Book Review: Diamonds, Gold, And War

Diamonds, Gold, And War:  The British, The Boers, And The Making Of South Africa, by Martin Meredith

This book is a tragedy on several levels.  The author clearly has sympathies for the blacks whose realms were destroyed by the forward march of imperialism and who, regardless of their strategies for coping, were unable to turn back the desires of whites for land and profits from resources in the soil that no one had hitherto recognized.  It is by no means a simple tale, but instead is immensely complex, and in its complexity the reader is given the freedom to show sympathy or empathy to a variety of peoples and to reflect upon the way in which the response of people to circumstances can often spiral far outside of the desires or plans of the people themselves or anyone else involved in the situation.  And it is capable to understand the rationale of people without agreeing with all of what they did, and the capacity to lament the past does not mean rejecting the humanity of anyone involved in the situation.  There is room enough in this sprawling epic tale of the founding of South Africa for a great many people to be viewed with compassion, and much depends on the reader’s own worldview and context that they bring to this material.

This book is more than 500 pages long and is divided into ten parts and almost fifty chapters.  Describing its contents alone would be an immensely tedious task, so I will condense my usual summary of the contents of the chapter and focus on the larger narrative themes, with the note that the book is extremely detailed in its discussion of the behavior of the people involved to the extent that a very lengthy mini-series would be necessary to do justice to the detail involved if it was adapted into visual media.  The book begins with the discovery of diamonds in the Boer republics and the change that wrought for Boer efforts to remain free of British domination, in the blacks and whites and others who flowed into the Orange Free State and South African Republic in search of diamonds and later gold and the effects this had on those areas, and on the constant desire of the Boers for more land, which led to a complex race for spoils and led to the destruction of native polities and to an immensely destructive war between the Boers and the British themselves that was preceded by a high degree of tension and a great deal of treachery and skulduggery on the part of Cecil Rhodes, whose treachery of his Boer political allies in the Jameison raid destroyed his political career in South Africa itself.  The book ends in the aftermath of the Boer War when the recovery of political freedom led to the loss of political freedom for blacks and the establishment of the forerunner of apartheid.

Freedom is a funny thing.  Given my own background and personal history, it is easy for me to identify with the Boer, and to recognize that political freedom is difficult to maintain for remote peoples with a high degree of mistrust in centralized authority when those areas are in the possession of mineral wealth that leads to the development of mining interests and to the importation of labor sources to exploit that and to resulting social tensions.  The author’s discussion of the divisions within South African whites and blacks and the complex decisions of British imperialists, settler colonists, blacks, coloreds, and Indians, and the desire for self-rule by different parties that meant very different things for the people involved.  Britain’s desire for empire on the cheap and their consistent underestimation of the fighting prowess of a wide variety of opponents and the desire on the part of the Boer for a freedom for self-rule that simultaneously denied self-rule to blacks whose place within South African society remains ambiguous because they were no more original settlers of much of the land than the Dutch themselves but had in fact migrated to the area at around the same time the Dutch did make this tale a deeply ambivalent one.  And whatever one’s political worldview and sympathies, there is enough horror in this book to have compassion on all kinds of people who nonetheless found themselves opposed because of the incompatibility of their interests and perspectives in the struggle for economic and political power.  Sadly, to a great extent, these matters are still impossible to peacefully navigate or even to honestly acknowledge.

About nathanalbright

I'm a person with diverse interests who loves to read. If you want to know something about me, just ask.
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