Joseph Chamberlain was a British statesman, a colonial administrator and politician who went from being a radical, almost socialist liberal to an arch imperialist serving in a Tory cabinet.

A successful businessman, he became the mayor of Birmingham, using his term to implement policies regarded as being ahead of their time.

He was appointed Colonial Secretary in 1895 in the cabinet of Lord Salisbury, and was one of the conspirators in the Jameson Raid, after which he, together with Lord Alfred Milner, pushed towards war with the Boers, which culminated in the Second Anglo-Boer War

Early life and career

Chamberlain was born in July 1836 in London, England, the son of a successful shoe manufacturer. He entered the family business at the age of 16. He moved to Birmingham in 1854 to work with his cousin in a screw-making business, and was wealthy enough to retire by 1874.

He was elected mayor of Birmingham in 1873, and began to implement a series of progressive policies in education reform, slum clearance, improved housing and provision of public services. He became known as the ‘gas-and-water socialist’.

He was elected to Parliament in 1876 as a Liberal Party MP, and was regarded as a Dissenter, delivering radical speeches. In the House of Commons he became Prime Minister Gladstone’s right-hand man. In 1882, during his second ministry, Gladstone appointed Chamberlain president of the Board of Trade.

With Sir Charles Wentworth Dilke, Chamberlain, headed the left of the party, and in 1885 the pair put forward their ‘unauthorised programme’ in favour of a graduated income tax, better housing for the poor, local government reform and ‘three acres and a cow’ for agricultural workers.

He supported calls for Irish land reform and Home Rule (an autonomous Irish parliament) and was opposed to repressive measures to stem Irish popular resistance.

Dilke and Chamberlain also ran a fierce campaign on behalf of the autonomy of the Zulu people, opposing Disraeli’s wars with the Zulus in South Africa.

However, when Gladstone made Irish Home Rule a part of Liberal Party policy, Chamberlain sided with Liberal dissidents and the government lost the 1886 vote on the issue. The party split and Chamberlain joined the Liberal Unionists and allied with the Conservative Party, which dominated British politics for the next two decades.

With his domination of the Liberal Unionist Party, he was able to push the Tories into adopting more progressive social policies.

By now, Chamberlain began to transform into an imperialist, playing to jingoist popular sentiment in England. In 1895 he became a Tory and joined the Conservative cabinet of Robert Cecil, the 3rd marquess of Salisbury. He asked to become colonial secretary and he was given the job, with great latitude to drive his own agenda.

Chamberlain and South Africa: the move to war

Chamberlains’s imperialist policy emerged especially with regard to South Africa. He was loath to let the Transvaal fall into the orbit of competing imperial countries, especially Germany. But the Transvaal, growing increasingly rich and capable of self-reliance after the discovery of gold in 1886, was determined to remain independent and bring the entire country under Boer hegemony.

The Transvaal Republic under Paul Kruger had refused to allow the foreigners, especially those from England, the Uitlanders, the franchise, and the British pressured Kruger to give them the vote.

According to Scholtz, Chamberlain realized that it was not the franchise for the Uitlanders that was at stake, but rather ‘that our supremacy in South Africa and our existence as a great Power in the world are involved in the result of the present controversy’.

Chamberlain conspired with Cecil John Rhodes to effect a coup in the Transvaal Republic, hoping to bring the entire South Africa under British control.

In Johannesburg, The Star newspaper had by the mid-1890s abandoned its diplomatic approach to relations with Kruger, and began to publicise the Uitlanders’ grievances.

The Rhodes/Chamberlain plan was for a large number of Uitlanders to launch an armed rebellion against the government and request help from the Cape, whereupon Leander Starr Jameson would lead a heavily armed cavalry to their assistance. Jameson’s attack would be justified as an initiative to protect the rights of the Uitlanders.

The Jameson Raid at the end of 1895 proved to be an abortive coup, and the forces Rhodes sent into the Transvaal under the leadership of Jameson were easily rounded up before they fired a shot.

Rhodes, who had to resign as Prime Minister of the Cape Colony after the Raid, had lost the support of the Afrikaner Bond and turned JH Hofmeyr from being his friend and colleague into his avowed political opponent. The Bond, in alliance with an increasingly anti-imperial John X Merriman, now dominated Cape politics.

Chamberlain was cleared of complicity by a House of Commons investigation into the Raid, and the House took great pains to cover up his involvement in the plot. But his anti-Boer stance became clear in his dealings with Alfred Milner, who he appointed as Governor and High Commissioner of the Cape Colony in 1897.

In March 1897 Chamberlain warned that certain forces were striving for a South Africa ‘in which Dutch influence would be predominant, and which would look for sympathy and support rather to the Continent of Europe than to this country. If such an aspiration exists, in my opinion it is incompatible with the highest British interests …’

Chamberlain and Milner’s hopes that the Republic would become more accommodating to Uitlander interests were set back by the Volksraad election of 1898, when Kruger was again elected as President with a large majority after a campaign stressing the need to secure the autonomy of the Republic.

Chamberlain had at first hoped to anglicise Kruger’s republic through diplomatic and economic pressure rather than military intervention, but by 1898 Milner had begun to convince him that a war was inevitable. Chamberlain wanted to ensure that a war against the Republic would be seen as a just response to Boer provocation.

The Boer governments of the Republic and the Free State began to fear that their autonomy from British rule was a fragile political phenomenon. Their fears were well-founded: Milner was pushing for war and making demands on the Boers that they could not possibly satisfy.

Even Arthur Balfour, the leader of the Conservative Party who in 1902 became Prime Minister of England, doubted the legitimacy of Milner’s objectives: ‘Were I a Boer . . . nothing but necessity would induce me to adopt a constitution which would turn my country into an English republic, or a system of education which would reduce my language to the “patois” of a small and helpless minority.’

At a conference in Bloemfontein in May 1899, Kruger and Milner failed to agree on the franchise question, despite concessions by Kruger. In the same month, Milner sent Chamberlain a telegram saying ‘the case for intervention is overwhelming… (since) thousands of British subjects [were being] kept permanently in the position of helots’.

With Prime Minister Salisbury incapacitated by illness, Chamberlain was virtually in charge of the government, and his supporters portrayed the Liberal Party’s ambivalence about the merits of a war against the Boers as tantamount to treason; ‘Every seat won by a Liberal,’ Chamberlain is reputed to have said, ‘is a seat sold to the Boers.’

According to Leonard Thompson, ‘The raid having failed, Chamberlain concluded that direct British action was necessary to check the growth of Afrikaner power in Southern Africa. Initially, he was confident that strong and relentless diplomatic pressure on the Transvaal government would suffice, but he made two errors of judgment. First, he exaggerated Afrikaner solidarity and the threat to British interests in Southern Africa. In fact, there were class, regional, and ideological differences among the Afrikaners. The governments of the Orange Free State and the Cape Colony were moderating influences on the Transvaal, where younger members of the government, including State Attorney Jan Christian Smuts, who had been born in the Cape Colony and had had a brilliant career at Cambridge University, were trying to purge it of its worst abuses. Second, Chamberlain underestimated both the Transvaalers' determination to sustain their independence and the military self-confidence they had gained through their victories over British forces in 1881 (the First Anglo-Boer War).’

By September, Chamberlain had persuaded the British cabinet to accept the prospect of war. He drafted an ultimatum and reinforcements sailed for South Africa. Chamberlain increased the number of British troops stationed in South Africa. By October 1899 20,000 troops were stationed in Natal and the Cape, and more troops were on the way.

After the Boers demanded that troops stationed at the Transvaal border be withdrawn, the Transvaal and Orange Free State Boers eventually went to war with the British in October 1899. (see the Second Anglo-Boer War).

The Second Anglo-Boer War

Chamberlain ran the war from the Colonial Office in London.

The Boers at first secured significant victories, and laid siege to a number of towns, including Ladysmith and Mafeking. The British suffered heavy losses in became known as Black Week, in December, at Magersfontein, Colenso and Stormberg.

Chamberlain was dismayed by the losses and wanted more elaborate artillery to be shipped to South Africa, but his secretary of state for war said the huge guns  he requested would need a year to mount.

Chamberlain renewed relations with other British colonies and got them to send 30,000 troops – from Canada, Australia and New Zealand.

Milner argued for the suspension of the constitution of the Cape, but Chamberlain turned down the plan – which would have given Milner dictatorial powers. In January 1900 the government in England faced a motion of censure over its management of the war. After a convincing speech by Chamberlain, the motion was defeated by 213 votes.

By March 1900, with Lord Roberts now in charge of the British army, Bloemfontein was captured. In May Johannesburg was occupied and in June Pretoria.

Lloyd George accused Chamberlain’s family of profiting from the war, as Chamberlain’s brother ran a business manufacturing cordite. But the charge was largely dismissed.

With elections declared after the government was dissolved, Chamberlain’s Unionists won with a large majority.

In October 1901 Chamberlain responded to European criticism of Britain’s conduct in the war by saying the British soldiers had been more respectable than those that fought the Franco-Prussian war. The Germans were outraged. The Times opined that ‘Mr. Chamberlain... is at this moment the most popular and trusted man in England.’

When reports emerged that Britain had been confining Boer women and children and many Black people in concentration camps, Chamberlain was under pressure to prosecute the war in a more humane manner. He ordered Milner to ensure conditions in the camps were improved and unhealthy camps closed.

The Boers eventually accepted defeat in April 1902, agreeing to the loss of independence of the two republics, but they insisted that Cape rebels who took part in the war be pardoned, and that the republics be paid war debts by Britain. Chamberlain got Milner to accept the conditions regarding war debts.

The war ended when the Treaty of Vereeniging was signed on 31 May 1902.

Post-war Imperialism: Chamberlain in South Africa

After the peace was signed, Milner set about the task of reconstruction in South Africa.

Chamberlain visited South Africa in 1902. According to one analyst: ‘Never before had a Colonial Secretary bothered to visit such a distant outpost of the Empire, and a newly acquired one at that.’

Arriving with his wife in Durban on 26 December, he was given a huge welcome in Natal. He met Milner in Charlestown on the Transvaal border on 3 January 1903, and they travelled together to Pretoria.

While in the Transvaal he stayed with Milner at Sunnyside, where they discussed the South African Constabulary, the South African garrison, the creation of a forestry department, the taxation of dynamite, the immigration of women, the Possession of Arms Act, and the railway system, which had been extensively damaged by Boer forces. 

The Chamberlains toured Mafeking, Kimberley and Bloemfontein, where Milner joined the party on 4 February 1903.

Chamberlain wanted the British to rule the country for a few years before granting self-governance within the Empire. He urged Cape Prime Minister Gordon Sprigg to hold elections.

He advised Milner to treat the Transvaal as if it already had self-government.

Milner concurred and on 13 February, he offered Generals Louis Botha, Smuts, and Koos de la Rey seats in the Legislative Council, which  was to advise the administration. The offer was refused.

Milner told Chamberlain he wanted to quit South Africa, but Chamberlain argued that it was the High Commissioner’s imperial duty to stay until the country had been stabilized , and that to leave would be ‘almost an act of cowardice’. He prevailed on Milner to agree to a compromise in which he would take leave that year and then ‘return for one year’.

Chamberlain got Milner to agree that three Boer leaders exiled in Europe –Fischer, Wolmarans and Wessels – be allowed to return. In a step towards responsible government, elective municipalities in towns were authorized.

Chamberlain met with Boer leaders and was well received by the Afrikaner Bond. Jan Smuts met with him and after handing over a petition to Chamberlain which set out the Boers’ wishes, Smuts said: ‘It is said that we do not wish to cooperate. That is not so. Our interests are so firmly tied to the country that we cannot stand aside. We must work together for the country's good. It is, however, our desire that this cooperation should rest on a proper basis, that of confidence and respect.’

Chamberlain was polite and pointed out that the Treaty of Vereeniging was the charter of the British nation.

Chamberlain delivered a farewell address at the Cape Town Drill Hall on 24 February, and he praised the ‘firm and sympathetic policy’ of Milner, which he said would make the New Colonies ‘amongst the most prosperous and most contented of the dominions of the crown’.

He left South Africa the next day. During his tour, Chamberlain visited 29 towns, and he delivered 64 speeches and received 84 deputations.

Chamberlain after South Africa

In 1903 Chamberlain resigned from the British Government to focus on his Tariff Reform campaign.

Chamberlain the imperialist was passionate about methods to hold the empire together, and he propounded what he called imperial preference, a policy which would allow for trade between the empire’s colonies at preferential rates.

He proposed that tariffs be levied on other imports, breaking with a long established policy of free trade.

Chamberlain served as the acting Leader of the Opposition.

In poor health, he collapsed in July 1906, suffering from a stroke. He never recovered fully nad died of a heart attack on 2 July 1914.

Milner’s assessment of Chamberlain

Milner edited a book about Chamberlain, contributing a chapter to it in which he said of Chamberlain: ‘He was the first to realize, and to make his countrymen realize, that the growth of the self-governing Colonies into great independent states  did not necessarily involve a  loosening of  the bonds of Empire, but that, on the contrary, it might result in the evolution of a new body politic, more powerful and more permanent than  the old.’

Of the position of Colonial Secretary, Milner wrote: The statesman

at the head of  the Colonial Office has to deal with two very different problems. On the one hand, he is in charge of  the relations of the United Kingdom with the other self-governing portions of the Empire, a duty demanding for its efficient  discharge the largest measure of sympathy, insight, foresight, and tact. On the other hand, he is directly responsible for the administration of the vast tropical and subtropical territories, which, as Crown Colonies, protectorates, or “spheres of influence”, are governed autocratically from Downing Street.’

Finally, Milner said: ‘Of the South  African War, and of Mr Chamberlain's dealings with South Africa generally, it is impossible to give any adequate account in these pages. He was confronted with a grave crisis in that country at the very  outset of his Colonial Secretaryship, and South African affairs necessarily remained his chief preoccupation almost up to its close. Fate had willed that he should be the protagonist on the British side in the long struggle, culminating in a prolonged and destructive war, which was required to decide the political future of the lands between Cape Town and the Zambesi.’

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