The nineteenth-century struggle for supremacy in South Africa between British imperialists and Boer republicans culminated on October 11, 1899, with the outbreak of the South African War (Second Anglo Boer War). British suzerainty over the landlocked, impoverished Boer republic of the Transvaal had seemed reasonably in hand until September 1886, when the world’s richest gold deposits were discovered there. Suddenly the agrarian republicans, who had only a generation before migrated into the African interior to escape British rule and culture, gained international economic and political power at British expense.
Cape Premier Cecil Rhodes quickly responded by using railways as tools of imperialism. His agents at tempted to purchase the Delagoa Bay railway concession from the Portuguese, whose short section the Transvaal’s projected eastern line needed to connect at the frontier to reach the British-free port of Loreno Marques. He promoted the construction of a north western line that threatened to leave the Transvaal out of much northern traffic. When in 1891 the Transvaal became virtually bankrupt, Rhodes offered to help President Paul Kruger. In return for a two-year railway monopoly on traffic to the gold fields, the Cape loaned the Transvaal funds to construct its southern line from the Vaal River to Johannesburg, which opened in September 1892 and connected the gold fields to Cape ports via the Orange Free State. The Sivewright Agreement gave mine owners access to heavy mining equipment, restored investor confidence, and enabled the Transvaal to float the Rothschild loan to complete Pretoria’s eastern line. Its opening in January 1895 and the Transvaal’s success at aggrandizing colonial animosity between the Cape and Natal, of which the latter was constructing the rival Durban-Johannesburg line, were major victories for railway republicans.
As the Sivewright Agreement drew to an end in late 1894, the Cape began a railway and customs rate war. The Transvaal retaliated by raising railway rates on its 51-mile section of the Cape ports-Johannesburg line. The Cape circumvented this increase by offloading some goods onto ox wagons at the Transvaal’s Vaal River border. These goods were then transported across the drifts (shallows) and delivered directly to Johannes burg merchants without traversing a single mile of the Transvaal’s southern line. Kruger was furious.
When Kruger closed the drifts to ox wagons carrying overseas goods on October 1, 1895, the Cape protested that Kruger had violated British suzerainty. As the Drifts Crisis deepened, Rhodes secretly adapted the Loch Plan, which High Commissioner Sir Henry Brougham Loch had conceived in mid-1893. Loch had envisioned direct imperial intervention, sparked by civil unrest in Johannesburg, to force the Transvaal into a union of South Africa under the British flag. During 1895 Rhodes and his agents conspired with and armed supporters in Johannesburg to help him over throw the Boer government. On October 18, just two days after a private British ultimatum demanded that Kruger open the drifts, Rhodes’s Chartered Company acquired a six-mile wide strip of land in Bechuanaland Protectorate along the Transvaal’s western frontier. Pitsani, an isolated settlement in the strip proximate to Johannesburg, was selected as a base camp at the height of the Drifts Crisis by the administrator of Rhodesia and trusted friend of Rhodes, Dr. Leander Starr Jameson, should force be necessary to carry out the ultimatum. Unfortunately for Rhodes, Kruger reopened the drifts and ended the crisis.
The Cape remained threatened with bankruptcy. As long as Kruger controlled the golden hub of Johannes burg, he could play the Cape off against Natal and both off against his eastern, British-free line. Thus, an important economic and political cause of the South African War can be found in the opposing policies of railway imperialists and railway republicans, exacerbated and left unresolved by the Drifts Crisis.
On December 29, 1895, just seven weeks after the Drifts Crisis, Jameson invaded the Transvaal from Pitsani. A smaller force forayed from Mafeking, some 30 miles south in British Bechuanaland, and joined Jameson at Malmani. Together about 500 men from Chartered Company police rode toward Johannesburg.
By December 30, the Boers knew Jameson had invaded. Jameson’s allies in Johannesburg refused to help. Scouts betrayed him. Imperial authorities in London and South Africa ordered him to retire. He refused.
On New Year’s Day the Boers ambushed Jameson’s raiders in a valley three miles from Krugersdorp. Encircled, Jameson surrendered at Doornkop, about twenty miles west of Johannesburg. His forces had suffered 17 killed and 55 wounded; the Boers lost one dead. The Boers also recovered Jameson’s correspondence and code books that revealed both the depth and the supporters of the conspiracy. After three weeks in Pretoria’s jail and after Rhodes had paid a handsome ransom, Kruger turned Jameson over to British authorities. Tried, convicted, and sentenced to 15 months in prison, the doctor was released early due to ill health. He survived Rhodes and became a Cape premier.
The Drifts Crisis and the Jameson Raid poisoned im perial-republican relations in South Africa, diminished Boer opposition to Kruger, and estranged the Cape’s railway ally, the Orange Free State, which purchased its section of the Cape’s trunk line to Johannesburg and signed a military treaty with the Transvaal. Distrust, jingoism, and inflexibility combined to ignite war on October 11, 1899, publicly over Uitlander (immigrant) political rights in the Transvaal. When the Treaty of Vereeniging was signed on May 31, 1902, England had spent about £230 million pounds. Of the approximately 450,000 imperial and colonial soldiers who served in the war, over 22,000 lay dead. At least 7,000 Boer soldiers were killed out of the 87,000 who fought. An estimated 28,000 of 136,000 Boer men, women, and children met their deaths in 50 British concentration camps; 22,000 were children under 16 years of age. Approximately 15,000 Africans died assisting both sides.
The historiography of the causes of the raid and war is rich and unsettled. Grand theories and case studies have focused on economic, political, diplomatic, strategic, and cultural causes, as well as the motivations of individual actors. Joseph Schumpeter (1951) suggested that the atavistic (feudal) nature of British culture and society was responsible. Ronald Robinson and John Gallagher (1961) argued that only by balancing policies, events, and actors at the metropole (London) with those on the periphery (southern Africa and elsewhere) could primary causes be identified.
Capitalism and gold have been examined from a number of perspectives. In 1900 John Hobson argued that the conflict was a capitalist war fought to protect British investors and South African millionaires. More recently, Shula Marks and Stanley Trapido (1992) have argued from the perspective of political economy that access to Transvaal gold, so crucial to the health of the international economy, was critical as well to London’s position as the world’s financial capital. Jean Jacques Van-Helten (1982) has investigated the impact of the gold policies of the Bank of England on the outbreak of the war.
In contrast to economic arguments, in 1900 Leo Amery believed that the war was caused by political differences between governments. Andrew Porter (1980, 1990) has found the causes of the war in the politics of the metropole and the consequences of those policies on South Africa. Iain Smith (1990) has argued similarly, stressing the maintenance of British supremacy in South Africa and the security of the sea route to India.
Mordechai Tamarkin (1997) has pointed to Alfred Milner, the inflexible high commissioner of South Africa, while Ethel Drus (1953) has criticized Joseph Chamberlain, the secretary of state for the colonies in the Salisbury cabinet, for collaborating with Rhodes during the Drifts Crisis and in the preparations for the raid fiasco; both officials, these historians have maintained, bear heavy responsibilities for the war, whether due to political or economic motivations. Boer historiography, exemplified by J. H. Breytenbach (1969-77), has usually seen the war as a conflict between an aggressive, capitalist, imperial power seeking to wrest the independence of a virtuous, agrarian republic for its own material ends.
The war continues to intrigue scholars. Ian Phimister (1993) has suggested that future work concentrate on regional issues in southern Africa, the nature of Kruger’s government and economic policies, and the character of British paramountcy. On the centennial of the South African War, consensus among historians remains elusive.
Further Reading Breytenbach, J. H. Die Gieskiendenis van die Tweede Vryheid soorlog in Suid-Afrika. 5 vols. Pretoria: Die Staatsdrukker, 1969-1977. Drus, E. “The Question of Imperial Complicity in the Jameson Raid.” English Historical Review. 58, no. 269 (October 1953): 582-587. Marks, S., and S. Trapido. “Lord Milner and the South African State Reconsidered.” In Imperialism, the State and the Third World, edited by M. Twaddle. London and New York: British Academic Press, 1992, 80-94. Phimister, I. “Unscrambling the Scramble for Southern Africa: The Jameson Raid and the South African War Revisited.” South African Historical Journal. 28 (1993): 203-220. Porter, A. The Origins of the South African War: Joseph Chamberlain and the Diplomacy of Imperialism, 1895-99. Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1980. —. “The South African War (1899-1902): Context and Motive Reconsidered.” Journal of African History. 31, no. 1 (1990): 43-57. Robinson, R., and J. Gallagher with A. Denny. Africa and the Victorians: The Official Mind of Imperialism. London: MacMillan, 1961. Schumpeter, J. A. Imperialism. Oxford: Blackwells, 1951. Smith, I. “The Origins of the South African War (1899-1902): A Reappraisal.” South African Historical Journal. 22 (1990): 24-60. Tamarkin, M. “Milner, the Cape Afrikaners, and the Outbreak of the South African War: From a Point of Return to a Dead End.” The Journal of Imperial and Commonwealth History 25, no. 3 (September 1997): 392-414. Van-Helton, J. J. “Empire and High Finance: South Africa and the International Gold Standard, 1890-1914.” Journal of African History. 23 (1982): 529-546. Wilburn, K. “Engines of Empire and Independence: Railways in South Africa, 1863-1916.” In Railway Imperialism, edited by C. B. Davis and K. E. Wilburn. New York: Greenwood Press, 1991. —. “The Drifts Crisis and the Jameson Raid: A Centennial Review.” The Journal of Imperial and Commonwealth History. 25, no. 2 (May 1997): 219-239.