“I don’t need to read: my granny was foetus at the time!”

Another day, another entertaining encounter with a Defender of the Myth™.

Responding to the age-old question about how important the gold mines were in terms of the causes of the Boer War, I explained the following:

Gold had very little to do with the war.
Though it pleases some to pretend that the British Empire was desperate to get their grubby little hands on the gold mines of the Transvaal, the reality is that, prior to the conflict, the gold mines were already owned by foreign (mainly British) investors.
As Conan-Doyle put it:
‘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.’
The Award-winning French Economist, Monsieur Guyot agreed:
‘[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.’
The reality is that the Boer War was all about who controlled Southern Africa – would the British remain as the ‘top dog’, or would Kruger’s long-hoped for ‘Afrikaans Empire from the Zambesi to the Cape’ replace it as the regional super power?

Of course, this was not well-received and I was assured by one irate fellow that the war was indeed all about gold ‘because of the gold standard’.

Given that his badly-written, one-line rebuttal had not in any way addressed the quotes I had posted, I asked him if he had read and understood them, and then went on to ask:

Please explain how you think a war which started with a Boer invasion of Natal and the Cape Colony was to do with capturing goldfields which were already largely owned by British investors, such as Cecil Rhodes et al?
If I may quote the respected and estimable Iain Smith at length:
‘The evidence so far produced does not support the view that the British Government went to war 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.’

It was then that the ‘discussion’ took a very surreal twist. My correspondent claimed he did not need to read any histories of the conflict to understand it, as ‘his people were in it’ and, indeed, he had ‘heard first-hand from his grandparents who were children at the time’ and proudly announced his Granny was born in a concentration camp. So there we have it: this gives him all the information he could possibly need to comprehend the machinations and intrigue in the decades of tension prior to the war.

Intrigued, but not entirely convinced he understood how history is usually studied, however, I probed a little deeper:

You claim your grandmother was ‘born in a concentration camp’, so clearly, she had absolutely no first-hand knowledge of the run up to, and causes of, the Boer War, or, indeed, even any memories of living through it. You also make the ridiculous and baseless claim that ‘70,000 Afrikaans women and children died in the concentration camps’, so you are clearly prone to just making things up.
Even assuming your other grandparents were children at the time of the Boer War (which would put you somewhere in your 70s or 80s?), how on earth can they possibly have been the best witnesses to the conflict, and automatically know all the details and minutiae behind it? You have just admitted they were children / babies / foetuses at the time. So, no, even assuming what you say is true, that is certainly not enough to refute and overturn the work of the historians and economists I have quoted – not to mention logic.
My father was a child when the D-Day Landings took place. Would you consider that he was therefore the best source of information for these events, and that – as such – I can disregard any and all books written on the campaign, and trust to whatever he told me when I was little, based on his ‘first-hand’ knowledge of events? Do you honestly assume that he must automatically have known every detail of the planning, logistics, training regimes, objectives, ORBATs, timings, deception plans, code breaking, mine-sweeping, fighter cover, parachute landings, PLUTO, shore bombardment allocations etc etc for D-Day, just because he happened to be a child, and living in Great Britain, at the time the landings happened?
Why don’t you answer my earlier questions? If, as you are desperate to claim, the war was ‘all about gold’, why was it started by a Boer invasion of Natal and the Cape Colony?
I should love to hear your answers.
PS. Saying ‘my people were in it’ doesn’t count as an answer. So were mine.

Alas, this has – as yet – not received a response. But it does illustrate a commonly-heard refrain in South Africa: many’s the time I have explained something to someone about the war, using references, quotes, logic, maps etc, but – not wanting to accept any challenge to their preferred myths – the furious response has been: “You know nothing! My granny was in the camps!” or, better yet (and, yes, this really happened), “You know nothing! My granny was murdered in the camps when she was a baby!”.

This impassioned emotion seems, for many, an alternative to actually doing some research, reading a book on the subject, or indeed, just listening with an open-mind. It is as though they feel that, simply by claiming their granny was in the camps, that automatically makes them an expert on all aspects of the conflict – presumably by some bizarre and inexplicable form of osmosis? Only by such jumbled-up thinking, and studiously ignoring actual evidence, can much-cherished myths possibly be defended!


  • Chris Posted October 17, 2021 11:36 am

    You both conflate issues and perform disengenous loops of logic. Although clearly your interlocutor has absolutely NO knowledge of the history

    Clearly even although the goldmines were privately owned ( at least the ZAR did not have EWC = expropriation without compensation ) the TAXES would be paid to some or other government. Apart from that those ruling / governing the territory ( either de-facto or de jure ) would in time of emergency be able to use martial law to take over the mines ( War confiscation ) Just as Sir Ernest Oppenheimer and Anglo American corporation and later De Beers and Consolidated Diamond Mines ( the diamond monopoly cartel ) was able to take over the Diamond mines of the private German owners – the Deutsche Kolonialgesellschaft für Südwestafrika – in German South West Africa during and after the WWI in 1914-1918

    AFRICA, 1908-1920
    Copyright © 2018 Steven Press
    Steven Press is an Assistant Professor of History at Stanford University. His first book, Rogue Empires: Contracts and Conmen in Europe’s Scramble for Africa, appeared with Harvard University Press in 2017.

    • Bulldog Posted October 29, 2021 10:40 am

      Yes indeed, the mines were privately owned, and the TAXES (in capital letters, for some reason) were paid to the Government of the Transvaal when it was granted self-governing status shortly after the war, and then to the essentially-independent Union of South Africa.

  • Chris Posted October 17, 2021 11:40 am

    In this situation it was obvious to my father that the key to securing and expanding his interest in the diamond syndicate was to obtain control of a major diamond producer. In 1919 his chance came. HC Hull (who had been Minister of Finance in the first government of the Union of South Africa) approached him to ask whether Anglo American would be interested in securing control of an undisclosed diamond producer. My father knew that if he did so it would be likely to infuriate his partners in the diamond syndicate. He therefore replied that he should be interested if the diamond producer in question were big enough. Hull said that, potentially, it was very big indeed, and this could only mean that he was referring to the diamond fields of South West Africa. In South West Africa before the war there had been a considerable number of independent German diamond producers whose assets had been taken over during the war by the Custodian for Enemy Property. It was clear that for technical as well as marketing reasons, an amalgamation of these interests ought to be brought about. The De Beers company was, of course, aware of this situation, but De Beers in those days had become a very sleepy organisation. Very complicated negotiations were involved with the South African government as well as with the German owners of the mining rights. Hull had been working quietly in this matter with Sir David Graaff and these two, together with my father, eventually succeeded in bringing all these German interests together to form the Consolidated Diamond Mines of South-West Africa, under the general control of the Anglo American Corporation. CDM is now the largest producer of gem diamonds in the world, and even though in those days the rich beach terraces stretching north from the Orange River had not been discovered, it was a large scale producer and as a result of this transaction Anglo American’s position as an important factor in the diamond industry had been firmly established.


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