The British Empire 

Diamonds, Gold and Majuba Hill


Diamonds discovered by small children

In 1867, some small children playing with shiny stones near the Orange River began a diamond rush of several thousand people. Three years later the discovery of a diamond bearing rock on the land of Johannes Nicholas de Beer caught the world's imagination and began a rush which led to 50,000 prospectors heading to Kimberley (named after the Colonial Secretary). Diamond digging soon moved from the small prospector to more centralised large companies able to invest in deep mines. Companies now emerged using migrant black labour living in wire compounds and paid much less than white labour. De Beer's site became the world's largest diamond mine- a man made hole measuring 1,5 km in circumference.

The mine was in a disputed area which the British settled by awarding the land to Nicholas Waterboer on behalf of the Western Griqua-he then asked the British for protection. Soon after the British annexed the territory to the Cape Colony. The diamond fields boomed enabling some British capitalists to make a small fortune including Cecil Rhodes.

Transvaal annexed by the British

The Cape with this new stream of finance was now given self government and there was in the 1870s a resurgence of the idea of federation. This was ultimately to fail though as the local settler population (two thirds of the white Cape population were Afrikaner) did not want the cost of administering what were now relatively poor Boer republics. Lord Carnarvon's federating agenda did though lead to the annexation of the Transvaal in 1877( it was by then virtually bankrupt and unable to deal with the threat posed by African tribes like the Zulus. In April 1877 with relatively little trouble the Transvaal was annexed so that the administration could be put on a stronger financial footing and the imperial armies could deal with the threat that the Zulus posed.

The Zulus threaten British control

The threat from the Zulus was to prove more problematic to resolve than the new British Governor Sir Bartle Frere imagined. Frere managed to bring about war with the Zulu king, Cetshwayo, in 1879, which led to the humiliation of the British forces at Isandlwana. Although this led to the crushing British victory at Ulundi, it was not lost on the Boers that the British were not now needed to protect them.

The British defeated by the Boers in the First Anglo-Boer War

For two years after the annexation of 1877 the Boers followed a policy of passive resistance but in December 1880, following the refusal of the new Prime Minister (Gladstone) to relinquish sovereignty despite an election pledge to the contrary, the first shots were fired in a conflict which was to lead to the British humiliation at Majuba Hill in January 1881.

Gladstone agrees to Boer Independence

Gladstone, who had more important things on his political agenda to deal with, namely Ireland, agreed to the independence of Transvaal at the Pretoria Conference. The subsequent London Conference decided that Britain should have oversight of any future treaty that the Transvaal might sign thus making the sovereign position still unclear.

Discovery of Gold

The discovery of gold in 1886 led to a series of events which changed the character of the young Boer republic and introduced a new strand to  Boer-British relations. It changed forever the economic and political relations between Britain and the Boer republics and eventually led to the war of 1899.

The 1886 discovery of gold ushered in an influx of largely British labour and capital which established an industrial economy centred on Johannesburg where the uitlander (foreigner) was soon seen as a threat to the Afrikaner way of life.  By 1891 the number of whites in southern Africa had grown from the 250,000 that lived there in 1870 to 600,000.

The gold on the Witwatersrand was difficult to mine yet the price of gold was controlled and did not reflect the difficulty and expense of extracting it. Although the reefs extended 50 km along the rand and attracted miners from all over the world who worked alongside destitute Afrikaners and Africans, the quality of the gold was poor and lay in deposits thousands of metres deep. As huge amounts of capital were needed to extract the ore, the industry came to be run by a dozen or so 'Randlords' like Cecil Rhodes who brought his diamond industry expertise to Johannesburg. The owners of the deep mines wanted a government sympathetic to their needs for  low wages and easily available capital and resources like dynamite at a decent price  but President Kruger saw the Randlords and their European labour force as a threat to the way of life of the Boer.

The British may have hoped that the influx of British labour would help bring about the collapse of the Transvaal but Paul Kruger was determined to resist any change to the character of the Transvaal. He resisted any moves to incorporate the uitlander into the political community and saw the gold industry as providing the money to maintain the independence of the Boer republic. It was clear that by 1894 the Transvaal was not going to implode even though the Transvaal was going through an economic revolution that meant the pastoral community was being threatened by the gold industry that within its midst.

Kruger’s difficulties with the Uitlanders

Kruger might well have sought a compromise with the Randlords, especially as those who operated low-level mines were generally on his side but Kruger made little attempt to reach a settlement with the industry. He feared the impact of immigration and industrialisation on Boer society and remembered the threat that Britain had posed in the past in 1880 and believed they continued to pose a threat. He did nothing to allow more Africans to move to the Rand. He maintained a government monopolies and placed heavy taxes on essential items like dynamite.

In 1890 he restricted the Uitlander vote to men who had been resident in the Transvaal for fourteen years. It is doubtful that many British miners would have wanted to exchange their British citizenship for Transvaal citizenship but in making it more difficult for those who might have wanted to become Transvaal citizenships he handed an easy target to the British government who could claim that the British were being victimised.

Kruger resisted the demands of Rhodes for a more flexible labour market and an end to the monopolies of dynamite and other materials needed by the mine owners, especially those involved in deep mining. Kruger was encouraged though by the fact that five of the ten mining companies tended to back him. The opening up in 1894 of a railway from Pretoria to Delagoa Bay reduced the dependence of the Transvaal on the Cape Colony. With German capital for the establishment of a South African national bank and the introduction of steep haulage tariffs on the Cape Colony's  goods trains followed by the closure of drifts across the Vaal river indicated a growing independence. The Kaiser approval of the refusal of the Transvaal to enter a Cape based customs union together with the increased influence of German settlers and investment caused tension to mount between Britain and the Transvaal. The Jameson Raid was Rhodes' solution to this tension but its failure indicated that the issues surrounding the 'uitlanders' and the mine owners were more complex than Rhodes thought.

The Jameson Raid

At the end of 1895, the failed Jameson Raid took place; Jameson was forced to surrender and was taken to Pretoria to be handed over to his British countrymen for punishment.

In 1898, Kruger was elected President for the fourth and final time and this gave him a mandate to develop a tougher approach with Britain.

The position of Kruger and his government was immeasurably strengthened by the failure of the Jameson Raid. Kruger now had the moral high ground and had the justification he needed to clamp down on the 'uitlanders' and improve the defences of the Transvaal. 'Uitlander' political activities were curbed and the Transvaal began to prepare for what many believed was an inevitable war. A new military alliance was concluded with the Orange Free State in 1897 and the republic began to improve its defences and rearm its forces. Guns were bought from France and Germany, and all males over 16 were armed with the Mauser rifle.

Despite Kruger's increasing popularity, there were voices insisting that war should not be inevitable. The Progressive party which included General Joubert insisted that what was preventing a peaceful compromise/accommodation was Kruger's obstinacy. Krause, a prominent attorney believed the autocratic Kruger was risking war to escape domestic reform. When Kruger met Milner it was the coming together of two men who had diametrically opposite views and the only result would be war-desired by both men.

The Battle of Isandlwana, a humiliation for the British Empire as the British forces were destroyed

At Majuba Hill, January 1881, a Boer force defeated a British force led by General Colley

Paul Kruger became leader of the resistance movement against British annexation of the Transvaal.

A cartoon depicting Kruger’s compromise on the ‘uitlanders’ getting the vote.

Leander Starr Jameson

Jameson’s Last Stand