John Xavier Merriman (ca 1892)

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 in four 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 stint 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.

A short summary of the personal life and political career of John X Merriman appears on the page, Selections from the Correspondence of J.X. Merriman Volume I, 1870-1890, of this website.

“Merriman Blinded by Ministerial Zeal” Cartoon from The Cape Register 15 April 1893

This volume begins in July 1890, when Merriman became Treasurer in the first Rhodes Ministry, and ends on New Year’s day 1899, with his letter to President  Steyn defining the Schreiner ministry’s peace policy. The period is relatively short, but it is profusely documented. The harder Merriman worked and the more troubled the times, the greater his impetus to write letters. His correspondents were often of matching calibre and he preserved their letters.

Merriman’s farm Schoongezigt outside Stellenbosch

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.

                  WP Schreiner                                                                         Cecil John Rhodes

The inside picture of Cape government is built up from a variety of  letters and shorter extracts, and the complementary themes are the ascendancy of Rhodes, the shifts and changes of Imperial policy, and the social and economic problems which were, in Merriman’s view, the chief challenge to statecraft. Political discussion varies from satirical comments on Cape persons and policies to synoptic historical evaluations (as in the brilliant analysis of the effects of the JamesonRaid); the style is vigorous and informal, with characteristic shafts of humour, and its force and intensity derive from Merriman’s passionate sense of commitment and his devotion to politics as a morally ordered vocation.  The public and the personal terrains overlap; Merriman’s home and family life, his interest in literature and history, his many friendships, and his efforts as fruit-grower and wine-farmer at Schoongezicht are inseparable from the total experience which inspired his letters; and a number of diary notes on his reading and drafts of articles for periodicals have therefore been included, together with a proportion of the more personal letters.


J.X. Merriman. A critical account of the Jameson Raid. [lncomplete.]

Cape Town, January 8, 1896.

The past week has been one of the greatest excitement, and one involving the most momentous issues ever raised in South Africa. For some time past the state of affairs in the great mining centre of Johannesburg has been one of great tension and uncertainty. On the one hand the population has been growing by leaps and bounds, and the increase of European immigrants in particular has been on a scale hitherto quite unknown in South Africa. The weekly arrivals in the Cape ports have for somemonths past averaged between 500 and 1,000 souls, for the most part of English descent and all bound for the Gold Fields, where they seemed to obtain ready employment at high rates of wages.

On the other hand the Boer oligarchy, genuinely alarmed for its dominance, obstinately refused any representation even in municipal government to the newcomers; taxed the necessaries of life at very high rates, and in minor matters such as education, insisted rigidly on the exclusive use of the Dutch language, which practically put the schools out of reach of the newcomers. It is doubtful, however, whether these grievances in themselves would have brought matters to a head.

The newcomers, who were mostly of the artisan or miner class attracted by high wages, did not greatly concern themselves with political rights, and the majority had no families to educate; nor can it be fairly said that the imposts, though high and vexatious, were in themserves , uncommon in colonial communities. Things might have rubbed along with some grumblings, until President Kruger put forth his hand and touched the capitalist class. The rates and the management on the railways, which are a close monopoly granted to a Dutch Company, pressed on the mining industry. It is sufficient to mention, for instance, that the rate for coal was fixed at 3d. per ton per mile.

Concessions were graned to favourites for the manufacture of dynamite and cyanide, both articles of prime necessity in gold extraction. The labour supply was crippled by the ill-treatment and exactions levied on the returning labourers, which were winked at by the authorities; and to crown all a proposal was made to take away from the gold companies, and to hand over to chosen individuals, valuable mineral ground which had occupied for a considerabre time under the legal authority of the Republic. Capital took fright and formed a political organization: utilizing with very considerabie skill the undoubted popular grievances, and stirring up an undoubted feeling of unrest and dissatisfaction which found  sympathy from every part of South Africa, in quarters where the true motive that underlay a good deal of the hostility to the existing order of things was little suspected. It is evident now, that for many months past preparations on a most extensive scale, requiring funds to an amount that is not usually at the disposal of revolutionaries, have been pushed forward. Thousands of rifles of the most approved pattern (chiefly of the Lee-Metford type) with ample stores of ammunition……  […]


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.