Throughout history the study of the causes of conflict has often been found more interesting that the results. The South African War (also referred to as the Boer War) was particularly fascinating for the amount of contestation over its beginnings. The difficulty it understanding how the Boer War began could be down to its nature as a war of the Empire, making Britain’s role in it a slightly touchier subject and harder to make more facts known.
The almost conspiratorial confusion surrounding the origins of the South African War has led many individuals from contemporary to recent years to comment upon it; from the economist J. A. Hobson and Bolshevik leader Lenin to historians Iain Smith and A. N. Porter. In examining whether the South African War could be described as a capitalist war it is important to outline the various forms of capitalism that can be taken into account. The first is that of the external forces: the war was primarily fought with the capitalist priorities of the British government in mind (particularly over South Africa’s vast mineral resources).
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The second is that the South African War was fought domestically between the capitalist mine owners, the British-owned, South African press and the independent Afrikaner (Boer) Republic. The argument on the origins of the South African War explores imperialism. This argument states that the South African War was a way of extending the influence of the British Empire via the destruction of Boer independence and the protection of British Uitlander interests outside of the Cape Colony.
The discovery of rare minerals has been a major natural resource and economic boon to South Africa owing to their power on the global market, which remains significant through to present day South Africa. It was for this reason that the discovery of gold on the Witwatersrand (Transvaal) in 1886 and subsequent mining activities had such a vast impact upon the economy and society of South Africa. 1 In fact, the seams of gold were so extensive and rich that the discovery eventually led to the construction of Johannesburg, the largest urban municipality in Southern Africa and the centre of the gold mining trade.
Such was the abundance of the Witwatersrand gold that by 1897 it’s financial output totalled some i?? 10,583,616 per annum. 2 Compare this to the previous competitors at Barberton or Lydenburg in South Africa and not one of them could come close to these sorts of figures. J. A Hobson further stated that ‘No one, however, believes that any gold-field comparable, either in richness or in reliabileness, to the Rand is likely to be established in Rhodesia or elsewhere.
‘ Such was the strength of the Witwatersrand goldfields that the independent state of the Transvaal went from having a relatively tenuous hold on the global market to being the single largest producer of gold in the world by 1898 (accounting for 27% of global gold production) 3, even outstripping diamonds (which had been discovered in 1870 in Kimberly) as South Africa’s most profitable export. The enormous strength of the Transvaal economy through the pre-existing diamond mines, fledgling gold fields and the discovery of coal caused a dramatic shift of power away from the British-held Cape, to the Afrikaner north.
However, this prodigious amassing of economic and political power towards the Boer-held Transvaal, it could be argued, was not as auspicious as it seemed to be. As Paul Kruger, the President of the Transvaal stated, ‘Instead of rejoicing you would do better to weep, for this gold will cause our country to be soaked in blood’. As the Transvaal was becoming such a focus of economic power, it is important to remember that for many years Britain had been and remained the strongest commercial power in the world, owing much of it’s capital supremacy to the strength of the pound sterling.
Yet the strength of sterling was, in turn, index linked to the gold standard, so whoever commanded the gold, dominated the market. The discovery of gold in the Transvaal in the 1890’s led to a sharp revision in the global order of power. This turbulence in the market can be demonstrated by the number of countries that adopted the gold standard and emphasised that Transvaal gold underpinned the day to day running of the global market. British interest in the Witwatersrand goldfields was so significant that throughout the 1890s Britain accounted for 75 percent of the total foreign investment in the region.
4 In effect, the Afrikaner Republic had the gold and the power to dictate the terms of its mining and trade, but Britain needed control of the gold and the fiscal force that came with it. Of course, the single fact that Britain (as did much of the world) wanted the power over the gold does not mean that a war with South Africa was predetermined. There is another factor of capitalism to take into account; internal capitalism and the power of the press. It is vital to recognise the colonial power Britain already held over certain areas of South Africa (particularly the Cape.
) The disastrous ‘Jameson Raid’ of 1895, a fatuous uprising of Uitlanders, mainly comprised of British, lead by Dr Jameson (a good friend of Cecil Rhodes), left relations between the British and the Transvaal governments particularly strained. Responsibility for this disaster was accepted by Lord Rosmead, the British High Commissioner for South Africa and Governor of the Cape Colony, who resigned in 1897. Rosmead’s replacement was the Liberal chairman of the Inland Revenue Sir Alfred Milner who received much the support of both political parties.
Milner’s appointment may have seemed the best thing for Britain, he held a central view of British supremacy and collaborated well with Joseph Chamberlain head of the Colonial Office. However, Milner had no affection for, nor intention of appeasing the Afrikaners and saw little need to avoid a violent resolution to the Uitlander-Boer conflict. He came to believe that total British sovereignty, which was his main aim, could only be fulfilled by war. Milner held considerable sway over the press, encouraging The Times journalist, W. F.
Monypenny to edit The Star (Johannesburg’s leading daily newspaper), as well as forming good contacts with the editor of The Cape Times (with the largest circulation of any South African newspaper). These papers all held similar sympathetic views of the Uitlander’s plight. The two papers coupled with the newly formed Uitlander newspaper The Transvaal Leader formed a strong basis for Milner’s campaign to divide support for Kruger’s government through British influence. The Standard and Diggers News appeared to be a very different sort of newspaper.
It was a new publication that sought to undermine the capitalist mine owners (financed by the British). It was regarded as a well-written and widely read paper that claimed that the ‘capitalists (were) at the root of the difficulties in the Transvaal’ and complained that Uitlander resentment was being abused by ‘the capitalist wire-pullers in London’5. However The Standard and Diggers News’ radical editor Emanuel Mendelssohn was deemed a nefarious character by Milner and the colonial establishment and so became a powerful pro-Afrikaner voice for Kruger’s government.
This press war orchestrated by individuals with close links to the mine owners, popularly known as ‘Rand Lords,’ was a sign of a brutal global capitalism, which had little regard for the unity or security of the Transvaal Republic or South Africa. Local capital was obsessed with the global market at the expense of the conflict that they were encouraging. The Rand Lords chose their own financial gains over the interest of the majority; a truly capitalist war. The end of the 19th century was a veritable heyday for the British Empire.
Britain held tremendous economic, political and social power over the world and could easily be described by a modern day commentator as the single greatest ‘superpower’ on Earth. The British were particularly dominant in Africa, where it was said that Britain wished to control all of Africa ‘from Cape Town to Cairo’. It is also interesting to note that the Anglo-Boer War was unique out of the Empire wars to date in that it was primarily fought against white, Afrikaner ‘natives’. Within South Africa, British Uitlanders were greatly outnumbered by the Afrikaners, which made even a peaceful situation difficult to administrate.
For some time, war was held in the balance between two men; the pro-war, anti-Afrikaner, High Commissioner Milner and his opponent, Sir William Butler the Commander-in-Chief of the British armed forces in South Africa. Whilst Milner openly supported the British Uitlanders, professing to empathise with their plight, Butler regarded them as troublemakers who were purposefully stirring up trouble with the Kruger government (a prime example of this sentiment can be seen in the Jameson raid). The stalemate between Milner and Butler needed to be broken before any progress could be made.
One of the pair would have to be removed. The decision made by the British government would reflect its vision for the future of South Africa. To choose to retain the anti-war Butler would show that the British did not wish for war and would be willing to negotiate a more peaceful position with Kruger’s government. Alternatively, to choose the pro-war Milner would send out an intimidating message to the government of the Transvaal removing any realistic chance of positive future negotiations.
The differences between the two were so great that by 1896 Milner was actively trying to have Butler removed from his position at the head of the army, complaining to Joseph Chamberlain that Butler’s sympathies were ‘all on the other side’, effectively accusing his counterpart of anti-British sentiment. This attempt was unsuccessful but Milner, later that year, used his power over the press to plant a damaging article opposing Butler’s policy of ‘peace at almost any price’, and after much persuasive negotiation from Milner, the British government offered Butler another position in the UK.
Butler accepted and resigned his post in the summer of 1899, just before the start of the war. It was a hard blow struck for the pro-war imperialists. In analysing the nature of imperialism as a trigger for the South African war, the individuals involved become invaluable to finding the roots of the issue. For a person who feels the South African War was an imperialist war, Milner becomes the key focal point.
Milner’s views were markedly imperialistic, choosing to support ‘Britishness for Britishness’ sake’ through his lack of interest in peace with the Afrikaners, his disdain for learning the various languages of South Africa and his notion that the British were a superior race, a view that could be seen as extremely prejudiced, even racist by a contemporary audience. Furthermore his uniquely powerful position of High Commissioner allowed him to act independently in any manner he saw fit.
It was this power that made him able to demand such unfeasible things from Kruger’s government in their final negotiations, such as giving all Uitlanders the right to vote; that all laws proposed by the government of the Transvaal must be screened by the British government; and the mandatory usage of English during sittings of Transvaal parliament. Milner knew Kruger would never agree to these demands and thus made war inevitable. Kruger is reported to have left this meeting in tears. The condescending manner with which Milner treated the Boers is classically imperialistic, how Lord Salisbury famously stated ‘to show the Boers who is Boss’.
The dominant needs of Milner and many others like him combined with the deep-rooted desire for the power and wealth buried in the Witwatersrand created a strong argument to say that the origins of the Boer War were primarily imperial in nature. Put simply Britain wanted to rule South Africa as part of the Empire and was willing to go to war to get what it wanted. This argument is certainly a viable reason as to why the South African war began. It is possible however to accept both these arguments as fact and still agree that the South African War was overridingly driven by capitalism.
Less than twenty years after J.A. Hobson published his account of the Boer War, The War in South Africa. Its Causes and Effects, Vladimir Lenin, the leader of the Soviet Union published his work Imperialism, the Highest Stage of Capitalism. In it, Lenin cites ‘the British heroes of the hour (as) Cecil Rhodes and Joseph Chamberlain, who openly advocated imperialism and applied the imperialist policy in the most cynical manner’. He continues to expose Rhodes as a capitalist with his description of the greatest Rand Lord as a ‘millionaire, a king of finance (and) the man who was mainly responsible for the Anglo-Boer War.
‘ This theory argues that when a capitalist nation has reached the absolute peak of capitalism then it must expand into other nations and begin the process of exploitation all over again. This is Lenin’s basic principle of imperialism and empire building. It is true that as the communist leader of a classless, anti-capitalist society, Lenin’s words are bound to reflect poorly on people who advocated capitalism and imperialism; however his words resonate with as much truth today as they would have done just after the war.
As he could also been seen as a ‘neutral’ party, who had only a passing interest in the dealings of the British in South Africa. At the time of writing, the Soviets were fundamentally focused on their fledgling Bolshevik society and had made the choice not to operate in the global market in accordance with their Marxist philosophy. Therefore despite as obvious an interest in the gold standard as anyone would have, it made less impact on the Soviet economy than it would make on other international financial players.
So, to accept Lenin’s theory, one can easily believe that the South African War began due to pure capitalism as well as capitalism being the highest stage of imperialism. It is also important to note that J. A. Hobson was opposed to the capitalism of the Boer War and some say he shared Lenin’s view that imperialistic countries like Britain take over another country (like South Africa) purely to capitalise on the natural resources found there and continue the expansion of capitalist imperialism elsewhere.
6 So it can be seen that such was the strength of feeling against the capitalism of the Boer war that two men who did not entirely agree on policy could agree on the motivation. The South African War was a defining conflict for many people; it ushered in the 20th century and reflected a merciless war with dubious origins, between two poorly matched adversaries that outraged many people back in England for its human rights abuses. It therefore seems almost incredulous to think that an entirely similar war is being fought at this very moment in a similarly far-flung region of the globe.
Now, as it was then, the reasons for going to war are hazy and uncertain, whether it was to ‘liberate’ the downtrodden civilians (Uitlanders), for a different, yet equally prized natural resource, oil, or simply for imperialism, to extend Britain’s influence across nations, long after the dismantling of the empire. Equally then ordinary people were outraged by abuses of human rights by occupying soldiers, instead of Guantanamo Bay, the Boer War featured some of the earliest ‘concentration camps’ where a substantial number of innocent Afrikaner women, children and black Africans died.
The Iraq War, much like the Boer War began as a clash of easily recognisable personalities instead of Bush and Blair facing Saddam Hussein, it was Milner and Chamberlain facing Paul Kruger. In spite of that, one big difference is notable; the accepted normality of society. The sort of people who would take keen interest in the South African war would more likely have been erudite, gentleman diplomats holding principled views compared to the present day when it is safe to say that we live in a capitalist society where people who get most involved in wars are those who stand to profit from the carnage.
Over the years, the nature of capitalism has not changed a great deal. During the South African War, the capitalists’ primary concern was themselves. The British focused on the Transvaal gold and how it would profit their mighty Empire. The Rand Lords were interested in keeping hold of their mines and publications in order to maintain their power over the domestic South African market. It is finally safe to conclude that a country would not go to war unless it stood to profit in some way either through partnership with another country, global standing or, in this case, capital gain.