John Xavier Merriman was a politician, businessman, and the last Prime Minister of the Cape Colony before the four provinces became the Union of South Africa in 1910. He was considered a liberal in the South African context but he also held fairly conservative views. He supported co-operation between English and Afrikaner, and saw himself as South African rather than as an Englishman in South Africa, and became increasingly anti-imperialist, especially after the Jameson Raid.

Early Life and business career

Merriman was born in Somerset in England on March 15 1841. He moved with his family to the Cape Colony in South Africa in 1849, where his father became Bishop of Grahamstown.

He went to the Diocesan College in Rondebosch, Cape Town for his initial schooling, and went on to study at Radley College in England, returning to South Africa in 1861. He settled at the Cape in 1862 and began work as a surveyor.

He married Agnes Vintcent in 1874. From 1870 to 1894, he worked as a diamond buyer in Kimberley, where he met Cecil John Rhodes, with whom he formed a close friendship. Later still in the late 1880s, he took part in the Johannesburg Gold rush.

In 1892 he bought a farm, Schoongezicht, in Stellenbosch, and became a fruit and wine producer.

Entry into politics

In 1869 Merriman went into politics in the Cape Colony, representing the district of Namaqualand in Parliament, and later Wodehouse and Victoria West.

A conservative at the time, he opposed the grant of responsible government, which would introduce an elected executive rather than an appointed one. But responsible government was granted in 1872, and Merriman became the leader of the opposition in the first elected government.

In 1875, the Cape’s first Prime Minister, John Molteno, brought Merriman into his cabinet, where he was responsible for crown lands and public works, and the development of the railway. A gifted orator, he would also be tasked with taking the Irrigation Act through Parliament in 1877.

He rejected Carnarvon’s plan for confederation, and became a critic of British imperialism. He opposed the government of pro-imperialist Gordon Sprigg who became premier in 1879. He attacked Sprigg’s native policies, as well his Disarmament Act, which provoked the Basuto War. When Governor Bartle Frere was recalled, Sprigg’s government fell. Merriman was passed over for the premiership, losing out to Thomas Scanlen. Nevertheless, Merriman served in Scanlen’s cabinet from 1881 to 1884 in the public works portfolio.

Merriman, Hofmeyr and the Afrikaner Bond

Merriman was a firm believer in cooperation between the English and Afrikaner, but he had a difficult relationship with JH Hofmeyr, the leader of the Bond.

In October 1881 Merriman embarked on a tour of the Cape, and was welcomed  by the Afrikaner Bond in Graaff-Reinet. The welcome address stressed the issue of the recognition of Dutch in Parliament and the Bond’s non-revolutionary stance, an address which enraged Merriman. He hated the idea of Dutch being used in Parliament, and could not distinguish between the radicals and moderates in the Bond. He set about writing a tract against the Bond and ‘racialism’, by which he meant discord between English and Afrikaner.

He criticised Hofmeyr, accusing him of fomenting racial strife between English and Afrikaner, calling him ‘The Mole’ for his work behind the scenes – Hofmeyr was loath to take up public positions and preferred working in the background, effectively as leader of the Bond.

A feud between the two men ensued, and Hofmeyr, also under pressure from Afrikaners who accused him of being an English collaborator, resigned from Scanlen’s cabinet, although he pledged that he would continue to support it.

Despite their conflicts, Merriman and Hofmeyr developed a working relationship, co-operating to restore the independence of the Transvaal after the first Anglo-Boer War (1880-1).

Merriman took on the role of liberal critic during the Upington and Sprigg ministries after Scanlen fell in 1884.

Merriman and Rhodes

In 1890 he was appointed Treasurer-General and Minister of Agriculture in the government of CJ Rhodes, but in 1893 Merriman, Sauer and James Rose-Innes fell out with Rhodes over the Logan scandal, which revealed Rhodes’ corrupt dealings.

He was outraged by the Jameson Raid, and broke definitively with Rhodes. After the Raid Merriman was appointed to the committee tasked to investigate the coup attempt, and he wrote the final report, recommending that Parliament take away the privileges enjoyed by Rhodes’ Chartered Company.

Merriman thereafter became a critic of mining interests and even more critical of British imperialism.

In Schreiner’s Cabinet

Merriman continued to work with the Afrikaner Bond in the run-up to the second Anglo-Boer War (1899-1901), and was appointed to the cabinet of the Bond-backed government of William P Schreiner, and again as treasurer-general in October 1898. Merriman was not happy serving under the younger man after being passed over for the premiership.

Merriman stood for election as a candidate for Wodehouse , and polled 1082 votes, topping the poll.

The Anglo-Boer War

Merriman made repeated attempts to avert the looming war between the British and the Transvaal. He was placed under house arrest on his farm by the Cape authorities because of his opposition to the war.

Schreiner fell in 1900, largely because of his party’s opposition to disfranchisement of the Cape Afrikaners who took up arms against the British. Merriman also resigned over the harsh treatment of the Cape rebels.

By November 1900 Merriman was afraid that the Cape Afrikaners would rise up in support of the Boers after Afrikaner women and children were confined in concentration camps. When Malan and others began organising mass meetings to protest against the policy, Merriman was fearful that these moves were the work of political agitators.

Merriman organised a ‘remonstrance’ to be delivered by South African Party (SAP) delegates to the UK’s House of Commons. MPs from the SAP met in Cape Town in January to draw up the remonstrance, designed to be an alternative to the mass protest meetings organised by Malan and to plead for some form of independence. They resolved to send a delegation to England, which included Merriman and JW Sauer.

The pair travelled to London to plead with the British government, but they were labelled pro-Boer, and refused permission to present their case in the House of Commons. According to Davenport, they ‘had tried and failed to find a middle term between annexation and independence as a basis for negotiations to on which to end the war’.

Merriman became close to Jan Smuts during the drafting of the Treaty of Vereeniging, which ended the war.

Post-war politics

Merriman formed the South African Party in 1903, and with Molteno and Sauer opposed the Progressive Party government of Leander Starr Jameson, whose cabinet was made up only of English members.

The SAP fought the 1904 election against the Progressive Party? Merriman lost his Wodehouse seat after getting just 587 votes. He complained in a letter to his wife that ‘uneducated’ African voters had let him down. According to Davenport, his losses were due rather to the disenfranchisement of many SAP voters in the area.

Merriman introduced the closer union resolution in the House of Assembly on 22 June 1908 and made a strong statement in favour of the Cape franchise, but he did not have substantial support from Bond members.

The SAP won the national elections of 1908, in partnership with the Afrikaner Bond, and Merriman became Prime Minister in February, serving for two years before Union was established.

He travelled to England as part of a delegation to present the Union Bill in 1909.

Merriman after Union

Passed over as premier in the union government, Merriman rejected an offer by Prime Minister Louis Botha to serve in his cabinet. But he supported the Botha-Smuts government until 1924.

In speeches, he opposed the Native Land Act (1913), which curtailed land for Blacks, but in practice he did little to resist the law.

He died in Stellenbosch in 1926


‘A superficial view of his [Merriman’s] politics might suggest he was a ‘liberal’. On closer examination, his beliefs appeared to be a curious mix of the progressive and reactionary, driven more by the recognition of having to accommodate necessary evils than by an evangelistic pursuit of ideals. He was a trenchant supporter of the Cape’s colour-blind political and legal culture. This was not because he felt any particular personal affinity or comradeship with non-whites – he had on occasion expressed the wish that there were no blacks in South Africa.  Rather he was motivated in part by the belief that denial of political equality to non-whites would eventually provoke them into armed rebellion – a rebellion which, ultimately, would be successful.’


TRH Davenport, The Afrikaner Bond: The history of a South African Political Party, 1880-1911. Oxford University Press, Cape Town; 1966

 |Giliomee, Hermann; The Afrikaners: Biography of a People; Tafelberg Publishers, Cape Town, 2003

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