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A Hundred Years Ago: The British Empire in 1917.   Leave a comment

Jan Smuts 1947.jpg

Jan Christiaan Smuts (1870-1950), pictured above, was a South African statesman and member of the British Imperial War Cabinet from 1917 to 1919. In June 1917, as a colonial prime minister, he joined the ‘new imperialists’ – Curzon, Milner and Balfour – in the cabinet, giving his view of the development of the British Empire and Commonwealth as he saw it:

The British Empire is much more than a State. I think the very expression ‘Empire’ is misleading, because it makes people think as if we are one single entity, one unity, to which the term ‘Empire’ can be applied. We are not an Empire. Germany is an Empire, so was Rome, and so is India, but we are a system of nations far greater than any empire which has ever existed; and by using this ancient expression we really obscure the real fact that we are larger and that our whole position is different, and that we are not one nation, or state, or empire, but we are a whole world by ourselves, consisting of many nations and states, and all sorts of communities under one flag…

I think that this is the fundamental fact which we have to bear in mind – that the British Empire, or this British Commonwealth of Nations, does not stand for unity, standardisation, or assimilation, or denationalisation; but it stands for a fuller, a richer, and more various a life among all the nations that compose it. And even nations who have fought against you, like my own, must feel that they and their interests are as safe and as secure under the British flag as those of the children of your household and your own blood. It is only in proportion as that is realised that you will fulfil the true mission that you have undertaken. Therefore, it seems, speaking my own individual opinion, that there is only one solution, that is the solution supplied by our past traditions of freedom, self-government and the fullest development. We are not going to force common Governments, federal or otherwise, but we are going to extend liberty, freedom and nationhood more and more in every part of the Empire.

T E Lawrence was one of those who took Smuts’ vision of Empire at face value. He became closely identified with this new strategy of ‘extending liberty’ by inciting an Arab Revolt against Turkish rule, under the leadership of the Sharif of Mecca, Husain Ibn Ali. Lawrence was an Oxford historian turned undercover agent, an archaeologist, a linguist, a skilled cartographer and an intuitive guerrilla fighter, as well as a masochist who yearned for fame, only to spurn it when it came. He was the illegitimate son of an Irish baronet and his nanny; a flamboyant Orientalist who delighted in wearing Arab dress. His affinity with the Arabs was to prove invaluable. His aim was to break the Ottoman Empire from within, by stirring up Arab nationalism into a new and potent force that he believed could trump the German-sponsored jihad against the British Empire. Turkish rule over the deserts of Arabia had been resented for centuries and sporadically challenged by the nomadic tribes of the region. By adopting their language and dress, Lawrence set out to turn their discontent to British advantage. As liaison officer to Husain’s son Faisal from July 1916, he argued strongly against deploying British troops in the Hejaz. The Arabs had to feel they were fighting for their own freedom, Lawrence argued, not for the privilege of being ruled by the British instead of the Turks. His ambition, he wrote, was…

…that the Arabs should be our first brown dominion, and not our last brown colony. Arabs react against you if you try to drive them, and they are as tenacious as Jews, but you can lead them without force anywhere, if nominally arm-in-arm. The future of Mesopotamia is so immense that if it is cordially ours we can swing the whole Middle East with it.

It worked. With Lawrence’s support, the Arabs waged a highly effective guerrilla war against Turkish communications along the Hejaz railway from Medina to Aqaba. By the autumn of 1917 they were probing Turkish defences in Syria as General Edmond Allenby’s army marched from Sinai towards Jerusalem. The Arab revolt helped to turn the military tide for Britain in the middle east, and so take the pressure off the Suez Canal and the oil fields for the duration of the war. But this did not solve Britain’s long-term problem of how to safeguard her middle eastern interests now that the old Turkish buffer was gone; or the short-term problem connected with it, of how to avoid quarrelling with her friends over it. To settle these problems she had come to a secret arrangement with France in April 1916 – the Sykes-Picot Treaty – which was supposed to determine how the Ottoman empire would be partitioned after the war. When it was revealed to the world after April 1917, following the entry of the USA into the war, Sykes-Picot was on the face of it a blueprint for a cynical piece of imperialistic plunder, and Britain was embarrassed by the look of it to the Arabs, who got to know of it from the Russian Bolsheviks later that year. T E Lawrence claimed that it was evident to him that Britain’s promises would amount to nothing, and confessed that he himself had been party to deliberately misleading them:

I risked the fraud, on my conviction that the Arab help was necessary to our cheap and speedy victory in the East, and that better we win and break our word than lose.

Writing in 1954, Lord Vansittart claimed that Lawrence’s Arab army was overrated, and that it had raced rather than fought its way to Damascus. He had believed that the Arabs occupied the city first, but later found out that it was the Australians who bore the brunt of the siege.  Of Lawrence himself, he wrote that…

He felt too big for the pumps in which he entered my office, boasting of having torn off his British decorations… Lawrence was one of the people I was glad to have known and not to have known better. He was an acquaintance, not a friend, a relative so distant that we never mentioned the subject… He wanted to go far with him, seeming to think that I could ‘do something about’ the kingdom terrestrial yet not of this world, on which he had set his public heart.

In June 1917, there were six ‘young imperialists’ in the wartime cabinet, including Leopold Amery and Mark Sykes, who were there to advise on eastern and middle eastern affairs. Harold Nicolson was seconded to work with Sykes. John Buchan was deputy director of a new Information Ministry created to brief ministers. It was a remarkable resurrection of a school of imperialism which had been thought to be dead and buried for years, spurned by successive electorates since 1906. In ordinary times it would have remained mouldering under the ground, but the extraordinary circumstances of war had acted like an earthquake, throwing up the coffin and breaking it open. As Bernard Porter has put it, Joseph Chamberlain walked the earth again. Leopold Amery’s first and foremost war aim was the immediate security and, still more, freedom for the development and expansion of the British Commonwealth in the world outside Europe. A Cabinet Committee on Territorial Desiderata chaired by Curzon in 1917 recommended that this expansion be concentrated in east Africa and the lands between Egypt and India. It was clear what these new imperialists had in mind, if they were still in control of government when the war was over.

The Great War was a total war, and, for its duration, it stretched the Empire’s resources to the limit. When peace eventually came, she would be much less able to hold the empire by force: even now she could ill afford to keep tied up in the colonies troops which were badly needed in Europe, or to count on reinforcing them in an emergency. In India, for example, the number of British troops numbered only 15,000, which was 23,000 fewer than on the eve of the mutiny, sixty years earlier. The perils of the situation were clear, and could only be met by compromising with any insurgency or emergency which might arise. Given the somewhat feigned antipathy of the USA for being harnessed to imperialists after April 1917, concession was a means by which the British could retain control of their empire, but it was also a way in which that control was diluted as well. The war forced it into all kinds of actions which were unwise in the long-term, but the sort of war it was made these almost inevitable. In wartime there could be no long-term coherent policy for the empire. Everything was overshadowed by the war on the Western Front. Consequently colonial policy decisions could not be other than pragmatic, unplanned, short-term, often inconsistent. Quite often they came to be regretted afterwards, especially those made to curry favour from various quarters, to nationalists in India and the middle east.

In India the promises came very slowly, because until 1917 it looked as if they might be done without. India was relatively tranquil when war broke out, and Indians refrained from exploiting the difficulties of their British ‘masters’. It seemed that Britain would not need more than 15,000 troops to control them. Nevertheless, some of the members of the government, including Edwin Montagu, were keen to announce reforms from the beginning. India’s representation at Imperial Conferences of the ‘white’ self-governing dominions, were met with considerable opposition from those dominions who protested that India was neither ‘white’ nor ‘self-governing’. Despite this, India was admitted at the beginning of 1917, and promises of political reforms followed in August. Both concessions were late enough to suggest that they were born out of fear rather than persuasion, for in the year before the nationalists had healed both of the main breaches: between Congress and the Muslim League by the Lucknow Pact of December 1916, and between moderates and extremists when Tilak, released from gaol in 1914, was readmitted to Congress in the same month, capturing it soon afterwards. In 1916 the nationalists had gone on the offensive under him and, ironically, the Englishwoman Annie Besant. Montagu wrote later that it was her activity which really stirred the country up. By June 1917, they were threatening enough to persuade the Indian government to intern Mrs Besant, which provoked further agitation. In July the viceroy wrote home that the situation was urgent, and any further prevarication over the reforms would be fatal. It was at this moment that Montagu, who had returned to the India Office as Secretary of State in July, was allowed to make a declaration of intent for India to provide…

…the increasing association of Indians in every branch of the administration, and the gradual development of self-governing institutions with a view to the progressive realisation of responsible government in India as an integral part of the British Empire.

Montagu was able to use the words ‘responsible government’ in 1917, even though it provoked a storm in the House of Lords and a flurry of resignations in India, because the situation was then more desperate: nationalist opposition more widespread, the need to arrest the further defection of moderate opinion, according to Chelmsford, more urgent, the country, according to Montagu, rolling to certain destruction. This was the result of the war, but the war had also made it less likely that the promise of Liberal reforms to India, when it did come, would be enough to stem the nationalist tide.Indian nationalism was fired enormously by the war: its grievances compounded, its following augmented, its organisation greatly improved, its expectations increased; a seething, boiling, political flood, as Montagu described it in November 1917, raging across the country. Yet the Montagu Declaration and the Montagu-Chelmsford Report had held it back; if nothing else, as Montagu wrote in February 1918, I have kept India quiet for six months at a critical period of the war. The reforms represented the biggest concession Britain had yet made to the demands of the nationalists.  Whether they were big enough to keep pace with them was yet to be seen when the war finally ended.

                 

Sources:

Bernard Porter (1984), The Lion’s Share: A Short History of British Imperialism. London: Longman.

Niall Ferguson (2005), Empire: How Britain Made the Modern World. Harmondsworth: Penguin.

Michael Clark & Peter Teed (1972), Portraits & Documents: The Twentieth Century. London: Hutchinson.

            

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What a year that was: Britain and the World in 1947: Part II.   Leave a comment

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The Winter of 1947 has gone down in history and personal memory as a time of almost unbearable bleakness. For three months, Britain endured not only the shortages of almost everything in the shops, and a virtual medieval peasant diet, heavily based on potatoes and bread, nor only the huge state bureaucracy bearing down on so much of daily life, with its 25,000 regulations and orders never heard of in peace time before. Neither was it just the smashed and broken homes, and the irreplaceable war dead. The crisis of 1947 was also the product of that most common of British complaints, the unpredictable weather.

Towards the end of January, a great freeze had swept across from Siberia and covered the country in thick snow, a bitter cold which brought the exhausted British people very nearly to their knees. The country still ran on coal,  newly nationalised under the National Coal Board, but the piles at the pits froze solid and could not be moved. The collieries’ winding gear ceased to function and drifting snow blocked roads and rail lines. At the power stations, the remaining stock piles ran down swiftly until, one by one, the stations were forced to close. Lights went off, men dug through snow drifts, tamping for miles to find food to carry back to their families and neighbours. Cars were marooned on exposed roads. Factories across the Midlands and South of England had to stop work and within a week two million people were idle. Electric fires were banned for three hours each morning and two in the afternoon. As people ran out of coal, they had only blankets to keep them warm. Around London, commuters were unable to reach the capital. Scotland was cut off from England.

Government ministers were not immune to the health problems which resulted. Herbert Morrison was nearly killed by thrombosis when new drugs given to him caused his kidneys to pour with blood. While he was still in hospital, Ellen Wilkinson, the education minister who adored him and may have been his mistress, died from an overdose of barbiturates. Wilkinson, a small flame-haired woman who had led the pre-war Jarrow Crusade for most of its length to London, was much-loved in the party, but became increasingly depressed by the slow pace of change, particularly in education. On 25 January, in the middle of the blizzard, she insisted on opening a theatre school in a blitzed, open-to-the-sky building in south London. Ellen became ill and seems to have muddled up her medicines, though others believed she killed herself, out of a mixture of frustrated love and political disappointment. In some ways, her death was symptomatic of the strain Attlee’s government was under.

Then things deteriorated further as the coldest February for three hundred years began. Another half million people had to stop work. The sun was so little seen that when it came out, a man rushed to photograph the reassuring sight for the newspapers. The greengrocers ran out of green vegetables. After a short thaw, March brought terrible storms and snow-drifts thirty feet high. There were ice-floes off the East Anglian coast. Three hundred main roads were impassable. These conditions were then followed by the worst floods in living memory, cutting off towns and drowning crops in huge areas of low-lying England. Sheep were dying on the hills, unable to be brought down to lower-lying pastures. Their carcasses had to be burnt in huge pyres, causing foul-smelling smoke to hang over the hillsides of rural Wales.

As people were digging out frozen vegetables from fields and despairing of the empty shops, the run on the pound resulting from Keynes’ Washington ‘deal’ and the balance of payments crisis meant that the Treasury was running out of dollars to buy help from overseas. This was the moment when the optimism of 1945 died for many voters. But the summer did come, and it was a good one, the sun blazing away with the cricketers at Lords as the nation sweltered. However, the pound continued to fall dramatically against the dollar, and with the Chancellor, Hugh Dalton, unable to buy food from the USA, secret preparations were made for a ‘famine food programme’ which included a provision to take children out of school to help with the harvest. It was never instigated, but the rationing of bread, which had not been necessary during the war, was put in place, as wheat supplies could no longer be bought from the United States. At the same time, British ministers had to ensure that there was no famine in other parts of the world for which they were responsible, including India, Germany and Palestine. Bread rationing at home was hugely unpopular and long remembered.

As Aneurin Bevan’s visit to Coventry had demonstrated, housing was the most critical single social issue of the post-war era, remaining at the top of the political agenda throughout the early fifties. Half a million homes had been destroyed or were made uninhabitable by German air-raids and a further three million were badly damaged. Overall, a quarter of Britain’s 12.5 million homes were damaged in some way. London was a capital with a background of ruins and wrecked streets. Southampton had lost so many buildings that during the war officials reported that the population felt the city was finished and ‘broken in spirit’. Coventry had lost a third of her housing in a single night in the November Blitz of 1940. Birmingham had lost 12,000 houses, with another 25,000 badly damaged. Together with the impact of demobilization of young men eager to marry and start families, the government estimated that 750,000 new houses were needed urgently. In addition, there was a need for further slum clearances in London and the older industrial cities, the grimy terraces lacking proper sanitation, gas and electricity supplies.

The demand was for more than bricks and mortar, since the war had separated husbands and wives, deprived children of their parents and, in general, shaken the familial fabric of the country.  Some 38 million civilians had changed addresses a total of sixty million times. Despite the break-up of many marriages under the strain of war, most people wanted a return to the security of family life. There were more than 400,000 weddings in 1947 and 881,000 babies were born, the beginning of the ‘boom’ that would reshape British life in the decades ahead. In all, a million extra children were added to the population in the five years after the war. Since there were not nearly enough individual homes to go round, hundreds of thousands of young people found themselves living with their parents or in-laws, deprived of privacy and trapped in inter-generational conflict.

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It was, in positive terms, a time when people were prepared to live more communally than would be the case later. Wartime queuing had revived a kind of street culture which lingered among women, as they spent hours standing together. Cinemas and dance halls continued to be crammed with people trying to escape the cold of their homes which as yet had no television (only 0.2 per cent of the population owned a television in 1947) or central heating, and not much by way of lighting. People really were in real austerity together, managing without much privacy and with the ongoing effects of wartime requisitioning, evacuation and the direction of labour, lodging in unfamiliar rooms. The sharing of toilets and kitchens in the late forties was therefore just a continuation of conditions they were already used to, like the meagre food and dreary clothing.

The most dramatic government response was the factory-made instant housing, the ‘prefabs’. Although designed only for a few years’ use, many of them were still lived in forty or more years later. Between 1945 and 1949, under the Temporary Housing Programme, a total of 156,623 prefabs went up, a welcome start in the provision of mass housing. They were more than huts, but a prototype bungalow, with a cooker, sink, fridge, bath, boiler and fitted cupboards. It cost fractionally more than a traditional brick-built terraced house, it weighed a fraction of the latter and was prefabricated in former aircraft factories using a fraction of the resources, then unloaded and screwed together on a concrete plinth, ready for families to move into within days. They were all weatherproof, warm and well-lit. The future Labour leader Neil Kinnock lived in one, an Arcon V, from 1947 to 1961, and remembered the fitted fridge and bathroom causing much jealousy among those still living in unmodernised colliers’ terraces in the south Wales valleys: Friends and family came to view the wonders. It seemed like living in a spaceship. They came to be regarded as better than bog standard council housing. Communities developed on prefab estates which survived cheerfully well into the seventies; I remember visiting these, homes to many of my teenage friends at that time.

The British Housewives’ League, formed in 1945 by a clergyman’s wife to campaign against rude shopkeepers and the amount of time spent queuing, helped remove the hapless food minister Ben Smith over the withdrawal of powdered egg. Other foods brought into the country and foisted on consumers were regarded as disgusting. Horses were butchered and sold, sometimes merely as ‘steak’. Whalemeat was brought from South Africa, both in huge slabs and in tins, described as rich and tasty, just like beefsteak. It was relatively popular for a short while, but not long, because it had a strong after-taste of cod-liver oil. Then there was snoek, a ferocious tropical fish supposed to be able to hiss like a snake and bark like a dog. The young Barbara Castle was then working for the fish division of the Ministry of Food. She was quartered at the Carlton Hotel, which had generously sized baths which she filled with the fish, which she observed for experimental purposes. Her report on its behaviour must have been favourable because in October 1947 the government began to buy millions of tins of snoek from South Africa. So ministers tried to persuade the British people that, in salads, pasties, sandwiches or even as ‘snoek piquant’, the bland-tasting fish was really quite tasty. The people begged to differ and mocked it mercilessly, buying very little. Eventually it was withdrawn from grocers and sold off for almost nothing as cat-food.

The Labour government’s attempts to import alternative sources of protein became a great joke in newspapers and in Parliament. The Conservatives put out pamphlets showing pictures of a horse, a whale and a reindeer to show the wide choice of food you have under the Socialists. Labour tried hard to keep the country decently fed during the forties when most of the world was at least as hungry. But between the black market organised by ‘spivs’, the British Housewives’ League, whose rhetoric influenced a young student called Margaret Thatcher, and the spontaneous uprising against the snoek, the public was becoming fed up to the back teeth with rationing. From 1948, Labour ministers began to remove the restrictions and restore something like a free market in food.

It also took a long time for British clothes to brighten up. Well into my childhood in the sixties, children were still wearing baggy grey trousers and home-knitted jumpers throughout the week and all year-long. Our fathers were still dressing in heavy grey suits, with macs and hats, and older women still wore housecoats and hairnets. However, younger women did try to dress more fashionably. One of the women who attended the unveiling of Christian Dior’s New Look in London in 1947 said that she heard for the first time in her life, the sound of a petticoat, realising  at once that, at long last, the war was really over. However, the British Guild of Creative Designers complained that they did not have the materials to compete or keep up with French frippery. Yet from the young princesses downwards, women were ignoring matronly MPs like Bessie Braddock and doing everything they could to alter, buy or borrow to achieve the Dior look. Clothing became a powerful symbol of a return to the prosperity of the 1930s for many women, if not men.

001A Honeymoon Couple at Billy Butlin’s Hotel near Brighton, 1957

The Holidays with Pay Act, passed shortly before the outbreak of war, was another postponed pleasure, but few workers could afford to travel abroad for these in 1947. For one thing, total time on holiday was limited to a fortnight in total. For another, the amount of money a person could take out of the country was severely restricted. Just over three per cent of people holidayed abroad, the vast majority being wealthy. Few of these went further than Northern France or the Riviera. They didn’t drive around the British countryside, as they had done in the thirties. Nonetheless, in 1947 slightly over half the British did take some kind of holiday. Many took the train to one of the traditional Victorian-era seaside resorts, soon bursting with customers. Others went on cycling or camping expeditions, since the roads were almost entirely empty of traffic. Yet more began to take the ‘charabanc’ or train to one of the new holiday camps, run by such entrepreneurs of leisure as Billy Butlin. He opened his first at Skegness in Lincolnshire in 1936, and by 1947 he had become a millionaire. To begin with, he was targeting the middle classes as much as the better-off workers. Opera singers, Shakespearean actors, radio stars, sporting heroes, politicians, archbishops and royalty were all invited to his camps, and came. Although Butlin had his fingers burnt with an attempt to open a Caribbean camp in 1948, for millions of British people the camps remained a synonym for a summer holiday well into the age of cheap overseas tourism in the 1970s.

On reflection, and with the benefit of seventy years of hindsight, 1945-1947 was not the best time to set about building a new socialist Jerusalem. Most attempts at forced modernisation quickly collapsed. The direction of factories to the depressed areas brought few long-term benefits to those areas. Companies encouraged to export at all costs were unable to re-equip and prepare themselves for tougher markets ahead. Inflation, a major part of Britain’s post-war narrative, appeared as an economic factor for the first time by the end of the forties.

Again and again, Britain’s deep dependency on the United States was simply underestimated by the politicians. Harold Wilson, for example, slapped import duty on Hollywood films in 1947, when the sterling crisis made saving dollars a priority. The Americans responded by simply boycotting Britain, a devastating measure for a population so reliant on film as its only real means of mass entertainment. Some wonderful British films were made to fill the gap, but already glamour was something that came from the Pacific coast. Could Labour’s 1945 dream of a socialist commonwealth, high-minded and patriotic, standing aside from American consumerism, still be built on Britain’s grey and muddy land? The reality was not only that she was dependent on her transatlantic cousins, but also upon an Empire which, paradoxically, she was having to let go, at least in piecemeal fashion.

MOOC pic

India and Pakistan had become independent on 15 August 1947, ten months ahead of Attlee’s original schedule. Lord Mountbatten, the last Viceroy, had arrived in Delhi on 22 March. He appealed to everyone to do their best to avoid any word or action which might lead to further communal bitterness or add to the toll of innocent victims. He soon decided that the June 1948 transfer date was too late, as the communal rioting had reached a state of which he had no conception when he left England. In making this decision, he was also indulging his lifelong fondness for acceleration. It seemed to him that a decision had to be taken at the earliest possible moment unless there was to be risk of a general conflagration throughout the whole sub-continent. He had a remarkably careful yet quick and businesslike method of working. As soon as he finished an interview with a leader, and before proceeding to the next, he would dictate a résumé of the talk, a copy of which would be circulated to each member of his staff. He held staff conferences every day, sometimes twice and even thrice a day, to study and discuss how events were shaping.

Consultation with the Governors certainly gave him a good idea of the colossal administrative difficulties involved in a transfer of power based on partition. Within six weeks of his arrival Mountbatten had produced a plan which marked the first stage towards the transfer. In all his discussions with party leaders and others, despite their divergent views, which he was forced to adjust and reconcile, there was nowhere any evidence of an attempt to question either his own impartiality or the bona fides of His Majesty’s Government. The greater the insistence by Jinnah, the Muslim League leader, on his province-wide Pakistan, the stronger was the Congress demand that he should not be allowed to carry unwilling minorities with him.

In reality, Mountbatten came down on the side of the Hindu-dominated Congress by bringing forward the transfer of power. Perhaps one factor in this was Lady Mountbatten’s rumoured affair with Jawaharlal Nehru. In particular, Mountbatten put pressure on the supposedly neutral Boundary Commissioner, Sir Cyril Radcliffe  – cruelly mocked by W H Auden – to make critical adjustments in India’s favour when drawing the frontier through the Punjab.  Nevertheless, the last Viceroy’s achievement was only surpassed by those of Gandhi and Nehru, to whom he paid tribute in his address to the India Constituent Assembly in New Delhi on what the India Independence Act referred to as ‘the appointed day’:

The tasks before you are heavy. The war ended two years ago. In fact it was on this very day two years ago that I was with that great friend of India, Mr Attlee in the Cabinet Room when the news came through that Japan had surrendered. That was a moment for thankfulness and rejoicing, for it marked the end of six bitter years of destruction and slaughter. But in India we have achieved something greater – what has been well described as ‘A Treaty of Peace without a War.’ India, which played such a valiant part… has also had to pay her price in the dislocation of her economy and the casualties to her gallant fighting men… Preoccupations with the political problem retarded recovery. It is for you to ensure the happiness and ever-increasing prosperity of the people, to provide against future scarcities of food, cloth and essential commodities and to build up a balanced economy…

At this historic moment, let us not forget all that India owes to Mahatma Gandhi – the architect of her freedom through non-violence…

In your first Prime Minister, Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru, you have a world-renowned leader of courage and vision. His trust and friendship have helped me beyond measure in my task. Under his able guidance, assisted by the colleagues whom he has selected… India will now attain a position of strength and influence and take her rightful place in the comity of nations.

It would have been an ideal arrangement if Mountbatten had been able to continue as Governor-General of both Dominions. But even as General-Governor of India, he could still be of immense service. It was his personality that had helped to bring about some measure of common action and had prevented a bad situation from getting worse. His presence would be of great help in solving the problem of the Indian States. It would also have a reassuring effect on serving British officers, particularly in the Armed Forces, where their retention for at least some time was indispensable.

The communal rioting and the two-way exodus of refugees provided the Government of India with a task which was so stupendous as any nation ever had to face. If in its initial stages the situation had not been controlled with determination and vigour, the consequences would have brought down the Government itself. It is to the eternal credit of Lord Mountbatten that he agreed to take over the helm of responsibility at that critical stage, and it redounds to the statesmanship of Nehru that he unhesitatingly and confidently offered it to him.

According to V P Menon, the Constitutional Adviser to the Governor-General from 1942 to 1947, reflected in 1957 that the main factor in the early transfer of power was the return of the Labour Party to government in 1945. The Attlee Government’s decision  to quit India not only touched the hearts and stirred the emotions of Indians, he argued, it also produced an immediate reassuring effect on the whole of South-East Asia and earned Britain universal respect and goodwill in the region. India and Pakistan both chose to remain in the Commonwealth and this was taken by a demoralised Britain as a tacit but welcome vote of thanks. Burma followed on India’s heels into the ranks of newly independent nations in January 1948, and Ceylon (Sri Lanka) in February. Both of them had far too much independence already for the full version to be denied to them. Ceylon remained in the Commonwealth, but Burma did not. The first stage of Britain’s decolonisation came to an end there, with the letting go of what, after the war in the East, just could not be held.

In some ways, as Niall Ferguson has pointed out, the break-up of the British Empire happened with astonishing speed compared with the two centuries it had taken to build it. Once the British had made up their minds to get out, they aimed to catch the first boat home, regardless of the consequences in their former colonies. In the words of the Labour Chancellor Hugh Dalton:

When you are in a place where you are not wanted, and where you have not got the force to squash those who don’t want you, the only thing to do is to come out.

This had its disadvantages. In their haste to get shot of India, they left behind a chaos that almost undid two centuries of orderly government.

For those colonies in other parts of Britain’s global empire who wished to pursue India to independence, it was not simply a matter of following along a path beaten flat by her. The hurdles she had knocked down Britain erected again for the others. To become free, they would need to fight. What was chiefly standing in their way was their value to an all but bankrupt Britain. That value was not quite what it had been, but Britain had plummeted quite disastrously in the world’s league table of great economic powers. She no longer had a significant surplus to send abroad. In 1900, she was responsible for a third of the world’s exports in manufactured goods. Sixty years later this share had declined to 18 per cent. Just before the war the empire had accounted for 40% of her imports and 49% of her exports. After the war the imperial proportion of what trade she had left was even greater. Between 1946 and 1949 it accounted for 48 per cent of imports and 58 per cent of exports.

It followed  that Britain’s political interests in the world were not so very different either, though her capacity to safeguard them may have been. Britain still had stakes in certain parts of the world, like Africa and south-east Asia, where security or stability seemed to depend upon her maintaining a political presence there, or nearby. In addition, these stakes and all Britain’s others in more reliable parts of the world, like North America and Oceania, together made up a network of interests which was thought to require continued political presences elsewhere to safeguard it; forts and garrisons at strategic points to protect the traffic between Britain and the world. For a colonial people ambitious to be free, either of these interests, or both, would continue to present a considerable obstacle to their independence.

In the years after the war African nationalism sprang very suddenly and very rapidly into full growth. Out of the plethora of welfare associations, tribal associations, community leagues, friendly societies, youth movements, trade unions and all the other vehicles for African discontent which had proliferated before the war, there arose in the 1940s most of the main colony-wide movements for national liberation which took the battle to Britain in the 1950s, and most of their leaders. They took encouragement from India, and from the general tide of world opinion at the time which seemed to be swimming with them. Very early after the war they showed their teeth. There was a six-week general strike in Nigeria in 1945, and another one in the Sudan in 1947.

The British could not afford to ignore these events, claiming that the nationalists were trying to push things too fast, to achieve in one jump what the government claimed to be preparing them for in easy stages, and far in advance of the bulk of the people they professed to represent. Some in Britain resisted the nationalists because they resisted the whole idea of colonial independence. But for many of those who did not, who had reconciled themselves to losing Africa, it was still to be some years before they would accept the ‘extreme’ nationalists, the ‘power-seekers’, as their ‘proper successors’.

In the  immediate post-war period, there had been various grand designs for a ‘new’ Empire. The Foreign Secretary, Ernest Bevin, was convinced that the road to domestic recovery began in Africa. As A H Poynton of the Colonial Office told the United Nations in 1947:

The fundamental objectives in Africa are to foster the emergence of large-scale societies, integrated for self-government by effective and democratic political and economic institutions both natural and local, inspired by a common faith in progress and Western values and equipped with efficient techniques of production and betterment.

There was a new Colonial Development Corporation and an Overseas Food Corporation, and marvellous-sounding schemes for growing groundnuts in Tanganyika and producing eggs in the Gambia. The Crown Agents travelled the world, selling old British trains and boats to any colonial government that could pay and some that could not. There were ambitious plans for the federation of West Indian colonies; of East Africa; of the Rhodesias and Nyasaland; of Malaya, Singapore, Sarawak and Borneo. There was even talk of a new building for the Colonial Office. The old Empire meanwhile continued to attract a steady stream of migrants: from 1946 until 1963 four out of every five emigrants leaving Britain by sea were headed for Commonwealth countries.

The imperial renaissance might have led further if the United States and Britain had made common cause. Imperial recovery was dependent on American support and Clement Attlee certainly saw the need for it, although he was more realistic than Churchill about the future of the Empire as a whole. He recognised that the new military technologies of long-range power meant that…

 … the British Commonwealth and Empire is not a that can be defended by itself… The conditions which made it possible to defend a string of possessions scattered over five continents by means of a fleet based on island fortresses have gone. 

In their place, he had argued in 1946 that it was now necessary to consider the British Isles as an easterly extension of a strategic arc the centre of which was in the American continent, rather than as a power looking through the Mediterranean and the East. The North Atlantic ‘Alliance’ was, of course, mainly a product of the Americans’ growing awareness that the Soviet Union posed a far more serious threat to American interests than the British Empire. With the beginnings of the Cold War, the White House and the US Chiefs of Staff both agreed that there was something to be said for British imperial and maritime power after all, especially its network of military bases which could complement their own. All this made Bevin bullish:

Western Europe, including its dependent overseas territories, is now patently dependent on American aid… The United States recognises that the United Kingdom and the Commonwealth… are essential to her defence and security. Already it is… a case of partial inter-dependence rather than of complete dependence. As time goes by (in the next ten to twenty years) the elements of dependence ought to diminish and those of inter-dependence to increase.

Of course, within that next decade, the Suez crisis was to reveal that the fundamental American hostility towards the Empire lingered on and the facade of neo-imperial power collapsed. 

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Sources:

Richard Brown & Christopher Daniels (1982), Documents and Debates: Twentieth Century Britain. Basingstoke: MacMillan.

Niall Ferguson (2003), Empire: How Britain Made the Modern World. Harmondsworth: Penguin.

Michael Clark & Peter Teed (1972), Portraits & Documents: The Twentieth Century, 1906-1960. London: Hutchinson.

Bernard Porter (1984), The Lion’s Share: A Short History of British Imperialism, 1850-1983. London: Longman.

Andrew Marr (2007), A History of Modern Britain. Basingstoke: MacMillan-Pan.

The Architecture of Apartheid South Africa, 1837-1987   Leave a comment

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Above: South Africa in 1939

Re-writing History:

The debate about the statues of figures from South Africa’s past rumbles on in advance of the commencement of the new term at Oriel College, Oxford, where the memorial erected to Cecil Rhodes in 1911 is under threat from a group of students calling themselves “Rhodes Must Fall” after the group which succeeded in having his statue removed from the campus of Capetown University.

What continues to amaze me as a historian is that, however Rhodes’s role in the development of Southern Africa is assessed according to the historical record, these campaigners continue to repeat the banal distortion of this record in linking his name to the Apartheid state established by the National Party in 1948, forty-six years after his death. He was certainly an imperialist, and within that context a racist, but the idea that he was ‘an architect of apartheid’ is arrant and puerile anti-historical nonsense. Indeed, the Chancellor of Oxford University, Chris Patten, the last Governor of post-Imperial Hong Kong, has recently responded to the anti-Rhodes campaigners by accusing them of re-writing history, and has asserted that, therefore, the statues and plaques commemorating the ‘great’ man will not be coming down.

Imperial ‘Heroes’ and South African Exiles:

Almost thirty years ago, in 1987, I was asked to take part in a Theatre-in-Education Project in Birmingham, working with the Development Education Centre in the Selly Oak Colleges, which explored themes in the History of South Africa from the time of the Boer War to the 1980s, when we were campaigning for the release of Nelson Mandela and against the appeasers of the apartheid regime in Britain, including Mrs Thatcher. Certainly, Birmingham ‘hero’ Joseph Chamberlain featured in the play scripted by ‘the Big Brum Company’, and there may have been a passing reference to Cecil Rhodes, but the main focus was the treatment of black Africans by the Afrikaner supremacists from 1837 to the 1987. My role was to support the performance with preparatory materials in secondary schools throughout Birmingham. As an Anti-Apartheid campaigner for more than a decade, working with Peter Hain and Donald Woods, among many other South African exiles of all colours, I was keen to get involved in this project.

A pack was developed with the DEC in response to the needs of teachers of the 14-16 age range who wanted material which would help them to cover areas of history, geography, social studies and integrated humanities syllabuses relating to South Africa. The materials had previously been pioneered by teachers in West Yorkshire in the early eighties, who felt that this need could best be met by examining how the situation in South Africa had evolved by then to a point at which a clear, more dispassionate background was needed to the political, economic and social circumstances prevailing in the country at that time. They, and we, aimed to challenge the common misconceptions surrounding apartheid, while also stimulating pupils by providing possibilities for studies in depth on particular issues.

Broadly, the aims of the project were:

  • To encourage pupils to examine their attitudes to South Africa, not as somewhere ‘out there’ but in terms of a place which is very closely linked with their own experience of Britain.

  • To present information about South Africa which would allow pupils to decide for themselves what they feel about some of the issues relating to apartheid.

  • To challenge the many misconceptions regarding apartheid which we are presented with by the media, South African government etc.

  • To help pupils to understand what apartheid means to the people involved.

It was very important to these aims that pupils were encouraged to discuss how they felt about the issues being raised and that they are encouraged to develop a critical approach to the information which they received. We felt that the use of ‘evidence’ in this context was very helpful, as it allowed pupils to examine an issue from many different perspectives and also to realise that much of the information which they commonly encountered was heavily weighted according to the purpose for which it was designed.

White and Black Perspectives:

The history of South Africa had always been presented as a white person’s history up to this point, recorded by white people for white people, so that it gave a very one-sided view of events. It was our intention to present this view, alongside the other view, that of black people’s history, in an attempt to allow pupils to reach ‘informed’ conclusions. Unfortunately, because black history had not often been recorded, we had to reconstruct events through the eyes of fictitious characters and in the emotions portrayed by actors. These perspectives were, however, based on extensive and meticulous research. It also remained important to examine the attitudes of Afrikaners and other white groups in historical and contemporary contexts, in order that pupils might recognise the part which these groups had played in determining where South Africa was in the 1980s and how these were linked to many of the attitudes held by some white people in Britain at that time. Although the pack itself did not explore these links in detail, we found that pupils in multi-ethnic schools drew these links for themselves, while those in all-white schools needed support to tackle these issues, as indicated in the Swann Committee Report (1985). Above all, we guarded against labelling all white South Africans as bad and all black South Africans as good by focussing on the spectrum of opinions of all people as individuals rather than purely in terms of whether they were black and white. The pack began…

  • …in 1837, twenty-three years after the British took control of the Cape of South Africa, in order to hinder the French fleet in the area and to protect their own shipping routes to India and the Pacific. Dutch people had occupied the Cape from 1652 and now called themselves ‘Boers’. In 1833, the British had passed laws to end slavery throughout the British Empire, including South Africa. Some of the Boers, known as ‘Voortrekkers’ did not want to obey these laws, so they began a northward migration – ‘the Great Trek’ – to avoid them.

 

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  • The trekkers attacked the southern tribes, killing many of them and taking their children as slaves. They also took cattle and built homesteads on the land. One of the leaders of the trekkers, Piet Retief, came into Natal to ask the Zulu chief, Dingaan for land, having already tricked Sekonyela out of his guns and horses. He moved his party of trekkers onto Dingaan’s land before he had agreed to lease it. Dingaan fought the trekkers, killing Retief and driving the trekkers away.

 

  • The Voortrekkers decided to take revenge against Dingaan. On 16 December 1837, a commando of five hundred of them set up an ambush for the Zulus on the banks of a river. They were led by Andries Pretorius, who gave his name to the later capital of South Africa, Pretoria. He was an experienced leader who had recently arrived in Natal from Cape Colony.

 

  • They grouped their wagons into a circle, known as a ‘laager’, surrounding their cattle and themselves. This provided them with protection so that they could fire their weapons from the spaces between the wagons. The Zulus were armed with short spears called ‘assegai’ and had only their shields to protect them.

 

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  • The Voortrekkers were victorious, with only three of them wounded. Three thousand Zulus were killed. The Battle of Blood River, as it became known, was commemorated by the Boers in an annual service of thanksgiving known as the Day of the Covenant.

 

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From this perspective, we can see that the first massacres of the indigenous black peoples of South Africa were not the work of the British, but of the Afrikaners. When the Great Trek finished, the Boers who had settled in the Transvaal and the Orange Free State were given some independence by the British. In the 1860s sugar cane plantations were set up in Natal and Indians were treated in the same way as the blacks, working for low wages in poor conditions. Since the Boers had been involved in a lot of hardship on the Great Trek and had worked hard to make a living in their new areas, they had developed a strong sense of togetherness. Due to their religious beliefs, which were Dutch Calvinist in origin, they thought that black people could never be Christian and so could never be regarded as equals. On the other hand, British missionaries taught that those black people who converted to Christianity deserved to be treated fairly, if not equally before God, and should certainly not be enslaved. The Afrikaners, however, saw themselves as a race apart and were starting to develop their own language, Afrikaans.

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The Development of Afrikanerdom, 1868-1948:

For these reasons, when in 1868, gold and diamonds were found in the Transvaal and Orange Free State by black people, the Afrikaners tried to stop the British taking over these areas again. They fought the British in the Boer War of 1899-1902, which the British eventually won, though the Afrikaners retained a large amount of self-government. They made the blacks pay taxes and rents so that they would have to work for white bosses in order to earn money. Many went to work in the new gold and diamond mines. White landowners began to evict the blacks who rented ‘their’ land, thinking that they could make more money by farming it for themselves. In 1909 the Afrikaner government passed the Squatter Act, which meant that the blacks who rented land were forced to become labourers or leave. Those evicted were forced to live on reserves where poor land and diseases made it difficult to make a living.

 

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In 1910 the British government brought the four states together in the Union of South Africa, but black people still had no say, so in 1912 they set up their own African National Congress (ANC) to fight for their rights. Despite this, the Land Act was passed in 1913, giving blacks the worst 7% of the land, even though they were three times the size of the white population. The black areas were called ‘Bantu’ areas and became even more overcrowded than before. There was little land for planting crops or grazing livestock, so it was impossible to make a living. As there was no work in the Bantu areas, the men had to travel hundreds of miles to work in the mines and factories, leaving their families on the reserves.

 

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In 1918 black mine-workers went on strike for better pay, but the white mine owners called in the police to force them  back to work. Meanwhile, Afrikaner workers had become worried that more jobs and better pay for the blacks would mean fewer jobs for them. They formed trade unions to prevent this. In 1927 the Black Administration Act was passed, providing for a separate system of administration for the black areas from the white areas. Blacks were not allowed to vote or join trade unions, and the men had to carry passes saying where they could and could not live and work. In compensation, the black areas were increased in proportion from 7% to 13%.

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This was how South Africa continued to be run until 1939, as a country run by whites for whites. Both the Afrikaners and the British agreed that black people were there to work for them and were not to be involved in any decisions. So when Great Britain asked its ‘Dominions’, including South Africa, to help out in the Second World War, the blacks had no say in this. The United Party was split, with Prime Minister Hertzog arguing against becoming involved in the war against fascism. However, he was outvoted and forced to resign. The ANC gave its full support to Jan Smuts, the new Prime Minister, in his determination to involve South Africa in the war. For the time being, at least, the Afrikaner Nationalists had lost.

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Both before and during the war, many blacks moved into the cities  to find work, as it was impossible to make a living in the Bantu areas. The whites living in the cities didn’t want the blacks there, so they strengthened the pass laws. As a result of the poor wages and conditions which the blacks were forced to accept, there were numerous strikes in the 1940s. In 1946, fifty thousand black mine-workers were went on strike for better pay, but many were killed and injured when police came and used violence to break up the strike.

 

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Then, in 1948, the Afrikaner National Party were voted into power, led by Dr Daniel Malan, with their policy of ‘apartheid’, a new word, but an old idea for Afrikaners. This meant separate development for blacks and whites. Only white people could vote in the election. The National Party did not want black people to enjoy the wealth of the country or have a part in its political life. Many whites supported this because they wanted to keep all the jobs, lands and wealth for themselves.

 

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The National Apartheid State, 1948-61:

Almost immediately, the National Party set about building up apartheid by introducing strict laws. There were laws to separate white and black people in all areas of life: schools, work, hospitals, housing areas, and even marriage. From 1948, ‘Whites Only’ signs began to appear in many places: taxis, ambulances, buses, restaurants, hotels, parks and even beaches. In sport as well, white and black people could not play together. In 1950, the government classified everyone as ‘Black’, ‘Coloured’, ‘Asian’ or ‘White’ and restricted all black people to the small Bantu areas. Any black person who owned land in a white area could be forced off it and moved to a Bantu area. The government wanted to make sure that they had control over these remote areas, so they appointed ‘chiefs’ by offering high wages in return for making sure that people did not attempt to oppose apartheid.

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However, whites still needed blacks to work for them in the cities, even though they didn’t want them to live there, so two years later they passed a law to set up ‘townships’ near cities where black people who worked in the cities had to live. These were run by white administration boards who had control over all the facilities and services in the townships.

 

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Sophiatown  was a pre-existing township only six kilometres west of the centre of Johannesburg. It was one of the few places where Africans had been able to buy homes and many had lived there for more than fifty years by 1953. Because it was close to the centre of the city, several families lived in each home, with as many as forty people getting their water from a single tap. It was surrounded by towns where white workers lived, and the government wanted to move these workers into Sophiatown. So, in 1953, the government started to force Africans out of their homes in Sophiatown to a new township twenty kilometres away, as part of their plan to control where Africans could live and work.

 

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The ANC organised meetings in the town over many months, trying to prevent its destruction. Among those who spoke at these meetings was a young Nelson Mandela, until he was banned in September 1953 under one of the laws introduced in 1950. This law allowed any person from going to meetings, leaving town, belonging to political organisations, or meeting friends. Although Mandela was not accused of any crime, for two years he was forbidden to go to meetings or to leave Johannesburg. He was even prevented from going to his son’s birthday party. He was also forced to leave the ANC. He was therefore unable to go to the national meeting of the ANC in September 1953, so that another ANC member read his words for him. He told them:

There is no easy walk to freedom. Many of us will have to pass through the valley of the shadow of death again and again before we reach the mountain tops of our desires.

The pass laws were made even stricter so that women had to carry passes as well. A few years later, they passed laws which gave separate and unequal facilities to whites and blacks. Blacks were given the worst of everything in education, housing, health, jobs, transport etc. In 1953, the government had passed a law which separated the African school system from the white system in order to force African children to go to poorer schools.

 

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Dr Hendrik Verwoerd, Minister of Native Affairs, said that the only place for Africans in South Africa was in some types of work. By this, he meant that Africans would only do mundane, badly paid work, so that they did not need to be educated in expensive schools. In 1954, Verwoerd made a speech in which he promised that:

When I have control of Native Education I will reform it so that the Natives will be taught from childhood to realise that equality with Europeans is not for them… People who believe in equality are not desirable teachers for Natives… When my department controls Native education it will know for what class of higher education a Native is fitted, and whether he will have a chance in life to use his knowledge… What is the use of teaching the Bantu child mathematics when it cannot use it in practice. That is quite absurd.

In the 1950s, the government spent 44 pounds every year for each white student, 19 pounds for every Coloured and Asian student, and less than eight pounds for each African student.

At the beginning of 1955, four thousand police and soldiers arrived at Sophiatown and began to move people out and to destroy their homes. The ANC had failed to save the town, and it became obvious that the Afrikaner government would not be moved by the ANC’s non-violent protests. In 1956 twenty thousand women held a peaceful protest against the pass laws, but once again the police used violence to break up the demonstration. In 1958, Verwoerd became Prime Minister. He wanted greater racial segregation than ever before, and one of the first things he declared as Prime Minister was that all black Africans would be known as ‘Bantus’. In 1959, the Bantu areas were divided into ten groups called the ‘Bantustans’ or ‘Homelands’. People were told that they were citizens of a ‘homeland’ which often they had never seen before and which might be hundreds of miles from their real home. Millions of people were moved by force to these remote areas where they had no jobs, houses or land. There they had to live with their appointed ‘chiefs’. Using the passes, the government now had complete control over where every black person lived and worked.

 

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In 1960, there was another peaceful protest against the pass laws, this time at Sharpeville, a small townships, about 55 kilometres south of Johannesburg. The Pan-African Congress (PAC), a new African organisation, had organised the protest. As part of this, a crowd of several thousand marched to the police station in Sharpeville, without their passes. The crowd waited quietly, but as the crowd grew larger, the police became more worried. Suddenly, they began to shoot at the crowd. People turned and tried to run away, but the police continued to shoot, killing 69 people and injuring many more. Protests came from all over the world, including the United Nations, the first time the UN had spoken out about what was happening in South Africa. The government declared a state of emergency and arrested 22,000 people. They banned the African National Congress (ANC) and several other anti-apartheid organisations.  Mandela was taken to Pretoria Prison, with the other thirty already accused in the ‘Treason Trial’. At the trial, Mandela told the court that the ANC would continue to organise protests until the government said, “Let’s talk”. Then they would agree to talk. In March 1961, more than four years after the first arrests, the trial ended. ‘You are found not guilty,’ said the judge, ‘you may go.’ Outside the court the crowd danced and sang the national song of the ANC, Nkosi Sikelel’ iAfrika, ‘God bless Africa’, composed in 1897 in Xhosa, by a teacher in Johannesburg.

 

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Education remained at the forefront of the fight against apartheid, and in 1976 another protest erupted in another township, Soweto, when a government circular sent to black schools sought to change the medium of instruction from English to Afrikaans for all subjects except General Science and practical subjects such as woodwork, needlework and art. The attack by the Afrikaner apartheid state on the English language turned the ‘imperial’ language into the symbolic language of liberation and equality.  What followed also served as proof to the world of the immorality of the apartheid state, though it took another fifteen years for it to be brought to an end by a combination of internal and external pressure. Just three years later, we were stood on a picket line outside the headquarters of the Welsh Rugby Union in Cardiff, protesting against the visit of the so-called ‘multi-racial’ South African Barbarians. It was difficult to believe that two years after the beating to death of Black Consciousness leader Steve Biko (Donald Woods had just published his smuggled biography), there was this widespread pretence that it was possible to play normal sporting matches with a country whose whole society was abnormal. If south Wales could welcome such a flagrant flouting of UN sanctions, Mrs Thatcher would have no difficulty in propping up the apartheid regime. Neither did she.

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In Conclusion: Imperialism and Apartheid

Whatever our view of British imperialism in southern Africa in the nineteenth and early twentieth century, and although it was far from innocent in its treatment of the Africans and Afrikaners under its rule, there is clearly only a very tangential ideological link, if any, to the state which was brought into being in 1948. Though the descendants of British settlers may have acquiesced in the creation of a racist state for their own selfish reasons, it is also impossible to ignore the role of British missionaries, over generations, in helping to establish schools for native Africans and providing the English language education which eventually enabled them to find their voices as well as their feet. Throughout the period from 1837 to 1960, it was the determination of the Afrikaners to assert their racial predominance, supported by a heretical version of Calvinism, which established the ideology of apartheid at the centre of South African government, and kept it as the controlling concept of that state for over four decades.

 

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Sources:

Margaret Holmes (1986), A History of South Africa. Leeds: Development Education Centre.

Rowena Akinyemi (2008), Nelson Mandela. Oxford English: Oxford University Press. Read the rest of this entry »

Must Rhodes Fall?: History, Legacy & Commemoration   2 comments

Introducing the Issues:

On 28th December (2015), The Daily Telegraph reported that the student leading a campaign to remove a statue of Cecil Rhodes from an Oxford college has turned his fire on the university itself, accusing it of spreading “injustice” around the world by educating future leaders with a “skewed” and “Eurocentric” mindset.

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Ntokozo Qwabe and the Cecil Rhodes statue on Oriel College in Oxford

(Photo: Rex).

 

South African Ntokozo Qwabe, himself a beneficiary of a Rhodes scholarship, claimed that students at Oxford endure “systemic racism, patriarchy and other oppressions” on a daily basis. The 24-year-old also said that the university’s admissions and staff recruitment systems “perpetrate exclusion” and suggested that even Oxford’s architecture is laid out in a “racist and violent” way. And he accused the British media of treating him and his supporters like “terrorists” for challenging the establishment.

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His comments came in a lengthy posting on Facebook in response to reaction to his remarks likening the French Tricolor to the Nazi swastika or the hammer and sickle under Stalin as a “symbol of violence, terror and genocide for many”. He said he had suffered a media “onslaught” as a result. Mr Qwabe shot to prominence earlier this month after Oriel College agreed to remove a plaque under a statue of the colonial era mining magnate and politician and consider talking down the statue itself. It followed protests by Mr Qwabe’s “Rhodes Must Fall” campaign group, which takes its inspiration from a movement in South Africa which has succeeded in having statues of Rhodes removed.

 

South Africa Statue Uproar

The campaigners say the statue at Oriel College glorifies a figure seen as one of the architects of South African apartheid and is therefore “offensive and violent” to students. But others have argued that taking the statue down would amount to purging the past to conform to contemporary political demands.

This rather strange, if not bizarre, set of circumstances, reminds many in Eastern Europe of the controversies of the late nineties and ‘noughties’ when the statues and commemorobilia of the Soviet Era were systematically removed, including war memorials. Many of the statues of Lenin and other Soviet leaders were removed to a theme park near Budapest in the case of Hungary. More controversially, perhaps, street names were changes, often against the wishes of residents, in order to expunge any memory of the collaboration of Hungarians in the forty-year occupation.

More recently, there have been further controversies about what, who and how to commemorate the previous dark period in Hungarian history which led to the Nazi occupation of 1944-45 and the Holocaust and Hungarian Fascist regime. The erection of a statue of the Regent of Hungary from 1920 to 1944, Miklós Horthy, caused a furore, since many associated his regime as anti-Semitic, passing anti-Jewish Laws from the early twenties to the 1940s, facilitating the deportation of Hungary’s Jews from rural towns and villages, and then collaborating with the Nazis in the occupation of his own country, only belatedly heeding advice to leave the Axis and seek an armistice with the Allies. Was he, perhaps like János Kadar after him, a saviour or a traitor?

The Hungarian government also became unpopular with the current Jewish community in Budapest by commissioning a national memorial to ‘all the victims of the German occupation’, symbolised by a rampant eagle, rather than recognising the events of 1944-45 as a Hungarian Holocaust, Hungarian in origin, willingly participated in by Hungarian politicians, armed services and police. In some provincial towns, local figures who collaborated in these events, whether actively or passively, have had their previous contributions recognised in the commissioning and raising of statues, most recently in Szekesfehérvár, not without provoking both local and national outrage.

The who, what, why and how of acts of commemoration will, of necessity, change from generation to generation. As the events of the two World Wars become more remote from current generations, the annual Acts of Remembrance in the UK are bound to focus on more recent wars and their victims, whether fallen or surviving. Commemoration is about the needs of current communities for remembrance, not about an agreed, detailed version of the past. It is about the gathering together of diverse individual experiences into a collective memory. Just as two people’s memories of the same family members and events can be diverse, so collective memory is also heterogeneous.

However, to be true nations, we must be true to our common heritages, and that means that we must have regard to the historical bedrock from which we sculpt, both actually and metaphorically, the memorials we leave for future generations. We carve them in stone because they are supposed to represent lasting truth, not some contemporary fad. The same applies to their removal as to their erection. In deciding what and who to commemorate, politicians need to consult other craftsmen before they commission architects and artists. These metaphorical craftsmen, the historians, will no doubt have their own principles and perspectives, but they are also charged with testing all the available sources of evidence, before producing a synthesis about the legacy of past people(s) and events.

This coming year will be marked by a number of commemorations, including controversial ones such as the Battle of the Somme and the 1916 Easter Uprising in Dublin. As a second-year undergraduate I can remember reading about this latter event in some detail. Soon after submitting my essay, I met an Irish republican, and tried to apologise to him for the legacy of bitterness which originated from these events. Somewhat older and better studied than me at the time, he pointed out that I could not take responsibility for what the British Empire had done three or even two generations before. All either of us could do was to deal with the legacy as we both perceived it in our own lifetimes.

My experience of that legacy had begun with a visit to Nelson’s other column, in Dublin in the mid-sixties, shortly before it was blown up by the Official IRA. A warning was given in that case, so only the monument suffered. More recently, it had culminated in the blowing-up of two pubs in the centre of Birmingham in November 1974. This was by the Provisional IRA, and no warning was given.  Twenty-one people were killed, and many more suffered life-changing injuries. Most of them were teenagers; many, like me, aged seventeen. In fact, I could easily have been one of them, had I left the Bull-Ring Centre burger-bar minutes later than I did. Those responsible have never been held to account; instead six Irishmen were falsely imprisoned for more than fifteen years, compounding the confusion felt by the general victims, the people of Birmingham, including its well-integrated Irish community. The point is that, in wanting to apologise, I was doing what many with emotional connections to current or past events do, confusing history with legacy.  I desperately wanted to help set things straight. Much later, as part of a Birmingham-Belfast Education for Mutual Understanding Project, I had the opportunity to do so. Reconciliation became possible, but it was not history which absolved us. Nor did it condemn us; that is not its role.

Similarly, some time ago, one of my students asked to do her special study on the Amritsar Massacre. One of her reasons for this was that she first wanted to come to terms with the family legacy that General Dyer, the officer commanding the British troops that day in 1919, was a relative. She was able to write a fascinating prologue on this before providing a well-researched, dispassionate account and interpretation of the events surrounding that day. Her present-day family are Quakers pacifists.

Chronicling Cecil Rhodes and his Empire:

So, what is the legacy of Cecil Rhodes and why has it provoked such controversy both in South Africa and the UK? To understand this, we first need to examine the chronicle of events surrounding his life, and then put this in the context of South Africa’s later history in the twentieth century, asking the questions, in what sense can he be described as a ‘racist’ and to what extent can he be seen as one of the key architects of the ‘apartheid’ state?:

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  • Born in 1854, the son of a clergyman from Bishop’s Stortford, Rhodes had emigrated to South Africa at the age of seventeen before going to Oxford. He was at once a business genius and imperial visionary. It was not enough for Rhodes to make a fortune from the vast De Beers diamond mines at Kimberley. He aspired to be more than a money-maker. He dreamt of becoming an empire builder.

  • Cecil Rhodes became the wealthy chairman of the Kimberley diamond-mines, following the annexation of Griqualand West by the British Government in 1871 at the request of the Griqua chief. The extension of the Cape Colony across the Orange River checked the westward expansion of the Boer Orange Free State.

  • Though his public image was that of a lone colossus bestriding Africa, as in the cartoon above, Rhodes could not have won his near-monopoly over South African diamond production without the assistance of his friends in the City of London; in particular, the Rothschild bank, at that time the biggest concentration of financial capital in the world.

  • When Rhodes had arrived at the Kimberley diamond fields there had been more than a hundred small companies working the four major ‘pipes’, flooding the market with diamonds and driving one another out of business. In 1882 a Rothschild agent visited Kimberley and recommended large-scale amalgamation; within four years the number of companies was down to three. A year later, the bank financed the merger of Rhodes’s De Beers Company with the Compagnie Francaise, followed by the final crucial fusion with the bigger Kimberley Central Company.

  • Now there was just one company: De Beers. Rhodes did not own the company, since Rothschild was the largest shareholder, and by 1899 the Rothschilds’ stake was twice that of Rhodes. When Rhodes needed financial backing for a new scheme in October 1888, he turned to Rothschild, who by then had become the first Jew to enter the House of Lords.

  • The proposition that Rhodes wanted Rothschild to consider was the concession he had just secured from the Matabele chief, Lobengula, to develop ‘simply endless’ gold fields that Rhodes believed existed beyond the Limpopo River. The terms of his letter made it clear that his intentions towards the chief were anything but friendly. The Matabele king, he wrote, was

    the only block to Central Africa, as once we have his territory, the rest is easy, as the rest is simply a village system with a separate headman, all independent of each other… the key is Matabele Land, with its gold, the reports as to which are not based solely on hearsay… Fancy, this Gold Field which was purchasable, at about £150,000 two years ago, is now selling for over ten million.

  • Bechuanaland (modern-day Botswana) was in a key position in South Africa, as it lay on the direct route to the rich Zambesi valley, which Rhodes wanted to control. He had used his influence with the home Government to secure a protectorate over the territory in 1884, fearing that the Germans in south-west Africa would intervene and block British expansion northward. He now dreamed of a united Africa under British rule, extending northwards from the Cape, with a Cape-to-Cairo railway across British territories.

  • When Rhodes joined forces with the existing Bechuanaland Company to create a new Central Search Association for Matabeleland, the banker Rothschild was a major shareholder, and increased his involvement when this became the United Concessions Company in 1890. He was also among the founders of the British South Africa Company, acting as the Company’s unpaid financial adviser.

  •  Rhodes established the British South Africa Company in 1889, and was granted the right by charter to develop the resources of the country now bearing his name – Rhodesia.

  • Rhodes became Prime Minister of the Cape Colony in 1890. Like many of his contemporaries, he was inspired by a sense of Great Britain’s mission to extend a civilising influence throughout its Empire, known as ‘the White Man’s Burden’, as most clearly expressed in Kipling’s poem. He saw his own part in this as extending British influence in South Africa, aiming to create a South African Federation  out of the British and Afrikaaner colonies.

  • The first step towards this was to consolidate his control over Matabeleland. When Lobengula realised he had been hoodwinked into signing over much more than mere mineral rights, he resolved to take Rhodes on. Determined to dispose of the chief once and for all, Rhodes responded by ending an invasion force – the Chartered Companies’ Volunteers – numbering seven hundred. By African standards, the Matabele had a powerful and well-organised army, numbering in the region of three thousand. But Rhodes’s men brought with them devastating Maxim guns which could fire five hundred rounds a minute, fifty times faster than the fastest rifle available.

  • Maxim testing his gun…001

Above: Hiram Maxim with his gun, c. 1880.

  • The Maxim gun had been invented by an American, Hiram Maxim, who had an underground workshop in Hatton Garden, London. As soon as he had his prototype ready for the British market, he invited several members of the Royal Family and the British aristocracy to give the weapon a trial. Among those who accepted were the Duke of Cambridge, the Prince of Wales, the Duke of Edinburgh, the Duke of Devonshire and the Duke of Kent. The first of these, who was then Commander-in-Chief, felt ‘confident they will, ere long, be used generally in all armies’. When the Maxim Gun Company was established in 1884, Lord Rothschild was on its board. In 1888 his bank financed the £1.9 million merger of the Company with the Nordenfelt Guns and Ammunition Company.

  • The Battle of Shangani River in 1893 was among the earliest uses of the Maxim in battle. One eyewitness recorded what happened:

    The Matabele never got nearer than 100 yards led by the Nubuzu regiment, the king’s body-guard who came on yelling like fiends and rushing on to certain death, for the Maxims far exceeded all expectations and mowed them down literally like grass. I never saw anything like these Maxim guns, nor dreamed that such things could be: for the belts and cartridges were run through them as fast as a man could load and fire. Every man in the laager owes his life under Providence to the Maxim gun. The natives told the king that they did not fear us for our rifles, but they could not kill the beast that went pooh! pooh! by which they meant the Maxim.

  • To the Matabele it seemed that ‘the white man came… with… guns that spat bullets as the heavens sometimes spit hail, and who were the naked Matabele to stand up against these guns?’ Around 1,500 Matabele warriors were wiped out. Just four of the seven hundred invaders died. The Times reported that the Matabele

put our victory down to witchcraft, allowing that the Maxim was a pure work of an evil spirit. They have named it”S’cockacocka”, owing to the peculiar noise it makes when in action.

  • The conquered territory was renamed Rhodesia, since he had masterminded the operation. However, it could not have succeeded without the financial might of Rothschilds. One member of the family noted with satisfaction the connection between ‘a sharp action having taken place with the Matabeles’ and ‘a little spurt in the shares’ of Rhodes’s British South Africa Company.

  • The official Matabeleland souvenir, published on the fortieth anniversary of the one-sided conflict, long after Rhodes’s death, opened with his ‘tribute’ to the men who had conquered the Matabele ‘savages’. The ‘highlight’ is the following hymn, originally written as a Liberal satire on the expedition, which Rhodes’s men adopted as their anthem:

Onward Chartered Soldiers, on to heathen lands,

Prayer books in your pockets, rifles in your hands.

Take the glorious tidings where trade can be done,

Spread the peaceful gospel – with a Maxim gun..

  • Rhodes’s ambitions brought him into conflict with the Boers whose leader, Paul Kruger, resented his policy of expansion which meant the encircling of Boer territory. The Boers were farmers, but the discovery of gold in the Witswatersrand in 1886 and the rapid development of the mines by British settlers led to the outnumbering of the Boer population by the Uitlanders in the Transvaal. Kruger adopted a hostile policy towards them, denying them all political rights and taxing them heavily. Moreover, monopolies granted to Europeans and heavy railway rates hampered the expansion of the mining industry.

  • The Jameson Raid (1896) was a plot engineered by Dr Jameson, administrator of Rhodesia, and supported by Rhodes, to use the Uitlanders to overthrow the Boer Government of the Transvaal. Its failure led to Rhodes’ resignation and discredited the British Government in the eyes of the world, uniting both Boer states against Britain.

  • The Wars in…007

  • The Uitlanders of the Transvaal continued to agitate for improved conditions and petitioned the British government to intervene on their behalf. Negotiations failed to reach a compromise, due to the obstinacy of Kruger on the one hand and the uncompromising imperialism of Joseph Chamberlain, on the other. The Boers declared war in 1899. The Boer War came to an end in 1902, after Roberts and Kitchener finally wore down the resistance of the Boers, partly through the use of concentration camps for the women and children of the irregular fighters. The Boer republics were annexed, but the Boers were to continue to rule themselves and their farmers were compensated for war damage.

  • During the Second Boer War Rhodes went to Kimberley at the onset of the siege, in a calculated move to raise the political stakes on the government to dedicate resources to the defence of the city. The military felt he was more of a liability than an asset and found him intolerable. Rhodes insisted that the military should adopt his plans and ideas instead of following their orders. Despite the differences, Rhodes’ company was instrumental in the defence of the city, providing water, refrigeration facilities, constructing fortifications, manufacturing an armoured train, shells and a one-off gun named Long Cecil.

  • Rhodes used his position and influence to lobby the British government to relieve the siege of Kimberley, claiming in the press that the situation in the city was desperate. The military wanted to assemble a large force to take the Boer cities of Bloemfontein and Pretoria, but they were compelled to change their plans and send three separate smaller forces to relieve the sieges of Kimberley, Mafeking and Ladysmith.

Funeral of Rhodes in Adderley St, Cape Town on 3 April 1902

 

  • Although Rhodes remained a leading figure in the politics of southern Africa, especially during the Second Boer War, he had been dogged by ill-health throughout his relatively short life. From age 40 his heart condition returned with increasing severity until his death from heart failure in 1902, aged 48, at his seaside cottage in Muizenberg.

  • The Union of South Africa came about in 1909, and included the two British colonies, the Cape and Natal, and the two Boer republics of the Transvaal and Orange Free State. A constitution was drafted and accepted by the British Parliament which agreed, among other matters, a common policy towards the native African populations.

As PM of Cape Colony

As PM of Cape Colony

 

The Jameson Raid

The Jameson Raid

Churchill’s Adventures in South Africa

Of course, many others were attracted by a sense of imperial adventure to South Africa. Among them was the young Winston Churchill, who had already spent time in India with the Queen’s Own Hussars, before arriving on a ‘new’ continent as a journalist-adventurer.

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Above: Churchill as chief Boer War correspondent on The Morning Post, 

South Africa, 1899

Extracts from Simon Schama (2002), A History of Britain: 1776-2000; The Fate of Empire. London: BBC Worldwide.

In South Africa fame and fortune went together. Randolph (Churchill) had invested in Rand mining shares, which had appreciated by at least fifty times their original face value – a small fortune that, unhappily for Jennie and Winston, was largely consumed by the late Lord’s equally substantial debts. But Churchill also shared the indignation of the colonial secretary, Joseph Chamberlain, and the empire builder Cecil Rhodes that the might of the British Empire was being held to ransom by the obstinacy of a bunch of Dutch farmers who dictated what political rights British settlers might and might not enjoy in the Transvaal. Mostly, however, the Boer War was another opportunity for the kind of military-literary adventure that Winston had made his trademark… he resigned his commission in the Hussars and was made chief war correspondent for ‘The Morning Post’. He sailed with the commander-in-chief of the expedition, Sir Redvers Buller; managed to be taken prisoner while defending an armoured train against Boer attack; escaped from a military gaol at Pretoria…, hid in a coal wagon and then walked hundreds of miles to freedom; and finally returned to active duty with the South African Light Horse in time to be at the relief of Ladysmith. The escapades were almost too fabulous to be true, and they turned Churchill from a purveyor of ripping yarns on the frontier into a genuine, nationally known war hero. Writing about his Boer War and lecturing with lantern slides in Britain, Canada and America… put £10,000 into his bank account.  

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Must Rhodes Fall in Oxford?

A prominent statue of Rhodes on the main campus of the University of Cape Town was vandalized with human excrement in March 2015, giving rise to a student-led campaign called “#RhodesMustFall” which drew attention to what the activists considered the lack of systemic racial transformation in South African institutions after apartheid. The university’s management took the statue down for relocation on 9 April 2015.

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A statue of Rhodes adorns the frontage of Oriel College, Oxford. In 2015, a group of students demanded the removal of his statue, stating that it “symbolise[d] racism and colonialism”. Certainly, the statue dominates the High Street. Rhodes was an Oriel alumnus and left the College £100,000 in his will, though he stipulated that his trustees should enquire closely into how it was spent since ‘the college authorities live secluded from the world and so are like children in commercial matters’. Appropriately, like the young Winston Churchill, he looks like a man who has just come in from a walk on the dusty veldt. The inscription is a ‘chronogram’: concealed within the message is the date of the building’s erection in Roman numerals. It is 1911, but takes some unravelling.

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There is also a plaque to Rhodes in King Edward Street (pictured above) marking where Rhodes lived as a student in 1881, and commemorating his ‘great services rendered… to his country’. Many imperial animals, including lions and elephants, also occupy important positions on Oxford’s buildings. The loftiest of these are, of course, the birds, including an eagle and a pelican, the latter being the target for a bottle thrown by an angry scholar, John Keble. Perhaps the most unusual and impressive of these statues is the Zimbabwe bird on the roof of Rhodes House (below).

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This is a copy of one of eight soapstone effigies of birds found during the excavation of the ancient Shona city of Zimbabwe in the 1880s, the only representations of animals found in any archaeological site in sub-Saharan Africa. Rhodes is known to have bought one in 1889. Of course, by logical extension, both the plaque and the bird would be additional candidates for the iconoclasm suggested for Rhodes’s statue, the former for its celebration of the man as a national hero, and the latter, in addition to its association with the house named in his honour, due to Zimbabwe’s more recent fall from grace within the Commonwealth.

Quotations from Rhodes:

 Cecil Rhodes (Sketch by Mortimer Menpes)
  • “To think of these stars that you see overhead at night, these vast worlds which we can never reach. I would annexe the planets if I could; I often think of that. It makes me sad to see them so clear and yet so far.”

  • “Pure philanthropy is very well in its way but philanthropy plus five percent is a good deal better.”

  • “I contend that we are the first race in the world, and that the more of the world we inhabit the better it is for the human race… If there be a God, I think that what he would like me to do is paint as much of the map of Africa British Red as possible…” (as an undergraduate in Oxford)

  • “Remember that you are an Englishman, and have consequently won first prize in the lottery of life.”

  • “Equal Rights for all Civilized Men South of the Zambesi.”

  • “I could never accept the position that we should disqualify a human being on account of his colour.”

  • “To be born English is to win first prize in the lottery of life.”

  • “Take Constitution Jesuits if obtainable and insert English Empire for Roman Catholic Religion” (outlining the original conception of the Rhodes Scholarships to Lord Rothschild, 1888).

Secondary Sources and Interpretations:

A Simple School Text Narrative of The British Empire in Africa:

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The map shows the extent of the European empires at the end of the nineteenth century. European influence… extended considerably… between 1870 and 1900 when a scramble for overseas possessions in Africa, Asia and elsewhere took place.

The largest of the European empires in 1900 was the British Empire. This occupied about one quarter of the world’s land surface and included between one quarter and one fifth of the world’s population.

It included two types of colony. Canada, Australia and New Zealand, together with the South African states of Cape Colony and Natal, were self-governing colonies which meant that they controlled their own internal affairs. They were also colonies of settlement, for throughout the nineteenth century European settlers, most of them British, were attracted to these sparsely populated lands.

… Britain came to feel that it was her duty to lead the native peoples along the path of progress. As Joseph Chamberlain, who was Colonial Secretary between 1895 and 1903, put it: ‘We feel now that our rule over these territories can only be justified if we can show that it adds to the happiness and prosperity of the people…’ . Rudyard Kipling stressed the same idea, that possessing an empire involved obligations to the peoples ruled:

Take up the White Man’s burden –

Send forth the best ye breed –

Go bind your sons to exile

To serve your captives’ need….

In the first place, however, the Empire existed for the benefit of trade, as it had done in the eighteenth century… In 1885 Britain’s exports to the Empire were valued at £26 million; in 1905 this figure was £113 million. Referring to Britain’s new African territories, Lord Salisbury, who was Prime Minister for the greater part of the period 1885-1902, said: ‘It is our business in all these new countries to make smooth the paths for British commerce, British enterprise, the application of British capital, at a time when … other outlets for the commercial energies of our race are being gradually closed…’.

The acquisition of vast new territories… was accompanied at home by mounting public interest in and enthusiasm for the Empire. These feelings reached their climax in 1897 during the celebrations held to mark Queen Victoria’s Diamond Jubilee (pictured below).  

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 Above: Queen Victoria’s Diamond Jubilee, London 1899

Extracts from Bernard Porter (1984), The Lion’s Share: A short history of British Imperialism. Harlow: Longman

The encirclement of the Transvaal was completed at the end of the decade, when the diamond millionaire Cecil Rhodes (who always had British colonial interests more at heart than the British Colonial Office) formed a commercial company to occupy Matabeleland and Mashonaland to the north. The idea was that the company should take over the administration of the country in return for its profits. There was opposition to this scheme from humanitarians, worried by the implications of a situation whereby native Africans were governed by their exploiters. But for a parsimonious government it was a tempting bargain. The profits to be got from the country were as yet merely notional, whereas the expense of governing them was predictable. So the company got its royal charter in October 1889. In this way Rhodesia was born, and for the British government another potential counterbalance to Afrikanerdom secured at almost no expense.

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… one constant factor in British policy… was that British interests in South Africa be secured as cheaply as possible. As much as in mid-century, national interest had to be balanced against national economy; and ways could generally be found of reconciling the two. This was one of the purposes of the federation policy, and of the constant efforts of British governments to persuade the  colonists themselves to assume responsibility for new territories annexed. It was also a reason why Rhodes’ offer was so eagerly accepted in 1889. One result of this, however, was a kind of paradox: that in order to maintain cheaply a general British supremacy over southern Africa, Britain was tending to lose her particular authority there – her authority over the white colonists’ conduct of their domestic affairs, including, of course, their ‘native policies’.  As yet the concept of British imperial trusteeship for native races was not quite dead, and the humanitarian lobby in Britain won some minor victories, where it did not cost much in money or local goodwill. Where larger interests were at stake, however – agreement with the Boers at the London Convention, containment of the Boers by Rhodes in 1889 – trusteeship could make little headway. Slowly Whitehall’s powers were devolved upon the men on the spot, to secure their co-operation and spread the burden. Consequently, as the area of the British empire in southern Africa expanded, so its real effective control there diminished.  (pp 99-101)

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Because of the many thousands of Britons and British organisations which had established themselves in far-off places, long before governments feared to tread there, it was seldom difficult for governments, if they wanted to, to find people to delegate to… in southern Africa the government of the Cape. Elsewhere a favourite instrument of vicarious colonial administration in the 1880s was the chartered company, like Rhodes’s in South Africa. The disadvantages of the giving commercial companies licence to rule colonial territories were that they discouraged free competition; and that their exploitative functions might not always be compatible with their subjects’ welfare – although current economic orthodoxy tended to assume that profits arising from exploitation did filter down. The great advantage of the chartered company was that it disburdened the British taxpayer of the cost of colonial administration. The Liberal and avowedly anti-imperialist Chancellor of the Exchequer Sir William Harcourt was reported in 1892 to have said that ‘even jingoism is tolerable when it is done “on the cheap”.’…  (104-5)   

For men like Chamberlain, Rosebery, Curzon, Milner, Rhodes, their imperialism was a serious matter: in a very literal sense a matter of life and death. It was a question of fitting Britain for survival, preparing her, as Lord Rosebery put it, ‘for the keen race of nations’. Consequently, it would involve quite drastic changes in Britain as well as abroad: all agreed, or said they did, that a true imperialism began at home. ‘An Empire such as hours’, wrote Rosebery to The Times in 1900, ‘requires as its first condition an Imperial Race – a race vigorous and industrious and intrepid. Health of mind and body exalt a nation in the competition of the universe. The survival of the fittest is an absolute truth in the condition of the modern world.(129-130)

Of course some people would not be fully satisfied until the whole world was British. Only when there were no foreigners would Britain be entirely secure from foreigners. This was the ultimate in imperialist paranoia. Cecil Rhodes as a young man envisaged Britain taking over and settling

the entire Continent of Africa, the Holy Land, the valley of the Euphrates, the Islands of Cyprus and Candia, the whole of South America, the islands of the Pacific not heretofore possessed by Great Britain, the whole of the Malay Archipelago, the seabord of China and Japan;

The whole process to be completed by ‘the ultimate recovery of the United States of America as an integral part of the British Empire’; and this, he concluded, would ‘render wars impossible’. This was clearly over-ambitious; but it was a common desire of imperialists to want to make existing colonies secure by surrounding them with more… there were many who saw Egypt’s frontier stretching as far as Uganda, and South Africa’s boundary way beyond the Zambesi. There were supposed to be other reasons why it was so imperative, in the interests of national survival, to take more colonies. The most common one was the economic one: an old familiar argument for imperialism, but given a new urgency… by the prevailing climate of fear. Cecil Rhodes… put it sensationally, as if the survival of the capitalist system depended on it:

In order to save the forty million inhabitants of the United Kingdom from a bloody civil war, we colonial statesmen must acquire new lands to settle the surplus population, to provide for the goods produced by them in the factories and mines. The Empire, as I have always said, is a bread and butter question. If you want to avoid civil war, you must become imperialists.

… Ideas like these were widespread amongst self-styled ‘imperialists’ in the 1890s… Fundamentally they believed in their own abilities: were confident that they had it in them to run a great empire – that they were, if they organised themselves properly, fit to rule a quarter of mankind. ‘We happen to be’, said Cecil Rhodes, ‘the best people in the world, with the highest ideals of decency and justice and liberty and peace, and the more of the world we inhabit, the better for humanity’. Many others doubtless shared his patriotic self-esteem, but it was not common to voice it so crudely, and it was in any event not necessary to the imperialist’s  case to believe that his ‘race’ was overall and absolutely superior to others. What late Victorian imperialists did like to claim was that they were better at the practical and pragmatic science of managing the affairs of other people. In this they fancied themselves greatly. ‘I believe,’ said Joseph Chamberlain in 1895, ‘that the British race is the greatest of governing races that the world has ever seen’ (131-5).

The association of capitalism with imperialism … was commonplace: but nowhere in the late nineteenth century British Empire… was the association quite so close or so blatant as in South Africa in the 1890s. In South Africa the tissue of industrial capitalism, grafted late, had taken hold firmly in the 1880s and spread phenomenally thereafter; by the mid-nineties, for those who believed capitalism should be kept in its place and that place was outside politics, it was clearly out of control. The cause of this was the domination of the South African industrial scene by Cecil Rhodes, a man whose conception of financial and political power would not admit of any necessary demarcation between them: who believed that what was good for his Consolidated Gold Fields was good for South Africa, and would bury political power to achieve that good. Rhodes was the reason why South African capitalism in the 1890s became a force on the side of British imperialism… Of the handful of big European capitalism scrapping for riches amongst the gold reefs of the independent Transvaal… only a tiny minority believed that their interests would be furthered by an extension of British rule there; most of them… were happy digging for gold under the auspices of the relatively ordered, if not very friendly, government of the Afrikaners… Rhodes was exceptional partly because his financial interests were spread over more of southern Africa than theirs, and partly because he had very special imperial visions of his own; his capitalism was imperialistic… The consequence was that, in the imperial history of Southern Africa in the 1890s, the forces of industrial and financial capitalism played a more prominent role than they would have done otherwise.

Rhodes’s influence in South African affairs was partly the outcome of his wealth and the use he made of it, partly the result of the favour shown to him by British government ministers for reasons of their own. The two things were connected, of course: Rhodes used his wealth to cultivate ministers’ favour, and ministers favoured him partly because of the power he wielded through his wealth… Rhodes’s power had been built up in the Kimberley diamond fields, which he came to monopolise in 1888, and the gold reefs of the Witwatersrand, which he could never control absolutely, but which he shared with two or three other great magnates in the 1890s. With the wealth from these two gigantic concerns, and with winning ways with all kinds of men which none of his rivals could begin to compete with, he established for himself a predominant position in South African politics. In 1890 he became Prime Minister of Cape Colony at the head of a party which had preached and practised co-operation between the white races, and which practised, though it did not preach so loudly, co-operation too between politics and capital: of his dual role as company director and premier, ‘I concluded’, he wrote, ‘that one position could be worked with the other, and each to the benefit of all’. …in England he had the admiration of the Queen, the backing of Lord Rothschild… and the support of at least two influential journalists… This kind of influence was of great assistance to him when… in 1889 (he) secured from the Liberal government a charter to carve a whole country in his own commercial image… In the early 1890s his company took possession of its inheritance, swindled and shot the Matabele and Mashonaoples who lived there into a sullen subservience, and dug for the promised gold: but failed to find it. It was when the prospect of big dividends… receded in ‘Zambesia’ that he turned his full attention, and the powers – legal and illegal – that his wealth gave him, towards making the Transvaal British.

Rhodes always insisted that he valued riches not for their own sake but for the power they gave him to help extend and consolidate the British empire: which grand ambition, he held, justified any use he might make of those riches – ‘you must judge of my conduct by the objects that I had in view’. …It followed for Rhodes that, for southern Africa to be secured for the British Empire, the Transvaal must become part of it; and he believed he had the means to help this on. …When the Rand’s gold had first been discovered the Cape had reaped some profit from it by transporting it to the sea. By 1894, however, the Transvaal could export and import goods without touching British territory at all, by means of a new, independent railway just completed to Delagoa Bay in Portuguese East Africa. …There were rumours too Paul Kruger, the Transvaal president, was planning a republican takeover of the whole of South Africa… And from 1894 there were more solid reports of German involvement in the Transvaal, with the Transvaal’s encouragement, which gave the situation a more sinister outlook still. Ministers in London were worried, but not worried enough yet… to take overtly aggressive action against the Transvaal… Rhodes, however, had more urgency, fewer scruples, and the power to make an African war almost on his own.  

Rhodes’s decision to use his considerable powers to incite revolution in the Transvaal, to abet it when it came, and to use it to force the Republicans into some kind of compliant union with the British colonies, arose from his conviction that a rebellion was going to break out in the Transvaal anyway, and that it had better be turned into a British imperial direction by him than into another direction, less favourable to the British, by others. For years there had been unrest amongst the largely foreign mining community on the land, the ‘Uitlanders’, who were daily subjected to innumerable aggravations and disabilities by a dominant people they regarded as rude and inferior, and who regarded them, with rather more justice, as a threat to their whole national way of life… During 1894-95 there was talk of armed rebellion on the Rand: wild talk, as it turned out, from the ordinary Uitlanders, but more serious from some of the big capitalists, who took measures – like gun-running – actively to promote it. Rhodes’s involvement in this plotting would ensure that the revolution, if it came and succeeded, would be to the advantage of the empire.

It also led the British government to be dragged into the affair: not necessarily because it approved of Rhodes’s cloak-and-dagger ways of solving its South African problem, but it was because it was coming to accept his diagnosis of that problem, and because his power and prestige in South Africa made him the readiest means to hand, if not the best, towards a solution… Rhodes was the agent she was given to work through, and Rhodes had ideas of his own… Before the autumn of 1895 he had secured the co-operation he needed from the British government to put his plot into effect: troops, a friendly High Commissioner, and a strip of land on the western border of the Transvaal he could start an invasion from. Joseph Chamberlain at the Colonial Office… played along with Rhodes… His connivance in Rhodes’s schemes rested on the assumption.. made on the best authority, that an Uitlander rebellion would take place… In that event intervention by Britain, or by a British colonial in Britain’s name, could be presented as a response to a situation generated independently of her, made in order legitimately to safeguard her nationals in the Transvaal. What ruined things for the government was that the Uitlanders never rebelled, yet the intervention took place regardless. On 29 December 1895 Dr Leander Starr Jameson rode into the Transvaal at the head of a band of 500 mounted troops and carrying a Union Jack, to aid a rebellion which never happened. He was easily stopped. The results of this fiasco were disastrous for everyone except the Boers… Chamberlain tried to cover the traces of imperial involvement, but could not… To all intents and purposes Britain was implicated in a squalid conspiracy against a foreign state… The result of the Jameson Raid was the complete opposite of what had been intended. Instead of weakening Kruger it strengthened him; instead of persuading him to compromise it made him more intransigent…

The lesson of the Jameson Raid for the British government was that it could no longer pursue its policies in South Africa on the coat-tails of capitalists.Rhodes and the government had done a great deal for each other in the past, and Chamberlain was convinced that Rhodes could do something for him still in the future – but in the north, where his buccaneering methods were likely to be more successful against black Africans than against white Afrikaners, and less likely to arouse strong feelings at home or diplomatic repercussions abroad. …Before he had raided the Transvaal Dr Jameson had been Rhodes’s viceroy in Zambesia; in this capacity he had managed to provoke the Matabele, and even their neighbours the Mashona… to seething unrest… they both rebelled, reasserted their old sovereignties, and put ‘Rhodesia’ – and the value of Chartered Company shares – in very real danger. Rhodes had to restore the authority of the Company or his whole world would have collapsed: and this he did during the course of 1896 in one of the bloodiest and most ferocious of southern Africa’s ‘punitive’ wars, capped – when it was clear the Africans were not going to be tamed by force alone – by a remarkable exercise by Rhodes in peaceful persuasion. In the north, therefore, Rhodes was left to repair his own breaches; but in the south he was, for the time being, a spent force, too discredited to be of use… The British government had perforce to disown him, and to secure its South African salvation by its own efforts – as it should have done all along.

Britain was stalemated. She could neither persuade the Transvaal to join the empire nor force her into it… The stalemate was broken slowly, in 1897-99… Chamberlain nursed public opinion in Britain on to his side in a series of speeches calculated to make it hostile to Kruger.And in south Africa he got what he needed most: a handle to turn his policy by, to fill the gap left by Rhodes’s departure. The ‘South African League was formed in 1896 to rally imperialist opinion in the two British colonies and the Transvaal… its policies were Rhodes’s, and in April 1899 Rhodes himself returned from the political wilderness to become its president. This time, however, it was not Rhodes who would take the initiatives. That duty lay firmly with… Chamberlain and his new High Commissioner, Alfred Milner…

Milner was move positively for war. A self-declared ‘British Race Patriot’, he could not conceive of the Afrikaners of the Cape being loyal to the empire while there remained an independent nation of their ‘race’ to the north to divert their loyalties…(168-176)

Cases came to light around the turn of the century of the most shocking abuses of trust by exploitative concerns. One was Cecil Rhodes’s conduct in Zambesia in the 1890s. But the worst was the Congo Free State, entrusted to King Leopold of the Belgians by the Berlin Conference in 1884, where the most horrific tales of systematic massacre and mutilation in the search for profits were revealed to the European public in the 1900s, and provoked widespread agitation which eventually led to Leopold’s surrender of his Congolese kingdom to the Belgian parliament in 1909. Rhodes and Leopold together made Liberals highly distrustful of capitalists in the tropics, and especially of capitalist monopolies with title over vast expanses of territory, which were the cause of the worst abuses. (223)

1919 was a year for dreams to come true; another one which did was Cecil Rhodes’s ‘Cape to Cairo’ scheme, when Britain took Tanganyika from Germany and so completed that chain too… further down the Union of South Africa took over the administration of South-West Africa. (248-9) 

Extracts from Niall Ferguson (2003), Empire: How Britain Made the Modern World. London: Penguin Books.

So close was Rhodes’s relationship with the Rothschilds that he even entrusted the execution of his will to Lord Rothschild, specifying that his estate should be used to fund an imperialist equivalent of the Jesuit order – the original intention of the Rhodes Scholarships. This would be ‘a society of the elect for the good of the Empire’… Rothschild in turn assured ; ‘Our first and foremost wish in connection with South African matters is that you should remain at the head of affairs in that Colony and that you should be able to carry out that great Imperial policy which has been the dream of your life.’

The creation of his own personal country and his own imperialist holy order were indeed merely components of a much bigger Rhodesian ‘Imperial policy’. On a huge table-sized map of Africa (which can still be seen in Kimberley today) Rhodes drew a pencil line stretching from Cape Town to Cairo. This was to be the ultimate imperial railway. From the Cape it would run northwards like some huge metal spine through Bechuanaland… Rhodesia… Nyasaland… then on past the Great Lakes to Khartoum and finally up the Nile to its final destination in Egypt.

By this means, Rhodes envisaged bringing the whole African continent under British domination… There were literally no limits to Rhodes’s ambitions.

At one level, wars like the one waged against the Matabele were private battles planned in private clubs like the Kimberley Club, that stuffy bastion of capitalist conviviality of which Rhodes himself was among the founders. Matabeleland had become part of the Empire at no cost to the British taxpayer since the entire campaign had been fought by mercenaries employed by Rhodes and paid for by the shareholders in the British South African and De Beers companies. If it turned out that Matabeleland had no gold, then they would be the losers. In effect, the process of colonization had been privatised, a return to the early days of empire when monopoly trading companies had pioneered British rule from Canada to Calcutta. Rhodes was indeed consciously learning from history. British rule in India had begun with the East India Company; now British rule in Africa would be founded on his business interests. In one letter to Rothschild he even referred to De Beers as ‘another East India Company’. (227-8)

By the beginning of the new century, the carve-up was complete. The British had all but realized Rhodes’s vision of unbroken possession from the Cape to Cairo:their African empire stretched northwards from the Cape Colony through Natal, Bechuanaland (Botswana), Southern Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe), Northern Rhodesia (Zambia), and Nyasaland (Malawi); and southwards from Egypt, through the Sudan, Uganda and East Africa (Kenya). German East Africa was the only missing link in Rhodes’s intended chain… the lion’s share belonged to Britain. (239-40)

To Rhodes, Chamberlain and Milner, the Boer’s independence remained intolerable. As usual, British calculations were both strategic and economic… the Cape remained a military base of ‘immense importance for England’ (Chamberlain) for the simple reason that the (Suez) Canal might be vulnerable to closure in a major European war. It remained, in the Colonial Secretary’s view, ‘the cornerstone of the whole British colonial system’. At the same time, it was hardly without significance that the Boer republics had turned out to be sitting on the biggest gold seams in the world. By 1900 the Rand was producing a quarter of the world’s gold supply and had absorbed more than £114 million of mainly British capital. Having been an impoverished backwater, the Transvaal suddenly seemed set to become the economic centre of gravity in southern Africa. But the Boers saw no reason why they should share power with the tens of thousands of British immigrants, the ‘Uitlanders’, who had swarmed into their country to pan for gold. Nor did they approve of the (somewhat) more liberal way the British treated the black population of Cape Colony. In the eyes of their president Paul Kruger, the Boers’ strictly Calvinist way of life was simply incompatible with British rule… Ever since 1895, when Rhodes’s crony Dr Leander Starr Jameson had led his abortive ‘raid’ into the Transvaal, it had been obvious that a showdown was imminent.

(273-4)

Not only was imperialism immoral, argued the critics. According to the Radicals, it was also a rip-off: paid for by British taxpayers, fought for by British soldiers, but benefiting only a tiny elite of fat-cat millionaires, the likes of Rhodes and Rothschild. That was the thrust of J. A. Hobson’s profoundly influential ‘Imperialism: A Study’, published in 1902. ‘Every great political act’ argued Hobson,

‘must receive the sanction and the practical aid of this little group of financial kings… They have the largest definite stake in the business of Imperialism, and the amplest means of forcing their will upon the policy of nations… Finance is the governor of the imperial engine, directing the energy and determining the work.’ 

H. N. Brailsford took Hobson’s argument further in his ‘The War of Steel and Gold: A Study of the Armed Peace’, (written in 1910, but not published until 1914). ‘In the heroic age,’ Brailsford wrote,

‘Helen’s was the face that launched a thousand ships. In our golden age the face wears more often the shrewd features of a some Hebrew financier. To defend the interests of Lord Rothschild and his fellow bondholders, Egypt was first occupied and then practically annexed by Great Britain… The extremest case of all is, perhaps, our own South African War.’ 

Was it not obvious that the war had been fought to ensure that the gold mines of the Transvaal remained securely in the hands of their capitalist owners? Was not Rhodes merely, in the words of the Radical MP Henry Labouchere, an ‘Empire jerry-builder who had always been a mere vulgar promoter masquerading as a patriot, and the figurehead of a gang of astute Hebrew financiers with whom he divides the profits?’

Like those modern conspiracy theories which explain every war in terms of the control of oil reserves, the Radical critique of imperialism was an over-simplification (Hobson and Brailsford little knew what a liability Rhodes had been during the siege of Kimberley.) And like those other modern theories that attribute sinister power to certain financial institutions, some anti-imperialism conveyed more than a hint of anti-Semitism. (283-4)

Conclusion: The ‘Crux’ of the Issue

In this last comment by Niall Ferguson we reach the crux of the issue. Certainly, Rhodes was a colonialist and imperialist, as were most leading figures of his day, not just within the British Empire, but within all the European empires. In Africa, as noted here, the French were equally aggressive in their pursuit of land and resources, and the Belgians and subsequently the Italians also used what, even within the terms of this ‘scramble’ were excessive means against the native African populations. That is not to justify the actions that Rhodes was involved in, but just to place them in a broader context. It also needs to be noticed that his while his strategy for developing Rhodesia was a classical colonialist one, through the control of trading companies, his involvement in the Transvaal and later in the relief of Kimberley was concerned with achieving British supremacy over a white race, the Boers and that, if anything, his attitudes towards the original natives were far more liberal than those of the Afrikaners, certainly than those of Kruger. There is also evidence that, as a business man, he retained a practical antipathy for everyday racial discrimination. On this question, he should not be judged by today’s standards, but as living at a time when theories of racial hierarchy and paternalism were dominant throughout Britain and Europe.  These theories are certainly evident in the architecture of Oxford, Bristol, Liverpool, London, Birmingham, Edinburgh and other cities which grew rapidly in the eighteenth and nineteenth century. If every surviving reminder of slavers, colonialists and imperialists were to be torn down, the cityscapes of Britain would look radically different, and greatly impoverished.  More importantly, much of modern human history has been about the replacement of one great ‘construct’ with another, whether in economics, politics, or art and architecture. As Niall Ferguson has pointed out, the liberal imperialism of the late Victorian period was criticised by Radicals who revealed themselves as overtly anti-Semitic. The new empires of fascists and communists which characterised the 1930s and 1940s were far more universally destructive than the old ones, yet we do not seek to remove every trace of them. Finally, far from being an ‘architect of apartheid’, there is a fundamental ‘disconnect’ between the imperialism of Rhodes and his contemporaries in Africa and the post-1948 racist regimes in Southern Africa. They drew their inspiration from a heretical view of sectarian Calvinism which was very far removed from the Victorian paternalism of ‘the white man’s burden’ to which Rhodes subscribed.

This Week in World History, 15-21 February, 1945 & 1990: The Aftermath: Yalta, Budapest, London & Pretoria   Leave a comment

1945 Yalta, Budapest and London

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The Yalta Conference ended on 11 February 1945.The decisions taken there would, said Roosevelt’s heard-headed Admiral Leahy, make Russia the dominant power in Europe, which in itself , which in itself carries a certainty of future international disagreements and the prospects of another war. Lord Cadogan wrote that he had never known the Russians so easy and accommodating… Joe has been extremely good. He is a great man, and shows up very impressively against the background of the other two ageing statesmen. 

For the most part, the Western Allies were pleased with what had been accomplished at the Yalta Conference. In the immediate aftermath Yalta there was an increased belief amongst many in power in the West that Stalin could be relied upon to fulfil his promises. There was, at least in public, a growing illusion that the ideological gap between the West and the Soviet Union was closing, with apparent mutual respect.

The British historian Laurence Rees has asked whether the Western powers at Yalta could have bargained more effectively. He has come to the conclusion that they could almost certainly have done so. The Americans did not use their considerable economic power to pressurise the Russians to be more accommodating over Eastern Europe. Yet, neither the issue of the credit the Soviets wanted from the US, nor that of the extent of German reparations were discussed at Yalta. The participants expected that, as at Versailles in 1919, there would be a formal peace conference to settle all these key issues once and for all. It didn’t take place.

The flawed agreement at Yalta was spun enthusiastically throughout February in Britain and the US, The Soviet comment on Yalta was that it was as far from the pompous and diffuse language of Wilson’s fourteen points… as heaven is from earth. On 17 February Pravda emphasised that the word ‘democracy’ meant different things to different people, and each country could now exercise ‘choice’ over which version it preferred.

Churchill, more than the other two members of the Big Three, faced a particular problem about selling the Yalta agreement on Poland’s n borders, which had been made without the consent of either the Polish people themselves or the Polish government in exile in London. Although Stalin had agreed to ‘democratic’ elections taking place shortly in Poland, General Anders, the Polish commander in London was outraged by the agreement, which he saw as a mockery of the Atlantic Charter and was determined to confront Churchill on the matter when they met on 20 February:

“You are not satisfied with the Yalta agreement,” said Churchill.

“It is not enough to say that I am dissatisfied,” replied Anders, “I consider that a great calamity has occurred.”

“Our soldiers fought for Poland,” Anders went on, “fought for the freedom of their country. What can we, their commanders, tell them now? Soviet Russia, until 1941 in close alliance with Germany,  now takes half their territory, and in the rest of it she wants to establish her power.”

Becoming annoyed with Anders, Churchill retorted, “It is your own fault.” He said that if the Poles had settled the eastern border earlier, “the whole matter would now have been different.” He then added a remarkably hurtful remark, given the sacrifices made by the Poles in the British armed forces and coming just six months after he had made emotional promises to them in the wake of Monte Cassino:

“We have enough troops today. We do not need your help. You can take away your divisions. We shall do without them.”

This brief exchange reveals how much Churchill’s reputation now rested on the way that Stalin chose to operate in Poland and the other Eastern European countries. In order to preserve his own wartime record he had to hope that Stalin would keep his ‘promises’. Unfortunately, this hope was already being destroyed by the action of Soviet troops and agents in the territories they now occupied. In Budapest, widespread rape of women and girls by Red Army soldiers continued unabated, as testified to by surviving victims. Anders talked afterwards with Field Marshal Sir Alan Brooke, Chief of the Imperial General Staff, and told him that after having been a prisoner, and seeing how Russians could treat Poles, he considered he was in  better position to judge what Russians were like than the President or PM.

1990 Pretoria

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Four Days after the release of Nelson Mandela, on 15 February, the Conservative Party of South Africa, which had broken away from the National Party over the issue of the of the abandonment of apartheid in 1982, held a rally in Pretoria. It was the biggest demonstration the Right in South Africa had ever managed to stage. At least fifty thousand people turned out. Most were obviously Afrikaners, large, heavy-built figures in pale blue or green safari suits or khaki shorts, with blond hair and moustaches. Many others were English-speaking whites, usually but not always from the lower economic groups who stood most to lose from the rising economic power of the Africans. There were plenty of supporters of the neo-Nazis, the AWB. Their swastika flags and SS symbols appeared in the crowd, though the Conservative Party preferred to dissociate itself from them and their violent tactics, and at one point the organisers asked those carrying Nazi symbols to leave.

There remained the flags of the Boer republics, the Orange Free State and the Transvaal, founded by the Voortrekkers who wanted to get away from the Cape in the early nineteenth century, and its British missionaries who preached equality of the races. The Conservative Party was the last constitutional party for those who wanted a return to apartheid in all its forms. They had not always used constitutional means in defending the principles of the 1948 apartheid state. Dr Andres Treunicht, its leader, had once used ‘guerilla’ tactics within the National Party in order to do this. When he stepped onto the platform in City Hall, with the statue of Kruger outside, and began his speech by saying the Afrikaner people would rather fight than submit to a government of blacks, there were shouts of “shoot them!” and the AWB began to chant “Kill Mandela! Kill de Klerk!” from the Kruger statue.

Sources:

Laurence Rees (2008), World War Two: Behind Closed Doors; Stalin, The Nazis and the West. London: BBC Books.

John Simpson (1990), Dispatches from the Barricades: An Eye-Witness Account of the Revolutions that Shook the World, 1989-90. London: Hutchinson.

Ringing in the Changes: New Year, New Decade, New Hope: 1-14 January 1990   Leave a comment

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On New Year’s Day 1990, the ancient bells of St Basil’s Cathedral in Moscow’s Red Square rang out for the first time in many years. The changes they rang reverberated throughout the Soviet Union – ringing out the old, ringing in the new. Ten days later, from 11 to 13 January, Mikhail Gorbachev was in Vilnius, capital of Lithuania, where the previous month, the Communist Party had voted to declare the country independent from Moscow. The three Baltic republics; Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia had been added to the Soviet Union only comparatively recently, as a result of the infamous Nazi-Soviet Pact of 1939, which had ceded control of them to Stalin without their knowledge or consent, thereby clearing the way for Hitler’s invasion of Poland and the division of that country between the two powers. Stalin had been determined to establish a buffer zone of client states on his western border, including the three Baltic states.

However, the three states and their peoples had never willingly accepted the loss of their independence, which they had held since the defeat of Russia in the First World War. Neither had the United States ever recognised Soviet rule over the Baltics. Yet if Gorbachev gave in to Lithuania’s demand, he would be crossing a red line for many Soviet leaders and citizens, which they felt could only result in the disintegration of the USSR. Gorbachev began to look for a compromise strategy, while at the same time insisting on the preservation of the Union.

Meanwhile, in South Africa, Nelson Mandela’s wife Winnie visited him in Victor Verster Prison at Paarl, on 8 January, and said that she believed he would be free within weeks. Mandela told her to start making arrangements for his early release. A month later the news was confirmed with the release of the photograph below.

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