Tax Strike at the New Rush in South Africa

On , a group of 500 or so people involved in small-scale diamond mining at the “New Rush” in Kimberly, South Africa (then in a British colony called Griqualand West) met to hear the report of their delegates who had presented a set of grievances to the British colonial government and to vote on resolutions as to what their response would be. The delegates reported that the government would not meet with them or consider their demands.

A Mr. Tucker then told the assembly that “the time for talking is past, and the time for decided action is come.” His recommendation was “that a Defence League and Protection Association be formed; this, understand, not to assail the Government, but to protect individuals if assailed unrighteously by the Government.” He then proposed a charter for the association, and its founding on those terms was proposed and carried unanimously.

The next item on the agenda was a proposed pledge for the new association, brought forth by a man calling himself “Dr. [Alfred] Aylward”:

I promise on my honour and in presence of the people that I shall not from forward — until released from this obligation by the officers of the League — pay any taxes or impositions whatsoever to the Government, id est, for the support and maintenance of the Government of this territory; and that I shall buy from, sell to, or deal with only such men as have also taken this pledge or obligation; and that I shall to the utmost of my power, with purse and person, protect any and every officer and member of the League against coercion or consequences of what nature soever arising out of the action necessitated by this pledge. And I also promise to report to the League the proceedings of all those whom I may ascertain to be hostile to it, and also any breach of the pledge which any member may make. And this promise I publicly make of my own free will, with the full meaning, spirit, and intent that I shall support all the leaguers, obey all the League laws, and oppose all payments to the Government until such time as the League declares by a majority that the people are taxed, ruled, and legislated for by themselves under a free and liberal Government.

The man who brought forward that proposed pledge added that it “is to become operative, and shall be enforced, when signed by 400 men,” and warned the assembly: “do not vote for this Resolution unless you intend to support it and carry it out. Some of you come to our meetings and cheer and vote, and then go away and do nothing further in the matter… and so the public have allowed all previous movements to die away.”

We have been told by the Lieutenant-Governor that… he is powerless to do good. It remains with us, gentlemen, to make him powerless to do evil. [Cheers.] Let us refuse to pay another shilling of taxation, and that will make him powerless for evil. [Cheers.] [Laughter from the Government faction.] Ay, you can laugh now, but you won’t laugh in a month when you can’t get your salaries paid. The Government are even now in debt to the banks; in what state will the exchequer be in three months’ time.…

…This pledge is a serious matter. If it is passed to-night it will only be a Resolution; but as soon as it is signed by 400 men, which will most likely be on Monday next, it will be the law of the people which must be abided by and ruthlessly enforced. The Government will be defied if they dare to touch a single claim for non-payment of license. The diamond buyers will refuse to pay further license and will be defended from harm.

The resolution passed, and about 150 people signed it on the spot.

By , the Governor (Henry Barkly) was complaining that “the ‘Diggers’ Protection Association’ has been arming and drilling its members and marching about the streets in open defiance of a warning Proclamation issued by the Lieutenant-Governor” because they anticipated “that a judgment obtained by the proprietors of the [Vooruitzigt] farm against the second of their number, Ling, for arrears of stand licenses for lots hitherto occupied by him rent-free as a digger, would be executed by the Sheriff, backed up, if needful, by the civil power.” Though the Governor admitted that he had doubts of being able to assemble sufficient force to do the job.

The published manifesto of this protection organization said nothing about protecting Ling’s lots or those of other license-fee-resisters, but gave as its justification for raising an independent militia things like “thefts of diamondiferous soil and other property” and “disturbances… in the main thoroughfares… occasioned by the quarrelling and fighting of drunken Kafirs.” The governor thought, on the one hand, this was a fig leaf covering a blatantly revolutionary “band of Fenians and German Red Republicans,” and on the other hand was an example of the Diggers’ real beef with the government — that it was relatively enlightened on race issues, giving the native population (the “Kafirs” of the manifesto) the rights of British subjects (including, in this case, the right to mine for African diamonds that the white miners coveted for themselves). He claimed that black residents were terrified of the new paramilitaries. Diamond Field, the newspaper allied with the Association faction, was full of racist incitement and indignation at the idea of racial political equality.

When the resisters assembled a force to prevent one of their number from being jailed (for refusing to pay a fine in a judgment against him for breaking gun control laws in helping to arm the Association), the governor finally decided to crack down by sending in hundreds of military troops and a couple of artillery pieces. The military commander warned that it would be a 48-day march before they could arrive at the site of the troubles, and it would cost something like £20,000. The governor said that sounded a little high and asked if he would look into the expenses more closely and see if he could bring them down. The commander responded that on closer inquiry into possible cost-cutting measures and more precise estimates of the necessities involved in such an adventure, the cost could be no less than £25,800. The governor then said: well, forget about it; maybe it’ll all just blow over.

Much dithering and consulting followed, and finally the government decided to try to form a local militia of folks loyal to the government. They were not surprised to find “a large number of men of colour” willing to sign up. But this tended to exacerbate the race-war quality of the uprising: the Diamond Field accused the government of teaming up with savage black Africans to massacre the Queen’s loyal white subjects. In any case, not enough volunteers signed up to make the government confident that it could get the job done.

Eventually the government did send in the troops, who arrived at . That effectively ended the rebellion. Seven leaders of the Association were charged with sedition, conspiracy, and riot, but were acquitted by local juries.

The government meanwhile was negotiating for the purchase of Vooruitzigt Farm, which they hoped would reassure the diggers who were working their tiny mining plots thereon that they would be secure in their possession and not subject to arbitrary rent increases.

Tax resistance, though prominent in the rhetoric of the early formation of the Diggers’ “Defense League,” seems to have played only a small part in how the whole episode played out. Most of what I’ve summarized here comes from the various exhibits quoted in Accounts and Papers of the House of Commons Volume ⅬⅡ, #11 (Colonies and British Possessions, continued).