Monday, October 25, 2010

All the guns, and the gold*


If anyone tells you that they don't see why Africa has faced such challenges in development despite having gold, diamonds, minerals, farmland, etc., please throw a copy of Martin Meredith's Diamonds, Gold, and War at them. It's a hefty book, so hopefully the resultant bruise will serve as a reminder that for countries like Africa, parts of Asia, Latin America, Ireland, the Pacific Islands, the Dominican Republic, the Philippines, the Caribbean, and the former French Indochina during Europe's age of empire, the best thing for a country to have was nothing at all of value (and even that didn't save Australia, whose one very valuable asset was lots of empty space, into which Britain promptly dumped a few tons of felons).

The diamonds and gold Meredith mentions in his title guaranteed the war. After all, a country happily sitting on top of gold fields and diamond mines simply couldn't remain under the control of everyone who had lived there since time immemorial. Instead, Africa became the battle ground between the Dutch settlers, called Boers or Afrikanders, and British forces determined to oust the Dutch administration and establish control over South Africa, which it did through a policy of intimidation, trickery, and theft from the native peoples, immigration by British settlers, and a war between the British army and Boer guerillas.

Meredith's book reveals two very interesting things about South Africa. First, the exploitation and rapid development of the diamond and gold industry in South Africa was the result of the activities of an astonishingly small group of men with outsized personalities and secondly, the war between the British and the Boers should be terrifyingly familiar to the modern reader.

In the early 1800s, Europe's involvement in South Africa was limited to two shaky, irregularly defined, and poorly administered republics. The Cape Colony, administered by the British, and the Orange Free State, recognized as a republic of the Netherlands, were populated by a small group of Dutch, German, and more newly arrived British settlers and a much larger indigenous population. Britain would probably have been content to let Cape Colony muddle along, and ignored the Orange Free State, except there was gold (and diamonds!) in them thar hills, and then all hell broke loose.

The discovery of diamonds led to a flood of movement to southern Africa, the establishment of a hasty and dangerous mining industry, and a insatiable need for cheap labor. Dutch and English prospectors converged on the diamond fields, and a few monopolies (de Beers, anyone? Like diamonds, colonialism is starting to feel like forever.) quickly arose, controlled by a small group of wealthy, smart, or just plain lucky men, including Cecil Rhodes. A rough, bizarre man, Rhodes personified the new class of British acquiring power through industry and risky investments in South Africa - a class of men who clashed with the titled men sent by Britain to administer the newly valuable territory.

Meredith takes us through the rise of the mining industry and the increasing tension between the Boer settlers and the British as wave after wave of settlers and prospectors arrived. Caught between two European powers, African leaders faced the prospect of acquiescence to the insatiable demand for land and mineral rights by one or the other, and many signed 'treaties' in vain attempts to preserve their sovereignty and the safety of their tribes.

Eventually, tensions between the British and the Boers erupted into war. The British sent thousands of troops into Africa, expecting a quick and cheap military victory - a "tea-time war" as the London newspapers put it. Instead, through a combination of poor strategic decisions, lack of understanding of the terrain, and the determination of their enemy, Britain found themselves mired in an expensive, long, and surprisingly deadly war.

Britain sent an army expecting and trained for conventional warfare that found itself instead facing a guerilla war between fighters indistinguishable from the civilian population. The cumbersome British army was outmaneuvered by the Boer guerilla fighters, who had the advantage of familiarity with the ground and support from the Boer civilians.

Britain responded with a scorched-earth policy, burning Boer farms and homesteads and displacing thousands of civilians, most of whom were women and children. Boer families faced the option of starvation on the veldt, or internment in concentration camps. Nearly 30,000 Boers, mostly children under sixteen and women, died in the British concentration camps, mostly of diseases like typhoid and measles. The conditions were so horrendous that British visitors published outraged letters in London newspapers describing what they had seen. The British established concentration camps for Africans suspected of being in sympathy with the Boers, and the camps claimed the lives of 14,000 Africans.

Eventually, the Boer resistance realized it had to face capitulation to the British or complete extinction. In 1902, peace talks between the British and Boers began. Johannesburg was named capital of the new British South Africa in April of 1902. Four years later, the British administration faced a revolt of the Bantu people, which it defeated. Increasingly harsh legislation directed towards Africans was enacted in the decade following, culminating in the development of the beginning of the system of apartheid shortly thereafter, which would not end for another fifty years.

Meredith is one of the pre-eminent Africa scholars, and Diamonds is an excellent book, with both meticulous research and masterful writing. Meredith's journey into the inner workings of the small group of European men who controlled the rise of the South African mining industry is particularly fascinating. Yet, unfortunately, the African people whose land it was receive scant attention in his book, aside from documenting the interactions between land-hungry British prospectors and African chiefs, and mention of the African population as resource and administrative headache for the British and the Dutch. It is perhaps clear from his surtitle, "The British, the Boers, and the Making of South Africa" that Meredith considers South Africa an invention of the Europeans, and he views its history through this prism.

Still, despite it being rather one-dimensional, Meredith's history is an excellent look into the machinations of two powers as they fought an unconventional war over a piece of land thousands of miles away from the seat of their empires.

*title lifted from Metric's "Guns Gold Girls" album.

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