Friday, May 2, 2014

Parmele on the British Empire’s South African Colony

On page 70 of A Short History of England, Ireland and Scotland, copyrighted in 1898, 1900 and 1906, Mary Platt Parmele assesses Britain’s war with the Boers:

“The sympathy of foreign states was strongly with the Boers; and in England itself the cause evoked a languid enthusiasm, until aroused by disaster, and until the pride of the nation was touched by loss of prestige. The danger, the enormous difficulties to be overcome, the privations and suffering of their boys, these were the things which awoke the dormant enthusiasm in the heart of the nation. And when the only son of Lord Roberts had been offered as a sacrifice, and then a son of Lord Dufferin, and then, Prince Victor, October 29, 1900, grandson of the Queen herself, the cause had become sacred, and one for which any loyal Briton would be willing to die. By September 1, 1900, the Orange Free State and the Transvaal had been formally proclaimed by Lord Roberts, "Colonies of British Empire." This was the beginning of the end, and when the victorious commander (December 2, 1900) arrived in England amid the plaudits of a grateful nation, the victory was practically won, and the time was at hand when not far from twenty thousand British soldiers would be lying under the sod six thousand miles away, in a land, which no longer disputed the sovereignty of England! We have yet to see whether the South African colonial possessions have been paid for too dearly, with nine fierce Kaffir wars (another threatening as this is written), and the blood of princes, peers, and commoners poured as if it were water into the African soil. Is England richer or poorer for this outpouring of blood and treasure? Has she risen or fallen in the estimation of the world, as she uncovers her stores of gold and diamonds among those valiant but defeated Boers, sullenly brooding over the past, with no love in their hearts.”

Comment:  I have recently taken offense at historians who didn’t provide references for their conclusions and opinions (pertaining to the American Civil War) but have yet to take offense at anything Parmele has written.  The above comment on the Boer War may be typical.  She is clearly an Anglophile and yet when British leaders do something dumb or something she thinks is unjust she is quick to say so.  And in the above case she also asks the interesting question about whether Britain gained or lost by means of their South African accomplishment.  She considers the loss of British lives (around 20,000) and the loss of respect from other nations, but after the Second World War we also wonder about the economic loss.  Spain clearly became a powerful empire as the result of robbing its colonies of their gold.  When Parmele wrote her book, British miners were apparently digging out South African gold and diamonds, but Britain could not get away with mere robbery as Spain did, even if the British people would tolerate it; which they wouldn’t.  There were laws in effect that British miners had to comply with; so the economic benefit to Britain was not as great as a similar extraction of wealth from the Aztecs and Incans was for Spain.  Eventually (sometime around 1949 if I remember correctly) the cost of maintaining an army and navy in foreign enterprises became too great for this once Empire and it gave it up (with a little help from its friends).

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