The Titanic and South Africa

The Titanic is probably one of the most famous ships of all time. The story of the sinking of the ship has been one of speculation and hypothesis. Novels and films as well as non-fiction accounts abound. Trying to decide what I could write about that didn’t have a current political slant, the Titanic came to mind prompted by a review of The Captain’s Daughter by Leah Fleming which landed in my in-box.

I had to put the word ‘current’ into the statement as the link between the Titanic and South Africa is, or was, very political. The story spans the years 1912 and 1914 – for the astute (read World War 1 Southern African specialists) amongst my readers, you’ll no doubt have made the link between the Union Defence Act of 1912 and the outbreak of war in 1914. These two events were to play a significant role but only after Sydney Buxton had been appointed Governor General of South Africa.

At the time the Titanic was sailing, Sydney Buxton was President of the Board of Trade and it was because the ship sank that he lost his job and became Governor General and High Commissioner of South Africa. To be specific, the issue that caused Buxton’s removal was that of lifeboats. He had failed to insist on an increase in the number of lifeboats with the result that there were only enough for half the number of passengers. Somehow he survived the initial outlashing of anger and questioning. Buxton was one of the up and coming politicians/administrators of the day. He was good friends with Sir Edward Grey – the two men regularly corresponding on fly-fishing and huntin and Prime Minister Asquith held him in high regard.

It was the resignation of Herbert Gladstone as Governor General and High Commissioner of South Africa in January 1914 that provided a face-saving out for the British government. Buxton would be made a Lord and take over from Gladstone. The appointment was from February 1914 but he would only leave Britain as war was being declared and arrive in South Africa on 7 September 1914 before opening the Parliamentary session on 8 September. It was at this session that the South African government had to approve, in line with the conditions of the Union Defence Act of 1912, the South African forces going across the border onto foreign soil: a decision which sparked the 1914 Afrikaner rebellion.

In some ways Buxton went from the fat into the fire. Having had to fend off questions and attacks about lifeboats, he then had to mediate between Boer and Brit (rather anti- and pro-Empire) supporters.

For South Africa as a whole, it was probably fortuitous that Buxton ended up in South Africa. He seemed more personable than Gladstone, which was an important factor in dealing with the Afrikaans community. He was an avid listener and persuader. The Swazi king and others trusted him, he convinced the Botha and Smuts cabinet of the need to use the Coloured Corps and he ensured that no further rebellion or civil war broke out during the Great War. To do so, he persuaded Britain to pick up the costs for troops and equipment Britain had hoped the dominions would supply. If Britain didn’t, he argued, there would have to be a debate in parliament which the Nationalists would use to good advantage to promote the rights of poor whites and South African nationalism.

Buxton’s success as Governor General and High Commissioner is reflected in his tenure in South Africa – he left on his retirement in 1920. His son, Denis was killed at Passchendaele on 9 October 1917.

Buxton’s papers are kept at the British Library and provide a wonderful insight into South African politics of the day: he sent detailed unofficial accounts of meetings and encounters to the incumbent Colonial Secretary. What more could an historian ask for?

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