The $64,000 Question

I was staying at a Lodge in the Natal Battlefields earlier this year and got chatting to one of the other guests. Upon hearing that I had written a bit on the Boer War, he asked me what I think is probably the $64,000 question:

“There’s one thing that just doesn’t make sense to me: if Britain attacked the Transvaal to grab the gold fields, why did it give them self-rule a few years later, and then independence just a few more years thereafter?”

With just one, straightforward question, this fellow cut through most of the nonsense that surrounds the Boer War with a single, rapier-like thrust, because the logical answer – indeed, really the only answer – to his question is: “Because Britain did not attack the Transvaal to grab the gold fields”. Once that simple reality is grasped and accepted, most of the rest of the propaganda surrounding the conflict comes crashing down in a rather unedifying heap.

Not even the most rabidly anti-British commentator (and there are plenty around) can deny that self-rule was granted to the Transvaal in 1906, or that, just four years thereafter, the Union of South Africa was – for all intents and purposes – granted independence. As the aforementioned holiday-maker pointed out, if there had been some devious, underhand scheme to ‘grab the goldfields’, neither of these events would have happened: ergo, there cannot have been a devious, underhand scheme to ‘grab the goldfields’. None of this is rocket-science and has been known to astute observers for years – though it is a testament to the enduring power of both propaganda and wishful thinking that many still cling to this fallacy, despite the complete absence of all evidence to support their view.

Leaving aside the salient fact that Britain did not ‘attack’ anyone in 1899 (they themselves were actually the ones who found their colonies under attack from republican invasion forces), the reality is that there was no logical reason for the dastardly British government to want to get their sweaty hands on the gold fields in any case. As Sir Arthur Conan-Doyle pointed out well over a hundred years ago, that simply was not how the British Empire worked:

‘The gold mines are private companies, with shares held by private shareholders, German and French, as well as British. Whether the British or the Boer flag flew over the country would not alienate a single share from any holder, nor would the wealth of Britain be any way greater … how is Britain the richer because her flag flies over the Rand? The Transvaal will be a self-governing colony, like all other British colonies, with its own finance minister, its own budget, its own taxes, even its own power of imposing duties upon British merchandise … We know all this because it is part of our British system, but it is not familiar to those nations who look upon their colonies as sources of direct revenue to the mother country.’

Of course, rather than actually addressing this point and without feeling the need to provide any evidence as to why he was wrong, my entertaining gaggle of detractors will simply play their normal trick of dismissing Conan-Doyle as a ‘Jingo’. I shall therefore also offer a statement from Monsieur Yves Guyot, a prominent French economist and liberal politician of the time. Guyot’s credentials are pretty decent: he worked as a journalist in Paris before entering the Chamber of Deputies in 1885 as the representative of the 1st Arrondissement of Paris, rising to become the Rapporteur General of the Budget of 1888 and being awarded a Silver Guy Medal by the Royal Statistical Society.
Writing in 1900, Guyot pointed out the hypocrisy of:

‘[Britain’s critics, who are] perfectly well aware that England will derive no benefit from the gold mines, nor will she take possession of them any more than she has done of the gold mines of Australia. They are private property.’

And that really is the crux of it, as the estimable Iain Smith concedes:

 ‘The evidence so far produced does not support the view that the British Government went to war (sic) in 1899 to bring the gold supply or the gold fields under British control or to protect British trade or the profits of cosmopolitan capitalists in the Transvaal. None of these was under serious threat, even if it was acknowledged that the capitalists did suffer from unnecessary impositions at the hands of a corrupt and inefficient government. The Transvaal was not the only part of the world where this occurred; despite their justifiable complaints, the capitalists on the Rand not only made sizable profits, under Kruger’s government, but were also successful in attracting the large-scale private investment which was so essential to their operations. While some of their leading members, by 1899, certainly looked to a British takeover in the Transvaal as likely to benefit their interests, there is as yet no evidence that their views formed a significant part of the British Government’s considerations in its mounting conflict with the Transvaal government of President Kruger. Transvaal gold formed only a small proportion of the low level of British gold reserves, which was a deliberate feature of Bank of England policy before, during and after the South African War.’

John Stephens, in his excellent book ‘Fuelling the Empire’, agrees:

‘Britain based the defence of her monetary stability, in the event of international gold rushes, on her position as a creditor nation, but did not build up a massive gold reserve beyond what was required for the issue of currency … France, too, defended the stability of her currency based on a status as a creditor nation, but in addition, she built up a massive gold reserve as a second line of defence. France, not Britain, was the greatest European purchaser of new gold for strategic purposes … there were no compelling reasons at that particular moment for Britain to wish to control the government of the Transvaal in order to have control over its gold mines. Whatever gold was mined in the Transvaal would in any event find its way to the international gold market and the European Monetary System, to which Britain had as much access as anybody else. Moreover, whoever bought the gold had to pay the companies that mined it. The mining companies made profits from selling gold, not those who controlled the governments of the producing countries. For Britain, there would thus be enormous disadvantages in taking over the Transvaal, but no conceivable economic advantage to governing a gold-producing colony—it was a much better proposition to hold prime trading rights with a gold-producing colony. There was thus no economic imperative driving Britain to covet the Transvaal for its gold.’

No one seriously claims that the British government seized any of the mines from their private owners and, as noted above, if the plan had indeed been to grab the Transvaal’s gold mines, it is never explained why Great Britain would then grant self-rule to the Transvaal in 1906, thereby forfeiting any chance of at least being able to collect a bit from taxes or tariffs on any gold produced. Despite some frantic attempts to claim otherwise, the granting of self-rule had nothing to do with the election of Henry Campbell-Bannerman’s Liberal government in December 1905: as Conan-Doyle noted years before the election took place, this was simply how the Empire worked, and both the newly-elected government and the outgoing Conservative one had planned this for the new colonies. Indeed, Lord Selborne, who succeeded Milner as High Commissioner to South Africa in May 1905 (when Balfour’s Conservatives were still in power), arrived in his new role with letters confirming that self-rule would be forthcoming. Selborne, who had been ‘Pushful Joe’ Chamberlain’s junior in the Colonial Office and who was Lord Salisbury’s son-in-law, would remain in his position under the new Liberal government and oversee the granting of self-rule to the former Boer republics and the unification of South Africa.

The man Selborne replaced, Lord Milner, has been re-invented as a very convenient war-mongering bogeyman by some today, but it is noteworthy that he was by no means ostracized by the newly-elected Liberal Party for the part he played in the run-up to the Boer War. Indeed, Milner would later serve the Liberal prime minister, Lloyd George, on his War Cabinet during the Great War, then as his Secretary of State for War, and finally, after the elections in December 1918, as his Colonial Secretary. This would have been unthinkable had the big-wigs of the Liberal Party considered him part of a nefarious Conservative Party conspiracy to launch some sort of gold-grabbing war of conquest against the Transvaal.

Equally noteworthy is that another of the Left’s favourite ‘war-mongers’, Dr Leander Starr Jameson, held secret talks with King Edward VII before returning to South Africa as a member of the Unification Conference and did more than anyone else to unify the various territories of South Africa and set them on the course for ‘independence’. Even his arch-enemy, Merriman, described Jameson as the ‘prime mover’ behind the push for a unified South Africa with Dominion status – effectively, independence.

The salient fact is that both major parties in Great Britain were only too ready to divest themselves of the newly acquired territory, which gives a lie to the various conspiracy theories about imperial intentions. Put simply, no one has ever been able to adequately explain why Great Britain, the era’s undisputed champion of free trade and a functioning, multi-party democracy with a vibrant free press, would provoke a war of aggression against what was essentially a sovereign nation, to steal resources already largely owned by British investors—but then not actually seize any mines from their owners, and instead grant the new colony self-rule just four years later, and what was essentially independence just another four years after that. It is never explained how Britain’s enthusiasm to divest itself of the Transvaal with such haste fits the theory that the scheming British Government had been desperate to snatch the goldfields in 1899. Surely even the most woolly-headed critic of the Empire must spot the contradictions in their argument.

For one reason or another, it is hard for some to give up the comforting fiction that the wicked old Brits ‘invaded’ the Transvaal to steal their gold. However, once this claim is accepted to be the nonsense that it so clearly is, everything else starts fitting into place and the real causes of the war can be assessed a little more rationally.

Gold certainly played a part in the run up to the war, for it was the Witwatersrand gold rush which so rapidly altered the demographics of the Transvaal, bringing in thousands of ‘Uitlanders’. And it was Kruger’s pig-headed response to their perfectly reasonable requests for a fair franchise which ramped up tensions. The gold rush also played another important role, as it was almost solely responsible for the fact that, by 1895, the Transvaal’s economy was 25 times the size it had been in 1887. This bonanza permitted Kruger to go on a spending spree, splurging money on military hardware and his ever-active secret service. Writing in 1900, Michael Farrelly, the brilliant Irish barrister and advisory counsel to Kruger’s government in the late 1890s (wait – let me guess: he was a ‘Jingo’ too?), described the Transvaal’s rapid military build-up in the years prior to the war:

 ‘…it is quite easy to prepare for war if you have gold, with which to obtain cannon and rifles, and ammunition, and skilled strategists, veterans in stricken fields and expert artillerists. There is no necessity, if things go well, of declaring war until the British Empire is at war with another Great Power.’

Unfortunately for Kruger, matters came to a head before Great Britain was embroiled in another war – but he launched his crack-pot attempt to drive the Empire from Southern Africa in any case.

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