Early Life

Henry Burton was born on 2 June 1866 in Cape Town, Western Cape, South Africa and went to school at St Andrews in Grahamstown, Eastern Cape. He was the son of Henry Francis Burton, a magistrate and civil commissioner. He first studied literature and philosophy at the University of the Cape of Good Hope, graduating in 1886. He then went on to do an LLB at the same institution. He was admitted as an advocate of the Cape Supreme Court in 1892.

Life in Kimberly

Burton went to work as an advocate in Kimberly in 1892 (Willan, p66). He became known for defending black Africans who had fallen foul of various race laws in the Cape Colony. In 1898 Burton was employed by ‘the natives’ of Kimberly to take on the case of Saul Mankazana. Mankazana, a land owner and registered voter, had been arrested for not having a pass while walking in the centre of Kimberley. Burton won the case which led to a cessation of police harassment in Kimberly and the Cape Colony in general. Sol Plaatje, one of the founders of the African National Congress (ANC), would state in his Mafeking Diary that Burton was ‘a negrophilist and did a lot for us while I was in Kimberly.’ (18 March 1900) In the 1898 election, Burton stood as candidate for the Afrikaner Bond in Barkly West, running against Cecil John Rhodes. In this hard-fought poll, he was supported by Olive Schreiner and her husband Samuel Cronwright-Schreiner. The Cronwright-Schreiners distributed pamphlets in the area before the election with an image of Rhodes’s mercenaries in Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe) hanging Ndebele men ¬– the image also appeared in Schreiner’s novel Trooper Peter Halket of Mashonaland. Burton was also supported in this election by a young Sol Plaatje and Tengo Jabavu, the editor of Imvu (see Willan footnote 73 p. 604). Although Burton lost the election he would go on to take Rhodes to court, claiming that Rhodes had directly and indirectly bribed both members of the electorate and various officials. In a letter to Burton, dated 19 September 1898, Jan Hendrik Hofmeyr (Onze Jan), the leader of the Bond, stated that he was glad to hear that Burton had ‘good grounds for an election petition.’ Chief Justice J.H. de Villiers, who presided over the case, stated in his ruling that although Rhodes and his co-respondent Hill ‘had not actually entered the forbidden ground of bribery, they have come perilously close to it’. (See Willan Footnote 77 p.605).


Burton left Kimberly before the start of the South African or Anglo-Boer War (1899-1902) and became the legal aide to Sir Richard Solomon, the Attorney-General. In October 1902, Burton was elected as a member of the Cape Legislative Assembly, for the seat of Albert, entering parliament as a Bondsman (Cape Times obituary). After the war, in his first year as a member of parliament, he questioned the payments made by the War Losses Compensation Commission ‘and moved that a court be set up to revise both the fines imposed on rebels and the compensation paid to the farmers’. (Cape Times obituary) In 1903, he asked, in parliament, for a one-man commission to review the lesser martial law sentences that had been imposed on some of the Afrikaans ‘Cape Rebels’. According to Phyllis Lewsen, when Prime Minister Gordon Sprigg refused, ‘Burton impulsively ordered a vote’ (p.267) and his motion was carried by a majority of 10 votes (Neame p.118). In doing this Burton overthrew the Sprigg Ministry. Burton defended in court many of the Afrikaans ‘Cape rebels’ who were up on charges of treason. At one of the trials Sol Plaatje played a significant role as a witness (see Willan page 150). Burton ‘took silk’ in 1907. However, the next year he joined the Merriman government as Attorney-General after Dr Jameson’s Progressive ‘Unionist’ party lost the 1908 legislative council election. He helped Merriman investigate economic reforms to help poor whites and blacks alike (Lewsen 302). With Burton’s help Merriman managed to pass ‘an act preventing usury and achieved useful reforms in recruiting conditions’ (302). Lewsen states that in Merriman’s cabinet ‘Burton was an excellent attorney general, who took special trouble over African hardships and disabilities.’ (305)


In 1910 he was elected to parliament as the member for Albert and became minister of Native Affairs in Louis Botha’s first government. In Botha’s 1913 cabinet reshuffle Burton was moved to the Railways portfolio. When General Botha was away on operations against the Boer Revolt of 1914 (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Maritz_rebellion ) and the Germans in South West Africa (now Namibia) the day-to-day working of the Union Government devolved to him and his colleague F.S. Malan. (The Star, obituary, 26 Dec 1935) In 1918 he went to England as a delegate to the wartime Imperial War Conference. While returning home in that year the ship he was on, the Galway Castle, was torpedoed by a German submarine and sunk in the Bay of Biscay. Burton was one of the survivors to be rescued from the open boats (See Willan page 319 and The Cape Argus, Obituary, December 26 1935). In the Smuts government, he was made Minister of Finance and was the minister who presided over the economic crisis of the early 1920s. According to his obituary he took over an ‘empty Treasury’. In his budget speech, he stated, ‘I am afraid the Budget will shock the country’. Burton increased taxation while cutting the cost of living allowances, civil servants’ salaries and income tax exemptions. He also doubled postage rates and put extra taxation on beer, estates and tobacco. According to the obituary ‘he saved the finances of the Union during a period of severe depression’ (Cape Times obituary). Burton lost the seat of Ladismith (in the Cape Province) in the 1924 election. He then retired to his farm, Voorspoed, in Tokai. Sol Plaatje sent him a letter in late 1928 asking him to run for the Queenstown seat in the 1929 election. Plaatje promised him the support of natives who were then still allowed to vote in the Cape Province. Plaatje stated that his friends at Queenstown ‘are as keen as mustard about you.’ Burton ended up running as the South African Party candidate for Klip River ‘but was defeated by H. E. K. Anderson’ (The Cape Argus, Obituary). After his election defeat he became the vice-president of the Non-Racial Franchise Association, which was formed in 1929. He, along with Sir James Rose Innes (former chief justice of the Union), Professor H. E. S. Fremantle and Ramsden Balmforth, drafted a manifesto that stated that the association’s aim was to “resist any measure differentiating between the franchise rights of citizens of the Cape Province on account of race or colour,” and “to promote the policy of making civilisation the qualification for the franchise throughout the Union.” (see p.213 The Equality of Believers, Richard Elphick) Burton on various occasions spoke out against the Prime Minister Hertzog’s attempts to change the constitution and have the Cape Franchise amended. On 8 September 1930 in a speech delivered at Stellenbosch University he explained his position as such: If, in spite of all evidence to the contrary, there should be a real danger in the exercise of a common franchise as it exists in the Cape the obvious remedy is to raise the qualification so as to impose a stricter test of civilization, to be applied to whites and blacks alike. The ideal course would be the adoption of a civilization test applicable to the whole Union…If the ideal is not attainable, I reply by pointing out what a maze of difficulties we flounder into as soon as we depart form the straight and simple path of equal treatments before the law. (Speech reprinted in the Financial Mail 13 December 1985) During the debates to remove Blacks from the Cape Franchise, Burton cautioned against changing the constitution via a two thirds majority (see: National Library, Burton Collection, MSC 8 10 (17) ‘Native Affairs’ folder). Several obituaries note that he was never a popular figure. According to these, he was not one to ‘court popularity’. The Cape Argus stated that he had a ‘pointed tongue and pursued an argument to the bitter end...Although never a popular figure in politics, a cold and disdainful manner handicapping him, Mr Burton had many warm friends. The coldness was all on the surface, as many he had gone out of his way to help were eager to bear witness.’ A letter written on 1 October 1935 sent from the South African Native College, Fort Hare, D.D. T. Jabavu stated ‘Your kind letter and cheque have arrived’. Jabavu goes on to say, ‘[i]t is very good of you to have done what you have done to encourage me along in this last fight and I thank you more than mere words could express my feelings, I assure you.’ Jabavu had sent a letter on the 9 September 1935 asking for a small donation to the cause of ‘fighting the battle I began ever since General Hertzog came to power in 1924.’ (National Library, Burton collection, MSC 38, 8 Gen Correspondence(1)) The Times of London in their obituary noted that ‘he was, however, the sort of man who required a safe seat. As a candidate, he disdained to pay court to the electors. His temperamental defect was that he was too little accommodating and conciliatory … Members [of parliament] used to resent his abrupt manner in answering questions.’

Personal Life

Burton married Helen Marie Kannemeyer one of the founders of Kirstenbosch Gardens. They had nine children. His son Percival Ross Frames Burton was a Royal Air Force (RAF) pilot and fought in the Battle of Britain. He is said to have crashed his plane deliberately into a German aircraft after his guns stopped firing. According to the website www.bbm.org ‘a letter from Fighter Command to the Hailsham ARP Chief said that Burton was to be recommended for a posthumous gallantry award. This could only have been the VC but in fact he only received a Mention in Dispatches.’ (http://www.bbm.org.uk/airmen/BurtonPRF.htm) He claimed that one of his earlier ancestors was Robert Burton, the author of The Anatomy of Melancholy. Henry Burton died in a London hospital on 25 December 1935 while on his way to Germany to seek medical help for a serious condition.

1. Willan, Brian (2018). Sol Plaatje – A Life of Solomon Tshekisho Plaatje 1876–1932. Jacana. 2. Plaatje, Sol (1973). The Boer War Diary of Sol T. Plaatje: an African at Mafeking. Macmillan. 3. Neame, L.E (1929). Some South African Politicians, Maskew Millar. 4. Lewsen, P. (1982). John X. Merriman: Paradoxical South African Statesman. Johannesburg: Ad. Donker. 5. Elphick, R. (2012)The Equality of Believers: Protestant Missionaries and the Racial Politics of South Africa. Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 2012 6. Financial Mail, 13 December 1985 7. Blackman, M. (2019). Email to SAHO dated 2019-08-28

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