John Xavier Merriman, 1887 (a sketch by W.H. Schröder)

John X. Merriman, son of Archdeacon Merriman, was one of the most brilliant politicians at the Cape. His long political career spanned most of the major political events of the late-19th and early 20th-century, culminating in the prime minister’s office just before Union in 1910. Merriman was initially a liberal, working closely with Rhodes when the latter became prime minister, but subsequently became firmly pro-Boer.

The Selections From The Correspondence of J. X. Merriman has been published as three volumes:

VRS I-41       covers 1870-90 –  It tells of Merriman’s early life on the eastern frontier of the Cape, and the first years of responsible government from 1872.          Economically this period also covers the discovery of diamonds and gold, known as the mineral revolution.

VRS I-44       covers 1890-98 which includes the first Rhodes’ ministry, of which Merriman was Colonial Treasurer, his break with Rhodes, and the period leading up to the South African war.

VRS I-47       covers 1899-1905, including the South African War, Merriman’s participation in the pro-Boer Schreiner ministry, and a period in opposition. During this time, he fought against the suspension of the Cape constitution and for a fair deal for Cape rebels. It concludes with his participation in the South African Native Affairs Commission and the election that brought Dr Jameson to power as prime minister.

VRS I-50        covers 1906-1924 – It deals with the establishment of the Union, his views on constitution-making, and his time as prime minister of the Cape Colony. Merriman remained in parliament after Union, participating in events leading up to, and just after World War I.

Merriman was born in England in 1841 but moved to South Africa with his parents when he was seven years old. Initially, his father was Archdeacon of Grahamstown but later became Bishop. (VRS Vol I-37, The Cape Journals of Archdeacon MJ Merriman 1848-5 in 1957).  John X. was educated at the Diocesan College (‘Bishops’) in Cape Town and later at an English public school near Oxford in Great Britain. He returned to the Cape in 1862, qualified as a surveyor, and worked both on government and private surveys, mainly in remote border districts. He was elected as Member of Parliament for Aliwal North in 1869, where he had recently completed a survey. His work as a surveyor was dull and unprofitable, and, in 1871, he decided to try his luck at the Diamond Fields. Besides selling diamonds and trying to develop gold-mines, Merriman was a wine merchant in Cape Town for a short while.

Percy Molteno
The Scanlen Cabinet in 1884 (Merriman on the left and Rhodes second from right)

Merriman’s parliamentary career (over 50 years) was one of the longest in Cape history. During this time he gained not only a reputation for great eloquence, elegant epigram and brilliant wit, but also for erratic volatility with dramatic changes in his views. Merriman’s most lasting contribution to knowledge is through the Merriman Papers, which was the by-product of three of his attributes: his ‘itch for writing’, the variety and warmth of his friendships, and that gift which only the best letter-writers possess, of being able to transmit, without blur or impediment, the immediacy of his experience, the stretch and movement of his thought, almost the sound of his voice, as he both recorded and communicated.

This volume covers Merriman’s early life on the eastern frontier of the Cape and the first years of responsible government from 1872. Economically this period also covers the mineral revolution – the discovery of diamonds and gold.

The Market, New Rush (later Kimberley) ca 1873

It was not till 1892 that he finally found the secondary occupation he could combine with a political career. He bought a small farm, Schoongezicht, outside Stellenbosch. He was elected Member of Parliament for Stellenbosch in 1917 after representing Aliwal North for forty-seven years.

Merriman began his political career as a conservative, an opponent of a government that is accountable to Parliament, and favoured a form of government that is accountable to the Imperial Government in Britain. In 1875 however, he had converted completely and was invited to serve in the cabinet of the Cape’s first Prime Minister, John Molteno. After the Molteno Government was overthrown by an imperial intervention, Merriman became the leader of the opposition for several years. After another change of Government in 1881, he served in the cabinet of T.C. Scanlen together with Cecil John Rhodes. In 1890 he was appointed Treasurer-General in Rhodes’s government but resigned three years later when corruption in Rhodes’s business dealings was revealed. He ultimately ended his relationship with Rhodes after the Jameson Raid in 1895.

He again served as Treasurer General in the cabinet of W.P Schreiner from 1898 to 1900 when Schreiner’s government fell. During this period he tried but failed to prevent the Anglo-Boer War but was publicly accused in Britain as “pro-Boer”. In 1904 he took over the leadership of the South African Party (SAP) and the opposition in Parliament. In 1908 the SAP, together with the Afrikaner Bond won control of the Assembly, and he served as Prime Minister of the Cape Colony for two years until the formation of the Union of South Africa on 31 May 1910.

John X Merriman and the Pall Mall Gazette (Cartoon by W H Schröder, 1884)


Extract. J. X. Merriman to Mrs. A. Merriman.

February 10, 1886.

I really had not the heart to do my usual spell of writing yesterday, so annoyed and vexed was I. As I wrote last, things were going well and certainly public opinion here was coming round to the plan. On Monday morning Rhodes comes out with a circular from the De Beers Company, containing proposals for amalgama­tion which though not absolutely incompatible with ours will be considered as a rival scheme, and they appear without one word of mention of the agreement made with us to join the ‘Unified’. The fact is that though Stow and Rhodes, the leading directors, are entirely in favour of our plan which they clearly see will double their prosperity, yet they are too timid to come forward and support it because it is opposed to the current of local opinion. Well, Moulle was furious and was for writing and at once breaking off the whole thing, he had a very warm interview with Rhodes at which some very warm language was used. Generally we both think that the whole thing is at an end but we have determined to await the telegram from England. . . we have lost confidence ourselves and without that how can we inspire confidence in others. It is very disappointing; lack of success is nothing but to be fooled as we have been is very annoying. It was not an enemy either that did us this dishonour. But Rhodes is the same in business and politics, tricky unstable and headstrong. Never able to take a line and follow it! It is a serious defect in his character and unless he mends it will destroy his usefulness and mar what may be a fine career. I have felt both in politics and now in business the effect of this curious fashion of lukewarm agreement. Actually as an opponent he would do far less harm than he does as a sort of half-and-half friend. I am all the more sorry because I like him personally so much.

Extract. J. X. Merriman to Mrs. A. Merriman.

February 21, 1886.

I think that I may now really tell you that the whole thing is at an end. On Friday I learnt from Currey that Rhodes had told him, and presumably other people too, that he—Rhodes—did not intend the scheme to go through and that he did not see why out­siders should interfere in the amalgamation of the mines and so forth. Putting two and two together we came to the conclusion that he was hanging on just to raise the price of De Beers’ shares and to further some private plans of his own—so we determined to break off the whole thing. . . . It is a great pity, for if Rhodes had run straight the thing would have gone through but he is as unstable in business as he is in politics—and one can only take him as one finds him, make the best of his good qualities and regret his bad.

Extract. J. X. Merriman to J. B. Currey.

March 24, 1886.

My dear Currey,

I had a letter written to you—in my head—when I got yours. I quite agree with you that Rhodes is a good fellow, and that makes his occasional lapses the more painful to his friends but. . . his instincts are of the right sort. He may do much good out here if he would manfully throw in his lot with the honest and intelligent party and make up his mind to fight Tommy [Upington] and all his works. I doubt not but in time Rhodes will find out that labouring for Dutchmen qua Dutchmen, and pandering to their prejudices, is only sowing the wind. When once a party forms itself on national lines, on race lines, any alien who assists it is only welcomed as a tool and will be rewarded with ingratitude. Our policy is clear, and that is to make no distinction between Dutch and English, but to oppose everything like the Bond that aims at working on purely Afrikaner lines. Just for the moment Upington seems to be aiming at drawing …

Edited by Phyllis Lewsen

After a distinguised career, Phyllis Lewsen retired at the end of 1981 as associate professor of history and reader in Cape parliamentary history at the University of the Witwatersrand. She also published John X. Merriman’s biography.