Jan Christiaan Smuts | Jason Carr & Stephen Dawes


In Parliament Square, atop a pedestal of South African granite stands a bronze statue of one of the most remarkable men of the 20th century, alongside the two Prime Ministers in whose war cabinets he served. Unlike his one-time enemy turned life-long friend, Sir Winston Churchill, he has become an almost completely unknown entity to many in the West. I am of course writing of Jan Christiaan Smuts: hero and architect of the post-war world, all too often overlooked by modern history.

One of our Empire’s most distinguished sons; a military giant and statesmen; co-founder and Prime Minister of South Africa; a founding father of the League of Nations and United Nations; a farmer and world authority on grasses; a proponent of the British Commonwealth; the first foreign-born Chancellor of the University of Cambridge; a member of the Privy Council and a King’s Counsel; the first man to receive a standing ovation by both Houses of Parliament; a legal scholar and philosopher whose work surrounding holism and evolution were paradigm-shifting in our understanding of philosophy, biology, and genetics. A bandit, commando, general, and peace maker of the Second Boar War who fought against the British Empire both politically and militarily. He even allegedly interrogated a captured Winston Churchill (accounts differ regarding this affair but Churchill was held in a POW camp by men under Smuts’s command). As defence minister of South Africa, he personally led the troops of his newly formed Union Defence Force against the German Empire in Africa during WWI, was called to the Imperial War Cabinet in 1917 and authored the report that led to the creation of the RAF. He played a leading role at the Paris Peace Conference in 1919 and was the only man to sign the treaties ending both World Wars.

Such was the regard in which Smuts was held that in 1940, at the height of British Imperial might and the depths of our darkest hour, a plan was hatched by Sir John Colville (private secretary to Sir Winston Churchill) that Smuts be appointed Prime Minister of the United Kingdom should anything happen to Churchill before the war was over. This was not some idle plot; it was shared with Queen Mary and later King George VI himself and would likely have come to pass had Churchill died or been incapacitated during the war.

He was a true rogue, the product of both colonial and imperial society and education. A farmer, turned lawyer, politician, Boer rebel commando and then defender of the Empire. He was destined to lead not just his adopted home in the Transvaal, nor just South Africa, but to eventually lead the whole world into a new post-war international order. He came from a small farm on the frontier in Africa and he was one of the greatest heroes that our civilisation has ever forgotten.

On the 24th of May 1870, Jan Smuts was born on his family’s farm in the Cape Colony. As the second son, Jan would remain on the farm while his elder brother received a full education, however in 1882 his brother died and at 12 years old Jan was sent in his place. Despite his late start, he made excellent progress and within 4 years was admitted to Stellenbosch University. Graduating in 1891 with double first-class honours in Literature and Science, Smuts was awarded the Ebden scholarship for overseas study and travelled half-way across the globe to Cambridge to read Law at Christ’s College. Despite suffering an initial culture shock moving from a conservative, Afrikaans community in the Cape to the splendour of late-Victorian England, he eventually settled in and was able to study a wide range of subjects – he was the recipient of many academic awards and prizes including the coveted George Long prize in Roman Law and Jurisprudence. In 1970, Lord Todd, the Master of Christ’s College, said that “in 500 years of the College’s history, of all its members, past and present, three had been truly outstanding: John Milton, Charles Darwin and Jan Smuts”. Coincidentally, it was Darwin’s Theory of Evolution that Smuts would develop upon in Holism and Evolution.

In 1894, Smuts was admitted into the Inns of Court, entering the Middle Temple, and Christ’s College offered him a fellowship in Law. However, by June 1895, Smuts had turned his back on an extremely promising legal career in Britain to return back to his motherland in the Cape Colony where trouble was on the horizon. Upon his return to Cape Town, he took up the practice of law and began to show more of an interest in politics – writing for the Cape Times joining the Afrikaner Bond (an anti-imperialist party in the Cape). During this period, Smuts began to express a growing interest in the idea of a United South Africa. The leader of AB, Jan Hofmeyer, introduced Smuts to Cecil Rhodes, owner of the De Beers Mining Company, British South Africa Company and Prime Minister of the Cape Colony. Smuts briefly became a supporter and lobbyist for Rhodes, but their relationship was irreparably damaged by the infamous and failed Jameson Raid (an attempt by Rhodes to instigate a British uprising in the Transvaal). This event prompted his resignation from De Beers and fostered a deep sense of betrayal towards his ex-employer, friend, and political ally which saw him withdraw from political life in the Cape, instead moving to Pretoria, capital of the Transvaal, where he was appointed State Attorney.

The aftermath of the raid saw Anglo-Boer relations deteriorate, leading to the outbreak of the Second Boer War in 1899. Initially, Smuts was stationed in Pretoria and, in addition to his duties as State Attorney, handled propaganda, logistics, and communications with generals and diplomats, becoming (at only 29 years-old) one of the most senior politicians running the war in the capital. Eventually he joined the ranks of Boer politicians commissioned as officers and demonstrated a penchant for creative hit-and-run attacks, famously harassing and outmanoeuvring a British army that outnumbered his forces 40-to-1. In one of his most renowned exploits, Smuts loaded a train with over two tons of dynamite set to detonate in the centre of the mining town of Okiep, devastating the local British garrison. While this attack was unsuccessful (British defences had anticipated such a move and the train was derailed before reaching the town), it demonstrated the ingenuity and capability of Smuts as a commando leader.

Smuts’s success in the Cape and the British failure to pacify the Transvaal left the Empire with little choice but to pursue a peace conference at Vereeniging. Smuts met with Lord Kitchener at Kroonstad Station where they discussed terms before the conference. Both men were vital in reigning-in the more extreme elements of their respective sides in the name of peace. While Smuts knew the Boers could continue their guerrilla campaign, he was conscious that “more than 20,000 women and children have already died in the concentration camps of the enemy. […] We decided to stand to the bitter end. Let us now, like men, admit that that end has come for us, come in a more bitter shape than we ever thought.” A characteristic example of Smuts’s ability to weigh the costs and benefits of military action far more carefully and dispassionately than most.

After the war, Smuts helped craft the new constitutional settlement for South Africa, hosting the constitutional convention that drew the four different colonies – who had not long since been at war – into a single dominion. Even persuading the British that an Afrikaner-led government would not be a threat to the empire, a mere 7 years after the close of such a bitter and damaging war. Through a master-class of politics, compromise and diplomacy, Smuts and his close ally Louis Botha brought the political interests of Cape Town, Pretoria, Bloemfontein, Pietermaritzburg and London together and forged a nation that stands to this day.

During WWI, Smuts put down the Maritz rebellion, a nationalist insurrection similar to the Easter Rising attempting to capitalise upon Britain being at war in Europe. He then conquered German South-West Africa and fought a hard-won campaign in German East Africa against General von Lettow-Vorbeck, the ‘Lion of Africa’, before being called to join Lloyd George’s Imperial War Cabinet. It was the Smuts Report in 1917 that led to the creation of the RAF after the Gotha Raids. By mid-January 1918 Lloyd George was toying with the idea of appointing Smuts Commander-in-Chief of all land and sea forces facing the Turks, such was his brilliance in the eyes of the most senior figures of the empire. Smuts secured British holdings at the Versailles conference and favoured a strong League of Nations similar to the later United Nations. Smuts was a visionary who saw the threat in penalising Germany harshly, he also feared the rising power of Imperial Japan. He would return to South Africa in 1919 to become Prime Minister (following the sudden death of Botha from the Spanish Flu) disappointed at the post-war settlement.

After the war, Smuts was instrumental in securing a truce in Ireland in 1921 going so far as to draft the King’s speech that opened the new Northern Irish Parliament. After losing the election in 1924 to Barry Hertzog, Smuts published his ontological theory in Holism and Evolution, a philosophical basis that forms the foundation of many modern schools of science such as epigenetics and ecology. Smuts spent a great deal of his period of opposition in the 1930s criticising the rising tide of anti-Semitism across the West. A proponent of Zionism and the later creation of the State of Israel, a kibbutz was named in his honour in 1932.

At the outbreak of WWII, Smuts was serving as deputy Prime Minister as part of a coalition government. The issue of war split the government (the nationalists opposed support for the empire while Smuts’s faction sought to stand shoulder-to-shoulder with South Africa’s friends and allies across the globe). The coalition collapsed and Smuts was swept back to power, 15 years after his previous tenure as Prime Minister. Smuts’s new government proposed a declaration of war against Nazi Germany, winning 80 votes to 67.

In 1941, Smuts was appointed a Field Marshal in the British Army, and served in the Imperial War Cabinet of his one-time adversary and latterly close ally Sir Winston Churchill. Smuts had become such a close confidant of the PM that Churchill’s own physician, Lord Moran, wrote: “Smuts is the only man who has any influence with the PM; indeed, he is the only ally I have in pressing counsels of common sense on the PM. Smuts sees so clearly that Winston is irreplaceable, that he may make an effort to persuade him to be sensible.” This and the aforementioned plan by Churchill’s private secretary to name Smuts Churchill’s successor should the worst happen highlights the stock that the imperial elite put in Smuts.

After VP day, he represented South Africa at the drafting of the UN Charter, having written the preamble. Despite never being nominated he was mentioned in Nobel Prize speeches later that year. 1948 saw Smuts narrowly lose another election to the National Party (in spite of the United Party’s far larger share of the vote), and the cruel birth of the apartheid regime, ushered in by new Prime Minister DF Malan. The great nation founded by Smuts was thus doomed to decades of sanctions and censure, never rising to be the proud, leading nation he envisioned. Ironically, the sanctions imposed were often instituted through the international systems that Smuts helped establish.On 29th May 1950, Field Marshal The Right Honourable Jan Christiaan Smuts KC died of natural causes on his family farm. Jan Smuts was many things throughout his life: farmer, lawyer, rebel, statesman, bandit, Prime Minister, confidant of kings and leader of men. He made peace and war for his home. Once asked by an American botanist why he, a general, should be an authority on grasses, Smuts replied, “my dear lady, I am only a general in my spare time.” And at the end that is where he was, on his beloved farm in the country that he couldn’t bear to leave.


This essay is an entry to the Mallard’s Rogues’ Gallery competition. You can find more information here.

Photo Credit.

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