Early Life

John Gordon Sprig was born in Ipswich, England in 1830, the son of a pastor. He schooled at Ipswich and at other private schools before taking up his first job in a shipbuilder’s office. He became a reporter before moving to the Cape Colony in 1858 because of health reasons.

He acquired a farm near East London, in what was then known as British Kaffraria, and became involved in local politics, concerned especially with questions of frontier security, as his farm was situated at the frontier, in contested terrain close to Xhosa settlements.

Political career

Sprigg became a member of parliament in 1869 as a candidate for East London. He was one of the first to urge a separation of the eastern and western halves of the Cape, arguing that they be administered by their own authorities.

Despite disagreements with the first prime minister of the Cape Colony, John Molteno, over racial policies, he joined Molteno’s movement for responsible government – a move to get the British to allow a form of limited self-rule with locally appointed administrators. He was opposed to confederation of the four colonies that would later make up the Union of South Africa, but when Henry Bartle Frere was made governor of the Cape by Lord Carnarvon, he switched his allegiances and became a proponent of federation.

Sprigg as prime minister

Sprigg was appointed prime minister by Frere in 1878 after the British Colonial Office suspended the Cape government. Sprigg began to arrange for a conference to consider federation, against opposition from various interests in the Cape.

Sprigg chose a cabinet made up only of men of English origin, and his administration was known as the ‘Settler Ministry’.

He presided over the period of the First Anglo-Boer War (1880-81), as well as during the period of frontier wars the British engaged in to pacify the various tribes in the region. His government ran up enormous debts and he imposed a hut tax that had been abolished by Molteno.

Sprigg, who had taken part in the Commission for Frontier Defense, accepted the recommendations of the commission, which called for all Africans in the Cape to be disarmed. He had the "Peace Preservation Act" (1878), passed in 1878, causing uprisings across the territory. He applied the act in Basutoland, at the time administered by the Cape, and sparked the Basuto Gun War.

He used British troops to suppress revolts by Black Africans, and put into place a harsh native policy, expanding white areas at the expense of Blacks. He crushed the Xhosa state and provoked the Transkeian rebellion.

Sprigg’s government fell when Frere was recalled to England for misconduct, and he was succeeded by Thomas Charles Scanlen.

Second stint as Prime Minister (1886-1890)

Sprigg was appointed premier again in 1886 after Thomas Upington resigned due to ill health. Sprigg’s second term was dominated by attempts to extend the railway network and by the question of the Cape Qualified Franchise, which allowed qualified Blacks to vote.

With the annexation of the Transkei, the Xhosas threatened to become the dominant population group in the Cape. In 1887 Sprigg pushed through the Registration Bill, excluding communal landholders from the vote.

He failed to make much progress in extending the railways to Natal and the Transvaal Republic, and his 1898 railway scheme, which was hugely expensive, was the cause of his fall on 16 July 1890.

Sprigg then served as treasurer in the government of Cecil John Rhodes, and when Rhodes fell after the Jameson Raid, he was well-placed to become prime minister yet again.

Sprigg’s Third Ministry (1896-1898)

Sprigg became prime minister for the third time in 1896. He attended Queen Victoria’s Diamond Jubilee in 1897 in England, where he was awarded honorary doctorates by the Universities of Edinburgh and Oxford – this after he had offered the British Navy a cruiser to help them in their naval policing duties. The awards caused controversy, and he was forced to revoke his offer to the British Navy on his return to the Cape as it had not been passed by Parliament.

Sprigg clashed with the Afrikaner Bond over his allegiance to Rhodes, who was being investigated by an enquiry into the Jameson Raid. He also raised the anger of the Bond when he tried to give English towns more weight n elections than Afrikaner towns. His redistribution bill was defeated.

In May 1898 William P Schreiner initiated a vote of no-confidence against Sprigg which was successful. After a second no-confidence motion was passed, Sprigg was forced to resign, and was succeeded by Schreiner.

Fourth Ministry (1900-1904)

Schreiner was against the Second Anglo-Boer War (1899-1902), and lost his position as a result. In June 1900. Sprigg succeeded him at the head of the pro-imperialist Progressive Party.

With the Cape, in concert with the British, heavily engaged in the war, the colony’s finances suffered damage.

He clashed again with the Afrikaner Bond when heavy sentences were imposed on Cape citizens who took part in the war, and he refused to launch a commission of inquiry.

When Governor Lord Alfred Milner ordered him to suspend the Cape constitution, he opposed the move. He expressed his disapproval of the move more strongly after Rhodes died n 1902.

His party was defeated in the 1904 elections and his last term as premier came to an end.


Sprigg retired from politics after his fourth term ended. Together with Schreiner, he was the only other South African politician to vote against the parliamentary colour bar in the Cape Parliament in 1909.

He died on 4 February 1913 at his home in Wynberg, Cape Town and was buried at St Peter’s Cemetery in Mowbray.

The Dictionary of South African Biography (Vol.II) painted the following picture of Sprigg:

‘Small, determined and conceited, Sprigg well deserved Merriman's appellation of "The little Master". He coveted power and clung to it tenaciously, being content to change his colleagues, as long as he was left undisturbed in office. Moreover, his tremendous patience and mastery of parliamentary procedure gave him great advantages over more inspired but less diligent politicians. On the whole, he was a man of integrity and has a strong claim to be placed high in the ranks of South African statesmen.’


Sprigg was awarded honorary doctorates by the Universities of Edinburgh and Oxford.

Sprigg was appointed a Privy Counsellor of the United Kingdom in 1897.


‘Gordon Sprigg’ in Wikipedia: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gordon_Sprigg

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