Diamonds, Gold, and War

The British, the Boers, and the Making of South Africa


By Martin Meredith

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Southern Africa was once regarded as a worthless jumble of British colonies, Boer republics, and African chiefdoms, a troublesome region of little interest to the outside world. But then prospectors chanced upon the world's richest deposits of diamonds and gold, setting off a titanic struggle between the British and the Boers for control of the land. The result was the costliest, bloodiest, and most humiliating war that Britain had waged in nearly a century, and the devastation of the Boer republics. The New Yorker calls this magisterial account of those years “[an] astute history.… Meredith expertly shows how the exigencies of the diamond (and then gold) rush laid the foundation for apartheid.”


The Past Is Another Country:
Rhodesia—UDI to Zimbabwe
The First Dance of Freedom:
Black Africa in the Postwar Era
In the Name of Apartheid:
South Africa in the Postwar Era
Nelson Mandela: A Biography
Coming to Terms:
South Africa’s Search for Truth
Elephant Destiny:
Biography of an Endangered Species in Africa
Power, Plunder, and the Struggle for Zimbabwe
The Fate of Africa:
A History of Fifty Years of Independence

I speak of Africa, and golden joys . . .
Henry IV, Part 2, Act v, Sc. iii

During my travels around southern Africa over the past forty years I have often been struck by the long-term repercussions that came from the making of the modern state of South Africa. Actions taken in the late nineteenth century continued to reverberate for more than a hundred years. One notable legacy is the multitude of battlefields that still arouse keen public interest - places such as Blood River, Isandlwana, Majuba and Spion Kop. But much else of modern South Africa was shaped by events of that time, in particular the rise of its fortunes from diamonds and gold and the steady dispossession of African land. It was also a time which saw the determined enforcement of segregation measures that culminated eventually in the apartheid system.
This book has been written in more auspicious circumstances. Despite their tortuous history, South Africans have managed to fashion for themselves a stable democracy with a robust constitution - one of the great triumphs of the late twentieth century. Witnessing this transformation has been a heartening experience. My thanks are due to a host of South African friends and acquaintances who over the years have given me such generous help and hospitality.

When Britain took possession of the Cape Colony in 1806 during the course of the Napoleonic Wars it was a slave-owning outpost, three months’ sailing distance from London, previously run as a Dutch commercial enterprise that had teetered on the edge of bankruptcy for years. Britain’s only interest in the Cape was its use as a naval base at the foot of Africa halfway along the vital trade route between Europe and Asia - a stepping stone that the British government was determined to keep out of French hands. Its wartime occupation was not expected to be permanent.
The white colonial population, descendants of Dutch, German and French Huguenot settlers, was small, no more than 25,000 in all, scattered across a territory of 100,000 square miles. Most lived in Cape Town and the surrounding farming districts of the Boland, an area favoured with rich soils, a Mediterranean climate and reliable rainfall, renowned for its vineyards and gracious living. The prosperity of the Colony depended heavily on the labour of foreign slaves imported from other enclaves in Africa and from Asia. Almost every European family of standing in the western Cape owned slaves. Cape Town’s population of 16,000 included some 10,000 slaves. White burghers also acted as overlords of the indigenous Khoikhoi, aboriginal pastoralists commonly called Hottentots, who had lost most of their land during 150 years of white occupation and who now served the white community as a labouring class treated no better than the slave population. The total population of the Cape Colony was no more than 75,000.
Beyond the fertile valleys and mountains of the Cape peninsular region lay a vast hinterland of scrub and semi-desert known to the Khoikhoi as the Karoo - the ‘dry country’. Dutch stock farmers - ‘trekboers’, as they were called - had spread across this interior, herding sheep and cattle, living simply in ox-wagons or crude dwellings on farms they had staked out, trading in elephant ivory and animal hides and often clashing with indigenous pastoralists and hunters. In the north, the trekboers had reached the Orange River, 400 miles from the peninsula; a journey by wagon from their frontier farms to Cape Town and back took up to three months. In the east, they had collided with Bantu-speaking Xhosa chiefdoms expanding westwards across the Fish River into the Zuurveld grasslands, 450 miles from Cape Town. Parts of the frontier frequently degenerated into a turmoil of cattle raids and intermittent warfare.
As the Colony’s new rulers, the British set out to impose some form of law and order on the turbulent eastern frontier, despatching regular troops there in 1811 to help burgher militias - commandos, as they were known - expel the Xhosa from the Zuurveld. In his report to London on the success of the mission, the governor, Sir John Cradock, remarked: ‘I am happy to add that in the course of this service there has not been shed more Kaffir blood than would seem necessary to impress on the minds of these savages a proper degree of terror and respect.’ In 1819, in a desperate bid to regain their land, 10,000 Xhosa warriors descended on the frontier village of Graham’s Town intent on driving out the whites. But, once again, they were defeated, losing yet more land to the colonists.
In an attempt to provide the eastern frontier with greater security, the British government devised a plan to populate the area with immigrant settlers from Britain. The plan was presented to Parliament in London as an ‘economy measure’ that would help reduce unemployment and alleviate social unrest prevalent after the end of the Napoleonic Wars. Parliament duly voted £50,000 to transport volunteers to the Zuurveld and set them up as agricultural farmers on allotments of about a hundred acres. Some 4,000 men, women and children were chosen from among 80,000 applicants. The majority of the men were urban artisans with no farming experience. What none of them was told, until their arrival in Algoa Bay in 1820, was that the land they had been allocated was in fiercely disputed territory where five frontier wars had previously occurred. The new settlers also discovered that the sour-grass farms of the Zuurveld were unsuitable for cultivation. Within a few years, more than half had abandoned the land and retreated to villages.
Having sponsored the 1820 settlers, the British government was then obliged to ensure their protection in this highly volatile area. To the consternation of the Colonial Office, as the succession of frontier wars with the Xhosa continued, this became an increasingly costly exercise. In his review of the history of British policy at the Cape published in 1853, a former colonial secretary, Earl Grey, concluded that the government’s commitment to British settlement made in 1819 on the grounds of being an economy measure proved to be among the most expensive in the annals of the British empire. What British officials found especially aggravating was that Britain had no vital interest in the Cape other than its naval facilities on the peninsula. ‘Few persons would probably dissent from the opinion that it would be far better for this country if the British territory in South Africa were confined to Cape Town and Simon’s Bay,’ observed Earl Grey. A long-serving senior Colonial Office official, James Stephen, described the Cape interior as ‘the most sterile and worthless in the whole Empire’, with no commercial significance.
Despite the lack of enthusiasm for its colonial charge, the British government introduced a series of substantial reforms designed to bring the Cape into line with British practice elsewhere. Though preoccupied principally with minimising colonial expenditure, it nevertheless felt duty-bound to establish a stronger framework of administration that took greater account of the interests of indigenous populations. British missionaries newly arrived at the Cape campaigned vociferously for civil rights for the Khoikhoi, citing examples of their ill-treatment at the hands of Dutch-speaking trekboers. In 1828, the Cape authorities promulgated Ordinance 50 making ‘Hottentots and other free people of colour’ equal before the law with whites and removing legal restrictions on their movements. In 1834, slavery in the Cape was abolished, in common with the rest of the empire, and some 38,000 slaves were set free, though they were still required to serve four more years of bondage as ‘apprentices’. A new court system was installed using English instead of Dutch as the only official language. What the Colonial Office intended henceforth was to convert the Cape into an English-speaking colony.
These changes aroused deep resentment among the colonists, notably among the Boer population in frontier districts who were long accustomed to living according to their own rules, largely beyond the reach of government authority. Many colonists found the idea that Khoikhoi and slaves could be placed on an equal footing with white Christians repugnant, ‘contrary to the laws of God and the natural distinction of race and religion’. Though slave-owners were entitled to claim compensation for loss of ‘property’, they discovered that the compensation arrangements left them far short of the previous market value of their slaves. They were further aggrieved when the changes led not only to a shortage of labour but also to an outbreak of pilfering and theft. Demanding a new law against vagrancy to deal with it, they were outraged when the British authorities countermanded the legislation they introduced.
Frontier Boers had additional grievances. Once used to expanding eastwards at will to meet their demand for land, they were now blocked by the stubborn resistance of the Xhosa beyond the Fish River. The frontier region, moreover, was still plagued by insecurity. At the end of 1834, Xhosa warriors invaded the Colony, destroying white farms and seizing vast herds of cattle in another attempt to recover land lost in earlier wars. Once more, they were driven back. The British governor in Cape Town, Sir Benjamin D’Urban, a veteran of the Napoleonic Wars, castigated them as ‘treacherous and irreclaimable savages’ and took it upon himself to annex more Xhosa land in reprisal, intending to make it available for white settlement. But to the fury of the colonists, the British government in London, spurred on by missionary activists, repudiated the annexation and blamed white encroachment as the cause of the conflict. ‘The Caffres had ample justification for the war,’ concluded the colonial secretary, Lord Glenelg.
Determined to cast off British authority, Boer leaders organised the exodus of groups of families across the Orange River border into the highveld beyond, intending to set up their own state and recreate the society of the frontier trekboers as it was before the coming of the British. Reconnaissance parties reported there was land suitable for settlement in two areas to the north: the vast grasslands around the Vaal River; and the coastal hills below the escarpment of the Drakensberg mountains in an area that later became known as Natal. In a ‘Manifesto’ sent to the Graham’s Town Journal, Piet Retief, an emigrant leader, cited a list of grievances including ‘severe losses’ resulting from the emancipation of slaves; and ‘the unjustified odium which has been cast upon us by interested and dishonest persons, under the cloak of religion [missionary activists], whose testimony is believed in England’. He said he hoped that the British government would ‘allow us to govern ourselves without its interference in future’. To forestall British concerns, he disclaimed all practice of slavery, but added, ‘It is our determination to maintain such regulations as may suppress crime, and preserve proper relations between master and servant.’
The first group of ‘emigrants’, as they were called, crossed the Orange River drifts in 1836. By 1840, some 6,000 men, women and children, nearly one tenth of the total white population of the Cape Colony, had trekked northwards in their wagons, accompanied by their servants, cattle, sheep and moveable property. Most came from eastern frontier districts. Their departure received no acclaim from the rest of the Boer population. The Dutch church was critical of the emigrants and refused to appoint a predikant. The British authorities too opposed the exodus, fearful that it would cause yet more wars in the interior requiring their intervention. But they had no means to stop it.
The emigrants clashed first with Mzilikazi’s Ndebele kingdom on the highveld, then with Dingane’s Zulu kingdom. In 1839 they endeavoured to set up their own embryonic republic on coastal terrain adjacent to Zulu territory, laying claim to all fertile land between the Tugela and Mzimkulu rivers and incorporating a small trading post on the coast set up by British traders in 1824. At first named Port Natal, the trading post was renamed Durban in honour of the Cape Colony’s governor in 1835 in the hope that it might help them win British recognition.
The Republic of Natalia lasted for little more than three years. When trekker leaders attacked neighbouring African chiefdoms to the south, capturing ‘apprentices’, and then extended their territorial claims there, the British government felt obliged to step in and annex Natal, thus acquiring a second colony in southern Africa - though with considerable reluctance. The Colonial Office official James Stephen considered Natal to be as worthless as the Cape. The only strategic interest the British had in Natal was to prevent the port of Durban from falling into the hands of a rival European power. Rather than submit to British rule once more, most of the trekkers streamed back across the Drakensberg to link up with other Boer groups that had remained on the highveld.
As trekker communities on the highveld sought to establish their own states, they fought repeatedly with African adversaries - the Basotho, the Griqua, the Tswana and the Ndebele. Britain intervened, signing treaties with the Basotho and the Griqua, considering itself responsible for the protection of native tribes beyond the colonial border and hoping to maintain peace in the area. But it soon tired of the exercise. Britain’s own frontier problems with the Xhosa were costly enough: a Xhosa war in 1846-47 cost the British Treasury almost £2 million; another Xhosa war in 1851-52 cost a further £3 million. In 1852, William Gladstone, shortly before being appointed chancellor of the exchequer, told the House of Commons:
The tales of our frontier policy at the Cape, and the losses which that policy has brought upon this country, when they are recounted to those who come after us, will appear all but fabulous. It will appear the height of extravagance that this country should have gone ahunting, as it were, to the uttermost ends of the earth to find means and opportunities of squandering its treasure and the lives of its subjects for no conceivable purpose of policy.
Determined to check the drain of imperial revenues into southern Africa, Britain abandoned the idea of intervention; humanitarianism on the cheap seemed to lead only to recurrent wars and mounting expense; it was no longer considered a viable policy. At a convention at Sand River in 1852, British officials recognised the independence of ‘the Emigrant Farmers’ in territory north of the Vaal River - the Transvaal, or the Zuid-Afrikaansche Republiek, as they called it. In exchange for a promise that there would be no slavery in the Transvaal, Britain disclaimed all alliances with ‘coloured nations’ there. At the Bloemfontein Convention in 1854, Britain similarly recognised the independence of the Orange Free State.
The two miniature republics were states in little more than name. The small trekker communities there claimed vast areas of land for themselves but were greatly outnumbered by the indigenous black population that occupied much of it. The administrations they set up were weak and disorganised and, unable to raise taxes, were constantly short of funds. The Transvaal, with a white population of 20,000, survived almost entirely on subsistence farming. Officials were often paid for their services in land grants instead of cash. The quest for more land continued relentlessly. African chiefs were often tricked into ceding territory, signing documents without realising the full implications, some believing they had merely entered into ‘alliances’. Tswana chiefdoms were subjected to years of raids and harassment. A Boer commando raiding Tswana country in 1852 attacked David Livingstone’s mission station at Kolobeng, destroying his store of Bibles and medicines. In the Orange Free State, Boer commandos fought a prolonged campaign to wrest the fertile Caledon River valley from the Basotho.
To satisfy the white demand for labour, commandos frequently abducted African children, describing them as ‘apprentices’ - inboekelings - to avoid accusation of overt slavery. The practice was sanctioned in the Transvaal by an Apprentice Act passed by the governing body, the Volksraad. In the 1860s missionaries considered inboekelings provided the main source of labour in the eastern Transvaal. A German missionary at Makapanspoort reported that wagonloads of children were regularly brought to the settlement. In the far north, in the Zoutpansberg district, the trade was known as ‘black ivory’, and soon outstripped the trade in white ivory once the elephant herds there had been decimated.
Both republics remained unstable. The Transvaal’s difficulties were compounded by persistent quarrels between rival Boer factions that threatened to split the republic apart. Under attack from the Venda, the trekker settlements in the Zoutpansberg had to be evacuated, then abandoned. In the Orange Free State, the first president, Josias Hoffman, was ousted by a mob after he gave the Basotho king, Moshoeshoe, a small keg of gunpowder as a diplomatic gesture. Twelve years after the republic’s founding, the Bloemfontein journal De Tijd spelled out how vulnerable the Orange Free State’s population of 25,000 whites remained: ‘Simple people find themselves in a vast land, surrounded in all quarters by enemies, without judges, without soldiers, without money, divided through ignorance and derided by a Colony adjacent to it [the Cape].’
The Cape Colony itself was in dire straits. During the 1860s, it was afflicted by drought, locusts, a slump in wine exports, a fall in the price of wool and a banking crisis. Railway-building ground to a halt seventy miles from Cape Town for lack of money. In Natal, the small white population lived in constant fear of the possibility of an uprising of the local Nguni population or an invasion from Zululand on the other side of the Tugela River. In general, the two southern African colonies were regarded as among the most troublesome, expensive and unprofitable possessions of the British empire.
Then, in 1871, prospectors exploring a remote area of sun-scorched scrubland in Griqualand, just outside the Cape’s borders, discovered the world’s richest deposits of diamonds. Britain promptly snatched the territory from the Orange Free State. Fifteen years later, an itinerant English digger, George Harrison, stumbled across the rocky outcrop of a gold-bearing reef on a ridge named by Transvaal farmers as the Witwatersrand. Beneath the reef lay the richest deposits of gold ever discovered. The gold strike transformed the Transvaal from an impoverished rural republic into a glittering prize.
What followed was a titanic struggle fought by the British to gain supremacy throughout southern Africa and by the Boers to preserve the independence of their republics. It culminated in the costliest, bloodiest and most humiliating war that Britain had waged in nearly a century. Britain provoked the war expecting it to be over within a few months, but it turned into a gruelling campaign lasting two and a half years; required half a million imperial troops to finish it; and left the two Boer republics devastated.
Faced with guerrilla warfare for which they were unprepared, British military commanders resorted to scorched-earth tactics, destroying thousands of farmsteads, razing villages to the ground and slaughtering livestock on a massive scale. Women and children were rounded up and placed in what the British called concentration camps, where conditions were so appalling that some 26,000 died there from disease and malnutrition, most of them under the age of sixteen. All this produced a legacy of hatred and bitterness amongst Afrikaners that endured for generations.
Two men personified this struggle: Cecil Rhodes and Paul Kruger. Rhodes, the son of an English country parson, used his huge fortunes from diamonds and gold to promote the expansion of the British empire as well as his own business interests. A ruthless entrepreneur with command of private armies, he was described by a British editor at the time of his death as the first of a dynasty of ‘money kings’ who had emerged as ‘the real rulers of the world’. Paul Kruger, the Boer leader and landowner, whose only education was the Bible and who believed the earth was flat, defied Britain’s prime ministers and generals for nearly a quarter of a century. British politicians constantly underestimated him. Britain’s colonial secretary, Joseph Chamberlain, a Birmingham screw manufacturer, who was one of the principal architects of the Anglo-Boer war of 1899-1902, referred to him as an ‘ignorant, dirty and obstinate man who has known how to feather his nest’. British cartoonists delighted in portraying Kruger as a bigoted peasant, with a barrel chest and a sullen expression, dressed in an ill-fitting frock-coat. Britain’s high commissioner in southern Africa, Sir Alfred Milner, the main architect of the war, predicted that Kruger and the Boers would put up no more than ‘an apology’ of a fight. But, as Britain’s poet of empire, Rudyard Kipling, later observed, the war taught the British ‘no end of a lesson’.
Having overcome Boer resistance at a cost in British lives of 22,000 men, the British government then concluded that self-government might be a better option for its two Boer colonies. By 1907, the Transvaal and the Orange Free State were again self-governing under the control of defeated Boer generals who had signed the terms of surrender five years before. Britain next decided to amalgamate its four colonies into a Union of South Africa in the hope that the Boers and the British might find a way of resolving their differences and merge into a single South African nation.
The black population fared badly from this arrangement. After a hundred years of wars and clashes against both British and Boers, all the African chiefdoms lying within South Africa had succumbed to white rule. Most of their land had been lost through conquest and settlement. Now Africans were excluded from negotiations leading to the founding of the Union of South Africa and denied political rights under its proposed constitution. An African delegation went to London to make representations, protesting at what they regarded as Britain’s betrayal of their interests, but to no avail. The black quest for political rights was to last for the next eighty years.
This book covers the tumultuous period that began with the discovery of the main diamond field in 1871 and culminated in the founding of the modern state of South Africa in 1910. It is a tale of great wealth and raw power, of deceit and corruption, set at a time when Britain was at the height of its imperial might. Politicians and journalists, in London as well as in southern Africa, fell under the spell of Cecil Rhodes’ money and readily lent themselves to the cause of empire and its entrepreneurs. It was all part of what Sir Alfred Milner called ‘winning the great game for mastery in South Africa’. The war that Milner engineered to achieve that mastery and, as he put it, ‘to knock the bottom out of the great Afrikaner nation for ever and ever, Amen’, brought repercussions that lasted for nearly a century. Out of the turmoil came a virulent form of Afrikaner nationalism that eventually took hold of South Africa, setting off yet another titanic struggle, this time between white and black.


As diamond fever spread throughout southern Africa and beyond, the rush to the diamond fields of Griqualand turned into a frantic escapade that one Cape Town newspaper likened to ‘a dangerous madness’. In their thousands, shopkeepers, tradesmen, clerks and farmers, excited by the prospect of sudden riches, set out in ox-wagons and mule carts heading for the desolate patch of sun-baked scrubland in Griqualand where diamonds had been discovered. Some travelled on foot, walking from as far away as Cape Town, a journey of 700 miles across the great thirstland of the Karoo.
They were joined by a horde of foreign adventurers: seasoned diggers from the Australian goldfields; fortyniners from California; cockney traders from the backstreets of London; Irish dissidents; German speculators; army officers on furlough; ship’s deserters; bogus aristocrats, rogue lawyers, and quack doctors. ‘Each post-cart and bullock-wagon brought its load of sordid, impecunious humanity,’ one diamond dealer remarked in his memoirs.
The stories told of fabulous wealth were real enough. In the early days, diggers using picks and shovels found diamonds lying close to the surface. A day’s work for those in luck could provide them with as many as ten or twenty diamonds. Some made their fortunes before breakfast. A penniless Englishman uncovered a 175-carat stone valued


On Sale
Sep 23, 2008
Page Count
592 pages

Martin Meredith

About the Author

Martin Meredith is a journalist, biographer, and historian who has written extensively on Africa and its recent history. His previous books include Mandela; Mugabe; Diamonds, Gold, and War; Born in Africa; and The Fate of Africa. He lives near Oxford, England.

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