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. Politically Merriman was a liberal, working closely with Rhodes when the latter first became prime minister, but subsequently becoming a firm pro-Boer. Vol. I covers Merriman’s early life on the eastern frontier of the Cape, and the first years of responsible government for 1872. Economically this period also covers the mineral revolution – the discovery of diamonds and gold.

Vol. II covers the first Rhodes’ ministry, of which Merriman was Colonial Treasurer, his break with Rhodes and the period leading up to the South African war, including the Jameson Raid. It was in this latter period that Merriman formed his alliance with the Afrikaner Bond and adopted his pro-Boer stance.

Vol. III covers the period of the South African War, including 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 which brought Dr Jameson to power as prime minister.

The final volume of Merriman’s correspondence deals with the making of Union, including his views on constitution-making, and his period 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.



… apathy. Read ‘Obermann once more’ in Matthew Arnold — there are some very sad stanzas about the empty grave of Christ—alas too true—and they are forced on one’s mind in a sordid scene like this.

I enclose a cutting—these two natives were crushed by a large landslip fairly rolling over them—in any other community the suddenness of such a terrible end would have convulsed the com­munity. Here this was absolutely the only notice taken and please notice the delicate allusion to the fall not affecting any other company. Next day two more men were killed in an adjoining company—the papers did not even notice the fact. I have no sort of entertainments to record. Life perspires along in a tranquil and dull channel.

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 …


Selections from the Correspondence of J.X. Merriman
I: 1870-1890
II: 1890-1898
III: 1899-1904
IV: 1905-1924

Edited by Phyllis Lewsen
Phyllis Lewsen also published John X. Merriman’s biography.