A new British high commissioner arrived in Cape Town in May 1897. Sir Alfred Milner was an imperial zealot, obsessed by the need to bolster the realms of empire and appointed by Chamberlain to ensure that British supremacy was upheld in southern Africa, whatever the cost. Like Chamberlain, he believed that the British ‘race’ was the greatest of all governing races. In a statement which he called his ‘Credo’, he wrote: ‘I am a British (indeed primarily an English) Nationalist. If I am also an Imperialist, it is because the destiny of the English race, owing to its insular position and long supremacy at sea, has been to strike fresh roots in distant parts of the world. My patriotism knows no geographical but only racial limits. I am an Imperialist and not a Little Englander, because I am a British Race Patriot.’ Milner took up the cause of imperialism as a personal crusade, describing it as ‘a great movement of the human spirit’ with ‘all the depth and comprehensiveness of a religious faith’. In a farewell speech in London marking his departure for Cape Town, he spoke of himself as ‘a civilian soldier of Empire’, committed to working for its advancement with his ‘whole heart and with a single mind’.

A repressed and rigid man, impatient of opposition and of conflicting views, Milner possessed a formidable intellect but a narrow mindset. ‘There is one question upon which I have never been able to see the other side,’ he told the distinguished gathering assembled at the Café Monico to bid him farewell, ‘and that is precisely the question of closer union. My mind is not so constructed that I am capable of understanding the arguments of those who question its desirability or its possibility.’

Born in Germany in 1854, the son of an improvident half-German medical student and an English mother, he had been acclaimed a brilliant student at Oxford, winning a string of academic prizes. After trying his hand as a political journalist for two years and standing unsuccessfully for parliament, he had opted for officialdom, serving as under-secretary at the Egyptian ministry of finance, then as chairman of the Board of Inland Revenue; he was adept at writing reports and found it easier to communicate with people on paper rather than in person.

Both Milner and Chamberlain regarded southern Africa as being ‘the weakest link in the Imperial chain’. They considered the rise of the Transvaal as a wealthy, independent state, producing nearly one quarter of the world’s gold supply, to be a threat not only to Britain’s hold on southern Africa but to its standing as a global power. What Milner and Chamberlain feared was that, because of its economic strength, the Transvaal would absorb other territories in the region - the Cape Colony, Natal and the Orange Free State - and lead them into an independent union, a ‘United States of South Africa’, outside the realms of the British empire.

This fear was set out vividly in a Colonial Office memorandum on imperial prospects in southern Africa, written in 1896 in the wake of the Jameson Raid, by Chamberlain’s under-secretary, Lord Selborne. The key to the future, said Selborne, was the Transvaal. ‘It is the richest spot on earth.’ Its white population was fast expanding, outstripping other areas of southern Africa. ‘It is going to be the natural capital state and centre of South African commercial, social and political life’:

The Transvaal will be the market for South Africa: the market for the manufactures of Cape Colony and Natal; the market for the agricultural products of those Colonies and Rhodesia. The commercial interest of the closest connexion with the Transvaal will outweigh all other considerations. These British Colonies will sue for closer commercial union. The Transvaal will reply that so long as these Colonies remain British they will not grant it; that they have no intention of becoming British, but that if these Colonies will unite with them in forming a United Republic of South Africa they will welcome them with open arms.

Selborne envisaged two possible outcomes:

1. If we can succeed in uniting all South Africa into a Confederacy on the model of the Dominion of Canada and under the British Flag, the probability is that that confederacy will not become a United States of South Africa.

2. If South Africa remains as now a congeries of separate States, partly British Colonies and partly Republics, it will inevitably amalgamate itself into a United States of South Africa.

Chamberlain and Milner were agreed that the ultimate objective of British policy in southern Africa should be to steer the Transvaal into an imperial dominion before the Transvaal became too strong to resist the pressure. The longer that the Transvaal survived as an independent state, the more likely it was to succeed as emerging as the dominant power in southern Africa. If Britain failed to retain its hold on southern Africa, then its prestige, trade and defence interests would be irreparably damaged. Thus southern Africa, as Chamberlain and Milner saw it, was a test case about the future of the empire.

Both were ready to risk a Boer war in pursuit of establishing a British dominion. When Lord Salisbury, the prime minister, expressed his misgivings about the possibility of war in a letter to Chamberlain in April 1897, Chamberlain replied:

There are two possibilities to guard against. The first is a war with the Transvaal which might be . . . unpopular in England and which might easily strain our relations with Germany.

The other is the loss of confidence of the British in South Africa which would certainly lead to a republic - the elimination of the Imperial factor. Of the two this is the greatest evil, yet there is undoubtedly a strong party anxious to bring it about.

In view of the rumpus over the Jameson Raid, however, Chamberlain and Milner decided that what was needed was ‘a waiting game’. They hoped that Boer opposition to Kruger’s rule might do the job of removing Kruger for them, opening the way to reform and moves towards a federal dominion. The British government, in any case, had other foreign preoccupations at the time, such as the Sudan. ‘I decided,’ said Chamberlain, ‘that our policy for the present was to let the Boers “stew in their own juice”, fight out their internal quarrels and not be able to raise prejudice and confuse the issues by pointing to external interference as the danger to be faced. The decision may be right or wrong, but I intend that it shall have a fair trial.’

As a middle-aged bachelor fond of intellectual pursuits, long accustomed to the delights of London society, but with no interest in outdoor activity, Milner soon found much to dislike about life in the Cape. In letters to friends back home, he complained of the boredom and the ‘most uncongenial people’ whom he encountered daily. ‘Socially it is the most detestable life you can imagine.’ He was disdainful of the Cape’s political elite, preferring to keep his distance from them. ‘My only personal interest is in my English friends and my only amusement hearing from them,’ he wrote.

Cape politicians similarly found little to like about Milner. John Merriman regretted that Milner had been ‘trained in the school of newspapers and books rather than that of men’ - which had made him a ‘poor nervous ignorant fellow, utterly out of sympathy with South Africa’. Recalling his first impression of Milner at a ceremony at Government House in the heart of Cape Town, James Rose Innes wrote: ‘In appearance a scholar rather than a man of action, but with an air of grave assurance which indicated fixity of purpose, a man more apt to give than to take advice . . . As we walked down Parliament Street after the ceremony Merriman broke out: “Mark my words, we shall have a rough-and-tumble with that fellow.”’ The veteran Afrikaner politician Jan Hofmeyr was even more pessimistic. According to his biographer, ‘Hofmeyr saw after a few interviews with him that war must come.’

Indeed, Milner looked on Cape Afrikaners - nearly two thirds of the white population - as a potential enemy, part of the rising realm of Afrikanerdom that needed to be crushed. ‘Half of the white people in this Colony, indeed I fear more than half, while owing a formal allegiance to Britain, are at heart fellow-citizens with the Free Staters and Transvaalers,’ he wrote to a friend in August 1897:

As long as there is no friction between Great Britain and the Republics, they don’t mind being British subjects, in fact, being comfortable and lazy, they don’t desire a change. But the moment Great Britain and either of the Republics are at loggerheads, they side openly and vehemently with the latter. Of course, the remedy may be found in time in an English party in the Transvaal getting the franchise and counterbalancing on that side the influence of the Colonial Dutch on this. But the Boer oligarchy of the Transvaal is going to die hard. And it is not going to precipitate its own demise by provoking us too much.

In Pretoria, Kruger watched Britain’s manoeuvres with profound suspicion. The Jameson Raid had opened a chasm of distrust of British intentions. Kruger was convinced that Chamberlain was as culpable for the attempt to overthrow him as Rhodes, yet, despite all the evidence against them, Chamberlain had remained in office and Rhodes had been let off with nothing more than a slap on the wrist. The uitlander population meanwhile remained a potential fifth column for Britain to use. Kruger assumed therefore that further attempts would be made against him.

Determined to bolster the Transvaal’s defences, he ordered a vast array of modern military equipment from Germany and France - field guns, siege guns, Maxim guns, howitzers and modern rifles. Between 1896 and 1899, more than one third of the Transvaal’s annual revenues were allocated to defence expenditure. Instead of burghers being required to provide their own arms and ammunition, they were now equipped by the government with the latest Mausers and Martini-Henry rifles. Fortresses were constructed in Pretoria and Johannesburg.

Kruger also drew closer to the Orange Free State. By the 1890s, the Free State had emerged as a ‘model republic’. Visiting it in 1895, James Bryce, a British constitutional expert, described it as ‘an ideal commonwealth . . . the kind of commonwealth which the fond fancy of the philosophers of the last century painted’. Following the opening of the first railway from the Cape in 1890, modern buildings had sprung up in Bloemfontein: a new parliament, new schools, a hospital, a club. While Bloemfontein remained essentially a small town, with a white population numbering only 2,500, it possessed a cosmopolitan atmosphere, with its own orchestra, church and choral societies, language study circles, Shakespeare readings, dances and amateur theatricals, parks and public gardens. Visitors from Europe were given a warm welcome. Although only Dutch was permitted in the Volksraad, English was commonly spoken in town and business life.

A presidential election in 1895 had brought to office Marthinus Steyn, a 38-year-old lawyer, the first Free State-born burgher to become president. After studying law in London, he had been appointed a judge in Bloemfontein. He was married to the daughter of a Scottish parson. The London press described Steyn as ‘a man of high culture and sterling character, possessed of a balanced judgement and dignified personal appearance’.

In March 1897, Kruger travelled to Bloemfontein to discuss with Steyn the prospects for a closer union between the Transvaal and the Free State. They renewed a defence treaty, first agreed in 1889, pledging mutual support ‘when the independence of one of the two States may be threatened or attacked’, and added a new clause proclaiming the goal of a federal union between them. Steyn declared himself to be ‘strongly in favour’ of a closer union. ‘We have the same people, the same history, the same language, and the same form of government’.

Kruger also endeavoured to get on better terms with the Rand mining companies, assisting them with new pass laws and labour recruitment measures to facilitate a plentiful supply of cheap immigrant labour from Portuguese East Africa (Mozambique). He also set up an Industrial Commission to ‘institute a thorough and searching inquiry into the alleged grievances of the Mining Industry’.

However, when the commission pointed out the adverse effect of Kruger’s policy of monopoly concessions, notably the damaging impact of the dynamite concession, Kruger refused to take action, precipitating another round of grumbling among the mining magnates.

Nor was he willing to countenance any reform of the franchise system. On a visit to Pretoria in March 1897, during an attempt to mediate in a dispute between Kruger and the Transvaal’s chief justice, the Cape’s chief justice, Sir Henry de Villiers, broached the subject of franchise reform:

DE VILLIERS: Would not the removal of the Uitlanders’ grievances have given you a contented population?

KRUGER: The discontented people will not be satisfied until they have my country. If I give them the franchise they may ask the Chartered people [i.e. Rhodes] to rule over them. Their other grievances we are quite ready to redress, if there are any . . . Don’t be under the delusion that any concessions that I can make will ever satisfy the enemies of my country.

DE VILLIERS: President, you have to satisfy not the enemies but the friends of your country. It is your real friends who would advise you to meet the demands of the new population. Many of them would, perhaps, abuse the franchise; but a majority would be grateful for it and use it for the advantage of the country . . . If redress is not granted, the danger will always exist that it may be sought elsewhere. I know the main difficulties under which you labour, and I have never wished to add to them by publicly abusing you and the Republic, but if any private advice of mine is of any value, I trust you will accept it in the spirit in which it has been given.

KRUGER: I know that you are not one of our enemies. Your mediation shows that you mean it well with us. But I am responsible for the independence of the State, and must take care that it is not lost.

In this stubborn frame of mind, Kruger stood for election for a fourth term as president. At the age of seventy-three, much of his old vigour had gone: the great shoulders sagged; the bags under his eyes were more pronounced than ever; he had become increasingly deaf; he suffered from a painful eye affliction - ingrowing eyelashes; and his mood was often irritable. But no Transvaaler doubted his commitment to the cause of independence.

Two other candidates stood for election: Piet Joubert, the commandant-general, and Schalk Burger, a reformist politician. Campaigning on a platform of modernisation and a modest extension of the franchise, Burger received considerable financial support from the mining industry. His mining friends did not expect Burger to win but hoped he would emerge as the leader of an opposition strong enough to force Kruger to agree to reform. To enhance Burger’s chances, they tried to induce Joubert to withdraw, but to no avail. The Johannesburg Star openly supported Burger, but probably not to his advantage. In a letter to Julius Wernher, Percy FitzPatrick, one of Wernher, Beit’s representatives in Johannesburg, warned:

You can be sure of this: if there be any sign of movement or restlessness on the part of the Uitlanders, or a disposition on England’s part to meddle, there will be only one man in the hunt. Kruger is hunting about for evidence to show that Rhodes or Chamberlain or Johannesburg is at the bottom of opposition to him. His organ, the Volkstem, has gone to the length of stating that we have put up £50,000 to secure Burger’s election. He will go any length.

The election result, announced in February 1898, was a triumph for Kruger. Kruger won 12,764 votes; Burger, 3,716, and Joubert, 1,943. Not only in the rural areas, but in the towns - Johannesburg as well as Pretoria - Kruger was returned by large majorities.

For Milner, the election result was a turning point. After playing a ‘waiting game’ for nine months, hoping for evidence that an effective opposition to Kruger might emerge, he found himself having to deal with a ‘despotic oligarchy’ more deeply entrenched than before, and as recalcitrant as ever. His patience running out, Milner wrote a private letter to Chamberlain:

There is no way out of the political trouble of S. Africa except reform in the Transvaal or war. And at present the chances of reform in the Transvaal are worse than ever. The Boers quarrel bitterly amongst themselves, but it is about jobs and contracts, not politics! In their determination to keep all power in their own hands and to use it with a total disregard of the interests of the unenfranchised, as well as their own hatred and suspicion of Great Britain, the vast majority of them are firmly united . . . Kruger has returned to power, more autocratic and more reactionary than ever . . . He has strengthened his hold on the Orange Free State and the Colonial Afrikanders [of the Cape Colony] continue to do obeisance to him . . .

Looking at the question from a purely S. African point of view, I should be inclined to work up to a crisis, not indeed by looking about for causes of complaint or making a fuss about trifles, but by steadily and inflexibly pressing for the redress of substantial wrongs and injustices. It would not be difficult thus to work up an extremely strong cumulative case.

What Milner wanted was a more ‘active’ British policy towards Kruger, backed up by the threat of force. In the past - as during the ‘drifts crisis’ in 1895 - Kruger had shown a tendency to ‘climb down’ when threatened by force. Milner believed he might react in a similar manner now. But if he did not, Milner was quite prepared to follow the threat of force by recommending war, confident that it would be a short affair before Britain won.

Milner shared his views in a long private conversation with Percy FitzPatrick, who made contact with him during a holiday trip to Cape Town in February 1898. FitzPatrick had been disbarred from political activity in the Transvaal for three years for his part as secretary of the Reform Committee at the time of the Jameson Raid; his employers, Wernher, Beit & Co., had also warned him to steer clear of political activity and to stick to business matters. But FitzPatrick had an appetite for political intrigue and was keen to learn of Milner’s views, making extensive notes of their conversation. According to FitzPatrick, Milner remarked at one point: ‘There is only one possible settlement - war! It has got to come . . . The difficulty is in the occasion and not in the job itself, that is very easily done and I think nothing of the bogies and difficulties of settling South Africa afterwards. You will find a very different tone and temper when the centre of unrest is dealt with.’

Milner also went on the offensive against what he viewed as the ‘disloyalty’ of certain sections of the Cape Afrikaner population. After the governor of Natal, Henry Binns, sent a telegram to Kruger congratulating him on his election victory, Milner reprimanded him, propounding his own views:

There has got to be a separation of the sheep from the goats in this sub-continent, by which I don’t mean the English and the Dutch, but those who disapprove and are not afraid to show their disapproval of the present dishonest despotism in Pretoria, and those who either admire or truckle to it. There has been a great deal too much secret truckling and the time has come when we should, I think, quietly but firmly force the wobblers to show their colours and not expect us to recognize them as loyal citizens of a free British Community, as long as they give any countenance to men who trample on freedom and on everything British in a neighbouring state.

Two weeks later, opening a new railway branch line in Graaff Reinet, a predominantly Afrikaner town, Milner made clear his views in public for the first time in a speech exuding menace. His target was ‘extremist’ members of the Afrikaner Bond, who, he said, whilst enjoying the advantages of British citizenship were ‘for ever adulating the Transvaal while casting suspicion on the actions and intentions of Her Majesty’s Government’. The effect of this had been ‘to encourage the Transvaal oligarchy in the present policy till it becomes intolerable and ends in war’. It was not the aggressiveness of Britain that had caused ‘the spirit of unrest in South Africa’, but the ‘unprogressiveness, I will not say retrogressiveness, of the Government of the Transvaal’. What Cape Afrikaners needed to do was to encourage the Transvaal government to reform. ‘That is the direction in which a peaceful way out of these inveterate troubles, which have now plagued this country for more than thirty years, is to be found.’

By casting aspersions on their loyalty, Milner outraged many Cape Afrikaners, moderates as well as ‘extremists’, and gave encouragement to the growing ‘jingo’ movement among English-speaking nationalists in the Cape Colony. Milner openly admitted, when forwarding his speech to the Colonial Office, that one of his intentions had been to give ‘the British section of the community . . . something to cheer about’.

But there were more sinister implications contained within his speech. For by publicly raising the possibility of a war with the Transvaal, Milner was in effect challenging whites to choose which side they wanted to join in what he evidently believed was a forthcoming struggle between Boers and British for supremacy, thus intensifying all the mistrust between them that had arisen from the Jameson Raid. Milner henceforth was regarded by many Afrikaners as ‘commander-in-chief ’ of the ‘pro-British’ party.

In London, Chamberlain and Selborne sought to damp down Milner’s reckless talk of war. ‘We must endure a great deal rather than provoke a conflict,’ Chamberlain told Milner. ‘A war with the Transvaal would certainly arouse antagonism in Cape Colony and leave behind it the most serious difficulties in the way of South African union.’ Above all, ‘A war with the Transvaal, unless upon the utmost and clearest provocation, would be extremely unpopular in this country’. He warned Milner that other difficulties that the British government currently faced - with France, Russia and Germany - were of a far more serious nature.

Selborne responded at some length, taking a similarly cautious approach:

Peace is undoubtedly the first interest to South Africa, but not peace at any price. Our object is the future combination of South Africa under the aegis of the Union Jack, and I think we all feel that, if by the evolution of events this combination can be achieved without a rupture, or war, of any sort between the two white races in South Africa, it will have a more durable and valuable result than it would have if the same result were achieved by means of war.

Selborne explained the conditions ‘under which we must manoeuvre’ if war were to come:

It must command the practically unanimous consent of the British in South Africa - it must conquer the moral assent of as large a proportion as possible of our own Dutch in South Africa, and the action must be endorsed by the practically unanimous assent of public opinion at home.

Milner was thus required to bide his time.

You may rely on me not to do anything to render the situation more acute [he replied]. It is exceedingly difficult in view of the aggressive and insolent temper of the Transvaal to pass the time without a quarrel and yet without too conspicuously eating humble pie. Still, I hope we may manage, by a judicious combination of caution and bluff, to worry on without discredit until we are in a better position to ‘round’ upon them.

Yet, in further correspondence with Selborne, he again revealed his frustration, speaking of the inevitability of a clash:

Two wholly antagonistic systems - a medieval race oligarchy, and a modern industrial state, recognizing no difference of status between various white races - cannot permanently live side by side in what is after all one country.

He was similarly blunt in a letter to a friend on 20 April. ‘If it had not been for all our troubles elsewhere, I should not have striven, as I did, for a peaceful issue. The Boer Govt. is too great a curse to all S. Africa to be allowed to exist, if we were not too busy to afford a considerable war, wh[ich] alone can pull it down.’

Until Milner’s speech at Graaff Reinet in March 1898, few people outside the Colonial Office knew of his agenda. Afterwards, Kruger realised he had a warmonger on his hands.

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