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John X. Merriman

John Xavier Merriman (1841-1926) was a prominent South African politician and the last Prime Minister of the Cape Colony before the formation of the Union of South Africa in 1910. Merriman was born in Britain although his father was later the Bishop of Grahamstown in South Africa; Merriman was educated in Cape Town and then later at Oxford. In 1862 he settled at the Cape where he worked initially as a surveyor. Between 1870 and 1894 he worked as a diamond buyer in Kimberley, where he met and came to know Cecil Rhodes. In 1874 he married Agnes Vintcent. Merriman took an active interest in political matters and by 1875 he was a cabinet minister, combining this for a time with a career as a newspaper correspondent. He took part in the Johannesburg gold rush in the late 1880s but did not make any money from this venture. Eventually in 1892, “he at last found the secondary occupation he loved: he bought and transformed a beautiful, derelict farm, Schoongezicht, in Stellenbosch, and became an innovative wine producer and fruit grower and exporter.” (Lewsen 2004).

The main focus of Merriman’s life, however, remained his political career as a promising and then leading Cape parliamentarian. His 1875 cabinet appointment under Prime Minister John Molteno, the first Prime Minister of the Cape Colony under responsible government, saw Merriman responsible for crown lands and public works, in particular the development of the railway. Merriman quickly earned a reputation as a brilliant and gifted public speaker. From the 1880s the Afrikaner Bond under Hofmeyr became an increasingly important force in Cape politics, and Merriman worked with the Bond to help restore the independence of the Transvaal after the 1880-81 Anglo-Boer war, although he was wary of the Bond’s Afrikaner nationalism. Under Rhodes’s government Merriman served as treasurer and minister of agriculture between 1890 and 1893, until he was forced, together with Sauer and Rose Innes, out of Rhodes’s ministry because their opposition to Sivewright’s Logan contract. In the aftermath of the Jameson Raid, Merriman sat on the Cape parliamentary committee of inquiry set up by Will Schreiner to investigate the Raid, and also he wrote the committee’s report. In the period leading up to the 1899-1902 South African War Merriman supported the Bond, and when the Bond-backed Schreiner ministry gained power after elections in 1898 Merriman was in the cabinet as treasurer general.

Merriman worked hard to prevent the outbreak of the South African War, trying to raise awareness in Britain and South Africa about the aggressive agitation of the war by Milner and Chamberlain. When the war was underway, such a stance was profoundly misunderstood by the British authorities in the Cape and Merriman like others was for a period placed under arrest and confined to his farm. Post-war his immediate political activities involved among other matters response to the introduction of Chinese labour in mining on the Rand, something opposed by most shades of political opinion for racially dubious reasons as well as to protect local labour interests, a political double-facedness that Schreiner quickly spotted and comments on in her letters to Merriman. In 1908 and following the election victory of the South African Party, Merriman became the last Prime Minister of the Cape Colony, the first time he had held this office. In relation to Union, as later in 1913 in relation to the Natives Land Bill, Merriman made promising speeches on race matters but failed to follow through and vote accordingly - his liberal views consistently failed to translate into political practice. He was relatedly hand in glove with Jan Smuts over this period, at that point (as earlier around his key drafting changes to the Treaty of Vereeningen) the prime orchestrator of a racial policy line, with Smuts keeping copies of all his draft letters to Merriman, a sure sign of the importance he assigned to this correspondence and political allegiance.

Schreiner’s letters to Merriman are extremely important ones and span the period from 1896 to 1913, with the first letter dated 5 May 1896 and a reply to letter Schreiner had received from him. While they contain some pleasantries and bits of personal news and other quotidian matters, these letters are by and large extraordinary ones: they are not about keeping in contact, exchanging news, making arrangements or maintaining a personal relationship, as a great many other Schreiner letters are. Nearly all of them contain topical and other political commentary, social analysis and also ‘set pieces’ of writing on a variety of intellectual topics.

One strong dimension throughout is that Schreiner exhorts and flatters Merriman as a ‘straight, strong man’ and expresses her hopes for him as liberal and progressive politician. Examples include: 25 May 1896, which lays flattery on with a trowel by stating that his speech was most powerful and brilliant ever made in Cape Parliament. However, an area of profound difference between them, in same letter she insistently reminds Merriman that those who hold rank have responsibilities and in particular must deal sympathetically with the native. A letter of 22 February 1904 flatters him with ‘consternation’ at the thought of him not being in parliament, and is followed on 15 May 1905 that “I hope I shall yet live to see you as Prime Minister”. On 26 May 1910 she writes that “In one sense it may turn out best that you are not in the ministry You will now be free to act as a leader to that small "us" who realize that only by treating the South African natives with justice & binding them to us by affection can we make the future of South Africa great”. But as ever, in a June 1913 letters Schreiner spots Merriman’s ethical and political hypocrisy, writing that “I thought your speech on the Native Bill very fine, but oh if you could have seen your way to vote against the Bill! But the speech was exceedingly fine.”

Equally important for Schreiner as an area of irreparable disagreement between them was women’s suffrage. Thus a 22 February 1904 letter around this emphasises that Merriman cannot in fact prevent women from exerting power in spite of his profoundly negative views concerning women’s rights, that it is better to give responsibility where power exists, and also, by implication contrary to his views, there are ‘fools’ of both sexes and it is by no means just women who can display attributes that indicate political unfitness. Also in a very powerful 1906 letter she indicates why she does not debate such things with him, as she feels too deeply on the topic and also regards the question of women’s enfranchisement a small part of much bigger question:

“Have you considered why I never refer to the question of womans position & the need for change in many directions, in my letters to you? Well, its because I can't. The matter lies so near to my heart, touches me so deeply that I can hardly dis-cuss it as an indifferent matter... You will say, "But the mere question of woman's of political enfranchisement cannot be one affecting life so deeply." Yes - in one way the matter is a very, very little one; & yet in another it is very great... the woman's question always presents itself to me as a whole. I cannot dis-cuss the ^seemingly small^ question of the franchise, without out tracing its relation to other vast & vital human problems - prositution, the whole body of sex problems, the terrible parasitism of the woman of our upper wealthier classes, robbed of all forms of labour & becoming mere toys & seekers of pleasure; & the terribly under paid over worked condition of our women of the poorer classes, & the whole vast problem of the right of the individual human to freedom!”.

Schreiner’s letters to Merriman offer some of her keenest observations on South African society. Her commentaries include the small town and rural Boer population as hidebound because of their isolation from the currents of change; the peculiar ‘lower middle class tone’ of South African English-speakers; and the general absence of the highs and lows of populations because most people originated from a particular section of European society; that the English/Dutch ‘race’ question (as it was termed at the time) was as nothing compared with the native and capitalist questions; that nonetheless the Boer Republics were beacons of anti-capitalist independence, but “we must not give one inch to their cardinal vice”, that is, their ingrained racism; and the then de-culturated position of mixed race people. Her late 1890s letters on the native question, Rhodes, capitalism and imperialism are astonishing in their perspicacity and prophetic character. For instance, in a 3 April 1897 letter Schreiner warns of the long-term consequences of creating a half-educated and much brutalised group of people, the downward slope in political and human terms, and the lost opportunity of “blending us into one people emotionally long ago”.

It is also clear from these letters that Merriman read everything that Schreiner wrote as soon as it was published and then wrote her letters about it. Examples here are her replies to him concerning what she means about Boer society, and her considerable appreciation of his warm letter about her Trooper Peter Halket, (on 15 May 1905 writing that “I always remember with a curious depth of feeling the letter you wrote me when you first read ‘Peter Halket’. It was the one word of sympathy I ever got from any South African about the book”), while in 1912 he wrote warmly - and unexpectedly given its topic - to her about Woman and Labour, with Schreiner responding ‘I am delighted you should have found matter for interest in my little book’.

The epistolary tone of Schreiner’s letters to Merriman is variously combative, intellectual, showy, flattering, warning, urging, cajoling, and also acts as the voice of conscience, constantly reminding Merriman of responsibility, duty and principle. The letters are mostly dated, quite formal and impersonal, and they are usually signed off ‘Yours sincerely’, although on a few occasions with somewhat warmer expressions such ‘Your friend Olive Schreiner’. There is little sense of a personal relationship but there are for instance pleasantries regarding Agnes Merriman. The last letters from Schreiner to Merriman are interesting in that the year 1913 can be seen in retrospect as the beginning of the end for South Africa in political and ethical terms, with her sense of this almost palpable in a letter of 20 July 1913 about the Land Act and her conviction that refusing people the vote and land will eventually lead to violent resistance - “A class or a sex or race refused in a so-called democratic state under 20th century conditions the right to take its share in in the government of the state will ultimately be driven the lamentable use of force, & answer repression with resistance which must shake society to its foundations. It is hard to leave South Africa seeing no little glimmering of the great modern truths among its leading people.”. The latter comment was of course aimed squarely at Merriman himself.

For further information see:
Phyllis Lewsen (2004) ‘Merriman, John Xavier (1841-1926)’, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography Oxford University Press http://www.oxforddnb.com/view/article/34995
Liz Stanley and Helen Dampier (2012, in press) “‘I just express my views and leave them to work’: Olive Schreiner as a feminist protagonist in a masculine political landscape with figures” Gender & History
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collection icon National English Literary Museum, Grahamstown: The National English Literary Museum is the leading location for collections pertaining to the imaginative and creative writi... Show/Hide Collection Letters
collection icon National Library of South Africa, Cape Town: Special Collections at the NLSA provide one of the leading locations for archival papers across many periods, organisations a... Show/Hide Collection Letters
collection icon Sheffield City Libraries, Archives & Local Studies: Edward Carpenter Collection, Archives & Local Studies, Sheffield City Libraries: The Edward Carpenter Collection is held ... Show/Hide Collection Letters
collection icon University of Cape Town, Historical Manuscripts: Manuscripts & Archives at the University of Cape Town is a leading location for accessing archival papers across many per... Show/Hide Collection Letters
collection icon Women’s Library Autograph Collection: Schreiner’s letters to Alys Pearsall-Smith (later Russell) are archived as part of the ‘Literary Ladies’ su... Show/Hide Collection Letters
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