Let’s Talk About the Transvaal Question: What the War Was, and Why We Cared (Part II of II)

Hello there,

I promised y’all this post last month, so I suppose it’s important to follow up on my promises here.  You all have doubtless been on tenterhooks for weeks wanting to know what the Jameson Raid was.  Lying awake in bed at night, a strange mustachioed apparition calling himself John Hays Hammond has been visiting you lately, whispering strategies for improving the productivity of the Witwatersrand mines in your ear. Why is this happening?

We still have a long way to go.

Before I get there, however, let me update y’all on what I’ve been doing these past few weeks.  I’ve been dividing my work week among several places, having switched pretty much exclusively to primary research at this point, and I’m loving the ride.  My home base for research is the charming and hospitable Canterbury Room of Bruton Parish House, a magnificent and usually abandoned space during the summer whose only defect is the fact that the outlets for my computer are located in the part of the room nearest the most comfortable (read: “lazy” couches).  When I’m in there I’m either working my way through the surprising collection of memoirs and semi-political books written by Americans involved in turn of the century South Africa, tracking down a journal article I’ve seen cited somewhere, or, most recently, attempting to translate Louis Changuion’s Uncle Sam, Oom Paul en John Bull: Amerikaners en die Anglo-Boereoorlog 1899-1902 into English–a work whose dismaying relevance to my project is tempered only by its relative abundance of pictures (in true South African fashion, it expects full bilingualism on the part of its readers: Changuion’s text is in Afrikaans, yet the vast majority of his quotations are in English from English language sources).

I’ve also been to some fantastic libraries to look at more archival sources.  I started many weeks ago with a visit to the Virginia Historical Society, which is located in a lovely building just a block away from the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts in Richmond.  Both the reading room and museum sections of the facility render it worthy of its name, in this most historical state in the Union.  Yet even more useful for my purposes has been the Library of Virginia, a gleamingly modern repository housing a large collection of personal papers and manuscripts in addition to the Virginia state archives.  Located in downtown Richmond, researchers can park there for free, the staff in the cafe are very friendly, and collections like the Ella Graham Agnew Papers are absolutely sterling.

I’ve felt very lucky this past few weeks to be a Virginian.  As if the V.H.S. and the Library of Virginia weren’t already very useful in investigating what I admit is a relatively obscure topic, the University of Virginia’s Small (a name, not the size) Special Collections Library impressed me a great deal with the range of its holdings.  The American war correspondent Richard Harding Davis, whose extensive and highly interesting papers are held there, would be proud.  Perhaps I don’t know where to look, but as I have been planning my soon-t0-begin research tour, I’ve been struck by the paucity of relevant material elsewhere.  To be sure, Yale and the New York Public Library are class-leaders when it comes to the papers I want to see, but important cities like Baltimore and Philadelphia appear to have nothing.  Even Harvard disappoints on this account; when I go to Boston in a couple of weeks it will be for the Massachusetts Historical Society, and not that quite venerable institution.  Considering the fact that Virginia was not very relevant as a site of South African activism, it punches well above its weight today.

Before finally moving on to answer your burning questions about the siege of Mafeking and the like, I should say that last week I was privileged to be doing research in the Washington, D.C. area, looking at microfilms of personal papers in the Library of Congress’s atmospherically drab but substantively peerless Manuscript Division, and combing through consular despatches and record books at the National Archives II in College Park, Md., a place so busy and so modern that it puts one in mind of a mix between the New York Stock Exchange, Swem Library at finals time and the Emerald City of Oz.  I loved it.  I am so lucky to be doing what I am doing.

But let’s talk about actual Suid-Afrikaanse stuff now, shall we?  When we last left off, gold had been discovered on the Rand, and the British were beginning to realise once again that letting go of the Boer Republics might have been a poor move from a policy standpoint. The then-premier of the Cape Colony, Cecil Rhodes (who was of course also the founder of the De Beers diamond juggernaut, the Rhodes scholarships, as well as the namesake of Rhodesia, the Rhodesian Ridgeback dog, &c….a colourful guy, all in all) in particular was keen to bring the Transvaal (also known as the South African Republic) under British control, and so hatched a plan alongside his associate (Dr. Leander Starr Jameson), to invade the country on the pretext of saving the disgruntled “uitlander” population.  Uitlanders (EYE-t-landers) were foreigners who came to the Transvaal as part of the Rand gold rush from all over the world, and many were hostile towards the austere, uneducated Boers already present in the land.  Their prejudices (American uitlanders like the tycoon engineer John Hays Hammond often compared Boers to American Indians or Californios to be “extirpated” in time) were returned in kind when the Transvaal government moved to keep them out of the government, raising the residency requirement for citizenship (and voting) from five to fourteen years.

Rhodes’s plan was threefold: John Hays Hammond’s uitlander association, the Johannesburg Reform Committee, would present a list of demands to President Kruger, which would be rejected.  Thereupon Hammond’s Reformers would rise up and peacefully occupy the city of Johannesburg, where foreigners made up a large majority of the population.  Then a militia led by Dr. Jameson would ride across the Transvaal from Bechuanaland (present day Botswana) to relieve the uitlanders, and depending on whose account you believe, replace the government of the Transvaal or place it under British control.

It was a fine enough plan, but its failure was catastrophic to British interests in South Africa.  As the end of 1895 approached and Dr. Jameson readied his forces, Rhodes became worried that his enemies were on to his plan, and so he called it off.  Hammond complied, but Jameson had already cut the telegraph lines connecting him to Rhodes as part of his previous orders.  As 1896 dawned he thundered into the South African Republic, expecting to greet an uprising that would never occur.  He was captured after a brief fight at Doornkop on his way to the Rand, and the rest was an utter catastrophe.  Rhodes was forced to resign as premier of the Cape.  Hammond and several other Americans in Johannesburg were arrested and sentenced to death.  The German emperor sent a telegram to President Kruger congratulating him on his actions and sparking fears that Germany would intervene in future South African conflicts.

For most Americans the first half of 1896 – as Hammond and his associates awaited trial – was the first time most of them had been acquainted with affairs in South Africa.  It was an Anglophobic time in America – President Cleveland’s recent Christmas Message of 1895 had threatened war with Great Britain if it pressed the full extent of its claims in its border dispute with Venezuela.  And yet, at the same time, enterprise-minded Americans sympathised with the uitlander struggle for full representation in the Transvaal government.  “Taxation without representation” after all, was said to be an important slogan for the American uitlanders, who criticised Boer rule as that of a “narrow oligarchy,” and not true republicanism.  Despite his death sentence, Hammond was released from prison by the summer of 1896, due both to official diplomatic actions and Hammond’s excellent informal connections with trans-Atlantic leaders.

Mining continued on the Rand until the beginning of the war in October 1899, but relations between the South African Republic and the British government were steadily deteriorating.  Uitlanders continued to be dissatisfied with the Transvaal government just as burghers (citizens) were confirmed in their fears of uitlander disloyalty.  The British Colonial Secretary Joseph Chamberlain and his Conservative prime minister, the Marquess of Salibury, continued to lead a vigorous and jingoistic British colonial policy, and doubled down on their conviction that all South Africa was destined to be British with the appointment of the hard liner Alfred Milner in 1897 as High Commissioner to South Africa.  Meanwhile, the stubborn and picturesque figure of Stephanus Johannes Paulus Kruger (“Uncle Paul”) continued to lead the South African Republic.  In May 1899 a conference at Bloemfontein failed to make any progress in resolving the Transvaal question; duelling ultimata followed in September, and by October, Kruger felt his hand had been forced.

And so…war happened.  A war that to which I cannot possibly do justice in a blog post.  A “white man’s war,” whatever that was supposed to mean (it was not clear at the time either), a bizarre mix of the modern and the pre-modern, where highly mobile mounted Boer commandoes pioneered trench warfare tactics that would render war so immobile in a decade and a half, where British troops found themselves outclassed time after time by illiterate farmers carrying state of the art Mauser rifles.  In an emerging twentieth century trope, the British advantage of possessing the railroads soon became a burden in the face of near-constant raiding and guerrilla tactics by the commandoes.  In another disturbing precedent, farms in troubled areas were systematically burned, women and children rounded up and placed in camps where thousands died of hunger and dysentery; not just white families but thousands of black and coloured South Africans as well, in camps for which no detailed statistics exist.  Yet at the same time, it was famously known as “the last enjoyable war,” in which it seemed like an individual really could become a swashbuckling hero in his own right.

The war, in short, was full of seeming contradictions, echoes of the past, and disturbing portents.  Americans cared because, prism-like, one could stare into South Africa in 1899 or 1900 or 1902 and see a whole constellation of phenomena – indicative for some of the world’s messy march towards progress, for others of how far away the civilised world had drifted from its 18th century roots.  Their situation was complicated in addition because, as Americans, they were aware of their own war against Emilio Aguinaldo and his Filipino republicans, a war that for many represented the death of America as a republican experiment.  In the words of Mark Twain, “I bring you the stately nation named Christendom, returning bedraggled, besmirched and dishonest, from pirate raids in Kiao-Chou, Manchuria, South Africa, and the Philippines, with her soul full of meanness, her pocket full of boodle and her mouth full of hypocrisies. Give her soap and a towel, but hide the looking glass” (quoted in Donal Lowry, “The Boers Were the Beginning of the End?” from Donal Lowry, ed., The South African War Reappraised: 207).

Without delving deeply into the military minutiae of the war, the British hugely outnumbered the Boers in South Africa, yet in the early part of the war suffered several embarrassing defeats, at battles like Magersfontein, Colenso, and Spion Kop.  The tide quickly turned in the spring of 1900 when the British won the battle of Paardeberg, relieved the besieged towns of Ladysmith, Kimberley, and Mafeking (celebration of the latter victory was so raucous in Briton that the word “mafficking” is still used there to mean “to rejoice or celebrate with boisterous public demonstrations”; courtesy of the Free Online Dictionary), and by June the British were in control of the capital cities of both Republics, thus beginning the “guerilla phase” of the war, which would last until peace was negotiated in May of 1902.  The intervening period saw large amounts of activism in both Europe and the United States both for and against the Boer cause, as envoys sailed back and forth, desperate for audiences with world leaders, veterans of the war gave lectures and made tours, and politicians pontificated upon the conflict for political ends.

When I get this thing written for good I’ll be speaking with a much higher degree of specificity.  I’m especially interested in the things aspects of the South African situation are compared to through American eyes, which seem to be forming patterns.  More anon, certainly, about this.  I’ll also hopefully have much more to say when I return from my bold Great Research Trek through New York, New Haven, and Boston in a week, where I’ll be looking at what I hope will be some highly interesting and relevant collections.  Provided I don’t get done in from the start by my 5.15 am bus to New York on the first day, it promises to be a lot of fun, and I’ll be sure to update you soon on how it goes.  Until then, in six of eleven official languages,

Goodbye, totsienssala kahlesala kakuhlesala sentle, and tsamaea hantle!


  1. Phillip Goodling says:

    Wow, Robin, this is excellent stuff! Finally my nighttime apparitions are at an end! I wonder, how much diversity in American opinion on the war was there? What sorts of political groups were most strongly aligned/opposed to the war and did it have any effect on the American political discourse at the turn of the century? Keep up the good work and have fun on your trip!