Gold, Diamonds and Empire

By the turn of the 19th century much of South Africa had been annexed by Great Britain following the Dutch mercantile decline of the 18th century, the Cape Colony and environs claimed by the former power in an attempt to prevent Napoleonic seizure of the region.  The Dutch Boers, which by this time had replaced much of the Khoikhoi’s ancestral pasturelands bordering the north of the region and had adopted a similar pastoralist lifestyle, then formed into autonomous republics in an attempt to maintain a degree of freedom from the Empire, which had already annexed the coastal provinces. While their existence was tolerated at first, the discovery of diamonds in the Transvaal attracted a great deal of external pan-European (principally British) influence into the region, to which the majority of Boers did not benefit from, and which upset the traditional Afrikaner racial-cultural norms, as new mining settlements soon formed in which whites freely intermingled with blacks without a faithful following of the traditional segregation standards.  To maintain order and to ensure the economic viability of the project the British quickly annexed the Transvaal and threatened the other Boer republics.

The Boers who were initially caught unprepared by the British adventurism and were unable to resist the conquest of their lands subsequently massed and schemed in secret, their consternation mounting in the face of an oppressive and culturally averse administration, exploding in 1880 as the first Boer War, a struggle for independence. At Majuba Hill the surprised British were decisively defeated by a coalition of Boers and the region was once more autonomous, styling itself as the South African Republic.

The fledgling Boer republic would once more be threatened by the British a mere six years later, as gold was discovered at Witwatersrand, its revelation bringing with it an unending flood of ‘outlanders,’ Johannesburg bloated to a nearly unmanageable size, while the Boers were once again marginalized and taken advantage of, still scornful of the relative privileges afforded to the white worker’s African servants.  The lucrative jewelry, metalworking and mining industries which formed in Johannesburg proved too irresistible for the British to overlook and the Empire once more stirred to action, endorsing the spectacularly disastrous Jameson raid, which failed to install a British puppet within the South African Republic.

The British soon demanded voting rights for its citizens living within the Witwatersrand, who up until 1899 had been excluded from political life by the Republic’s government. Consequently Paul Kruger, president of the Boer state, suspecting further British intervention, demanded the withdrawal of the Empire’s forces from the Republic’s borders. The British refused, sparking the second Boer War, a protracted rather than hasty war, in which the Republics regular forces, aided in arms by the Orange Free State, were gradually defeated and the Boer settlements captured, resulting in bitter guerilla warfare. The British responded to the insurgency with a brutal scorched earth policy, massacre and relocation of pastoral Afrikaners to concentration camps. On the 31st of May, 1902 the Treaty of Vereeniging was signed, the Boer republics subjecting themselves to the sovereignty of the Empire.

Ultimately the discovery of precious metal and diamonds in the region transformed South Africa from a resupply colony to a lucrative national enterprise, one which the British Empire simply could not suffer to be squandered on fledgling and politically alienated state; the British, who had entered the region to prevent an expansion of Napoleon’s power, were not initially aware of the great treasure dormant in the north, and having discovered the hoard sought to grab it for the economic enrichment of the crown.