Joe Chamberlain was Colonial Secretary at the time of the Jameson Raid which sought the overthrow of the Transvaal government. He was still Colonial Secretary when the Anglo-Boer broke out in 1899. The role of Colonial Secretary was one that Chamberlain sought, even though the position was not considered one of the great positions in government. Chamberlain had a vision for a federated British Empire and by being Colonial SecretaryHe eventually became a partner in the business and when he retired he had made a small fortune.
Chamberlain had been born in London in 1836 and after an education at University College was apprenticed to the Worshipful Company of Cordwainers and worked for the family business until he joined his uncle’s screw making business in Birmingham. He eventually became a partner in the business and remained there until he left with a small fortune many years later in 1874. At one time the company was making two thirds of all the screws made in England. By this time, he had entered local politics, becoming a town councillor on Birmingham Town Council from 1873 until 1876 when he became Mayor. During his time on Birmingham Council he helped to transform Birmingham by establishing public utilities in water and gas and it was regarded as a model municipality.
After a year as Mayor, Chamberlain stood for Parliament and was elected unopposed. He had a rapid rise to political power organising the radical section of his party and becoming President of the Board of Trade with a seat in the Cabinet in Gladstone’s Liberal government after just four years in Parliament. Chamberlain was responsible for the Bankruptcy Bill and campaigned for schemes to regenerate the working classes. He successfully abolished the practice of ship owners over insuring vessels whilst at the same time under-manning them. In 1885 he produced an unauthorised programme of reforms, calling for smallholdings for agricultural workers – his three acres and a cow together with a readjustment of taxation and free schools, and the disestablishment of the Church of England. Following a minority Liberal government with Chamberlain and his radicals keeping Gladstone in power,
In 1886 Chamberlain fell out with Gladstone over the question of Irish Home Rule and resigned. He launched a campaign against Gladstone’s proposals for Home Rule and formed the National Radical Union. At this time Chamberlain spent four months in the US negotiating a treaty over fishing rights off the coast of Newfoundland and Canada. He further broadened his horizons by visiting Egypt where he was impressed with the British administration.
Chamberlain was committed to imperial unity and expansion and in the ensuing General Election forged an alliance with the Conservatives. In 1895 Chamberlain’s Liberal Unionists joined the Conservatives in a coalition and Chamberlain was asked to join the government. He was able to choose his position and chose to become Colonial Secretary hitherto considered a political backwater. He was now in a position to bring about his vision of imperial federation. He advocated stronger links with the governments of the dominions, and piloted the Australian Commonwealth Act throughout Parliament as well as organising he Colonial Conferences of 1897 and 1902. He promoted trade within the Empire, promoting the resources of the West Indies in particular and he helped to establish two Schools of Tropical Medicine.
A 'Punch' caricature of Cecil Rhodes
Chamberlain will be best remembered though for colonial expansion in Africa and particularly for events in South Africa. He helped to tighten control over the Gold Coast and he backed projects of Cecil Rhodes to expand British interest in South Africa northwards. Rhodes has been associated with the Cap to Cairo railway scheme but this idea originated with Edwin Arnold, chief editor of the Daily Telegraph and an authority on British India. With support from Lord Salisbury, Chamberlain’s Prime Minister from 1895, Sir Harry Johnstone restated the case for a continuous band of British territory across Africa from the south to the north It was Sir Charles Metcalfe, who in 1889, wrote about a railway, and it was Rhodes who tried to bring the idea to fruition but the idea was thwarted by German expansion in east Africa.
The actual involvement of Chamberlain in the ill-fated Jameson Raid to bring about the downfall of the Kruger government in the Transvaal has long been debated but it remains highly likely that Chamberlain knew about the plan to encourage an uprising in Johannesburg to be followed by an invasion by a force led by Rhodes’ colleague, Jameson.
Jameson's motley army was easily dealt with by the Boers.
Following the failure of the plan and the arrest of most of those who took part, including Jameson himself, there was a Parliamentary enquiry but Chamberlain was absolved from any blame. Letters purporting to prove his involvement were apparently held by Rhodes as a guarantee for the continued existence of the British South Africa Company, but these were never disclosed.
The failure of the Jameson Raid was one of the reasons why Kruger felt he had little alternative in 1899 but to go to war although Chamberlain maintained that he never wanted war with the Boers. Chamberlain along with Milner and Salisbury and Kruger must all take some of the blame for the Boer War of 1899. Chamberlain and Salisbury wanted to force Kruger in to a position where he had to accept British demands on the sovereignty of the Transvaal and the rights of the uitlanders. What they were not prepared to tolerate was an independent and strong South Africa, and given his Boer background Kruger was determined that the Transvaal not be dominated by Britain. By 1899 the Transvaal had built a railway to Portuguese East Africa so that they were not reliant on using the port at Cape Town but in 1899 Britain concluded treaties with both Germany and France as well as Portugal so that the Transvaal was effectively isolated.
With the British High Commissioner if South Africa, Lord Alfred Milner wanting war to destroy the Boer republics and both Salisbury and Chamberlain putting pressure on Kruger to give in to British demands, was inevitable given the small number of British troops in Natal. The war, when it came in October 1899, showed up all the weaknesses of British military power with the British army suffering three bad defeats in a week in December 1899. It took the full resources of the empire over a two and a half years, with large numbers of troops from Australia, New Zealand and Canada before the Boers were beaten.
Following the war, Chamberlain travelled to South Africa to help bring about conciliation -the first Secretary of State to travel abroad for a political purpose.
Chamberlain remained committed to imperial preference and encouraging colonies to develop in partnership with Britain and he resigned from the government in September 1903 in order to campaign for tariff reform and a scheme of imperial preference.
Melrose House, Pretoria, where the peace treaty was signed.
The Liberal Party won the 1906 election and remained committed to Free Trade and Chamberlain’s tariff reform had to wait until the depression of the 1930s. In 1906 Chamberlain had a stroke and was left paralysed and was not able to take any further part in political life. He lived on until 1914.