Churchill Archive Platform - Churchill and South Africa

Churchill’s life intersected with South Africa in diverse, at times intense ways well captured in the Churchill Archive. His father Randolph spent several months in South Africa in 1891, corresponding with him about the country (CHAR 1/2/58-59). Winston took an early journalistic interest in South Africa. His unpublished 1897 essay ‘Our Account with the Boers’ (CHAR 1/19/1-21) was jingoistic and hostile to ‘Boers’ (Dutch-speaking White South Africans, later known as Afrikaners). In 1899 he arrived in South Africa as a press correspondent of the South African (Boer) War (1899-1902). Captured near Ladysmith and imprisoned in Pretoria, his dramatic escape and flight back to British territory accrued much publicity (CHAR 1/23), as did his accounts, London to Ladysmith via Pretoria (CHAR 8/11) and its sequel, Ian Hamilton’s March (1900), both based on his letters to the Morning Post newspaper. The war was a significant formative influence and a major issue in the 1900 ‘khaki’ election when Churchill was first elected to parliament. In The World Crisis 1911–15 (1928), he highlighted the conflict as a harbinger of a coming violent century.

In his role as parliamentary Undersecretary for the Colonies (1905-7), Churchill had much to do with South Africa, playing an important part overseeing new constitutions and self-rule (by the White population only) of the Transvaal and Orange River Colony. (CHAR 10) He argued for magnanimity to defeated Boers and, following the peace treaty, stood by their refusal to allow Black people the franchise. (CHAR 9/21) At a short meeting with Mahatma Gandhi, then a prominent leader of Indian South Africans, he promised to consider their strong opposition to enforced finger-printing, at first rejecting the relevant Transvaal legislation but making known he would not oppose the law when it was, subsequently, re-introduced.

In World War I, as First Lord of the Admiralty (1911-15) Churchill liaised with South Africa on naval operations, including safety of their troopships. He supported deployment in Britain of Black South African labourers to free White soldiers for the Front. When Jan Smuts, South Africa’s Minister of Defence, came to Britain in 1917, Churchill urged his appointment to the Imperial War Cabinet, and the two men worked closely on the War Priorities Committee, the start of a long, close friendship. (CHAR 2/90/25) Both were early advocates for an air force. In 1922 Churchill refused in the Commons to criticise Smuts’s use of aerial bombardment against Namibians protesting a dog tax. Churchill was criticised from the Right by Afrikaner nationalists seeking to sever imperial relations and from the Left by socialists for his hostility to strikes, rejection of self-determination of colonised nations, and for promoting invasions of Soviet Russia, where South African Lieutenant-Colonel Jack Sherwood-Kelly, VC, publicly criticised the campaign in which Churchill had authorised use of chemical weapons.

As Secretary of State for War (1919-21) during the Irish War of Independence, Churchill deployed Boer War veterans to form the notorious Black and Tans force and pondered using tactics from that war to reconquer Ireland, but the intervention of Smuts helped broker a peace leading to Ireland’s Dominion status. As Secretary of State for the Colonies (1921-2) Churchill continued to interact with South Africa’s White leaders. In 1921 the Smuts-Churchill Agreement transferred to Pretoria responsibility for land defence of the British naval base at Simonstown, Cape Town, though still subject to Royal Navy use. Churchill was involved in a commission investigating responsible government for Southern Rhodesia when Pretoria hoped to incorporate that colony but, if somewhat favourable to the idea, did not move in this direction. At the 1921 Imperial conference he defended Smuts’ denial of political equality for Indians. Churchill was increasingly hostile to the independence of India from this time and, if displaying greater sensitivity to the plight of the East African Indian diaspora, aroused antagonism in the Indian South African press for abandoning Indian political rights. (CHAR 17/22) Trade with the Dominions concerned Churchill as Chancellor of the Exchequer (1924–9), justifying his 1925 decision to return to the gold standard—which would initially lead to lower profits for South African mining companies—by South Africa’s own impending move in that direction. (CHAR 9/71) Afrikaner nationalist J. B. M. Hertzog, Smuts’ successor as prime minister, urged full independence for the Dominions which was consummated in the 1931 Statute of Westminster and strenuously opposed by Churchill.

South African influences were evident in Churchill’s World War II leadership. Smuts again participated in the war cabinet and was Churchill’s regular, trusted confidant on military and political matters (CHAR 20 and CHUR 5/37A-D); Churchill kept on his desk a portrait of Smuts, one of his few close friends. Churchill’s enthusiasm for special military operations had initial roots in the Boer War, of which several of his wartime officials were veterans.

The apartheid regime under D. F. Malan came to power in South Africa in 1948, and by 1951 when Churchill returned to power its extreme racist policies were evident, but Churchill did little to indicate strong opposition, referring to Malan as a ‘gentleman’. Instead, military and economic relations dominated British policy. Already in 1944-5 Churchill’s government had indicated close interest in South African uranium and as the Cold War developed nuclear collaboration intensified, with Pretoria keen to link this to increased migrant labour from British colonies in Southern Africa. In 1951, Churchill insisted that Simonstown naval base not be fully transferred to South African control without definite assurances of British use in peace and wartime. Such assurances were given not long after his resignation as Prime Minister in 1955. (CHUR 2/128A-B) He continued to follow long-established policy on the High Commission Territories (Lesotho, Botswana, and Swaziland). In 1944, Churchill had deferred Pretoria’s attempts to gain assent for their incorporation and in November 1951 responded to threats from Malan by reiterating that transference required consultation with the inhabitants; in 1954 he discouraged Malan from pressing the issue. In 1950 Churchill condemned the Labour government’s action to deceive Seretse Khama, heir apparent of the Bamangwato people of Botswana into coming to England as ‘a very disreputable transaction’ (Hansard, Column 289, 8 March 1950) but followed government policy and the advice of Smuts (who feared Malan would exploit the case to declare South Africa a republic) in not attacking Seretse’s forced abdication, aware that fear of repercussions with Pretoria was uppermost in the decision. (CHUR 2/101A-B)

Churchill’s role in the Boer War and World War II is still remembered in South Africa but the end of apartheid and decolonisation saw a rethinking of colonialism and white supremacy with which Churchill and Smuts sometimes are associated. And yet, Black African leaders admired Churchill’s wartime leadership. Nelson Mandela at the Treason Trial (1955-61) said he admired Churchill as a forceful, militant leader, but not his political theories, notably having condemned the Churchill government’s savage repression of Kenyan land and independence struggles in 1952. On Parliament Square, Westminster, are statues of Smuts (1956), Churchill (1973), Mandela (2007) and Gandhi (2015), but in South Africa the former two have a fading legacy. Mandela’s successor President Thabo Mbeki in a 2005 address to the National Assembly of Sudan noted Churchill’s 1898 military role in that country under Lord Kitchener, and cited Churchill’s derogatory comments about Islamic countries, and by extension Africans, in The River War (1899). Such prejudices, Mbeki argued, were extended to all colonised peoples, including in South Africa whose White colonisers, in some cases the same figures that fought in the Sudan, deployed such attitudes to justify colonialism. Mbeki’s critical comments reflect this reassessment. Nevertheless, over seven decades, interactions between Churchill and South Africans were complex, multi-faceted, and influential.

Where to find documents in the Churchill Archives

The below overview is arranged thematically, focusing on a few highlighted documents and archives. The list is by no means exhaustive but intended as a starting point for research and reading. Advanced search facilities can provide more targeted results. Please note that, within the Churchill collection of papers, the prefix CHAR refers to documents produced before 27th July 1945, while the prefix CHUR refers to documents produced after.

The South African (Boer) War (1899-1902) and Antecedents:

CHAR 1 includes many personal documents, including letters of Churchill from South Africa:
  • CHAR 1/2/58-59 is an 1891 letter from South Africa of his father Lord Randolph Churchill to Churchill describing the country.
  • CHAR 1/19/1-21 is Churchill’s unpublished 1897 typescript ‘Our Account with the Boers’.
  • CHAR 1/23 contains correspondence and other documents from South Africa in 1899 including a report on the attack on the armoured train in which Churchill’s was travelling, praising his part in the action, and papers on his capture by and escape from the Boers.
CHAR 8/11 is the handwritten draft in Churchill’s hand of London to Ladysmith via Pretoria (published later in 1900), with his own corrections and hand-drawn maps.

Churchill as Undersecretary for the Colonies (1905-7)

CHAR 10 has much Colonial Office correspondence on South Africa and Churchill’s role as Undersecretary for the Colonies. Files relevant to his role and development of self-rule by the Transvaal and Orange River Colony, which became British colonies after the Boer War, include:
  • CHAR 10/7 political and constitutional issues in South Africa with correspondents including Jan Smuts and mining magnate Abe Bailey;
  • CHAR 10/23 and CHAR 10/26 correspondence with Lord Selborne, High Commissioner for South Africa, Louis Botha, Premier and Richard Solomon, Attorney-General of the Transvaal, and Hamilton Goold-Adams, Lieutenant-Governor, Orange River Colony, showing Churchill’s close interest in self-rule, as well as land settlement, and Chinese labour (Churchill’s 1904 opposition to which is in CHAR 2/16; unsuccessful libel action against him by the Witwatersrand Native Labour Association is in CHAR 2/21);
  • CHAR 10/53 and CHAR 10/14 has letters from Dewdney Drew, editor of Bloemfontein’s Friend newspaper, with the latter file also containing correspondence with King Edward VII’s Assistant Private Secretary, Churchill’s letter to the king, and the monarch’s reply (CHAR 10/14/55) urging careful attention ‘to maintain British preponderance’ in South Africa.
CHAR 9 – Speeches of Churchill, include:
  • CHAR 9/2 (images 2 to 21), typescript of Churchill’s inaugural House of Commons speech of 18 February 1901 supporting the war but expressing appreciation of the Boers’ struggle.
  • CHAR 9/21 Churchill’s Commons speeches on conciliation of South Africa and new constitutions of the Transvaal and Orange River Colony.


CHAR 13/50 includes a letter from W. P. Schreiner, High Commissioner for South Africa in London, to Churchill as First Lord of the Admiralty urging naval protection of South African troopships.
CHAR 2/90/25 is a July 1917 letter of Smuts inviting Churchill to dinner and offering friendly advice to ‘not ride too far ahead of your more slow-going’ colleagues.

THE 1920s AND 1930s

CHAR 17/22 includes Colonial Office correspondence of 1922 such as objections by Edwin Montagu, Secretary of State for India, to Churchill’s speech about Kenya and rights for Indians.
CHAR 9/71 (image 93) Churchill’s 4 May 1925 Commons speech notes on return to the gold standard relating to South Africa.


CHAR 20 has much on the war years, including Churchill-Smuts correspondence:

CHAR 20/68B/136 – January 1942 telegram from Churchill to Smuts, Prime Minister of South Africa, thanking him for his telegram and stressing complications over India.
CHAR 20/54A/83 – September 1942 letter of Churchill to Smuts with message of friendship.
CHAR 20/78 includes a 1942 exchange of telegrams between Churchill and Smuts (relaying criticisms by his High Commissioner of the war cabinet’s apparent powerlessness).

1946-1955 and the Cold War

CHUR 5/37A-D includes Churchill’s tribute to Smuts in his 13 September 1950 speech to the Commons, referring to his first encounter with him in the Boer War, Smuts’s part in framing the Transvaal Constitution, ties with Britain, and support for Churchill in World War II.

CHUR 2/128A-B includes correspondence of Prime Minister Antony Eden with Churchill enclosing statements on the Simonstown Naval Base and defence agreements with South Africa, and UK-US agreements on atomic energy.

CHUR 2/101A-B (images 213-244) has Smuts-Churchill correspondence of March 1950 on Seretse Khama, whose marriage to a white Englishwoman was strongly protested by Pretoria, with additional material in CHUR 2/117A-B (images 338-354) including a background paper on his uncle, Tshekedi Khama, from the Conservative Research Department for Churchill’s use in parliament.

See also ...

Churchill and Gandhi’ – Shabnum Tejani
Empire and Imperialism’ – Richard Toye