Alfred Milner, a statesman and colonial administrator, became Governor of the Cape and High Commissioner of South Africa in 1897. He pushed the Transvaal Republic to war, oversaw the war, and organised reconstruction after the war.

Early life and career

Milner was born in 1854 in the town of Giessen in the Duchy of Hesse in Germany. He was educated at Tubingen and at King’s College School, before attending Balliol College at Oxford University. He graduated in 1877 with a degree in classics.

He joined the Pall Mall Gazette as a journalist in 1881, eventually becoming the assistant editor. He went into politics after his stint in journalism, standing as a candidate for the Liberal Party in the Harrow division of Middlesex, but lost in the general election.

Milner broke with the Gladstonian wing of the Liberal party over the issue of home rule for Ireland.  He served as private secretary to George Goshen, a former Liberal who became Chancellor of the Exchequer in 1887 under Lord Salisbury and the Conservative Party, and who used his influence to get Milner appointed as under-secretary of finance in Egypt, then a colony of Britain. Milner served in this post for four years, and returned to England in 1892.

Now a senior civil servant, he was appointed as chairman of the Board of Inland Revenue, where he remained until 1897. He was acclaimed as the most distinguished public servant of his day.

Milner in South Africa

Milner was appointed to replace Lord Rosmead (Hercules Robinson) as High Commissioner for South Africa and Governor of the Cape Colony when the latter resigned in 1897. He was appointed by Joseph Chamberlain, at the time the Colonial Secretary in the English cabinet.

The Cape Colony and South Africa were dealing with the aftermath of the Jameson Raid, the abortive coup mounted by Leander Starr Jameson in cahoots with Cecil John Rhodes and also, according to many accounts, Chamberlain. Rhodes had been forced to resign as prime minister of the Cape Colony after the raid, and Cape politics was in turmoil.

Milner arrived at the Cape in May 1897 and immediately engaged with the President of the Transvaal, Paul Kruger, to address a crisis regarding the status of the uitlanders – mostly foreign Englishmen who descended on the republic after the discovery of gold in 1886.

According to Rene Kraus: ‘Milner had arrived in the middle of the extreme tension following the Jameson Raid.  Under his soothing influence a degree of calm was achieved, at least in the Cape Colony. He made the leaders of the (Afrikaner) Bond understand that as British citizens they could not, without committing high treason, adopt the same extreme anti-British attitude that went unchecked in the Republics. Perhaps his argument was also made more intelligible to the Dutch master politicians by the dispatch of a small number of English troops to Durban,  and by a minor naval demonstration; a  few British vessels  showed themselves off the coast of Natal. The Bond leaders understood. They were impressed by Milner's intensity, whereas he for his part immediately understood the fundamental unity of South Africa. The Cape Colony quieted down.’

Milner travelled throughout the Cape and the southern African region from August 1897 to May 1898, familiarising himself with the region, especially the political balance of forces.

Milner’s rule in South Africa

The British Empire harboured the desire, with Rhodes as its protagonist, to bring Africa, ‘from the Cape to Cairo’, under the rule of the Empire. The Transvaal Boers, who because of the discovery of gold were becoming a powerful force in the region, threatened to eclipse the power of the Cape Colony, the Empire’s base in the continent’s south.

Milner was a devoted servant of Empire, and was personally invested in extending the power of the Empire. He believed, like Rhodes, that the British were superior to every other ‘race’, and that humanity would become more ‘civilised’ living under British rule. He had, according to Ian Loveland, ‘a dogmatic attachment to “British race patriotism”, whose adherents regarded British culture as a value system to which all other ethnic groups, be they Boer or black, should either aspire or be subjected’.

Milner was also responding to inter-imperial rivalries. He believed that British supremacy in South Africa was crucial for the interests of the British Empire. And Britain was threatened by the emergence of Germany, which had friendly relations with the Boers and with Kruger. Britain also saw the Cape as a strategic way-station to India, Mauritius, Ceylon, Singapore and Australia.

According to Leonard Thompson: ‘He was also keenly aware of the relative decline of British power and the global significance of the Transvaal gold-mining industry. From his perspective, it was his duty to check the centrifugal forces in South Africa, "the weakest link in the imperial chain”.’

Determined to diminish the power of the Afrikaners, Milner implemented a policy of Anglicisation at the Cape, downgrading the status of Dutch and Afrikaans, even as he himself mastered these languages. According to Loveland: ‘The ‘Milnerisation’ of southern Africa was to proceed on several fronts. Milner expressed some dissatisfaction with the Republic’s treatment of its nonwhite residents. Neither Milner nor Chamberlain could plausibly be seen as champions of racial equality as we now understand the term, and there must be some basis for assuming that Milner’s criticism of the Republic in this regard owed as much to a desire to cultivate British liberal hostility to Kruger than to an intrinsic concern with the welfare of blacks.’

Milner decided to use the problem of the status of the uitlanders (Englishmen) in the Transvaal as a way to bring the Transvaal under his control. He demanded that Kruger enfranchise uitlanders on the same basis as the Boers, and that English be accorded equal status with Dutch/Afrikaans in the Republic’s schools.

Milner, who had remained fairly quiet since he had arrived, was invited by the Afrikaner Bond to deliver a speech in March 1898 at Graaff-Reinet.

According to Loveland: ‘In March 1898 Milner made a notorious and manifestly inflammatory speech in which he expressed an ambition to “separate the sheep from the goats”. The only way in which the Bond and (John X) Merriman’s supporters could come into the fold with the English sheep was evidently to join in wholehearted condemnation of Kruger’s goats.’

He accused the Transvaal of causing unrest in South Africa with its talk of threats outside its borders and its toleration of internal abuses. He called upon Bond members to urge the Transvaal to bring its institutions and policies into line with ‘just and fair principles of government’.

Towards War

In November 1898 Milner went to England on a ‘working holiday’, during which he informed the British government of the state of play in South Africa. He met with Chamberlain on November 22 and argued that a crisis had to be engineered, since Kruger had become more autocratic since his re-election. Chamberlain was against entering into a war.

Milner engaged in negotiations with the Boers to secure the franchise for the uitlanders in the Transvaal, but Kruger was uncompromising in the face of what he saw as crippling demands.

On 28 March, Milner forwarded a second Uitlander petition to the Queen, with 21,684 signatures. The petition asked for imperial intervention in the Transvaal because of ‘well-nigh intolerable’ conditions under which the British subjects suffered – the lack of political rights or any voice in government, maladministration, stealing of public monies, a police force which did not protect British citizens and in fact acted against them. 

According to Loveland: ‘From the outset, he (Milner) began to weave together the political web which would enable Britain to wage a “just” war against what he described as Kruger’s “unprogressive” regime. The uitlanders’ unabated protests against their exclusion from the franchise formed one strand of the web, as did the far more pervasive political and economic discrimination practised against blacks.’

WP Schreiner, elected prime minister of the Cape Colony in 1898, tried to act as a mediator between Milner and Kruger, but Milner ignored these protestations, determined to crush Kruger. Milner also ignored the advice of John X Merriman.

On May 9 Jan Hofmeyr proposed that Milner hold talks with Kruger in Bloemfontein, and on May 31 1899 Milner met with Kruger, who was accompanied by State Attorney Jan Smuts, in what was ‘presented for British public consumption as a bona fide effort to reach a compromise. Yet it seems that Milner had no sincere wish to engineer a peaceful solution to the tension,’ according to Loveland.

Since Kruger was not proficient in English, Prime Minister of the Free State Abraham Fischer acted as interpreter. The first meeting lasted two hours, and the two sides convened again over the next five days.

Milner demanded that Kruger grant the uitlanders the franchise. Kruger in turn demanded the renunciation of British suzerainty, acceptance of ‘neutral arbitration’ by the Imperial government, and British cession of the whole of Swaziland in order to provide the Transvaal with its long desired access to the sea.

In response to Milner’s demand that uitlanders be granted the franchise after five years’ residence instead of the 14 years Kruger had earlier proposed, Kruger offered to cut the qualifying period to seven years.

But Kruger also railed against the move as it would, he said, be a prelude to the loss of the Transvaalers’ independence. He refused to compromise on diamond concessions, which he had used to tax the miners.

On the last day of the conference, June 5, Milner declared: ‘Since the parties have found themselves unable to agree on the principal topic of discussion, the status  quo ante is restored. I am not authorized to discuss the question of arbitration. But any definite proposal which His Honor [Kruger] might make at any time will  be submitted to the consideration of Her Majesty's government.’

Milner used the failure of the Bloemfontein Conference to convince the British government and public of the need for British intervention.

In May 1899, Milner sent Chamberlain a telegram declaring that ‘the case for intervention is overwhelming’, since ‘thousands of British subjects [were being] kept permanently in the position of helots’.  By 1899 Milner convinced Chamberlain that war was inevitable.

In a letter written in September 1899, he listed the war aims as follows:

• Absolute equality of status for all resident whites.

• Recognition of British paramountcy, including not only control of foreign relations but ultimate right of interference even in internal affairs, when welfare of S. Africa is affected.

• Disarmament measures, including dismantling of forts at Johannesburg and Pretoria, restriction on number of men and guns – these not to be increased without British permission.

In November 1899 Milner wrote: ‘The ultimate end is a self-governing white Community, supported by well-treated and iustly-governed black labour from Cape Town to Zambesi.’ He was determined to  force war on the Transvaal and to incorporate it into the Empire by annexation.

In May 1899 Milner predicted that 40,000 soldiers would be sufficient to subject the Boer republics.

Milner had been pressing for reinforcements, and 10,000 British troops began to arrive in South Africa from India after the British cabinet approved the reinforcement on September 8.

The British moved a large contingent of troops onto the Natal-Transvaal border, and the Transvaal and Free State saw this as a move towards war. They demanded the troops be withdrawn within 48 hours, by October 11. The Boers crossed the border, invading Natal on October 12 1899. The Second Anglo-Boer War had begun.

The Second Anglo-Boer War

The Boers laid siege to a string of towns throughout the country, in what proved to be a strategic error, tying up their soldiers in isolating towns of little strategic value. They suffered setbacks, and the British took over Bloemfontein and Pretoria.

By October 25 1900, Milner proclaimed that the two Boer republics were being annexed, and the Boers thereafter turned to guerrilla warfare. Marthinus Steyn, Louis Botha, Jan Christian Smuts, Christian de Wet and Koos de la Rey took to the countryside, launching attacks on British troops in sporadic fashion

Milner avoided any moves that would make Cape Afrikaners enter the war on the side of the Boers. He wrote to Prime Minister Selborne: ‘The Colonial Boer is the enemy’s only reserve. They have got their last man and boy in the field. Let them at once get into the heart of the Colony, even with a mere handful of men and a flag, and get certainly 10,000, and perhaps, even 15–20,000 excellent recruits’.

Fearing that the Boers could use farms in the countryside as resources for the war, Lord Kitchener issued a proclamation in December 1900 promising Boer fighters that they would be allowed to live in laagers with their families if they surrendered. 

Milner said: ‘Every farm had become a supply depot for the enemy, enabling him to concentrate at will and refit his commandos with food and munitions of war … the women had actively assisted the combatants by furnishing them with exact information regarding all British movements. The military situation demanded that the enemy be deprived of such a system of intelligence …’

Thus they confined Boer women and children, and some of the men, as well as thousands of Black farm labourers in the notorious concentration camps. By May 1901 there were 77,000 whites and 21,000 Blacks confined in the camps. By October the numbers had sharply increased to 118,000 and 43,000 respectively.

Milner took over the administration of the concentration camps and John Buchan, one of Milner’s administrators, was given the job of clearing up the mess left by the military administration of Kitchener.

The war drew to a close in 1902. Milner’s chief of staff, Lord Kitchener, began negotiations with the Boers on April 12 1902.

Negotiating the peace

Kitchener and Milner were at odds over the treatment of the Boers after the war. Kitchener was more lenient, he wanted to promote reconciliation between the white peoples of South Africa, while Milner wanted to exclude the Boers from future political power.

Milner insisted that the Dutch language would no longer be treated on equal terms with English in government, the courts and in education. He wanted completely Anglicized colonies.

He wrote to Chamberlain, saying: ‘Three-quarters of the Boer Representatives want to give in, but no one wants to take the lead in doing so.  Each is manoeuvring to put someone else in front,  and if they finally decide to give way they will try to make it appear that they are acting under pressure from the burghers in the field. In fact these men will do exactly as their leaders secretly desire. The Free Staters are much less friendly than the Transvaalers. Judge Hertzog is probably quite irreconcilable; he is said to have great influence with

President Steyn. . . . But my greatest difficulty is Lord Kitchener, He is extremely adroit in his  management of negotiations, particularly as to  what he gives away.

If  he knew as an absolute certainty that His Majesty's government would not yield on certain points, no one  would be  more skilful in steering the Boers away from these points, and guiding the discussions into directions in  which some concessions are possible. Lord Kitchener even suggests that a definite date should be fixed for introduction of self-government, exactly what Schalk-Burger demanded. But Lieutenant-Governor Major Goold-Adams in the  Orange Free State, and Lieutenant-Governor Fraser of Natal were horror stricken by that idea. They warned me that Kitchener  would wreck the whole result of the war. Responsible government can only be given when all traces of racial animosity will have disappeared.’

Finally, FW Reitz, the Secretary of State in the defunct Transvaal government, spelt out three conditions for the Boers to agree to peace: first, the Republics would surrender their independence in foreign relations.

Secondly, they wished to retain internal self-government under British supervision. Third, they were willing to give up parts of their territory,  meaning Swaziland,  whose administration was costly and unprofitable, as well as accursed Johannesburg into the bargain. Moreover, they offered to enter into a defensive alliance with Great Britain.

Milner and Kitchener’s final document called for unconditional surrender, but it included concessions so that the pride of the Boer leaders would not be diminished, and made concessions of a financial nature. The document was handed over to the Boer generals.

The peace came in the form of surrender, but there was to be financial assistance for the burghers, while Cape Rebels were to be disenfranchised for five years. There was a promise of eventual self-government for the Boers, and the question of the franchise for Blacks was postponed to the period of self-government.

On May 31 1902 Milner and Kitchener signed the Treaty of Vereeniging with the Boer leaders, ending the war.

Postwar Reconstruction and Politics

On 21 June 1902, three weeks after signing the Treaty of Vereeniging, Milner was sworn in as Governor of the Transvaal in the old Raadzaal at Pretoria and two days later at Bloemfontein, he was installed as Governor of the Orange River Colony.

Milner recruited a dozen or so Oxford graduates to administer the country – the famous ‘Milner’s Kindergarten’. (see the article on Milner’s Kindergarten)

The repair of badly damaged railway system was one of his priorities, and a severe drought added to his problems, with many livestock starving and dying. A labour shortage, especially on the mines, compounded the colony’s problems.

Cresswell suggested the use of white labour in mines, but mine owners thought white labour was too expensive to make gold mining profitable. Milner sought African  labour outside South Africa, but he could not secure African mine workers. He brought in Chinese labourers to work the mines, and stabilised the economy. But white miners were angry at the importation of Chinese labour and united against Milner. They went on strike.

Milner received permission from Chamberlain to institute a ten per cent tax on mining industry profits, a measure grudgingly accepted by Percy Fitzpatrick and the Chamber of Mines.

According to Thompson: ‘Milner saw Johannesburg as the real centre of the Transvaal and, for convenience sake, the Post Office, Mining, Native Affairs and Railway Administrations had headquarters there, much to the displeasure of those who wanted everything run from Pretoria.’

A telephone line was installed between Johannesburg and Pretoria to facilitate rapid communication.

The two most urgent issues Milner had to deal with were resettlement and self-government. He knew that self government was inevitable, but if it came too soon parties, he calculated, would be formed along racial lines (English and Afrikaner parties). ‘Once in these ruts,’ he wrote to Asquith,  ‘we may never get out of them, & you will have created all over S. Africa the deplorable state of things at present existing … only in the Cape Colony. Give British & Dutch time to settle down together & to work together for a few years in the recuperation of the country on non-political lines, & to agree, or differ, on other than purely racial issues. Then the party split may mean no more than it does in healthy homogeneous communities.’

Milner planned to settle 10,000 British people in the Transvaal to achieve a balance between English and Afrikaner that he wanted to impose. There was a danger that resettlement of Boers after the war would mean the towns would be English and the rural farming areas Afrikaans.

A string of other issues also had to be dealt with: repatriation of exiles, return of the refugees, restitution of the prisoners, return to the common law,  transfer from military to civilian government, modernization of agriculture, revival of trade and industry,  and reparation of the  damages and losses of war.

About a quarter of a million burghers and Africans in the concentration camps had to be resettled.

A number of Boers demanded that Jewish citizenship be downgraded, but Milner quashed the demand.

Chamberlain arrived in Durban with his wife on 26 December 1902. Milner met him in Charlestown on the Transvaal border on 3 January 1903 and accompanied him to Pretoria.

Chamberlains stayed at Sunnyside with Milner and they engaged in lengthy discussions about the South African Constabulary, the South African garrison, the railway system, the immigration of women, a dedicated forestry department, taxation of dynamite, and the Possession of Arms Act. Milner agreed that three Boer leaders exiled in Europe, Fischer, Wolmarans and Wessels, be allowed to return. Elective municipalities in towns were authorized as a step towards responsible government.

On 7 February 1903 Milner announced the amalgamation of the railways of the Transvaal and the Orange River Colony and the creation of a new Inter-Colonial Council charged with managing the new rail system, the Constabulary and issues common to the two colonies.

Chamberlain advised Milner to treat the Transvaal as if it already had self-government. On 13 February 1903, he offered Botha, Smuts, and De la Rey seats in the Legislative Council to advise the administration, but the offer was refused. They preferred to wait until the peace of the country was fully assured.

In a letter to De la Rey, Milner said: ‘You may have seen in the papers that an unfavorable interpretation has been put upon your refusal to accept a seat in the Legislative Council. I only wish to say that, while I regret your decision, I did not

and do not think that it  was due to any wish to embarrass the government ... I will only ask you to treat me with the same confidence, and not hesitate to let me know if  you have anything which you wish brought to my notice. . . . You can write to me in Dutch, if that saves you trouble, as, though I speak and write that language with difficulty, I read it with perfect ease.’

Milner’s departure

Milner resigned in 1905 and left South Africa in March 1905.

Speaking to the Bloemfontein Town Council, Milner said: ‘My work has been constantly directed to a great  and distant end – the establishment in South Africa of a civilized and progressive community, one from  Cape Town to the Zambezi, independent in the management of its own affairs, but still remaining  by its own firm desire, a member of the great  community of free nations gathered together under the British flag. That has been the object of all my efforts. It is my object still.’

In his farewell speech, delivered in Johannesburg on March 21, 1905, Milner said: ‘British and Dutch can, without loss of integrity, without any sacrifice of their individual traditions, united in loyal devotion to an Empire-State, in which Great Britain  and South Africa  would be partners, work loyally together for the good of South Africa as a member of a greater whole. And so, you see, the true Imperialist is also the best South African.’

Smuts, wrote a flowery letter to Milner, saying: ‘Will you allow me to wish you bon voyage now that you are leaving South Africa forever? I am afraid you have not liked us. But I cherish the hope that, as our memories grow mellower, and the nobler features of our respective ideas become clearer, we shall more and more appreciate the contribution of each to the formation of the happier South Africa which is certainly coming, and judge more kindly of each other. At any rate it is a consolation to think what is noble in our work will grow to larger issues than we foresaw, and that even our mistakes will be covered up ultimately, not only in merciful oblivion, but also in that unconscious forgiveness which seems to me to be an inherent feature of all historic growth. History writes the word “reconciliation” over all her quarrels, and will surely write it over the unhappy differences which have agitated us in the past. What is good in our work is not disposed of in the present, but can safely appeal to the ear of the future. Our respective contentions will reach a friendly settlement which no one foresees today.’

After South Africa

Milner returned to government in England in 1914 to serve on various committees dealing with the First World War and became a member of the War Council in 1916. He became Minister of War in April 1918 and later Secretary of State for the Colonies.

He died after being bitten by a tsetse fly.



Rene Kraus, Old Master: The Life of Jan Christian Smuts; EP Dutton & Co, New York; 1944

 |Ian Loveland, By Due Process of Law? Racial Discrimination and the Right to Vote in South Africa 1855–1960; Hart Publishing, Oxford and Portlaand, Oregon; 1999 |Leopold Scholtz, Why the Boers lost the War, Palgrave Macmillan, 2005|The Life of Joseph Chamberlain by Rt. Hon. Viscount Milner, JA Spender, Ramsay Macdonald, Harld Cox and LS Amery; The Associated Newspapers Ltd, Carmelite House|Leonard Thompson, The History of South Africa, Third Edition, Yale University Press, New Haven and London; 2001

Collections in the Archives