Some of the characters who lurk about on Quora are always good for a laugh, and a recent question provided a bit of amusement:
Why did the British Empire fight the Boer War to then almost immediately grant the Boers self-government after its conclusion?
By Quora’s shocking standards, it’s actually a pretty good question (certainly better than the usual “who would win in a fight between Superman and the Hulk?” or “What is the Capital of France?” type stuff), and one which I have pretty much covered in a previous blog article:
Anyway, I noted that two people had already responded, and both had (without giving any references, of course) claimed that it was all because the kind-hearted Liberals came into power in 1906, and, unlike the naughty old Conservatives, they favoured self-rule.
This claim is, of course, not actually based on reality, as a commitment to self-rule was very clearly one of the terms of the 1902 Vereeniging Peace Treaty. Indeed, moves towards self-rule had already started before the election of the Liberal Government, so I replied to one fellow to point this out:
‘The granting self-rule had little to do with the election of Henry Campbell-Bannerman’s Liberal government in early 1906: both the newly elected government and the outgoing Conservative one had planned this for South Africa. 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.’
Clearly enraged that anyone would have the impudence and cheek to dare to challenge the ‘wise words’ of his sage-like pronouncement, the author of this response then spluttered the following:
‘Stop trying to be cleverer than you are. It was Milner’s advice to the Boers that the Liberals would soon oust the Conservative government and grant self rule that persuaded the Boers to accept peace terms.’
Rather than ‘taking my telling’ like some sort of naughty schoolboy, I responded again, with another dose of historical reality:
‘No need to resort to personal attacks when someone challenges your opinion using things like facts.
Interesting to claim that Milner could see 4 years into the future, and just after the Conservatives won a landslide in 1900. I would suggest the Boers accepted peace terms because the British army was capturing 1,500 of them a month during the guerrilla war.’
And back he came once more, frantically playing the victim:
‘I was only responding to the hostility of your comment. Do you have to patronise people like fools?
Milner was well in formed politically and knew the skids were under the Conservatives and what the Liberals would do. There was nothing clairvoyant about his advice to the Boers. The 1900 General Election was won by a Conservative/Liberal Unionist coalition. Furthermore the Boer War was in its early stages. By 1903 the British public was less impressed. By 1906 they wanted an accounting.‘
Christ alone knows what ‘1903’ had to do with anything, as the peace talks happened in 1902. Anyway, rather than either telling him to grow a pair, or pointing out that only a fool would ignore what had been agreed in the Treaty of Vereeniging, and instead claim it was all because Milner could see into the future, I responded again with historically accurate facts:
‘There was certainly no hostility intended, and, upon re-reading my reply, I still cannot see anything that could possibly be construed as ‘hostile’.
I am simply making the point, and as Conan-Doyle wrote in 1902, that is is undeniable that self rule was always going to happen – indeed, it was central to the Treaty of Vereeniging, and Smuts was able to include a clause that the thorny issue of black enfranchisement would only be decided when self-government was realised for the Transvaal and Free State.
It was there in the Treaty in black and white; that self-rule would be granted to the former republics was enshrined as point 7 in the agreement:
‘MILITARY ADMINISTRATION in the Transvaal and Orange River Colony will at the earliest possible date be succeeded by CIVIL GOVERNMENT and, as soon as circumstances permit, Representative Institutions, leading up to self-government, will be introduced’
Self-government is mentioned again in point 8, so I struggle to see any ambiguity on this.
One could, I suppose, make the argument that the coming of the Liberal Government in 1906 accelerated the process, but the Treaty made it clear that this had to happen ‘as soon as circumstances permit’. Either way, it most certainly wasn’t something the Liberals came up with four years after the end of the war. Besides, and as I said initially, moves were already underway on that front with Selborne’s arrival in 1905.
Furthermore, if Martin Meredith is to be believed, Milner was actually the one pushing for harsher terms.’
At this point, he seems to have scuttled away, perhaps realising that I am not just going to ‘take his word for it’, when what he says is not based on historical reality, and, indeed, largely relies on claims of people being able to see into the future.
It always amazes me that such people will just spout something and then demand others accept it uncritically. Even more remarkable is that so few people want to learn – you’d think he would be interested to learn the wording of the Peace Treaty, for example, but instead seems to take the mere mention of it as some sort of personal affront.
Anyway, my own reply to the question was as follows:
Because that was how the Empire operated. The Boers had started the war by (rather rashly) attacking the British, but once they had been defeated, London had no desire or motive to keep direct control of either of the former republics. The sooner they were off-loaded and running their own affairs, the better for the long-suffering British tax-payer.
Despite the modern myths peddled about the British Empire, a feature of the Victorian period was that London was always keen to rid itself of direct control of colonies and ever ready to grant home rule. Indeed, the desire to grant responsible rule to colonies began with Nova Scotia as far back as 1848. Most of the territories in New Zealand and Australia had been granted responsible rule by 1860, even though, and much to the chagrin of HM’s Government, Western Australia took a little longer as it was so dependent on funding from the motherland.
As far as imperial rule went, the British were always very much hands off. Colonies were expected to stand on their own two feet and pay for themselves: to set and collect their own taxes and tariffs, raise and equip local defence forces, and basically cause as little trouble to the motherland as possible. The ultimate manifestation of this was the granting of dominion status to the likes of Australia, New Zealand, and Canada. By becoming dominions, erstwhile colonies were essentially independent of British rule and were, for all intents and purposes, sovereign nations.
Though they might occasionally have volunteered money for the Royal Navy, or raised units to support the imperial cause in times of war, neither colonies nor dominions paid any sort of ‘rent’ to the mother country. During the Second World War, for example, London agreed to underwrite the costs of Indian Army soldiers serving overseas with the result that Great Britain owed India £1,321m by the end of the war. A staggering (yet never mentioned) 40% of Britain’s overseas war debt was thus owed to one of her ‘poor, exploited’ colonies.
With respect to the Boer War, back in 1900, the award-winning French economist, Monsieur Guyot, pointed out that London had no reason to covet the republics – a salient fact that was so often ignored at the time, and still is today:
‘[Britain’s critics 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 as Sir Arthur Conan-Doyle also rightly asserted, back in January 1902, while the war was still spluttering on:
‘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.’
Conan-Doyle and Guyot would both be disappointed to know that this inconvenient reality is equally unfamiliar to, or ignored by, many present-day commentators.
This prompted a splendidly lunatic response from someone called ‘Schalk van der Merwe’. His unhinged rantings have, alas, been removed from Quora, but luckily I received them in an email:
Schalk Van der Merwe replied to your comment on an answer to: “Why did the British Empire fight the Boer War to then almost immediately grant the Boers self-government after its conclusion?”
It is your arrogance and your disrespect for the Boers and their suffering that angers me. It is your nonchalance and your glee about the suffering of others that makes me wonder what type of person you are. It is your disdain of the conquered nations and your attitude of ‘oh well, they deserved it’ what did the Boers do to deserve the treatment they received? You came to our country to rape and pillage our resources, subjugate our people, and, ‘oh yes but you started it’, inexperienced politicians goaded into war by experienced and greedy politicians, in the name of the Empire, so that they could justify their actions.
Just by the by, having worked in the UAE I experienced another invasion; your yobos forcing their pub culture on every one else. Probably because the Muslims want the pubs to close down in Britain. You have been invaded by the Muslim hordes, and you don’t even realise it. Enjoy living under Sharia law!, and, oh yes, stop being so petulant!
Quite what British pubs in the UAE have to do with HM Government honouring the Treaty of Vereeniging, I have yet to work out. Mnr van der Merwe’s temper-tantrum nonetheless serves as a great example of the sort of insanity one can encounter in South Africa, whenever any aspect of the Boer War is mentioned.
And he calls me ‘petulant’!