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What makes a country go to war? At what stage in that sequence of events, of action and reaction, bluff and brinkmanship does war become unavoidable? The South African War was the first large-scale human tragedy of the twentieth century - the prelude to a century that was to be characterised by such large-scale and avoidable tragedy. The cost in human, environmental and financial terms was colossal. Approximately 60,000 men women and children were killed from countries that not only included Britain and South ...
What makes a country go to war? At what stage in that sequence of events, of action and reaction, bluff and brinkmanship does war become unavoidable? The South African War was the first large-scale human tragedy of the twentieth century - the prelude to a century that was to be characterised by such large-scale and avoidable tragedy. The cost in human, environmental and financial terms was colossal. Approximately 60,000 men women and children were killed from countries that not only included Britain and South Africa, but also France, the USA, Australia, New Zealand and Canada. Moreover, the peace terms that allowed for the continuation of discriminatory racial policies set the stage for a century of racial inequality and strife in South Africa.
In this incisive work, South African author, John Stephens, considers the slide to a war that nobody wanted. This is a story of the shaping of South Africa. It is also a universal story: one of pride, greed and fear - of humans behaving in a very human way.
Europe, gold and Africa
Ex Africa semper aliquid novo - loosely translates as 'out of Africa there is always something new'. This was the Roman view of the continent and they were very well acquainted with it. Indeed, their empire included the whole of the north coast of the continent and it was a prized possession. In order for the young Roman Republic to become a major European power in the first place, she had successfully to meet the challenge from Africa: the Phoenicians of Carthage. Carthage was already a great Mediterranean military and trading power when the Roman Republic was still in her infancy.
But the deep interior of the continent always remained a mystery to the Romans. Unlike the Egyptians and the Phoenicians, the Romans never ventured much beyond the Pillars of Hercules into the Atlantic Ocean, or down the east coast of Africa via the Red Sea. Herodotus, however, recounts that Pharaoh Necho (610-595 BC) wished to determine whether Africa was circumnavigable. Accordingly, he commissioned a number of ships manned by Phoenicians to undertake the voyage. This fleet sailed via the Red Sea into the Indian Ocean and down the east coast of Africa.
Every year they built a temporary settlement further along the African coast in order to plant a crop. After they hadharvested it, they would continue on their journey along the coast. In the third year of their journey, they sailed through the Pillars of Hercules from the Atlantic side and returned to Egypt. They reported that they had 'rowed until the sun rose over their right shoulders'. Herodotus seems sceptical, but since we now know Africa to be circumnavigable, the story gains credibility.
Herodotus also mentions a Carthaginian called Sataspes, who, because he had used violence against a maiden, was given a choice by the Great King Xerxes of being impaled on a stake or of sailing around Africa. That was not a difficult choice. He elected to attempt the circumnavigation but after many months at sea, he lost heart. He returned to 'civilization' and reported that 'at the farthest point he had reached, the coast was occupied by a dwarfish race' and 'whenever he landed, they left their towns and fled to the mountains; but his men did them no wrong, only entering into their cities and taking some of their cattle'.
What is certain, however, is that Europeans did not always harbour such a favourable impression of Africa as the Romans did. Until they had developed sea-going craft and navigational equipment that allowed them to travel down the Atlantic west coast of Africa, the interior remained impenetrable. Between Europe and the interior of Africa, there is the vast and impassable wasteland of the Sahara Desert, severely discouraging overland exploration. The rest of the continent was consequently screened from the European view and Africa was generally perceived as the 'Dark Continent'. But a Dark Continent could hold many dark, but exciting secrets. Thus, to the European mind it was surrounded with an aura of mystery.
It is interesting to look at some of the ideas and events that shaped the European perception of Africa - it was after all with these perceptions and ideas in mind that they eventually set out to discover and explore the continent. Africa was the fabled land of the golden city of Ophir; it was where the fabulously rich gold mines of King Solomon lay, waiting for rediscovery. The Queen of Sheba was also out of Africa and of her beauty and wealth the Old Testament of the Christian Bible is unstinting in its praise. However, in the mediaeval European mind, somewhere, deep within the vast unexplored and unknown continent, also lay the amazing kingdom of Prester John. His was a much more immediate reality for them. He was supposed to be a descendant of the Magi and possessed great wealth.
During the 1130s, Turkish power threatened the Crusader kingdoms in the Holy Land. These kingdoms urgently sought aid from Christian Western Europe. Around 1145, Hugh, Bishop of Jabala, met Pope Eugenius to ask for help. Otto von Freisingen, Bishop of Freising, recorded in his Historia de Duobus Civitatibus (1158) that Hugh told the Pope about Prester John, a Christian priest and king whose kingdom was in the extreme Orient. The point Hugh made to the Pope was that they (the Crusader kingdoms) could not expect help from Prester John because he was cut off from them by the River Tigris.
In 1165 the Emperor Manuel Comenius of Byzantium received a (forged) letter allegedly from Prester John. The forgery was quite clever, obviously being based on Otto von Freisingen's report. It played on the hopes and fears of the Europeans for deliverance from the Turks by this, reputedly the mightiest of all Christian Kings.
In part, the letter read:
I am a zealous Christian and universally protect the Christians of our empire, supporting them by our alms. We have determined to visit the sepulchre of our Lord with a very large army, in accordance with the glory of our majesty to humble and chastise the enemies of the cross of Christ and to exalt his blessed name.
For gold, silver, precious stones, animals of every kind and the number of our people, we believe there is not our equal under heaven.
The letter caused a sensation. Not only were copies circulated widely, but excerpts were even made into song. The official response to the letter was from Pope Alexander III, who sent a Papal emissary in 1177 with a letter for Prester John, carried by his physician, Magister Philippos. Nothing further was ever heard of the letter, the physician, or of Prester John.
Prester John was originally thought to rule in Asia, but as trade increased European familiarity with that continent, it became apparent that the priest king was not there. By the 14th century, all searches for Prester John and his kingdom in Asia had proved fruitless. Rather than give up on this hopeful and glamorous legend, however, Europeans decided that they must have been looking on the wrong continent. Where better to seek this mysterious kingdom, then, than on the continent of mystery itself? They turned their eyes towards the interior of Africa. Always associated with fabulous riches, Africa could easily harbour the most fabulously rich and powerful king in all Christianity.
There was an actual Christian kingdom there, the Nestorian kingdom of Abyssinia, latterly known as Ethiopia. East Africa was sometimes conflated in European thinking with the 'Indies', and so here, they thought, must be that great Christian King in the East. It remains a striking phenomenon of the European psyche that, centuries after the fall of the Crusader countries, when European exploration of the coastal waters of Africa began, they were still on the lookout for signs or tidings of the kingdom of the mighty Prester John.
The Portuguese sent several expeditions to make contact with Prester John's kingdom and the reports that came back confirmed the belief that he had finally been found. Thus, it came about that it was in Africa that Prester John's kingdom was thought to lie when the earliest printed maps of Africa first appeared. The legend eventually passed from common belief, but not before leaving a number of maps illustrating this wonderful myth. As far as Europeans were concerned therefore, thoughts of Africa constantly intermingled fact with fiction and legend, but, somehow, Africa was always associated with visions of gold and fabulous wealth.
The Arabs and the Chinese enjoyed much more early success in trading with Africa. Their trading relations with African coastal communities thus date from far earlier. They concentrated on relations with the African east coast and colonized it right down to the spice island of Zanzibar. The Mediterranean galley ships of the Europeans were unsuited to navigating the waters along the African coast, but the ships used in the North Sea offered greater promise. It is from the latter that the successful Portuguese caravels were later developed.
When the Portuguese Prince Henry the Navigator set out with his new ships and navigational technology, it was to the African coast that he turned in the hope of finding gold and wealth. The indigenous black people of Africa had of course been known to Europeans for centuries. They were always highly regarded for their physical strength, superior endurance and ability to perform hard labour. When Prince Henry did not find much gold on these travels, he quite contentedly settled for the black variety - slaves. Slaves were already being traded by the local kings and chieftains with Arab traders, as they had been doing for centuries. Some evidence suggests that these West African societies had been involved in trade with Western Europe, through various intermediaries, from as early as 7000 BC. However, their first direct contact with Europeans actually occurred only during the 15th century.
It is remarkable that the slave trade never really reached southern Africa. Whereas black slaves were obtained in great numbers from both the east and the west coasts of Africa, where poor, luckless individuals were provided in greater numbers by local rulers than by direct Portuguese slave hunts, slaves never were taken from the south to the same extent. The geography of Southern Africa largely isolated the region, thus protecting its people from these ravages.
After leaving Luanda in Portuguese Angola on the west coast of central Africa, a ship could not find a safe harbour along the dangerous African shore until it reached the southern part of Mozambique on the African east coast. There were harbourages available at and around the Cape of course, but the coast is swept by dangerous currents, hidden rocks closer inshore, extreme winds and massive waves, known as Cape rollers. The whole region was thus best avoided.
Added to these navigational obstacles is the fact that on the western shore, south of the mouth of the Congo, there are no navigable rivers giving access to the southern African hinterland. The habitable interior is also separated from the west coast by the oldest and most formidable desert in the world - the Namib. Beyond that, lies still more desert. Although not quite as barren as the Namib, the Kalahari stretches up to the Vaal River, while the semi-desert of the Great Karroo stretches down almost to Cape Town. The lush Mediterranean-like beauty of the Cape of Good Hope is a veritable oasis in the arid surrounding landscape, which continues north for hundreds of miles along the west coast.
The difficulty of access exists only from the west coast, but matters were different on the east coast. There the interior of the southern sub-continent was accessible and the slave trade would thrive from Delagoa Bay in the 18th century. The indigenous inhabitants of Southern Africa were thus not completely isolated from the rest of the world, nor were they spared the ravages of the slave trade. When the first white settlers met up with the black peoples of the interior, they were already raising white corn as their staple food. To this day South Africa is one of the largest producers and consumers of white corn, due to the native people's traditional preference for this product against the yellow variety. Exactly how corn reached these tribes from Mexico is unknown, but the most reasonable assumption would be that it was introduced by Arab traders. Arab traders had been trading up and down the African east coast for centuries.
Similarly, it appears that the locally grown marijuana (known locally as dagga) is not indigenous either. Although it has been traditionally used by most of the native inhabitants, including the insular and shy San (Bushmen) for as long as anybody can remember, the local product is apparently of Chinese origin.
It is unlikely that these tribes traded directly with either the Arabs or the Chinese. However, the well-known international trade network in which the impressive Limpopo Valley settlements played a vital part, even before Great Zimbabwe became the most important link, would have been readily accessible to most Southern African tribes south of the Limpopo.
In 1815, Britain recognized the right of the Portuguese to take captives between Cape Delgado and Delagoa Bay in Mozambique. The export of slaves from northern Mozambique rose from 47,000 during the first decade of the 19th Century to 129,000 during the decade from 1820 to 1829. Some evidence suggests that this increase, and especially the low price paid for slaves, is probably the single most important event that gave rise to 'the time of troubles'. These terrible times in South Africa have a direct bearing on the later events described in this book. It set the scene that confronted the Dutch settlers and the gold diggers when they penetrated the region.
The people of South Africa
When referring to the indigenous peoples of Southern Africa, one must tread warily. Whether or not Africa, and more specifically perhaps, the western part of the promontory known as the Witwatersrand, is the cradle of humankind is moot. It is, however, a matter of archaeological record that the interior of South Africa, and particularly the area later known as the Transvaal, have been inhabited by humans and their anthropological forebears for hundreds of thousands of years.
Who these original people were cannot be established with any degree of certainty - in fact, not even with uncertainty. In this respect, Southern Africa is obviously not unique. The identity of prehistorically indigenous peoples is enigmatic all over the world. However, these people would be the only ones who truly qualify to be called indigenous. All others migrated at one time or another into the areas they now occupy.
Almost invariably, the approach relating to the indigenous peoples of southern Africa has been Euro-centric. It was largely the white man's delusion, perhaps honestly, but certainly conveniently, held that the black tribes of South Africa were migrating south into the empty interior just about the same time as the white settlers were busy migrating northwards into the same empty space.
Nothing could be further from the truth. The archaeological record (as well as extensive linguistic and other studies) shows that the interior of the country had been populated for many thousands of years. It appears that the inhabitants of longest standing are the San and Khoi. They were widely dispersed in population groups throughout the sub-continent. In the interior, over centuries, black peoples moving down from the north were displacing the lighter-skinned Khoi and San groups.
Although Early Iron Age occupation of the Transvaal is certain, it has not delivered the overwhelmingly rich evidence of its activities that the Late Iron Age has, especially from about AD 1400 and later.
Excerpted from Fuelling the Empire by John J. Stephens Excerpted by permission.
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Part One: Irreconcilable expectations.
1. Setting the stage.
2. British expectations at the Cape.
3. Expectations on the Eastern Frontier.
4. The parting of the ways.
5. The Transvaal unsettled.
Part Two: Open borders across the Vaal.
6. Foundation and colonization.
7. Gold to the rescue?
8. From flawed to failed.
9. Britain to the rescue.
Part Three: Gold — the mixed blessing.
10. Economics, the gold standard and British policy in South Africa.
11. Wars, concessions and a short boom.
12. Opening Pandora’s box — mining the gold.
13. The challenge to mining.
Part Four: Intrigue and confrontation.
14. Afrikaner nationalism and railway politics.
15. A tale of two cities.
16. The conspiracy and the raid.
17. Power politics.
18. A short war — a long battle.