John J. Stephens. Fuelling the Empire: South Africa's Gold and the Road to War. New York: Wiley, 2003. xix + 324 pp. $30.00 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-470-85067-1.
Reviewed by Kenneth E. Wilburn (Department of History, East Carolina University)
Published on H-SAfrica (March, 2004)
During Michaelmas Term in 1977, I attended Oxford's Commonwealth History Seminar hosted by Freddie Madden. Although dark outside on those late Friday afternoons, the seminar room in Nuffield College was well lit by the fascinating exchanges between the dons. Freddie Madden, Ronald Robinson, Colin Newbury, and David Fieldhouse would lead discussions following papers presented by courageous scholars. As a graduate student from the colonies, I listened quietly. Sometimes Stanley Trapido would attend when the scheduled subject was South Africa. One afternoon, Witwatersrand gold was the topic. Geoffrey Blainey may not have been there, but several of his lost causes filled the room. Trapido argued that the Second Anglo-Boer War was motivated by Britain's need to possess the gold of Egoli. Robinson demanded proof--not that he necessarily disagreed; but he asked, "Have you found the documentation, Stan?" My understanding was that Stanley Trapido based his perspective on the inevitable development of capitalism; the absence of the written word penned by the official mind was not a large problem. No muddle here--crossing the Vaal was the handiwork of inevitable metropolitan motivations. Was it? Perhaps John Stephens could extract the answer from deep-level scholarship. Had he found that Colonial Office memorandum at last?
A quick review of the bibliography, mostly based on secondary sources, answered that question--no. Like a university reunion from 1977, the bibliography hosted many of my intellect's old friends: Anthony Atmore and Shula Marks, Eric Axelson, Geoffrey Blainey, Rodney Davenport, Paul Emden, David Fieldhouse, John Galbraith, Prosser Gifford and Roger Louis, Cecil Headlam, John Hobson, Robert Kubicek, Johannes Marias, Richard Mendelsohn, Wolfgang Mommsen, Roger Owen and Robert Sutcliffe, Jean Jacques van Helten, Pieter Jan van Winter, and Eric Walker. Madden, Robinson, and Newbury were not there. I was disappointed to see several friends missing: Jean van der Poel, Elizabeth Pakenham, D. J. Coetzee, Ethul Drus, Arthur Mawby, Alan Jeeves and Maryna Fraser, Robert Rotberg, Ian Phimister, and Vladimir Ilyich Lenin. Several important new ones had joined in since 1977: Peter Delius, Donald Denoon, Richard Elphick and Hermann Giliomee, Paul Maylam, Ritchie Ovendale, Thomas Pakenham, and, of course, Charles van Onselen. The author's bibliography suggested that he would have more a story to share than a scoop to reveal.
Scholars will appreciate the good story Stephens conveys, but will require more. Fortunately, Shula Marks recently discussed the war in a major review essay for H-SAfrica. Her review of three edited books complements the more popular approach here. See http://www.h-net.org/reviews/showrev.cgi?path=256681059637931.
Fuelling the Empire is divided into four sections: "Irreconcilable Expectations," "Open Borders across the Vaal," "Gold--The Mixed Blessing," and "Intrigue and Confrontation." The author introduces Witwatersrand gold in section 3 after 152 pages that explore important pre- and post-1652 themes. He takes some time to construct the complex foundation, African and colonial, on which the outcrop once rested and beneath which deep levels are presently expiring. For example, his discussion of Boere, boer, trek boer, and Afrikaner will give general readers an appreciation of how complex the history of only one of South Africa's many ethnic groups can be. A very welcome strength is the treatment of black South Africans generally, which is far greater than in most earlier surveys of colonial and imperial history in South Africa. Readers will be pleased to find some of the more recent scholarship on African involvement in the Second Anglo-Boer War, the tragedy of the concentration camps, and Marwick's March. In contrast, I found the author's examination of the origins of the Anglo-Zulu War too brief, even for a survey whose focus is gold. Such is a common tension of surveys--what to include must be balanced with what to omit.
General audiences with some background of South African history will welcome his entertaining prose and anecdotes. Even some specialists may exclaim, "I didn't know that!" While specialists will appreciate the author's fluid style, they will find problems with a book of such expanse and complexity. One obvious and irritating problem is the lack of maps. Readers outside South Africa will ask, "Where are the maps of provincial South Africa, the pre-Great Trek traditional lands of African ethnic groups, and just where is the Witwatersrand?" The latter is especially lost, given the author's conflicting descriptions. On page xvii he depicts it as forty miles long, yet on page 152 he ascribes a length closer to sixty miles. And where are Mac Mac, Pilgrim's Rest, and Delagoa Bay? And yes, the general reader outside South Africa will want to know just where are Johannesburg and the Transvaal? Where are the Vaal River drifts of the Drifts Crisis (not crises, misspelled on page 289)? Something based on the splendid map in Christiaan Rudolf de Wet's Three Years' War would have been so helpful. Several interesting photographs do little to compensate.
Another point of confusion exists over the Sivewright agreement of late 1891, which gained permission from the Transvaal for the Cape to extend and work its trunk line north from Bloemfontein to Pretoria (from Kruger's perspective, Pretoria was the terminus, not Johannesburg) until December 31, 1894. The author alleges that the agreement "allowed [the Cape] to complete their line from Kimberley" (p. 195). The Sivewright agreement was not about the Kimberley extension north; in fact, the Kimberley extension had reached Vryburg, well over a hundred miles north, in late 1890. Stephens lists the year of expiration of the Sivewright agreement as 1884 rather than 1894. Fortunately, "Alles zal recht komen," if the reader continues to the sub-section, "Fifty-one Miles of Trouble" (pp. 218-221). There the author does a good job of sorting out the same railway politics, although he does not seem to see the connection between the Drifts Crisis, the missing telegrams, and the Jameson Raid. Arguably the Drifts Crisis, which ended some seven weeks before the raid, should have been the de jure Jameson Raid. The raid itself was an incompetent and foolish act. When Jameson tipped over Rhodes's apple cart, as Rhodes once lamented, Rhodes must have been thinking about the Drifts Crisis revelations that would surely follow. He, his cabinet, and Chamberlain had secretly agreed upon terms for war if the Transvaal refused to back down over the Drifts Crisis. Plans for war were hidden under the apple cart. But what of those golden apples?
Was South Africa's gold the road to the Second Anglo-Boer War? The author's answer is quite coy. Stephens states, "Imperial interests therefore did not dictate possession of the Transvaal, its mines or its gold production, but they did demand the primacy of Britain as investor in and exporter of finished goods to it" (p. 245). Call it primacy (indirect) or call it possession (direct), Britain's motivation behind either was the point I thought Stanley Trapido had tried to make. Trapido was no doubt aware of the same scholarship used by Stephens in his sub-section, "The British Gold Imperative" (pp. 260-263), where he lays out his argument and his three sources more fully: Johannes Marais, Marcello de Cecco, and Robert Kubicek, dating between 1961 and 1979.
Stephens has given general readers an accessible introduction to many important themes in colonial, imperial, and South African history--a very complex tale retold quite well. Specialists will find many surprising details, a fluid writing style, and a few errors. They will have to look elsewhere for original scholarship. In the interim, enjoy this historical synthesis of imperial and South African history through South African eyes. I know I have.
. S. Marks, "Review of Greg Cuthbertson, Albert Grundlingh, and Mary-Lynn Suttie, eds., Writing a Wider War: Rethinking Gender, Race, and Identity in the South African War, 1899-1902," H-SAfrica, H-Net Reviews, June, 2003. URL: http://www.h-net.msu.edu/reviews/showrev.cgi?path=256681059637931.
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Kenneth E. Wilburn. Review of Stephens, John J., Fuelling the Empire: South Africa's Gold and the Road to War.
H-SAfrica, H-Net Reviews.
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