on 25 January 2008
It is always worth reminding or indeed educating oneself about Imperial era African history not only because it sheds light on the state of that continent today but also because such a dramatic series of events involving nation-building, colonial expansion and suppression of the rights of an indigenous population cannot but have resonance with today's various conflicts also. As an introduction for a reader with scant knowledge of the topic, Meredith's work warrants five stars. Scholars may treat the book more harshly.
Meredith's is of course a seasoned Africa literary hand and in this, his latest book, he uses the mining industry as a framework to examine the geopolitics of colonial southern Africa. In so doing he also creates a rip-roaring, if frankly depressing story of ambition, self- and national interest and, ultimately, tragedy which took decades to resolve, and elements of which persist today.
Despite the book's title, gold and diamond mining in fact seems to have been a lesser factor, if not incidental, to the region's fate; the fabulous wealth it brought was important more as a means to an end rather than an end in itself. Of greater significance were the various aspirations of those involved: the Boer desire to build a nation; the British determination to expand their Imperial power; the indigenous population's desperate (and ultimately futile) attempt to retain their tribal kingdoms; and, crucially, the ambition of Cecil Rhodes to be one of the most powerful men in Africa and of Paul Kruger to develop and sustain that Boer nation. It is around Rhodes and to a lesser extent Kruger that Meredith constructs his narrative and although he is necessarily constrained by time and space, we nevertheless come to understand very well at least on one level the motivations, aspirations and frustrations that drove Rhodes and Kruger towards their goals with such singular, amoral, and often immoral application.
The aspirations of the indigenous African tribes Meredith spends less time on, perhaps understandably on account of the paucity of primary sources, with the exception of some documented exchanges between African chiefs and British ones so we do not get as much of a feel for how they viewed their own plight. Of course, we do not need to get a feel of how the Africans viewed their plight because Meredith, as so he ought, describes the sinning against them to us with absolute clarity. Of all the various conflicts: Boers vs British, Boers vs "Uitlanders" (non-Boer residents of the Transvaal), British vs Uitlanders (and Africans vs Africans), it is how all non-African parties behaved towards the indigenous Africans at which the greatest sense of aggrievement should be felt. Here there is an asymmetry in motive, action and outcome that is simply shocking. This is not to forget or overlook the British behaviour towards the Boers (and doubtless many other iniquities perpetrated by the various groups on one another), but by this time in the book, we are almost inured to such suffering.
Separate volumes of course have already been written on just about every element, actor and party involved in the events of this book but it is a credit to Meredith that his sure touch and engaging narrative mean that after this book, the general reader can approach the more specialised literature with confidence and enthusiasm.
on 25 May 2008
Drawing from over 40 years of experience in the region, Meredith highlights the long term effects resulting from the making of South Africa. This is a highly readable account of South Africa's modern history from the possession of the Cape Colony in 1806 to the launching of the Union of South Africa in 1910. A brief epilogue summarises subsequent events up to the release of Mandela in 1994.
The book focuses on the struggles between British, Boer and Black communities that preceded modern South Africa; and the role played in this socio-political process by the discovery and exploitation of gold and diamonds. It is, however, a very human story; written through the eyes and recollections of several historic figures (mainly British and Boer). Prominent through out the book are Cecil Rhodes (the diamond magnate and ultra- Imperialist) and John Kruger (the Boer ultra- Nationalist). Sandwhiched in between the desperate bid of these two camps for power are South Africa's blacks.
Detailed accounts are given of the many battles that defined that time: the Zulu wars, the Pedi resistance, the Shona and Ndebele uprisings. Pride of place is, however, given to the protracted British-Boer wars. While the attempts of black people to fight off imperialist expansion is often described as "murder", "massacre" and "rebellion", the Boer wars appear to have more gallantry and heroism attributed to them. The fact that this book is, ultimately, an account of the "epic" strugle between two white communities for power over the lands of several black peoples is what I found to be its greatest irony.
Meredith also shows the involvement of the super pwers of that age (especially Britain and Germany) in these struggles and the political horse trading that eventually led to the creation of a South Africa, destined by its very structure, to institutionalize white supremacy.
In all, this is a clear, credible, informative yet entertaining account of the making of the apartheid state.
on 8 May 2013
A gripping and lucid account of the early history and development of an astonishing country. The author pulls no punches in describing the corruption and viciousness of some of the key moments in the development of South Africa, and how those actions have then affected the South Africa of today. The book is written in a very readable and enjoyable manner, and the author never preaches or becomes pompous , pushing or making cheap political points, a really enjoyable read.
I have read several books (though certainly not enough) about South Africa: 'The Great Boer War,' by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle; 'The Corner House,' by A.P. Cartwright; 'The Randlords,' by Geoffrey Wheatcroft; 'White Tribe Dreaming,' by Marq de Villiers; 'The Boer War,' by Thomas Pakenham; and 'The Covenant,' by James A. Michener, but until I got into my latest purchase, 'Diamonds, Gold and War,' by Martin Meredith, I was not entirely sure why I had become more than sympathetic to the old Boers and to Afrikanerdom.
Mr Meredith has given me all of the necessary reasons and, as a life-time admirer of the British Empire and its works, I was made more firmly angry and ashamed at what some of those ostensibly promoting the Empire had done to those to whom the British people should have been attached and who should not have been antagonised and attacked.
Cecil Rhodes's dream of colonising from The Cape to Cairo had great merit, especially if one recalls to what depths much of Africa has descended since Rhodes's day, but it was clearly a gross mistake and an unforgivable deed to betray his Cape Boer friend, Jan Hofmeyr, and his potential friends, President Paul Kruger of The Transvaal and President Marthinus Steyn of The Orange Free State. Rhodes comes out of the book badly, as do his co-conspirator, Dr. Leander Starr Jameson, the British Colonial Secretary, Joseph Chamberlain, and, worst of all, the British High Commissioner and Governor of the Cape Colony, Sir Alfred Milner.
And, of course, there were the thousands of British soldiers lost (my wife's late grandfather, a wonderful man, volunteered for the Imperial Yeomanry, went enthusiastically to South Africa, but, thankfully, survived this shameful Imperial episode), and the thousands of Boer 'soldiers,' their wives and their children who suffered either in the war (to be more precise, the Second Boer War) or in British concentration camps. It was a disgrace and several passages in Mr Meredith's book moves one almost to tears. The description of the elderly President Kruger's leaving of Pretoria for eventual exile on the 29th of May, 1900, leaving his beloved but infirm wife, Gezina, is one such and merits partial quotation:
'After conducting family prayers in the sitting room, Kruger took his wife's hand and led her into the bedroom. Nobody spoke or moved. Outside the carriage horses snorted. Then the old couple reappeared. Kruger pressed her against him, then released her, looking at her intently, silently. Then he turned and walked out to the carriage. They were never to meet again.'
I am old enough to have known a number of honourable men who went off to fight 'Old Kroojer': they were misguided, misled and mistaken. That Jan Christian Smuts later became one of the Empire's best friends is a fine reflection of Boer qualities, but the bitterness bequeathed by such as Milner did no good to Britain nor to the longer-term benefit of South Africa or its inhabitants, black or white.
I can only touch on some aspects of a brilliant and well-written history: to get the drift in its entirety, you have to get the book which, with 569 pages, is wonderful value!
For a great rendering of the old Boer song, 'Sarie Marais,' sung in Afrikaans, go to -
on 10 September 2008
This is just a quick note in office hours without even time for an edit. I came to this book accidently. I was actually revieving monetary systems and gold. This book came into view quite accidentally. I can without doubt say that it has been the best read I have had over the last year- without question. As an Englishman I am sorry to say that I did'nt know hardly anything regarding the history of southern Africa and yet I am far more knowledgable on general world history than most people. This book opened the panorama with a deliceous chocolate box of vibrant characters- Rhodes, Banarto, Kruger, Milner, Kitchener, Tribal Kings badly used and abused (I heard strong echos in my head of the injustice I felt from Dee Browns masterly work- Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee), and of course Star Jameson. "Power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutey", it is said- "it was'nt the money I wanted", saids Rhodes, "it was the power that the money brought me".
This is a book where every page is well written and enthralling. I have given it as presents and recommended it as an excellent read to a whole host of people. By the way I liked the desciption on by Alfred Milner ( Colonial Secretary and main mover in accelerating of the Anglo Boar War) of Johannesburg in 1890 when it was a disorderly mining town awash with money " its exactly like Monte Carlo with Sodom and Gomorrah dropped on top".