The Canadian analogy in South African Union, 1870-1910

In the nineteen-seventies, the history of the Commonwealth was still built around the theme of a widening stream of precedent, which guided regions and dependencies peacefully towards nationhood by drawing upon analogies and lessons from earlier successful experiments, among which Canada was a shining example. In the relatively small white communities of South Africa, an influential group of informed politicians could steer intellectual debate.  "The Canadian analogy in South African Union, 1870-1910" examined how four of them manipulated arguments drawn from Canada in support of predetermined aims.    

As is usually the case with journal articles, it assumed that its readers – likely to be few in number – possessed a considerable background knowledge of  attempts to create a political union among South Africa's colonies and republics through a forty-year period. It was particularly based upon two impressive works, C.F.Goodfellow's Great Britain and South African Confederation, 1870-1881 (1966) and L.M.Thompson's The Unification of South Africa, 1902-1910 (1960).  It is a matter of regret to me that I never met either of the authors. My approach to the writing of history was certainly influenced by Goodfellow's comment that British support for a local federation in the eighteen-seventies represented "more of a hope than a policy". This apparently throwaway remark in fact contained a reflection of considerable profundity: many of the government initiatives that historians categorise as "policies" are – in reality – merely aspirations and gestures. Although I made (I hope) fruitful use of the four volumes of the correspondence of John X. Merriman which Phyllis Lewsen had edited for the Van Riebeeck Society between 1963 and 1969, the publication of Dr Lewsen's important biography, John X. Merriman: Paradoxical South African Statesman, still lay six years into the future. I continue to regard Merriman as an intriguing figure who merits a place in the study of the wider Victorian world. However, over the years, I have come to feel markedly less respect for the thunderous and ponderous dogmatism of his chosen Canadian guru, Goldwin Smith. 

Re-reading the article almost half a century after it was written, I have been struck by its relatively narrow focus upon political and constitutional history. For good or ill, that was how I wrote history in those days. I also winced at my occasional use of "men" for politicians, gender-specific terminology that I soon abandoned. The article has, I hope, some utility in demonstrating how analogy may be manipulated in political controversy. It also illustrates the relatively slight knowledge of the Canadian constitution outside the country, something also revealed in the British debate on Irish Home Rule at the same time. 

"The Canadian analogy in South African Union, 1870-1910" was published in the South African Historical Journal, viii (1976), 40-59. It will be apparent that I did not subscribe to the view that universities across the world should demonstrate their opposition to the South African government's system of apartheid by breaking off all contact with the country's academics.  Of course, there were imperative reasons for avoiding collaboration in scientific projects that might have defence implications or could contribute to the regime's drive for economic self-sufficiency. But no such objections arose to dialogue about the South African history, least of all to my own modest attempt to view formative events in a comparative framework. On a visit to South Africa in 1975, I had been invited by Dr Ruth Edgecombe of the University of Natal to visit an advice bureau for African workers run by the Black Sash. The Black Sash had begun in 1955 as a movement against apartheid by white women who demonstrated in silent protest, mourning the destruction of freedom. It had grown into a wider human rights organisation, and its advice bureaux particularly helped Africans who had fallen foul of the Pass Laws. Of course, everyone who read about the nonsense of apartheid  knew about the Pass Laws but, even so, I was in a for a shock.  As the clients entered the office one after another, some shuffling, most deferential, few fluent in English, I was struck by the simple fact that the documents that they produced were identical in form to the internationally recognised passport that I had shown to enter the country at Jan Smuts Airport. They were in fact designed to embody the point that Africans were aliens in their own country. It was a humbling experience, and it increased my already considerable admiration for Ruth Edgecombe's calm and principled rejection of the South African government and all its works. Other University of Natal historians were building the research foundations of a history that did take full account of  all the country's peoples. There was no way that I would subscribe to academic boycotts that could only isolate the very people who were courageous enough to criticise and resist apartheid.    

I made a further visit to South Africa in 1992, as apartheid was crumbling, which produced a second attempt to weave Canadian themes into the new historical framework that promised to emerge. Although characterised by superficial generalisation rather than profundity (it was, after all, a conference paper intended as an outline contribution to general discussion),  "Canadian economic history in a South African context: Pietermaritzburg, 1992" may be consulted at

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