So often whenever Smuts is mentioned someone invariably accuses Smuts of selling out to the British Empire and furthermore accuses him of being a ‘puppet’ for the British monarch doing the deeds of Empire. So, here’s a fun proposition, Smuts was by no means a puppet of Empire in fact he destroyed the British Empire! ‘What the heck are you on’ comes the universal chorus, bold statement I know but here’s the reasoning, bear with me.
Like we bonked the concentration camp and Smuts issue on the head with a tree, I’m going to bonk this issue on the head with a small book.
A Century of Wrong
That Smuts was no fan of the British Empire is obvious to anyone studying Smuts, obvious because his sentiment and dislike of the British ‘Empire’ is found in a simple little book he wrote called ‘A Century of Wrong’, here’s my photo of it at the Smuts House museum in Irene.
A Century of Wrong was co-written by Jan Smuts and J. de Villiers Roos in Dutch. Smuts’ wife Isie, no academic slouch herself assisted in its translation to English and it was issued by the ZAR State Secretary, Francis William Reitz .. and it’s an outright critique of Britain, her ambitions as an Empire Builder worldwide and her ambitions and policies in Southern Africa. It was written and published before the South African War (1899-1902) to plead the Boer Republics case and to expose British Empire policy making as nothing more than a “spirit of jingoism” as Smuts put it. Smuts pulled no punches in exposing Britain’s empire policy, it’s a scathing criticism which denounces the British policy of empire building in Southern Africa. It shows British policy to be nothing more than jingoistic advancement with the aims of securing more mineral wealth for the empire builders.
Some researchers allude to a ‘Century of Wrong’ as being a bit of an embarrassment for Jan Smuts in his later dealings with the British and the British Monarchy whilst both a Minister and Prime Minister of the Union of South Africa. But I don’t believe Jan Smuts was embarrassed at all, his sentiments and critique on Empire were never really changed and it’s seen in Smuts’ next move on the matter, which happens after the Union of South Africa was declared in 1910.
During World War 1 in 1917, whilst Hertzog and the Nationalists called Smuts a ‘Afrikaner traitor’ and a ‘Reincarnation of Rhodes’, Smuts was invited to join the Imperial War Cabinet and attend the Imperial War Conference. With Smuts was his agenda to change the edicts of empire and on departure to Great Britain he said, “through our own efforts and sacrifice (the South West Africa and East African campaigns) we have secured a voice in the ultimate disposal of this sub-continent (Southern Africa).”
At the conference, the British made it known that they were not only concerned with how the war would be run, but also concerned with expanding their influence over the Empire. Smuts’ former Boer War enemy, Alfred Milner, now a MP was set on consolidating the Empire as a ‘federal imperium’ run centrally by the British Parliament and a singular Executive.
Smuts put forward an alternative to Milner’s proposal, he moved on a resolution which would recognise the Dominions as “autonomous nations of an Imperial Commonwealth” self-governing and in control of their own laws. He argued that any changes to this be dealt with at a separate congress after the war ended.
Smuts was set on independence and transforming British Imperialism ‘from the inside’ and looked to a post WW1 new order. Whilst Smuts accepted the Empire’s roots as always been British, he argued on the principles which appealed to the highest aspirations of mankind, the principles of “freedom and equality”.
In a later address to both houses of the British Parliament, Smuts argued that “the Empire was not a state but a community of states and nations” and he went on to say “if we are not an Empire, why call ourselves one? Let us rather take the name of Commonwealth”.
Smuts’ argument won the day, he had come up with replacement to Empire and went on to say “the British Commonwealth of Nations does not stand for standardisation and denationalisation, but for a fuller, richer more varied life of all the nations which are composed of it” and his argument paved the way to the 1926 Imperial Conference, which secured the independent status of the Dominions and the establishment of ‘The British Commonwealth of Nations” to replace Empire.
1926 Imperial Conference
The outcome of the Imperial Conference was the 1926 Balfour Declaration which read Britain and its Dominions as “equal in status, in no way subordinate one to another in any aspect of their domestic or external affairs, though united by common allegiance to the Crown, and freely associated as members of the British Commonwealth of Nations”. The term Commonwealth was officially adopted to describe the community.
In a rather thick irony, as Prime Minister it would be Smuts’ chief detractor in WW1, none other than J.B.M. Hertzog who would replace Smuts and be the representative at the 1926 Imperial Conference along with King George V. Hertzog would ultimately turn pro ‘Commonwealth’ and it would split his National party over the issue of remaining a Dominion or whether to take Dr D.F. Malan and his breakaways position on South Africa, which was to become a Republic and then leave the Commonwealth.
During the Second World War, Smuts was again Prime Minister of South Africa having ousted Hertzog and the National Party. Smuts was paired with Winston Churchill as his confidant and advisor. Churchill was gleefully happy when he wrote to Smuts they were once again “together on Commando”, however whilst Churchill was busy giving speeches about the British Empire lasting a thousand years, Smuts was busy bending the new King’s ear, King George VI, on ‘The Commonwealth of Nations’ and the establishment of ‘The United Nations’. Both institutions concerned with a new world order based on human rights and equality of both individuals and nation states, and on 1 May 1944, Smuts was again in the pound seats and part of the very first ‘Commonwealth Prime Ministers Conference’ alongside his ‘sidekick’ this time .. Winston Churchill.
If at this stage you may still think that Smuts, having been born under the banner of ‘Empire’ and knowing no different merely went with the flow of historic events, think again. Smuts in applying the concepts of Commonwealth and that of a United Nations is applying his personal philosophy, conceived many years ago whilst walking in the veldt as a young man, and it’s his philosophy of holism. Holism refers to an interdependency of things in a ‘whole’ and Smuts viewed nation states as no different, states are independent but dependent on one another to function as a whole – the Commonwealth of Nations is a whole, so too is The United Nations.
The 1926 Imperial Conference in turn resulted in the 1931 Statute of Westminster, which spelled the end of Empire and its replacement by an independent community of states called ‘the Commonwealth’, free to be associated with Great Britain and free to go.
This statute is the beginning of the end of British Colonialism in almost every sense of it. So, back to the emotive headline and my bold statement, proof positive … Jan Smuts, whilst working the problem from the ‘inside’, ultimately ended the British Empire, and in a sense, rather than been a ‘puppet’ of the British, Smuts proved himself to be the ultimate ‘puppet master’.
Written and Researched by Peter Dickens
References include – A Century of Wrong – Jan Smuts. Jan Smuts – Unafraid of Greatness – by Richard Steyn and Wikipedia.