noticed a shout-out on the cover from none other than… wait for it… Professor Fransjohan Pretorius – a man described as being ‘the chief candle holder of the sputtering flame of the Afrikaaner myth’[i]. Pretorius had managed to stop day-dreaming about what I wear under my kilt (we all have our fantasies, I suppose) for long enough to sagely pronounce the book to be ‘balanced’. A ringing endorsement which pretty much guaranteed that it would be anything but.
The author, with admirable forthrightness, announces in the Preface that he is strongly feels that ‘justice’ was on the side of Kruger’s republic. His honesty is refreshing, though it is remarkable that, in this day and age, someone would publicly admit to thinking ‘justice’ lay with a corrupt, oligarchic regime which jealously held absolute power in the hands of a tiny, self-appointed Master Race, which openly (and violently) discriminated on race, religion and language, which practiced slavery in all but name, and which constantly expanded at the expense of African tribes in every direction. A regime, in fact, which made the later Apartheid government look positively benign and inclusive. And which, furthermore, was the regime which started the war by invading their neighbours. A strange definition of ‘justice’, but one can begin to understand why the book met with the approval of the chief candle holder himself.
Though he openly admits the biography is not an ‘academic work’, it is nevertheless a shameless cop-out to simply declare, as Mr Steyn does, that he ‘bypasses’ historiographical arguments over the causes of the Boer War for purposes of (ahem) ‘readability’… and yet he nevertheless feels entitled to sweepingly declare Milner to have been primarily responsible for it. It would be like my brazenly declaring the Moon Landings to be fake, but ‘bypassing’ anything and everything that doesn’t support my argument, for the sake of (ahem) ‘readability’. That a Professor of History can approve of this bizarre, and blatantly prejudiced, approach to the subject leaves one wondering at the standard of education offered at the University of Pretoria these days.
Furthermore, I quickly began to doubt Steyn’s knowledge of the Colonial period when I read his remarkable account of the Siege of Khartoum:
His [ie. General Gordon’s] unorthodox tactics worked: Gladstone reluctantly agreed to send a relief force up the Nile, and in January 1885 Khartoum was liberated after three days of heavy fighting in which Gordon himself died bravely.[ii]
At best, that is very badly written. At worst, it’s nonsense. Mr Steyn suggests that the British relief force raised the siege of Khartoum (‘tactics worked’, ‘Khartoum was liberated’), with Gordon dying heroically in the action. In reality, Khartoum was taken by the rebels days before the relief column could get there, and Gordon was butchered along with the rest of the garrison. Later on, Mr Steyn claims that, in September 1898, Kitchener captured ‘Omdurman – across the Nile from Khartoum – from the Mahdi’.[iii] This would have been truly remarkable, given that the Mahdi died in 1885.
Oh well, the book is not really about the Sudan, so I ploughed on, hoping it would improve. Unfortunately, it was to get worse before it got better.
It is amazing that so many feel they can write a book connected with the Boer War, yet not bother to even mention to Secret Conferences of 1887, at which Kruger urged the astounded Orange Free State delegation to join him in an offensive alliance against the British[iv]. Alas, Mr Steyn follows in this ignoble tradition, completely leaving out this critical, but awkwardly inconvenient affair, and thus there is no way anyone other than the Exalted Wizard of Boer War Myths could consider the book to be ‘balanced’.
Maintaining the fantasy that the Boer War was ‘primarily’ Milner’s fault can only be done by completely ignoring the problematic fact that Kruger’s Transvaal harboured aggressive intentions towards British territory, and dreamed of driving the British out of South Africa altogether, at least a decade before Milner even arrived on the scene. As one of the members of the OFS delegation noted:
‘The South African Republic desired nothing more nor less than the offensive and defensive alliance which, in my opinion, would have been a breach of the Convention of the 23rd February, 1854, by virtue of which we held Sovereign independence. That independence would have been imperiled thereby, and ourselves made sharers in the animosity cherished against the British Government, which appeared very clear to me during the conference in Pretoria in June 1887’.
Kruger’s dreams of an offensive alliance against Britain were thwarted in 1887, thanks to President Jan Brand[v] of the OFS, who wanted nothing to do with Kruger’s warmongering ambitions. The simple reality, as the Secret Conferences make clear, is that Kruger et al had long wanted to replace Great Britain as the dominant power in the region; leaving this critical aspect of the story out entirely makes Mr Steyn’s account of what happened totally lop-sided – completely ‘unbalanced’, one even might say. By playing to the peanut gallery, however, and perhaps thinking of sales rather than upsetting and alienating his potential readers, Mr Steyn is guilty of doing what Leo Amery described well over a hundred years ago:
These extracts [from the Secret Conferences] give some idea of the hopes and fears that animated President Kruger and his followers in 1887. They hardly suggest the theory, so common among those whose knowledge of South African affairs begins with New Year’s Day, 1896, that Kruger bore no ill-will to England or the English before the bitter disillusionment of the Jameson Raid.[vi]
Mr Steyn also makes no attempt to explain why the Uitlanders felt they needed to matters into their own hands: indeed, their grievances are described as being ‘exaggerated’. Would anyone dismiss the grievances of black South Africans during Apartheid as an ‘exaggeration’? Mr Steyn repeatedly refers to the Uitlanders as ‘temporary’ workers in the Transvaal. While some undoubtedly were, he ignores the tens of thousands who were settlers in the (very) young country, just as Kruger’s Boers were.
As John Stephens brilliantly put it:
There was no good reason why people, coming to what can at best be described as a nascent state, perennially indigent, with no industry, no commerce or economy, and no expertise to change said situation, should be denied full participation in that state by those whose only claim was that they had arrived a few years earlier. Even more so, when those earlier arrivals had in the space of those years not achieved anything constructive, except for the fact that they had survived.[vii]
Far from deserving of being dismissed as ‘temporary’ workers, the Uitlanders were men who had lived in the Transvaal for years, who had brought invaluable expertise, had been liable for Commando service, had invested millions of Pounds in the nation, bought property, established businesses, and paid the vast majority of the nation’s taxes… yet were continually denied the vote by Kruger’s endless, shameless, chicanery. Their aspirations for a 5-year franchise rule were perfectly reasonable, and this would only have brought Kruger’s Transvaal in line with the rest of the territories of South Africa, and it is certainly not ‘balanced’ to pretend otherwise.
Though it is common to describe Kruger’s Transvaal as a ‘Boer republic’, this is to overlook the fact that Kruger’s ‘Chosen People’ were probably a minority of the white inhabitants – who were in turn just a tiny minority of the population of the nation as a whole. At one point, Mr Steyn notes Kruger’s denial of a fair franchise to the Uitlanders was on the basis that the 60,000 Uitlanders would outnumber Kruger’s 30,000 ‘Chosen People’, and thus they would be able to vote Kruger out of power[viii] – yet Mr Steyn makes it appear that Milner was completely unreasonable to push for this, which makes one wonder about his views on democracy. I do not imagine for a moment that he justified the continuation of Apartheid, on the basis that extending the vote to black South Africans would mean the National Party would lose power… so why the difference?
Furthermore, and though he certainly involved himself in it, the uprising in the Transvaal was not Rhodes’ idea – the aspirations of the Uitlanders to have a say in running the nation which they were almost entirely responsible for building, was, again, no less reasonable than that of black South Africans during the Apartheid era. I doubt many histories of the latter dismiss the reasonable aims of those who challenged the Apartheid government, yet Mr Steyn makes no attempt to show that the Uitlanders were treated terribly by the Kruger regime, or, indeed, to make clear that their efforts to solve this were perfectly reasonable.
Mr Steyn also studiously ignores all Kruger’s expansionism, and the gun-running and rabble-rousing his well-financed Secret Service was up to in British territories, prior to the Jameson Raid[ix]. Leaving this out entirely suggests his main aim is to present the Jameson Raid as the start of all the tension, and thus to excuse everything that Kruger did thereafter. By completely ignoring all the pre-Raid activities of Kruger’s spooks, Mr Steyn misses a fundamental part of the backstory.
That there was no mention of my books in his bibliography came as no surprise, but it is remarkable Mr Steyn also didn’t feel the need to use Michael Farrelly, John Fraser, or Paul Botha, as references. Again, the reason to overlook these first-hand sources, one written by a man at the very centre of Kruger’s government, the others by men who served in the OFS volksraad, is unclear, and yet another surprising omission.
Mr Steyn is resolute in his determination to put the best possible gloss on Kruger’s odiously despicable regime. For example, he claims that, within two years of the Jameson Raid, the Transvaal and the Orange Free State entered into ‘a defensive alliance’.[x] This is not true. There had been a defensive alliance in place between the republics since March 1889[xi]. It had been signed shortly after the last calm, rational President of the OFS, Jan Brand, died, and was replaced by F.W. Reitz[xii] – a firebrand who shared Kruger’s lunatic dreams of forging an Afrikaans Empire from the Zambesi to the Cape. Reitz had even used the occasion of his inauguration to make a truly remarkable speech in which he declared his ‘fervent desire to see the day when the United States of South Africa should have become an accomplished fact’. Reitz’s dream did not, of course, envisage this new nation forming under the Union Flag; indeed, he expressly declared his aspiration to have British power excluded from any part or lot in its accomplishment[xiii].
What Kruger and President Marthinus Steyn[xiv] (another fiery zealot, who had replaced Reitz in 1896) actually entered into a couple of years after the Jameson Raid was an offensive alliance[xv] – the same alliance that Kruger had been pushing for since 1887. John Fraser, a long-serving member of the OFS Volksraad who had taken part in the Secret Conferences ten years earlier, remained bitterly opposed to the treaty, stating that it put the Orange Free State at the mercy of the Transvaal, supported a government that was shamefully corrupt, and jeopardized the friendly relations the Orange Free State had previously enjoyed with Great Britain.[xvi]
Though Fraser was later proved to be right on all counts, Kruger’s persistence had finally paid off, and the Old Troll apparently celebrated this pivotal moment by drinking a glass of champagne—the only time in his life he ever consumed alcohol.[xvii] Those who prefer to place all the blame for the war on Milner’s shoulders tend to ignore the fact that Kruger and Steyn signed their offensive alliance two months before Milner even arrived in South Africa. And, more to the point, Kruger had first started pushing for it a full decade before Milner appeared on the scene. A very strange thing to omit from the biography, though perhaps this inconvenient reality was (ahem) ‘bypassed for reasons of readability’.
With Kruger’s long-cherished offensive alliance finally in place, things moved quickly. ‘For the realisation of Mr Kruger’s schemes, the offensive and defensive alliance with the Orange Free State was an indispensable preliminary’[xviii] and the Transvaal started funding a programme of military expansion in the Orange Free State,[xix] turning what, in 1897, had been a sleepy backwater, into a force to be reckoned with by 1899. Additionally, in January 1898 the executive council of the Transvaal passed a resolution to strengthen their connection with the Afrikaner Bond, who would undoubtedly ‘render them loyal assistance’. Tellingly, they also resolved to ‘continue to acquire all the latest improvements in armament, remembering that they had to provide arms for more than themselves’.[xx]
So unless he really knows very little about South African history, why, one wonders, did Steyn claim his namesake and Kruger had only signed a defensive alliance? And how can anyone without an embittered, blinkered, self-serving approach to history consider this to be ‘balanced’?
Even though there is a chapter named ‘1898’, the fact that Kruger had invasion plans drawn up with the assistance of German Staff Officers in the March[xxi] of that year is totally ignored – another remarkable omission. With this vital fact conveniently air-brushed from the story, we are instead sagely informed that this was the year ‘Milner had made up his mind that the independence of the SAR was incompatible with the interests of Britain, because the republic was the wellspring of Afrikaner nationalism in South Africa’[xxii]. Relying, as usual, on secondary sources, the reference for this supposedly ‘damning’ claim is simply something J.S. Marais (a South African History Professor during the Apartheid era) wrote in his ‘The Fall of Kruger’s Republic’. The sentence, almost word-for-word, does indeed appear in Marais’ book, but it is simply his opinion, and is not referenced. Without any actual evidence, there is no way that either Marias or Steyn could possibly know at what point Milner ‘made up his mind’ about anything. Interestingly, Steyn’s reference to this line in Marais’ book is ‘p.329-p.333’. In my copy of the book, p.333 is actually the first page of the ‘Notes on Sources’, and nothing to do with Milner at all.
More to the point, and rather at odds with this claim is that, in the July of 1898, Milner received word of a conversation in which the state secretary of the Transvaal, F.W. Reitz, had agreed that the uitlanders:
‘…ought to be admitted gradually to the franchise, though it would be difficult to persuade the old Boer oligarchy to grant it. On being once more assured that Great Britain had no design against the independence of the Republic, Reitz frankly confessed that he would like to see England guard the coasts of South Africa while the inhabitants shaped their own destiny. When reminded that there were 80,000 Englishmen in the Transvaal who had only asked for a fair share in the development of the resources in the country, he replied, ‘there are many things in this administration at which no honest man can look with approval.’[xxiii]
Reitz’s confession prompted Milner to write a private letter to Mr Edmund Fraser, the Acting British Agent in Pretoria in the absence of Conyngham Greene. Dated 19 August 1898, the letter read:
‘Reitz’s attitude is very remarkable, especially as I believe it to be entirely honest. I need not tell you that it is our policy to meet him half-way. There is just one chance in a hundred that their attitude both towards us and the uitlanders may undergo a change—a permanent change, I mean—in the Reitz Direction. In that case, the ultimate fight might yet be averted, as we don’t want the Transvaal, any more than the Orange Free State, but only fair treatment for British industry and capital and an abstention on the part of their government from intrigues with foreign powers.’[xxiv]
None of this gives the impression of someone who had ‘made up his mind that the independence of the SAR was incompatible with the interests of Britain’. Instead, it merely depicts a fairly hard-nosed diplomat seeking to solve a blatant and glaring injustice.
As Mr Steyn’s tale moves into 1899, he makes absolutely no mention of the Bogus Conspiracy, an event which overshadowed the Bloemfontein Conference held in the June of that year, and the distrust of Kruger at the latter can only be understood by explaining the former. Why another such critical and pivotal episode in the story is simply left out is unclear. Had HM Government been desperate for a casus belli, as we are always told, then the Bogus Conspiracy gave them one. That they didn’t take it, and instead continued to negotiate, is perhaps why the whole affair is simply omitted by Mr Steyn.
For all his omissions, special pleading, and commitment to (ahem) ‘readability’, the best case Mr Steyn can come up with for blaming Milner for the war (rather than Kruger, who had planned for it for over a decade, and who was the one who declared war, and who was the one who started the war by invading Natal and the Cape), is that he broke off negotiations at Bloemfontein, and he was unbending in his desire to see a fairer franchise implemented in the Transvaal. This was hardly an unreasonable aim, and – as previously mentioned – far from being onerous, as it would only have brought Kruger’s republic into line with the other territories of the region. Negotiations were still ongoing (or rather, the Transvaal was pretending to negotiate, so as to buy time until the summer rains began) when Kruger mobilised forces to the border of Natal in early September[xxv] (another critical event which Mr Steyn simply omits to mention – ‘balance’?) and then, four months after the failed talks at Bloemfontein, Kruger declared war and invaded.
Mr Steyn does not in any way, therefore, make a convincing case that Milner was at all ‘primarily responsible’ for the Boer War. Not only does he completely ignore Kruger’s (overwhelming) culpability in proceedings, but he overlooks the fact that British policy was decided in London, not Cape Town. As the estimable Andrew Roberts noted in his magisterial biography of the ‘Victorian Titan’, Salisbury approved every communication sent to Kruger[xxvi], and it was he and Chamberlain who, perfectly understandably, decided to apply pressure on Pretoria, not Milner. Salisbury was well aware the real issue was who would be ‘boss’ in South Africa: would Britain retain her paramount position, or would Kruger’s resurgent, belligerent and expansionist Transvaal achieve their long-cherished ‘restoration of South Africa to the Dutch race’[xxvii]. Or perhaps even the aim stated in a secret memorandum penned by Jan Smuts, a month before Kruger declared war, and days before Britain belatedly decided to dispatch reinforcements to Natal: ‘a United South Africa, one of the great empires [rijken] of the world… an Afrikaans republic in South Africa stretching from Table Bay to the Zambesi’.[xxviii]
Milner was certainly passionate about resolving the patently unfair situation the Uitlanders found themselves in, and he clearly saw Kruger for the warmongering old dinosaur he was; but the war was in no way caused by him going ‘off-piste’ or indulging in a spot of free-styling.
Not content with putting the blame for the war which Kruger started on Milner’s shoulders, Mr Steyn then attempts to blame him for the failure of the Middelburg peace conference on 28 February 1901. In reality, Botha had made it clear from the very outset at Middelburg that he had no interest in peace unless independence (ie. ‘continued rule by a self-appointed Master Race which comprised a tiny minority of the population’) was granted[xxix], and thus the talks were ‘abortive from the outset’ as there was simply no way this could be agreed to. A week after the conference, however, and after consultation with London, Kitchener wrote to Botha with a proposal for peace which included, among other things, and in a rather roundabout way, that a limited extension of the franchise to blacks—similar to that in place in Britain’s Cape Colony—should be implemented after representative government was granted to the two Boer states.[xxx] At the insistence of London, Kitchener had also been told to include a statement confirming that ‘…the legal position of Kaffirs will be similar to that which they hold in the Cape Colony’,[xxxi] something which, unfortunately for all concerned, men as prejudiced and intolerant as the bittereinders would never accept.
Sure enough, the peace offer was rejected by Botha, but this was certainly not Milner’s fault. With Botha et al determined not to let blacks have even a limited say in the running of the former republics, another thirteen months of brutal fighting, terrorism, massacre, and murder ensued. In what was one of the few significant changes[xxxii] between the Middelburg offer and the peace proposal finally agreed at Vereeniging in May 1902, the troublesome clause was subtly changed to ‘no franchise be granted for natives until after self-government’ and any mention of the legal position of non-whites was quietly omitted.[xxxiii] So what the bittereinders – the side of ‘justice’ in the eyes of Mr Steyn, let us not forget – were fighting for by then was to deny the blacks of the former republics any chance of a vote, and to ensure they were unable to enjoy the same legal position as their counterparts in the Cape. It really is stretching credibility to blame Milner for the racist intransigence of the bittereinders, and the failure of the Middelburg talks was entirely the fault of Botha and the Boer hardliners.
Indeed, the coverage of the war itself is one of the poorest aspects of the book. We are treated to the usual (unreferenced) old chestnuts of Britain being sure it would be ‘over by tea time’[xxxiv] or ‘over in three months’[xxxv]. We are breathlessly told that De la Rey was ‘yet-to-be-defeated’ by the time of the final peace talks – something which is only true if you completely ignore all the times he was[xxxvi]. Mr Steyn manages to discuss the death rates in the Concentration Camps without once mentioning the Measles Epidemic that was rampaging through South Africa at the time, and which was, unsurprisingly, by far the biggest killer in them[xxxvii]. He trumpets British defeats – sorry: ‘humiliations’ – ignores British victories, and studiously ignores Boer defeats. He makes no mention of the fact that an average of 1,500 Boers were being captured / killed each month during the Guerrilla War, and no mention of the accepted ratio of ‘Government’ troops to terrorists required to win a counter-insurgency (ie. 10:1).
Mr Steyn bandies about figures of there only being 10,000 bittereinders. In fact, no less than 20,779 turned themselves in at the surrender in May 1902. As Imperial forces had accounted for 29,952 Boers (killed, wounded and, overwhelmingly, taken prisoner) between January 1901 and the final surrender, this means there were at least 50,371 Boers still fighting (though certainly not all in the field at the time, obviously, as that’s not how terrorist campaigns work) on 1 January 1901.[xxxviii]
With the war finally out of the way, however, the book improves somewhat in the last few chapters. Perhaps Mr Steyn no longer felt the need to placate his readers, and pander to their prejudices; maybe he knew there was simply no way he was going to get a decent shout-out on the cover from The High Priest of the True Believers unless he faithfully trotted out at least a few of the tired old myths. Despite this improvement, however, and though I do not doubt Mr Steyn considers he wrote an even-handed book, there are so many mistakes and ‘convenient’ omissions that there is no way one can consider it to be a fair appraisal of the period, or of Milner himself.
[i] O’Connor, Short Guide to the History of South Africa, 1902-1989, p.67
[ii] Steyn, Milner, p.24
[iii] Steyn, Milner, p.87
[iv] Fraser, Episodes of my Life, p.84-127 (this really should be required reading for all True Believers)
[v] Sir Johannes Henricus Brand, GCMG (1823–1888)
[vi] Amery, The Times History of the War in South Africa, Vol.1, p.99
[vii] Stephens, Fueling the Empire p. 298
[viii] Steyn, Milner, p.100
[ix] O’Connor, A Short History of South Africa, 1652-1902, p.271
[x] Steyn, Milner, p.59
[xi] Cook, The Rights and Wrongs of the Transvaal War, p.94
[xii] Francis William Reitz, Jr. (1844–1934)
[xiii] Farrelly, The Settlement After the War in South Africa, p.86
[xiv] Martinus Theunis Steyn (1857–1916)
[xv] Cook, The Rights and Wrongs of the Transvaal War, p.94 – p.97; Amery, The Times History of the War in South Africa, Vol.1, p.189
[xvi] Cook, The Rights and Wrongs of the Transvaal War, p.95
[xvii] Sternberg & Henderson, My Experiences of the Boer War, p.73
[xviii] Cook, The Rights and Wrongs of the Transvaal War, p.97
[xix] Farrelly, The Settlement After the War in South Africa, p.168
[xx] War Office, Military Notes of the Dutch Republics of South Africa, p.27
[xxi] War Office, Military Notes of the Dutch Republics of South Africa, p.52
[xxii] Steyn, Milner, p.69
[xxiii] Headlam, The Milner Papers, p. 190
[xxiv] Headlam, The Milner Papers, p. 191
[xxv] Farrelly, The Settlement After the War in South Africa, p.213
[xxvi] Roberts, Salisbury, Victorian Titan, p.732
[xxvii] Roberts, Salisbury, Victorian Titan, p.738
[xxviii] Roberts, Salisbury, Victorian Titan, p.734
[xxix] Maurice, History of the War in South Africa, 1899-1902, Vol.4, p.523
[xxx] Pakenham, The Boer War, p.563
[xxxi] Maurice & Grant, History of the War in South Africa, 1899-1902, Vol.4, p.526
[xxxii] The only other significant change concerned the amnesty of Cape rebels.
[xxxiii] Conan-Doyle, The Great Boer War, p.740
[xxxiv] The phrase ‘tea time war’ was coined in the British press as Kruger’s insolent ultimatum expired at tea time. It had nothing to do with the war being over by tea time
[xxxv] Pre-War estimates by British military intelligence reckoned on 200,000 men being required in the event of war with the Boer republics. By April 1900, about six months into the war, Britain did still not have that number in theatre
[xxxvi] De la Rey held senior command positions at several defeats in the Conventional War (Graspan, Modder River, Driefontein, Diamond Hill), and, during the Guerrilla War, among others, was in command of forces defeated at Elands River, Hartebeestfontein, and Lichtenburg, as well as being roughly handled by the ILH near Klerksdorp on 22 March 1901. De la Rey’s force was routed a few days later at Wildfontein by Babington, losing all his guns and about 200 men (killed and captured). If what Mr Steyn what means by ‘yet-to-be-defeated’ is ‘never captured’, then this claim could equally apply to Buller.
[xxxvii] Tellingly, Steyn does not mention Dr Elizabeth van Heyningen’s groundbreaking study into the camps in his bibliography
[xxxviii] Maurice & Grant, History of the War in South Africa, 1899-1902, Vol.4, p.705